Stories We Tell Ourselves – 9/1/22

Opening Music: ‘It’s a Wonderful World’ performed by Marilisa Valtazanou

Opening Words: ‘Forged in the Fire of Our Coming Together’ by Gretchen Haley

What’s going to happen?
Will everything be ok?
What can I do?

In these days we find ourselves, too often,
Stuck with these questions on repeat:
What’s going to happen? / Will everything be ok? /What can I do?

We grasp at signs and markers, articles of news and analysis,
Facebook memes and forwarded emails as if the new zodiac
Capable of forecasting all that life may yet bring our way
As if we could prepare; As if life had ever made any promises
of making sense, or turning out the way we’d thought;
As if we are not also actors in this still unfolding story.

For this hour we gather
To surrender to the mystery.
To release ourselves from the needing to know,
The yearning to have it all already figured out,
And also the burden of believing we either have all the control, or none at all.

Here in our song and our silence, our stories and our sharing,
We make space for a new breath, a new healing,
A new possibility to take root, that is courage –
forged in the fire of our coming together
and felt in the spirit that comes alive in this act of faith:
that we believe still, a new world is possible –
and that we are creating it, already, here, and now.

So come, let us worship together. (pause)

These opening words by Unitarian Universalist minister Gretchen Haley 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, I’m Ministry Coordinator with Kensington Unitarians.

If you are here for the first time today – we’re especially glad to you have you with us – welcome! I hope you find something of what you need in our gathering this morning. Please do hang around afterwards for a chat or drop us an email to say hello and introduce yourself if you’d like. Or you might try coming to one of our various small-group gatherings to get to know us better. And if you’re a regular here – thank you for all that you do to welcome all who come each Sunday. Even on Zoom, we have a part to play in co-creating this sacred space, this sense of community.

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 congregation – 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 but there’s no compulsion to do so. You can quietly lurk with our blessing – you know how to find us if you want to get in touch later.

This morning’s service is titled ‘The Stories We Tell Ourselves’. We’ll be reflecting on the way in which the way we choose to frame our experience of life – in all its complexity – has an impact on our ability to live well and respond to the very real challenges we face. How might we find hope and resist despair through narrative – without becoming detached from reality? This theme was suggested by our own Patricia Brewerton who will be offering her reflections later in the service.

Chalice Lighting: ‘The Chalice Lit Among Us is a Beacon’ by Debra Faulk (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.

The chalice lit among us is a beacon:

A beacon of hope, for a fragmented world in crisis;
A beacon of possibility, made manifest in community;
A beacon of warmth, felt through our interconnections;
A beacon of light, illuminating our shared human wisdom;
A beacon of connection, sensed in this precious time together.

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 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 Mandie McGlynn

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)

We know so many stories about You: God. Father-Mother. Universe.
Great Spirit. Ground of Our Being. Lover and Beloved. Source of All.

We know so many stories about ourselves too,
some of them the same stories we tell about others:
Beautiful, Ugly, Simple, Difficult, Smart, Foolish, Useful, Useless.
Stories about who we are, what we know,
and the potentials and impossibilities of our future.
Stories about the purpose and the meaning of our lives.
We have countless stories buried too deep
in our souls for us to even recognize them.

Help us to find the strength to excavate those buried stories.
Let us lean on one another as we brush them off,
hold them up to the light, and find their meaning and use.
Let us uncover the stories which rekindle hope and courage.

In the trees and wind, in the kind words of our neighbours,
in the warmth of the sun and the gentle sound of falling rain,
whisper to us the truest story You know, a truth we can never unhear.
Remind us every day, every moment, that we are beloved. (pause)

When so much of our world is groaning with fatigue and injustice,
we are invited to turn to God and to one another; turn to
the deepest reality we know: the oneness at the heart of all.
We are not meant to carry the struggles of the world alone.
So may we share together in prayer for all that troubles our hearts.
In a few moments of silence and stillness now, let us call to mind
those sufferings and struggles that weigh heavy on our hearts this day,
and let us hold them gently in the light of love; that larger love that holds all. (pause)

Just as we are not meant to shoulder the world’s pain alone,
we are equally invited to delight with one another in the joy that sustains us.

