Listening to Trees – 01/10/23

Musical Prelude: ‘Sicilienne in E-flat Major’ by Maria-Theresia V. Paradis (played by Sydney Mariano and Peter Crockford)

Opening Words: ‘Listen’ by Jessica Purple Rodela

Listen. Listen to silence. Listen to the wind. Listen to the stars.
Hear trees.
Dance to the beat of your neighbour’s heart.
Dance to the rhythm of your childhood dreams.
Sing and hum a wordless song to the tune of your rushing blood.
And Pray.
Pray with a fever that makes you sweat through February snow;
Pray with a fervour that gives you chills in July.
Shout your prayer like a howl—
Howl ‘til the sound of your soul touches clouds
And haunts the moon—
Come, let us howl our hallelujahs,
Come, let us pray and sing and celebrate.
Come, let us worship together. (pause)

Words of Welcome and Introduction:

These opening words – by Jessica Purple Rodela – welcome all those who have gathered this morning for our Sunday service. Welcome to those of you who have gathered in-person at Essex Church and also to all who are joining us via Zoom from far and wide. We are all one community however we join. For anyone who doesn’t know me, my name is Jeannene Powell, and (as of this morning!) I’m Community Development Coordinator with Kensington Unitarians.

This morning’s service is on the theme of ‘Listening to Trees’. This theme was chosen by our guest preacher, Rev. Stephanie Bisby, who is Minister with York and Bradford Unitarians. She’s offered a quote by Frank Herbert (printed on the front of the order of service, if you’re in-person, and on the website if you’re online) to introduce her theme. Herbert writes: ‘A good ruler has to learn his world’s language, that it’s different for every world…. The language of the rocks and growing things, the language you don’t hear just with your ears.’ Stephanie will be sharing her thoughts via video later on.

Let’s take a moment before we go any further to settle ourselves, arrive, and prepare for worship. We’ve each chosen to take some time out of the everyday doings of our lives to be here this morning. So let’s take a conscious breath. And another. And with each exhalation let’s visualise a letting go. A setting aside of anything we’ve come in carrying. We can pick it up later if need be. Let us bring our whole selves to the here and now, as we consecrate this hour with our presence and intention.

Chalice Lighting: words adapted from Jacob Trapp

Let’s light our chalice flame now, as we do each week. This simple ritual connects us in solidarity with Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists the world over, and reminds us of the proud and historic progressive religious tradition of which we are a part.

(light chalice)

We kindle the chalice in joy:
We awaken to the sun’s glory of light
Praising you in the morning.
You are the blue dome above and the limitless sky beyond.
You are the warmth that embraces mother earth,
The rain that quenches her thirst and gives renewal of life to all her children.
You are the brightness of sunlit leaves,
The shade under a cool canopy of trees,
The congregation of great rocks, strength giving, among which we stand steadfast.
You are the stillness in the mountain,
The corresponding stillness in us which is deeper than all stirrings of self.
You are the mesas and cliffs from which birds dart down and sing.
You are the wings, the singer and the song.
You are the listening world.
Your signature is the beauty of things.

Hymn 148 (purple): ‘Spirit of Earth, Root, Stone and Tree’

Let’s sing together now. Our first hymn is number 148 in the purple hymn book: ‘Spirit of Earth, Root, Stone and Tree’. For those joining via Zoom the words will be up on your screen to sing along at home. Feel free to stand or sit as you prefer as we sing.

Spirit of earth, root, stone and tree,
water of life, flowing in me,
keeping me stable, nourishing me,
O fill me with living energy!
Spirit of nature, healing and free,
spirit of love, expanding in me,
spirit of life, breathe deeply in me,
inspire me with living energy!

Spirit of love, softly draw near,
open my heart, lessen my fear,
sing of compassion, help me to hear,
O fill me with loving energy!
Spirit of nature, healing and free,
spirit of love, expanding in me,
spirit of life, breathe deeply in me,
inspire me with living energy!

