The River – 01/08/21

Opening Music: ‘We Are the Flow’ performed by Marilisa Valtazanou (1.20)
‘We are the flow and we are the ebb; we are the weavers, we are the web’

Bob: Opening Words:

Here on this lovely morning,
Here in our homes,
Or wherever we find ourselves this Sunday,
Here in this home of the heart we make together for an hour

We pause in our busy lives,
To consider what is worthy of our deepest yearnings.
In the time we are given here,
May we pay attention to the wonder of each moment,
May we grieve what is lost,
May we be grateful
For our life on this beautiful earth, and
May we prepare ourselves
For the work love calls us to do.
Just as we are, may we be the beloved community.

Jane: Welcome and Introduction:

Thank you, Bob. These words 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.

This morning I’m delighted to introduce the Reverend Bob Janis-Dillon who’ll be leading most of our service this morning. Bob was minister with Merseyside Unitarians from 2015-20 – he’s joining us from the North-West this morning – and more recently has served as Congregational Connections Lead for the Unitarian General Assembly, helping to build greater connection and cooperation between our communities and activists. Bob is a tremendous writer and thinker and a splendid and soulful human being. And he’s my friend. We are very lucky to have Bob with us for his last UK engagement before he returns to the US to take up a new ministry role in the Catskills.

If anyone is here for the first time today – a special welcome to you – I’m really glad you found us. I hope you find something of what you need here – something that speaks to your condition. Please do hang around afterwards for a chat or drop us an email to introduce yourself if you’d like. Or you might think about coming to one of our online gatherings during the week as they’re a good way to get to know people more organically and ask us any questions you might have. And if you’re a regular here – thank you for all that you do to welcome all who come each Sunday. We each have a part to play in co-creating this sacred space, this sense of spiritual 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.

Jane: Chalice Lighting:

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 light this chalice as a reminder of the tradition that holds us,
and the values and aspirations we share as a community:
our commitment to the common good,
and our yearning for a better world that’s yet to be,
where all may know true freedom, justice, equality, and peace.

May this small flame be for us a sign of faith, hope, and love.

Jane: Candles of Joy and Concern:

Each week when we gather together, whether it’s in person at the church in Kensington or here as an online congregation, we share a simple ritual of candles of joy and concern, an opportunity to light a candle and share something that is in our heart with the community. So we’ve got a good few minutes now, for anyone who would like to do so, to light a candle (real or imaginary) and say a few words about what it represents.

When you’re ready to speak, unmute your microphone so we can all hear you, and then re-mute yourself once you’ve finished. If you are going to speak, please be aware of how long you’re speaking for, so that there’s time for others to say something too. Let’s leave a pause between one candle and the next, so we can honour what’s been shared. And don’t worry too much if two people end up speaking at the same time, or there’s a technical hitch of some sort – these things happen on Zoom – please do persevere! At this point it’d be nice, if you can, to switch to gallery view so we can all see everybody.

I’ve got one more candle here and – as we often do – I’m going to light that to represent all those joys and concerns that we might be holding silently in our heart today, 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.

Bob: Introduction to Psalm:

Jane: Psalm 46 (New International Version)

God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.
Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
he lifts his voice, the earth melts.

The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Come and see what the Lord has done,
the desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease
to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.”

The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Bob: Prayer:

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.

There is a river whose streams make glad the glory of God,
There is a peace, a serenity, in the midst of our lives.
We pray to be connected to this river,
to know Your peace,
even as we know suffering,
in our lives and others whom we love.

Spirit of life and love, oh God
may your abundant blessing be with
all those who are in physical and emotional pain,
all those who are lost and have lost their way in life,
all those who are bereft.

Help us to live in right relationship with this earth,
Knowing we are not the ultimate creators,
but participators in a sacred dance
that includes the rivers, and the clouds,
and the trees our sisters,
and the birds our brothers.
Help us to live well upon this earth.

Great spirit, be with all those who mourn this hour,
that they may be comforted.
May the river of grief wind its way,
Gently, and over many miles,
towards wisdom, and gentleness, and healing.

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.

Bob: Hymn: ‘To Worship Rightly’ by Kensington Unitarians 2018

Our first hymn today is an old favourite and a well-loved tune, ‘To Worship Rightly’. It speaks of this project of justice and compassion we embark on together, as a congregation this hour and as a world. This is a recording of the Kensington congregation from a service a few years back so there’ll probably be a bit of rustling and coughing and some of you might even hear your own voices. The words will appear on screen in a moment for you to sing along – 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.

