All Will Be Well – 3/1/21

Opening Music: ‘Sheep May Safely Graze’ (Played by Sandra Smith)

Opening Words of Welcome: ‘A New Year for Beloved Community’ by Debra Haffner (adapted)

We gather together at the start of this New Year:
As people of many ages, with diverse bodies, in varied states of health and well-being;
As people of many orientations and identities, each with our own way of relating;
As people with differing degrees of financial security and precarity;
As people of many races, ethnicities, and countries of origin;
As people of many theologies and religious inclinations;
As people each with our own particular life story to tell.

Our stories are all woven together in our love for this community.
With our tentative hopes and dreams and prayers for the year before us.
With our hearts and minds and spirits ready to be touched by the year that is to come.
With our hands and time and talents ready to be given to
whatever the coming months may require of us.

We gather together at the start of this New Year
With gratitude and love for those who have come before us;
For those who are gathered here with us this morning;
And for those who may yet discover this spiritual home.
May it be a good year. May it be a sweet year, despite it all.
May it indeed be a Happy New Year for our beloved community.

Here we are gathered. So, come, let us worship together. (pause)

These opening words, adapted from a piece by Debra Haffner, 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 over 21 years now, and I’m also a ministry student in my third (and hopefully final) year of training with Unitarian College.

In this morning’s service we’ll be reflecting on Julian of Norwich’s famous saying ‘All Will Be Well’ and we’ll consider the comfort and challenge it might offer us through life’s many ups and downs. And there’s certainly no shortage of ups and downs for us all to contend with right now. I wonder what state you find yourself in in as you settle in for our zoom service this morning? What’s been on your mind and in your heart during the last week? How are you bearing up? Maybe some of us are full of beans; maybe some of us are really struggling and feeling low. Whoever you are, however you are, you are welcome in this gathering, just as you are. Perhaps there’s a lot of ‘stuff’ going on that’s hard to set aside for an hour to come to church. But here you are – you made it! – so why don’t we take a moment to fully ‘arrive’? Be Here Now. Let’s take a breath (–pause–) and perhaps park some of that ‘stuff’ we’re carrying, just for now. It’ll keep for an hour, while we turn our attention to matters of the spirit, and take the time to savour this sacred space we are co-creating with our presence, our commitment, and our care.

And in this hour, as we always say, feel free to do what you need to do to be comfortable. It’s absolutely fine to quietly lurk if you want to do that – you can keep your camera off – though of course it’s lovely to see everyone’s faces and get a sense of who’s gathered here. There’ll be opportunities to join in by speaking or singing as we go along too but if you feel like keeping your head down and your camera off this morning that’s absolutely alright by us.

Chalice Lighting: based on words by Molly Brewer

I’ll light our chalice now, 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.

I cannot pretend,
And so I will not tell you,
That everything is okay right now.
That there is no reason to be afraid, or angry, or disappointed.
That you must be optimistic, or be at peace.

I cannot pretend these things,
And so I won’t say them to you.
But now our chalice is lit, and so all I ask
in this moment is that we remember:
Despite it all, there is Love.
There is a Love holding us.
There is a Love holding all.

By the light of our chalice,
Let us rest in this Love.

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: incorporating ‘Psalm 23 for This Moment’ by Kevin Tarsa

This prayer incorporates a contemporary version of the 23rd psalm – a prayer that many people find familiar and comforting during hard times – this version is by the UU minister Kevin Tarsa. 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 holding presence within us and amongst us.

And let us bring, to this time of prayer, the whole unedited mess and muddle of our lives.
All those joys and concerns, gifts and needs, that are inter-woven through our days.
And let us bring the awareness that every living being has got their own mess and muddle.
So many people are carrying heavy burdens and are stretched beyond endurance right now.
All of us could do with a little comfort, at times, to make it through the day, and the night.
Each one would be glad of a little courage and strength, to help us do what needs to be done,
and help each other make it through, to survive and even thrive, in these challenging times.

