Bring Many Names – 4/7/21

Opening Music: Bach Movement 1 played by Abby Lorimier (1.19)

Opening Words of Welcome: ‘Utterance of the Timeless Word’ by Angela Herrera

You bring yourself before the sacred, before the holy,
before what is ultimate and bigger than your lone life
bigger than your worries, bigger than your money problems,
bigger than the fight you had with your sister, and your aches and pains
bigger, even, than your whole being, your self
who is part of and trapped within and blessed with
a body that does what you want and doesn’t do what you want
and wants all the wrong things and wants all the right things…

You stand at the edge of mystery, at the edge of the deep,
with the light streaming at you, and you can’t hide anything
– not even from yourself, when you stand there like that, and then… what?

Maybe you call your minister and say, what is this? What am I looking at? What do I do?
And your minister comes and stands at the edge with you and looks over.
She can’t hide anything either, she thinks, not even the fact
that she doesn’t know the answer to your question, and she wonders if you can tell.

She thinks of all the generations who’ve come there before you
and cast words out toward the source of that light, wanting to name it.
Somehow, she thinks to herself, the names stayed tethered to the ageing world and got old
while the light remains timeless and burns without dimming.

Meanwhile, the armful of worries you brought
to the edge of mystery have fluttered to your feet.
Unobscured by these, you shine back, light emanating unto light.
You, with your broken heart and your seeking,
you are the utterance of the timeless word.
The name of the Holy is pronounced through your being.


These opening words, written by Unitarian Universalist minister Angela Herrera, welcome all those who have gathered on Zoom this morning to take part in 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 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 since the late 90s I’m now Ministry Coordinator here and also a Ministry Student at Unitarian College.

In this morning’s simple service of readings and reflections, music and meditation, we’ll take some time explore our relationship to ‘God-language’ and how we speak about the sacred. This choice of topic was inspired by an impromptu conversation on theology that came up in coffee hour after the service two weeks ago – you never know what you’re going to get if you stay to chat! We made a good start on the topic that day, and we’ll take it a bit further in this service, but don’t expect a tidy resolution in the next hour, eh? It’s a subject we will revisit endlessly. When we gather for worship, we are gathering to honour that which is of ultimate worth – that’s the etymology, ‘worth-ship’ – we are drawn together by that which is most holy, sacred, precious, and meaningful – and we may find that language breaks down a bit in this territory. We use poetry and metaphor to grasp at something ungraspable, mysterious, yet essential. And we – some of us, at least – resort to using that three letter word: ‘God’. I hope that this morning’s service will lead you to new insights, new metaphors, new questions to explore.

Before we go any further, though, let’s take a moment to make sure we’ve fully arrived. Do what you need to do to settle in – you might want to wiggle and stretch first – scrunch your shoulders up and let them go – maybe close your eyes and take a deep breath. Set aside, if you can, anything that you don’t need to think about for the next hour. And do feel free to keep your camera off throughout, if that makes you feel at ease, or some people just turn it off for the meditation. There’s no compulsion to join in with in anything. We like to see your faces, we like it if you hang around to chat, but look after your needs. Whoever you are, however you are, you are welcome in this gathering, just as you are.

Chalice Lighting: ‘Spirit of Holiness’ by Elizabeth Birtles

And now I’ll light our chalice, 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 proudly progressive religious tradition of which this gathering is part.

We gather as companions on a journey to be reminded of mystery and of holy things.

We gather to see each other’s faces, to be reminded of the sacred possibility
that even in our essential aloneness we may connect with each other.

We gather to weave and to reweave community that is animated by the mystery of life.

We gather, O Spirit of Holiness, to feel your presence, to worship, to listen,
to gain insight and courage and to celebrate the journey we make as companions.

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. And if you seem to be having trouble unmuting yourself please wave and one of the co-hosts will try to help with the unmuting. If you are going to speak, please be aware of how long you’re speaking for, so that there’s enough time for everyone who might want to speak. 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 to represent all those joys and concerns that we might be holding silently in our heart today, those stories which we don’t feel able to share out loud this morning. 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 a spirit of loving-kindness for a moment or two. And let’s take those joys and concerns into an extended time of prayer now.

Prayer: This prayer is based on some words by Krista Taves

You might first want to adjust your position for comfort, close your eyes, or soften your gaze. There might be a posture that helps you feel more prayerful. Whatever works for you.

