It’s Complicated – 06/06/21
Opening Music: ‘The Lonesome Valley’ played by Peter Crockford (2.22)
Opening Words: ‘We Pause This Hour’ by Bruce Southworth (adapted)
We gather this hour to pause; to honour the spirit and to accept
ourselves as fragile humans, equally full of nobility and strength.
We gather, weary – perhaps – of life’s many trials,
yet cheered by infinite possibilities for love’s grace.
We meet with smiles and glad voices for old friends and new –
every stranger a gift of potential friendship and mutual consolation.
We rejoice in the keen intellect and the warm heart.
We remember those whose opportunities and needs our society thwarts,
and we give thanks for the blessings that are ours, even in the midst of struggle.
We praise all who extend a hand in service and whose vision of justice commands action.
We pause; we gather; we meet; we rejoice; we remember; we give thanks; we praise;
We proclaim our community – as we gather this morning to worship together.
These words by UU Bruce Southworth welcome all who have gathered on Zoom for our Sunday service. Welcome to regular members of the congregation, to friends and visitors with us today – also those who might be listening to our podcast, or watching 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 22 years I’m now Ministry Coordinator here and also a Ministry Student at 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 here – a bit of consolation or spiritual uplift perhaps. Please do hang around afterwards for a chat or drop us an email to introduce yourself if you’d like. Or you might think about coming to one of our small-group gatherings during the week as they’re a good way to get to know people more organically and get a rounded sense of the congregation. And if you’re a regular here – thank you for all that you do to welcome all who come each Sunday. Even on Zoom, we 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 and get a sense of our togetherness as a community – but we know for some it will feel more comfortable to keep your camera mostly-off and that’s fine. Similarly there’ll be opportunities to join in as we go along there’s no compulsion to do so. You can quietly lurk with our blessing – you know how to find us if you want to say hello later.
The title of this morning’s service is ‘It’s Complicated’ – and in the next hour we’ll be facing up to life’s complexity – and pondering how we can best steer a thoughtful course through a confusing world.
Chalice Lighting: ‘Open to Unexpected Answers’ by Julianne Lepp (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.
We seek our place in the world
and the answers to our hearts’ deep questions.
As we seek, may our hearts be open to unexpected answers.
May the light of our chalice remind us that this is
a community of warmth, of wisdom,
and welcoming of complicated truths.
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.
(candles – thank each person)
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. This prayer is based in part on words by Harry Lismer Short, a Unitarian minister who died back in 1975, and I wanted to acknowledge that they may sound a little old-fashioned in places to our modern ears, but this prayer fits our theme today so well. 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 Harry Lismer Short
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)
God, life would be easier for us,
and for all of humanity,
if only the issues were more plain,
and the solutions to our problems more obvious.
So often, we do not know what is best for us to do,
either in our personal relationships or in the problems of our society.
We grope after solutions and are wise only after the event.
This world is a complex puzzle, and so is our human nature;
both streaked with good and evil, form and chaos,
with new things coming to birth and old things dying.
We can only take one step at a time, and do not know
how even our best endeavours will turn out.
We are often tempted to give up the struggle,
and just let the future be what it may.
Why should we agonise about doing good
when even our best so often turns out to disappoint?
Why should we try to achieve better human relationships
when each problem faced only seems to shine light on another?
But we know that is not the true way of life.
We are called to do good, to aim at goodness,
in faith that no honest endeavour is never lost.
We are called to take truth and goodness seriously,
even in a complicated world of ambiguity and imperfection.
We erring creatures of a day must dare to do right,
to deal compassionately with one another, as in the face of eternity.
We must live, as seeing the invisible.
We must let the eternal interpenetrate our temporal lives,
so that some good is done by us, and some truth spoken,
even in this imperfect world of imperfect human beings.
Out of the loose sends of this life let us strive to make a coherent plan of living.
Let us purify our hearts and simplify our affections,
so that grace may flow through us,
and make our lives fruitful and good.
Each of us gathered here this morning has some concern,
some problem of living, which weighs heavily on our heart.
Often a problem of human relationship –
how ought we to we deal with this or that person?
What is the wisest and kindest course of action?
And the whole world is filled with such issues and sharing of life.
We pray for wisdom and patience, justice and kindness –
not that we may have a complete answer to our questions,
but that we may see before us a way of living.
We know that if we would make peace, we must seek peace,
that if we would do good, we must first love good.
