Feeling Good? – 17/01/21
Opening Music – ‘Do what most kindles love’ – Chalice Meditation
Opening Words and Chalice Lighting – into candles of joy and concern
Look to this Day! For it is Life, the very Life of Life.
In its brief course lie all the verities and realities of your existence.
The bliss of growth, the glory of action, the splendour of beauty;
For yesterday is but a dream, and tomorrow is only a vision;
But today well lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness,
and every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well therefore to this day!
Our opening words ‘Look to this day’ were written by Kalidasa (pronounced Kalidaas) a 5th century Sanskrit poet of the 5th century AD. And they bid each and every one of you welcome here to this Sunday gathering in the virtual realm of Zoom in mid-January in the year 2021.Our service title is Feeling Good? And that’s ‘feeling good’ followed by a question mark. For many of us I imagine are not feeling at our best as we live through this time of pandemic – which started way back last March in lovely spring weather – and now we find ourselves in a cold wet January – and still we must keep our distance and restrict our movements in order to keep one another safe.
And we gather, apart and yet together with others, gathering as people have always done, to bring one another good cheer, to support one another, to re-kindle connections forged by love. And so here we are on this January morning, bringing as we must do, all the stuff of our lives – the joys, the worries, both emptiness and fullness, happiness and sadness, determination and uncertainty – it’s all here with us now, for we carry life with us – precious cargo and great burden as it may feel at different times.
So let’s take a moment to acknowledge to ourselves how we are feeling at this moment, let’s think of the journey that’s brought us here – the life journey that reminds us it’s worth getting up and gathering with others, that life has more to offer when it’s shared with others. And let’s remind ourselves and in so doing remind one another, that all are welcome here, whoever you are, however you are, whatever has brought you here, let’s encourage each other to be who we truly are, here in community, one with another.
And our online community of Kensington Unitarians, is created not just by those of you who are with us this morning here on Zoom but also by a goodly bunch of podcast listeners around the world and those of you who will watch this gathering on a video some time in the future – so a warm welcome goes out to future listeners. For those of you who are here now do please join in this gathering in a way that’s right for you – there’ll be an invitation to join in lighting candles and later to sing our hymn, but it’s fine simply to sit back and listen. And though we love to see your faces I know for some people it’s more restful to turn off your video. Do what feels right for you.
As I light our chalice flame, connecting us with a worldwide Unitarian and Unitarian Universalist community, may it remind us of our human need for one another. May this flame represent our human yearning for the warmth of companionship – for we are social creatures and we are nourished by one another. May this flame made sacred by the meaning we bring to it, also signify our remarkable human ability to go beyond ourselves and sense that each of us is part of a far greater life force, that runs through all existence. We need never feel alone.
Each week when we meet – in our building in Notting Hill or here in our online congregation, we share candles of joy and concern, where we invite one another to light a candle and share something that is in our heart. So here in our Zoom service we’ve a good few minutes now for some of you to tell us of a joy or a concern, and to light a candle, real or imaginary – visitors you are most welcome to join in. When you are ready to speak you can unmute yourself and speak out so everyone can hear and then re-mute yourself when you’ve finished speaking. Do give it a go if you’d like to, as it’s good to hear some other voices, and let’s stay aware of how long we’re speaking for so others have chance to speak too. And I suggest we each now switch to gallery view on our own screens if we can, so we can see everyone. Jenny our host and I will do our best to spot if you want to speak and can’t unmute yourself.
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 hearts today – for our joys and our griefs weave us together in the fabric of community. Our lives are connected. Let’s take a moment now to think of the matters we have heard spoken of this morning… these glimpses into one another’s lives and the life of our wider world… and let’s hold those issues – and each other – in loving compassion as we move into a time of prayer now. Let’s each do what we do to get ourselves into the right state of body and mind – maybe find a position that helps you focus – close your eyes or soften your gaze – whatever encourages you to be fully present with yourself, with each other, and with that larger presence which holds us all.
Prayer and Reflection
And so as we join together in a time of prayer and reflection blessed and inspired by the spirit of life and love, I invite you to find a feeling of gratitude in your heart right now – even if life is treating your harshly at this time – is there something for which you can say to yourself – ‘thank you, I am grateful for this’.
In the midst of life’s challenges for ourselves individually and our global community collectively, can we still find moments of feeling good – almost despite everything? Some joy, some sense of hope, some small humorous occurrence, some kindness shown, tiny shoots of new spring growth in the midst of bleak winter?
