Help! Thanks! Wow! – 10/01/21
Opening Music: Christian Rudolph – played by Peter Crockford (1.33)
Opening Words of Welcome: ‘This Hour of Worship’ by Carolyn S. Owen-Towle (adapted)
Let us enter into this hour of worship –
this time and space dedicated to
all that is most worthy in this life,
the depths and the heights of it all –
let us give our undivided attention
to what really matters, just for a while.
Come, bringing all of who you are –
all your busy thoughts and big emotions,
your complications and your contradictions –
rest and quiet your week-worn spirit, for you are here
to touch again eternal springs of hope and renewal.
Calm your hurried, harried, pace –
and claim this precious chance to find perspective –
for this hour let the cares, the fretfulness and worry be set aside.
Forgive yourself—you are so very worthy of moving on,
of making new efforts, of trying again – it’s a new day.
And know that you are not alone in all this.
There is strength and caring support for you here.
You will find comfort and kindness if you but ask. Look around.
You are a part of this community, if you choose it. You can make it what you will.
So let us join our hearts together as we enter into this precious hour of worship.
These opening words, loosely adapted from a piece by Carolyn Owen-Towle, welcome all those who have gathered on Zoom this morning to take part in our Sunday service. Welcome to members of the congregation, to friends and visitors with us today – joining us from all over the country and indeed all over the globe – and not forgetting those may be listening to our podcast, or watching this service on YouTube, at a later date. For those who don’t know me, my name is Jane Blackall, and having been part of the congregation for over 21 years I’m now the Ministry Coordinator with Kensington Unitarians, and also your ministry-student-on-placement, as part of my final year of training with Unitarian College.
If you are here for the first time today – a special welcome to you – I’m glad you made it! I hope you find something meaningful in the service, something that speaks to your condition. Please do hang around afterwards for a chat or drop us an email to introduce yourself if you’d like. And if you’re a regular here – thank you for all that you do to welcome all who come – even on Zoom, every single one of us plays a part in co-creating this community, this sacred space we hold, a place for comfort and challenge, for connection with that which is both within us and beyond us. So whoever you are, however you are, whatever state you woke up in this morning – even if you’ve not entirely woken up yet this morning (we are in hibernation season, after all) – you are welcome in this space, just as you are. Make yourselves at home, virtually speaking.
As we always say, feel free to do what you need to do to be comfortable this hour – for some of you that might mean keeping your camera switched off and lurking – that is totally alright by us. It’s lovely to see your faces and get a sense of who’s gathered here but there’s no compulsion. Similarly there’ll be opportunities to join in as we go along but these are very much invitations and not obligations. Nobody’s going to think any less of you if you’d rather keep your head down. I’ve been a sit-in-the-back row and hide kind of person for most of my life – can’t really get away with it this morning, mind – so I’m in no position to judge anyone else for keeping a low profile.
In this morning’s service we’ll be reflecting on the place of prayer in our daily lives – in all its varied forms – in particular we’ll be considering the ways in which a regular(ish) prayer practice (even quite a simple, modest one) might help us cope when life is hard, as it is for many right now.
Chalice Lighting: based on ‘The Persistent Flame’ by Amy Brooks
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 historic and progressive religious tradition of which this gathering is part.
(carefully take and light chalice – hold it up)
Even in these cold winter days of confinement,
as our homes seem to shrink smaller,
and our wicks burn lower,
and – perhaps – our will to endure flickers,
we light this chalice to kindle a symbolic flame of warmth
as a reminder of the connection that draws us in
to a community that opens us up
for the breath in our lungs
and the love in our hearts,
for the gift of this day, alive.
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 – each life touches so many others and we could easily keep lighting candles all day and never be done. 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 compassion and loving-kindness as we move into a time of prayer now. Let’s each do what we need to do to get ourselves into the right state of body and mind for it – maybe shift your position, intentionally adopt a prayerful posture – close your eyes or soften your gaze – whatever helps you get your heart in the right place, and to be fully present with yourself, each other, and that larger presence which holds us all.
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.
Let us speak plainly, and from the heart, in prayer;
tuning into our true feelings this morning, as best we can,
and laying them honestly before the One Who Listens with Endless Compassion.
There is no need for us to hold back, be restrained, or put on a brave face, before God.
