Not as Expected – 06/12/20
Opening Music: Deck the Hall with Boughs of Holly
Our opening words this morning are written by Gretchen Haley in a piece called Surrender to This Life – and it sums up today’s message – this year has not turned out how most of us expected, we may be feeling wearied, frustrated, despairing even at what’s going on in the world and by the limitations we’re experiencing. I wonder if Gretchen’s title ‘Surrender to this Life’ speak to you?
Give up the fight
For some other moment
Some other life
Than here, and now
Give up the longing
for some other world
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
startles with delight
if only we keep
This is the gift
we have been given:
this heart-break, this pulse
Here we re-member ourselves
All a part of it all—
Giving thanks, Together.
Come, let us worship
And so I welcome you to this our Sunday gathering here on Zoom, it’s lovely to see your faces. And welcome to those who listen in to this service as a podcast or by watching our video, or maybe reading this script online. Thank you to everyone who’s been in touch recently – as we live our more than usually separate lives to keep one another safe during this time of pandemic it’s heart-warming to feel our connections with one another remaining strong. Whenever we gather in our Kensington Unitarians community we remind one another that ours is a community that accepts us as we are – so however you are feeling this morning, there’s a place for you here. There are times in this gathering when you’ll be invited to speak or sing but they’re optional and if you would rather snuggle back on your sofa and just listen in that’s fine with us.
Each week we light our chalice flame, symbol of our Unitarian and Unitarian Universalist communities the world over. We focus on its one light to remind us that we are one people, living one life together with all of existence here on our one planet earth home. Let’s take a moment to focus on that image of one light and imagine the invisible threads of connection between us now and between the wider communities in which we live our lives, and the life of our wider world. May these connections hold us in love when life challenges us and takes directions we did not choose. Let’s take a conscious breath now and allow ourselves to settle into this moment, aware of our connectedness in love.
Candles of Joy and Concern: Each week when we gather together, whether it’s in person at our church here in Kensington or as we are now 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, let’s stay aware of how long we’re speaking for, so that there’s time for others to say something too. And don’t worry too much if two people end up speaking at the same time – 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 within us this day, those stories we perhaps don’t feel able to share out loud. And let’s think of all those joys and concerns we have heard … all those glimpses of our shared human condition and the life of our wider world … and let’s hold them – and each other – in a spirit of love and compassion for a moment. And let’s take those joys and concerns into our time of reflection and prayer.
Prayer, with words by Rev Dr Linda Hart (adapted)
You might first want to adjust your position for comfort, close your eyes, or soften your gaze, whatever helps you feel ready to focus, to pray – to be fully present here and now, in this time and space made sacred by our togetherness and by our intent – here with ourselves, with each other, and with that which holds us all. (pause)
I invite you to take a deep breath, to relax yourselves and as you release the breath centre yourselves, settle into the body and soften, find that restful place at the core of your being. As we join together in this time of reflection and prayer, find your way of aligning yourself with the sacred within all existence.
O spirit of love and life, in this season fraught with expectations, complicated by the distances we must keep, may we be open to those moments, those unexpected moments when the holy enters in: the holiness of a heart opening in compassion, a moment when what abides always is clearly seen: the constancy of our connectedness, the mystery of the love which surrounds us like the air we breathe, and even the holiness of loss and of heartbreak, those fault-lines of love, the reminders that our hearts are open and alive – may we hold all those who are in pain in tender compassion.
Spirit of love and of life, remind us in these few moments together, that we bound in an interconnected web that is woven of love, that we are inescapably tethered, one to another. In this season of dark, may we rest awhile in that web of love and know our own wholeness, and the wholeness of all that is, and to that aspiration let each of us voice our own Amen, so may it be.
And now I’ll hand over to David Talbot who has a reading for us and will then lead us in a meditation for the present moment.
This reading is called ‘Learning From Difficulties’ and it comes from a Zen Buddhist meditation teacher called Ezra Bayda. In this extract he’s giving us some Buddhist teachings on how we might respond when life doesn’t go according to plan.
‘First, we can learn to recognize that the difficulty is our path instead of trying to escape from it. This is a radical yet necessary change in our perspective. When uncomfortable things happen to us, we rarely want to have anything to do with them. We might respond with the belief ‘Things shouldn’t be this way’ or ‘Life shouldn’t be so messy.’
Who says? Who says that life shouldn’t be a mess? When life is not fitting our expectations of how it’s supposed to be, we usually try to change it to fit our expectations. But the key to practice is not to try to change our life but to change our relationship to our expectations — to learn to see whatever is happening as our path.