Spirit of life, you are my song,
sing in my soul, all my life long,
gladden and guide me, keep me from wrong,
O fill me with sacred energy!
Spirit of nature, healing and free,
spirit of love, expanding in me,
spirit of life, breathe deeply in me,
inspire me with living energy!

Candles of Joy and Concern:

Each week when we gather together, 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 light a candle and say a few words about what it represents. This time we’re going to go to the people in the building first, and take all of those in one go, and then I’ll call on the people on Zoom to come forward.

So I invite some of you here in person to come and light a candle and then if you wish to tell us briefly who or what you light your candle for. Please do get up close to the microphone as that will help everyone hear (including the people at home). You can take the microphone out of the stand if it’s not at a good height and have it microphone pointing right at your mouth. And if you can’t get to the microphone give me a wave and I’ll bring it over to you. Thank you.

(in person candles)

And if that’s everyone in the room we’ll go over to the people on Zoom next – you might like to switch to gallery view at this stage – just unmute yourselves when you are ready and speak out – and we should be able to hear you and see you up on the big screen here in the church.

(zoom candles)

And I’m going to light one more candle, as we often do, to represent all those joys and concerns that we hold in our hearts this day, but which we don’t feel able to speak out loud. (light candle)

Time of Prayer & Reflection: based on words by Stephanie Bisby

And let’s take those joys and concerns into an extended time of prayer now. This prayer is partly based on some words by Stephanie Bisby. 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,
we turn our full attention to you, the light within and without,
as we tune in to the depths of this life, and the greater wisdom
to which – and through which – we are all intimately connected.
Be with us now as we allow ourselves to drop into the
silence and stillness at the very centre of our being. (pause)

When I think of the power and the beauty that are in
the trees and the forests, the mountains and the seas,
I am humbled by their vastness and complexity.
My spirit bows to the eternal creative spirit
which flows through this living Universe.

My eternal wish for each of us
is that the power that is creation, that is life, that is love
will endow us with all the resources of nature and science
and empower us with all the inner resources we need
to thrive, to be joyful and confident
and to protect those we care for
and this planet which nurtures us.
Then everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes
will live in us, in our hearts and minds,
as we trust in the Spirit of Life.
Our roots will grow down into the love of this beautiful Earth
and keep us strong.

May we have the power to understand,
as all living beings at some level are aware,
how wide, how long, how high, how deep
is the love of the spirit of Life for all its creation,
and how blessed – or privileged –
we are to exist in this time and this place.
May we remember that every shadow we seemingly see
only exists because there is a light which stands beyond it.
May we know that the light of the sun
and the warmth of the day and
the darkness of the night
are all necessary for the growth of each living organism,
and may we both bow to the greater power that surrounds us,
and stand tall in our knowledge
that we too are creators of our own lives and surroundings
and in us lives all power and hope for our lives and the life of the Spirit. (pause)

And in a good few moments of shared silence now,
may we speak inwardly the deepest prayers of our hearts —
maybe something in our own life or the life of the world is weighing heavy on us –
maybe we are feeling full of gratitude, despite it all, and feel moved to give thanks for our blessings – let us each lift up whatever is on our heart this day, and ask for what we most need. (longer 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 we 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 21 (purple): ‘Come and Find the Quiet Centre’

Let’s sing again. Our next hymn is a lovely one, it’s number 21 in the hymnbook, ‘Come and Find the Quiet Centre’. The words will be on screen as usual. Feel free to stand or sit as you prefer.

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: from ‘Sabbath’ by Nicola Slee (read by Stephanie Bisby)

Sabbath as a principle of cessation, restraint and the honouring of the rhythms of the natural world, has much to say to a world on the brink of climate catastrophe. The call of the woods is not least a call to urban humans who have forgotten their roots in nature to leave the bright city lights, if only for a few hours or a few days, and to renew their covenant with the woods, the fields, the rivers, the moors and lakes, at the same time as to immerse in the natural cycles of daylight and darkness, night and day, which are blurred and erased in the city. Such an invitation is not only for rest and relaxation – though it most certainly includes these – but more profoundly for a renewal of our connection to the originating sources of nature and the cyclical rhythms of the seasons.