Some of us are ever so weary right now, worn down and depleted by the pandemic;
some are fearful for the safety and well-being of ourselves and all those we care about;
some are lonely and troubled; some overwhelmed and confused; some frustrated and angry;
and all the other challenges that we ordinarily face in the course of life haven’t just gone away.
Some of us face the sickness and suffering of loved ones; some face money and housing worries;
some are dealing with conflict, and estrangement, as relationships come under increased strain. Still we are mindful of all those who are struggling in even tougher circumstances the world over.
And so, in a quiet moment now, let us bring to mind those situations, people, and places that are weighing most heavily on us right now, and inwardly pray for the help we long for.
(pause – 30s)
Despite it all, we might still find moments to treasure in our days, things to be grateful for:
for friends and lovers, reaching out to lift our spirits, and insistently remind us we are loved;
for family, neighbours, even strangers, looking out for one another, and showing solidarity;
for the technology that makes it possible for us to maintain our connections in times like these;
for the hard work and sacrifice of doctors, nurses, carers, scientists, teachers and childminders,
supermarket staff and delivery drivers, food bank volunteers, artists and entertainers, and so many others we could name; for the wintery natural beauty that still surrounds us; even for the new possibilities emerging, the new ways of seeing and being, from life turned upside down.
And, in another quiet moment, let us bring to mind those people, places, and experiences that have brought much-needed light to our lives, and inwardly give thanks for these gifts.
(pause – 30s)
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: ‘The Perfect Prayer’ by Vanessa Rush Southern [read by Chloë – VIDEO]
What is the best way to pray? I do not mean what is the best way to appease God, or the gods, but how do we put our hearts in the right place? Because, by my lights, that is the primary and best purpose of prayer.
Of course, the perfect prayer should probably be one of gratitude, at least partly, and maybe mostly. It has to be a re-grounding in all that is good, which we inevitably overlook when we get used to having it around. I read years ago that the average American now lives better than how 99.6 percent of human beings have lived in all recorded history. And the wine sold in any corner shop today is better than the wine French kings drank. For such lucky folks, though, we sure do whine a lot. So, gratitude has to be part of the praying.
If there is more to prayer than gratitude, then for me it would have to include the request that you and I be put to good use. It cannot be right to simply hand back to the world only what was handed to us, like the person in the biblical story who buries his talents rather than risking them in the world. Still, if you are like me, maybe you aren’t always sure just what would be the best use of your gifts. So a good prayer might ask for whatever hints the universe is inclined to dole out.
I would also pray that the people I love are kept safe. I suppose that sounds selfish, but I don’t believe that the One Who Listens is doing more to keep my team safe just because I ask for it. It is just that loving these people as much as I do makes me vulnerable. I imagine it does the same for most of us. And it seems only fair to ask for help in holding what could break us.
Finally, the perfect prayer, it seems, would have all kinds of surrender in it. It would ask that we find a way to be in each day without reservation, to use it up and delight in the embarrassment of beauty and riches cast before us by luck or chance or some lavish, numinous hand. I think for most of us it would ask for the chance to press forward, just a little, the arc of human wisdom and compassion and to recognise those chances when they come. Finally, exhausted and joyful for what that particular day has offered up, the perfect prayer, for most of us, would likely end with whispered hope for the chance to wake up and face it all again.
So may it be. Amen.
Meditation: ‘A Prayer of Not Knowing’ by Regina Sara Ryan
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 Regina Sara Ryan, a piece called ‘A Prayer of Not Knowing’, which speaks of praying when we don’t know how, expanding our sense of what prayer might be. These words will take us into a good few minutes of shared stillness, during which we’ll put our chalice-cam up on screen, in case you find it restful to watch the moving flame. And for our meditation music this week we have a chant will be familiar to some of you but probably not all: it’s a meditation on breathing – another form of prayer, perhaps – and one that I find very comforting and soothing to sing along with. The video I’ll show is from the Unitarian Universalist congregation of Phoenix, Arizona, and they’ve very kindly given permission for me to share it in our service today. It’s only short, so I thought I’d play it twice, if it’s unfamiliar perhaps you might just listen first time and join in second time around: The words are: ‘When I breathe in, I breathe in peace; when I breathe out, I breathe out love’.
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. Some words, then, from Regina Sara Ryan to take us into the silence: ‘A Prayer of Not Knowing’:
O God, I do not know how to pray.
Because I do not know what it means to pray properly,
to pray in such a way as to serve or worship,
I must offer what I have, and can do, as my prayer. And here it is.
