Personal Identity

Opening Music: We are by Ysaye Barnwell & UUA General Assembly Choir

Opening Words:

For each child that’s born a morning star rises and sings to the universe who we are.
We are our grandmothers’ prayers and we are our grandfathers’ dreamings
We are the breath of our ancestors, we are the spirit of God.
We are mothers of courage and fathers of time,
We are daughters of dust and the sons of great visions,
We’re the sisters of mercy and brothers of love
We are lovers of life and the builders of nations
We’re seekers of truth and keepers of faith
We are makers of peace and the wisdom of ages.
For each child that’s born a morning star rises and sings to the universe who we are.

Words written back in 1991 and sung by Dr Ysaye Barnwell. Words that have something to tell us about the theme of our gathering this morning – our personal identity – who we are. And here we are, in our live Zoom gathering and it’s lovely to look across this laptop screen and see your faces – you are welcome here this day as we Kensington Unitarians, along with friends from near and far, connect one with another in our virtual realm once again. A message of welcome also goes out to those of you listening to a podcast, or watching a video of this service on YouTube some time in the future. It’s great that we can connect with you in this way and I hope this recording contains a message of value for you at this time in your life.

I invite each of us now to focus for a moment on how we are this morning. Are we agitated or peaceful, full of anticipation or a bit uncertain? How are we feeling in our bodies this morning? Sleepy or alert, a bit stiff maybe or warm and relaxed? Let’s each take an inner inventory of how we are at this time as I light our chalice flame and remind ourselves of the value of accepting ourselves just as we are, without fault finding, no need for any self-criticism if we are not quite how we would wish to be this day.

This flame connects us with Unitarian individuals and communities the world over, and reminds us with its gentle warmth, that we can be warmed by our self acceptance and by our acceptance of others, here in a community where we encourage one another to be who we truly are, no need to pretend or keep up appearances. For here we remember – for ourselves and for each other, the peace that comes from being accepted just as we are. This chalice flame beams out a message of acceptance and respect to each of you this day.

Candles of joy and concern: Each week when we meet in our building in Notting Hill or here in our online congregation, we share candles of joy and concern, where we invite one another to light a candle and share something that is in our heart. So here in our Zoom service we’ve a good few minutes for some of you to tell us of a joy or a concern, and to light a candle, real or imaginary – visitors you are most welcome to join in. When you are ready to speak you can unmute yourself and speak out so everyone can hear and then re-mute yourself when you’ve finished speaking. Do give it a go if you’d like to, as it’s good to hear some other voices and perspectives, and let’s stay aware of how long we’re speaking for so others have chance to speak too. And I suggest we each now switch to gallery view on our own screens so we can see everyone. Our hosts Jane and Jeannene will do their best to spot if someone wants to speak and can’t unmute themselves. (thank each speaker by name)
These joys and griefs, spoken and unspoken, weave us together in the fabric of community.

Prayer and Reflection (probably written by Rev Vail Weller – words adapted):

Let’s join now in a time of reflection and prayer with words adapted from a prayer by the Rev Vail Weller.

Spirit of Life and Love,
Web of Connection,
Great Mystery,
Most Creative One,
Simplest Weed and Most Intricate Flower,
First Ancestor and Great-Great-Great-Great Grandchild,
Closest Hope,
Farthest Star,
Help us to ever more strongly feel our connection
To that which is all,
That we may know Who We Are.
That we may know Whose We Are.

And in a quiet moment now I invite you to speak inwardly your own thoughts and prayers – for your self – perhaps imagining what someone who cares about you would seek for you at this time …….

And let us think of those we know and love and speak inwardly our thoughts and prayers for other people…….

And in stillness I invite you to speak you thoughts and prayers for our society…………. And for our planet on whom our lives depend………

Spirit of Life and Love,
Web of Connection,
Great Mystery
Help us to ever more strongly feel our connection
To that which is all,
That we may know Who We Are.
That we may know Whose We Are.
And to that aspiration let us each say Amen, that so may it be.

A story about identity:

Do you know the writings of Jesuit priest Anthony De Mello? He was a great teacher who knew the value of storytelling to get to the point that needed to be made. In his collection of meditations called Taking Flight, he tells the story of a woman who was conditioned by her culture to act in a particular way, instead of fulfilling the essential human task – to be who she was called to be. And De Mello’s story tells us that this woman was in a coma, near to death.