And so, recalling the 23rd psalm, we pray:

May I remember in this tender moment
that Love is my guide, always,
shepherding me toward ways of openness and compassion.

I have what I need, really, with Love at my side,
above me, below me, in front of me, behind me,
inside every cell of me, Love infused everywhere!

Just when the weight of the world I inhabit threatens to drop me in place
and press my hope down into the ground beneath me
Love invites me to rest for a gentle while,
and leads the centre of my soul to the quiet, still,
restoring waters nearby that, somehow, I had not noticed.

And so, Love, quietly,
sets me once again on its tender and demanding path.

Even when the walls close around me
and the cries of death echo through untold corners,
gripping my heart with fear and sadness, I know…
I know that all will be well, that I will be well,
when Love whispers near to me, glints at the corner of my eye,
rests with gentle and persistent invitation upon my shoulders.

Yes, Love blesses me,
Even as the sources and symbols of my pain look on.
Love blesses me from its infinite well, and I turn and notice…
that goodness and kindness and grace, follow me everywhere, everywhere I go.

I live in a house of Love, Love that will not let me go.
I live in a house of love, and always will.

Let us take those words into a short time of shared stillness now.

(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: ‘All Will Be Well’ by Meg Barnhouse [read by Antony]

“All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.” This is one of the mantras used in the Christian meditation tradition. Don’t think it comes from a dewy-eyed Polyanna. The woman to whom it is credited, Dame Julian of Norwich, is the same one who, when her mule got stuck on a mountain road in a rainstorm, dismounted, shook her fist at the sky, and shouted, “God! If this is how you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you don’t have many!”

Lately I have been experimenting with repeating, “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.” I try it out in different situations. Sometimes I feel stupid affirming that all will be well. What about things that aren’t well and don’t look like they’re every going to be well? It’s hard to see the whole picture from where I stand at this moment in my life.

There is a story of a Chinese farmer who had a fin horse show up in his pasture one day. “How marvellous!” all the neighbours said. “Maybe,” said the farmer. His son tried to ride the horse and the horse threw him, breaking the son’s leg. “How awful,” said the neighbours. “Maybe,” replied the farmer. Then the Emperor’s army came through town to draft young men for war. The farmer’s son was spared because of his broken leg.

I can’t tell, in the grand scheme of life, whether things are turning out well or not. To affirm that “all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well” is difficult for me. There are child abusers and torturers and disease and oil spills and a multitude of other horrors in this world.

Here is what I do know. I know that I have a choice between hope or despair when viewing the world and my future. Each choice has evidence in its favour. Each is affirmed and underscored by my life experience. How do I decide between them? I choose the one that brings the most joy, the most healing, the most compassion to my life and to the world. In despair I’m no good to anyone. I stop functioning well, I drag through the days, I deal with horrors that haven’t even happened yet. I don’t enjoy my children, food, sex, or any of the other dazzling pleasures of my life.

When my mother was dying of cancer, she said to me, “Meggie, everything that happens to me is good.” That was a statement of her faith. I was a cynical twenty-three-year old seminary student. My mother’s faith sounded naïve and silly. I was in despair over her suffering, but she was not in despair, and it was her suffering. Suddenly it seemed presumptuous to despair over her suffering when she was choosing not to.

As I experiment with this mantra and risk feeling stupid, which is a feeling I despise, I ask myself, “Which is more stupid: to despair my whole life just in case things aren’t going to end well, or to live in joy and hope my whole life, whether or not things turn out well?” I’m going to keep singing this mantra to my fears. All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.

Reflection Leading into Meditation by Sarah:

Thank you Antony and thank you to UUA minister Meg Barnhouse for telling us of her own reactions to this saying, attributed to Julian of Norwich, ‘all will be well’.

