So What Do You Believe? – 26/09/21
Opening Music: by Peter Crockford (1.39)
Opening Words: ‘We Come to this Hour’ by Louise A. Robeck (adapted)
We come to this hour knowing that it is but an hour.
Yet out of all the hours in the week this is one that is set apart:
an hour that is saved, an hour that is savoured.
It is a time for us to recognize what gives life meaning.
It is a time to honour what we value.
It is a time to celebrate our lives
in all their fullness and complexity.
Let us then celebrate, honour, and recognize
that we might fully savour this hour we have saved.
These opening words by Louise A. Robeck 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, and 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 I’ve just completed ministry training at Unitarian College, I’ll officially be ‘Rev’ in a week or two.
If you are here for the first time today – we’re especially glad to you have you with us – welcome! 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 other online activities 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 – thank you for your commitment – thank you for showing up here once again – not just to this particular community but to the grander project – that aspiration to build beloved community for all – each playing our part in nudging the world towards justice and love. And we start right here, when we co-create this sacred space, this sense of hospitality and welcome.
So whoever you are, however you are, know you are welcome in this gathering, just as you are. I hope you find something of what you need this morning in this time we’ve specially set apart. 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.
This morning I’m delighted to introduce Rev. Michael Allured, from Golders Green Unitarians, who will be preaching today on the question ‘So What Do You Believe?’ Michael is also the chair of our District Organisation for Unitarians in London and the South East – officially the ‘London District and Provincial Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches’ – the ‘LDPA’ for short.
Chalice Lighting: ‘We Come Together Without Creed’ by Maureen Killoran (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.
In this free church, we come together without creed, gathering instead around core values of justice, equality and compassion…
Of mutual acceptance of our diverse ways of being,
as we seek to connect ourselves more fully
with the unfolding truths of life and of our world.
We come together in shared conviction that all people deserve a voice
in matters that concern them, and that it is up to each of us to protect the rights of all —particularly those who, for whatever reason, have long been oppressed, and held in silence.
We come together in the stubborn belief that community
is possible and that peace is more than a dream.
We commit together to affirm in our actions as well as our words,
the inherent worth and dignity of every human being.
We come together in awareness of our interdependence with all humanity, and with the wider web of existence, for that too is part of what is meant by “we.”
In this free church, we come together without creed, believing that
the way we live in the world bears testament to the value of our beliefs.
We light this chalice as a beacon of hope for who have gathered here this morning.
For all who have ever walked through our doors (or come through our zoom waiting room),
for those who may yet find this spiritual home, and those whose paths will never come our way.
For all this, and for all those things we dare
to hope and dream, we kindle our chalice flame this day.
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 in compassion and loving-kindness, as we move into an extended time of prayer now, based on some words by Cliff Reed (based, in turn, on words by William Ellery Channing).
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)
Prayer: based on words by Cliff Reed and William Ellery Channing
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 –
make your holy presence known within us and amongst us. (pause)
Creator Spirit, within our hearts and moving among the stars,
we approach you with the powers and capacities you give us.
We approach you whenever we invigorate the understanding by seeking truth;
whenever we invigorate the conscience by following it, rather than our transient passions.
We approach you whenever we receive a blessing gratefully,
bear a trial patiently, or encounter peril and scorn with courage;
whenever we perform an unselfish deed, or lift up our hearts in true adoration.
We approach you whenever we resist the habits and desires
that are in conflict with our higher principles;
whenever we speak or act with moral urgency and devotion to duty.
So may your Divinity grow strong within us, and the religion
we profess blend seamlessly with the life we lead. (pause)
As we look back over the past week, let us silently
give thanks for those joys and pleasures we have known:
moments of love, friendship and camaraderie,
experiences of wonder and delight; reassurance and relief,
bursts of playfulness, spontaneity and generosity,
feelings of achievement, creativity, and flow
all those times when we felt most alive and awake. (pause)
Let us also ask for the consolation, forgiveness, and guidance
we may need, as we acknowledge our sorrows and regrets:
times of loss, pain, anger, and fear,
periods of uncertainty and anxious waiting,
realisation of our own weaknesses, mistakes and failings,
awareness of missed opportunities, those things left unsaid or undone,
those moments when we struggled and felt like a mess. (pause)
Expanding our circle of concern, let us bring to mind those people, places
and situations that are in need of prayer right now, and hold them in the light:
maybe friends or loved ones, those closest to our heart. (pause)
maybe those we find difficult, where there’s a conflict going on. (pause)
maybe those we don’t know so well, who we’ve heard about in the news. (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 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: ‘Children of a Bright Tomorrow’ performed by the Unitarian Music Society
Time for our first hymn, ‘Children of a Bright Tomorrow’, sung for us by the Unitarian Music Society. The words will appear on screen in a moment so that you can sing along – or you might prefer just to listen – we’ll do our best to make sure you’re all kept muted so nobody will hear you.