For the beauty that grows around us and within us, despite everything – we give thanks.
For the gifts of sharing and relationships that transform and sustain us – we give thanks.
For art and music and stories and truths that foster love and connection – we give thanks.
For every source of hope and courage in the face of all that makes us anxious and afraid – we give thanks.

In a few moments of silence and stillness now, let us call to mind
some of the many gifts we have been given in the week just passed,
and inwardly treasure these blessings, be they large or small, with gratitude. (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: ‘Gather the Spirit’ sung by the Unitarian Music Society

Time to sing; our first hymn, ‘Gather the Spirit’, speaks of the strength and hope we might gain by gathering together. The words will appear on screen 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.

Gather the spirit, harvest the power.
Our separate fires will kindle one flame.
Witness the mystery of this hour.
Our trials in this light appear all the same.
Gather in peace, gather in thanks.
Gather in sympathy now and then.
Gather in hope, compassion and strength.
Gather to celebrate once again.

Gather the spirit of heart and mind.
Seeds for the sowing are laid in store.
Nurtured in love and conscience refined,
with body and spirit united once more.
Gather in peace, gather in thanks.
Gather in sympathy now and then.
Gather in hope, compassion and strength.
Gather to celebrate once again.

Gather the spirit growing in all,
drawn by the moon and fed by the sun.
Winter to spring, and summer to fall,
the chorus of life resounding as one.
Gather in peace, gather in thanks.
Gather in sympathy now and then.
Gather in hope, compassion and strength.
Gather to celebrate once again.

Reading: ‘Challenging the Negative Stories We Tell Ourselves’ by Patrick Testa (excerpts, adapted) – read by Rachel

Stories are an important part of how we view the world and our lives. And the narrative we tell ourselves — the inner dialogue we have about who we are — impacts how we interpret our experiences and respond to life’s challenges.

Our perception of the world is shaped by the stories we tell ourselves. We all have an internal narrative about who we are. This inner monologue often runs continuously — sometimes in the background or quite loudly — interpreting our experiences and offering opinions on the decisions we make. It informs our sense of self. Sometimes, self-talk can be constructive and life-affirming, providing us with the perspective to bounce back from challenges and the resiliency to navigate life’s ups and downs.

But self-talk can also become distorted, creating a consistently negative point of view that’s detrimental to our mental and emotional health. Our inner critic can trick us into believing stories that aren’t true — for example, self-limiting thoughts like “I’m not good enough”, “I always mess things up”, or “It won’t work out.” Thoughts influence how we feel — and what we habitually think will affect how we habitually feel. If we have a negative inner dialogue, we will start to act out behaviours and ways of approaching life that make us depressed, unhappy, and unfulfilled.

Don’t believe all the stories you tell yourself. How you feel about your life, and the meaning of experiences in it, depends on your focus. Our internal narrative is like a radio station — if you want to hear something different, you need to change the channel. We can do this by fostering greater awareness of our inner dialogue. Start by trying to observe the thoughts and emotions that arise throughout the day without judging, reacting, or engaging with them. Practicing mindfulness can be helpful in cultivating acceptance of your experiences instead of labelling them as good or bad. Your feelings, no matter how uncomfortable, are not you. Second, challenge negative self-talk and cognitive distortions when they arise. When you find that your inner critic is starting to appear, replace disparaging statements with self-compassion and understanding. Adopting a more empathetic and kinder tone toward yourself can also help change how you feel.

This allows us to begin the process of telling ourselves a different story — one that will allow us to better manage life in a healthy, balanced way without falling into the trap of comparing ourselves to idealized versions we see in movies and social media. Our life will include mistakes and challenges. But we all have the power to flip the script on how we think about and react to the events we experience. While we may not have a perfect ending, by rewriting our inner narrative we can foster a more hopeful mindset that we can draw on in even the most difficult of circumstances. And that story is one we deserve to hear.

