Love is a Verb – 6/2/22

Opening Music: ‘The Book of Love’ performed by Marilisa Valtazanou

Opening Words: ‘We Speak the Language of Love’ by Erika A. Hewitt (adapted)

We come together this morning from
many different experiences and backgrounds.
All of us share this in common: we speak the language of love.

In the moments before worship begins,
and again when we return to the service of life,
we greet one another with kind words;
we chat about the days behind us and days to come,
and we speak the language of love.

We lift our voices in song — not to sing perfectly
or even in tune — but to hear and feel our true voices
form a life-giving sound; and we speak the language of love.

We form a web of compassionate listening when individuals among us,
embodying vulnerability, name the fears that grip their hearts,
the joys that buoy their spirits. We speak the language of love.

At times, our voices clash. We disagree.
Tension sometimes enters our voices as we
make room for our differing perspectives. Through it all,
it’s our intention that… we speak the language of love.

In this congregation, we welcome a multiplicity of voices,
and invite them to speak out loud. We prophesy,
summoning the age when justice and peace
will be evident all around us, and
we speak the language of love.

Let us worship together, making room for one another
as whole beings, tender hearts, hungry spirits, and curious minds.
With our actions and with our words, let us
…speak the language of love. (pause)

These opening words by Unitarian Universalist minister Erika A. Hewitt 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 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 of readings and music is titled ‘Love is a Verb’. Think of it as an early Valentine’s service, perhaps, as I’m not leading next Sunday. Today we’ll be considering the enormous subject of love through that particular lens; thinking about Love as an action – a thing we must actively do – rather than a feeling that just comes upon us, over which we have no control.

Chalice Lighting: ‘Blessed is the Fire’ by Eric A. Heller-Wagner

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.

Blessed is the fire that burns deep in the soul.
It is the flame of the human spirit touched into being by the mystery of life.
It is the fire of reason; the fire of compassion;
the fire of community; the fire of justice; the fire of faith.
It is the fire of love burning deep in the human heart; the divine glow in every life.

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 Laura Horton-Ludwig

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, the light within and without.
Be with us now as we allow ourselves to drop into the silence
and stillness at the centre of our being. (pause)

As people of faith, we seek to live in a spirit of love,
a spirit of community, justice, and peace.
And yet, in so many corners of the world both far and near,
we see exploitation and coercion, divisiveness and hate.
We struggle to respond to the outer world
and our inner dramas in ways that manifest love.

At times we may fear that love will not be strong enough.
At times we may question whether love really is at the root of all things,
in this world with so much struggle and suffering and discord.

This is the mystery within which we live and die.
These are the questions that haunt our days and nights.

And yet we are not without hope.
Our very struggles and our questions
testify to our longing for peace, for love.

In the stillness and silence of our own heart
we read the imprint of love: an enduring light within.

May it keep hope alive through the toughest times.
May it guide us all as we seek to act wisely and well.
May it help us to be vessels of compassion for one another and for our world. (pause)

In a quiet moment now, let us look back over the week just gone, to take stock of it all –
the many everyday cares and concerns of our own lives – and concentric circles of concern
rippling outwards – ‘til they enfold the entire world and all those lives which touch our own.
Let’s take a while to sit quietly in prayer with that which weighs heavy on our hearts this day.

And let us also take a moment to notice all the good that has happened in the past week –
moments of uplift and delight; beauty and pleasure; all those acts of generosity and kindness.
There’s lots to be grateful for. So let’s take a little while to sit quietly in prayer and give thanks. (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: ‘To Worship Rightly’ sung by Kensington Unitarians

Time to sing; our first hymn, ‘To Worship Rightly’, which speaks of acts of love and care as the highest form of worship. This is a recording of our own congregation a few years ago so please excuse any coughing or rustling you hear. The words will be on screen so you can sing along – or you might prefer just to listen – we’ll do our best to make sure you’re muted so nobody will hear.