Let this posture be the prayer
Let this intention be the prayer
Let this very not-knowing be the prayer
Let this breath be the prayer
Let this resistance and discomfort be the prayer
Let this distraction be the prayer
Let this drinking of tea be the prayer
Let this eating of breakfast be the prayer
Let this hectic schedule be the prayer
Let this attempt at Remembrance be the prayer
Let the steps walked in silence across the car park be the prayer
Let the birdsong noted be the prayer
Let this poor journal-writing be the prayer
Let the vastness of the night sky be the prayer
Let worrying, and then dropping the worry, be the prayer
Let chanting and dancing and reading be the prayer
Let dressing and undressing be the prayer
Let sleeping and rising and sleeping and rising be the prayer
Let missing someone be the prayer
Let memories and whispered calls for help for others be the prayer
Let opening the door and putting on and taking off shoes be the prayer
Let the keeping of simple order be the prayer
Let the celebration of light and darkness be the prayer
Let warmth and cold be the prayer
All of it, not bad, not good, just as it is and wondrous all of it… be the prayer.
O God, in my helplessness, from nowhere, with nothing,
let these poor prayers, as flowers, draw You
to the garden from which their fragrance arises.
Silence: [3 minutes silence with video of chalice]
Musical Interlude: ‘Meditation on Breathing’ by UU Congregation of Phoenix Video Choir (played twice)
Reflection by Jane:
The title of today’s service – ‘Help! Thanks! Wow!’ – is shamelessly nicked from Anne Lamott’s book. It’s subtitled ‘the three essential prayers’ and is based on the premise that asking for help, appreciating what is good in our lives, and having a sense of awe at the universe we find ourselves in, these three are vital practices to get us through the day – and the night – to help us find our way in life and orient ourselves towards what is most life-giving – especially when times are hard.
And – I don’t mean to bang on about it – but times have been pretty hard of late, haven’t they?
I’m big on prayer – I guess that’s no great surprise – but I am. At least in theory… but as with so many things in life, I confess, my actual prayer practice has been a bit hit-and-miss over the years. However, if there’s one positive thing I can say about the experience of living through 2020, it’s that it certainly pushed me into praying like never before. There’s nothing quite like that sense of disorientation that came with the world being upturned – the sudden sense of vulnerability, helplessness and lack of control – to make us acutely aware of our need to reach out for help from beyond. And there are many losses and upheavals in our lives that can take us to such hard places.
Anne Lamott has this to say on the prayerful cry that often arises in such desperate moments:
‘When my friends and I have run out of good ideas on how to fix the unfixable, when we finally stop trying to heal our own sick, stressed minds with our sick, stressed minds, when we are truly at the end of our rope and just done, we all say the same prayer. We say, “Help.” We say, Help, this is really all too much, or I am going slowly crazy, or I can’t do this, or I can’t stop doing this, or I can’t feel anything. Or, Help, he is going to leave me, or I have no life, or I hate the one I’ve created, or I forgot to have a life, or I forgot to pay attention as it scrolled by… Most good, honest prayers remind me that I am not in charge, that I cannot fix anything much, and that I open myself to being helped by something, some force, some friends, some something. These prayers say “Dear Some Something, I don’t know what I’m doing. I can’t see where I’m going. I’m getting more lost, more afraid, more clenched. Help”.’
So when we’re in a bad way, a tight spot, we might just find that prayer arises spontaneously. But how about cultivating a prayer practice intentionally? Making it an integrated part of our everyday life instead of something we only turn to as a last resort when things are desperate? In most religious traditions prayer, understood as communication with God, is central to the life of faith but – in my experience – Unitarians can sometimes seem to be a bit ambivalent about it. We pray, collectively, in our services – especially those of us who attend our regular ‘Heart and Soul’ spiritual gatherings which are really a Unitarian prayer group in disguise – and it may well be that many of us do have our own prayer practices but it’s not something we talk about much. Sometimes our – laudable – commitment to reason leaves us reluctant to wholeheartedly enter into prayer when we’re not sure who it is we’re praying to, or what it is we’re even doing, or why. It can leave us praying-with-the-handbrake-on, emotionally speaking, and not fully engaged.
