Passing Through – 13/2/22
Opening Music: ‘Blue Boat Home’ played by Peter Crockford
Opening Words and Chalice Lighting:
Good morning everyone and welcome to this Sunday morning gathering held here at Essex Church in London as well as online, where people are joining us via Zoom. It’s a pleasure to be here with you all and also to send out a message of goodwill and connection to all those who might be reading this script at a later date or watching this service as a YouTube video. It’s good to feel these connections across space and time. Not so separate after all.
Some of you might have recognised our opening music today as the hymn Blue Boat Home, which has long been a favourite with Kensington Unitarians. I wonder if these verses resonate with you:
Though below me I feel no motion
Standing on these mountains and plains.
Far away from the rolling ocean
Still my dry land heart can say:
I’ve been sailing all my life now,
Never harbour or port have I known.
The wide universe is the ocean I travel
And the earth is my blue boat home.
Sun my sail and moon my rudder
As I ply the starry sea,
Leaning over the edge in wonder,
Casting questions into the deep.
Drifting here with my ship’s companions,
All we kindred pilgrim souls,
Making our way by the lights of the heavens
In our beautiful blue boat home.
And our theme for today’s service is this idea of life as a journey, a time and space we are simply passing through, the journey being the destination, and the quality of our connectedness with one another and with our wider being of crucial importance. This is it. This is life and we are in it together – and none of us are getting out alive, as the old T shirt slogan said.
So with that cheery thought in mind let’s take a moment to settle ourselves, in this here and now, take a breath, take time to check how we are perhaps – rattled or amused, tired or energised, worried or peaceful. We know that our lives are a patchwork of experiences and feelings, ups and downs. We know that together our combined life patterns tell us what it is to be human. Let’s make this time a sacred offering of our common humanity, gathered here, the outside world left aside for a little while, taking a bit of time out from life’s journeying, creating a pause point, that new inspiration might find a way to our hearts and connect us with that which we consider to be holy. Welcome everyone, this early spring morning.
Let’s start by lighting our chalice, the symbol of our worldwide Unitarian and Unitarian Universalist community which connects us with all those progressive people of faith who went before us, all who choose to join us along the way, and all who will follow, on this wide and welcoming religious path.
Candles of Joy and Concern:
Each week when we gather together, whether it’s in person at the church here in Kensington or 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 come and light a candle and say a few words about what it represents. In the future we will be able to hear the joys and concerns of people at home on Zoom as well as here in person but we’re still awaiting the necessary bits of electrical wiring. But I do have some messages sent me in advance by ……. And now I invite some of you here to come and light a candle and then if you wish to tell us briefly who or what you light your candle for – do use the microphone so everyone can hear. We’re asking people to keep their masks on for this candle lighting today, as infection rates are still high here in London. Thank you.
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 hearts. And 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, like the many threads of a richly patterned tapestry of life … and let’s hold these threads – and each other – in our hearts, with compassion.
Reading: ‘Thresholds’ by John O’Donohue – read by Jenny Moy
At some points in our lives we find ourselves crossing some new threshold we had never anticipated. Like spring secretly at work within the heart of winter, below the surface of our lives huge changes are in fermentation. We never suspect a thing. Then when the grip of some long-enduring winter mentality begins to loosen, we find ourselves vulnerable to a flourish of possibility and we are suddenly negotiating the challenge of a threshold.
At any time you can ask yourself: At which threshold am I now standing? At this time in my life, what am I leaving? Where am I about to enter? What is preventing me from crossing my next threshold? What gift would enable me to do it? A threshold is not a simple boundary; it is a frontier that divides two different territories, rhythms and atmospheres. Indeed, it is a lovely testimony to the fullness and integrity of an experience or a stage of life that it intensifies toward the end into a real frontier that cannot be crossed without the heart being passionately engaged and woken up. At this threshold a great complexity of emotions comes alive: confusion, fear, excitement, sadness, hope. This is one of the reasons such vital crossing were always clothed in ritual. It is wise in your own life to be able to recognize and acknowledge the key thresholds; to take your time; to feel all the varieties of presence that accrue there; to listen inward with complete attention until you hear the inner voice calling you forward. The time has come to cross.
