Honouring the Ancestors – 31/10/21

Opening Music – The Heart of London Threshold Choir – from the Buddhist metta sutta

May you Dwell in the heart,
May you be free from suffering
May you be healed,
May you be at peace.

Opening Words and Chalice Lighting with a call to the ancestors

To call on the ancestors is an ancient human impulse. Throughout the great expanse of time that humanity has lived here on earth, human beings will have called on those who lived before us and who gave us life. And these callings will reflect the range of human emotions – we call in gratitude, in despair, in hope and supplication, in remorse, in anger, for protection and support, for guidance and clarity when we are uncertain or afraid.

And in that spirit, if you so wish, I invite you to call to your ancestors and ask them to be with us now, this day at this time, at this unique time, when collectively humanity needs fresh answers as to how best we might live together here with one another on planet earth, how best to live in harmony and respect with all life, how best to protect our planet earth from the adverse effects of our human presence here.

And I welcome you to this Sunday morning gathering here with Kensington Unitarians when we gather to honour our ancestors and to share our insights into matters of living and dying. I’m Sarah Tinker, recently retired minister with this community, and I’m delighted to be joined by congregation member and One Spirit Interfaith Minister Sonya Leite in leading today’s service. Today we have more music than usual, more time for your own thoughts, and as well as our regular candles of joy and concern we will also, later in the service, hold an All Souls Ritual where we invite you to speak of a loved one who has died, lighting a candle for them if you have one with you or sharing a photo or memento with us. Or you might prefer to offer a brief insight into living and dying, this human condition we all experience. There are chants you can join in with and a hymn towards the end but it’s also fine to rest back, turn your camera off if you’d prefer, actively joining in today is optional, as always.

I’ll start by lighting our chalice flame that connects us with Unitarian and Unitarian Universalist communities the world over and I light it this day in gratitude to all those who have made it easier for us to speak about death with one another, those who have reminded us that death is part of life.
I’m grateful to Unitarian Universalist minister Forrest Church who wrote powerfully about his own insights during a slow terminal illness. I appreciate this quote: Whether or not there is life after death, surely there is love after death.

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 an opportunity 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 aspects of our lives which we might not 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 glimpses into our common human condition and the life of the world we share… and let’s hold them – and each other – in our hearts, with compassion, for a moment or two. Thank you.

I’m going to hand over to Sonya Leite now who will lead us in a call and response chant this morning and then tell us about the work of Threshold Choirs around the world.

Sonya’s Drumming Video:

Earth Mother, Grandmother, will you set me free? (repeat each line)
Earth Mother, Grandmother, set my spirit free.
I call on the medicine to open up my heart.
Will you set me free?
Set my spirit free.

Sonya’s words about The Threshold Choir

I joined the Threshold Choir to do Bedside singing in Hospices in 2014. It spoke to my interest in honouring death and dying as a natural part of life. Just as music and lullaby’s soothe babies, it makes sense that this care and attention would be beneficial to all at any age. Being sung to compassionately calms the spirit and connects us to that feeling that we are not alone and we are being cared for. Compassionate singing can uplift us and comfort us at any stage of our lives and we offer Gift of Song evenings for anyone who would like to receive solace.

Death, chronic illness, distress does not have to be an isolated solitary frightening experience. The seed for the Threshold Choir was planted in June of 1990 when Kate Munger, the founder, sang for her friend Larry who was dying of HIV/AIDS. She says: ‘I did house work all morning and was terrified when the time came to sit by his bedside. I did what I always did when I was afraid; sang the song that gave me courage. I sang for 2 1/2/ hours. It comforted me and most importantly it comforted him profoundly’.

The value and the positive responses from these interactions grew into a worldwide movement and today there are over 200 choirs worldwide offering this service. We offer our singing as gentle blessings, not as entertainment, and we are honoured when a client falls asleep as we are singing. Deep healing and rest occurs in these moments. The patients and their loved ones have told us that it brings beauty and harmony to their day. Some join in with us and others relax more deeply. A calm and focused presence at the bedside, with gentle voices and simple songs is a balm to the person in need, their family, friends, and caregivers alike. It has been referred to as “a moment of audible kindness.”

When we are invited to a bedside, we visit in groups of two to four singers. The songs are not religiously oriented. We choose songs to respond to the client’s musical taste, spiritual direction if any, and current receptivity. Members of the choir compose songs specifically to communicate ease, comfort, and presence. A session typically lasts about 20 minutes; if there appears to be benefit, we might sing longer. One of our members died last year and singing to her regularly was a gift for all of us. She wanted to be witnessed at all stages of her life. Her dying process was no exception. She was full of gratitude and surrounded by the people she loved till she passed. Her death was an inspiring example of what a conscious death could be like. To finish, here are two quotes from some of our members:

‘Singing with the Threshold Choir has changed my life. I am no longer fearful of death, or of being with those who are dying.’

