To Plan or Not to Plan? – 28/02/21
Opening Music: by Abby Lorimier and Rachel Spence (1.20)
Opening Words of Welcome: ‘The Bright Thread of Hope’ by Gretchen Haley (slightly adapted)
There is too much beauty in this world to give up on it yet,
and it is always too soon to surrender to cynicism.
Bring your doubt, your scepticism
your downright confusion
even your bitterness –
but in the midst of all these, in the centre,
wrap your tender fingers around that still “bright thread of hope,”
feel in your heart that still steady hunger for something more,
the vision we glimpse every day
in the rising sun across the rooftops
the light that spreads across the face of one we love
the look of knowing all there is to know
and still loving life, loving us
just as it is, just as we are.
For this hour we come to celebrate, to praise,
to give thanks, to refuse to give up, to steady ourselves;
keepers of hope, brave builders of this still-possible world.
So come, let us worship, together.
These opening words, adapted from Unitarian Universalist minister Gretchen Haley, welcome all 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 ‘live’ 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. Today I’ll be co-leading our service with Jeannene Powell, who’ll be a familiar and friendly face to most of you here today, a regular zoom host, and all-round pillar of our congregation!
If you are here for the first time today – a special welcome to you – I’m glad you’re here! 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 each week – showing up for each other is a beautiful thing – and showing up for your own spiritual life too. Every single one of us plays a part in co-creating this community, this sacred space we hold.
So whoever you are, however you are, whatever’s on your mind and heart this morning – you are welcome in this space, just as you are – please bring your whole self to church today. As we always say, feel free to do what you need to do to be comfortable this hour – it’s always lovely to see your faces in the gallery and get a sense of the gathered community – but we know for some it will feel more comfortable to keep your camera mostly-off and that’s absolutely fine. Similarly there’ll be opportunities to join in as we go along but these are very much invitations, not obligations. We hope you’ll say hello some time – but you can quietly lurk with our blessing.
In this morning’s service we’ll be reflecting on the question: ‘To Plan or Not to Plan?’ In the week when the British government has announced the roadmap for bringing England out of lockdown – Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, as devolved nations, have got their own arrangements – in the week when this news has perhaps begun to raise cautious hope of a happier summer we’ll be reflecting on the place of planning in our lives. What might we have learned from this past year – a year of much uncertainty and disappointments – when plans repeatedly went out the window – about the times when it makes sense to plan and times when we might do better to play it by ear?
Chalice Lighting: ‘A Safe and Sacred Space’ by Jane Blackall
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)
The lighting of this chalice calls us to attention –
as we focus on its flickering light for a moment
let us recall the shared intention that it represents –
to make this a safe and sacred space for prayer and sharing
in which we can re-connect with life’s depths and our highest aspirations –
a community of solidarity and trust to nurture and strengthen us for the days of our lives.
May this little candle be a beacon that lights the way,
guiding us through these still-uncertain times,
and inspiring each of us to paths
of peace, justice, and 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 – 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.
Prayer: based on words by Linda Hart
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.
You are with us always – in our joy, in our sorrow,
in our triumphs, and when our grand plans fall flat –
when all we do just seems to turn to mud and loss.
Open our eyes, our hearts to what is around, in the midst of
the struggle, illumine the wisp of truth that resides there, too;
in the midst of our failures, give us the strength and the courage,
to see what can be learned, to use what we have gathered.
Though we may pray that unguarded prayer
for life without trouble, without worry,
without all the difficulties and disasters,
hear the deeper prayer beneath that prayer:
that we might sift the events of our days
and offer our thanksgiving – despite it all –
for what can be gained,
for what can be celebrated,
if it is only thanks for that which sustained us,
if it is only for the lesson in humility and compassion,
if it is only for the relief at the end.
May we be renewed in our search
to find the gifts of our life moment on moment,
that we may live in gratitude, in compassion, and in love. (short pause)
And in a quiet moment now, let us look back over the week just gone,
to take stock of it all – the many everyday cares and concerns of our own lives –
and concentric circles of concern rippling outwards to the many lives which touch our own.
Let’s take a little while to sit quietly in prayer with that which weighs on our hearts this day.