If this sort of reservation about prayer resonates with you, perhaps the opening words of Anne Lamott’s book, the prelude which she titles ‘Prayer 101’, might be helpful:
‘You may be wondering what I even mean when I use the word “prayer”. Prayer is… communication from the heart to that which surpasses understanding. Let’s say it is communication from one’s heart to God. Or… to the Good, the force that is beyond our comprehension but that in our pain or supplication or relief we don’t need to define or have proof of or any established contact with. Let’s say it is what the Greeks called the Really Real, what lies within us, beyond the scrim of our values, positions, convictions and wounds. Or let’s say it is a cry from deep within to Life or Love, with capital L’s… let’s not get bogged down in whom or what we pray to… Prayer is us reaching out to something having to do with the eternal, with vitality, intelligence, kindness, even when we are at our most utterly doomed and sceptical. God [however we understand ‘God’] can handle honesty, and prayer begins an honest conversation… It is us reaching out to be heard, hoping to be found by a light and warmth in the world, instead of darkness and cold.’
Or even simpler than that, perhaps we can understand prayer in the sense that we heard about in the reflection that Chloë read for us earlier by UU minister Vanessa Rush Southern. The purpose of prayer, on this account, is to ‘put our hearts in the right place’. And what does that look like? Well, the different ways we might pray are almost limitless –we can be silent – or speak or chant – or write or draw – or pray with our whole body – we can pray alone or together – with rituals, like candle-lighting – spontaneously or by rote. Sometimes we can get snagged on one particular idea of what prayer is ‘supposed’ to look like, but there can be a joy in experimenting, being playful, and challenging ourselves to mix it up a bit.
Whatever form it takes, perhaps there’s a common thread of helping to shift our perspective – you could think of it as getting in touch with a ‘God’s Eye View’ of your life and the life of the world – tuning in to some kind of Universal Consciousness – or connecting with your own inner wisdom. Prayer is a practice that can help us shift ourselves out of everyday autopilot mode, and into a way of being that’s a bit more intentional, re-aligned with our deeper purpose and values. When we’re feeling a bit lost, or adrift, or stuck – all of which can happen quite often, I find – prayer might just remind us who we are, and whose we are, and what matters most of all in life.
It’d be remiss of me to get all the way through a service on prayer without at least giving a respectful tip of the hat to this little book, ‘Simply Pray’ by UU minister Erik Walker Wikstrom, which I’ve been banging on about for well over a decade now. The author puts aside those thorny questions of ‘who are we praying to?’ – that’s why the book’s called ‘Simply Pray’ – his is very much a ‘just do it’ approach – on the basis that the practice of prayer has value even if it ultimately turns out that the only person who hears our prayers is us (or, in the case of communal prayers, there is worth in the acknowledgement of our shared human condition).
Having carried out a comparative study of prayer practices in several major faith traditions Wikstrom concludes that there are four main strands of prayer that are common to all. He calls them ‘Naming, Knowing, Listening, and Loving’ – and these are terms that will be quite familiar to anyone who’s ever been to one of our Heart and Soul gatherings – as it’s the structure we’ve been using here for many years now to pray together as a group (Thanks Erik!) But I wanted to mention them today as – I reckon – they make a pretty good starting point for anyone wanting to experiment with a particularly Unitarian-friendly personal prayer practice. You might try sitting in bed last thing at night, or first thing in the morning, any quiet moment you can claim really, and just giving yourself ten minutes to go through the four strands of prayer – in your mind, in your journal, or spoken out loud – maybe together with someone you live with.
I’ll just briefly talk you through the meaning of ‘Naming, Knowing, Listening and Loving’ in case you want to try it out for yourself, but I do recommend the book (or coming to Heart and Soul!) Naming prayer is simply a gratitude practice – a mixture of Anne Lamott’s ‘Thanks!’ and ‘Wow!’ – reviewing your day and noticing what’s been good – whether that’s rather humble everyday pleasures or awe-inspiring moments of amazement at the cosmos and the wonder of creation. Knowing prayer is a practice of honest self-reflection – reviewing your own actions and attitudes – noticing where you did well, where you made mistakes – seeking guidance to put things right. Listening prayer is simply contemplative stillness – ‘a silence into which another voice may speak’. Loving prayer is bringing our awareness to the needs of others who are struggling and suffering, both close to home and around the globe, and expressing our compassion and hopes for them. Naming, Knowing, Listening, and Loving. There are many ways to pray but that’s not a bad start.
