What Are You Waiting For? – 29/11/20
Opening Music: ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel’ (Played by Sandra Smith)
Opening Words of Welcome: ‘We Are Waiting’ by Leslie Takahashi (adapted)
This is the season of anticipation,
Of expecting, of hoping, of wanting.
This is the time of expecting the arrival
of something — or someone.
We are waiting.
This is the time of living in darkness, in the hues of unknowing.
Of being quiet, reflecting on a year that’s almost over.
Waiting for a new beginning, for a closing or an end.
This is the time for digesting the lessons of days gone past,
anticipating the future for which
We are waiting.
Waiting for a world which might know true justice;
Waiting for a lasting sense of peace, respite, and renewal;
Waiting for a bridge, to span the divides which separate us, one from another.
Waiting for a sense of hope.
For all of this
We are waiting.
These opening words, adapted from a piece by Leslie Takahashi, welcome all who have gathered on Zoom this morning to take part in Kensington Unitarians’ Sunday service. Welcome to members of the congregation, to friends and visitors with us today, and to all who may be listening to our podcast, or watching this service 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 21 years now, and I’m also a ministry student in my third (and hopefully final) year of training with Unitarian College.
It’s lovely to see everyone’s faces out there in Zoom-land this morning – looking around the virtual room is an experience to warm your cockles on a chilly November day – and gives us a sense of how we’re all still connected in community even as we’re scattered all over the country and indeed the world (I know we’ve got people in from far and wide today). At the same time I want to reassure you that if you’re not in the mood to be seen – perhaps you haven’t technically got out of bed yet – I do sympathise (being more of an owl than a lark) and it is absolutely fine if you want to keep your camera off and lurk quietly this morning. There will be some opportunities for us to join in by speaking or singing as we go along – but there’s no obligation – if you feel the need to keep your head down that’s alright by us.
This is the first Sunday in Advent – I hope you appreciated our ‘virtual Advent wreath’ – the image with one lit candle we had up during the ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel’ at the start. And in the spirit of Advent, a time of waiting, of anticipation, perhaps we could do with taking time to pause – to intentionally slow down – to breathe into this moment and ‘arrive’. Follow a breath or two – (pause) – and set aside, as best you can, whatever inner hubbub you might have brought with you. You can pick it up again in an hour’s time if you need to. And as we often say: whoever you are, however you are, you are welcome in this gathering, just as you are.
Chalice Lighting: loosely based on words by Cricket Hall
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.
(carefully take and light chalice – hold it up)
In these days many of us find ourselves to be in a state of waiting:
Waiting for a greater sense of clarity and certainty in everyday life;
waiting for help to materialise, for experts and leaders to do right by us;
waiting until we feel safe enough to return to circulation; waiting to see how it all turns out.
In this time of waiting, may we hold the world in our hearts.
In this time of waiting, may we reach out to others in loving-kindness.
In this time of waiting, may we be wise, to keep ourselves and our neighbours from harm.
In this time of waiting, may we be thoughtful and introspective.
In this time of waiting, may we pay attention to all it has to teach us.
In this time of waiting, may we rekindle the fires of hope, love, joy, and peace
within ourselves and our communities, doing what only we can for the common good.
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 shared human condition and the life of the world we share… and let’s hold them – and each other – in a spirit of loving-kindness for a moment or two. And let’s take those joys and concerns into an extended time of prayer now.
Prayer: based on words by Karen G. Johnston
This prayer is loosely based on some words by the UU minister Karen G. Johnston. 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. (pause)
Spirit of Life, God of All Love, in whom we live and move and have our being;
as we turn our attention to the depths of this life –
the cosmic mystery and wisdom that abides in All-That-Is –
we tune in to your Holy, holding presence within us and amongst us. (pause)
In this season, after many long months of disruption,
our hearts are overflowing with lamentation and longing.
