Keeping It Real – 2/5/21
Opening Music: played by Peter Crockford (1.36)
Opening Words: ‘All That We Share Is Sacred’ by Andrée Mol (adapted)
As we gather together this morning, may we remember:
When you share with me what is most important to you,
That is where listening begins.
When I show you that I hear you, when I say your life matters,
That is where compassion begins.
When I open the door to greet you,
That is where hospitality begins.
When I venture out to bring you to shelter,
That is where love begins.
When I risk my comfort to ease your suffering,
When I act against hatred and injustice,
That is where courage begins.
When we experience the full presence of each other,
Because of our shared humanity,
Because of our differences,
That is where holy gratitude begins.
Our gathering is not complete until all are welcome.
May this be a space of truth and beauty
where together we create an earthly paradise,
and where all that we share is sacred.
These opening words – by Unitarian Universalist minister Andrée Mol – welcome all who have gathered here on Zoom this morning to take part in Kensington Unitarians’ Sunday service. Welcome to members of the congregation, to friends and visitors with us ‘live’ today – and also 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 this church for 22 years – I’m now the Ministry Coordinator for the congregation, and for the last four months I have been your student-on-placement, as part of my final year of training with Unitarian College.
If you are here for the first time today – we’re especially glad to you have you with us – welcome! I hope you find something of what you need this morning – some comfort or encouragement – maybe a new perspective or insight – something you find yourself pondering later in the week. 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 your commitment – without you there is no church. Even on Zoom, we all have a part to play in co-creating this sacred space, this sense of community. So whoever you are, however you are, know you are welcome in this space, just as you are.
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 as it helps us feel connected – but we know for some it will feel more comfortable to keep your camera mostly-off and that’s fine – lurking is alright by us. Similarly there’ll be opportunities to join in as we go along there’s no compulsion to do so.
In this morning’s service we’ll be reflecting on ‘Keeping it Real’ – how we might live our lives with a greater commitment to authenticity – being ever more honest about who we are, how we are, and what our lives are really like ‘behind the scenes’ – and why this sort of truth-telling about the messy and complicated business of living is a vital part of building beloved community together.
Chalice Lighting: ‘A Spacious Welcome’ by Shari Woodbury (adapted)
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.
Welcome, you who come in friendship, who long for genuine community…
May you be graciously received here as your authentic self.
Welcome, you who come in curiosity, full of questions or simply open…
May you embrace wonder and encounter new delights.
Welcome, you who come heavy with fatigue, weary from the troubles of the world
or the troubles of your particular life… May you rest and be filled in this sacred space.
Welcome, you who come with joy for gentle breezes, changing skies, and trees in blossom…
May the grace of the greening world leave a lasting imprint in you.
Welcome, you who come with thanks for the altruism of the earth and the gift of human care…
May your grateful heart overflow and bless those around you.
May this chalice be to us a symbol of the community we’re ever co-creating;
a welcoming container of all the light and life we bring and share together.
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 candle to represent all those joys and concerns that we might be holding silently in our heart today. Let’s take a moment now to think of all those joys and concerns we have heard expressed… and let’s hold them – and each other – in compassion and loving-kindness as we move into an extended time of prayer now, based in part on words by the Unitarian Universalist minister Richard S. Gilbert. So 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 to be fully present with yourself, each other, and that larger presence which holds us all.
Prayer: based on words by Richard S. Gilbert
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 Holy presence within us and amongst us. (pause)
Spirit of Compassion, enter our hearts, we pray.
Be with us in the hard hours of our lives. Help us to be kindly this day.
Spirit of Unity, help us enter into the pain of our neighbours.
Let us walk where they walk, that we might speak a gentle word along the way.
O Spirit of Mercy, enlarge our sympathies toward all who are troubled.
Let us be generous of heart, that we might forgive and be forgiven.
O Spirit of Thanksgiving, let us be grateful for hands that serve,
for those who give, and for those who receive, each in our turn.
O Spirit of Realness, let us walk together in our weakness,
That by treading the path together, we may be made strong.
O Spirit of the Spheres, help us to face the very mystery of being.
Secure us in the larger patterns we can trust, and bless us this holy day.
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 – ‘til they enfold the entire world and all those 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.
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.