Meditation: ‘Creative Acts of World-Making’ by Rabbi Rami Shapiro

Thank you Rachel. We’ve come to a time of meditation. To take us into stillness, I’m going to offer a short excerpt from a book of Hasidic Tales by Rabbi Rami Shapiro, on the power of storytelling to shape our lives. These words will be followed by a few minutes of shared stillness during which we’ll have our virtual chalice on screen. The silence will end with a song from Marilisa. So let’s each do what we need to do to get comfortable – have a wiggle if you need to – or put your feet flat on the floor to ground and steady yourself – maybe close your eyes. And as I always say, these words, images, and music, they’re just an offering, feel free to meditate in your own way.

Some words from Rami Shapiro:

‘The quality of our lives depends to a
great degree on the kinds of stories we tell.
Miserable people tend to tell stories of woe;
joyous people tend to tell stories of hope.
The question we must ask is this:
do our tales reflect the personality of the teller,
or do they create it? Does the tale mirror the teller,
or does the teller come to resemble the tale?
The safest answer, of course, is that it is a bit of both.
But my own experience as a rabbi and storyteller
is that the tale has greater power than the teller…
The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves determine
the quality of the selves we imagine we are.
The stories we tell about others determine
the quality of our relationships with them.
Stories are creative acts of world-making.
When we tell a story about ourselves
we create the self about which we are talking.’

Words by Rami Shapiro. And as we move into a time of shared stillness now
I invite you to reflect on the kinds of stories you are telling yourself –
about yourself and your life – about those people who are close to you –
about the world we’re living in and the prospects for our future –
are they tales of woe or tales of hope? Our stories are ‘creative acts of world-making’.

Silence: 3 minutes silence accompanied by chalice video

Musical Interlude: ‘Both Sides Now’ performed by Marilisa Valtazanou

Reading: ‘Keeping Our Connections Strong’ by Sean Parker Dennison (adapted) – read by Chloë

I feel like I’m on a constant hunt for hope these days. I have to be: every time I look at my phone or open my laptop, I’m overwhelmed by stories of breakdown, unrest, injustice, violence, greed, selfishness, and disrespect for life. When I listen to my friends and loved ones, or to conversations in coffee shops, it feels like everyone is dispirited and disheartened. And that is dangerous.

The danger of hopelessness is a double danger. First, hopelessness makes us feel it’s useless to take action. It fools us into believing there’s nothing we can do, that our efforts won’t make a difference. Once we abandon hope, there’s no stopping the momentum of the unscrupulous, those who are willing to cooperate with evil in order to get ahead.

The other danger of hopelessness is that we can lose each other. In times of hopelessness, it’s easy to get scared of everything and everyone. It’s easy to start believing that your neighbour is the problem and that hoarding is a better strategy than generosity. The problem is that when community starts to break down, we lose the most important source of hope we have: each other.

The message of hope that still blazes bright for me in these hard times is that I am not alone. I don’t have to face the world alone, and I don’t have to fix the world alone. When I need hope, I find it in on the faces of my people. I find it in their hearts, when we find each other again, and stop turning away from each other, thinking we are the only one. I find it when we come together in community, to bless one another, to share our stories, to mourn, to strategize. All we need is hope… and for that, we have each other.

Sean Parker Dennison concludes with a few words of prayer: Spirit of Life and Love, in these times when so much seems difficult, help us remember that we are not alone. We have each other. Help keep our connections strong and remind us that kindness, generosity and trust are antidotes to fear. Help us remember that our hope and our power grow when we are faithful to our deepest commitments and to each other. May we rise up to do the work of Love again and again. Amen.

Reflection: ‘The Stories We Tell Ourselves’ by Patricia Brewerton

Two things prompted my renewed interest in this topic. The first was a worrying conversation I had with my great-niece and the other an article in the Observer which helped explain it.

It has been suggested that we ARE the stories we tell ourselves and the most obvious of these are probably stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. We have so many memories and we strive to string all those words and images going round and round in our heads into a narrative which we can tell to ourselves and then, perhaps, retell to others. And if we ARE the story we tell of ourselves we will choose carefully what we include in that story. We will want it to reflect our best self, the self we think we are – or the self we want others to think we are! And a glance into the window of any bookshop shows how many people are compelled to write their stories in order to explain to themselves and their readers who they really are.

