Poems to Live By – 31/07/22

Opening Music: Played by Peter Crockford

Opening Words: ‘We Summon Ourselves’ by Gordon B. McKeeman (adapted)

We summon ourselves from the demands and delights of the daily round:
from the dirty dishes and neglected paperwork;
from the pile of ironing and the overflowing inbox;
from all incompletenesses and not-yet-startednesses;
from the unholy and the unresolved in our lives.

We summon ourselves to attend to our vision
of peace and justice;
of health and wholeness;
of delight and devotion;
of the lovely and the holy;
of who we are and what we can do.

We summon the power of tradition and the exhilaration of newness,
the timeless wisdom of the ages and the fresh knowing of each generation.

We summon beauty, eloquence, music, and poetry to be the bearers of our dreams.

We would open our eyes, our ears, our minds, our hearts
to the heights and depths of this life that we share.
We rejoice in manifold promises and possibilities,
as this morning, we join in worship together.

These opening words, adapted from words by Gordon B. McKeeman, welcome all those who have gathered on Zoom this morning to take part in our Sunday service. Welcome to regular members of the Essex Church congregation, to friends old and new, and welcome too to 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.

I hope each one of you finds something of what you need in our gathering this morning. Please do hang around afterwards for a chat if you’d like to. You can always drop us an email to say hello and introduce yourself if you’d like. Or you might try coming to one of our small-group gatherings to get to know us better. Whether it’s your first time or your thousandth time, you are welcome, and you are valued. 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 but there’s no compulsion to do so.

This morning’s service has the title ‘Poems to Live By’. Inspired by the recent revival of the church poetry group by Brian, Marianne, and David I thought we’d have a congregational service, where a few people would share poems which evoke some piece of wisdom that was significant to them, and say a few words about why their poem was particularly meaningful in their lives. So Patricia, Hannah, Juliet, Marianne and Brian are going to do just that in this morning’s service, bringing poems that speak of spiritual, philosophical, and social justice themes which reflect our values.

I nicked today’s title from this book, ‘Poems to Live By in Uncertain Times’ edited by Joan Murray, and just wanted to read you a few sentences from it to set the scene. She says: ‘It’s been more than sixty years since Kenneth Burke spoke of literature as equipment for living. In my life, I’ve found this to be true. Difficult events – whether personal or historic – have a way of overwhelming us; they can leave us weeping, raging, or numb… Poems can cut through our confusion to speak knowingly and intimately to us and stir us from within. Knowing this, I’ve kept an eye open for poems that help me through such times, because they move me or caution me, buck me up or lighten me up… I keep such poems in a binder labelled “Poems to Live By”. They do me good.’

So I hope this morning’s service, and the poems and reflections we share in it, will do us good too.

Chalice Lighting: ‘We Gather This Hour’ by Christine Robinson

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.

We gather this hour as people of faith
With joys and sorrows, gifts and needs.
We light this traditional beacon of hope,
Sign of our quest for truth and meaning,
In celebration of the life we share 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.

Before we go into our usual candle-lighting though I’d like to take a moment for us to light candles in honour of three members of the congregation who have died in recent weeks – Diana Ward, Corrina Dolso, and Maureen Cummings – long-standing and much-loved members of this church. I’m going to ask Sarah if she would light candles over the church in their honour. And perhaps we can take a moment’s silence before we go on with our joys and concerns.

(Sarah lights candles – silence – thank you)

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. 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)

Prayer: based on words by Carter Smith

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)

This morning, let us honour our interconnectedness,
with each other, and those who have gone before us.

When we witness suffering, whether in ourselves
or in the world around us, may we know compassion.

When we are at a loss for words, when we’re unsure of the path ahead,
may we be guided by this compassion to be witnesses still;
To know and to feel the truth that this human family is broken and hurting
that it is breaking with every life lost; with each time someone’s dignity is denied.

When we find ourselves exhausted and defeated, and unsure of where to go,
may we keep faithfully witnessing, forever turning toward your still, small voice.
Remind us too that the reality of suffering does not close us off from the possibility of joy.

May we know that our interconnectedness is a miracle,
and may it be a refuge for us, felt in the voice of a friend,
in the touch of a loved one, in memories of good company.