‘Our difficulties are not obstacles to the path; they are the path itself. They are opportunities to awaken. Can we learn what it means to welcome an unwanted situation, with its sense of groundlessness, as a wake-up call? Can we look at it as a signal that there is something here to be learned? Can we allow it to penetrate our hearts? By learning to do this, we are taking the first step toward learning what it means to open to life as it is. We are learning what it means to be willing to be with whatever life presents us. Even when we don’t like it, we understand that this difficulty is our practice, our path, our life.
Second, when hardship strikes, we can learn not to point the finger of blame — at another person, at ourselves, at an institution, or even at life itself — and instead turn our attention inward. When we’re in distress, this is often one of the hardest things to do, because we so want to defend ourselves. We so want to be right. But it is much more helpful to look at what we ourselves have brought to the situation — beliefs, expectations, requirements, and cravings. Then we might gradually come to understand that whenever we’re having an emotional reaction, it’s a signal that we have some belief system in place that we haven’t yet looked at deeply enough. With practice this understanding gradually can become our basic orientation.’ Words from Ezra Bayda………
Let’s take those ideas now into a time of meditation. I’m going to talk us through a relaxation process and some ways we can learn to dwell in the present moment, which is the only moment we have. After all ‘Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery but today is a gift, that’s why it’s called the present’
After I’ve spoken for a little while we’ll hold a couple of minutes in silence and then we’ll hear some lovely cello music played for us by Abby Lorimier – from the prelude of Johann Sebastian Bach’s first cello suite.
So please make yourselves comfortable – I know some people like to switch their videos off for the meditation. Also do feel free to practice your own meditation – my suggestions are of course optional.
During the silence and music we’ll show a video of our chalice flame, which people liked last week.
So, sitting upright, drop shoulders, relax the belly.
Focus on the breath, breathing down into your belly. Inhale belly expands, exhale belly contracts.
When thoughts happen just acknowledge their presence and just bring your attention to your breath. Continue with this practice.
Silence followed by music, the Prelude to Bach’s Cello Suite 1, played by Abby Lorimier
Address: Not as Expected
For those of us here on Zoom today our gathering began with an old carol – a cheery one – deck the halls with boughs of holly, fa la la la la, it’s Christmas time, tis the season to be jolly, fa la la la la it’s Christmas time.
But if you’ve had anything like the week I’ve had it would be hard to describe this time we’re in as a season to be jolly. It’s one of the special aspects of ministry – hearing what life is like for other people. And it’s no surprise really is it – when I say that quite a few of us are feeling far from festive. Not everybody – there has been a little flurry of enthusiastic tinsel placement going on and early carol singing. But these are anxious and uncertain times for many people – we are rightly deeply worried by a pandemic that still causes the deaths of some 500 or so people every day here in the UK. We yearn for human company and are simultaneously afraid of passing a virus on to another person or catching it ourselves. Some of us find it stressful when some others don’t seem to be taking quite so much care as we are.
I knew I was under stress the other week when I walked towards a group of 5 dog walkers have a chat together, with many dogs on leads taking up the entire width of a narrow pathway next to a lake – and I flapped my arms about wildly and shouted loudly ‘make way, make way, I’m coming through’. It certainly had the desired effect and you are welcome to use my technique if you find yourself wanting to clear a pathway blocked by others.
This gathering of ours gained the title ‘not as expected’ because like some of you I imagine these days, I am shopping online rather than going into shops in person. A recent parcel had to be returned and the manufacturers kindly provided me with a list of reasons why I might be returning the unwanted item. Wrong colour, wrong size, bought in error? One tick box choice immediately caught my eye and made me smile ‘Item not as expected’. That summed up my failed shopping attempt. It also summed up the entire year for me – not as expected. Can we send the year 2020 back to the retailers or manufacturers for failing to live up to our expectations?
We have that saying ‘the best laid plans of mice and men’ to remind us that our plans in life may indeed not always go according to plan. I think that line comes originally from Robbie Burns’ compassionate poem To A Mouse – a poem written for a mouse whose nest he disturbed one day whilst ploughing a field. It’s such a kind poem – here’s just a few verses written in modern language but if you can do find someone who can read you the poem in its original Scots dialect.
That small bit heap of leaves and stubble,
Has cost you many a weary nibble!
Now you are turned out, for all your trouble,
Without house or holding,
To endure the winter’s sleety dribble,
And hoar-frost cold.
But little Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!
Still you are blessed, compared with me!
The present only touches you:
But oh! I backward cast my eye,
On prospects dreary!
And forward, though I cannot see,
I guess and fear!