God of all love, 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: ‘Break Not the Circle’ (Unitarian Music Society)
Time for our first hymn – it’s one of my favourites but not one we sing that often – ‘Break Not the Circle’– it’s got quite a mournful tune but I find the words so touching and poignant. It speaks of our aspiration to create this ever-growing circle in which people can be real, be themselves, a circle in which we all support each other to flourish. The words will appear on screen so that you can sing along with this recording by the Unitarian Music Society – the organist plays the tune through once in full to give you a chance to familiarise yourself with it – or you might prefer just to listen –we’ll do our best to make sure you’re all muted so nobody will hear if you do join in.
Break not the circle of enabling love
Where people grow, forgiven and forgiving;
Break not the circle, make it wider still,
Till it includes, embraces all the living.
Come, wonder at this love that comes to life,
Where words of freedom are with humour spoken,
And people keep no score of wrong and guilt,
But will that human bonds remain unbroken.
Join then the movement of the love that frees,
Till people of whatever race or nation
Will truly be themselves, stand on their feet,
See eye to eye with laughter and elation.
Reading: ‘Hiding the Mess’ by Barbara Merritt (adapted) (read by Harold)
About six cups of raw oats fell on the kitchen floor. The top had been left off the box, and the cascade of grain was impressive. I got out the broom and the dustpan and started to sweep it up, when my four-year-old asked if he could have the job. “Alright”, I said, and went on making the coffee. A minute later I looked around and saw, to my amazement, that he was studiously pushing small piles of the oats under the fridge, into the fireplace, and under the kitchen counters.
I screamed, “No! That’s not how you sweep up oats! Put them in the dustpan.” And he quietly replied that he had been “hiding” the oats. When hearing my story, my brother-in-law’s only comment was: “That apple didn’t fall far from the tree.”
True. I have been known to “clean up the living room” by gathering up the piles of papers and books and putting them in the dining room instead. I have “shut doors” when company was coming rather than take the time to make a room presentable.
But later that day, I found that the instinct to “hide the mess” goes deeper than that. I was at the hairdresser, and I explained to her that I was a nervous wreck about an upcoming speech. I wanted her to give me a haircut that made me look “cool, composed, and in control.” I was hoping that the right coiffure might effectively hide my anxiety level.
Then I put my back out. My doctor suggested that it might have something to do with the stress level I was carrying around about the speech. I told him in no uncertain terms that this was a ridiculous idea. My back went because I lifted a mattress the wrong way! (How surprised I was to discover, though, that immediately after the speech, my back felt perfectly fine. Even my body knows how to hide its pain away.)
The messy side of life is normal, healthy, and part of the creative process. Nature itself is wonderfully messy. Observe the pollen and the stringy stuff that fall out of maple trees in the springtime. Daffodils are glorious but look rather bedraggled in late spring. Not all of life is pristine, beautiful, and orderly. And neither are we.
It’s alright to hide the mess – at least some of it – from the general public. Emotional overexposure is culturally acceptable these days but it does not always contribute to the common good. Everyone does not need to know everything. But we shouldn’t have to hide the mess from ourselves, or from the people who love us, those with whom we are in community. Because in what we call “the mess”, creation itself is at work. This universe, our universe, is a place of life, growth, change, spilled oats, and great confusion. And out of that odd combination, somehow, the human spirit grows.
Meditation: Our Growing Edge of “Realness”
Thanks Harold for our reading today. We’ve come now to a time of meditation. You might like to have a wiggle again 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 just a few introductory words to lead us into our time of meditation. 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 the chalice-cam will stay up a little longer this week while we listen to our music for meditation, a lovely instrumental version of ‘True Colors’, played by Peter Crockford.
As we always say, these words, and images, and music are just an offering – not an obligation – you are of course free to think your own thoughts, and meditate in your own way.
We’re pondering what it means to ‘keep it real’ in our everyday lives, in our interactions with others, whether that’s in our closest relationships, or our ‘public face’ in the wider community. In this time of meditation I invite you to ponder the place of ‘realness’ or authenticity in your life.
Does it come easily to you to be honest with others about who you are, and how you are? Have there been occasions where being open and vulnerable has been a gift to others? Or have you been stung by times when such honesty hasn’t worked out well for you?
How about speaking your truth in situations where you seem to be the odd one out? Have there been occasions where sharing your perspective has opened up new insights? Or have there been times when your courage in speaking up has enabled others to do likewise?
Let us take a few minutes now to reflect on the gifts and challenges of ‘keeping it real’. I encourage you to be kind to yourself as you meditate on your growing edge of ‘realness’.