She suddenly had a feeling that she was taken up to heaven and stood before the judgment seat.
“Who are you?” a Voice said to her.
“I’m the wife of the mayor of our town,” she replied.
“I did not ask you whose wife you were but who you are.”
“I’m the mother of four children.”
“I did not ask you whose mother you are, but who you are.”
“I’m a schoolteacher.”
“I did not ask what your profession is but who you are.”
And so it went on. No matter what she replied, she did not seem to give a satisfactory answer to the question, “Who are you?”
“I’m a Christian.”
“I did not ask what your religion is but who you are.”
“I’m the one who (went to church every day and) always helped those in need.”
“I did not ask what you did but who you are.”
She evidently failed the examination, for she was sent back to earth. When she recovered from her illness, she was determined to find out who she was. And that made all the difference.

Meditation: We’re moving in to the meditative part of our gathering – when there will be a short guided meditation to take us a bit deeper, then into a stillness and silence together, and that will end with a musical meditation – written by friends of our Kensington Unitarians congregation – music composed by David Kent to accompany these words written by Rev Joy Croft – With open hearts, we welcome all who search, With open hearts, we welcome all who love To celebrate this life in all its richness, To show new truth wherever it may lead us.

So let’s find a comfy position to be in for these next few minutes, you may choose to switch off your video for a while, or perhaps close your eyes or soften your gaze – whatever helps you focus inwards for a while. And let’s all take one of those lovely slow releasing breaths, that reach down in to our bellies and enjoy a sense of muscles relaxing and easing a bit on the outbreath as we perhaps let go of some tension, we may not even have been fully aware of carrying – those tight muscles of the forehead, or jaw or neck, maybe ease our shoulders back and down as we adjust our posture a bit, allowing any tensions we experience to drop away, down to the floor to be released.

And with open hearts and minds let us be aware of all the myriad ways we are connected with something greater than ourselves, connected with all humanity and all living beings through our breath, through the chemical composition of our bodies, connected with all that is through our shared life here on planet earth, tiny elements of the wondrous interdependent web of life. When we think of who we are – may we always remember these myriad connections that carry us beyond self, reminding us of the part we play in this wondrous universe of which we are truly an important and unique part. May the universe hold us close and remind us that we are all always part of that which is, as we enter the fellowship of stillness together.

Silence: 3 minutes

Music: David Kent, chalice meditation, to celebrate this life (1.05)

Address by Harold Lorenzelli: I have a question for you: How do we find ourselves? Yes, my friends, I am in a rather reflective mood this morning. You might wonder what brought this moment of introspection on. All I can say is that it happens from time to time. Surrounded by the flotsam and jetsam of life, I occasionally pause to consider where I am at, what makes me tick, a kind of mental stocktaking if you like. Who is this me I lug around daily? I’m not talking about appetites, love of chocolate, walks in the park….…’s more to do with my moral standing, my connection with the world. Then someone gets in touch…..the circumstances don’t matter …. and everything changes. Suddenly I’m thrown into a world which demands that I take notice of what is going on around me. I’m required to participate in the great game of life… the clouds lift and I’m off. Neurons spark, synapses connect and I find myself embroiled in the business of life, of moral dilemmas where hands get dirty, of challenging perspectives and uncomfortable truths. All the abstractions start to melt away as I begin to grapple with the matter in hand…….there, at the coalface, connecting, embracing the world in all its messy, challenging complexity.….doors are thrown open, and new landscapes await me. Eventually a slightly new me may emerge to view, exhilarated, perhaps a little bruised but above all alive and aware. I have found something of myself. All this leads me to not the most original of insights….that we need each other if we are to find ourselves. Our relationship with others is the key that unlocks those doors. It is an essential part of the human condition, and it’s why we are doing exactly what we are doing right now….It is an affirmation of our ability to define ourselves in the world amongst others. People need not be seen as a threat to our integrity but an opportunity to explore ourself and our neighbours and thereby build bridges, not barriers between each other. By such gatherings we transcend the world of machines and material possessions and once again assert the importance of those fundamental values that bind us to each other such as love, empathy, hope and above all charity….. those essential ingredients that provide the parameters of our lives. All of them virtues that involve the interplay with others ….where we recognise that we are flawed individuals with all our faults and potential for something more. It means throwing ourselves open not to be judged but understood, accepted, embraced…The business of living involves participation, in the ability to accept others with the same open charity as we should deal with ourselves, unconditional love, if you like, learning to love our neighbour as ourselves…..ring any bells??….and it is only by involvement with those around us that these gifts are fleshed out, given substance. So who do you think you are is not really the question at all that we should be asking. Rather it should be how do you think you are. What mode of being will allow our potential to be realised, because that’s exactly what every encounter signifies….the chance to realise, to create, to affirm. The lived present is where the identity is truly forged anew. The raw material is there at our fingertips, literally out there. Yet to reach that awareness I believe that it’s people who provide us with the key to that connection. They provide the bridge to the beyond, as it were. How we relate to others, how we deal with our friends, our neighbours, our colleagues is crucial to the experiment. But beware, it’s a rocky road at times and can involve painful choices. I want to give you an example of how a moral dilemma can shape and define a person. It relates to the theme of justice. We can all speculate on the punishment we would mete out when addressing some minor misdemeanour or indeed a heinous crime of violence. It’s easy to administer hypothetical retribution. Yet speculation is one thing. Let’s move to a scenario that few of us would care to imagine, let alone live through. There was a case reported recently in America of a woman who had lost several members of her family in a particularly violent attack by one man. He was condemned to die by a lethal dose of drugs. The woman opposed the sentence. Her argument ran thus: I cannot kill anyone nor do I wish anyone or any body to take a life in my name. Furthermore for her it would dishonour the names of her family who had died at the hands of the criminal in question. When faced with a choice she chose magnanimity rather than vengeance. Thus by her choice she defined herself. Faced with a very real dilemma she gave shape and moral substance to herself. If you were asked about what kind of a woman she was, none of us, I think, would have much trouble in composing a portrait of her. Here was an example of someone grappling not with a hypothetical case but with brute reality. It involved her very real relationship with those closest and dearest to her. It was born of hideous circumstances. I chose the case because it illustrates this fundamental fact about who we are…..that we are who we are by virtue of our relationship with others. Self knowledge only comes about through our life with and among others. I have no doubt at all that the real life, the pulsating life of the senses, that visceral engagement with others is the source of all that we are and the fountain of our potential.. I wanted today’s message to be upbeat but it would be ingenuous of me not to refer to our circumstances. We do find ourselves at the moment to an extent deprived of that very contact on which we thrive and develop. But if I’ve learnt one thing during this crisis it is that human beings can and do adapt to the most extraordinary circumstances. I think I value friendship, conversation, idle exchanges more now than ever before. That’s surely an unforeseen benefit. Life doesn’t always turn out the way you want it to or how it was supposed to, but what can you do? We must take life the way it comes and make the best of it. So…take a deep breath and don’t wait for the silver lining to the cloud…. see if you can’t stitch it there yourself with a little help from others, of course…

