New Year: Good Intentions – 02/01/22

Opening Music: ‘Auld Lang Syne’ performed by Abby Lorimier, Sydney Mariano and Rachel Spence

Opening Words: ‘We Bid You Welcome’ by Sylvia L. Howe

We bid you welcome on this first Sunday of the New Year.

Like Janus we gather with part of us looking backward
and part of us looking forward.

We gather on the edge of the New Year
saddened by our losses,
cherishing our joys,
aware of our failures,
mindful of days gone by.

We gather on the cusp of this New Year
eager to begin anew,
hopeful for what lies ahead,
promising to make changes,
anticipating tomorrows and tomorrows.

We invite you to join our celebration of life,
knowing that life includes good and bad,
endings and beginnings.

We bid you welcome!

Opening Words of Welcome:

These words by Sylvia L. Howe welcome all who have gathered here on Zoom this morning for our first Sunday service of 2022. Welcome to regular members of the congregation, to friends old and new, and visitors who are with us for the first time – I know we’ve got some members of the Horsham congregation with us today for a virtual away-day – welcome to those who might be listening to our podcast, or watching on YouTube, at some time in the future. I hope you find something of what you need, some comfort or inspiration perhaps, in our gathering this morning. Please do hang around afterwards for a chat or drop us an email to say hello if you’d like to. Or you might try coming to one of our various small-group gatherings to get to know us better.

As we always say, feel free to do what you need to do to be comfortable this hour – it’s alright to keep your camera off if you’d rather – though it’s always nice to see your faces in the gallery view. Similarly there’ll be opportunities to join in as we go along but there’s no compulsion to do so.

For those who don’t know me, my name is Jane Blackall, and I’m Ministry Coordinator with Kensington Unitarians. This morning I’ll be leading our simple service of music and hymns, readings and reflections, sharing and silence – to mark the turning of the year – I’ve called it ‘Good Intentions’ as we’ll reflect on that custom of setting our intentions for the year to come. Even for those of us who aren’t resolution-makers the New Year might be a time to take stock.

Chalice Lighting: ‘A New Year’ by Lisa Doege (adapted)

Before we go any further though, I’ll light our chalice, as we always do whenever we gather. This simple ritual connects us with Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists the world over, and reminds us of the proudly progressive religious tradition of which this gathering is part.

For the New Year,
just days old,
beginning today,
always beginning:

We light our chalice,
symbol of faith, perseverance, and hope,
in astonished thanksgiving and irrepressible praise.

For beginnings that
emerge out of endings,
appear amidst continuity,
become visible in hindsight:

We light our chalice,
symbol of faith, perseverance, and hope,
in astonished thanksgiving and irrepressible praise.

For all the times,
and all the ways,
we have begun anew, together:

We light our chalice,
symbol of faith, perseverance, and hope,
in astonished thanksgiving and irrepressible praise.

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 – in the spirit of prayer – 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 to represent all those joys and concerns that we might be holding silently in our heart today, those stories which we don’t feel able to share out loud this morning. Let’s take a moment now to think of all those joys and concerns we have heard expressed… all those little windows into our shared human condition and the life of the world we share… and let’s hold them – and each other – in a spirit of loving-kindness for a moment or two. And let’s take those joys and concerns into an extended time of prayer now.

Prayer: based on words by Lyn Cox

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

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

Spirit of Life, God of All Love, in whom we live and move and have our being.
As we turn our attention to the depths of this life –
the cosmic mystery and wisdom that abides in All-That-Is –
we tune in to your Holy presence within us and amongst us. (pause)

This morning we give thanks for the gift of renewal.
We give thanks for the ability to begin again, to start over;
after each time of trial and loss, each season of struggle and sorrow;
in the midst of such ongoing upheaval and the endless tests of our endurance.

Grant us the courage to continue on the journey,
the courage to act and speak for the well-being
of others and ourselves and the planet we share.
May we forgive ourselves and each other
when our courage and care falls short,
and may we resolve to try again.

Grant us hearts to love boldly,
to embody our faith and our values
in living words and deeds.
May our hearts open to embrace
humility, grace, and reconciliation.

Grant us the ability to learn and grow,
to let the Spirit of Love and Truth work
its transformation upon us and within us.
Grant us the spirit of radical hospitality,
the willingness to sustain a dwelling place
for the holy that resides in all being.