So in a short time of share silence now, let us reflect on the week just past, and bring to mind the goodness we have known, and the goodness we still dream of. Let us inwardly give thanks for the blessings we have known and can be grateful for. And let us ask for what we need, what the world needs, to grow in love, justice, and peace. (pause)
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: ‘For the Splendour of Creation’ (Kensington Unitarians 2018)
Time for our first hymn, ‘For the Splendour of Creation’, which celebrates both the diverse wonder of the universe and the human quest to make sense of the whole complex mess of it all. This version is sung by our own Kensington congregation back in January 2018 – and as you might imagine we weren’t expecting to be using the recording for these purposes three years on – so you might hear Sarah, who was leading the service, speaking over the introduction or people rustling! The words will appear on screen so that you can sing along – or you might prefer just to listen – we’ll do our best to make sure you’re all muted throughout so nobody will hear you.
For the splendour of creation that draws us to inquire,
for the mystery of knowledge to which our hearts aspire,
for the deep and subtle beauties which delight the eye and ear,
for the discipline of logic, the struggle to be clear,
for the unexplained remainder, the puzzling and the odd:
for the joy and pain of learning, we give you thanks, O God.
For the scholars past and present whose bounty we digest,
for the teachers who inspire us to summon forth our best,
for our rivals and companions, sometimes foolish, sometimes wise,
for the human web upholding this noble enterprise,
for the common life that binds us through days that soar or plod:
for this place and for these people, we give you thanks, O God.
Introduction to First Reading:
Our first reading is slightly longer than usual. It consists of some excerpts from a blog post that was written back in 2015 by Sarah McLeod who describes herself as a ‘lapsed Unitarian Universalist’. At the time she was raising two teenagers, and working part time as a Physician Assistant specialising in substance abuse and mental health. In this piece, she makes reference to prominent world events of the time, particularly the war in Syria. Antony has kindly pre-recorded this reading for us; however, due to a slight technical hitch half of the first sentence fell off, so I will provide the opening line. Sarah McLeod sets out by explaining she teaches ‘a fascinating group of young teens and preteens how to write using resources other than their own opinions and previous knowledge’. I’ll let Antony take over:
Reading: ‘It’s Complicated’ (blog post excerpts) by Sarah MacLeod (read by Antony)
I teach a fascinating group of young teens and preteens how to write using resources other than their own opinions and previous knowledge. Together, we wrangle with essays written by the pros, and debate the credibility and reliability of sources online and in print, and they write essays using those sources to support their well-considered thesis statements. However, teens and preteens glue themselves to an opinion tighter than Thomas the Tank Engine stickers adhere to oak book shelves, and this tenacity to ideas interferes with anything close to critical thinking or clear-headed writing. They seek for what confirms their bias & often discard what seems to be against it.
So I’ve challenged this group of young, intelligent, [somewhat blinkered] idealists with an assignment I’ve called “It’s Complicated.” Rather than starting with their stance on an issue, they start with the thesis that a particular idea is just that — complicated. Topics include: The ethics of driverless cars; animal testing; nuclear power. Their task is to present the complexity with an open mind while grappling with ideas on both sides. After that, and only after that, they can discuss — briefly — their opinion.
Why bother? Because our world is complicated. Painfully, heart-searingly complicated. That seems to hardly be a contentious statement to anyone reading or listening to reliable news sources. Take Syria, for example. Tease out who started what and when, and whose actions affect whom, and just who is called good or bad or somewhere in between. Reach back five years. Then reach back further – a decade, five decades, a century, five centuries. When did all this really start? Then take a single possible outcome — one way this situation could turn out (good luck with that step) — and look forward five years. Don’t just look at ISIS and Syria when you slide your eyes along that mental timeline. Look at Turkey. And Russia. And just about all of the Middle East. Don’t leave out Nigeria. Peek in on Europe. What do you see?
It is complicated. It’s complicated because it involves people — with all their fears and passions and desires and needs — and people are messy. We have irrational thoughts, faulty memories, and little tolerance for what we can’t quickly categorize and judge. We struggle to sit with the tangled knot, teasing out each thread while realizing that each tug pulls the knot tighter while fraying our understanding.
Life in any sort of community — from the family, to a planet with seven billion others — is complicated. Even when we feel completely in step with the most familiar “other,” we can quickly run into conflicts that come from different minds thinking different thoughts; fears, hopes, desires and passions discordantly clanging to the floor. Sometimes we manage these with grace and perspective but often we clash.