Our memories are a great resource of anecdotes from which we can write our lives. We know more or less what happened, what we did, what we said and how we reacted to various events and so we know what we wish to include in the story and what to leave out. But we also tell ourselves stories about the future and these are more complicated because, obviously, we don’t know how they will turn out.

Some of these are merely dreams such as that of a friend who, as soon as he retired last year, started to learn Greek. He plans to cycle from his home in Worthing on the South Coast, through France and Italy and then to tour Greece. And each time he speaks of this trip it becomes more and more adventurous. I don’t think it matters to him if he can never actually do this, and maybe it would be better that it remains a story he tells himself – that way nothing can go wrong.

The stories we tell ourselves about our future depend to some extent on stories we ourselves are told. Since the 1960s feminist critics have explored the effect of well-known fairy stories on young girls and explains why, when I was young, I told myself a story in which I would become a beautiful woman and win the hand of a handsome prince!

And then there are the stories we are told every day by newspapers, radio and television. This is how, during this pandemic, we became aware of much that is wrong and it is evident that things need to change, there seems to be a real desire to Build Back Better. But telling the narrative of that story appears to be much more difficult than recognising what is wrong in our past story.

And this brings me back to the two events which prompted these thoughts in the first place. That conversation with my great niece and the article which explains it.

Anna is a lively politically engaged young woman in her early twenties and I was quite taken aback when she claimed that her generation had no future anyway. This was around the time of COP26 and I knew exactly what she was thinking and deep down, or rather not so deep down, I feared she might be right. I had no words for her – nothing I could say would change how she viewed her future – or lack of future. So I said nothing.

I was reminded of this conversation when I came across that article in The Observer. The writer objected to the violently dystopian vision of the future contained in a paper entitled Advice to Young People as They Face Annihilation. He objects to what he calls “self-defeating pessimism”. This pessimism, this hopelessness is not only very damaging to the individual but telling people that there is no future, or only a future so terrifying that no-one would want to live it, is damaging to a society needing change. Change only happens when people believe it is possible. Not when people are fed stories of despair. To the environmentalist, George Monbiot, it seems as if we are trapped in a groundhog day, constantly repeating the same mistakes and re-telling the same desperate stories but, he writes, “you cannot take away someone’s story without giving them a new one”.

And there are, of course, many hopeful stories around but these often seem too small and insignificant, too local perhaps, to make a real difference when things seem as dark as they do to Anna. The film Salt of the Earth, about the Brazilian photographer, Sebastian Salgado, is a real story of hope – a story of light coming out of the deepest darkness.

Salgado travelled the world telling the stories of oppressed peoples in his monochrome photos. There are photos recording all the most horrible events of the last few decades, the famines and the wars, but it was the genocide that occurred during the civil war in Rwanda that brought him to his darkest place. At this point in the film, he turns to the camera and speaks of his loss of faith in humanity, he says he no longer believes in any salvation for our species.

Fortunately the film doesn’t end there. Compelled by his father’s ill health Salgado has to return home to the cattle farm in Brazil. But now there are no trees and no pasture, the soil has died. Perhaps in order to lift his spirits, his wife, Leilia, suggests that they replant the rain forest and so they begin planting little seedlings. The tiny seedlings lined up in the greenhouses don’t look as if they could ever survive when planted in the ground. And in the first planting 60% are lost and then in second 40% but by the time the film was made in 2014 two and a half million trees had been planted, water sources were flowing again and the wildlife had returned.

The man whose pictures had told us so many terrible stories now shares one great story with us – the destruction of nature can be reversed. The final scenes in the film are filled with the beauty of nature and we see Salgado walking in the forest that he and Leilia have replanted.

According to the American historian and writer, Rebecca Solnit, we need more imagination. We need imagination if we are to fully understand the perils facing us. The recent Netflix production “Don’t Look Up” imagines the climate crisis as a comet hurtling towards earth and threatening the destruction of the planet. The two scientists who discover the comet try to warn people of what is inevitable but no-one really wants to hear their story.

But we also need imagination if we are going to do anything about the crisis we face and the film shows that there is a way out of disaster. It is still possible to avert the crisis but it needs imagination and will. Leilia and Salgado didn’t know if it was possible to replant the Atlantic Rain Forest but they imagined that it would be possible and had the will to make it happen.