Longing for a world with more hope and less despair;
Longing for a life of more connection and less isolation;
Longing for a future of less consumption and more compassion;
Longing to be more relaxed and carefree, less anxious and uncertain;
Longing for a brave love, a growing seed within us, spreading far and wide;
Longing for a better world, where all injustice and oppression is overturned;
Longing for companions to give us courage, that we each might play our part in life,
helping to bring about Beloved Community, which some might call the Kin(g)dom of God.
In this community of care and compassion, we hold those who have shared
their joys with us, for each shared joy is a form of nourishment for us all.
In this community of care and compassion, we witness those who have shared
their sorrows with us, for each shared sorrow touches our hearts, and we
accept the call to lighten the burden of our companions, where we can.
In a short time of shared stillness now,
let our hearts pray the prayers only they know,
both prayers of compassion for all those who are suffering this day,
and prayers of gratitude for all that is still, nonetheless, good in this world.
(pause – longer – 30 seconds)
Spirit of Life – God of all Love –
as this time of prayer comes to a close,
we offer up our joys and concerns,
our hopes and fears, our beauty and brokenness,
and call on you for insight, healing, and renewal.
As we look forward now to the coming week,
help us to live well each day and be our best selves;
using our unique gifts in the service of love, justice and peace. Amen
Reading: ‘A Seed Knows How to Wait’ by Hope Jahren [read by Juliet]
Hope Jahren is a geobiologist who has built three laboratories in which she’s studied trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. The following piece is an excerpt from her memoir, ‘Lab Girl’, titled ‘A Seed Knows How to Wait’.
A seed knows how to wait. Most seeds wait for several years before starting to grow; a cherry seed can wait for a hundred years with no problem. What exactly each seed is waiting for is known only to that seed. Some unique trigger-combination of temperature-moisture-light and many other things is required to convince a seed to jump off the deep end and take its chance—to take its one and only chance to grow.
A seed is alive while it waits. Every acorn on the ground is just as alive as the three-hundred year-old oak tree that towers over it. Neither the seed nor the old oak is growing, they are both just waiting. Their waiting differs, however, in that the seed is waiting to flourish while the tree is only waiting to die. When you go into a forest you probably tend to look up at the plants that have grown so much taller than you ever could. You probably don’t look down, where just beneath your single footprint sits between one hundred and one thousand seeds, each one alive and waiting… When you are in the forest, for every tree that you see, there are no less than three million more trees waiting in the soil, fervently wishing to be.
When the embryo within a seed starts to grow, it basically just stretches out of its doubled-over waiting posture, elongating into official ownership of the form that it assumed years ago. The hard coat that surrounds a peach stone, a mustard seed, or a walnut’s shell mostly exists to prevent this expansion. In the laboratory, we simply scratch the hard coat and add a little water and it’s enough to make almost any seed grow. I must have cracked thousands of seeds over the years, and yet the next day’s green never fails to amaze me. Something so hard can be so easy if you just have a little help. In the right place, under the right conditions, you can finally stretch out into what you’re supposed to be.
After scientists broke open the coat of a lotus seed and coddled the embryo into growth, they kept the empty husk. When they radiocarbon-dated this discarded outer shell, they discovered that their seedling had been waiting for them within a peat bog in China for no less than two thousand years. This tiny seed had stubbornly kept up the hope of its own future while entire human civilisations rose and fell. And then one day this little plant’s yearning finally burst forth within a laboratory. I wonder where it is right now.
Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.
Meditation: ‘Slow’ by M Barclay (adapted)
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.
There’ll be some words from M Barclay, a piece called ‘Slow’, which perhaps speaks to the practice of intentional slowing down, the shift in attitude we might bring to these times where endurance is called for, the value of savouring the good things in life and making sure we stay in touch with reality.
These words will take us into a good few minutes of shared stillness, and the silence will come to an end with some instrumental music from Sandra. We’re going to try something a little different this week and during the time of silence and the musical interlude I’ll put a chalice –cam up on screen for you to look at instead of me! As ever, these words, and images, and music are just an offering – not an obligation – you are free to think your own thoughts, and meditate in your own way.
