All Souls – 01/11/20

Opening Music: ‘Mourn’ by Marilisa Valtazanou (1.58)

Opening Words: ‘Surrender to This Life’ by Gretchen Haley (adapted)

Give up the fight for some other moment –
some other life – than here, and now.
Give up the longing for some other world,
the wishing for other choices to make,
other songs to sing, other bodies,
other ages, other countries, other stakes.
Purge the past; forgive the future — for each come too soon.
Surrender only to this life, this day, this hour,
not because it does not constantly break your heart
but because it also beckons with beauty,
startles with delight, if only we keep waking up.
This is the gift we have been given: these “body-clothes,”
this heart-break, this pulse, this breath,
this light, these friends, this hope.
Here we re-member ourselves,
all a part of it all— giving thanks,
and living through the struggle – Together.
So come, let us join together in worship, this hour.

These words by Gretchen Haley open our service this morning – a special service of readings and reflection, music and meditation – to mark All Souls’ Day. Towards the end of the service there’ll be an opportunity to take part in a simple ritual to honour the memory of loved ones who have died.

Welcome to all who have joined us on Zoom this morning – whether you are long-standing members of the congregation, returning friends, or first-time visitors – and welcome to all who may be listening to our podcast, or watching on YouTube, sometime in the future. My name is Jane Blackall and I’m a member of the staff team at Essex Church, I’ve been part of this congregation for a long, long time (over 20 years), and I’m also a ministry student in my final year of training with Unitarian College.

I always think an important bit of being hospitable is to reassure everyone that you’re free to join in with this service at a level that works for you. There’ll be opportunities to join in, either with the candles of joy and concern, or with our All Souls ritual, with hymn-singing, or coffee-time afterwards, but they’re very much opportunities rather than obligations. There’s no particular pressure to join in with anything and you can keep your camera off and quietly lurk, if that’s what you’d rather do, with our blessing. Of course it’s lovely to see everyone’s faces, as it helps us get a sense of being together in a gathered community, but if you feel like keeping your head down this morning for any reason that’s alright by us.

We’re going through some turbulent times at the moment, one way or another, aren’t we? It’s likely that many of us, understandably, come with a headful of worries and preoccupations. And perhaps, as we gather for church this morning, we’re still catching up with ourselves. So let’s take a moment to settle ourselves and arrive, maybe take a mindful breath (–pause–), and make a conscious choice to set all that stuff aside, as best we can, for the next hour. Whoever you are, however you are, you are welcome in this gathering, just as you are.

Chalice Lighting: based on words by Jay Atkinson

And now I’ll light our chalice, as we do each Sunday, and at other times when we gather. This simple ritual connects us with Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists the world over, and reminds us of the proudly progressive religious tradition of which this gathering is part.

We gather around the chalice, in these hard times, seeking light and warmth.

Some of us are struggling with sorrow or grief,
but are afraid to reach out and ask for help.
Some of us are pained at all the suffering we see,
but feel helpless at the scale of human need.
Some of us are sick of ourselves and others,
but don’t know what to do about it right now.
Some of us want to make the world a better place,
but feel overwhelmed by the forces of inertia and self-interest.
Some of us aren’t sure what we need – but hope we can find it here.

We gather in this community, sometimes in fear,
sometimes in trust, sometimes in pain, sometimes in joy,
but always in hope that we can support and strengthen one another
in our common quest for healing and wholeness.

Candles of Joy and Concern:

Each week when we gather together, whether it’s in person at the church in Kensington or here as an online congregation, we share a simple ritual of candles of joy and concern, an opportunity to light a candle and share something that is in our heart with the community. So we’ve got a good few minutes now, for anyone who would like to do so, to light a candle (real or imaginary) and say a few words about what it represents. When you’re ready to speak, unmute your microphone so we can all hear you, and then re-mute yourself once you’ve finished. If you are going to speak, please be aware of how long you’re speaking for, so that there’s time for others to say something too. Let’s leave a pause between one candle and the next, so we can honour what’s been shared. And don’t worry too much if two people end up speaking at the same time, or there’s a technical hitch of some sort – these things happen on Zoom – please do persevere! At this point it’d be nice, if you can, to switch to gallery view so we can all see everybody.