Withdrawing for a time, however brief, into the wild spaces that still exist, offers a reprieve from this fast-paced, furious urban living. To respond to the invitation into the woods is to offer ourselves an opportunity to gaze on beauty and decay (the two go together, not to be parted), to stretch our cramped and stressed bodies in revivifying exercise, to rest in the deep darkness of the countryside and to see beyond the horizons of a manmade environment into a sky studded with light from planets thousands of light years away. Such stepping aside into the space of ‘the woods’ not only rests and restores our bodies but renews and revitalises our minds and reminds us that it is possible to live at a different pace and in touch with wider, more elemental horizons than those by which we are habitually enclosed. Our brains are permitted to slow down and stop, our imaginations are cleansed and renewed. At the same time, our profound connectedness to the natural world and our ethical responsibility to care for it, are re-woken in us. Thus the invitation into the woods is not only an invitation to renew and refresh the jaded human; it is a very real invitation to renew and repair the desperately damaged fabric of the creation itself crying out for healing. To refuse the invitation to honour Sabbath is to refuse our own renewal but also that of the entire created order of which we humans are a small, though potentially catastrophic, part. To put this more positively, the invitation into the woods is an invitation to renew our covenant with ourselves, with the natural world, with our fellow creatures and with God.

Meditation: ‘I Go Among Trees’ by Wendell Berry

We’re moving into a time of meditation now. I’m going to share a well-known poem by Wendell Berry, ‘I Go Among Trees’, which will take us into about three minutes of silence, which will end with the sound of a bell. Then we’ll hear some lovely music from Sydney and Peter to continue the meditative mood. So let’s each do what we need to do to get comfortable – adjust your position if you need to – put your feet flat on the floor to ground yourself – close your eyes. As we always say, the words and music are an offering, feel free to use this time to meditate in your own way.

I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them, asleep like cattle.

Then what is afraid of me comes
and lives a while in my sight.
What it fears in me leaves me,
and the fear of me leaves it.
It sings, and I hear its song.

Then what I am afraid of comes.
I live for a while in its sight.
What I fear in it leaves it,
and the fear of it leaves me.
It sings, and I hear its song.

After days of labour,
mute in my consternations,
I hear my song at last,
and I sing it. As we sing,
the day turns, the trees move.

Period of Silence and Stillness (~3 minutes) – end with a bell

Musical Interlude: ‘Adoration’ by Florence Price (played by Sydney Mariano and Peter Crockford)

Reflection: ‘Listening to Trees’ by Rev. Stephanie Bisby

We opened today with words by Frank Herbert. “A good ruler has to learn his world’s language, that it’s different for every world…. The language of the rocks and growing things, the language you don’t hear just with your ears.” They are of course from the cult science fiction novel, Dune, a book often said to have been ‘inspired by magic mushrooms.’ It’s also partly inspired, though this is less often talked about, by the writings of various mystics, most prominently the Sufi mystics. Dune is a strange book which once read gets under your skin – at least it did mine, as well as that of several film-makers. Anyone else gutted that the second instalment of Dennis Villeneuve’s brilliant adaptation is delayed? Maybe just me!

But there’s so much to think about in Dune. There is a powerful mantra: “Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me.” There is wisdom about society: “Just as individuals are born, mature, breed, and die, so do societies and civilizations and governments.” There is truth about power: “The person who experiences greatness must have a feeling for the myth he is in.” And there is that strange and beautiful – and just possibly pschedelic-induced – hymn to nature: “The language of the rocks and growing things, the language you don’t hear just with your ears.”