Now is not a time for rushing past joy.
Do not move too quickly from any good thing:
not laughter or a sight of beauty,
not a taste, a feeling, a companion, or a truth.
These are gifts, not to be wasted. Be generous in sharing.
Linger and give thanks. Be excessive in awe.
Just, do not hurry through them
as if they are not precious in this season of grief.
When you encounter the harder things,
still, move slow.
Open to Wisdom’s guidance through pain.
Listen patiently to your fear.
Pause, so that the voice of your body can speak.
You cannot hurry in heartbreak or loss and hope to make it through.
And all of this, not only for the sake of your own endurance – but also for each other.
When we tend inward, we prevent that which makes our spirit decay.
When we nurture our soul, we grow in our capacities to contribute to the whole.
Nothing much of value grows quickly –
not courage nor healing,
not love that liberates,
nor justice that transforms.
Not the new world we hope to grow
from the ruins of all that is destroyed.
Everything we need the most
for our collective soul to make it through this alive
requires great urgency and abundant patience.
Whenever possible, take a breath,
and find again the rhythms of life
best for growing our souls.
Silence: [3 minutes silence]
Musical Interlude: ‘Patience’ (played by Sandra Smith)
Some Thoughts: ‘What Are You Waiting For?’
This Sunday is the first in Advent and so today we’re pondering a classic Advent theme – waiting. I’ve called today’s service ‘What Are You Waiting For?’ – it’s a question you can take several ways – but one way I definitely don’t mean it is the way we’d usually say it, in the rhetorical sense, to try and gee someone up or hurry them along: ‘get on with it, what are you waiting for?!’ Today’s service, by contrast, is much more about the virtues of slowing down & embracing the wait.
Let me begin with some words by Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Shelley Page, who writes:
‘We actually do quite a bit of waiting over the course of our lives.
There’s the everyday waiting in the supermarket check-out line.
Then there’s what I call the serious waiting: waiting for medical test results,
or for a new job after months of unemployment; waiting for a precious child to be born or adopted; waiting to see if we’re accepted for college or a training program or promotion;
waiting for health to return after illness or injury; waiting, waiting, waiting.
These times of waiting can be rich times of anticipation or tense times of apprehension.
We sometimes rail against the interminable wait, filled with anxiety, tension and impatience. Understandably so. Waiting can feel stressful or painful as we hope for the best but anticipate
the worst. But I ask you to consider the possibility that waiting itself is a spiritual practice, a pregnant moment or series of moments in your life full of potential for growth and insight.’
What are you waiting for? I imagine, for each of us, there are many different sorts of waiting going on in our lives right now. Waiting for a phone call or an email from a loved one, maybe? As in Shelley Page’s list, waiting to hear about the results of a test or a scan or a job application? With varying degrees of seriousness these all come under the heading of ‘everyday waiting’. If we’re thinking about waiting as a spiritual practice, as Shelley Page suggests, then this sort of thing – right down to the micro-level of waiting for a watched pot to boil, or traffic lights to change – is a good place to start to strengthen our spiritual muscles and consciously practice patience. Especially as they’re often situations where we can’t do anything much to hurry things along. There’s a simple quote I like on this from the Zen teacher, Taigen Dan Leighton, who writes: ‘Learning patience is a matter of finding peace and balance with the unresolved or unsatisfactory when there is nothing that can be done except to wait it out.’ (pause)
There’s another quote that I find helpful which underlines the importance of patience in small things as a way of building up our endurance for when we need it in more challenging scenarios. These words are from the writer Mike Riddell, who says: ‘Patience is something that is chosen; it is an active and intentional waiting which grows from an attitude of trust towards the essential goodness of life. And it is a craft which must be learned through practice. It seems to me that every time I learn to extend my patience a little further, some new event will come along which stretches me just that bit more than I am prepared to go. I suspect that is the only way to develop patience — similar to athletes who incrementally increase their performances.’