Grant us a sense of being at peace in the world,
even as we are in perpetual motion,
tossed and turned by life’s tempests.
Let us cultivate – together – the strength
to welcome every kind of gift life brings our way
and all manner of ways to be on the journey together. (pause)

And in a good few moments of shared stillness now,
may our hearts speak silently all the prayers of our lives —
our souls’ greatest joys and deepest sorrows, our triumphs and failures,
our regrets and fears, our disappointments and losses, our hopes and dreams —
all of those concerns that are weighing on our hearts and minds this day.

Let us offer up our deepest reality to the One who holds All. (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: ‘The Tides of the Spirit’ sung by the Unitarian Music Society

Let’s sing together now. Our first hymn is ‘The Tides of the Spirit’ – a gentle reflection, perhaps a continuation of our prayers – which honestly names our uncertainty and acknowledges the ups and downs we face in live despite our best intentions. This recording is by the Unitarian Music Society. We’ll do our best to keep you muted so nobody but your neighbours will hear you (but if you’d rather just listen that’s fine too).

We come as we are to worship and pray,
Unsure of ourselves, unsure what to say
O may we be patient and willing to be
Receptive and open to hear and to see.

The God of our life is ever at hand
But not to be called by our proud command;
The tides of the spirit have their ebb and flow
And we must be patient and move as they go.

O let us be glad and hungry of heart
To wait upon God and learn our own part,
To give life the best of the powers we have
As servants of life and clear channels of love.

Reading: ‘Long Live Life’ by Howard Thurman (1963 recording)

Our first reading today is by Howard Thurman – and we’re going to do something we don’t do often – we’ve actually got a recording of Thurman himself reading this meditation for the turn of the year, titled ‘Long Live Life’, for us to listen to. It was recorded in 1963 so the sound is a bit crackly in places but it’s a real treat to hear it in his own voice. Settle in, it’s about five minutes long. And after this reading we’ll sing an appropriate New Year hymn – another slightly rustly recording – this time of our congregation singing ‘O Glad New Year of God’.

I’m reading as a meditation for the end of the year, Long Live Life from my book, Meditations of the Heart.

There is something which seems utterly final about the end of a year. It means that we are one year older. This is a fact, definite and inexorable. We are 12 months closer to the end of our physical time span, one year closer to death.

It means that, in some important ways, we are taken farther from or brought closer to the goal of our living, whatever that goal may be. It means that some crucial questions which one answered 12 months ago have been finally and decidedly answered, and whatever doubts there may have been about the result are completely removed.

Now we know. It means that we are in fuller or lesser possession of ourselves and our powers than ever before. During the passing of the 12 months, experiences have come into our lives which revealed certain things about ourselves, which we had not expected or suspected.

Some new demand was made upon us which caused us to behave in a manner that was stranger to our established pattern of life. And we felt shocked, surprised, enraged, or delighted that such was possible for us.

We met someone with whom we built the kind of relationship which opened up to us new worlds of wonder and magic, which were completely closed to us a year ago. It means that we are wiser by far than we were at year’s beginning.

The circling series of events upon whose bosom we have been wafted cut away our pretensions, stripping us bare of much beneath which we have hidden even from ourselves. When we saw ourselves revealed, there was born a wisdom about life and its meaning that makes us say with all our hearts, this day, that life is good and not evil.

It means that we have been able to watch, as if bewitched, while the illumined finger of God pointed out a path through the surrounding darkness where no path lay, Exposed, to our surprised gaze, a door where we were sure there was only a blank wall.

Revealed the strong arms and assuring voices of friends when we were sure, that in our plight, we were alone, utterly and starkly alone. All of these meanings and many more counsel us, that because life is dynamic and we are deeply alive, the end of the year can mean only the end of the year, not the end of life, not the end of us, not even the end of time.

We turn our faces toward the year being born with writhing hope that will carry us into the days ahead with courage and with confidence. The old year dies. The new year is being born. Long live life.”

Hymn: ‘O Glad New Year of God’ sung by Kensington Unitarians (2019)

Welcome from God, O glad New Year!
Thy paths all yet untrod,
Another year of life’s delight;
Another year of God

Another year of setting suns,
Of stars by night revealed,
Of springing grass, of tender buds
By winter’s snow concealed.

Another year of summer’s glow,
Of autumn’s gold and brown,
Of waving fields, and ruddy fruit
The branches weighing down.

Another year of happy work,
That better is than play;
Of simple cares, and love that grows
More sweet from day to day.

Welcome from God, O glad new year!
Thy paths all yet untrod,
Another year of life’s delight —
O glad new year of God.

Reading: ‘Next Year’s Words’ by Tim Atkins (read by Jeannene)

This piece by Unitarian Universalist religious educator Tim Atkins was written two years ago.