I don’t know if this story of the renewal of the Forest would convince Anna that her generation does have a future, and maybe I am just being naively optimistic. But the future isn’t written yet. There is a story still to be told. Monbiot claims that “those who tell the story rule the world”. If we really do want to live in a more just and peaceful and sustainable world and Monbiot is right then we need to write that future now – stories of hope to tell ourselves and then to tell to others.

Hymn: ‘What Shall We Say to Them?’ sung by the Unitarian Music Society ~

Thank you Patricia for your thoughtful reflection and for suggesting this excellent theme. I think some of your themes are picked up by our final hymn today (quite a stirring one to finish on an up!): ‘What Shall We Say to Them?’ performed by the Unitarian Music Society.

What shall we say to them
when they all want to know
that God is in the world and feels
their inmost secrets glow?
We all must say to them
what we all know for sure
that there’s a goodness in the world
which ever shall endure.

What shall we do for them
when they are in distress
and anguish burns within their hearts
for which they seek redress?
We all must help them live
with confidence and trust
that if we hold fast to the truth
love lights up even dust.

What is our vision bright
which we must show the world:
how perfect love can cast out fear
and life’s flag be unfurled?
We may not give up hope;
we will not give up love.
Our lives are grounded in the faith,
in one God we all move.


Just a few brief announcements this morning: Thanks to Patricia for a great reflection, Rachel and Chloë for reading, and Marilisa for three lovely songs. 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 to hang around we like to take a group photo after the closing music.

We are planning to hold an in-person service next Sunday (16th January) which will be led by Sarah (so that I can be in charge of the technical arrangements). This will be livestreamed via Zoom in the same way that we did in December – it’s still not going to be fully hybrid – for which I apologise. We were due to have our new sound system installed last week but the team had to postpone due to Covid-related staff shortages, which I guess is happening all over the place at the moment, so we’re going to make do with the homespun setup for livestreaming that we used in December. This means that people joining via Zoom won’t be able to fully interact with Joys and Concerns (but if you do want Sarah to light a candle on your behalf you can email her beforehand with requests). We’re doing our best and I sincerely hope we’ll have the full hybrid system up and running soon. Just like last time we’ll require masks to be properly worn at all times in the building, we’ll have the chairs spaced out for social distancing (with a few pairs of chairs for households to sit together), and we ask everyone to respect those whose approach to Covid-safety is more cautious than their own.

After the service next week we’ll have another of our ‘Getting to Know You’ walks, this time led by Pat Gregory, so wrap up warm and maybe bring a flask for a leisurely and sociable amble. These are intended as an opportunity for people to get to know each other better while we’re still online (in the hope that having a walk-and-talk outside will make it a bit more Covid-safe to socialise).

Our online programme continues: we have coffee morning as usual at 10.30am this Tuesday and there are still a few spaces left for our Heart and Soul spiritual gathering on the theme ‘On the Road’ – even if you’ve not been before it’s never too late to start – there’s one tonight and one on Friday. We had the first session of our ‘How to be a Unitarian’ course on Thursday night with 38 people from about 15 different congregations joining us. If you’re feeling sad that you missed out it’s not too late – if you get in touch in the next day or so I’ll send you materials to catch up – and you can join us for the live sessions from next time around (the next meeting is on 20th January). 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.

That’s all my announcements – in a change from our usual programming I’m going to hand over to the chairperson of our congregation, John Humphreys, for a bit of an update on what’s going on behind-the-scenes at Essex Church – something I hope we’ll do from time to time in future.

(update from John Humphreys on what’s going on behind the scenes)

Benediction: based on words by Lindsay Bates

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.

With faith in the creative powers of life,
With hope for the future of life in this world,
With love for all others who share this life with us,
Let us go forward together, in peace, to seek justice.

Our gathering has ended; let our service begin.
May it be so, for the greater good of all. Amen.

Closing Music: ‘I Can See Clearly Now’ performed by Marilisa Valtazanou

Rev. Dr. Jane Blackall and Patricia Brewerton

9th January 2022