Life with other human beings is complicated. When we embrace that, we’re partway through to a solution. Simply saying together, “It’s complicated,” we start down the road to cooperation and progress, even if only in our agreement that complicated problems don’t have simple solutions. When we look at ISIS and Syria and all that and say, “That’s a mess. It scares me,” or look our estranged loved one and say, “This is complicated, and I’m afraid,” we’ve made a crucial step to not only solving the complicated problem but healing our deepest divides.
It’s a complicated world, both within the walls of your own home, and underneath our shared atmosphere. So start with the small stuff, like my students. When you’re ready, move up to the harder stuff — the limits of religious freedom, the U.S. role in the Middle East, and how to parent your teenagers. It’s all complicated, and that’s okay.
Meditation: ‘Choice’ by Lynn Ungar
Thanks Antony. We’ve come now to a time of meditation. I’m going to share a short poem called ‘Choice’ by the Unitarian Universalist minister Lynn Ungar to take us into a time of meditation – a poem reflecting on the reality that every day of our life brings choices, which have real consequences, and which we have to make (imperfectly) in the midst of life’s complexities, ambiguities and unknowables. The poem will be followed by a few minutes of shared stillness during which we’ll have our virtual chalice on screen in case you like to focus on the flame. The silence will come to an end with some lovely gentle music, Bach’s Arioso, performed by Abby Lorimier and Peter Crockford. So let’s each do what we need to do to get comfortable – have a wiggle if you need to – perhaps put your feet flat on the floor to help ground and steady yourself – maybe close your eyes. As we let these words by Lynn Ungar take us into a time of meditation:
There isn’t a right answer.
There just isn’t. The game show
where the bells ring and the points
go up and the confetti falls
because you got the answer
is a lie. The preacher who would assure you
of how to attain salvation
is making it all up. The doctor
who knows just how to fix
what ails you will be sure
of something else tomorrow.
Every choice will
wound someone, heal someone,
build a wall and open a conversation.
Things will always happen
that you can’t foresee.
But you have to choose.
It’s all we have—that little rudder
that we employ in the midst
of all the eddies and rapids,
the current that pulls us
inexorably toward the sea.
The fact that you are swept along
by the river is no excuse.
Watch where you are going.
Lean in toward what you love.
When in doubt, tell the truth.
Silence: 3 minutes silence accompanied by chalice video
Musical Interlude: ‘Bach’s Arioso’ played by Peter Crockford and Abby Lorimer (3.08)
Reflection: ‘It’s Complicated’ by Jane Blackall
Anyone who’s on our church mailing list – and presumably that includes everyone who’s with us live on zoom this morning, seeing as that’s how you get the link to join us – will hopefully by now have seen an email that we sent out on Thursday about our plans for the coming months. Roy and I sent out this message, on behalf of the church management committee, to explain how we’d carefully weighed up a lot of different factors in coming to the conclusion – that we’d keep our Sunday services online over the next few months – and take our time to prepare properly for hybrid services later in the year (subject to developments in the Covid situation).
We had our committee meeting to discuss all this a week before. I’d prepared a background paper detailing all the various factors I could think of that we needed to take into account. But on the evening of the meeting, to kick off the discussion, I said to the committee ‘if there’s one thing I want you to take away from this background paper it’s this: IT’S COMPLICATED’.
Life is complicated enough at the best of times but life-in-a-time-of-Covid is very much more so. We find ourselves ill-equipped to weigh up all the scientific, social, political and ethical factors that have a bearing on our day-to-day decision-making in relation to what will be, for some, a matter of life-and-death (or at least a matter of long-term-incapacity, for those with long Covid). And none of us can be experts in everything. So, at some point, we have to take the word of others who are better-equipped than we are, to help steer our decision-making. But who do we trust?
Epidemiologists and public health scientists are doing their best to interpret and communicate complex and ever-changing data for us as it emerges but they too are making judgement calls. And politicians – I don’t think this will be too controversial – do not always have our best interests at heart and are sometimes motivated by factors other than human welfare and the common good. But even the best of them are having to make hard choices about how to target limited resources, and about how to balance people’s yearning for freedom, and a return to pre-pandemic ‘normal’, with the need to protect people from the dire consequences that can come from this disease (the Office for National Statistics states 128,000 people have died and about a million have long Covid). It’s something that every one of us will have different thoughts and feelings about, I’m sure, and indeed that realisation was something we were very aware of as a church committee a week ago when we sat down together to try and make responsible decisions on behalf of this community.