I first met this saying when I was a teenager – in TS Eliot’s poem Little Gidding – the last of his major work The Four Quartets – where it comes frankly as a considerable relief after many long pages of dense, descriptive, at times gloomy or confusing writing. He’s not a light weight poet Eliot is he. But reading those famous last lines can still leave me tingling:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well

I discovered, as Meg Barnhouse did, that Julian of Norwich was no light weight either. As an anchorite, Mother Julian spent decades enclosed in a small space in the walls of a Norwich church. The thought of this still makes me shudder – but anchorites had someone to care for their needs. She would have had a cat to keep rats and mice at bay. She would have read extensively and received visitors, who could talk to her through a small hole in the wall. And when we think of the tumultuous century that the 14th century was – with revolts and warfare – and worst of all the Black Death plague – estimated to have killed half of the population of Norwich – to have someone calmly praying in the walls of a church must have been a comfort for people. Her mystic writings, Revelations of Divine Love, are impressive, and are regarded as the earliest surviving work written in English by a woman.

But Julian of Norwich’s most famous words – all will be well and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well, never sat comfortably with me. Years ago I went on a workshop where we were encouraged to create a mantra, a statement that could help us through the challenging times of our lives. My life, both at work and at home, was full of challenge at that point. I was sometimes physically afraid and very uncertain about the best ways forward. On that workshop I finally understood what for me wasn’t ‘right’ with Julian of Norwich’s ‘all will be well’. She was speaking of the future – and I needed support in the present moment. So the mantra I came up with that day became ‘All is well and I am at peace’. I’ve used it ever since and have experienced great comfort in knowing that all is well, sometimes despite everything. These words help me access wellspring of peace and resilience within me – whatever circumstances life lands me in.

I know some of you have sayings of your own that bring you comfort or resolve. I’m going to suggest that we each bring our favourite mantra or saying into a time of meditation now. I’ll say a few words to lead us into silence and that silence will end with Sandra’s piano version of Peter Cornelius’ piece Three Kings from Persian Lands Afar – which ends with the verse:

The Kings are travelling, travel with them!
The star of mercy, the star of grace,
Shall lead thy heart to its resting place.
Gold, incense, myrrh thou canst not bring;
Offer thy heart to the infant King. Offer thy heart.

It will soon be the Christian feast of Epiphany – let’s take that imagery of wise ones crossing the desert of life and our own onward journeying, into a time of meditation now. You might like to get yourselves comfortable, some people prefer to switch their cameras off, or simply soften your gaze. We’ll have a chalice flame to focus on here on our screens if that helps you turn inwards, adjusting our posture so we can rest easily, let those shoulders move up, then back and down and relax, straightening our spine, letting the breathing move down into the lower belly, and as we enter the fellowship of silence you might like to choose your own soothing mantra to repeat to yourself – ‘all is well and I am at peace’ or perhaps words from the version of the 23rd psalm Jane read earlier ‘I live in a house of love and always will’ – or some words of your own, our words fitting in with the rhythm of the breath, in silence together now.

Silence: [3 minutes silence]

Musical Interlude: ‘Die Drei Konige’ (played by Sandra Smith)

Reflection by Jane:

‘All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.’
Sarah expressed some unease about Julian of Norwich’s well-known saying earlier in the service, and it’s a saying which brings up rather mixed feelings for me too. There have been too many times when things have been hard and that phrase has been quoted at me – ‘All Will Be Well’ – and I’ve thought ‘Nah, mate. Too soon.’ Because for me, I think, it’s all in the timing.

Almost by definition, people trot out this phrase when all is clearly not well. When times are unusually hard. About eight months ago, as the first wave of Covid hit, quite a few congregations were doing services on this very topic and looking to Julian of Norwich for comfort and inspiration. So why’s it taken us so long to get round to it? One reason, perhaps, is that there’s something to be said for looking reality straight in the eye – feeling, acknowledging, naming the not-OK-ness – and saying a heartfelt ‘All Is Not Well’ before we rush to Julian’s famous words of consolation. And this is in keeping with an honourable religious tradition – the practice of lamentation – of honestly voicing our woes, and railing against the sufferings and injustices of our world.