(pause – 30s)
And let us also take a moment to notice all the good that has happened in the past week –
moments of uplift and delight; beauty and pleasure; all those acts of generosity and kindness.
There’s lots to be grateful for. So let’s take a little while to sit quietly in prayer and give thanks.
(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
Hymn: ‘Blessed Spirit of My Life’ (Unitarian Music Society)
In response to popular demand we’re experimenting with having two hymns in our services – even though it’s not quite the same as singing together in person – lots of us enjoy a good sing. And our first hymn today continues the prayerful mood: it’s ‘Blessed Spirit of My Life’ sung for us by the Unitarian Music Society. The words will appear on your screen in a moment so that you can sing along – or you might just prefer to contemplate the words and take them to heart – we’ll do our best to make sure you’re all muted so if you do sing along nobody else will hear you.
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.
Reading: ‘Next!’ by Barbara Merritt (read by Antony Bunsee)
My friend Steve claims that his philosophy of life has finally been simplified to the extent that it could be expressed in one word. “Next!” Whatever the challenge in his life might be, he wants to be ready to meet it. Whatever he wakes up to, whether in his professional life, relationships, errands, or health conditions, Steve wants to have the same poise and balance as a man behind the bakery or deli counter, welcoming his next customer with the friendly greeting, “Next!”
Next! What bewildering, demanding assignment has life given me to accomplish today? What completely outrageous problem must I find a way to solve? Whether it’s a leak in the plumbing, a funny noise in the car engine, or the realisation that it is no longer possible to put off paying the bills, I like the idea of simply facing the task that presents itself. All that is required is an open heart, a curious mind, and a willingness to engage with reality.
There are, of course, alternative ways to view the world. One of my personal favourites is to hope each morning when I open my eyes that the day will go smoothly. (Smoothly being defined as nothing interfering with my pre-existing plans, no unpleasant delays, and especially no events that make me aware of my dependency or limitations).
If you approach daily life with the expectation that nothing ought to interfere with your own predilections and preferences, you are likely to resist and reject much of what happens. Resisting what is real, fighting with reality, getting angry and depressed with “what is” is an exhausting and, ultimately, losing battle. Reality has a persistent way of showing up on your doorstep. You can waste a whole lot of time wishing reality were simpler, less demanding. But the ever-changing circumstances of this life keep presenting themselves to us. The critical question is “How will we respond?”
I don’t have the temperament or the religious maturity to greet every challenge with peaceful composure or to delight in whatever is God’s will. I don’t have the unselfishness or the trust to welcome each new disruption with an optimism that declares “this too can be conquered… or made workable.”
But I love the image of someone behind a counter yelling out, “Next!” – determined to offer what service and talent are available when a new proverbial customer appears. As I get older, I find I must ask life’s challenges to get in line and take a number! I fully expect that some of the “customers” will be difficult and some will bring a gracious blessing. Some of the changes ahead will bring astonishing new life. Some will break my heart. And when one challenge appears to have been met and fully addressed, I am confident that the next challenge is waiting in the wings.
Euripides wrote 2,500 years ago, “All is change, all yields its place and goes.” Then we find ourselves face-to-face with the mystery of whatever comes next.
Meditation: ‘The Best Laid Plans’ by Jeannene Powell
Making plans in many ways is something that’s universally important to us, so there are numerous quotes with various perspectives about our plan making, from social activist Gloria Steinem’s saying, “Without leaps of imagination or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all is a form of planning,” to the line from Robert Burns’ famous poem, “The best-laid schemes of mice and men, go oft awry,” or writer and cartoonist Allen Saunders quote, which was popularised by John Lennon and says, “Life is what happens to us, while we are making other plans.”
As we head into our shared silence now, I’m going to invite you to remember two occasions when you’ve made plans. This will be followed by a few minutes of shared silence with our lit chalice video, and the silence will be ended by Abby and Rachel playing some gentle music for us. And as always, feel free to follow as much or as little of my words as feels right for you.
You might want to get yourself into a comfortable position now, in your chair or laying down, wherever you are, maybe resting your hands in your lap, or laying them beside you.