Do whatever you need to do to get into the right state of body and mind for us to pray together – to be fully present here and now, in this sacred time and space – with ourselves, with each other, and with that which is both within us and beyond us. (pause)

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. (short pause)

We come together in prayer even though some of us struggle with what that means.
We come together to stand before that which is greater than us,
although we may struggle to say what that is.

And so on this day we pray for those things we struggle with in our everyday lives.
For the conflicts we feel within ourselves and between us and those we love.
We pray for guidance, compassion, for the opening of a path.

We pray for those things that give us joy and hope each day.
For those things that we trust in, believe in, will sacrifice for.
These are gifts of grace, and perhaps we need not define them
in order to savour them, rejoice in them, be thankful for them.

What we do know is that we gather here this morning with all kinds of needs.
Some are facing serious physical problems and are in need of healing.
Others need healing of a different kind – emotional and spiritual.
Some are facing family problems. Some are weary with the struggles
of life and seek assurance that this will someday pass.
Others face the anguish of making difficult decisions
for themselves, their families and friends, and for the common good.

For each of us, we speak the deepest prayers of our hearts in different ways, knowing
that what it means for them to be answered will look and feel different for each of us.
May we, somehow, this morning be met at the point of our differences
and also in the places that we are one, of the same
breath of life that courses through all living things

May we always hold in our hearts gratitude for those things that bless us
with their presence, forgiveness for the ways we have turned from those blessings,
and the willingness to open ourselves anew to this beautiful and hurting world. (short pause)

And in a good few moments of silence now,
may our hearts speak silently all the prayers of our lives—
our souls’ greatest joys and deepest sorrows, our triumphs and failures,
our regrets and fears, our disappointments and losses, our hopes and dreams. (long pause)

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 we call on you for insight, healing, and renewal.

As we look forward now to the coming week,
help us to live well each day and be our best selves;
using our unique gifts in the service of love, justice and peace. Amen

Reading: ‘For Margaret, Who Fights the Same Battle Over and Over’ by Nancy Shaffer (read by Pat)

We’ve got our first reading now. This is the first of two offerings in this morning’s service from the wonderful Unitarian Universalist minister Nancy Shaffer. In this poem she reflects on the conflicted relationship that many of us Unitarians have with God-language, and encourages us to persist – to examine whatever reactivity we might have to it – and perhaps to think again.


When you quarrel with God
really you are quarrelling with
those who have come after God.
It is not God who taught you only
a certain prayer or said reward
lies in only one direction. It’s not
God who said reward rather than
embracing love, which is everywhere;
not God who taught you to hate
God, shun God. Those like you –
two-legged and mortal – did this: those
also hurt, in turn, by others before them.

You could leave off this quarrelling:
just begin again, with just yourself
and God. You can choose a different
name for the Holy; stop cringing when
I say mine. Each is only a word for what
can’t be said, the barest beginning,
a glimpse. The rest you may do in private.

But see, what you do there in private
shows: what you come back with is written
all over you. It doesn’t matter
what the particular word is. Only
that you have been there to fetch it.
Only that you return there often, opening
yourself to everything that makes it.

Those who taught you what to pray and
how to pray were wrong, if what they
taught you, you hate.

You can begin again.

Hymn: ‘Name Unnamed’ (Unitarian Music Society)

Thanks Pat. It’s time to sing together now. Our first hymn today is ‘Name Unnamed’. It’s years since I’ve sung this one so I think it may be new to a lot of people here today. There are plenty of verses though so I’m sure you’ll pick up the tune as we go along! The words of this hymn gesture at ‘what we talk about when we talk about God’ – a much broader and more complex set of metaphors for the divine, the ultimate, than many of us will likely have grown up with. The words will appear on screen in a moment for you to sing along – and we’ll try to make sure you all stay muted – but if you don’t fancy singing it’s absolutely fine to just listen instead. And after the hymn we’ll have our second reading, from Antony, it’s by a Unitarian Universalist minister, John Nichols, and it opens with a famous passage from the Book of Exodus: ‘I AM WHO I AM’.

Name unnamed, hidden and shown, knowing and known. Gloria!

Beautifully moving, ceaselessly forming,
growing, emerging with awesome delight,
Maker of Rainbows, glowing with colour, arching in wonder,
energy flowing in darkness and light:
Name unnamed, hidden and shown, knowing and known. Gloria!