I’ve got one more candle here and – as we often do – I’m going to light that to represent all those joys and concerns that we might be holding silently in our heart today, those stories which we don’t feel able to share out loud this morning. Let’s take a moment now to think of all those joys and concerns we have heard expressed… all those little windows into our common human condition and the life of the world we share… and let’s hold them – and each other – in our hearts, with compassion, for a moment or two. And let’s take those joys and concerns into a time of prayer and reflection now.

Prayer: based on words by Justin S. Osterman

This prayer is based on words by Justin S. Osterman.

You might first want to adjust your position for comfort, close your eyes, or soften your gaze. There might be a posture that helps you feel more prayerful. Whatever works for you. Do whatever you need to do to get into the right state of body and mind for us to pray together – to be fully present here and now, in this sacred time and space – with ourselves, with each other, and with that larger presence which holds us all.

Spirit of Life, God of All Love, sometimes it’s hard to know what to say.
It’s hard to know what to pray, in these uncertain times
when we are daily overcome with a mix of feelings,
troubled with fear, sadness, anger, and confusion.

This world is so beautiful and so terrible,
people so magnificent and so malevolent.
It’s hard to know how to feel with all the wonder
and horror happening at the same time.

We want to make things right, fair, clear.
We want to make people kind, merciful, and just.
We want to end violence, heal brokenness, prevent pain, restore hope.
We sometimes feel so small and powerless yet our longing for the Good is immense.
Sometimes despair speaks to us in poisonous whispers.

Spirit of Life, God of All Love, be that still, small voice
that speaks of love, comfort, and hope;
our refuge, our calm amidst the storm.

Be the fragile, beautiful, autumn leaf that catches the eye
to remind us that seasons come and go,
in nature, in life, and in history.

Be the kind, attentive, eyes that remind us
that there are open hearts and hands all around,
waiting to love and help, if we will only open ourselves to them.

Remind us, in every way,
that life still abounds with possibilities,
and that we always have the power to choose how we will respond.

Help us to choose wisely, act justly, live peacefully,
and embody every value and virtue that we wish to see in the world.
And help every soul gathered together here, to be and become our best selves,
in thought, word, and deed, this day and every day of our lives. Amen.

Reading: ‘Immortal, Invisible’ by Victoria Safford [read by John]

Where do they go, do you think, when they die? Our mothers and brothers and lovers, colleagues, children, and friends? You turn your head and suddenly they have slipped away – but where? What’s happened? What remains?

I find myself telling a young child things I didn’t know I believe about death, things that shock me, make me wonder. We come across a small dead turtle in the road and we decide to bury it. So with a stick we scrape a space on the edge of someone else’s grass and put the little disk of shell in the hollow of the earth, and I tell what will happen to the turtle, to the muscle and the blood and the eyes and the shell. He loves this. “It all goes back to the earth,” I say, “into new soil, and new plants will use it and grow, and birds will eat the plants, or we will, and the birds will scatter seeds, which turtles might eat, round and round and round it goes.” This much I know is true. But I also say, because the child is clearly waiting to hear more, clearly he knows that this cannot be all: “And the spirit of the turtle comes out and goes back into everything, into the stars and the sun and you and me. Everything the turtle was returns to everything and it is not lost.”

We’re both a little shocked at that, and pondering, as we continue walking.

That same child was told not long ago by a well-meaning relative that her dead cat (the relative’s dead cat) is happy now in “kitty heaven.” And the fact is, though I roll my supercilious eyes and make derisive noises, I don’t know now and never will whether “kitty heaven” is real (or “kitty hell” for that matter). The child and I, and all the poets and philosophers, the scientists and scholars, are equal in our ignorance on this and equal in our expertise when someone asks, “What will happen to the turtle?” – or to us. Bowel and blood and bone change into other things – dust and drop and molecule – but what about the soul? The heart is water and flesh; it decomposes fast, or burns. But what of the heart’s contents?

What we know for sure when someone dies is loneliness. What we know is the lifelong struggle to remember. What we know, beyond biology and chemistry, what we know forever and ever are the questions: what remains of him, of her, what remains of you… in me?

Meditation: ‘Autumn’ by Ann Willever

We’ve come now to a time of meditation. You might like to have a wiggle
and get as comfortable as you can in your chair (if you’re in a chair!) –
put your feet flat on the floor to help ground and steady yourself –
maybe close your eyes or gently focus on the chalice flame.