New Year’s is without a doubt the most meaningful winter holiday for me. As a religious humanist, none of the other winter holidays have ever really called to me. But to me there’s something almost magical about the chance for a fresh start. A new beginning. The start of a new chapter.

One of my most treasured New Year’s traditions is coming up with a word for the year: a single word that I want to be the theme for my entire year. I started this practice five years ago, and it’s changed my life. It becomes a mantra I meditate on throughout the year. When I’m questioning what’s the right thing to do, I will look to my word of the year for guidance.

In 2017, my word was embrace.

In 2018, my word was explore.

In 2019 my word was delight. I was, putting it kindly, a stressed-out mess this time last year. I knew I needed to put myself first more, and reconnect with basic pleasures in life. So I went with “delight” as a way to help me be more mindful about finding joy and beauty in the everyday.

I’ve decided on my word for 2020: authenticity. I want to work more at being authentic to all parts of who I am and focus on living a unified life. And when in doubt over the upcoming year (because let’s face it, 2020 could be rough at times), I want to remember to be authentically me.

I find it somewhat comforting to have this solid rock for my year. It forces me to focus in on a value I want to live my life around, and meditate on the value throughout the year. It forces me to put my values into practice, something we all could do a little more. When I look back on my last few years, instead of reflecting back on the years in terms of (usually negative) events, I reflect on them in terms of values and the amazing things I did that year to embody that value.

There are a lot of websites out there where you can look for more ideas for your word for the year, if you’re the kind of person to realize your word when you see it. Even if you think New Year’s Resolutions are a little hokey, I encourage you to try this word of the year idea. As a former sceptic, I can tell you if you take this idea seriously it will change how you see your entire year.

Tim Atkins concludes with a few brief words of prayer: May we all be grounded in living our values in the coming year. May we all spread our wings to new heights in the coming year. May the fire of your commitment to your personal religious and ethical values burn brighter than before. And may we all be authentically ourselves in the coming year.

Meditation: ‘A Word for 2022’

We’re moving now into a time of meditation based on this idea from Tim Atkins of choosing a word – just one word – as a focus for the year ahead. I’ll just offer a few suggestions to take you into meditation, then we’ll hold a few minutes silence, with our virtual chalice on screen. And then to bring us out of the silence we’ll hear a lovely waltz by our string trio (Abby Lorimier on cello, Sydney Mariano on violin and Rachel Spence on viola). That’s about four minutes so you can relax into it. As always, though, the suggestions, images, and music are just an offering; feel free to use this time to meditate in your own way. So let’s do what we need to do to get comfortable now. You might want to close your eyes or soften your gaze. Perhaps adjust your position, scrunch up your shoulders and let them go, to release any tension you might be holding without knowing it.

So I invite you to take some time now to consider: what might be your word for 2022?
What value might you want to use as a focus for the year ahead? To help guide you?
Is there a virtue that you particularly want to embody? A quality that you aspire to?
Or a value you aspire to notice more in yourself, in others, and in the world?
Don’t strive too much in searching for the ‘right’ word, don’t force it; just see what arises.
Let yourself be surprised, perhaps. And maybe nothing will feel quite ‘right’ immediately.
You can always sit with the question in the back of your mind over the next day or so.
Give the question some breathing space. Maybe something will arise when you least expect it.

In a few minutes of silence I invite you to gently ponder: what might be your word for 2022?
And if you do come up with a word, and if you’re willing to share, maybe you might write it in the chat box during our musical interlude, to strengthen your intention, and inspire others.

Silence: 3 minutes silence

Musical Interlude: ‘Waltz after Lasse in Lyby’ performed by Abby Lorimier, Sydney Mariano and Rachel Spence (4.03)

Reading: ‘It Matters’ by Robert R Walsh (read by Antony)

I knew a man who had printed on his stationary this proverb: “Nothing is settled. Everything matters.” It established a certain ambience for reading his letters, as if to say: what you are about to read is to be taken seriously, but is not final.

I remember him and his proverb sometimes, especially when it seems impossible to change the world or myself in any significant way. Times like the beginnings of new years.

“Sorry Jim,” I say. “It’s not true that nothing is settled. In the past year choices have been made, losses have been suffered, there has been growth and decay, there have been commitments and betrayals. None of that can be undone. A year ago no one knew whether during this year one person would become pregnant, another would get cancer, another would take a new job, another would have an accident, but now it is settled.

“One day this year I was present just when someone needed me; another day I was busy doing something else when I was needed. One day I said something to a friend that injured our relationship; another day I said something that enabled a person to see life in a new way. The best and the worst of those days is now written. All my tears, of joy or sorrow, cannot erase it.”