Well, you could argue that most of us don’t need to know this. After all, most of us are not rulers – at least, we are certainly not rulers of a planet or a kingdom or anything else that the rest of the world would recognise as requiring rule. Some of us, of course, do have an obvious leadership role in our church community or our workplace or some other organisation that requires us to be sensitive to the nuances of the world around us – though of course, many of us, much of the time, are surrounded by a world more human-made than natural. So do we really need to listen to rocks and trees and growing things? What can we discover by paying attention to trees – or tulips or tomatoes?

For me, Frank Herbert’s beautiful words echo the mystical Gospel of Thomas, “Split wood, I am there. Lift up a rock, you will find me there.” Jacob Trapp, too, finds God, or Spirit, or the Eternal Life Force, in the warmth of the sun, “the brightness of sunlit leaves, the shade under a cool canopy of trees,” and “the congregation of great rocks, strength giving, among which we stand steadfast.” Wood and stone are the things we turn to as a reminder of permanence. Rocks may win as a symbol of the eternal, but trees run a close second. The world’s oldest known living tree, a bristlecone pine in California nicknamed Methuselah, is thought to be at least 4600 years old – about as old as the first pyramids. There’s probably nothing in Kensington quite that age, but there is Forest School, at Holland Park, and of course the lovely tree avenues in Kensington Gardens go back to the eighteenth century. Even in the heart of London, it’s possible to sit and listen to the wind whispering through the trees as it has for centuries, and if you’re anything like me, there’s something very comforting about that sound, especially when it mingles with birdsong and other sounds of nature.

As the wonderful poet Wendell Berry describes it, “I go among trees and sit still. All my stirring becomes quiet around me like circles on water. My tasks lie in their places where I left them, asleep like cattle.” And, goodness in our busy lives, with all our physical zooming about and all our electronic Zooming about, don’t we need those still moments, those times when we can put our tasks aside and leave them to sleep ‘like cattle’ – another very powerful image of stillness: sometimes when cattle are sleeping in a rural setting they can easily be confused with rocks in the landscape. And when Wendell Berry enters this state of stillness, an interesting thing happens. Just as in the mantra from Dune, he faces his fears and permits them to pass over him and through him. And when the fears pass, it’s finally possible to hear something else: in the wake of the silence, the poet says, “I hear my song at last, and I sing it.” At this point, the poet becomes one with the natural landscape, his song a part of the eternal chorus. “As we sing, the day turns, the trees move.”

I first encountered this poem by Wendell Berry quoted in and woven through Nicola Slee’s rich tapestry of a book, Sabbath. Part theology book, part memoir, part self-help book and all poem, Sabbath is subtitled The Hidden Heartbeat of our Lives and it confronts the reader, not always comfortably, with the reality of living in a highly urbanised, technological world.
We are so often surrounded by “bright city lights” and the “natural cycles of daylight and darkness, night and day,” are indeed “blurred and erased in the city.” Our bodies are often “cramped and stressed” and our spirits “jaded.” Though we have a desperate need for “rest and relaxation”, we need more than that. We need “renewal,” which Slee identifies with repairing our connection to the originating sources of nature and the cyclical rhythms of the seasons. Slee’s invitation to Sabbath is an invitation to the woods as a reality, but also as a metaphor, for all that is deep and still and potent in us, but so easily smothered by our day-to-day tasks and responsibilities. Not so that we can abandon our responsibilities, but so that we can return renewed and with a deeper understanding of ourselves and our place in the world.

We may not be rulers of planets or kingdoms, we may not even have a formal leadership role, but as Unitarians we make our own decisions on matters of conscience, unconstrained by any religious authority save our own higher selves, and that means that for better or worse each of us functions as a ruler in our own kingdom, even if that kingdom is as tiny – or vast – as the inside of our mind. We are all called to be good rulers, whether that’s of our church community or our workplace or our household or just ourselves. And as Frank Herbert says, “A good ruler has to learn his world’s language, that it’s different for every world…. The language of the rocks and growing things, the language you don’t hear just with your ears.” We can none of us be good leaders if we don’t listen to the sounds of our worlds, whether that’s the rocks or the trees or our own inner voices. Listening is hard, but necessary, work, and there are plenty of worse places to start than by listening to trees.