Now we gather here to worship,
Each with but one life to live;
Each with gifts and each with failings,
Each with but one heart to give.
In our longing, here we gather,
With warm voices for a friend;
Two or three, or tens, or thousands,
Heart and hand to all extend.
May our circle grow still wider;
May we see as others see:
Standing in the others’ sandals
Show us they, too, would be free.
Children of a bright tomorrow
Every race and every creed;
Men and women of all nations,
Each a glory, each in need.
Small are we, and small our planet,
Hidden here among the stars:
May we know our timeless mission –
Reading: ‘When I Say “God” it is Poetry’ by John Haynes Holmes (read by Brian)
When I am asked if I believe in God, I am either impatient or amused, and frequently decline to reply. All I know, all I want to know, is that I have found in my relationships with my fellow men and in my glad beholding of the universe a reality of truth, goodness, and beauty, and that I am trying to make my life as best as I can a dedication to this reality.
When I am in a thinking mood, I try to be rigorously rational &, thus, not to go one step further in my thoughts and language than my reason can take me. I then become uncertain as to whether I or any one can assert much about God and fall back content into the mood of Job.
When, however, in preaching or in prayer, in some high moment of inner communion or a profound experience with life among my fellows, I feel the pulse of emotion suddenly beating in my heart and I am lifted up as though upon some sweeping tide that is more than the sluggish current of my days, I find it easier to speak as the poets speak and cry, as so many of them cry, to God.
But when I say “God,” it is poetry and not theology. Nothing that any theologian ever wrote about God has helped me much, but everything that poets have written about flowers and birds and skies and seas and the saviours of the human race and God – whosoever God may be – has at one time or another reached my soul! More and more, as I grew older, I live in the lovely thought of these seers and prophets.
The theologians gather dust upon the shelves of my library, but the poets are stained with my fingers and blotted with my tears. I never seem so near the truth as when I care not what I think or believe, but only with these masters of inner vision would live forever.
Reading: ‘I Do Believe we Affect God’ by Carole Grace (read by Juliet)
Belief is important to me as it drives how I think, what I do and, particularly, how I relate to others. It seems to me that I have to choose what I believe with care if I am going to have integrity; I have to know myself well enough to be able to distinguish between my own desires and wishes and what I truly believe in. It seems like hard work and it is always ‘in progress’ so there is no rest but there is joy. There is joy in loving: myself, others and the world. There is holding a sense of gratitude in the sheer wealth of all that is around me.
So far I have not mentioned God and it seems to me that I can know nothing about this ineffable being, indeed I do not know if God is a being or a process. I probably go for the latter. God might be the sum of all the good things in the world and be increased by our love and compassion. I do believe that we affect God and the more we are in touch with the ‘god within’ the happier we will be and the more we will increase the happiness of others. Our acceptance and compassion for others may effect a universal change in the spirit of goodness.
I am so lucky in my work as a psychotherapist and teacher in that I am profoundly touched by the wonderful people I meet. Some have had such sad lives that it has severely hurt them and the light of the spirit may be very low in them but working with them to find their personal meaning of their lives can be so rewarding. Often I am teaching adults seeking a career change; a change of work that will bring meaning into their lives. They want to help others & relieve suffering. To work with people with such a wonderful ambition is humbling and rewarding.
What I believe seems so nebulous and yet it is a firm foundation to my life. Of course there can be grey days when it is difficult to hold on to my beliefs and my sceptical side tells me that I am fooling myself; after all you only have to watch the news to see that there is little love in the world. That depends on the way we see things and it is the job of the news to remind us that there is evil in the world and, hopefully, we try to amend this with our care and compassion. If we hold on to the pain we will hurt ourselves and others. Endeavouring to see the ‘god within’ encourages us to act compassionately.
I might be entirely wrong about what I believe; however, that might not matter. If my belief system benefits myself and others, and I pray it does, then I am content to be foolishly wrong.
Meditation: ‘The Golden Rule’ by Michael Allured
Thank you Juliet and Brian. We’ve come now to a time of meditation. I’m going to share a few words to take us into the stillness. These words will be followed by a few minutes of shared silence during which we’ll have our virtual chalice on screen. The silence will come to an end with some lovely piano music, ‘Ashokan Farewell’, played by Peter Crockford. So let’s each do what we need to do to get comfortable – perhaps you’d like to put your feet flat on the floor to ground and steady yourself – maybe close your eyes or gaze at the candle as these words take us into a time of meditation:
Universal Spirit of Life, infusing the Universe,
God of many names: be with us now as we are with each other.
We gather in a world bruised by struggle and strife
to seek, discover and bring healing.
We meet in our yearning for connection and wholeness
with each other and the Universe.