I invite you to take some breaths, allowing your exhale to be slightly longer than your inhale, releasing any tension, and just bringing your attention here and if you want to, you can close your eyes, or soften your gaze.
As you continue to breathe, allow each breath to relax you a little bit more and to turn your attention inwards.
I invite you to briefly think of a time when you made a plan of some kind, which went smoothly. It could be a big thing, like planning an event or outing, or something small like planning to ring a friend, whatever this thing was, things went like clockwork maybe you even had a sense of things easily, “falling into place.” What was that like for you?
Now remember a time when you made a plan, but this time, it didn’t go according to how you’d scheduled, but instead ended up working out even better, maybe having arranged to visit somewhere, and delays on your travel meant you arrived later than planned, but due to this were able to catch a spectacular sunset or something else.
And I invite you to just allow your memory of this experience to lead you into our time of companionable silence now.
Silence: 3 minutes silence accompanied by chalice video
Musical Interlude: by Abby Lorimier and Rachel Spence (2.00)
Address: ‘To Plan or Not to Plan’ by Jeannene Powell
I don’t know about you, but I love making plans. With my Celebrancy work and couples reserving their venue, a year to 18 months in advance, they’d be dates booked in my diary reaching far into the future.
And previously, when we had services in our church building, focused around a monthly theme, Jane, Sarah and I would meet once a year to sketch out what themes we’d have spanning the 12 months before us. We’d have a plan. We’d have a rough idea of what we’ be covering and where we were going. Our basic course was plotted, with various new dates added to the diary, in order to meet up again and flesh out the details for our service ideas.
And there was a type of safety and security in this. Both we as a team organising worship, and everyone as a congregation, could have a firm sense of what was coming next.
And then at the start of last year, as we know, came the impact of Covid-19, shutting our church, and putting a stop to weddings and celebratory events. Like many of us, I suddenly found myself having to deal with putting lots of plans on hold, or abandoning them entirely.
As we’ve all experienced I’m sure, there have been disruptions to various plans, be they practical, such as fixing a date to meet a friend at a café, only for another lockdown to suddenly be announced, bringing our arrangements to an abrupt full stop.
Or emotional and mental. For instance, imagining how you and your friend would spend time at the café, which is quite a natural thing for us to do. Maybe you’d hope for a sunny day, meaning you’d both sit outside, chatting together having meaningful conversation, sharing laughter and really enjoying each other’s company. And then on the day the weather’s cloudy and rain means you have to sit inside, you both talk about superficial things and your friend is in a sombre, not jokey mood. It isn’t at all as you envisioned it would be.
When things don’t go as planned, we can feel many things – even if we understand the reasons why. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s ever felt disappointment, frustration, loss or sadness, when plans went awry. Or annoyance and anger, when things were forced to change at short notice.
You may have identified with some of these feelings yourself.
Over the past year, there’s been a sense of collective societal limbo due to uncertainty about when things could happen again. And wonderings about if things would ever “get back to normal,” even a “new normal.” For some people, this has given rise to feelings of meaninglessness, and questioning if there really is any point to making any plans whatsoever.
Barbara Merritt’s reading we heard earlier, provides a potential useful approach to this. In it, she was pondering over her friend Steve’s philosophy about dealing with life. “I like the idea”, she says, “of simply facing the task that presents itself. All that is required is an open heart, a curious mind, and a willingness to engage with reality.” Barbara Merritt’s words there.
This reminds me very much of the Zen Buddhist practice of Beginner’s Mind. You may have heard of it before, of approaching a task with an openness of mind as if doing something for the first time. This helps us to enter into situations with a sense of non-judgement or expectation, allowing us to be more open to the reality of how things are, not how we think they should be.
When finding ourselves caught up in emotional and mental imaginings, we can bring a sense of Beginner’s Mind by stopping ourselves and saying something like, “I’ll wait and see what it’s like”, or, “I’m curious to see what will happen and how it will be.” In doing so, we can find that our afternoon with our friend at the café, is fulfilling and enjoyable, rather than how it would have been, had we spent our time feeling frustrated and disappointed that things weren’t going the way we’d fantasized.
We might then be inclined to ask, “Should we just make no plans?”