To acknowledge and cross a new threshold is always a challenge. It demands courage and also a sense of trust in whatever is emerging…
Each life is a mystery that is never finally available to the mind’s light or questions. That we are here is a huge affirmation; somehow life needed us and wanted us to be. To sense and trust this primeval acceptance can open a vast spring of trust within the heart. It can free us into a natural courage that casts out fear and opens up our lives to become voyages of discovery, creativity, and compassion. No threshold need be a threat, but rather an invitation and a promise.
Whatever comes, the great sacrament of life will remain faithful to us, blessing us always with visible signs of invisible grace. We merely need to trust.
Time of Prayer and Reflection ending with shared reading of a prayer adapted from words by Tess Ward
Let us join now in a time of prayer and reflection upon life’s changes and transitions. I’ll invite you at the end of my words to join if you wish in a shared reading of a prayer written by Anglican Tess Ward, the words of which are on your order of service sheet.
May the divine spirit of life and love be with us now in this our time of worship and bless our togetherness here in this congregation, gathered in-person and online. May our hearts be softened and our busy minds be stilled, may our bodies be at peace within themselves as we turn our thoughts and prayers to our world community. Throughout history, the story of our planet has been a story of change, a great unrolling narrative with its multitudinous characters and settings. To be alive is to move and to move is to change.
May our thoughts be with the places in our world where changes are enforced and bitter, where life is tough and there can be little illusion of control for the people who live there. Let us think also of the many places where change is held back, repressed, where the search for freedom is seen as rebellion, where free speech is denied, the places where people do not dare sometimes even to be themselves. May all such places be touched by love and understanding. May fear diminish and peace expand.
In our own hearts and minds may we also be filled with peace and love, so we are better able to accept the changes in our own lives, challenging and painful though some inevitably are. In the midst of our transitions may we be granted all the strength that we need and may that strength be something we pass on to others who we meet along the way, for it is perhaps in our common humanity and in the sharing of our paths in life that we find the meaning and purpose that sustain us and guide us, now and always. Amen
And now please join if you wish in saying this prayer for the season adapted from words by Tess Ward:
Life-force within all that is, that which makes the sap to rise,
the swelling of bud to burst the sheath.
May I let the fruits of your Spirit grow in me this day.
Spirit of love abide in my ears as I listen to stories different to mine own.
Spirit of joy beam in my eyes as I meet the gaze of another.
Spirit of peace breathe through my attitude.
Spirit of kindness blow through the words I speak.
Spirit of patience breeze across my frustration before I say or act.
Spirit of faithfulness help me pause awhile when I’m tempted to stray.
Spirit of generosity spill over in all I think or do or say.
Spirit of gentleness be fragrant in all my dealings with the world.
Guardian of thresholds, guide my steps into the unknown,
as I partake in your transforming ways blowing through this day.
Reading: ‘Impermanence and love’ by Elias Amidon – read by Harold Lorenzelli (adapted and abridged)
Elias is a Sufi teacher and a good friend of this congregation.
A little child runs across the lawn into her mother’s waiting arms. The mother cuddles the child and makes cooing sounds, and then the little one … races off around the yard again, tumbling and showing off.
That was many years ago. Now the child no longer exists; a grown-up person has taken her place. The mother is no longer waiting with her arms open. She, too, no longer exists.
This is the hard truth of impermanence, and it’s how we usually think of that word — the endings it forces on us, the goodbyes, the losses and poignancy of never again…
Of course, impermanence doesn’t only work at the level of human attachment and suffering. If we look closely at the fine-grain of our experience, we can see impermanence acting in every instant and in every place. Each moment yields to the next and never returns. The events we are experiencing right now — physical, thoughtful, emotional — have already changed. You breathe. Your attention moves. Your body shifts. Appearances arise and vanish. Nothing stays the same.
We might think that “I” stay the same through all this change — but what is this “I” that stays the same? When I look closely at the evidence of the moment, at the split second of transience, what kind of “I” is really there?