If I stay with my meditation long enough, the reply comes. “Robbie,” says Jim, “You have misunderstood the proverb. It is true that you cannot escape the consequences of your actions or the chances of the world. But what is not settled is how the story turns out. What is not settled is what the meaning of your life will be.”

The meaning of a life is not contained within one act, or one day, or one year. As long as you are alive the story of your life is still being told, and the meaning is still open. As long as there is life in the world, the story of the world is still being told. What is done is done, but nothing is settled.

And if nothing is settled, then everything matters. Every choice, every act in the new year matters. Every word, every deed is making the meaning of your life and telling the story of the world. Everything matters in the year coming, and, more importantly, everything matters today.

Reading: ‘New Year, Same Old You!’ by Oliver Burkeman

This is a relatively long reading and one that’s fresh off the presses – only published yesterday – some of you may already have read it in the Saturday Guardian – a column by Oliver Burkeman. I thought it was such a great message that it is worth reading in full so settle in for about 7 mins.

It’s the time of year for reinventions – or, perhaps more accurately, preparing for reinventions. For buying the diet book, drawing up the new morning routine, bookmarking the therapists’ websites or purchasing the storage cabinets for the soon-to-be-perfectly-organised house. As with all attempts at personal transformation, at new year or otherwise, this is the fun part. You get to experience all the excitement of becoming an entirely different person, without having yet had to put in the effort – and without having failed. Like untrodden early morning snow, the vision of who you’ll become remains pristine. Usually, though, something inside you knows the truth: in a few days’ time, the whole thing will probably have turned into unpleasant grey slush.

Personal reinventions fail partly for the obvious reasons: you set your goals too high; or your existing obligations at work or home get in the way; or you find (who could have imagined it?) that the unimpressive level of self-discipline you’ve demonstrated for your entire life until this moment can’t magically be tripled overnight. But there’s also a deeper problem with quests for wholesale transformation, which explains why they rarely work as intended – and why, as 2022 begins, embracing the existing version of yourself, with all its messiness and imperfections, might be the most transformative thing you’ve ever done.

The core of the trouble is that schemes for constructing a New You – whether in every area of life, or just one major one, such as your relationship with your children, or your physical fitness – are always devised by the Old You, who by their own admission has some pretty glaring issues. (Otherwise why would you bother to envision a new one?) You’ve got no good reason to trust this dubious character’s thoughts about reinvention; indeed, it’s likely they’re using what looks like “reinvention” to reinforce old hang-ups instead.

And so, for example, your vow to become more productive this year might just stem from your old belief that you’re obliged to fulfil every demand made by those around you, when a better way forward might be to start strategically letting a few people down. Likewise, your intention to make this the year you find your soulmate might simply represent your conviction that you don’t have what it takes to cope on your own. Even if it works, the so-called reinvention will only end up entrenching the status quo.

The Jungian psychoanalyst James Hollis writes: “No one awakens in the morning, looks in the mirror and says, ‘I think I will repeat my mistakes today’ or, ‘I expect today I will do something stupid, repetitive, regressive and against my best interests – but frequently, this replication of history is precisely what we do.”

One consequence is that while you’ll fail to pull off a total transformation of your personality – for that would entail the impossible feat of somehow jumping outside your own life – you probably will end up feeling worse about the life you have. Jocelyn K Glei, host of the Hurry Slowly podcast, recommends using the new year to take stock of the preceding year’s transformations instead. As she wisely notes, “focusing your mind on an imagined future where you’re someone different makes your now-self inevitably ‘less-than’.”

The alternative to reinvention – making a wholehearted commitment to accepting who you already are – is liable to sound horribly cheesy, or at best like a matter of settling for a mediocre life. But as the celebrated psychologist Carl Rogers famously noted, the very opposite is the case: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” When you no longer imagine you must transform yourself, in order to justify your existence on the planet, you’re finally able to do so, in small ways and large. The stakes are lower, now that your self-worth no longer hangs in the balance.

Author Madeleine Dore concurs: “There’s a quiet power in forgiving our flaws, missteps and perceived shortcomings. Often when we accept ourselves, we’re more likely to get the best from ourselves, because we’re better placed to look at what we need to thrive, rather than change.”

The psychotherapist Bruce Tift suggests a thought experiment: imagine whatever issue you struggle with now – the trait in yourself you wish you didn’t possess, the behaviour in which you wish you didn’t engage – persisting to the very end of your days. What if you’ll always be something of a procrastinator? What if you never entirely lose your tendency to lash out at others when upset at yourself?