Silence: 3 minutes silence accompanied by chalice video
Musical Interlude: ‘True Colors’ played by Peter Crockford (3.22)
Reading: ‘An Undivided Life’ by Parker J. Palmer (adapted)
Today’s theme of ‘Keeping it Real’ – authenticity, honesty, talking about the realities of our lives – it’s a big topic, and a pet topic of mine. And I can tell you now, we’re not going to do justice to it today, for reasons that I’ll get to shortly. There’ll be a second instalment later in the year. We’ll come back to look at some other facets of ‘realness’ we might do well to cultivate in life.
But first I want to share a short piece with you, an excerpt from an 2013 interview with the Quaker teacher Parker J. Palmer, on the notion that we might aspire to living ‘An Undivided Life’; one in which the gap between our sense of who we truly are, our inner experience, and the face we present to the outside world, is small. Palmer speaks of how, as small children, we usually start out ‘undivided’, freely being our whole selves, but as we grow up we tend to lose that freedom of self-expression, as societal pressures and conventions take their toll on us. He writes:
There’s a kind of wistfulness, I think, that happens in adults around the question “whatever happened to me? How did I lose that integral quality, that capacity to be here as I really am?”
As we think about our lives I think the answer becomes pretty clear. For some kids it happens, sadly, in the family; for most of us it happens at school; we learn at some point that it’s not safe to be in the world as who we truly are. If we express our true feelings, our true identity, we’re going to get marginalized, we’re going to get ignored, we’re going to become invisible or we’re going to be disliked or even hated.
I think [LGBT] young people can tell you about that pretty vividly, but we all have our own version of it. Where there are pieces of us that we don’t dare bring into the world for fear that something bad is going to happen to us. We try to get by; we try to pass; we try to play a role that’s acceptable. But then there comes a point in life when that divided life – that that gap between who we really are and the face we put on for the larger world – becomes painful.
It doesn’t happen for everybody – some people adjust to it – some live their whole lives that way. But for a lot of people the divided life becomes a source of pain, and we have to find some way to try to close that gap, to build a bridge between our own identity and integrity as adults in the world.
Wise words from the Quaker teacher Parker J. Palmer.
Now, at this point in our service, you’d normally expect a sermon, or a reflection, or at least what we euphemistically call ‘some thoughts’ from me on today’s theme. But instead – and I feel this is appropriate, given that today’s topic is ‘Keeping it Real’ – I’m going to hold my hands up and admit that this is not really the service I was planning to give you today. In a service where I was planning to talk about the importance of being honest and open about who we are and how we’re doing – our own struggles, the ways in which we haven’t really ‘got it together’, all the ‘mess’ we might be tempted to sweep under our metaphorical kitchen cabinets – it seems in keeping to admit that the wheels came off this week’s sermon-writing process and in the end (sometime quite late on Saturday night) I decided to admit defeat. It just wasn’t going to happen.
Quite a few of you have heard me grumbling – or seen me wincing – over the last few weeks since I hurt my back and have been struggling with sciatica. I’ve been rather heavily medicated and strapped up. And in the last few days, when I should have been preparing this service, it all rather caught up with me. So the sermon you would have got this morning will have to wait for another day. There’ll have to be a part two, anyway, perhaps even a part three, because this subject of ‘Keeping it Real’ is an important and multi-faceted one which we can revisit endlessly from different angles. But instead I thought I’d turn back the clock and share a relevant excerpt from a sermon I wrote seven years ago – which shows how long this topic has been on my mind. It’s not the whole sermon – but longer than a reading, about eight minutes’ worth – so settle in.
Reflection: ‘Revealing our Authentic Self’ by Jane Blackall (excerpts, adapted)
I want to say a bit about revealing our authentic self to others in everyday life. Authenticity is about being real. About avoiding pretence, telling it like it is, being sincere. We all make choices, which may be made quite self-consciously or quite unconsciously, about how we present ourselves to others. I imagine most of us can think of occasions when we have buffed up, or toned down, some aspects of ourselves to get along in social situations. And, up to a point, that’s just a necessary part of getting by. Yet I also imagine authenticity, and integrity, is something many of us aspire to.
Personally, the ideal I’m aiming for is to be my whole self, wherever I am, whoever I am with.