Looking directly at impermanence like this is not easy. But when we can manage it, when we can look clearly at the transient nature of our experience, that recognition naturally floods back into us and erases our sense of being something outside of transience, something substantial and separate. As an early Buddhist scripture reports the Buddha saying:
In one who perceives impermanence, the perception of non-self becomes firmly established; and one who perceives non-self achieves the elimination of the conceit “I am” and attains nirvana in this very life.
And in the words of the Koran: “Everything is perishing except God’s Face.”
God’s Face, nirvana — what are these scriptures pointing to? By perceiving the continuous flow of impermanence (the perishing), the conceit of our isolated selfness is washed away. But we don’t vanish, just as the universe doesn’t vanish because of the impermanent nature of each moment. What’s holding everything together? What isn’t perishing?
This is where the deeper secret of impermanence is revealed. As we come face-to-face with the fact that everything is perishing, that our lives and all appearances are thoroughly ephemeral, the realization of what’s called “nonself,” or “emptiness,” or “openness” is born. In that realization we sense, beyond our senses, something that resists all description, something that we might variously call God’s Face, or nirvana, or holy intimacy, or simply, love.
Whatever we call it, this-that-does-not-perish is what connects us with everything — each other, the trees, the mountains, the sky, the stars, and all beings who have ever appeared. We remain the unique beings we are, but we recognize we’re not alone in our beingness, we are with the entirety.
I think of this “with-ness” as love— love that’s both complete in itself and endlessly creative, a holy intimacy that is cosmic, inconceivable, awesome, and at the same time ordinary, everyday, and particular. It’s the primordial generosity and ecstasy of light flooding the universe, and it’s the energy of the little child running to her mother.
Of course, impermanence is painful for us too — there’s no way we can escape loss and grief since everything we have ever been given in this life we will lose. But our grief too is love, it’s the form love takes when great loss comes to us, the cry of with-ness as it breaks free from particular love into universal love…
So Happy Valentine’s Day everyone – – – tomorrow!
Meditation followed by music from Chopin’s Etudes, then silence
Sarah will introduce the time of meditation.
Music from Chopin’s Etudes – then silence
Some Thoughts on Passing Through, on Thresholds and Next Steps in Life by Rev. Sarah Tinker
Do you use words like fate or destiny? They’re not modern concepts. In ancient times life was so perilous and so clearly out of any individual’s control that it’s not surprising they had terms to describe powers greater than their own. In classical times even the gods were at the mercy of the Fates – in Greek mythology the three sisters who spun each life thread, chose its length and qualities and, in due course, cut the thread to bring life to its close. The fates could not be avoided but destiny was a quality to work with, to struggle with in order to fulfil.
Through most of human history death has been an ever-present reality. Only in relatively recent times has medicine extended our average lifespan and given us a greater sense of being in charge of our individual existence. But the question remains: how much do we shape our own lives and how much does life shape us? I don’t personally believe in a pre-ordained destiny, or in a life path that is mapped out for us. And yet there have been times in my life when a certain next step felt completely ‘right’. Chance meetings have led to lifelong friendships. Decisions made seemingly in the moment have taken life off into new and unexpected directions.
What good fortune it is to live in a time and in a part of the world where we enjoy freedom of choice. Yet with freedom comes responsibility and the struggle sometimes of having to choose between the various options before us. We may live to regret a choice made too quickly or may feel paralysed by indecision, unable to see into the future, unable to decide which path to take for fear of missing the opportunity not chosen.
Some of the most significant changes in my life, truly transformatory experiences, have been clearly out of my control: births and deaths, relationships started or finished, redundancies and re-organisations, studies chosen for or rejected, storms and snowfalls, car engines and bicycle tyres that misbehaved. I’ll be forever grateful to companions along the way who’ve been there to remind me that I’ll probably cope, whatever next unfolds. I hope it can be the same for you.
Many tribal societies still to this day utilise the power of ritual to help individuals through times of change in their lives. Firstly in such phases of life there is an acknowledgement of an ending. This must be properly marked in some ritualistic way – perhaps through grieving or through some symbolic letting go. The person under-going the rite of passage is then considered to be in a second phase, a time of transition, they are about to cross over a threshold – to leave the past behind and to step out into the unknown. This is sometimes described as a liminal state, a threshold, that border between what is unconscious and conscious, like the shoreline of the sea; this is a place of uncertainty, it is dis-orientating by its very nature because the psyche is in the process of re-orientating itself, finding its way through the mist. Life is no longer as it was and the future is inevitably uncertain because it does not yet exist. This is the point where trust is called for, as John O’Donohue wrote in the reading we heard from Jenny earlier on in the service. We need the strengthening gifts that trust brings us when we face an uncertain future, for all our futures are well and truly uncertain, unformed. There are no guarantees.