As well as these commonplace forms of waiting, I can’t avoid mentioning the one big source of waiting that is particular to this moment in time and which affects us all: the global pandemic. In this year when Covid-19 has brought so many aspects of our everyday lives to a halt, I guess most of us are waiting and hoping for the return of some sort of ‘normality’. There’s lots wrapped up in that, of course – some are waiting for restrictions to be lifted, and chomping at the bit to be allowed to resume their activities ASAP – while others are waiting for a vaccine and won’t be back in circulation until they feel safe enough, regardless of what’s allowed. Whichever way you look at it, this year has been – for many of us – a real test of endurance. Perhaps something more than everyday patience is required in situations like this one. (pause)
Think of it like this, perhaps: Another way of understanding ‘what are you waiting for?’ is in the sense of ‘what are you doing it for?’ – or ‘why are you waiting?’ – what’s the purpose of it? There’s a famous phrase that kept coming to mind while I was thinking about this matter – except I could only half-remember it – ‘He who has a why to live can bear almost any how’, that’s the actual quote, attributed to the famously gloomy-but-influential Friedrich Nietzsche. I mis-remembered it as more like ‘one who has a why to wait can bear almost any waiting’. But I think the made-up version is probably true too! And you can see it all around us at the moment as people are making tremendous sacrifices for the sake of a greater good; the why of protecting the most vulnerable provides a vision which enables us to wait, even when waiting – for social contact, for freedom to travel, for ‘normality’ – is tremendously hard. There was a meme – the sort of memorable image that circulates on social media – that went round back in the spring and it consisted of a very simple calligraphy haiku, which went: “We isolate now / So when we gather again / No one is missing.” Quite powerful. Perhaps remembering such beautiful, simple, statements of purpose can help to make our waiting meaningful, and strengthen our sense of endurance, during these difficult times.
There’s an even grander sort of waiting I could mention too – waiting for a better world to come – or at least for some of the building blocks of a more loving and just world to come into being, to become reality. I guess each of us has our own pet causes we particularly care about, changes we’d dearly like to see. This too is a kind of longing look to the far horizon for a sense of light and hope – very Advent-y imagery, of course – as we look towards Christmas, anticipating the birth of Jesus, those metaphors of ‘the light of the world’, and the return of the light with the turning year. And it ties in with images we often speak of here – the Beloved Community – the Kin(g)dom of God – this ideal hope of how things might be, one day – the way of being in the world we sometimes taste glimpses of, when people are truly loving and just in their ways of relating to each other. Holding this image of the future we are waiting for – longing for – may help galvanise us to take some of small steps now which nudge the Universe in the direction of greater Love and Justice. To pick up on the metaphor from our reading: to plant the seeds which mayone day bear fruit.
So I ask again: What are you waiting for? Tuning in to your longings like this can be instructive. I put a short quote from M.J. Ryan in the email that went out on the mailing list. She wrote: ‘Being made to wait helps us figure out what we truly want and what really matters to us… Remembering that some things are worth waiting for helps us decide what it is that is worth the wait, and to prize it truly when we do receive it.’ (pause)
There are different flavours of waiting too: sometimes we’re eagerly anticipating something we want, an outcome we desire; other times we feel a real aversion to an outcome we dread. As one who spends a lot of time online: there are days when I’m constantly hitting refresh and wishing that a hoped-for email will arrive and other days when I’m a bit scared to look at my inbox. But it’s not just anticipation or aversion; a lot of the time there’s a more neutral form which we might think of as ‘curious waiting’ – a ‘wait and see’ approach – wondering how it’ll turn out.