Now let us sing in loving celebration;
The holier worship, which our God may bless,
Restores the lost, binds up the spirit broken,
And feeds the widow and the parentless.
Fold to thy heart thy sister and thy brother;
Where pity dwells, the peace of God is there;
To worship rightly is to love each other;
Each smile a hymn, each kindly deed a prayer.

Follow with reverent steps the great example
Of those whose holy work was doing good:
So shall the wide earth seem our daily temple,
Each loving life a psalm of gratitude.
Then shall all shackles fall; the stormy clangour
Of wild war-music o’er the earth shall cease;
Love shall tread out the baleful fire of anger,
And in its ashes plant the tree of peace.

Bob to Introduce Reading:

Video: Reading: ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ by African-American poet Langston Hughes

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Bob: Meditation:

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 few words to take us into a time of silence. After the words, and the silence, there’ll be a lovely song from Marilisa, ‘Rivers Run’. As ever, the words, and 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.

I invite you to breathe in, and to breathe out.
We’ve been thinking about rivers,
And the presence of the holy in our lives.

In the midst of this meditation, you might imagine a river or a body of water:
A babbling brook, working its way down the mountains,
or a might river coursing through forests and cities.
Or, if you prefer, a lake or an ocean.
Come and rest by the presence of water.

Breathe in, breathe out.
Come and rest by the presence of water, in your mind.

Feel the peace that comes from the water on its way downstream,
the water just doing what it does.
Rest your mind a while.
Don’t try to force anything,
Don’t try to fix anything,
be in the presence of water.
Feel the flow of water.
Hear the water lap against the banks, lap against the shore.

Perhaps we, too, have a flow.
Perhaps we too, are headed somewhere,
and perhaps, in our comings and our goings,
we too are cared for,
just as the river is a precious part of the earth,
Nourishing all that it comes into contact with,
so we are a precious part of the earth,
Nourishing all that we come into contact with.

This river is larger than our lives.
Feel the presence of the ancestors,
those whose lives flow seamlessly,
again again, into our own lives.
Feel our connection to the all, to nature,
to the gentle breeze which contains the breath of God.

May the river refresh our spirits.

Let us have a time now of silent reflection, contemplation and meditation.

Video: Silence: 3 minutes silence accompanied by chalice video

Video: Musical Interlude: ‘Rivers Run’ performed by Marilisa Valtazanou (2.49)

Bob: Sermon:

Come and see what the Lord has done…there is a river, whose streams make glad the glory of God.

I remember a moment one evening in Erieceira, Portugal, a few years ago – this was long before pandemic, when many of us had the incredible, wondrous privilege of being able to fly through the air in metal airplanes to various destinations. Ericeira is about an hour West of Lisbon, on the Atlantic Ocean. It’s known especially for its surfing. I am not a surfer, except for the two hours I tried to get up on the surfboard – well, I wasn’t much of a surfer then, either. But it was fun.

But in the evenings in Ericeira, there was too much to do except listen to the waves crashing on the shore. What a sound they made! There is something about the sound of waves crashing on the shore, at nightfall, that has such a profound affect of human psyche, don’t you think? That rhythmic roar and lull, crashing and subsiding, the smell of the salt air and the seagulls crying in it; and as the waves pull … back and forth, back and forth the human spirit goes into its own rhythm of remembering and forgetting.

There is a river, whose streams make glad the glory of God.

I’ve known a few rivers, but my own most sacred river is the Atlantic Ocean. I know it’s cheating a bit, to call the Atlantic Ocean a river, but we call flying across the 3,000 mile expanse of the Atlantic “crossing the pond”, so why can’t we call it a river? And its streams have always brought me comfort. I come from a travelling family, my brothers and parents and I have each lived in multiple countries, but with few exceptions I have always lived with an hour or two of the Atlantic. I went down to the Connecticut beaches as a kid, to splash about in the flat waters where the Atlantic flows into the Long Island sound. I have seen the Irish Sea many times from Southport and Blackpool piers, crossed the English channel on the ferry; I have known Plymouth and Lundy; Tyne and Wight. I’ve known rivers.

I have stood on the Normandy beaches where the Americans and the Polish and the Canadians and the English came ashore, all those years ago, and thought of my grandfather, who was in the Pacific theatre at the time, fixing radios; he is “no longer with us”, as the phrase goes, except that he is always with me. I’ve been to the New Jersey shore, in winter, when there is next to no one, on miles of expanse of brilliant white sand and the brisk wind greets you like a hale and hearty friend; I’ve been to the isle of Jersey in summer, on a bicycle when the whole world feels open to the heart’s longing.