It can be exciting and exhilarating but also scary to be in this middle phase of a rite of passage or indeed any time of change in life. It’s a time when we cannot know anything for sure, everything is there to be re-examined, re-considered, old routines fall by the wayside, uncertainty rules. And that liminal phase eventually leads on to the stage of transition itself in which the change is made and the new situation is recognised and marked. In a tribal initiation ceremony for example, held to mark a young person’s acceptance into the adult group – the middle phase might well involve a period of isolation and hardship, a time when the young person is tested in some way. Only when the tests have been undergone can the transition to adult status be properly marked by the group. As I thought about changes and transitions this week, about impermanence and life as ‘passing through’, one realisation stood out for me. As a society we lack I think clear ways to mark our transitions. And the transitions that are noted the least are sometimes the private ones, the quite profound inner developments that we go through at various stages of life, the quiet letting go, coming to terms with, these inner changes need marking and honouring I believe.
But interestingly in our society we do have quite clearly defined ways of marking the end of a job – as our current government has shown us with its repeated parties held to bid a colleague farewell. Here at Essex Church, unlike Number 10 Downing Street, we will not crack open bottles of champagne and drink late into the night. We will keep our masks on. And we will say a big thank you to Jenny Moy who is moving on to pastures new after 16 years living and working here at Essex Church, we’ll present you Jenny with a card filled with messages and best wishes from members of our congregation and some flowers and presents and a cheque for you to buy yourself something special. And we’ll all clap and cheer – our way of saying farewell, good luck in all your threshold crossing and thank you.
Presentation to Jenny Moy who has worked for over 16 years as our live-in warden and is now moving on to pastures new, with our gratitude and all good wishes for her future.
‘Getting to Know You’ Walk This Sunday – There will be another ‘Getting to Know You’ walk, led by Patricia and David Brewerton, straight after the service today. All welcome.
‘Heart and Soul’ – Even if you’ve never been to a ‘Heart and Soul’ spiritual gathering before you’re welcome to give it a go for the first time. We spend about an hour and a half exploring a chosen theme and praying together in a gently structured way. These groups are a great opportunity to connect more deeply with others in the congregation (and beyond). This week’s theme is ‘failure’ – a topic worthy of exploration for flawed humans like us.
‘Coffee Morning’ on Zoom happens every Tuesday at 10.30am and good conversation is guaranteed.
The West London GreenSpirit will be celebrating the Spring Equinox with a Saturday morning workshop ‘Mending for a Broken World’ workshop and shared lunch on Saturday 19th March from 10am for a 10.30 start. This workshop can be attended in-person at Essex Church and via Zoom. Bring your darning and broken crockery.
FUSE Online 2022 – Festival of Unitarians in the South East: this coming weekend. You need to register for the Saturday events but can attend the Sunday service for free.
General Assembly Annual Meetings in Birmingham: This year’s Unitarian Annual Meetings in Birmingham will take place from 19th-21st April. A chance to mix with fellow Unitarians around the country, join in worship, workshops, discussions, and decision-making about issues of concern. For more information and to register see the GA website. Contact Jane if you might be interested in representing the congregation at this event.
Closing Blessing: Hafez writes that ‘Every building you see is destructible except the enduring shelter of kindness’.
And so I extinguish our chalice flame but not the warmth of this community. Let us carry its warmth and light back out into a world so in need of kindness and good cheer. May we live gently, accepting graciously the changing seasons of our lives, standing strong against oppression and injustice, knowing both our great importance and our deep insignificance, stepping forward and crossing new thresholds with hope and humility, seeking a hand to hold when we are uncertain and in our turn helping those we meet along the way. Amen. Go well and blessed be.
Closing Music: The times they are a changin’
Rev. Sarah Tinker
13th February 2022