When I run this experiment on myself, I feel deflated at first. Hold on – you mean I’ll never get to the part of life that’s problem-free? But then comes a sense of a burden being lifted. What a relief: I get to drop that stupid fantasy and focus on the real world, which is where real changes can happen. The self-help writer Mark Manson describes how this might work in the context of social anxiety: “Paradoxically, accepting that you’re just not a confident person and you’re always going to feel a little off around other people will begin to make you feel more comfortable and less anxious around others. You won’t judge yourself, and then you’ll feel less judged by them as well.”

There’s a kind of defeat that needs accepting here: a willingness to concede that, by the perfectionistic standards to which you’ve been holding yourself, you have already failed. There’s no going back. You’ll never un-waste the time you tell yourself you’ve wasted, or undo the bad things you’ve done. Which is great, because it means you get to stop trying to evade the unavoidable mess of existence and get stuck in to a few worthwhile and pleasurable activities instead.

The Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki nailed the matter when he told his students: “Each of you is perfect just as you are – and you could all use improvement.” Yes, it’s a paradox. You’ll just have to deal with that, too.

Some wise words on how we might approach the New Year, by Oliver Burkeman.

Hymn: ‘One More Step Along the World I Go’ sung by the Unitarian Music Society

One last hymn to sing together now and it’s a cheery old favourite to end on as we step out into a new year and face whatever it may have in store for us: ‘One More Step Along the World I Go’.

One more step along the world I go,
one more step along the world I go;
from the old things to the new,
keep me travelling along with you;
and it’s from the old I travel to the new,
keep me travelling along with you.

Round the corners of the world I turn,
more and more about the world I learn;
all the new things that I see
you’ll be looking at along with me;
and it’s from the old I travel to the new,
keep me travelling along with you.

As I travel through the bad and good,
keep me travelling the way I should;
where I see no way to go
you’ll be telling me the way, I know;
and it’s from the old I travel to the new,
keep me travelling along with you.

Give me courage when the world is rough,
keep me loving though the world is tough;
leap and sing in all I do,
keep me travelling along with you;
and it’s from the old I travel to the new,
keep me travelling along with you.

You are older than the world can be,
you are younger than the life in me;
ever old and ever new,
keep me travelling along with you;
and it’s from the old I travel to the new,
keep me travelling along with you.


We have a few announcements: Thanks to our readers Jeannene and Antony, to our music scholar Abby and her trio for today’s lovely music, and John for co-hosting. We’ll have virtual coffee-time after the service as usual so you can stay and chat 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 say hello. And if you can bear it we like to take a group photo after the closing music. We’ll be back next Sunday at 10.30 as usual.

We’ve got coffee morning as usual at 10.30am this Tuesday on Zoom and there are still a few spaces left for our Heart and Soul contemplative spiritual gathering on the theme of ‘Epiphanies’. Even if you’ve not been before it’s never too late to start – there’s one tonight and one on Friday. 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, and look out for each other as best we can.

Last chance to sign up for our ‘How to be a Unitarian’ online course that will take place on six Thursday evenings, alternate weeks, starting on the 6th January. We’ve got nearly 30 sign-ups! The idea of this course is to help people get a sense of our Unitarian tradition and find their place in it. This should be particularly valuable for newcomers but I want to encourage long-standing members to sign up too so you can share your wisdom and make connections with others from our own congregation and others around the country. There will be some taught content and some relatively short readings to look at between sessions if you’ve got the oomph – the heart of the course is personal reflection and group exploration of what it means to be a Unitarian today.

All being well we’ll be having another hybrid service in a fortnight’s time, on 16th January, so save the date for that if you’d like to come along in-person. And that’ll be followed by another ‘Getting to Know You’ walk. Look out for more details of both these events in next week’s Friday email.

Closing Words by Edward Searl (adapted)

I invite you to select gallery view now so we can see our gathered community as we close.

Always there is another beginning —

a new day,
a new month,
a new season,
a new year.

Forever the old passes away
and newness emerges
from the richness that was.

Nothing is entirely lost
in the many changes
time brings.

What was, in some way,
will be, though changed in form.

Know this:
This moment is a beginning;
and your lives,

individually and together,
are full of richness, of freshness,
of hope and of promise.

And so, friends, in the days to come,
may we sense that hope and promise,
and be ever-attentive to those chances for renewal
that are still out there waiting for us, despite everything,
in all the mess and muddle of our daily lives. Amen.

Closing Music: ‘Athole’s Bonny Lasses’ performed by Abby Lorimier, Sydney Mariano and Rachel Spence

Rev. Dr. Jane Blackall

2nd January 2022