Let’s take a step back from the Covid situation in particular and take a broader view; let’s think a bit about how we might steer a more thoughtful course, live a good life, in an increasingly complicated world. Particularly in terms of how we relate to others, perhaps – whether that’s in our closest relationships, in community, or in a larger socio-political sense – wherever we impinge on others.
As we heard in the reading from Sarah MacLeod earlier, the very first step, perhaps, is the act of admitting: ‘It’s Complicated’. Facing reality as it really is, even if that’s messy or uncomfortable or downright scary, rather than indulging in wishful thinking – or, conversely, catastrophic thinking – that oversimplifies the situation at hand. Not taking for granted that the right thing to do or to think is obvious but taking the larger view. Pausing to reflect on our choices, practicing some sort of discernment, rather than going with the flow, or following the past of least resistance. In truth, we make hundreds of choices every day, most of them relatively inconsequential (probably), and we can’t stop to stroke our chin about all of them – in reality a lot of our life has to run more-or-less on autopilot just so we can get through the day – but perhaps we need to be alert to those moments when we are unthinkingly following a social script, or following the herd, when we might do well to press pause and weigh up our own choices more consciously and intentionally. Particularly those moments where our choices will likely have significant consequences for ourselves or others.
And, as an aside, I want to acknowledge that even the insight that ‘It’s Complicated’ is complicated! Sarah MacLeod uses it to insist that her students take time to consider ‘both sides’ of every issue. But I think many of us will be aware than in this day and age that sometimes the insistence to consider ‘both sides’ is used to cynically derail and misdirect on issues that are pretty much settled: think of the time the BBC got a rap on the knuckles for insisting on wheeling out a lobbyist for the fossil fuel industry, whenever there was a news story about climate change, to provide spurious ‘balance’ against Nobel-prize winning environmental scientists and delay essential climate action. Similarly I don’t think we have to give equal airtime or brain-space to views that are pretty easily identified as running counter to our most dearly held ethical principles: those views that deny the inherent worth and dignity of every person, such as white supremacy, homo/transphobia, ableism, and so on. A lot of life is complicated but there are some things we can (and must) be clear about.
But, that said, today we’re focusing on the ways in which life is indeed more complicated than that. And I like to think that this is a very Unitarian way of looking at things: refusing to be satisfied with oversimplified answers; being willing to live with ambiguity and paradox in our truth-seeking; and, in awareness of the interdependence of us all, taking responsibility for our own actions, as we know our choices will ultimately have an impact on those with whom we share this planet. And so we do our best to remain mindful of the balance between self and other; individual and collective; the local and the global; as we all try to coexist, survive, and thrive, in these complicated times.
So how do we do it? How do we go about weighing up all the many factors that could potentially have a bearing on whatever complicated choice it is that we might be facing? Perhaps one thing it might be helpful to acknowledge from the off is this: none of us are capable of doing the sort of all-encompassing ethical calculation that could take every single pertinent detail, past and present, into account, and project all our possible courses of action into the future, to predict their likely consequences. Even the most powerful supercomputer couldn’t do that sort of calculation, and besides, chaos theory tells us the slightest change in any one of the inputs we might put into such a calculation (you know, the butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil) could make a big difference to the output. I say this to offer reassurance: we can let ourselves off the hook (up to a point) for being imperfect people, making imperfect choices, based on incomplete data, in a complex and confusing world. Still, surely, we should try to make wise decisions, and strive to act in service of the common good.
We do well to bring both reason and emotion to our decision-making. Despite life’s complexity, we do have a responsibility to seek out reliable and trustworthy sources of information, and to train ourselves as best we can in critical thinking, such that we can make sense of what we find. To sincerely seek the truth and stay in touch with reality – rather than allowing ourselves to be falsely comforted by wishful thinking – or allowing our catastrophizing to run out of control. And staying in touch with our feelings – noticing our emotional responses – can be a useful guide too.
But, when attempting to steer a more thoughtful course through a complicated world, perhaps the most important thing we can do is to keep hold of some guiding principles to lead us onward. And to be part of a community which reminds us of those principles and calls us back to them, again and again, even when times are tough. A community in which we can put our heads and hearts together to discern the way ahead, and gain strength from each other, as we struggle to make sense of it all.