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

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

Reading: ‘Looking For Love in All the Wrong Places’ by David S. Blanchard – read by Patricia

Most of us look for love in only the most obvious places, and as a result, most of us come away disappointed. It’s as if we are still at primary school, counting valentines as a measure of what matters.

The love that matters is not typically the subject of sonnets or love songs. There can be love in being told we are wrong. There can be love in sharing a regret. There can be love in asking for help. There can be love in communicating hurt. There can be love in telling hard truths. Most of us find it painful to live at this level of love, but it can be there, even in these most unlikely places. It isn’t the kind of love we’ve been promised in the fairy tales of princes and fairy godmothers, but it is the kind experienced by frogs and dwarfs. It’s the sort of love that can bring us closer to finding the missing pieces of ourselves that we need to make us whole.

Some of the most loving things I’ve ever experienced, I haven’t been ready for, wasn’t looking for, and nearly didn’t recognize. A few of them I didn’t want. But all of them have changed me, transformed some part of me, filled in a place that I didn’t even know was empty.

When the valentine has been tucked away in a drawer, the chocolates eaten, the flowers faded and gone, there will be other legacies of love that will last as long as we do, because they have brought us to know an element of life—part feeling, part idea, part mystery—that once known, is ours to keep.

Reading: ‘Atlas’ by U.A. Fanthorpe – read by Harold

There is a kind of love called maintenance
Which stores the WD40 and knows when to use it;

Which checks the insurance, and doesn’t forget
The milkman; which remembers to plant bulbs;

Which answers letters; which knows the way
The money goes; which deals with dentists

And Road Fund Tax and meeting trains,
And postcards to the lonely; which upholds

The permanently rickety elaborate
Structures of living, which is Atlas.

And maintenance is the sensible side of love,
Which knows what time and weather are doing
To my brickwork; insulates my faulty wiring;
Laughs at my dryrotten jokes; remembers
My need for gloss and grouting; which keeps
My suspect edifice upright in air,
As Atlas did the sky.

Meditation: ‘To Invoke Love’ by Sean Parker Dennison

Thank you Chloë. We’ve come to a time of meditation. To take us into stillness, I’m going to offer some words from Unitarian Universalist minister Sean Parker Dennison. His poem, ‘To Invoke Love’, speaks of love’s many guises – all the different ways it can show up in our lives – and love’s power to disrupt, transform, and save – and it asks what real love might actually require of us. This poem 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 gorgeous song, ‘Teardrop’, sung by 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.

To invoke Love is to ask for a hug from a thunderstorm,
spill tea in the lap of the infinite trickster,
to make the biggest, most embarrassing mistake
of your life in front of everyone who matters.

To invoke Love is to never know if it will come softly,
with the nuzzle of a beloved dog,
or pounce right on your chest with the strength of a lioness
protecting her cub, her pride, her homeland.

To invoke Love is to take the risk of inviting chaos to visit the spaces
you spent so much time making tidy,
and watch as the breath of life scatters everything
you have only just folded and put away.

To invoke Love is to allow for the possibility that your words
and actions might become so empowered
you can no longer believe in apathy,
or the self-righteous idea that nothing can change.

To invoke Love is to give up self-deprecation, false humility, pride,
to consider yourself worthy to be made whole,
willing to encounter Love that will never
let us let each other go.

To invoke Love is to guard against assumptions,
take care with our words and practice forgiveness,
not as ethereal ideal, but right here,
in the messy midst of our imperfect lives.

To invoke Love is to approach each day and every person with wonder,
anticipating Love’s arrival: “Is this the moment?
Is this Love’s grand entrance?
Is this person the embodiment of Love? Am I the one?”

To invoke Love is to play the fool, the one more concerned with loving
than with appearance or reputation,
the one ready and willing to be vulnerable,
abandoning anything that gets in Love’s way.

To invoke Love is to be ready to become Love.
Here. Now. In everything we do. Are you ready?