Spinner of Chaos, pulling and twisting,
freeing the fibres of pattern and form,
Weaver of Stories, famed or unspoken, tangled or broken,
shaping a tapestry vivid and warm:
Name unnamed, hidden and shown, knowing and known. Gloria!

Nudging Discomforter, prodding and shaking,
waking our lives to creative unease,
Straight-Talking Lover, checking and humbling, jargon and grumbling,
speaking the truth that refreshes and frees:
Name unnamed, hidden and shown, knowing and known. Gloria!

Midwife of Changes, skilfully guiding,
drawing us out through the shock of the new,
Woman of Wisdom, deeply perceiving, never deceiving,
freeing and leading in all that we do:
Name unnamed, hidden and shown, knowing and known. Gloria!

Daredevil Gambler, risking and loving,
giving us freedom to shatter your dreams,
Life-giving Loser, wounded and weeping, dancing and leaping,
sharing the caring that heals and redeems.
Name unnamed, hidden and shown, knowing and known. Gloria!

Reading: ‘I Am Who I Am’ by John Nichols (read by Antony – video)

This piece, by Unitarian Universalist minister John Nichols, opens with an excerpt from the Book of Exodus:

Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”

But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” Exodus 3:7–14

John Nichols goes on to reflect on this famous passage:

Having fled from Egypt to escape punishment for killing a slave driver, Moses took up the quiet life of a shepherd. One day, while he was alone in the mountains, a bush burst into flames. He knew immediately that God was in the fire, for a voice told him that he now stood “on holy ground.” God had seen the sufferings of the Israelites and told Moses to go to Egypt and plead with the Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Moses wondered why the Israelites would follow him, of all people, and so he asked for a sign, a name that would give him credibility with them. God responded, “I AM WHO I AM.”

What’s in a name? Why do we ask for them? If someone tells you their name, he gives you a way to get his attention. She tells you something about herself and offers what could be the threshold of a closer relationship. They dispel some of the mystery of who they are; it implies that they may give up even more of that mystery as your acquaintance deepens. The God of this passage is not going to do that, not then, not ever. Moses and the rest of us will have to get used to the idea that God is radically, mysteriously, and beautifully different from anything we can shape, control, or even describe, and that is how God remains free from being defined (and therefore not limited) by us.

We can only hope that once in a while, and likely when we least expect it, we will find ourselves “on holy ground.” There may be no burning bush in those moments but we will, as a result, become more sure of who we are and more confident of what we must do. God leads not by becoming more attractive or visible to us, but by becoming unavoidable. I AM WHO I AM or, as it is sometimes understood, I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE.

The Israelites finally sought their freedom not because they knew God would hold their hands, leading them safely past all danger and then making everything right, but because they believed they had to do it. Something finally unavoidable compelled them to leave the comparative securities of slavery for the freedom and terror of the wilderness. As it turned out, God’s five-word self-description really meant, “I am who you must confront.”

When those confrontations arise, when we are asked to do what is difficult but right, something crucially important to our future integrity and happiness happens. May we recognize this even if we don’t understand why.

Meditation: ‘That Which Holds All’ by Nancy Shaffer

Thanks, Antony. We’ve come now to a time of meditation. You might like to have a wiggle and get as comfortable as you can – perhaps put your feet flat on the floor to help ground and steady yourself – maybe close your eyes. In a while we’ll have our virtual chalice flame on screen. There’ll be another piece from Nancy Shaffer to take us into a time of meditation. Those who stayed behind for theology-chat after the service a fortnight ago will be familiar with this one. After the reading, and the silence, there’ll be a lovely cello solo from Abby to bring us out of the time of meditation. As ever, the words, images, and music are just an offering. You are absolutely free to think your own thoughts and spend this time meditating in your own way.

So, some words from Nancy Shaffer, this piece is titled ‘That Which Holds All’.

Because she wanted everyone to feel included
in her prayer,
she said right at the beginning
several names for the Holy:
Spirit, she said, Holy One, Mystery, God

but then thinking these weren’t enough ways of addressing
that which cannot be fully addressed, she added
particularities, saying, Spirit of Life, Spirit of Love,
Ancient Holy One, Mystery We Will Not Ever Fully Know,
Gracious God and also Spirit of This Earth, God of Sarah, Gaia, Thou

and then, tongue loosened, she fell to naming
superlatives as well: Most Creative One,
Greatest Source, Closest Hope –
even though superlatives for the Sacred seemed to her
probably redundant, but then she couldn’t stop:

One Who Made the Stars, she said, although she knew
technically a number of those present didn’t believe
the stars had been made by anyone or thing
but just luckily happened.