So in the days, and weeks, and months to come – whatever they may bring – let us remember: ‘It’s Complicated’. And not shy from that reality, but instead face it, courageously, together. And as we do our best to discern the way ahead, individually and collectively, let us remind each other of our guiding principles: affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and the interdependence of all, let us make our decisions with human well-being and flourishing in mind. Let us be particularly mindful of our responsibility to those who are disadvantaged and suffering. And let us always keep before us the vision of a better world, for the greater good of all. Amen.
Hymn: ‘Our World is One World’ (Unitarian Music Society)
Time for us to sing once again – our second hymn is ‘Our World is One World’ – this time sung by the Unitarian Music Society. The words speak so clearly of how we are all interconnected, and how the thoughts and actions of every single one of us affect everyone, the world over. So feel free to join in with singing our final hymn today (or as ever you can listen along).
Our world is one world:
what touches one affects us all —
the seas that wash us round about,
the clouds that cover us,
the rains that fall.
Our world is one world:
the thoughts we think affect us all —
the way we build our attitudes,
with love or hate, we make
a bridge or wall.
Our world is one world:
its ways of wealth affect us all —
the way we spend, the way we share,
who are the rich or poor,
who stand or fall?
Our world is one world,
just like a ship that bears us all —
where fear and greed make many holes,
but where our hearts can hear
a different call.
Just a few brief announcements this morning: Thanks to Jeannene for hosting, Antony for pre-recording our reading at late notice on a busy weekend, and Abby and Peter for our lovely music.
As ever there are a number of opportunities to connect congregationally in the week ahead: Coffee morning 10.30 Tuesday – always excellent conversation – newcomers always welcome. Heart & Soul, our contemplative spiritual gathering – on ‘Gardening’ – just a couple of spaces left tonight and Friday at 7pm. Even if you’ve not been before it’s never too late to start.
Looking further ahead there are a number of in-person events you can book for: series of concerts at church organised by our music scholar Abby Lorimier, the first is on Monday 14th June at lunchtime, these are being held with Covid-safe protocols in place so numbers are limited and booking is essential so that we can maintain social distancing, and we’re continuing to ask people to wear masks at all times when they’re in the building. These concerts will also be streamed for you to watch online and there’ll be information on that in next Friday’s email.
We’re also starting to offer in-person gatherings at church, hopefully four each month, the first one is next Saturday 12th June at 11am, led by Sarah Tinker, then I’ll be offering an in-person Heart and Soul on Wednesday 16th June at 2pm, and Michael Allured and Brian Ellis are offering Saturday / Wednesday gatherings later in the month. Again, booking is essential, and Covid-safe protocols will be in place. Sign up with the leader(s) of the ones you want to go to.
Don’t forget we’ll have virtual coffee-time after the service, to chat in small groups, if you’d like. If that’s not your thing, as I said at the start of the service, do get in touch via email if you’d like to introduce yourself, as it’s harder to get to know people during online services. 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 Sarah will be leading a Flower Communion service. She’s given me some information to pass on: please have a favourite flower or plant with you, or a picture of a favourite plant or flower (I’ll remind you in the Friday email but that’s just advance notice in case you need time to think about what you’ll bring). Feel free to share the link with trusted friends.
We’ve just got our closing words and music now – a cello piece by the contemporary Jamaican composer Eleanor Alberga called ‘Ride Through’ – which I think complements our theme well. 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: based on words by Bruce Southworth
And now, our time together ends.
We go on searching for some sense in life.
We wait for a tomorrow when we shall see and know.
We hope that someday the way forward – and the meaning of it all – will be clear.
But today is what we have.
We may see dimly.
We may be burdened with fears.
We may be confused, conflicted, and unsure.
But this day is ours, the only day we have.
So for the grace and the tumble of the day, each day, we give thanks.
For the many small delights that await us along the road, we give thanks.
For the depth and breadth and warmth of all that can yet be, we give thanks.
May new strength and bright hope fill us as we journey onward.
And, until we meet again, may we each find the courage
and wisdom we need, to meet the days to come. Amen.
Closing Music: ‘Ride Through’ by Eleanor Alberga performed by Abby Lorimier (2.33)
6th June 2021