There’ll be some words – an autumn poem – by Ann Willever; those words will take us into a good few minutes of shared stillness, and the silence will come to an end with some beautiful music from Marilisa (it’s a piece called ‘Ripples’ which she composed just for us, for All Souls, the words are in Greek and the translation is: ‘Like a pebble in the lake / you sank and were lost in a moment / but the ripples left behind / keep you always with us’). As ever, you are free to think your own thoughts, and meditate in your own way.

the colours of autumn surround us – glorious gold, yellow and orange,
bronzy brown, deep vibrant red – how can we not feel amazed and grateful?
here in our front row seats, watching the rhythm of the changing seasons,
the never-ending cycle of birth, growth, change, death,

death in turn making ready for new life
just for this moment – let me be still –
let me rest in the quiet of this sacred place
in the presence of the spirit gathered
held gently, yet mightily, by the threads of love that bind us together

may whatever pain or sorrow or loss I feel today
be eased, if only for this moment
even as I feel tossed and turned by the wind
a fallen leaf, blown about, with no seeming direction
may I abandon the illusion of control, if only for this moment

and sense the love surrounding me
and the strength of the love within me

in reaching out to receive and
in reaching out to give back
may I bear witness to love
may I bear witness to life

Silence: [3 minutes silence]

Musical Interlude: ‘Ripples’ by Marilisa Valtazanou (2.18)

Reading: ‘Love Does Not Disappear’ by Elea Kemler [read by Juliet]

This piece, by Unitarian Universalist minister Elea Kemler, opens with some prayerful words by Molly Housh Gordon: “Mysterious Source of Love, moving within and between and among us; upholding and connecting all: the living, the dead, and the generations yet to come. We give thanks for the web of all creation, strands interwoven. And for the gifts of love, which can never be ungiven or unravelled.”

[Elea Kemler continues:] In the eighteen years I’ve served as minister of my small-town congregation, I have led 96 memorial services, most for people I have loved. I didn’t realize how much the deaths would hurt. The longer I stay, the deeper I love and the more I grieve. This seems so obvious, but I was surprised by it. Another surprise has been how our beloved dead seem to make themselves known; how they seem to linger with us for a little while.

Once, after a memorial service, everyone left the church and gathered on the sidewalk in the sunlight of a still, summer afternoon. As we stood there, a huge gust of wind blew down the street. We could see it coming, almost like a tumbleweed. For maybe five seconds, the wind was all around us and over us. We turned and watched the gust blow down the street and then it was completely still again. “There she goes,” someone said.

Another time, I was about to lead the memorial service for a man who shared a love of butterflies with his wife. Their home was filled with images of butterflies and we had put a photo of one on the order of service. As I stood at the church door, a huge orange and black butterfly flew near. It circled me three times, above my head, around my shoulders, at my knees and then flew away. When I told his wife about it, she nodded. “Butterflies have been all around me since he died,” she said.

Last spring a beloved elder died who believed he would be reincarnated as a red-tailed hawk. I told the congregation about his death at Sunday morning services. I had taped a picture of a red-tailed hawk on the front pew where he always sat. Several people told me that as I was making the announcement, they were looking out the sanctuary windows and saw a large hawk soaring above the church.

Over the years I’ve heard many stories – stories about dragonflies and rainbows and love songs coming on the radio at just the right moment. Maybe it is just coincidence. Maybe we’re looking for signs so we find them. But maybe those we love are nearer to us than we realize. Maybe love is vaster than the limits of our understanding. I believe that it is.

[Elea Kemler concludes with a few words of prayer:] Source of Love, we are sustained and upheld by the love of those who have gone before us. May we know, deep in our bones, that love does not disappear.

Introducing Our All Souls Ritual:

We’ve come to a time in our service to mark All Souls Day (which actually falls tomorrow) with a simple ritual to honour the memory of those we have loved and who have died. Unitarian Universalist minister Carl Seaburg put it like this: “[All Souls] Day is set apart in many churches for the commemoration of those ‘holy souls’ who have graced our lives and passed from our living circle. Their radiance, their works, their memories, are still with us – and on this day we meet to celebrate them fondly. And thoughtfully, too, remembering that we also someday shall follow where they went.”

So this morning let’s remember the lives of those who have given us inspiration, strength, comfort, and love. Let us give thanks for those whose presence is always with us and honour their memory with a ceremony of remembrance.