How shall we listen to the stories of our world community this day? How best might we expand our thinking beyond right and wrong, beyond goodies and baddies, beyond our preferences and opinions, our need to take sides, to a deeper understanding that knows the place where we are all one – all expressions of one light, one love, one humanity, the remarkable diversity amidst our oneness.
And what causes stir us to stand up against the crowds of indifference and apathy, what inspires us to shout out to one another the reminder that ‘we could be more than this’, that humanity could live more beautifully and generously?
In stillness now let us direct the thoughts and prayers of our hearts to those we hold in love and care as well as those we find more difficult to love – those we disapprove of or fear perhaps.
May we truly understand love’s ability to transcend all differences, may the transcending love found in each of our hearts help in the healing of our world this day and all days.
And to that aspiration let us if we so wish each say Amen, that so may it be.
And now let me hand over to David Talbot who has today’s reading for us about our human ability to experience a sense of awe and wonder in life.
Journalist and author Oliver Burkeman is well known for writing about the ways we might live more fulfilled lives in an ‘age of bewilderment’ – as he describes life today. I’m going to read just a few extracts from an article he wrote about feelings of awe and wonder – headlined – Awe: the powerful emotion with strange and beautiful effects.
Burkeman starts by describing a recent incident where he got lost whilst hiking in the French Pyrenees. He knew he wasn’t seriously lost – he still had a functioning phone with him. But he was and I quote – ‘just lost enough to feel the first frisson of something like fear: enough to be reminded that mountain ranges are very large and solid things, whereas I am a tiny and fragile thing, and that it takes a vanishingly small amount of effort on the part of a mountain range to kill a human.’ Burkeman’s article goes on:
I say “something like fear”, incidentally, because the experience wasn’t wholly unpleasant: the frisson had a distinctly pleasurable component. Actually, there’s a word for this combination of terror, euphoria and smallness in the face of vastness, which constitutes the oddest and least understood of emotions: awe. If you’re anything like me, you probably don’t need psychological research to convince you that you need more awe in your life: merely watching the BBC’s Planet Earth or the film The Cave of Forgotten Dreams ought to do the trick. But here’s some psychological research for you anyway: a recently published study found that… feeling awe in the face of overwhelming natural environments is associated with more “pro-social” behaviours of generosity and kindness.
In one part of the study, participants who spent time looking upwards at high eucalyptus trees were more likely to help a researcher who had dropped some equipment than were those who looked at a building. In another, watching clips from Planet Earth triggered more altruistic attitudes. “By diminishing the emphasis on the individual self”, researcher Paul Piff was quoted as saying, “awe may encourage people to forgo strict self-interest to improve the welfare of others.”
Perhaps it’s not surprising that awe has strange effects on us; after all, it’s a pretty strange phenomenon. The late psychologist Paul Pearsall – who did much to campaign for its recognition as an additional “official” emotion, alongside mainstream psychology’s accepted ones – Pearsall noted that awe cannot be categorized as wholly negative or positive: the mixture of the two is fundamental. Awe isn’t provoked only by experiences we’d categorize as positive: glorious natural scenes prompt awe, but so can the recognition of mortality brought about by the diagnosis of a potentially fatal disease. Pro-social attitudes were associated with awe felt in the presence of natural beauty and natural disasters. Both are vivid reminders of the smallness of the individual self.
I admit to feeling a little ambivalence about the burgeoning psychological research on awe – which has been found to boost creativity, improve physical immunity and enhance the sense of having an abundance of time. I can’t help but feel a tension between awe itself – predicated on humility in the face of ungraspable vastness – and the attempt to pin that vastness down, to render it tame by understanding it.
That said, most of us spend much of our lives trying, in one way or another, to get the world under control, to make reality predictable and explicable and non-intimidating. So it probably can’t hurt to have researchers remind us of the vast emotional rewards that come from realizing we never will.
We’ve come now to a time of meditation. You might like to have a bit of a stretch and get as comfortable as you can – some people like to switch off their cameras for this section, perhaps have a lie down – or put your feet flat on the floor if you’re sitting and enjoy that sense of mother earth beneath us, holding us steady, anchoring us – maybe close your eyes or gently focus on the chalice flame that we’ll show in a video after these introductory words.