‘I found singing both at bedside and in the corridors of the Marie Curie Hospice an experience of community, connection and sharing.’

The singing always felt like a kind of exchange or conversation with what it is to be human and what it is to come to the close of a human life, and the need to come together at these times. To me it is essential to accompany one another across the threshold.

Sonya to introduce video of ‘in the quiet of this moment’ accompanied by Natacha Ledwidge’s photos

Time of Prayer: ‘We Remember’ by Simon John Barlow

‘Spirit of Life, God of All Love,
in this season of remembrance:
we remember, in gratitude, all those who came before us
to prepare the paths which we now tread;
we remember, in love, our family, friends and lovers who,
though not with us today, still guide our footsteps;
we remember, in awe, the miracles of daily life
which inspire us and raise our spirits.
we remember, in joy, the love divine and human
which surrounds us always;
we remember, in peace, the light within us all
which brings the strength for growth.
and we remember, in acceptance, our task of sharing that
inner light with all around us wherever we go.’

And in a few shared moments of quiet now I invite you to speak your prayers for those you love who are no longer alive, your prayers for those you know to be suffering at this time.

And as the United Nations conference on climate change starts here in the UK up in Glasgow, I invite you to pray for wisdom and resolve for all involved, that they may collectively take a longer view and seek to save the world bequeathed by our ancestors that we might in our turn pass the gift of life on to those who are yet to be born.

May all beings dwell in the heart,
May all beings be free from suffering
May all beings be healed,
May all beings be at peace. Amen. So may it be.

Reflections on Living and Dying by Rev. Sarah Tinker

If there’s any single message from our service today, it’s that it’s helpful and healthy for us to talk about death. The one certainty of all our lives, and yet in our society it is so often a private matter, spoken of with caution by many of us, if spoken of at all. In days gone by, before the importance of clean water was understood, before adequate sewage removal methods, before antibiotics, death was ever present. Not now, not even in these times of pandemic.

Over the years, we Kensington Unitarians have organised various activities to counter-balance this lack of opportunity to speak about death. We’ve hosted a death café, which is an inter-national movement that started in London back in 2011 by Jon Underwood. Since then death cafes have been run in over 80 countries around the world. Their objective is ‘to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives’. A Death Cafe is a group directed discussion of death with no agenda, objectives or themes. It is a discussion group rather than a grief support or counselling session.

Death Cafes are always offered:

  • On a not for profit basis
  • In an accessible, respectful and confidential space
  • With no intention of leading people to any conclusion, product or course of action
  • Alongside refreshing drinks and nourishing food – and cake!

Over the years we’ve also encouraged one another to complete the documentation that it’s sensible for any of us to have – our wills, power of attorney forms, advanced directives about our wishes concerning our medical and social care towards the end of our lives and information about our funeral ideas.

Unitarians nationally are still the only religious organisation here in the UK to have voted in support of the Dignity in Dying campaign to allow people who are terminally ill the right to end their own lives with medical assistance. You might have noticed the press coverage over the last week or two as the House of Lord’s debates Baroness Meacher’s Bill on this crucial issue. It passed its second reading on Friday. This is something I feel passionately about, having heard from people planning to travel to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland to end their lives who would have much preferred to do this in their own homes here in Britain at a later time.
It’s perhaps worth remembering here that just because our national organisation votes in favour of a particular issue, such as assisted dying, it doesn’t mean that all individual Unitarians agree with this. We have the freedom to make up our own minds about faith and about life.

But I’m grateful to be part of a religious community that encourages us to communicate about death, in a real way. It was in a Unitarian setting that I first heard a Sufi teacher speak of death as a constant friend and companion. And someone read to us that day from Ram Dass’ writings, when he describes death as the comfort and relief of taking off a too tight pair of shoes.

And I’m grateful to all the people over the years who’ve shared with us their feelings at the death of a loved one. Grieving is a complex and multi-layered human experience isn’t it. Sometimes it has to be experienced alone, but o the relief that can come when we share our sense of loss with others, who can simply listen and be with us. So let’s continue to be a community that talks openly about death, let’s help one another honour those who have died, let’s assist one another in coming to terms with our own mortality. And then let’s help one another truly live these precious lives of ours.