There’s Robbie Burns reminding us as David Talbot did earlier on in his meditation – that life is less painful if we manage to stay in the present moment rather than looking back on times past or forward into a future that exists only in our thinking.
Such teachings are found in all the world’s religious and philosophical traditions – you may know a version of the Yiddish proverb – ‘We plan, God laughs’. Or the Zen Buddhist teaching we heard in our reading earlier on – that we need to learn to accept the difficulties we come across in life as our path – not as obstacles to be avoided. ‘Adjust your expectations’ Buddhism teaches ‘and disappointment and suffering cease’. This particular teaching is one where I still find myself in the junior class – with much still to learn. But a very helpful teaching has stayed with me for many years. It was from a course taught by Landmark Education where we learnt the three key causes of the upsets in our lives – thwarted intentions, undelivered communications and unfulfilled expectations. Next time you find yourself emotionally troubled it may help your understanding of what’s going – to step back awhile and ask: Are my intentions thwarted? Is there something I need to communicate? Do I have expectations that are not fulfilled?
2020 has not turned out as most of us expected. I daresay life as a whole hasn’t turned out quite how many of us would have wished when we were younger. It would be a rare life indeed that had not come across blocks and challenges along the way, a rare life indeed that did not include some sudden emergency stops and u turns along the journey. And that journey may indeed prove to be more peacable the more we hone our skills of acceptance of that which is. But in a Unitarian gathering like this we make an effort to view life from multiple perspectives and I want to end by questioning this teaching of acceptance. Aren’t there some issues in life that we should not consider accepting, because they are unacceptable. There are issues in life that need us to be shouting loudly about so that others can here. We probably each of us have our own list of what we cannot accept – mine includes the reality that people are dying because they lack clean drinking water, people are starving because wealthier nations have yet to find adequate ways to distribute foodstuffs where they are needed, people will be killed today by weapons made by British companies and the arms trade is one of the largest money makers in our world. You don’t need me to go on – you’ll all have lists of your own. So in the living of our own lives let’s keep honing our powers of acceptance, but in the life of the world – let us be vocal and active as we work together to build a world society of which we could feel proud – a world community that overcame its challenges and learned how to establish true equality. Amen
Carol: At the start of today’s service we had a picture of our advent wreath with its two candles lit – reminding us we are in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Every week we’ll be singing carols together – using recordings from our congregation’s carol services in previous years – so don’t be alarmed by the rustling and coughing – but we’re singing with much gusto in this recording and now we are here on Zoom you can join in too – with words to follow on our screen, and safe in the knowledge that we’ll all be muted – so why not give your neighbours an early alarm call and join in hark the herald angels sing – or just sit back and enjoy the music if you’d rather.
Announcements: And so some announcements: My thanks go to Jeannene and Jenny for the crucial background work of hosting today and to Sandra Smith our pianist and Abby Lorimier for her cello playing. 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, when we’ll be celebrating festivals of light. You’re also welcome to join our 10.30 coffee morning on Tuesday. NB mention talk on 10th December – International Human Rights Day “From Conflict to Unity – learning from Beacons of the Past” – hosted by International Organisation to Preserve Human Rights on the anniversary of Human Rights Day
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 the classic advent tune of hills of the north rejoice. Those of you with us on Zoom now might like to select gallery view on your screen so that we can all see each other for the closing words and enjoy a feeling of connection in community.
Closing Blessing: I mentioned in our announcements that this coming Thursday December 10th is designated as International Human Rights Day. I know it saddens many of us that such a noble human enterprise as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ratified in 1948 by the United Nations – a remarkable step forward for humanity – it’s chilling to know that the very term human rights is used in a dismissive and derogatory way by leaders in a number of countries today including our own. The Declaration contains 30 articles – stating for example everybody’s right to an education, a right to rest and relaxation and play, a right to free and fair voting in elections, a right to equality and a life without discrimination, the right to freedom of thought, of beliefs and religion, the right to equality before the law. And so I extinguish our chalice flame and send its light out into the world that the cause of human rights be upheld by both governments and individuals and that none of us turn away from injustices when we know they are taking place. Let us rather do all that we can do to shine a light on systemic wrongs and be part of the solutions rather than continuing the problems.
And as our calendar year draws to its close, may we all continue to find gracious ways to steer our lives through our many challenges, balancing the meeting of our own needs with the needs of our wider community that all might live well, and may this be so always for the greater good of all,
Amen, journey well all of you and blessed be.
Closing music: Hills of the north rejoice – played by Sandra Smith
Rev. Sarah Tinker
6th December 2020