May we stay grateful for the goodness we’ve witnessed and enacted in the world,
and may the warm companionship of our lives together hold us in love, as we
look toward a future that is full of possibilities yet as uncertain as ever.

Spirit of Life, God of All Love, we ask to know your constant presence,
that it may remind us of what is sacred in each precious moment. (pause)

In a few moments of shared stillness now, let us call to mind those people and situations
who are on our hearts this morning, and let us hold them gently in loving-kindness. (pause)

And let us hold ourselves in loving-kindness too. Each of us carries our own private burdens.
So let us rest in self-compassion now as we ask silently for what we need this day. (pause)

And let us take a moment to reflect on the week just gone in a spirit of gratitude; let us notice
and give thanks for those blessings, large or small, that have helped to lift our spirits. (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: ‘Come and Find the Quiet Centre’ performed by Unitarian Music Society

Our first hymn is ‘Come and Find the Quiet Centre’; it’s a recording by the Unitarian Music Society. The words will appear on screen so you can sing along – or you might prefer just to listen instead.

Come and find the quiet centre
in the crowded life we lead,
find the room for hope to enter,
find the space where we are freed:
clear the chaos and the clutter,
clear our eyes, that we can see
all the things that really matter,
be at peace, and simply be.

Silence is a friend who claims us,
cools the heat and slows the pace;
God it is who speaks and names us,
knows our being, touches base,
making space within our thinking,
lifting shades to show the sun,
raising courage when we’re shrinking,
finding scope for faith begun.

In the Spirit let us travel,
open to each other’s pain;
let our lives and fears unravel,
celebrate the space we gain:
there’s a place for deepest dreaming,
there’s a time for heart to care;
in the Spirit’s lively scheming
there is always room to spare.

Reading and Reflection: ‘Interruption at the Opera House’ by Brian Patten (Patricia Brewerton)

At the very beginning of an important symphony,
while the rich and famous were settling into their quietly expensive boxes,
a man came crashing through the crowds,
carrying in his hand a cage in which
the rightful owner of the music sat,
yellow and tiny and very poor;
and taking onto the rostrum this rather timid bird
he turned up the microphones, and it sang.

‘A very original beginning to the evening,’ said the crowds,
quietly glancing at their programmes to find
the significance of the intrusion.

Meanwhile at the box office the organisers of the evening
were arranging for small and uniformed attendants
to evict, even forcefully, the intruders.
But as the attendants, poor and gathered from the nearby slums at little expense,
went rushing down the aisles to do their job
they heard, above the coughing and irritable rattle of jewels,
a sound that filled their heads with light,
and from somewhere inside them there bubbled up a stream,
and there came a breeze on which their youth was carried.
How sweetly the bird sang!

And though soon the fur-wrapped crowds
were leaving their boxes and in confusion were winding their way home
still the attendants sat in the aisles,
and some, so delighted at what they heard, rushed out to call
their families and friends.
And their children came,
sleepy for it was late in the evening,
very late in the evening,
and they hardly knew if they had done with dreaming
or had begun again.
In all the tenement blocks
the lights were clicking on,
and the rightful owner of the music,
tiny but no longer timid sang
for the rightful owners of the song.

Brian Patten reading his poem is the only thing I remember about the Concert for Shelter I attended at the Mermaid Theatre in the late sixties. Shelter had just been formed out of the Notting Hill Housing Trust and its launch had benefited from the fact that the BBC drama Cathy Come Home had been shown just a month before. Many people, myself included, had been profoundly moved by the story of a young mother who, having been forced from her home, had her children snatched from her and put into care.

I was living in Brentwood in Essex at the time and read in the local paper that some young people were starting a Shelter group and I joined them. Our aim was to raise money for the homeless. It was a popular cause and easy to get our Tory councillor to have her photo taken with us for the paper. But cheese and wine parties aren’t really going to achieve much for a problem as deep and complex as homelessness. It wasn’t long before we were contacted by a family facing eviction and wanting our advice and support.