Our service theme today is Feeling Good and after a few word from me we’ll hold a minute in silence together and then we’ll be hearing our friend Benjie Del Rosario playing the jazz classic with that title, made famous by Nina Simone. As Benjie plays his lovely slow and gentle clarinet version of this song, you might like to think of what feeling good is for you – but as always, feel free to think your own thoughts, and meditate in your own way – our suggestions are just suggestions. So let’s settle ourselves for meditation, allowing the gentle rhythm of our breathing to calm and still us as I read those Feeling Good lyrics that you might know:
Birds flying high you know how I feel
Sun in the sky you know how I feel
Breeze driftin’ on by you know how I feel
It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life
And I’m feeling good
Fish in the sea you know how I feel
River running free you know how I feel
Blossom on the tree you know how I feel
It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life
And I’m feeling good
Dragonfly out in the sun
You know what I mean, don’t you know
Butterflies all havin’ fun
You know what I mean
Sleep in peace when day is done
That’s what I mean
And this old world is a new world
And a bold world
Stars when you shine you know how I feel
Scent of the pine you know how I feel
Oh! freedom is mine
And I know how I feel
It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life
And I’m feeling good
Chalice video with silence and then Benjie playing
Address: Feeling Good?
I wonder how you’ve been feeling this week? If you had to place your mood on a scale of 0 to 10 I wonder what number you’d choose to describe how you are feeling. Have you been very much in one sort of mood or have you been experiencing one of those o so human rollercoaster rides of highs and lows, your mood swinging according to circumstances and even the weather – both internal and external? Here in London it’s been grey and cold and wet a lot of the time – and that makes me very aware of how light affects me – because we’ve had some beautiful sunsets in the last few weeks and I’ve really noticed them. Have you?
Our theme today is Feeling Good? – with a question mark. That Nina Simone song we heard Benjie playing for our meditation has been with me all week. It all started with a documentary I watched about Nina Simone’s life. It’s a moving story and I’d recommend it to you. She had wanted to study classical music – she was a fine classical pianist from an early age. But in those days getting a place at a prestigious music college was not easy for a young black woman. And indeed Simone’s whole life was filled with challenges of one sort or another, not least of which being her own mental health. But what a performer. What remarkable talent. In the documentary we heard and saw her performing Feeling Good at the height of her powers and her popularity. Well – popularity in some circles anyway – she became very involved with the civil rights movement and that song became one of its anthems – proclaiming as it does the joy of freedom – the freedom of rivers and birds – and humans – if they are allowed to be free and to have equal rights. The documentary showed Simone at a later stage of her life – when things were tough and she was scraping a living playing in jazz clubs in Paris. When she played Feeling Good then it sounded more like Feeling Good? With a question mark. Feeling Good, knowing all too well how easy it is to feel bad, to feel very low indeed – yet with an ability to find moments of joy and energy even in the direst of circumstances.
In the reading we heard from David earlier on, when Oliver Burkeman is describing our human experience of awe in moments both wonderful and terrible, I knew what he meant. Haven’t many of us had life experiences that have been shocking, frightening, life changing – but not in a good way – and had that sense of transcendence – of being taken out of our small selves – experiencing a moment of knowing that we are tiny and insignificant and yet part of something so much greater than ourselves – life itself.
Some of us joined St Ethelburga’s the other week for their SoulSpace service – and were moved when their chaplain Dave Tomlinson read us this piece from the work of Viktr Frankel.
Viktr E Frankel was imprisoned by the Nazis. He lived to tell of his experiences and worked as a psychotherapist with a particular interest in our human search for meaning and purpose in life. Here is how Dave Tomlinson introduced the piece: Viktr Frankel tells of an afternoon in one of the camps when the men had tramped back from their worksite and were lying sick and exhausted and hungry in their barracks. It was winter and they’d marched through a cold and dispiriting rain. Suddenly one of the men had burst into the barrack and shouted for the others to come outside. Reluctantly, but sensing the urgency of the man’s voice they stirred themselves and staggered into the courtyard. The rain had stopped and a bit of sunlight was breaking through under the lumpy leaden clouds and it was reflecting on the little pools of water standing about on the concrete floor of the courtyard. ‘We stood there’ Frankel said, ‘marvelling at the goodness of the creation. We were tired and cold and sick. We were starving to death. We’d lost our loved ones and never expected to see them again. Yet there we stood, feeling a sense of reverence as old and as formidable as the world itself’.