One Who Is an Entire Ocean of Compassion, she said, and no one laughed.
That Which Has Been Present Since Before the Beginning,
she said, and the room was silent.

Then, although she hadn’t imagined it this way,
others began to offer names:

Peace, said one.
One My Mother Knew, said another.
Ancestor, said a third.
Wind. Rain. Breath, said one near the back.
Refuge. That Which Holds All.
A child said, Water.
Someone said, Kuan Yin.
Then: Womb. Witness.
Great Kindness. Great Eagle. Eternal Stillness.

And then, there wasn’t any need to say the thing
she’d thought would be important to say,
and everyone sat hushed, until someone said


Silence: 3 minutes silence

Musical Interlude: Bach Movement 2 played by Abby Lorimier (1.32)

Instead of a sermon today, I’ve got a longer-than usual reading for you – about seven minutes I think – it’s an excerpt from a sermon by the Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Scott Alexander. It gives us lots to ponder in relation to our theme and it’s called ‘Which God Don’t You Believe In?’

Long Reading: ‘Which God Don’t You Believe in?’ By Scott Alexander (excerpts, adapted)

One of the hazards I have discovered of being a minister is having people proudly proclaim to me “I don’t believe in God” (If – say – I am foolish enough to allow myself to be identified as a clergyperson at a cocktail party). Usually I respond with a simple “Uh huh,” because usually their only purpose in pushing up to my face and saying this to me as a “reverend” is to shock or upset me. But what I do say, if I sense they are actually sincere about wanting a genuine spiritual dialogue is, “Uh huh… well which God is it that you don’t believe in,” and then I listen carefully to their response. When I have taken the time for such theological dialogue, nine times out of ten I have eventually been able to say to that person: “Fine. I don’t believe in that (old, outworn, dysfunctional) biblical God either. Vis-a-vis that God we are both atheists! But now that we’ve got that out of the way (discovering what it is you don’t believe in) we are free to explore just what it is you might believe about God that would be positive, creative, healing and liberating for you!”

There are so many creative, spirit-enriching ways to think about God! For some of us, God is, as the old Universalists put it, love, simply love—a powerful spirit of goodness, warmth, mercy and justice that lives in people and the world. For others, God is a life force or creative spirit or higher power or supreme intelligence or infinite ground of being which animates creation making life and purpose possible. For others, God is an unknowable mystery that utterly defies definition or description. And I would be remiss if I didn’t also acknowledge that for some, God is simply a concept that is of no spiritual usefulness. Obviously a God concept is not necessary for people to live lives that reflect compassion, goodness and gratitude.

Talking about God with our clumsy, imprecise words is, by its very nature, an often subjective and slippery thing to do. I nonetheless believe there is great spiritual value in our each humbly sharing what God does (and of equal importance does not) mean to us individually. Without such respectful sharing of our own ideas about and experiences of God, how will we ever be able to mature and deepen our theological understandings and spiritual sensitivities?

Perhaps some of you have felt the same God I do? I feel God near me when, in some rare and fleeting moment, I watch the sun peacefully set over the ocean… or when I see the flicker of candlelight dancing in the eyes of my beloved across a cosy dinner table… or when I witness people in my community working together to care for someone who is dying… or when I crawl into the embrace of sleep beneath a full heaven of friendly, twinkling stars… or when I join with others to see that justice is done, mercy expressed, decency preserved, love shared! The God I know is not supernatural. It is not set off apart and unavailable in some purer, nobler world than mine. But it is super because that spirit of life and love is so superlatively sustaining and it is natural in that it is sunk deep down in the natural, everyday flow of life and persons. It is, as my colleague Clarke Wells puts it, “that dearest freshness in deep down things,” a life-giving presence that is sunk deep down into the muck and marrow of this life, a spirit that is freely available to bless and lift and guide me here…now…just as I am in all my foibled and flawed humanness. The God I know cannot do all things, it is certainly not always obvious or available to me, but it remains with me, faithfully and powerfully present in this often broken world of mine… and it saves me, pure and simple, with its grace and power.