Hymn 216 (purple): ‘Wild, Green World’

Time for our last hymn, number 216 in the purple book: ‘Wild, Green World’. It’s not one we sing often but it’s quite a singable tune so let’s give it our best go as the words are lovely.

Wide green world, we know and love you:
clear blue skies that arch above you,
moon-tugged oceans rising, falling,
summer rain and cuckoo calling.
Some wild ancient ferment bore us,
us and all that went before us:
life in desert, forest, mountain,
life in stream and springing fountain.

We know how to mould and tame you,
we have power to mar and maim you.
Show us by your silent growing
that which we should all be knowing:
we are of you, not your master,
we who plan supreme disaster.
If with careless greed we use you
inch by extinct inch we lose you.

May our births and deaths remind us
others still will come behind us.
That they also may enjoy you
we with wisdom will employ you.
That our care may always bless you
teach us we do not possess you.
We are part and parcel of you.
Wide green world, we share and love you.


Thanks to Stephanie for being our guest preacher today. Thanks to Ramona for tech-hosting and Charlotte for co-hosting at home. Thanks to Sydney and Peter for lovely music. Thanks Julia for greeting and Liz for doing the coffee. For those of you who are here in-person, please do hang around for a cuppa and a chat. If you’re joining us online hang on after the service for a chat with Charlotte.

We have various small group activities during the week. Heart and Soul, our contemplative spiritual gathering, takes place twice a week online it’s a great way to get to know people more deeply. This week’s theme is ‘The Goddess’. Email Mandy to sign up for tonight or Alex for Friday.

The in-person poetry group will be back this Wednesday evening – this is a chance to bring along your favourite poems to share with others – a lovely gathering – speak to Brian to find out more.

This autumn we’re starting up a regular Community Singing group on Wednesday evenings, twice a month, it’s a collaboration with a local musician who’s been running a singing-for-fun group in the area for over twenty years and who has very kindly offered to branch out and start a spin-off group with us. Everyone is welcome and you don’t need to read music or anything; the repertoire is mostly classic pop songs I believe. The first session is going to be on Wednesday 11th October, that’s at 7pm, free of charge. It’d be really good if we had a decent turnout of congregation members for this as it’s a great opportunity for us to make connections in the local area – and I think it’s going to be fun too – so do come along.

In just under a fortnight we have the Induction Service which – that’s at 3pm on Saturday 14th October – this marks the official commencement of the new ministry, even though Jane has been here a while – there will be tea, cake, and bunting and for friends from all over the place to join in celebration. But more than that it’s a chance to express our hopes and intentions for this ministry and to pledge our commitment to the future of this congregation and its mission. We’ll need people to help with greeting, to bake cakes, and generally to help out on the day so do let Patricia know if you are willing and able. We’re expecting about 50 people in the building and at least 20 online so it should be a great occasion.

We’ll be back next Sunday, with a congregational service on the theme of ‘Sacred Places’, led by Patricia with reflections by Charlotte, Alex, Pat, and Julia. Details of all our various activities are printed on the back of the order of service, for you to take away, and also in the Friday 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.

I think that’s everything. Just time for our closing words and closing music now.

Benediction: based on words by Norman V Naylor

Our eyes and minds turn now toward the ordinary.

Leaving this space made sacred by our presence,
take with you at least some seed of understanding,
hope and courage and drop it into the confusion of the world.

Nourish the seed that it might grow as a tree of life,
giving shelter to the weary and hope to the despairing.

Be yourself a branch of the tree of life. Amen.

Closing Music: ‘Salut D’Amour’ by Edward Elgar (played by Sydney Mariano and Peter Crockford)

Jeannene Powell and Rev. Stephanie Bisby

1st October 2023