Silence: 3 minutes silence accompanied by chalice video

Musical Interlude: ‘Teardrop’ sung by Marilisa Valtazanou

Reading: ‘Give Love Words’ (excerpts) by bell hooks – read by Chloë

This reading is a bit longer than we are used to, about 6 minutes in all, but it really gets to the heart of the message of today’s service, so it’s worth settling in to listen to some real words of wisdom. This piece, ‘Give Love Words’, is an excerpt from the book ‘All About Love’ by the influential African-American author, academic, feminist, and activist, bell hooks, who died quite recently in December 2021. She wrote:

Imagine how much easier it would be for us to learn how to love if we began with a shared definition. The word “love” is most often defined as a noun, yet all the more astute theorists of love acknowledge that we would all love better if we used it as a verb.

I spent years searching for a meaningful definition of the word “love”, and was deeply relieved when I found one in M. Scott Peck’s classic self-help book The Road Less Travelled, first published in 1978. He defines love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” Explaining further, he continues: “Love is as love does. Love is an act of will – namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.” Since the choice must be made to nurture growth, this definition counters the assumption that we love instinctually.

To truly love we must learn to mix various ingredients – care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication. Learning faulty definitions of love when we are young makes it difficult to be loving as we grow older. Most of us learn early on to think of love as a feeling. When we feel deeply drawn to someone, we cathect with them; that is, we invest feeling or emotion in them. That process of investment wherein a loved one becomes important to us is called “cathexis”. Peck emphasises that most of us “confuse cathecting with loving”. We all know how often individuals, feeling connected to someone, insist that they love the other person even if they are hurting or neglecting them. They insist that what they feel is love. If we understand love as the will to nurture our own and another’s spiritual growth, it is clear we cannot claim to love if we are hurtful. Love and abuse cannot coexist.

The truth is, far too many people in our culture do not know what love is. And this not knowing feels like a terrible secret, a lack that we have to cover up. I am grateful to have been given a definition of love that helped me face the places in my life where love was lacking. It still took years for me to let go of learned patterns of behaviour that negated my capacity to give and receive love. Had I been given a clear definition of love earlier in my life it would not have taken me so long to become a more loving person. Had I shared with others a common understanding of what it means to love it would have been easier to create love.

To begin by always thinking of love as an action rather than a feeling is one way in which anyone using the word in this manner automatically assumes accountability and responsibility. We are often taught we have no control over our “feelings”. Yet most of us accept that we choose our actions, that intention and will inform what we do. We also accept that our actions have consequences. If we remembered that “love is as love does”, we would not use the word in a manner that devalues and degrades its meaning. When we are loving we openly and honestly express care, affection, responsibility, respect, commitment, and trust.

Definitions are vital starting points for the imagination. What we cannot imagine cannot come into being. A good definition marks our starting point and lets us know where we want to end up. As we move toward our desired destination we chart the journey, creating a map. We need a map to guide us on our journey – starting with the place where we truly know what we mean when we speak of love.

Introduction to Final Reading:

Thanks Chloë. That piece from bell hooks is really the centrepiece of today’s service – her message that ‘love is a verb’ and ‘love is as love does’ – authentic love must consist of more than a feeling. That idea runs through today’s readings: David Blanchard reminded us the love that matters most probably isn’t the sort that’s celebrated in cheesy love songs – it’s more the sort UA Fanthorpe writes about – the ‘love like maintenance’ through which we help each other to live and flourish. A love that’s not confined to romantic relationships but which can be experienced in connection with family, friends, strangers, and – let’s not forget – in communities such as this one. So, just one more reading, it’s a poem by UU minister Jess Reynolds which uses the central image of a wooden box, made of cedar, in which we might tuck away and treasure all the ways we have been loved.

