How We Choose – 11/7/21

Opening Music: Spirit of Life played by Abby and Sue

Opening words:

We gather here
to seek the truth, to grow in love, to join in service;
To vow once again to live from our truest values
And to question our living of this mystery that is life.
to honour our kinship with each other and with the earth;
to celebrate life’s beauty and find healing for its pain;
to create a more compassionate world,
beginning with ourselves;
to wonder at the mystery that gave us birth;
to find courage for the journey’s end;
and to listen for the wisdom that guides us
in the quiet moments in this peaceful space
made sacred by our presence here.

(adapted from Gary Kowalski’s words)

Good morning everybody, I’m Sarah Tinker, recently retired minister with our Kensington Unitarians community. And here we are for our virtual Sunday morning gathering, on Zoom, reaching out and connecting with you wherever you are, however you are feeling today and whatever is going on for you in life at this time. That word ‘connection’ is what this is all about – for we are living aren’t we, through a time when because of the global pandemic we are still having to think more carefully about how we connect with others. And yet our lives are inextricably connected, as this service will be exploring.

We’re delighted to welcome visitors from our Brighton Unitarian congregation this morning. Good to have you with us and to be reminded that we are part of a wider spiritual community – nationally and internationally. A warm hello to all of you gathered here in the realm of Zoom – members and friends of Kensington Unitarians – as well as a greeting to those of you who are listening on a podcast, or watching a video of this service on YouTube some time in the future. If you are with us on Zoom feel free to join in at a level that is right for you – it’s fine just to sit back and listen and switch off your video if that’s more restful for you. There’s no need to join in, in any active way, although there are opportunies to speak and sing if you want at several points in this gathering and there’ll be a simple body prayer with movements. But as in all Unitarian activities, you can choose to take part in a way that works best for you. Our theme for today is ‘how we choose’ and my hope is that there will be something in our service today that speaks to you in some way, wherever you are in life, however you’re feeling this morning, whatever’s on your mind. Let’s take a moment to get a sense of what it might mean for each of us to be welcomed for who we are, just as we are, no need to pretend, no need to put on appearances, able for this time to just be ourselves, making this a time for our own thoughts, opening ourselves to insights. Let’s take a gentle connecting breath together – in and out – and use this moment to get a sense of what it is we might most need this morning. (light chalice in silence)

Chalice Lighting: This chalice flame connects us with the world wide community of Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists. Its one light reminds us that we are one people, living one life, on our one, precious, planet earth home.

Candles of joy and concern: Each Sunday when our Kensington Unitarians community meets, we share candles of joy and concern, where we invite a few people to light a candle and speak of something that is in their heart. So here in our Zoom service we’ve a good few minutes for some of you to tell us of a joy or a concern, and to light a candle, real or imaginary. When you are ready to speak you can unmute yourself and just speak out so everyone can hear and then re-mute yourself when you’ve finished speaking. Do give it a go if you’d like to, as it’s quite special to hear some other voices and perspectives, visitors do feel free to join in – and let’s stay aware of how long we’re speaking for, so others have chance to speak too. And I suggest we each now switch to gallery view on our own screens so we can see everyone. Our hosts John and Jeannene will do their best to spot if someone wants to speak and can’t unmute themselves. And you’ll hear me thank each speaker by name – to let them know they’ve been heard and to signal that the space is free from someone else to speak.

Light a tealight – I have one more candle here – to represent all the issues we haven’t spoken of today that we hold within us. You might like to pause for a moment and think of what really matters to you this day. Let’s remember always that these joys and griefs, spoken and unspoken, weave us together in the fabric of community.

Prayer and Reflection: Let’s bring the joys and concerns we’ve heard expressed today into our time of reflection and prayer, along with all those issues we carry quietly in our hearts. Let’s make ourselves as comfortable as we can, take a bit of time to turn inwards, to bring all of ourselves to this moment, align ourselves with that which guides our living in this world, the god of our hearts and our understanding, the ground of our being … as I call on the divine spirit of life and of love to be with us now and to bless all that we say and do together here today.

That we are free to worship as we do here today is due to the struggles fought by generations that have gone before us. Ours is a free church and it exists because some people refused to be bound by the beliefs and conventions of their day. They risked their livelihoods and even their lives because they would not conform. They stood out against the crowd and spoke their truth. Let us in a quiet moment now think with gratitude of those who won the freedoms we now enjoy.