I fear I’m showing off now, which is not my intent. Travel has been useful to me, in some respects; it has helped me become a bit more compassionate, exposed me to different cultures, brought me out of myself. But I’m no wiser, not one bit, than someone who has lived in their immediate neighbourhood for every one of their days. There are many ways to expand the soul, and you don’t need to travel to do it.

But what I want to talk about today is not travel, but the blessing. The mysterious blessing. The river that God is within, the holy places where the most high dwells. When we are in the midst of nature sometimes we feel a sense of this blessing – the sense that the world is more precious than we can possibly put words to, that it uplifts and sustains us, grounds us and nourishes us. There is a blessing, in the midst of rivers, and mountains and forests, there is a blessing.

Jesus spoke of the blessing, by the way, his first words in the book of Mark were: “Time is abundant, God’s reign is right here. Open your mind, change your heart. Believe in the blessing.”

What did he mean by that? What is the blessing? I don’t know. But whatever it is, I feel like I’ve been living out the blessing my whole life, this blessing.

This was a hard year for me. My marriage broke up, and we’re on the road to divorce. The kids were all right, but it’s one of those excruciatingly hard things that happen to people, and it happened to me. At the same time, there’s been this pandemic – I don’t know if you heard about it. At the congregations in Merseyside I served, several congregants died over the last year and a half, at least two or three with Covid, a couple from the stress of lockdown, a couple more in the other, usual ways that death greets us as we get a bit older. My grandmother died too, at ninety-odd, who I was quite close to. And my parent’s beloved dog, who I was quite close to, too, at eighteen. Meanwhile I was already planning on finishing up my ministry at Merseyside this year after five good years there – the pandemic pushed the transition back for a couple months, but I knew in my heart it was time to move on. But even so, it was bittersweet.

It’s been a hard time. Jane, by the way, your ministry coordinator, has been such a blessing to me throughout this incredibly hard time, a sure presence in times of trouble. She’s a dear friend, and she’s also an amazing pastoral presence, wise counsellor, and human being. As I’m sure many of you already know.

It’s been a difficult year, and I’m telling you this because I want you to know that when I say I feel that there is a blessing, a mysterious blessing, at the heart of life I am not saying that everything will work out tickety-boo and life will always go smoothly. I am not claiming that our bodies will not fall apart and fail us in the end, because – spoiler alert – that is exactly what will happen. If we’re lucky enough to get that far.

Without the reality of crucifixion, the Christian story is just a bit of sentimental fluff. Our bodies do fall apart, bad things do happen to us. Langston Hughes titled his immortal poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” because he is speaking directly from the African-American experience. The poem is a song of hope seen through the lens of suffering. “my soul has grown deep like the rivers… I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.”

This is not a pleasure cruise – this is a hard-fought, bruised redemption, after the historical scars of massive oppression and violence. And yet, there is still the river. “Rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins…my soul has grown deep like the rivers.”

I have lived an extremely comfortable life, by the standards of human experience. But even I know that the blessing is not about life going well all the time. No one needs to tell me that the world can be a difficult place. There were many days I felt I couldn’t cope. They were many days I felt upset of God, upset at the structure of the universe.

It gave me some solace to know that the psalmists and the Buddha and Harriet Tubman and the Christ had suffered too. Not that I wanted any of them to suffer. But I knew I was in good company.

And I feel, in my bones, what the great ones have all been saying all this time – to paraphrase Thorton Wilder, that there is something, way down deep, that is special about this life we get to live. There is a blessing at the heart of life.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.

Have you ever sat by the rivers, heard the tides of the great river, the ocean,
and felt a serenity surge up in your bones?
A sense that everything is already all right –
that you are received, just as you are.
That you are welcome, that your life is welcome
on this earth.
And the waves are breaking,
and the river is making it’s way to the sea.
And even if our frail flesh,
will crumble, over time,
into food for the daisies,
it’s all right, somehow, because there is a blessing,
and we are a part of it.
Right this moment.
We are a part of that blessing.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
God is within her, she will not fall –
Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall –

But this holy moment…
me, you, sitting by the river –
God is in the midst of this life.
There is something eternal, something precious beyond words, beyond time itself, in the presence. I the blessing.

“The kingdom of God is at hand” – it’s right here, near enough to touch.
Even in the midst of a terrible pandemic, the Holy is still at the heart of human existence.

Trust in the blessing.