Reading: ‘The Scent of Cedar’ by Jess Reynolds

A kindergartner gave me a flower
last spring, pressing it into my hand
as she wrapped one chubby arm
around my leg and giggled into my thigh.
I took the flower home and hung it to dry
until the petals crinkled like newspaper,
then tucked into a cedar box
with all the other ways I have been loved.
My aunt’s voice as she says: text me
when you get home;
the taut leash
of a soft brown collie across the street
who has never met me before
but would like to; the smell of chili
in the house I grew up in. My friend Evan
writes me emails filled with exclamation points –
three or four in the subject line alone –
and invents nicknames for me
from nonsense and mortar and rhyme.
When my sister comes by, I make her tea
and show her all the magazine articles
my grandmother clipped for me,
spilling from the box that won’t latch
for all it holds. I make her tea
and join her in the dirt at the crossroads
where she sits, waiting for a map
or a compass or a sign. I make her tea
and tuck an extra teabag into her purse
for her own cedar box and pray it runs over
just as mine does. And when she leaves,
I say: text me when you get home.

Hymn: ‘Let Love Continue Long’ performed by the Unitarian Music Society

Time for one more hymn, ‘Let Love Continue Long’, performed by the Unitarian Music Society. As always, do sing along at home, or simply listen if you’d rather.

Let love continue long,
And show to us the way,
And if that love be strong
No hurt can have a say;
And if that love remain but strong,
No hurt can ever have a say.

If love cannot be found,
Though common faith prevail,
When love does not abound,
A common faith will fail.
When human love does not abound,
A common faith will always fail.

If we in love unite,
Debate can cause no strife:
For with this love in sight
Disputes enrich our life.
For with this bond of human love,
Disputes can mean a richer life.

May love continue long,
And lead us on our way:
For if that love be strong
No hurt can have a say.
For if that love remain but strong
No hurt can ever have a say.


Just a few announcements: Thanks to Chloë and Harold and Patricia for reading, Marilisa for our lovely music, and Maria for co-hosting today. 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, or come to some of our other events. If you can bear to hang around we like to take a group photo after the closing music.

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 ‘Gentleness’ – 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.

Next Sunday morning we’re having a hybrid service, 10.30am as usual, you can join us in the building at Essex Church or on Zoom as usual when Sarah Tinker will be leading our service. Configuration of the new sound system is turning into quite a saga and the technician is back next Friday to finish the job so please continue to pray, cross your fingers, whatever it takes, in hope that we’ll be running the new system next Sunday. Either way we’ll be streaming from the church. And after the service there’ll be another ‘Getting to Know You’ walk, this time led by Patricia and David, about an hour and a half around Holland Park with a chance for a cup of tea along the way. This is intended as a relatively Covid-safe opportunity for outdoor socialising and would be a great way for newcomers to make connections in the congregation if that’s something you’d like to do.

Another thing to mention is that there are a couple of district and national events coming up which you might be interested in. In a few weeks, the weekend of 19th-20th February, our district will be holding its annual Festival of Unitarians in the South East (better known as ‘FUSE’) online. Most of the activities are on Saturday – talks from guest speakers Alastair McIntosh and Jennifer Kavanagh on spiritual themes – interesting-sounding workshops from a selection of local Unitarians. Tickets are £25 and details of how to book were in the Friday email. Looking a bit further ahead our national organisation has decided to resume in-person annual meetings this year at the Hilton Metropole hotel in Birmingham from 19th-21st April. Registration is open, will run throughout February, and there are a limited number of subsidised places for newcomers and under-40s who couldn’t otherwise afford to go. The programme hasn’t yet been released but there’s usually a mix of business meetings and debates, workshops and worship, and time to socialise with Unitarians from all over the country. Again, details of this are in the Friday email.

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 Cynthia Landrum and Eric Williams

We leave this gathered community,
But we don’t leave behind our connection,
Our concerns, our care for each other.
Our service to each other, to the world, and to our faith continues.

So until we are together again, friends,
Be strong, be well, be true, be loving.

For love is the spirit of this church.
May the lives we lead embody this spirit.
Let us go forth in peace and meet the days to come. Amen.

Closing Music: ‘Love is an Arrow’ performed by Marilisa Valtazanou (2.08)

Rev. Dr. Jane Blackall

6th February 2022