And suddenly we had to choose. Either we turned our backs and just continued with our fundraising or lose support by becoming politically involved with the issue. Being active politically is not easy. You soon realise that what seems so obvious to you does not appear so, even to some of your closest friends. Hopes can so easily be dashed. Frustration and despair can quickly take their place.

I love this poem, for its lyricism, for the way it tells a story and for the story it tells. And I especially love it for the way it takes me back to that day when I first heard it and felt full of joy, hope and a naive kind of belief that things could and would be different from then on. Language has such power. Perhaps if we heard only beautiful language we would live in a much more beautiful world.

Reading and Reflection: ‘The Right Word’ by Imtiaz Dharker (Hannah King)

Outside the door,
lurking in the shadows,
is a terrorist.

Is that the wrong description?
Outside that door,
taking shelter in the shadows,
is a freedom-fighter.

I haven’t got this right.
Outside, waiting in the shadows
is a hostile militant.
Are words no more
than waving, wavering flags?
Outside your door,
watchful in the shadows,
is a guerrilla warrior.

God help me.
Outside, defying every shadow,
stands a martyr.
I saw his face.

No words can help me now.
Just outside the door,
lost in shadows,
is a child who looks like mine.

One word for you.
Outside my door,
his hand too steady,
his eyes too hard,
is a boy who looks like your son, too.

I open the door.
Come in, I say.
Come in and eat with us.
The child steps in
and carefully, at my door,
takes off his shoes.

Words. Although I have made a career out of words, I guess not everybody feels the same way about them as I do.

For me, this poem represents the reality that most of the things that we convey in our life we do through our words. That these choices have consequences. A word is not just a word. It is connected to emotional or political or personal or societal baggage. So that when we talk about the same person as a terrorist or a freedom fighter, as a parent, or as a child, we completely shift our perception of that person and their circumstances. The words we choose matter.

As we welcome the ‘other’ into our homes, into our lives, let us be mindful. We are more the same than we are different.

Meditation: ‘Small Kindnesses’ by Danusha Laméris

Thank you, Hannah and Patricia. We’ve come to a time of meditation. To take us into stillness, I’m going to share a short poem that I’m very fond of, certainly one I’d consider a ‘Poem to Live By’: it’s ‘Small Kindnesses’ by Danusha Laméris. These words will be followed by a few minutes of stillness, and then some lovely piano music from Peter, during which we’ll have our chalice flame on screen. About six minutes in total. So let’s each do what we need to do to get comfortable – have a wiggle – or put your feet flat on the floor to ground and steady yourself – maybe close your eyes. As I always say, these words, images, and music, they’re just an offering, feel free to meditate in your own way. (pause)

I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk
down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs
to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you”
when someone sneezes, a leftover
from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying.
And sometimes, when you spill lemons
from your grocery bag, someone else will help you
pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.
We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot,
and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile
at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress
to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder,
and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass.
We have so little of each other, now. So far
from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange.
What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these
fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here,
have my seat,” “Go ahead — you first,” “I like your hat.”

Silence: 3 minutes silence accompanied by chalice video

Musical Interlude: ‘And This is My Beloved – Kismet’ Played by Peter Crockford (also with chalice video)

Reading and Reflection: ‘Adlestrop’ by Edward Thomas (Juliet Edwards)

Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

The poem I have chosen is ‘Adlestrop’ by Edward Thomas. It feels as though I have known it for a long time and I expect many of you know it too. It is included in a book called The Nation’s Favourite Poems, published in 1996 and it has been read several times on Radio 4’s Poetry Please programme. So, it’s obvious that it appeals to many people. Adelstrop is actually in Gloucestershire between Stow-on-the-Wold, Chipping Norton and Morton-in-Marsh. The poem begins, “Yes. I remember Adelstrop-“ as though someone had asked him, ”Have you come across a little station called Adlestrop?” And the poet continues dreamily.

And the second verse tells us that “the steam hissed”. I am old enough to remember travelling on a steam train and the steam and the smuts. We don’t know where this train was coming from or going to and just as now when the journey stops unexpectedly no one bothers to speak about it for a while.

Perhaps it was quite a few minutes because in the third verse Thomas has time to notice the willows and the willow-herb. Willow-herb has pink flowers and used to grow on bomb-sites or wherever demolition had taken place. I think these days it has been overtaken by buddleia. The scene with the haycocks and the meadow is quiet and rather lonely.