I have a number of different circles of friends. Friends from church, from the wider Unitarian denomination, from previous workplaces, fellow students on courses I’ve taken, people I’ve met off the internet who have shared interests or similar political concerns. I live at the intersection of quite an interesting Venn diagram. That’s before I even consider all the people whose lives bump up against mine by chance rather than choice. And there could be a temptation to present a very different version of myself depending on who I’ve got in front of me.
But like I said, I aspire to be my whole self, wherever I am, whoever I am with. This means repeatedly ‘outing’ myself, one way or another, in communities where some part of who I am goes against the norm. These days, for example, there’s quite a lot of anti-religious feeling out there in the world at large, so it can feel like quite a big deal to be open about the fact that we are Unitarians and that we go to church (albeit via Zoom these days) on a Sunday. In so many situations there is a pressure to go along with the herd, or just keep our head down and our mouths shut rather than speak our truth and end up being judged for who we are.
In my life, being religious, being Unitarian in particular, is quite a visible part of my identity. As soon as anyone asks ‘what do you do for a living?’ or ‘what did you do at the weekend?’ my answer is going to give it away. But there are other parts of my identity that are just as significant and not, by default, so visible. And I often make a positive choice to bring these invisible aspects of my identity to light. For example, I often ‘out’ myself as bisexual, and ‘out’ myself as having had struggles with anxiety and depression in my life. Why do I do this? Well, psychological visibility is vital for humans. It is important for us to be seen, acknowledged, and valued for who we are. And also, bringing to light the infinite variation of our human experience, making it real for others, giving a face to these hidden sides, can help to give strength to others with similar experiences and contributes to the liberation of all. Social pressures can have quite a stifling impact on human diversity, flourishing, and happiness. Normativity, convention, and the harshness of the world can combine to constrict our view of what’s possible or ‘allowed’, to squash our potential, prevent our full flourishing, and suppress the expression of our authentic selves.
Another challenge to our authenticity comes from the societal pressure to keep up appearances. Many of us would like to give the impression we’re more-or-less in control of our lives, we’re on top of things, we’ve got everything together, everything is cool, we’re ‘sorted’ (whatever the underlying reality). On top of this, we might like to show everybody how full, exciting and purposeful our life is, and perhaps make all this activity look effortless while we’re about it. This pressure to put on a front and hide the more complex reality of our lives, our selves, is a sad thing. Wearing a mask of ‘everything’s OK’ places a barrier between us. If we are always comparing our secret inner reality, including our imperfections, struggles and pain, with everybody else’s perfect, shiny, façade, we are likely to feel increasingly alienated and ashamed. These false fronts ultimately isolate us from each other. We can give a great gift to others, by sharing our struggles and brokenness, showing our vulnerability, revealing our particular, unique, authentic self to the world. Often this can open up a point of connection. Authenticity can be contagious. Your openness and sincerity can give others permission to truly be themselves. By unilaterally practising this way of being you can teach it to others (and to the next generation).
I’ve been rattling on for a while now about how marvellous and desirable it is to be your whole self, wherever you are, whoever you are with, BUT I’ve got to acknowledge that it requires great courage or at least a certain amount of self-confidence to be fully authentic in this way. The prospect of revealing your authentic self can be quite terrifying, in some circumstances. Self-revelation makes you vulnerable. Vulnerability can be a good thing, as it opens up the possibility of connection, inviting and enabling other people to be themselves too, affirming our common humanity… but, it’s true, making yourself vulnerable can also get you hurt. What if people see the real you and then reject it? It’s an understandable urge to hunker down and stay safe and unseen. We often – legitimately – put on masks and disguises for self-protection. So when I advocate authenticity, I’m not taking it lightly, I know there is a cost. I think it is good to reveal more of our authentic selves, and that this is part of making the world a better place, but just because of the way the world is right now, there’s a balance to be struck between self-revelation and self-care.
I think there’s something we can do – as individuals, and collectively in our congregations, as Unitarians – to help support and encourage people in the process of being their authentic selves. We can create safer spaces – softer spaces – kinder spaces. We can create communities – or just small moments – of refuge and sanctuary. I’m imagining something almost like a nature reserve for authentic selves: a protected space, a carefully cultivated habitat, set apart from the harshness of the prevailing culture, where people are free to flourish. I’d like to see us be really intentional about doing something counter-cultural here. Let’s strive to make this a generous space, truly welcoming of all, where people are nurtured and encouraged to grow. At our best I think we already are creating something like this. We do it our carefully structured small groups, like Heart and Soul, in rituals like our weekly Candles or Joy and Concern, or in our occasional mini-retreats and Engagement Groups, where we might use a group covenant to help intentionally cultivate a safer, softer, kinder space and to support people in being real (and gentle) with each other as they share the messy truths of life. To do it well, day-in-day-out, in a church community, or in our everyday lives is bloody hard work. It’s vital work, though, and the work of the spirit.