As well as that distinction between desire, dread, and a more neutral kind of waiting, it can feel different depending on the likelihood of the thing we’re waiting for to come about. The thing we’re waiting for might be highly uncertain or it might be close to a dead cert. You might have heard of the phrase ‘waiting for the other shoe to drop’ which refers to the horrible situation where your braced for an almost-inevitable bad thing coming. Or the thing we’re waiting for might be an outside possibility which, nonetheless, grips our imagination. Another distinction we might make is between passive and active waiting. Sometimes a situation is – or seems to be – out of our hands, determined by forces that are largely beyond our control, and in such situations it would seem that all we can do is passively await our fate. But, perhaps more often than we think, there is a possibility for active waiting, where we can make at least some small effort to tip the balance and bring about the future we want to see.
As I close I’d like to share some wisdom from Henri Nouwen, who wrote: ‘The word patience comes from the Latin verb patior, which means “to suffer.” Waiting patiently is suffering through the present moment, tasting it to the full, and letting the seeds that are sown in the ground on which we stand grow into strong plants. Waiting patiently always means paying attention to what is happening right before our eyes and seeing there the first rays of God’s glorious coming.’
So in this season of Advent – and the longer season of waiting we may still find ourselves in – may we choose such a path of active waiting, and orient ourselves towards Hope – planting little seeds, wherever we can, to help grow the future world of Love and Justice we want to see. Amen.
Hymn: ‘People Look East’ (Kensington Congregation in 2018)
Time for us to sing – as we are in Advent you’ll be getting carols of some description in every service during the month ahead – and today’s choice is ‘People Look East’. We’ve had to go rummaging in our own congregational archives for this, it’s a recording of us in church almost exactly two years ago, which accounts for there being some rustling and coughing! But I’m hoping you’ll overlook that just for the novelty value of singing along with ourselves. Don’t worry – Jenny’s going to make sure we all have our microphones muted for this bit – so you can sing along freely as long as your housemates or neighbours aren’t having a lie-in. The words will appear on screen shortly for you to join in –feel free just to listen if you’d rather.
People look east! the time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east, and sing today:
Love, the guest, is on the way.
Furrows be glad! Though earth is bare,
One more seed is planted there:
Give up your strength the seed to nourish,
That, in course, the flower may flourish.
People look east, and sing today:
Love, the rose, is on the way.
Stars, keep the watch! when night is dim,
One more light the bowl shall brim,
Shining beyond the frosty weather,
Bright as sun and moon together.
People, look east, and sing today:
Love, the star, is on the way.
Thanks to Jenny for hosting today, Juliet for our reading, Sandra for the lovely music. There are a number of opportunities to connect in the week ahead: Coffee morning 10.30 on Tuesday. Heart and Soul – also on Waiting – a few spaces tonight. 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. We’ll be back again on Zoom next week at 10am with Sarah. Bring your friends! You might like to let people know about our Christmas services, in addition to Sundays we’re doing a teatime candlelit service on Christmas Eve, it’s fine to share the zoom link with trusted others. 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: ‘First Comes the Waiting’ by Erika A. Hewitt (adapted)
This is the season of endings and beginnings,
when the small signs of dawn pierce
through the night and something new is born.
But first comes the waiting. The longing.
The Presence of Life, the sheltering Spirit of Love,
grieves with those sweeping up the debris of loss;
waits with those who restlessly yearn for a change;
grants us courage in the night to guard each other’s dreams
for this holy, wondrous, universe; the world transformed we long for.
Grant us, oh Universe unfolding in mystery, a sense of your timing.
May we loosen our grip on that which doesn’t serve us,
leaving behind that which we have outworn and outgrown.
And teach us the lessons of waiting; of beginnings and endings.
Remind us that such times of pause may be a fertile starting place,
for a planting of seeds which bring to birth what is ready to be born –
something right and just and different from what we’ve known;
a new song, a deeper relationship, a fuller love –
a future of flourishing, in the fullness of time.
May it be so, for the greater good of all. Amen.
Closing Music: ‘Hills of the North Rejoice’ played by Sandra Smith
29th November 2020