Spirit of Life, universal to us all,
May we be renewed in heart to keep faith
with the Golden Rule, that ethic of reciprocity
found in the scriptures of world religions.
May we affirm their wisdom.
We shall love your neighbour as yourself. (Judaism and Christianity)
Whatever we wish that others would do to us do so to them. (Christianity)
We try our best to treat others as we would wish to be treated ourselves
and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence. (Confucianism)
We should wander the world treating all creatures
as we ourselves would like to be treated. (Jainism)
We should not behave towards others in a way which is
disagreeable to oneself, this being the essence of morality. (Hinduism)
Universal Spirit of Life and Love, God of many names, may this be our prayer for today.
Silence: 3 minutes silence accompanied by chalice video
Musical Interlude: ‘Ashokan Farewell’ by Jay Ungar played by Peter Crockford (3.40)
Sermon by Michael Allured:
‘So what do you believe?’ Well perhaps that’s an easier question to answer than ‘So what do Unitarians believe?’
The two questions are connected because the religious tradition to which I’ve chosen to belong is Unitarian. So when I was asked that question recently: ‘So as a Unitarian what do you believe?’ I struggled to give a simple and yet satisfying answer that fully articulated – in all their complexity – my theological beliefs.
I explained the basics of Unitarian theology: that the Unitarians have their roots in the Reformation; that Unitarians see Jesus as one of many spiritual teachers, fully human and not the son of God; that Unitarians are guided in their beliefs by reason and conscience and justice and freedom; that we find meaning from many texts, both sacred and secular, and have no holy Unitarian book or revealed creed we must follow; and that there are as many beliefs as there are Unitarians.
My attempt to articulate what I believe and why I follow a Unitarian path didn’t have the accessible ring of ‘Jesus saves’ about it. It came across as a bit dry, even earnest. I wanted to share the richness, the warmth and depth of belonging to a community where our minds were free to formulate our own theology in freedom and fellowship.
Yet, like Carole Grace, whose words we heard earlier, what I believe about God and faith isn’t easy to explain in sound bites and could even appear rather vague, not least because it might be summed up as a work in progress, an evolving theology.
Paul Tillich, the German Protestant theologian, defined faith as ‘the ultimate orientation of a person’s life’. Orthodox Christians would think of Christianity as their ultimate orientation of their faith or concern. They’d think of Jesus.
Muslims would revere Allah. Few Unitarians, however, would maintain that their ultimate concern in life was Unitarianism. And who would be our saviour, our god?
So how am I – how are we – to define and live our faith? How do I, how do we understand and explain what our faith is?
Is there even such a thing as ‘faith’ in a Unitarian tradition so steeped in reason where, as the Unitarian minister Stephen Lingwood put it, we [the Unitarians] are a space in which people are united by values and principles but entirely neutral in matters of faith’?
I see the point Stephen is making here. To accommodate the diversity of belief we have concentrated on values and relegated theology and faith to an entirely personal realm.
There is some truth in this position, one that he presented at the conference on Unitarian theology in Manchester last year. And yet in many ways we are living our beliefs and theology as individuals and as Unitarian communities without necessarily recognising that this is exactly what we are doing.
These words of Andrei Sakharov, the Soviet human rights campaigner, speak to me: ‘I am unable to imagine the Universe and human life without some guiding principle, without a source of spiritual “warmth” which is non-material and not bound by physical laws.’
These words, for me, represent a theological position about the world and our position in it. They speak of altruism, affection, love, nobility: qualities that can’t be easily explained in purely rational ways but which enrich the quality of our lives through the bonds we forge.
Whenever I asked my mother questions about God and how the World began the same reply came back each time. ‘Tis a mystery we cannot comprehend’. That seed planted in appreciation of the mystery and wonder of life has grown looking out to sea, on hills, through books and conversation and in wonder at the blue sky.
To drink in the wonder of life without knowing all the answers, but simply being is what Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists revered.
When I look at the vast expanse of sea and sky I’m struck by the connection to the souls who have stood looking out to sea and up to the sky over time. I stand in awe. As Emerson wrote:
‘The highest dwells within us. As there is no screen or ceiling between our heads and the infinite heavens so there is no bar or wall in the soul where we, the effect, cease and God, the cause, begins.’
I believe in the interconnectedness of all life and a universal intelligence of which we are all part. I use the word God to describe that which is greater than ourselves but find other expressions like ‘Spirit of the Universe’ or ‘Spirit of Life’ more helpful.
I drink in the wonder of the Cosmos without knowing all the answers as I continue exploring and finding meaning. It’s surely this connection with what we could describe as ‘the Holy’ and with all that is, which provides the foundation for our spirituality. Divinity is round us.