And then in the last verse the lonely silence is disturbed by a blackbird singing and then it sounds as though all the birds in Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire have joined the blackbird and are singing. And that’s why Edward Thomas remembers Adlestrop, the name.

Why do I like the poem? It gives a very clear picture of the countryside on a hot June day. Although we no longer have hay cocks, the countryside is much the same and just as lovely. But more than that it is about taking time to look around, even if one is in a fretful hurry there is nothing that can be done, so one might as well take a breath, enjoy the silence and look around and listen.

Reading and Reflection: ‘The Lighthouse Keeper Loves Birds Too Much’ by Jacques Prévert (Marianne Harvey)

The poem I have chosen has stayed with me all my life, so much so that I remember exactly when I read it for the first time. I was 17, sitting on the beach by myself on a school trip to Spain and reading ‘Paroles’ (‘Words’ in French) a collection of poems by Jacques Prévert, France’s most popular poet of the 20th century.

Birds have always played an enormous part in my life. I lived in the country in Belgium and we had a pet magpie called ‘Margot’, and a few years later, a sparrow called ‘Pipiou’. Both had fallen from their nest and were rescued by my brother. They lived freely in our house, in and out as they pleased. Both had a temper of their own and I spent hours and hours playing with them.

The English title of this short poem is ‘The lighthouse keeper loves birds too much.’ I shall read it in French first, just for the sheer pleasure of it.

Le gardien du phare aime trop les oiseaux » de Jacques Prévert

Des oiseaux par milliers volent vers les feux
Par milliers ils tombent par milliers ils se cognent
Par milliers aveuglés par milliers assommés
Par milliers ils meurent.
Le gardien ne peut supporter des choses pareilles
Les oiseaux il les aime trop
Alors il dit tant pis je m’en fous
Et il éteint tout
Au loin un cargo fait naufrage
Un cargo venant des îles
Un cargo chargé d’oiseaux
Des milliers d’oiseaux des îles
Des milliers d’oiseaux noyés.

The lighthouse keeper loves birds too much by Jacques Prévert

Thousands of birds fly towards the light
In their thousands they hit each other
In their thousands blinded in their thousands stunned
in their thousands they die

The lighthouse keeper can’t stand it any more
The birds he loves them too much
So he says too bad I don’t care
And he turns off the light

In the distance a freighter is wrecked
A freighter loaded with birds
Thousands of birds from the islands
Thousands of birds drowned.

When I read this poem I very much identified with the lighthouse keeper who could no longer stand the carnage caused by the light which prevented ships from hitting the rocks and sinking. But I was stunned by the last line of the poem: thousands of exotic birds died as a result of his action.

And so it is sometimes that we intervene, moved by love and a desire to help, unaware that our action could have the opposite effect of love. The poem taught me to pause and think before acting, to reflect on the best course of action and sometimes, in spite of the obvious need, to let things be.

Reading and Reflection: ‘Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam’ (Brian Ellis)

the moving finger writes and having writ
moves on: nor all thy piety nor wit
shall lure it back to cancel half a line
nor all thy tears wash out a word of it

This is one of many well-known quatrains from Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a 12th century Persian scientist, astronomer and writer.

I first read the Rubaiyat when I was about twenty and just beginning to appreciate that poetry could speak to me about things that were difficult to express or explore in other forms of literature.

I found much in these aphoristic verses that echoed my growing agnosticism and doubts of any divine presence in what, despite our increasing understanding of it, was looking like an increasingly unknowable universe.

Here were verses that said it’s fine to see things in this way, and maybe our lives are just a series of nights and days, and we are just passing through a giant game of chess played by destiny:

tis all a chequer board of nights and days
where destiny with men for pieces plays
hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
and one by one back in the casket lays

The verses also express views on the transience of our lives, the inevitability and finality of death, and our ideas of human grandeur, along with an understanding of the importance of seizing the all-too-brief moment we are allotted here:

ah my beloved, fill the cup that clears
today of past regrets and future fears
tomorrow? why, tomorrow I may be
myself with yesterday’s seven thousand years

And they tell us to enjoy our friends and lovers, the basic needs and things of beauty, and to concentrate on the pleasures of the moment:

here with a loaf of bread beneath the bough
a flask of wine, a book of verse, and thou
beside me singing in the wilderness
and wilderness is paradise enow

Some critics see a philosophy inclining to the negative in the Rubaiyat, but for decades now I have found comfort and reassurance in these brief verses and for me they have a timelessness and truth that does not recognise culture, religion or creed. A good Unitarian read!