If we are in too much of a hurry to tell ourselves that ‘All Will Be Well’, before we’ve fully faced up to horrible realities, it might make us less likely to usefully engage with that which is not well. Perhaps we might actually need to take some action in relation to the source of our suffering – to protect ourselves or others, to get help or support, to somehow get out of harm’s way – or perhaps it’s a situation where recognising that something is not well, really engaging with it, rather than burying our heads in the sand or waiting for someone else to come and fix it, might spur us to band with others to bring about social or political change and make things a bit better. For me, this stage comes first: facing up to what is not well and giving voice to our grief about it. To deny or minimise suffering does a kind of injustice to those who are going through it, I reckon.

And it seems that Julian herself might not have disagreed with me on this! Just a few months ago Matthew Fox published this neat little book [hold it up] titled ‘Julian of Norwich: Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic – and Beyond’ – referencing the fact, as Sarah mentioned earlier, that Julian lived through the time of plague which wiped out about 25 million people in Europe… so we might have quite a lot to learn from her right now. And, turns out, her starting point is not ‘All Will Be Well’ (although she does get there in the end). In this overview of Julian’s writing, the first chapter is titled ‘Facing the Darkness’, and Fox writes:

‘The first thing we must learn… is the bluntness and directness with which [Julian] faces suffering. She is teaching us not to sentimentalise, cover over, or (like many politicians) go into denial about the suffering we are undergoing as we face both the coronavirus and climate change. We should not run from the sorrow, fear, and grief, but we should stay connected to our feelings. Only the truth will make us free, and we must confront that truth directly. James Baldwin put it this way; “Not everything faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

So Julian encourages us not to run from the bad news or cut ourselves off from our distress. These can be the engines powering our creative response to the situation we find ourselves in. And it’s only in the last chapter of the book that Fox comes to Julian’s famous saying. He writes:

Julian’s most remembered refrain is that “all will be well, all manner of things will be well.” [But] Julian dismisses all wishful thinking and instead demands that we face the dark directly for what it is. At the same time, because she does not live exclusively in the world of human affairs, she is open to what lies deeper in us and what might come after the darkness of a pandemic… Who knows the possibilities that await a renewed humanity, one that has gone through the fire of the dark night together? Julian counsels us to face our lack of energy… and with it our despair, and feelings of helplessness. She encourages us to roll up our sleeves and get to work
– to both our inner work and our outer work, our spiritual work and our political work, our mystical and our prophetic work… we can see in Julian’s vision of the future not a naïve optimism or wishful thinking, or a spiritual bypass, but a deep call to action…. Our wellness as a species and the wellness of the earth itself… is relative to our waking up and doing the work.’

Now that’s an understanding of ‘All Will Be Well’ that I reckon I can get behind. It’s partly about doing the inner work – facing our despair and helplessness honestly – also choosing to notice what is still good in our lives and in life itself – the bits of well-ness that remain and which we can connect with, pay attention to, and be grateful for, even in the midst of such tough times. At the very least we can say ‘well, we’re still here’. And while there’s life, there’s hope. It’s also about doing the outer work though. Putting our shoulders to the wheel in whatever way we can to help make things better for others and to serve the common good. Right now that might include wearing masks and staying home; checking in with people who are isolated; employing a bit of critical thinking and challenging misinformation or denial you encounter; engaging in neighbourhood mutual aid schemes or supportive communities – like this one. This sort of outer work is love-in-action; and it’s not just virtuous in terms of benefitting society; in times when we feel helpless, doing something constructive is a form of meaning-making, a way to keep our own spirits up, and hold on to a deeper sense of purpose in our lives.

So perhaps we might see Julian’s words in a different light – not an overly optimistic prediction that everything will be alright in the happy-ever-after – but as a call to action. Let us commit to this inner and outer work and perhaps Julian’s words will come true: All will, indeed, be well. Amen.