Two minutes silence followed by music for meditation – Tchaikovsky’s chanson triste, played on the cello by Abby Lorimier and Jessica Hu

Introducing Our All Souls Ritual:

We’ve come to a time in our service to mark All Souls Day (which actually falls on Tuesday, November 2nd) with a simple ritual to honour the memory of those we have loved and who have died. So this morning let’s remember the lives of those who have mattered to us, those who have shaped our lives through their love for us. Let us give thanks for those whose presence is always with us and honour their memory with a ceremony of remembrance.

We suggested ahead of time that you might bring a photo or a memento of a loved one you wish to remember today, and perhaps also a candle to light in their memory. If you’ve come prepared – that’s great – if you haven’t – you can still join in – and if you don’t want to join in – you absolutely don’t have to – all participation is voluntary. And as an alternative I invite you to give a brief insight about living and dying, just a sentence or so to express some insight that might be helpful for us to hear this morning.

I need to say a little bit about how this is going to work, given that we are on Zoom. If you want to share, please put your hand up, and I’ll call on you by name. You can unmute yourself then, and just wait a second for us to spotlight you, so that everyone will be able to see what you hold up, and hear the name you speak. Please, just speak their name, and say how you were connected to them in a word or two. Sadly we won’t have time to hear more of your shared story during the service today. Please hold up the picture or memento, if you have them, for a few seconds for us to see, and then light your candle if you have one (and it’s fine if you only have the picture, or the candle, or neither). When one person has finished, if you want to go next, put your hand up and I’ll call on you, and again please wait until you are spotlit before speaking. I hope that all makes sense. It’s OK for us to take it slowly as that seems the best way to show due reverence. And we’ll keep going until everybody who wants to participate has done so.

(sharing of names, photos, mementoes, insights and candles – NB ask people to let us know if they would prefer not to be in the video of this service)

To close our ceremony of remembrance, I’d like to offer some words from Unitarian Universalist minister Christine C. Robinson:

Spirit of Life, whom we know best in our own loving and being loved,
hold us as we remember those we have loved, and those who have loved us.
Help us to know that we are not alone in our grieving and loss,
and help us also to come to that peaceful place in which we can take
what we learned from those who have gone before us into our own lives.
Remind us that we, too, are mortal; and that the enduring
legacy we leave is the love that shines through our lives. Amen.

Hymn – We are Travellers on a Journey

We are travellers on a journey
which brought us from the sun,
when primal star exploded
and earth in orbit spun;
but now as human dwellers
upon earth-planet’s crust,
we strive for living systems
whose ways are kind and just.

We are travellers on a journey
which grows from human seed,
and through our birth and childhood
goes where life’s path may lead;
but now we are delving deeper
in quest of greater worth
and reaching unknown regions
and planets of new birth.

We are travellers on a journey
through realms of inner space
where joy and peace are planets
that circle stars of grace;
and when we find the stillness
which comes at journey’s end,
there’ll be complete refreshment,
a resting place, a friend.


A few brief announcements this morning: Thanks to Jeannene Powell and Hannah King for hosting, to John Davies for making the videos, and to Abby Lorimier and Jessica Hu for lovely cello music and to Sonya and the Heart of London Threshold Choir for soothing us so beautifully. Don’t forget we’ll have virtual coffee-time after the service, to chat together, if you’d like. If that’s not your thing, 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. We’ll be back next week on Zoom at 10am with Jane Blackall leading the service. 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 – top notch conversation guaranteed – newcomers always welcome. Heart & Soul, our contemplative spiritual gathering – on ‘Letting Go’ – tonight with Laura and Friday with Jane, both at 7pm. Even if you’ve not been before it’s an open gathering and newcomers are welcome – but spaces are limited so you need to book a place. 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, meet up for a walk and a chat. For those of you who find the natural world a source of your spiritual connection, then do make a note of the next West London GreenSpirit group gathering on Monday 1st November at 7pm – when we’ll be celebrating the Samhain festival, connecting with the stars and honouring those who have inspired us in life. Email or text me if you’d like to attend. We’ve 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.

Closing Blessing and Thanking the Ancestors:

And so I extinguish our chalice flame in gratitude for all the ancestors who have brought us individually and collectively to this time and place in life. They leave the precious gifts of life and love in our hands. May each of us do what we can with the resources we have to protect life here on earth, to honour our planet earth home and to treat one another and all of creation as the awe-inspiring miracles we truly are. May we take nothing for granted, but rather be people who notice small details – a sweet smile, the dance of a falling leaf, the caress of a breeze upon our cheeks. Thank you for the unique offerings you each bring to this life, amen, go well each and every one of you, blessed be.

Closing Music – Cello Duet #1 by Popper performed by Abby Lorimier and Jessica Hu

Rev. Sarah Tinker and Sonya Leite

31st October 2021