Hymn: ‘For All That Is Our Life’ sung by Kensington Unitarians

Thank you Brian, Marianne, and Juliet for your ‘Poems to Live By’ and your reflections on them. Let’s sing together one last time now. Our second hymn today is ‘For All That Is Our Life’ and it’s a recording of our own congregation so there may well be some rustling and coughing going on. Once again the words will be up on your screen so I encourage you to sing along at home.

For all that is our life
We sing our thanks and praise
For all life is a gift
Which we are called to use
To build the common good
And make our own days glad.

For needs which others serve,
For services we give,
For work and its rewards,
For hours of rest and love:
We come with praise and thanks
For all that is our life.

For sorrow we must bear,
For failures, pain and loss,
For each new thing we learn,
For fearful hours that pass:
We come with praise and thanks
For all that is our life.

For all that is our life
We sing our thanks and praise
For all life is a gift
Which we are called to use
To build the common good
And make our own days glad.


A few announcements: Thanks again to all our wonderful contributors: Patricia, Hannah, Juliet, Marianne, and Brian. I think we might do this again sometime! Thanks to Peter for our music (and Trevor who has joined in to record a poetry-themed song for our closing today), and thanks to Maria for co-hosting. We’ll have virtual coffee-time after the service as usual so you can stay and chat if you like. If that’s not your thing, do get in touch via email if you’d like to say hello.

This very afternoon the West London GreenSpirit group are going out for a picnic! I expect everyone who wants to go on that is either assembled at Essex Church or already en route, but if you do live within easy reach of Notting Hill you can dash to the church to get there by noon, or the rendezvous at Lancaster Gate station by 12.30pm, for a walk and a picnic in Hyde Park.

I want to give an especially big plug for the poetry group which meets in-person at the church this Wednesday evening at 7pm. I inexplicably managed to leave it out of this week’s email – apologies! The poetry group is run by Brian, Marianne and David. Please contact David in advance with your poetry choice if you want to come along so he can organise for printed copies on the night.

We have various other small group activities during the week. Coffee morning is online at 10.30am this Wednesday. There are still spaces left for our Heart and Soul gatherings (online Sunday/Friday at 7pm). H&S is a contemplative spiritual gathering, on Zoom, it’s a space for prayer and deep sharing – newcomers are always welcome – email me to sign up. This week’s theme is ‘Mistakes’.

I just want to mention another new initiative: We’re experimenting with setting up a WhatsApp group to help congregation members stay in contact, share things which we might find uplifting, and get a little window into each other’s lives. We’re calling this the ‘InTouch’ group – it’s not for discussing church business – just for a little bit of friendly sharing – though we might use it to help get the word out if there are any last-minute changes to the church programme. If you were previously part of the ‘Nature Carries On’ group or the ‘Gratitude Group’ it’ll be along these lines. Please get in touch with me if you’d like to be included and we’ll see what develops from there.

Next week we’ll be having a hybrid service so you can join us either in-person at Essex Church or online as usual at 10.30 next Sunday. All the details of our programme will be in next Friday’s email. The congregation very much has a life beyond Sunday mornings; we encourage you to keep in touch, look out for each other, and do what you can to nurture supportive connections.

Benediction: ‘Fragments of Holiness’ by Sara Moores Campbell

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.

We receive fragments of holiness,
glimpses of eternity, brief moments of insight.
Let us gather them up for the precious gifts that they are,
and, renewed by their grace, move boldly into the unknown. Amen.

Closing Music: ‘The Poet’s Song – Tennyson/Parry’ performed by Peter Crockford and Trevor Alexander

Rev. Dr. Jane Blackall and Members of the Congregation

Sunday 31st July 2022