Even with a sense of Beginners Mind, plans still have their place. As with many things, it’s all about balance.
If we live our lives making no plans at all, we can find ourselves going with the flow, ending up in destinations and life experiences which aren’t in alignment with our values. We can also feel at the mercy of chance, if we just randomly live.
Making plans, even just about everyday tasks we have some control over, such as the time we wake up, what we choose to eat, whether to engage regularly with a hobby or learn a new skill at home, helps give us a sense of autonomy, of having agency in our lives and aids us in living more intentionally.
Having goals and working towards those goals, no matter how modest each step achieved, gives us something to look forward to, so is good for our mental well being and helps build our resilience, which is much needed in these times.
The more resilient we are, the more we’re able to be flexible with our planning. Our church for example which has gone though many changes throughout its two hundred and forty seven year history, has also been able to adapt in recent times. Services are now held virtually, and the way they are planned has changed, allowing the themes to be responsive, sensitive to what’s happening in society and compassionate to our shifting needs as a congregation.
As we hopefully now, start moving towards Covid restrictions being lifted for the long term, and begin turning our attention to the kind of “post pandemic” society we want to be part of, we can use our own planning tools alone, or work with others in virtual community, to nudge our lives in a direction founded in our ethics, morals and integrity. And in doing so, help shape a more just, caring and equitable world, for us all.
So may it be. Amen.
Hymn: ‘Those Who Seek Wisdom’ (Unitarian Music Society)
We’re going to have another hymn now called, ‘Those Who Seek Wisdom’. It’s one which is less familiar to us and we give thanks to the Unitarian Music Society for this recording. Feel free to sing along, the words will appear on your screens and you’ll be muted, so you won’t be heard by us, only maybe by your neighbours. Equally feel welcome to just sit back and listen.
Those who seek wisdom
Seek truth and courage,
Walk through the darkness,
Endure through the storm.
Those who meet wisdom
In youth or old age
Know that the wonder
Is always new-born.
They know the vision
In words is spoken.
They live the vision
Without words in deed.
Touching with loving
In healing the broken,
Touching with dreaming,
With vision they lead.
Rise out of weeping,
Joy in this hour.
Sing out our greeting
In this new-born day.
Now may our meeting
Rekindle the power
Of truth and courage
To walk in the way.
Thanks to Jeannene for that great and timely sermon, Jenny for hosting, Antony for our reading, and Abby and Rachel for the lovely music today.
As ever there are a number of opportunities to connect congregationally in the week ahead: Coffee morning 10.30 on Tuesday – always lively conversation – newcomers always welcome. Heart & Soul, our contemplative spiritual gathering – on ‘Playtime’ – just two spaces tonight (Friday is already fully booked). Even if you’ve not been before it’s never too late to start.
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. If you’re new please do get in touch to introduce yourself – drop us an email – or stay for a chat.
We’re planning – yes planning! – to start producing a Creative Congregational Journal – the deadline for the first edition is a few weeks away, on 19th March, and the theme is ‘Home’. Anyone even remotely connected to the congregation is invited to get in touch with any submissions you might have on the theme: articles, meditations, poems, art, photos. If you’ve got half-an-idea and want to run it past me please do – I know you all have my email as it’s me who sent round the Zoom link for this morning’s service – feel free to get in touch. And if this first edition of the Creative Congregational Journal goes well we’ll do it quarterly.
We’ve just got our closing words now and a short piece of closing music from Abby and Rachel. So I invite you to select gallery view at this point, if you can, so we can all see each other for the benediction and get a sense of our community-and-connectedness as we close.
Benediction: by Jane Blackall
Our chalice is extinguished – but its light shines on –
burning within each and every one of us
as faith, and hope, and love.
So in the days to come – whatever plans we might make –
whatever unexpected plot-twists we have to deal with next!
– may we always be guided by the light of this inner beacon –
reminding us of the beloved community we have known here,
and recalling us to our highest aspirations – our best selves.
And may that be so, for the greater good of all. Amen.
Closing Music: by Abby Lorimier and Rachel Spence (48s)
Jane Blackall and Jeannene Powell
28th February 2021