And God to me is also a participatory phenomenon… a relational reality… a living process which needs us if it is going to achieve its fullest and finest reality and power. The spirit in the world I call holy is an open, unfinished, receptive spirit to which I can freely lend my heart, lend my soul— lend my energies, affections, efforts, and love. That which I call God can and does operate for life and love quite without me, thank you, for I (after all) am a tiny earth-bound creature of little ultimate cosmic significance. But I believe my God becomes stronger and lovelier as I become more loving, just, and giving. The God I know and depend on for spiritual wholeness is both a presence and a process. My God is an open, available, holy spirit…a good and gracious spirit astir in my world, which guides my heart to action, which welcomes my frail, little contributions of beauty and blessing… service and love. We should never dare, of course, to imagine ourselves synonymous with God, not even on those rare occasions when we are the imperfect vessels for God’s holy energy in our daily lives. That would be the worst form of idolatry. But I believe if we are awake to the holy powers and processes that are everywhere around and within us, we participate in that holiness, and that participation blesses, fills and saves us.

I don’t expect (or even want) all (or even most) of you to have an identical conceptualization or experience of God to mine. When it comes to what the word God means to each of us personally, there will always be a radical subjectivity, a fierce individuality of experience and expression. What I do hope, however, is that unlike the boring spiritual naysayers I meet at various social gatherings (who simply bellow at me that they don’t believe in some old/tired/dysfunctional God) that in your life you will be searching for and sensing something you can call Most High and Holy—searching for something greater and more gracious than yourself to whom (or to which) you can give your praise, your allegiance, your devotion.

Hymn: ‘Bring Many Names’ (Unitarian Music Society)

Words from Scott Alexander – lots for us to ponder there. Let’s sing together one more time now. This hymn is the one which inspired the title of today’s service: ‘Bring Many Names’. It speaks of just a few of the infinite variety of images and metaphors we might use to speak of God – and speaks too of God’s ultimate unknowability – reminding us of the limits of our God-language. As always we’ll make sure you’re muted so feel free to sing along with the Unitarian Music Society.

Bring many names, beautiful and good;
celebrate in parable and story,
holiness in glory, living, loving God:
Hail and Hosanna, bring many names!

Strong mother God, working night and day,
planning all the wonders of creation,
setting each equation, genius at play:
Hail and Hosanna, strong mother God!

Warm father God, hugging every child,
feeling all the strains of human living,
caring and forgiving till we’re reconciled:
Hail and Hosanna, warm father God!

Old, aching God, grey with endless care,
calmly piercing evil’s new disguises,
glad of good surprises, wiser than despair:
Hail and Hosanna, old, aching God!

Young, growing God, eager, on the move,
saying no to falsehood and unkindness,
crying out for justice, giving all you have:
Hail and Hosanna, young, growing God!

Great, living God, never fully known,
joyful darkness far beyond our seeing,
closer yet than breathing, everlasting home:
Hail and Hosanna, great, living God


Thanks to John for Zoom hosting today and to Jeannene for her valuable supporting role. Thanks also to our readers, Pat and Antony, and to Abby for providing our music today.

There are a few opportunities to connect in the week ahead: Coffee morning on Zoom at 10.30 on Tuesday. Heart and Soul, our contemplative spiritual gathering – tonight and on Friday – is on the theme of ‘Conflict’. We like to take a group photo after the closing music so stick around.

We’ve scaled back our programme of in-person gatherings over the summer months so the next one will be on Saturday 17th July with Sarah. Do get in touch to book your place. Sarah will also be here next at 10am on Zoom with a service on ’The Choices We Make’. We’re expecting a virtual visit from Brighton Unitarians so that’ll be a chance to mingle with another congregation. It’s fine to share the link with friends. And feel free to drop us a line during the week to get in touch.

We’ve just got some brief closing words now, adapted from Mark Mosher deWolfe, followed by another little bit of Bach from Abby to finish. So I invite you to select gallery view at this point so we can all see each other and get a sense of our community-and-connectedness for this closing.

Closing Words: ‘May We Know the Holy Mystery’ by Mark Mosher deWolfe (adapted)

In our lives, may we know the holy meaning –
the mystery – that breaks in at every moment.
May we live at peace with our world and at peace with ourselves –
as we seek justice, liberation, and the common good of all with whom we share this earth –
and may the love of truth guide us through all the days of our lives. Amen.

Closing Music: Bach Movement 3 played by Abby Lorimier (1.20)

Jane Blackall

4th July 2021