So may we aspire to co-create a space where each and every one of us can truly ‘keep it real’. Amen.
Hymn: ‘The Harvest of Truth’ (Kensington Unitarians)
Time for us to sing once again – our second hymn is another one that we don’t sing often – in fact in all my searching through the archives I could only find one recording of us singing it in 2019 – and you’ll hear we were a little bit tentative even then (though we gain a little confidence with every verse) – still I love the message so thought it was time to bring it back for another go: ‘The Harvest of Truth’. As before, the pianist plays it through once in full, to give us a chance to get the hang of it. And the more often we practice the better we’ll get! The words are quite traditional but it expresses something timeless I reckon – calling us to a life of love, truth, and authenticity – to refrain from hollow words and deeds. Also it includes the word ‘fruitage’ which always makes me chuckle! So I challenge you to sing with more gusto than we managed back in 2019! Or you can just listen along and enjoy the rustles and coughs that are all part of the charm.
O live each day and live it well –
All else is life but flung away:
Who lives a life of love can tell
Of true things truly done each day.
Be what thou seemest live thy creed;
Hold up to earth the torch divine;
Be what thou prayest to be made;
The thirst for righteousness be thine.
Fill up each hour with what will last;
Use well the moments as they go;
Into life’s soil thy seed is cast —
Thy deeds into a harvest grow.
Sow truth, if thou the true wouldst reap;
Who sows the false shall reap the vain;
Erect and sound thy conscience keep,
From hollow words and deeds refrain.
Sow love, and taste its fruitage pure;
Sow peace, and reap its harvest bright;
Sow sunbeams on the rock and moor,
And find a harvest-home of light.
Thanks to John Humphreys for co-hosting, Harold for our reading, and Peter for the lovely music.
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 ‘Repair’ – one or two spaces tonight (or you can do it on Friday with Rita). Even if you’ve not been before it’s never too late to start.
If you’re new please do get in touch to introduce yourself – drop us an email – or stay for a chat. 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 when the service will be led by Sarah Tinker and Corrina Dolso on the theme of ‘Playfulness’. It’s fine to share the zoom link with your friends. And in fact, all being well, we’ll be having a visit from another congregation, Chorlton Unitarians will be joining us next week, on a virtual day-trip from Greater Manchester, do welcome them.
I’m off on holiday for just over a fortnight now – clocking off after tonight’s Heart and Soul – and I’ll be back on Tuesday 18th May. All the usual events will be carrying on in the meantime: Jeannene, Laura, and Rita will lead Heart and Soul, and the coffee-morning will be self-service. You’ll be getting your mailing list emails as usual towards the end of the week with all the details of forthcoming events. Look out in next week’s email for the church annual report ahead of our congregational AGM which will be taking place on Zoom after the service on Sunday 23rd May.
As I mentioned at the start of the service this is the final week of my student-placement here. In practice, as I’ll still be carrying on as Ministry Coordinator for the foreseeable, normal service will resume when I come back from my holidays and you probably won’t notice much difference! But my tutors from Unitarian College have been in touch with the chair of our congregation about the placement, and I think he’s got a few words to say, so I’ll hand over to Roy now.
(Roy to speak)
Thanks Roy – and thanks everyone for your support – We’ve just got our closing blessing and music now. 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-togetherness as we close.
Benediction: based on words by Mark L. Belletini
Go in peace. Live simply, at home in yourself.
Be just in your word, and just in your deed.
Remember the depth of your own compassion.
Do not forget your power in the days of your powerlessness.
Do not desire privilege, and never stint your hand of charity.
Practice forbearance in all you do. Speak the truth or speak not.
Take care of your body, be good to it, for it is a good gift.
Crave peace for all peoples in this world, beginning with yourselves,
and go as you go with the dream of that better world set firm in your heart.
May it be so, for the greater good of all. Amen.
Closing Music: ‘Here, There and Everywhere’ played by Peter Crockford (2.22)
2nd May 2021