(Jesus, pisteo, pistis)

I did not know, sitting by the beach in Ericeira,
listening to the waves of the river,
my river, the Atlantic Ocean, crash against the Portugueses shore,
I didn’t know that 2020 would be a hard year,
that 2021 would be a year of transitions and challenges.
But I felt the blessing then, and I feel it now.
There is a river that connects us, with our past and our future,
That connects us with the ancestors and our consciences.
There is a river that flows through our veins,
and gives us breath.
We are a part of the great river.
And you know?
Everything will be all right.
“All shall will be well, and all manner of things shall be well,”
As Julian of Norwich said.
“Every little thing is gonna be all right,” as Bob Marley said.
Not because life won’t go wrong.
It will. It has done, and it will again.
Life does goes wrong – and the blessing, is still here.
And over time, our soul has grown deep like the rivers.
May the sacred peace of the love beyond all naming,
of the mystery that has us in her keeping,
be yours today, friends, and evermore. Amen.

Bob: Hymn: ‘Goodnight Hymn’ by Kensington Unitarians 2018

One last chance to sing together now. This hymn, the ‘Goodnight Hymn’, has such lovely words that it doesn’t seem to matter that we’re singing it in the morning. It speaks of the strength we can find, in community, to face the everyday struggles we all face, and the light that we share. As always we’ll try to make sure you’re muted so feel free to sing or listen as you’d rather.

To you each, my friends, tonight
I give thanks for company;
We have shared the inner light:
May that light go forth with thee.
May we give each other power –
Live with courage every hour.

As we face the coming week,
With its worries and its strife,
Strength and wisdom let us seek
In this hour’s remembered life.
May we give each other power –
Live with courage every hour.

In our homes and in the street,
In a world with sadness rife,
May we show to all we meet
Glory that we find in life.
May we give each other power –
Live with courage every hour.

To you each, my friends, tonight
I give thanks for company;
We have shared the inner light:
May that light go forth with thee.
May we give each other power –
Live with courage every hour.


Just a few announcements this morning: Thanks so much to Bob for leading our service today; we’re honoured that you said yes in the midst of your hectic preparations for leaving. Thanks to John for hosting, to Jeannene for all her behind-the-scenes support, and Marilisa for lovely music.

I want to take this opportunity to remind you that this church, this community, very much has a life beyond Sunday mornings on Zoom. We’re still collectively going through pretty rough times, and many of us feel worn out and weary, but let’s remember that we can be a source of mutual support. We might think to check in with each other during the week, with a text or email, or pop along to the online coffee morning or one of our other regular gatherings to connect with others. If you’re relatively new to the congregation these small groups are a great way to get to know us and to have conversations about the things that matter most in life (or often just to have a laugh).

As ever there are a number of opportunities to hang out and have a chat in the week ahead: Coffee morning 10.30 Tuesday – always excellent conversation – newcomers always welcome. Heart & Soul, our contemplative spiritual gathering – on the topic of ‘Teachers’ – a few spaces left tonight and Friday at 7pm. Even if you’ve not been before it’s never too late to start. These are real community-building sessions where people can reflect on all the ups and downs of life together and share our collective wisdom. There are details of all these events in the weekly email. And don’t forget you can be in touch via email anytime – do drop us a line to say hello.

I also want to draw your attention towards a couple of national Unitarian events coming up. In a couple of weeks, on Saturday 14th August, there’s a one-day online gathering of the Unitarian Music Society, which will include hymn-singing, talks, a music quiz and more. And a week after that, starting Saturday 21st, is this year’s online Summer School. I’ll be leading the first night worship, and in the nights that follow we’ve got a great line up of speakers giving in-depth hour-long talks, on ‘Why Are We Here? Discerning our Unitarian Mission in an Upturned World’. Details of how to sign up for these events are in the weekly email; please do book your place.

Don’t forget we’ll have virtual coffee-time after the service if you’d like to stop and chat. 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 as usual. Feel free to share the link with trusted friends.

We’ve just got our closing words and music now – another lovely folk song from Marilisa – so I invite you to select gallery view at this point, if you can, so we can all see each other and get a sense of our community-and-connectedness as Bob gives the benediction.

Bob: Benediction: ?

Jane: Chalice Extinguishing:

Our chalice is extinguished – but its light shines on –
burning within each and every one of us
as faith, and hope, and love. Amen.

Video: Closing Music: ‘River’ performed by Marilisa Valtazanou (3.31)

Rev. Bob Janis-Dillon and Jane Blackall

1st August 2021