In a way, there’s simultaneously too much to say and nothing that can be said about prayer. We could have services for weeks and weeks exploring different angles… but nothing I can tell you is an adequate substitute for getting your feet wet. So I’m going to close with some words of encouragement from Martin Shaw of the West Country School of Myth and Story. He says:
‘Become a prayer-maker. Why? Because what you face in your life is bigger than you can handle. It is. Go to a place with shadows and privacy, and just start talking. There is some ancient Friend that wants to hear from you. No more dogma than that. Use your simple, holy, words. Then sit. Listen. Go for a walk. Let in. Then you fight like a lion for what you can affect, and you surrender the rest.’
How else could I end but: Amen.
Hymn: ‘Blessed Spirit of My Life’ (Unitarian Music Society)
Time for us to sing – together-but-apart! you know how it is on Zoom – today’s hymn is lovely, soothing, and prayerful – it asks for strength and serenity in times of stress and strife – and help to live out our values by showing care, comfort and compassion for those who are in need.
The words will appear on screen shortly and you can sing along with a recording by the Unitarian Music Society – and we’ll all have our microphones muted – so nobody will hear. Feel free just to listen, of course, if you’d rather.
Blessed Spirit of my life,
give me strength through stress and strife;
help me live with dignity;
let me know serenity.
Fill me with a vision;
clear my mind of fear and confusion.
When my thoughts flow restlessly,
let peace find a home in me.
Spirit of great mystery,
hear the still, small voice in me.
Help me live my wordless creed
as I comfort those in need.
Fill me with compassion,
be the source of my intuition.
Then when life is done for me,
let love be my legacy.
Thanks to Jeannene for hosting today, Chloë for our reading, Peter for the lovely music, also Benjie Messer, director of music with the UU Choir of Phoenix, Arizona for generously giving permission to share their video in today’s service, he sounded delighted about the connection.
As ever there are a number of opportunities to connect congregationally in the week ahead: Coffee morning 10.30 on Tuesday. Heart & Soul – on ‘Comforters’ – just two spaces tonight. This is our regular contemplative spiritual gathering – it’s a prayer group in disguise really! – so the ideal space to put into practice all the things we’ve been exploring in this morning’s service. Even if you’ve not been before it’s never too late to start – newcomers are always welcome. Don’t forget we’ll have virtual coffee-time afterwards, to 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.
Also wanted to mention that FUSE (Festival of Unitarians in the South East) is taking place online this year – £25 for a whole day of interesting workshops from friends across the district including Jef Jones from Brighton, Sheena Gabriel from Godalming, and our own Sarah Tinker. There’s going to be a seminar from poet and theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama – also a quiz – should be good. Most events are on Saturday 20th February. There’s a link to sign up in the weekly email. Even if you don’t sign up we’re hoping we’ll be able to go en-masse to the Sunday morning worship and join a district-wide service that weekend on Sunday 21st February – details as we have them.
We’ve just got some closing words now – a little longer than usual, it’s a benediction prayer for the days to come, freely adapted from words by Miklos Székely – and our closing music is a lovely well-known bit of Bach from Peter to play us out today. So I invite you to select gallery view at this point so we can all see each other for the benediction and get a sense of our community-and-connectedness as we close.
Closing Prayer: freely adapted from words by Miklos Székely
Spirit of Life and Love, All that is Good and True and Beautiful,
be with us each new day as we wake, O God.
Let us know the comfort of your presence
and the energising power of your calling.
Whatever we have to face, be it joy or sorrow,
give us strength to carry through the new day.
Give us to know that when we arise in the morning
we must give thanks for the morning light,
for life and strength, for we are still here.
We must give thanks for the gifts of living;
our food and our friends and so many small joys,
which might go unappreciated in the struggle of our days.
Give us hope – in doing your will – aligning ourselves
with the promptings of peace, justice, and love.
May the warmth of the fellowship we have shared
stay with us through this coming week and all it brings.
May we draw strength from the faith we hold and this
beloved community we are an indispensable part of.
May we show our faith by extending our compassion and care
to those we find challenging and struggle to understand.
May we find strength in humility, courage in adversity,
joy in diversity, and a true sense of purpose in our prayers.
And so, in the coming week, may our ears be open to
tidings of joy and gladness, to hints of new possibility.
O God of All Love and Mercy, bless and prosper the work of our hands,
for our life, and for the larger life, as you would see it,
the realm of love that is yet to come. Amen.
Closing Music: ‘Air on a G String (Bach)’ – played by Peter Crockford (3.07)
10th January 2021