Hymn: Thank you Harold – thought provoking as ever. Remember if you would like to read that address again you can find the script for this service on our Kensington Unitarians’ website. There’s an opportunity to sing a hymn now but if you would rather just read the words that are going to appear on the screen soon that’s fine. We’re inviting you to join in singing along with the Unitarian Music Society’s recording of a favourite hymn – the spirit lives to set us free – walk in the light, walk in the light of love. And if you like singing, here on Zoom you can join in with full voice, safe in the knowledge that we will all be muted and no-one will hear you.

Announcements: My thanks go to Jane and Jeannene for such professional background work of hosting today and to our musicians – David Kent and Abby Lorimier. It’s good to spend time with you here today. We’ll be back again for next week’s gathering at 10am here on Zoom, and you’re also welcome to join our 10.30 coffee morning on Tuesday. In our Thursday@Three slot this coming Thursday Margaret Marshall will lead us in a Finding our Voice singing workshop – all welcome and no skill required. And make a note of the West London GreenSpirit group’s next meeting – on October 31st at 3pm. Thank you everybody who has made a recent donation recently to help our church finances keep in good shape and thanks to everyone who now donates by standing order. Both staff and trustees appreciate your generosity and you’re helping to keep our progressive religious voice out there in the world for others to hear about. Thank you to staff who’ve taken a 20% pay cut since March – that has really been a big help in these difficult times for any charity. We have a virtual coffee time to chat after the service in small groups if you’d like to join in – and we’d like to take a photo of us all as soon as the music ends, so do stick around if you don’t mind being in a photo. We’re going to have some closing words in a moment followed by a cello version of the Quaker tune Tis a gift to be simple tis a gift to be free, tis a gift to be just where you want to be – I invite you to select gallery view on your screen now so that we can all see each other for the closing words and enjoy a feeling of connection in community.

Closing words: I extinguish our chalice flame but not the warmth of this community. And I send the light of this candle out into the world for all those whose sense of self has been damaged or limited by life, by circumstances, by the actions of others. Let us stand in solidarity with all people who are not free to be themselves, who dare not speak the truth of who they are. And may we whose sense of self is strong remember with humility that we are but tiny and momentary sparks of life, amidst the great mystery of all that is. And in that knowing may we burn brightly, and live passionately and love with great kindness, this day and all days. Amen, go well all of you in the week ahead and blessed be.

Closing music: Tis a gift to be simple played by Abby Lorimier (1.44)

Rev. Sarah Tinker and Harold Lorenzelli

18th October 2020