Hymn: ‘One More Step Along the World I Go’ (Unitarian Music Society)

Time for us to sing – together-but-apart! you know how it is on Zoom – a cheery number for us today and one that I hope you’ll go singing into the rest of your day and through whatever the New Year may bring: ‘One More Step Along the World I Go’. It speaks of having a constant travelling companion with us through life’s ups and downs – God, perhaps, if God-language is meaningful for you – or you might like to think of it in more abstract or universal terms – either way, a source of comfort as we face each new day and encounter whatever life brings us next.

Don’t worry – Jeanenne’s going to make sure we all have our microphones muted for this bit – so you can belt it out safe in the knowledge that you won’t be broadcast. The words will appear on screen shortly and you can sing along with a recording by the Unitarian Music Society – or feel free just to listen and bob your head along in a jaunty fashion if you’d rather.

One more step along the world I go,
one more step along the world I go;
from the old things to the new,
keep me travelling along with you;
and it’s from the old I travel to the new,
keep me travelling along with you.

Round the corners of the world I turn,
more and more about the world I learn;
all the new things that I see
you’ll be looking at along with me;
and it’s from the old I travel to the new,
keep me travelling along with you.

As I travel through the bad and good,
keep me travelling the way I should;
where I see no way to go
you’ll be telling me the way, I know;
and it’s from the old I travel to the new,
keep me travelling along with you.

Give me courage when the world is rough,
keep me loving though the world is tough;
leap and sing in all I do,
keep me travelling along with you;
and it’s from the old I travel to the new,
keep me travelling along with you.

You are older than the world can be,
you are younger than the life in me;
ever old and ever new,
keep me travelling along with you;
and it’s from the old I travel to the new,
keep me travelling along with you.


Thanks to Jeannene for hosting today, Antony for our reading, Sandra for the lovely music, and of course Sarah! And also Meg Barnhouse – who wrote the reading we heard earlier – she’s also written a song called ‘All Will Be Well’ and she’s kindly given permission for Unitarians to show a video in services of her singing that song with Kiya Heartwood so that’ll be our closing music. Perhaps another one you’ll take to heart and keep singing for comfort in the days ahead!

As ever there are a number of opportunities to connect in the week ahead:
Coffee morning 10.30 on Tuesday. Heart & Soul – on ‘Trust’ – just one or two 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 next week on Zoom at 10am. It’s fine to share the zoom link with trusted others.

A personal announcement from me: Many of you know I’m in the final year of ministry training and as part of that training students have to spend time with a congregation on placement. Normally you’d go to somewhere that nobody knows you but given the unusual circumstances I’ve been given special permission to do my placement here on home turf. So from today and through spring you might occasionally see some of my tutors popping in to keep an eye on me. Additionally – as you probably saw in the email – now that we’re moving into this transition period without a minister I’m going to be organising our services, so you’ll see a bit more of me on Sundays, from time to time I’ll be asking for your help with congregational services, and we’ll have occasional guest preachers not least Sarah who we’ll be seeing at least once a month. So in view of all that my job title has changed to ‘Ministry Coordinator’ and I’ll be your main point of contact in relation to congregational activities. We’ll let you know more as we work it all out!

Now, I know Juliet has got an announcement for us, so I’m going to hand over to her for that.

[Juliet to announce the collection for Sarah’s retirement gift]

[Sarah to respond to whatever Juliet has said and move into closing words]

[Sarah to suggest that people switch to gallery view for the closing words]

Closing Words:

Jane is extinguishing our chalice flame for us, but the warmth of this community continues and spreads out to a world so in need of connection and compassion.

Let us be gentle companions for one another in the days ahead

Let us reach out to those who may feel isolated or troubled

And do what we can to bring love to all our dealings,
with gratitude in our hearts for this gift of life we share.

Amen, go well and blessed be.

Closing Music: ‘All Will Be Well’ by Meg Barnhouse and Kiya Heartwood

Jane Blackall and Sarah Tinker

3rd January 2021