I don’t know about you but that description reminds me that we too have the ability, the possibility of really feeling – in the very core of our being, such a moment as sunlight reflected in puddles of rainwater in the difficult times we’re experiencing. Because let’s not pretend otherwise – these are difficult times for many of us – fortunate though we may know our lives to be. So if there’s a message here today, I think it’s that we must do what we can to notice and appreciate potential moments of awe and wonder. And let’s share those moments with others – because they can be shared. Having read Viktr Frankel’s description of the setting sunlight reflected in puddles on the concrete in a concentration camp yard – I’ll be on the look out for sunshine this week – just in case it manages to break through the clouds.
And I wanted to share with you two moments I’ve had recently that really lifted my spirits. The first is what I’m now called a ‘weasel moment’ and a weasel is indeed going to appear now on our screens. This actually isn’t my weasel – because weasels move very quickly and are notoriously hard to photograph. But on a walk by the Thames in Essex last week I think we saw two weasels, darting in and out of the rocks on the foreshore. And one of them took just a second or two to stop and look at us – with beady eyed curiosity and ears cocked forward. Talking to other people I now realise how fortunate I’ve been in life because this was the third time I’ve seen a weasel. And I hope all of us can enjoy some precious moment of connection with the creatures we share this planet with.
Our next slide shows a creature we’re unlikely to encounter here in London – a Sulawesi warty pig. This picture shows my favourite news story of the week – did you read about this in the news? It’s a life size image found in a cave on a remote Indonesian island and the image is said to be some 45,500 years old – the oldest example of representational art found so far. When I read this story, I was taken back to our ancient ancestors, who took the time and the trouble to draw a warty pig on a wall – so beautifully, so realistically – and so well – that it has lasted all these years. That length of time between that artist and us – that artist that left two carefully created handprints – made by spraying pigment around a hand placed high on the wall – all this engenders a sense of awe in me. It puts the struggles of our time into perspective. It helps me to feel good. And my hope for us all is that we’ll all have some of those feeling good moments in the week ahead. Amen
Time for us to sing – and our hymn today is a cheering one, seeking the energies of our planet earth home to help us through our days – it’s sung to a Scottish folk tune and this week we are going to follow the singing of David Kent from Leicester Unitarians – the words move from one side of the screen to the middle so you might just need to move your little row of faces if you can still see some of us when we show a video. As always we’ll be muted so you can sing out loud if you want or simply sit back and listen if you’d prefer.
Thanks to Jenny and John for the vital task of hosting today, to David Talbot for our reading, thanks to Leicester Unitarians and David Kent for their help with music today and to Benjie Del Rosario for playing Feeling Good and to Abby Lorimier for recording our closing music today.
As ever there are a number of opportunities to connect congregationally in the week ahead: Coffee morning 10.30 on Tuesday. Heart & Soul – on ‘Be Not Afraid’ – just a few spaces available for tonight, I think Friday is fully booked now but do contact Jane in case she can squeeze you in. Anyone new to Heart and Soul is especially welcome.
Make a note of the next West London GreenSpirit group gathering – 3pm on Monday 1st February when we’ll be marking the Celtic spring festival of Imbolc – honouring the goddess through St Brigid and her holy wells – helping us connect with our own wellsprings of hope and inspiration.
Do stay after the service if you’d like as we’ll be having a chat as a whole group today rather than in breakout rooms. 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 for a congregational service on the theme of ‘Something Changed’ – led by Jane Blackall with reflections by Brian Ellis, John Humphreys, Veronica Needa. It’s fine to share the zoom link with trusted others.
We’ve just got some closing words now – – and our closing music is a lovely well-known hymn: Tis a gift to be simple – played for us on the cello by Abby Lorimier. So I invite you to select gallery view at this point so we can all see each other and enjoy a sense of our connectedness in community as we close.
I extinguish our chalice flame yet the warmth of this community travels onwards within the heart of each and every one of us. Let’s take a moment to sense the connections that can stay with us throughout the coming week, reminding us that life is a precious gift and that sparks of awe and wonder can be lit in the least promising of circumstances. It is our awareness in the present moment that can illuminate the darkest of times, can help us discover wellsprings of possibility and resilience within ourselves. And remind us once more of the miracle of consciousness, the miracle of life and love, amen, go well all of you and truly blessed be.
Closing Music: Cello – tis a gift to be simple
Rev. Sarah Tinker
17th January 2021