As we consider the world in which we live we are so aware of the many places where people are not free. In so many countries it is dangerous to admit that you love someone of the same gender as yourself because same sex relationships are illegal; in China people are arrested and held without trial for speaking out about environmental degradation and the Uyghur people are forced to denounce their culture; in Myanmar and Belarus it is illegal to hold peaceful protests against the military rulers; in Iran people of faiths such as the Bahais and Zoroastrians are facing increasing levels of persecution; in Afghanistan a few weeks ago another school was attacked because it offered an education to girls. Here in Britain our government steps up the forcible repatriation of failed asylum seekers even when they fear for their lives returning to their countries of origin. In a quiet moment we can think of all the other places where people are not free.

In our own lives we will be aware of the freedoms we enjoy as well as the limitations that we have to deal with, let’s give thanks for our freedoms and seek strength and acceptance in dealing with our limitations.

Let us be ever aware of the choices we make in life and the many ways that our choices affect the lives of others – bound as we are by ties of mutuality in this one world we share.

And may we continue to use the gift of our free church to help the spread of freedom throughout our world. And may this truly be for the greater good of all, amen.

And now there’s chance to sing a hymn – the words will be on our screens and we’ll all be muted and so you can sing out loud if you wish or just enjoy listening – the spirit lives to set us free. The words are going to appear on our screens now and before the music starts – provided for us by the Unitarian Music Society – let’s look at the first verse together: ‘the Spirit lives to set us free … it binds us all in unity’. That line expresses one of my key messages today – that our freedoms are inescapably connected with the life of our shared human community.

Hymn: The spirit lives to set us free

Reading: ‘Decisions’ by Boris Novak

This poem, title ‘Decisions’ is by a contemporary Slovenian poet Boris A. Novak, a university professor, a dramatist and a translator. You can find more about Boris Novak and some of his poems online. It’s a short poem and like all poetry that engages us – it uses few words to convey deep human experience. Choices, making decisions – haven’t most of us struggled to make a choice, to reach a decision, at some time or another in our lives. I’ll pause a short while after reading this and then I’ll read it again.

Between two words
choose the quieter one.

Between word and silence
choose listening.

Between two books
choose the dustier one.

Between the earth and the sky
choose a bird.

Between two animals
choose the one who needs you more.

Between two children
choose both.

Between the lesser and the bigger evil
choose neither.

Between hope and despair
choose hope:
it will be harder to bear.

Meditation: And now we move into a time of meditation, so you might want to get into a comfy position where you can relax for a good few minutes. This is a three part meditation today – we’ll start with a guided blessing of the body where we invite you to join in at home and touch different parts of your body – that will lead in to 3 minutes in silence – with our usual chalice flame quietly there for us to focus on if we want and our silence will end with piano music – a recording made for us last year, by Sandra Smith our pianist, of the old hymn tune – I’ve got peace like a river in my soul.

Feel free to switch off your video in the silence later if you prefer, or close your eyes or soften your gaze and take one of those lovely breaths that go deep into the belly and as you release the breath you release some of the tension that all of us store – those muscles in our shoulders and backs, the tension in our faces. This is a body prayer and we are invited at different points to bring our hands to our foreheads, throats, hearts, tummies and then to hold our hands together and wrap our arms around ourselves. Do join me if it feels right to do so. (touch hands to your own forehead, if it feels natural)

May we be blessed with wisdom, knowledge and understanding. May our minds be our friends and our thoughts be creative and helpful. We have been gifted with reason and free will, let us use these gifts for the good of all. (throat)

May our voices be a blessing. May we cultivate both our ability to speak the truth in love and to hear the truths of others. (heart)

May our hearts be blessed with love and with courage. May we know the agony of heartbreak, along with the inspiration of true love. Let us heed the wisdom of our hearts. (tummy)

We are blessed with the gifts of a body. May we know ourselves to be beloved children of the universe. Our bodies are sacred and belong to us and to life itself. May we know the joy of nourishing and nurturing ourselves as well as others. (hands)

When we were a baby, our tiny hands were our first contact with the world. Before we could see more than a few feet in front of our face, we grasped the finger of those close to us. We catch ourselves with your hands when we fall, and we express love and comfort to others with them too. May our hands be both gentle and strong. May we use them to carry light into the darkness and to bring rest to the weary. May our hands always find the place of greatest need, beginning with our own needs, and may the creator of all things hold us in the palm of her hand wherever we may go. (wrap arms around whole body)

May love for ourselves comfort us in our times of distress. May love for others shine out as a beacon into the world and bring comfort to all in need.