And what of religion? I believe that in their simplest form the essence all the major world religions provide humanity with the guiding principles, those values which help us live anchored, compassionate and enriching lives. But so does secular literature and science I am moved by the depth and beauty of mystic poets like Rumi just as I am reading the Sermon on the Mount and 1 Corinthians (13).
I find universal truths about humanity are revealed to us through great drama and masterpieces of world literature and the wonders of the Universe through science. Have you ever seen the fizz and colour generated when sodium or potassium reacts with water and watched in wonder?
For mainstream religion the ultimate concern is about what happens after our time on Earth is over and whether we have lived according to God’s laws as defined and codified in holy books. I am interested in what happens when we die but since I can’t know it seems to me to be wise not to dwell on it and to make the best of our lives for and others for their own sakes.
Making the best of the here and now, reaching out in an attempt to make the world more just and equal is at the heart of much of what Unitarians do together as individuals and in community.
In this endeavour our beliefs, our theology are shaped by our own life experiences and our reflections on those experiences. We are stirred by the promptings of our own consciences, what feels the right thing to do: based on what we know and understand and can accept, according to what our reason can accept.
Maybe all we can do, and do together, is find a way through life to speak as the poets speak and cry, as so many of them cry to the idea of God. Not the God of theology: for that, as we have heard, may not help much: let’s cry to and for each other.
Carole Grace wrote about it as finding God within. She worked in Cambodia during the Vietnamese war and there were times when her faith in anything evaporated. The hospitals were badly damaged and most of the doctors had left the country.
There were two children who made a deep impression on me as they were particularly good with each other. The girl was about six and had lost an arm and a leg yet psychologically she was strong. The boy was about 8 and suffered far more pain as he had been napalmed which left him with severe scars from burns which were all over his body. He found life so hard that he had withdrawn; partly so he did not see people wince when they looked at him. The little girl kept him company and would chatter and smile at him. He found it hard to respond to her but it was clear that there was real communication between them and that she managed to convey love. Although they had both suffered terrible atrocities they kept their humanity and looked after each other lovingly.
In what then do I believe? Faith in that guiding principle of human warmth in Universe; trust in reason based on experience and conscience; and hope that even in the darkness humanity and love triumph. Amen.
Hymn: ‘The Joy of Living’ sung by the Unitarian Music Society ~ 3 min
Time for us to sing together again now. Our second hymn is ‘The Joy of Living’ performed once again by the Unitarian Music Society. Feel free to sing along or just listen and enjoy.
We sing the joy of living,
We sing the mystery,
Of knowledge, lore and science,
Of truth that is to be;
Of searching, doubting, testing,
Of deeper insights gained,
Of freedom claimed and honoured,
Of minds that are unchained.
We sing the joy of living,
We sing of harmony,
Of textures, sounds and colours,
To touch, to hear, to see;
Of order, rhythm, meaning,
Of chaos and of strife,
Of richness of sensation,
Of the creating life.
We sing the joy of living,
WE sing of ecstasy,
Of warmth, of love, of passion,
Of flights of fantasy.
We sing of joy of living,
The dear, the known, the strange,
The moving, pulsing throbbing –
A universe of change.
Just a few brief announcements this morning: Thanks to Michael for preaching today, John for hosting, Brian and Juliet for reading, and Peter for the lovely music.
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 when Maria is taking the lead for a service marking the start of Black History Month and honouring Notting Hill Carnival. Do feel free to share the link with your friends.
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 ‘Unfinished Business’ – tonight and Friday at 7pm. Bookings are brisk this week but we can squeeze you in. And by popular demand Brian’s poetry group will be back in a few weeks on Tuesday 5th October – details in the Friday email – do have a word with Brian and let him know if you’re planning to come along.
We’re making plans for a ‘Getting to Know You’ walk on the afternoon of Sunday 17th Oct at 2pm; this won’t be a strenuous walk but it’s a chance for a walk-and-talk meet-up so that people who have only discovered the church since we’ve been online can socialise safely. The congregation very much has a life beyond Sunday mornings; we encourage you to keep in touch during the week, drop each other a line, let’s look out for each other as best we can, while we’re online.
Another event on the horizon I’m particularly keen to let you know about is my ordination and valediction service which will be taking place on Zoom at 7pm on Friday 8th October. I’d love to have you there to help celebrate the completion of my ministry training so please save the date.
We’ve just got our closing words and music now. 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 gathered community as we close.
Benediction: based on words by Theodore Parker (1 min)
Be ours a religion which, like sunshine, goes everywhere;
its temple, all space;
its shrine, the good heart;
its creed, all truth;
its ritual, works of love;
its profession of faith, divine living.
And in the days to come,
may we truly live our faith,
for the greater good of all. Amen.
Closing Music: ‘Chanson de Matin’ by Elgar performed by Peter Crockford (1.49)
Rev Michael Allured and Jane Blackall
26th September 2021