I suggested ahead of time that you might bring a photo or a memento of a loved one you wish to remember today, and perhaps also a candle to light in their memory. If you’ve come prepared – that’s great – if you haven’t – you can still join in – and if you don’t want to join in – you absolutely don’t have to – all participation is voluntary.

I need to say a little bit about how this is going to work, given that we are on Zoom. If you want to share, please put your hand up, and I’ll call on you by name. You can unmute yourself then, and just wait a second for us to spotlight you, so that everyone will be able to see what you hold up, and hear the name you speak. Please, just speak their name, and say how you were connected to them in a word or two. Sadly we won’t have time to hear more of your shared story during the service today. Please hold up the picture or memento for a few seconds for us to see, and then light your candle if you have one (and it’s fine if you only have the picture, or the candle, or neither). When one person has finished, if you want to go next, put your hand up and I’ll call on you, and again please wait until you are spotlit before speaking. I hope that all makes sense. It’s OK for us to take it slowly as that seems the best way to show due reverence. And we’ll keep going until everybody who wants to participate has done so.

(sharing of names, photos, mementoes, and candles)

To close our ceremony of remembrance, I’d like to offer some words from Unitarian Universalist minister Christine C. Robinson:

Spirit of Life, whom we know best in our own loving and being loved,
hold us as we remember those we have loved, and those who have loved us.
Help us to know that we are not alone in our grieving and loss,
and help us also to come to that peaceful place in which we can take
what we learned from those who have gone before us into our own lives.
Remind us that we, too, are mortal; and that the enduring
legacy we leave is the love that shines through our lives. Amen.

Hymn: ‘Undying Echoes’ (Unitarian Music Society – 2.22)

There’s an opportunity for us to sing a hymn together now – the one I’ve chosen for us is probably not very familiar to most of us – but the words are so fitting to our service today. It’s called ‘Undying Echoes’ and it speaks of how our lives are touched by the lives of others, how our deeds may have an impact beyond our knowing, and go on even after we have gone.

The recording, made by the Unitarian Music Society, plays the tune through in full before the words come in, which might help (and of course we’re going to make sure you’re muted so nobody will be able to hear you anyway if you don’t pick up the tune at first attempt). The words will come up on screen in a moment. But if you just want to listen that’s fine too.

The lives which touch our own each day
Are influenced unconsciously
By views we hold, the things we say,
Our simple acts of charity.

On earth we still receive the light
Of stars burnt out in aeons past
The lives of those who served the right
Shine with a lustre that will last.

This life of ours can never end,
Its influence still perseveres;
For by our deeds we ever send
Undying echoes down the years.


Thanks to Jeannene for hosting today, John & Juliet for reading, Marilia for the lovely music. Mention that it’s going up online so please drop me a message if you want to be edited out. There are a number of opportunities to connect in the week ahead: Coffee morning at 10.30 on Tuesday. Poetry group at 3pm on Thursday – contact Sarah. Heart and Soul – few spaces tonight, Friday – contact me. Don’t forget we’ll have virtual coffee-time afterwards, chat in small groups, if you’d like. And if you can bear it we like to take a group photo after the closing music so stick around. Back again on Zoom next week at 10am when Sarah will be back for Remembrance Sunday. Bring your friends! It’s fine to share the link with trusted others and this time while we’re online makes it easier for those who are curious to try us out in a low-pressure kind of way. We’ve just got some brief closing words now, followed by some more lovely music to end. So I invite you to select gallery view at this point so we can all see each other and get a sense of our community-and-connectedness for this closing.

Closing Words: ‘We Remember’ by Simon John Barlow

Spirit of Life, God of All Love,
in this season of remembrance:
we remember, in gratitude, all those who came before us
to prepare the paths which we now tread;
we remember, in love, our family, friends and lovers who,
though not with us today, still guide our footsteps;
we remember, in awe, the miracles of daily life
which inspire us and raise our spirits.
we remember, in joy, the love divine and human
which surrounds us always;
we remember, in peace, the light within us all
which brings the strength for growth.
and we remember, in acceptance, our task of sharing that
inner light with all around us wherever we go.

Closing Music: ‘Remember’ by Marilisa Valtazanou (2.30)

Jane Blackall

1st November 2020