May we know ourselves to be a whole person, our myriad elements working together to form the unique being we are. May we be blessed in all things and carry blessings with us wherever we go.

And may all this be so as we enter now the fellowship of silence together.

Chalice flame video with silence followed by piano music played by Sandra Smith – peace like a river

Address: How we choose

In the world of Zoom it’s around 10.30am here in the UK on a Sunday morning and I wonder what choices you have all made so far today. You’ve chosen to be here taking part in this Kensington Unitarians’ gathering, some no doubt more willingly than others. I wonder how many of us have had breakfast and if we did, did we choose to eat something a bit different this morning. My screen is on gallery view so give us a wave if you’ve had some breakfast … or if you’re still in your PJs. Some people will have been out already – to the corner shop maybe or to sit in a garden or walk. Most days involve multiple choices don’t they – choices that we make more or less consciously.

The act of choosing, the decision-making process, is a key aspect of being human. We have free will and that brings with it both joy and challenge. It also highlights life’s inequalities – because free will is shaped by so many factors – the society and culture we live in, the education we’ve received, our age and social position, our economic situation, our health and relative mobility. Some of you are I know are facing serious limitations in exercising your free will and I imagine many of us know people who cannot access freedoms they have previously enjoyed. When I find myself so limited I hope I’ll be able to remember these words from Viktor Frankl’s book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ published in 1946 after his imprisonment in Auschwitz.

‘Everything can be taken from a person but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.’

Frankl is referring here to our inner life. It pains me to think of regimes the world over, that manage to intrude even on their citizens’ inner lives.

Have you personally had to make a decision recently, a decision that perhaps stopped you in your tracks for a while? Let’s just pause a moment and have a think if you’d like to, about a decision you’ve made. How did you go about that decision-making process? How did you know when you’d reached the ‘right’ choice – the right choice for you?

We humans, with our reflective capacity and our imaginations, can do a great deal of thinking about life’s turning points, in those times of change when decisions are needed. I’m grateful to whichever course I went on where they told us that one Latin root of the word decide is caedere – a verb meaning ‘to cut’. When we make decisions we potentially cut away alternative choices – no wonder we sometimes find it hard to decide – to choose one path over another. For we cannot take every path – we cannot fulfil every potential.

Not surprising then, that humanity has created so many ways of helping us to reach a decision. Do any of these describe your own processes? We might speak of consulting our inner guidance, or asking God for wisdom or offering the decision up to a higher power. We might consult sources of divination – The I Ching or rune stones of ancient times, the Tarot deck of cards. The Taoists speak of being ‘in the flow’ – the wu wei sense of a choice being ‘right’. Some people weigh their decision alongside the principles they use to guide their life, a kind of moral compass that helps set their course. Others seek the wisdom of teachers and those who they trust and who inspire them. We may talk with friends or family; we may talk it over inside ourselves. Some of us speak of ‘gut instincts’ guiding us in certain directions in life, of following our intuition.

Some of us have probably experienced the feeling of helplessness that can come upon us when we don’t know what to do for the best, when concern about making a wrong choice stops us in our tracks. I’m grateful to various teachers and courses over the years for encouragement to be brave, for encouragement to trust ourselves in life – knowing that even when we make a decision where the outcome is not as we planned – yet still we have the capacity to work with what then unfolds. The future is not written, there is no perfect place to get to in life, no rigidly dualistic right and wrong in our choosing – rather there is an unfolding, a developing, and an on-going relational responsiveness between us and life’s other players, a relational responsiveness between us and life itself.

And it’s that relational aspect of choice making that’s a key point of my message today. This evening, you may or may not be aware, here in London there’s a football match taking place that matters a great deal –to some people, and not at all to others. You can choose whether or not to watch the match on television, you can choose which team to support, you are free to respond to football in the way you decide. Well up to a point. You can shout whatever you want at the TV in your own home and express nationalistic fervour in whatever way you choose. But if you’re one of the ‘lucky’ 60,000 fans going to Wembley tonight – I’d say it’s not ok to shout abuse when another country’s national anthem is being played. I’d say it’s not ok to shine a laser beam onto the face of the opposing team’s goalkeeper. We have laws to govern such behaviour. And most of us have a clear moral sense of ‘fair play’ and respect for others.

On our path through life, when making choices, we have to weigh up certain factors. And one factor in human decision-making has to be ‘how will my choice affect others?’. We are social creatures – to paraphrase poet John Donne – ‘no one person is an island entire of itself, each is part of the entirety’.

Professor Stephen Reicher was quoted this week in The Guardian as saying that dealing with the pandemic cannot be “an ‘I’ thing, it’s a ‘we’ thing”. That expressed clearly for me the need to think of others as well as ourselves. For we are in this thing called life together. Here, even in our little gathering today, there will be a great diversity of attitudes to all this. We have to find ways of understanding and accepting our differences, whilst allowing people to express their own particular needs and choices. Our government is choosing to place responsibility back on to us as individual citizens when it comes to control of a very infectious disease. Some people will be delighted that restrictions on their personal freedoms are coming to an end, some people find the thought of such freedom very frightening and dangerous indeed. My plea to us all in the weeks ahead is to stay awake to the many ways in which our choices affect the lives of others. Let’s try to stay open-hearted in response to other people’s differing points of view and let’s seek wellsprings of empathy within us, care for others and care for ourselves. The spirit lives to set us free …. It binds us all in unity. So may it be, amen.

Hymn What does the Lord require?

There’s another opportunity to sing a hymn now but if you would rather just read the words that are going to appear on the screen soon that’s fine. I’ve chosen a hymn called What does the Lord require? It’s based on words from the prophet Micah – one of those hard-hitting Old Testament prophets who could tell the people in just a few clear words, how best to live their lives: “It has been told to you, oh human, what is it that the Eternal seeks from you? That you do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” The hymn words come from John Bunyan, the 17th century Puritan preacher and writer. By all accounts Bunyan was a remarkably powerful preacher – somewhat in the spirit of those Old Testament prophets like Micah. The hymn tune is also quite rousing – so feel free to imitate a preacher of old inspiring the crowds as you sing.

Announcements: My thanks go to John and Jeannene for all the focused background work of hosting today and to our musicians Abby, Sue and Sandra. It’s been a pleasure to spend time with you here today. We’ll be back again next week for a 10am service here on Zoom, when Jane Blackall is organising a congregational service – which has the delightful title of ‘being bored’ – surely a state of being experienced by no Unitarian churchgoers! Or maybe we’re all so enlightened we know that boredom is the secret portal to nirvana, a state of eternal bliss. You’d best come along and find out. You’re also welcome to join our weekly 10.30am coffee morning on Tuesday on Zoom. Book for in person gathering, next Saturday 17th July at 10.50 for an 11am start. Details in our weekly email. There are a couple of spaces in today’s Heart and Soul session – brought forward to 5.30pm this evening in order to avoid some ball sport later on the TV. The theme is ‘responsibility’. And I haven’t told Jane but I’ve recommended that all the English football fans attend Heart & Soul before the match to put them in the right frame of mind. Thank you to everyone who has made a donation towards church running costs recently – they are much appreciated and help to keep our particular work going out in the world. Don’t forget we have a virtual coffee time to chat after the service if you’d like to stay and join in – and we’d like to take a photo of us all as soon as the music ends, so do stick around if you don’t mind being in a photo.

We’re going to have some closing words in a moment followed by George Harrison’s Here comes the sun, to cheer us on our way – I invite you to select gallery view on your screen now so that we can all see each other for the closing words and enjoy that feeling of connection in community, apart yet together.

Closing words, extinguish chalice: I extinguish our chalice flame but not the warmth of this community. And I send the light of this candle out into the world that all people might be free to choose their own path in life. And may we who know the privilege of freedom, know also our responsibilities to others, for none of us walk this path of life alone, our paths are forever entwined with the paths of others. So may we do justly, love mercy and walk humbly together all the days of our lives. Amen, go well all of you and blessed be.

Closing music: Here comes the sun played by Sandra Smith

Rev. Sarah Tinker

11th July 2021