Being Human – 22/10/23

Musical Prelude: March – J.S Bach (played by Benjie del Rosario and Andrew Robinson)

Opening Words: ‘We Come Together Without Creed’ by Maureen Killoran (adapted)

In this free church, we come together without creed,
focusing instead on our shared values
of justice, equity and compassion,
of mutual acceptance of our diverse ways of being,
as we seek to connect ourselves more fully
with the unfolding truths of life and of our world.

We come together in the firm conviction that
community is possible and that peace is more than a dream.
We commit together to affirm in our deeds as well as our words,
the inherent worth and dignity of each and every human being.

We come together in awareness of our interdependence with all humanity,
and with the wider web of existence, of which we are a part.
We come together to pool our resources, and strengthen our resolve,
to build beloved community and truly put our faith into action.

And as we gather, we sense our connectedness
with all who have come together this morning,
all who have ever walked through our doors,
or joined our gathered community via the internet,
and all those who may yet discover this place as their spiritual home.

So whoever you are, however you are, wherever you are,
know that you are welcome here, just as you are.
Let us bring our whole selves to this hour of worship. (pause)

Words of Welcome and Introduction:

These opening words – by Maureen Killoran – welcome all 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. For anyone who doesn’t know me, my name is Jeannene Powell and I’m Community Development Coordinator with Kensington Unitarians. I’ll be leading this morning’s service as our minister, Jane Blackall, is still recovering from Covid at home (though she’ll be joining us via Zoom to lead our prayers and share a reflection later in the service).

This morning’s service is on the theme of ‘Being Human’ – there’s a quote by James Luther Adams on the front of your order of service this morning (for years it was on one of the noticeboards outside as a ‘wayside pulpit’) – it says ‘church is a place where you get to practice what it means to be human’. So this morning we’re going to reflect on being human – on our common humanity – in a week where perhaps we’re all too aware of inhumane acts of violence and occupation going on in our world.

Before we go any further let’s take a moment to get settled and centred and ready to worship. This is an hour in which we can catch up with ourselves. Be grounded and present. So just breathe. Be here now, with your whole self, in this beloved community, as we attend to what matters most in life.

Chalice Lighting: ‘Our Shared Humanity’ by Sara Eileen LaWall and Maureen Killoran (adapted)

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)

Out of the flames of fear
We rise with courage of our deepest convictions
to stand for justice, inclusion and peace

Out of the flames of scrutiny
We rise to proclaim our faith
With hope to heal a fractured and hurting world

Out of the flames of doubt
We rise to embrace the mystery, wonder and awe
of all there is and all that is yet to be

Out of the flames of hate
We rise with the force of love
Love that celebrates our shared humanity.

So in troubled times, let us look first to the response of love.
May our chalice flame bear witness to the inherent worth and dignity of every human being.

Hymn 229 (green): ‘One World This’

Let’s sing together now. Our first hymn is number 229 in your green book – ‘One World This’ – a hymn which speaks of our common humanity the world over. I’m going to ask Andrew to play it through in full as we don’t sing it often. For those joining via Zoom the words will be up on screen to sing along at home. Feel free to stand or sit as you prefer as we sing. And sing up as best you can.

One world this, for all its sorrow;
One world shaping one tomorrow;
One humanity, though riven –
We, to whom a world is given.
From one world there is no turning;
For one world the prophets’ yearning.
One, the world of poets, sages;
One world, goal of all the ages.

One, our world from the beginning;
One, the world we would be winning;
World so eagerly expected;
World so recklessly rejected.
One, enfolding every nation:
One, our mightiest creation:
Dream, to guide the mind’s endeavour;
Hope, to hold the heart for ever.

One world, land and air and ocean;
One, upheld by our devotion.
One, as common folk have willed it;
One, as government can build it.
World of friendly ways and faces,
Cherished arts and honoured races.
One world, free in word and science;
People free, its firm reliance.

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 Douglas Taylor and Joan Chittister

Let’s take those joys and concerns into an extended time of prayer. This prayer is based on some peace prayers by Douglas Taylor and Joan Chittister. 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.

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)

We gather today as people reaching across human differences,
Sharing our ongoing commitment to compassion and truth, together,
Despite the tragic evidence of violent conflict and needless suffering worldwide.

In this quiet moment let us cry out for the suffering of our world.
For the wars and occupation, across the waters, far away from us,
the terror and devastation wrought by bombs and by blockades alike,
and for the ripples of fear and hatred we witness much closer to home.
For brutality and corruption, violence and distrust, such waste of life.
For refugees fleeing inhumane conditions, traumatised by cruelty. (pause)

Spirit of Life, God of All Love, hear our cry,
and help us to become instruments of your love.
Let us speak in solidarity with the disempowered.
Let us devote our lives to the ways of peace and justice.
Let us join the voices of compassion
and remember our common humanity.

We ask for the grace to be our best selves,
to be merciful, patient, gracious and trusting.
We ask for the vision to be builders of the
human community rather than its destroyers.
We ask for the humility as a people to understand
the fears and hopes of other peoples.
We ask for the heart it takes to care for
all people as well as for ourselves. (pause)

In this quiet moment we lift up those places in our own lives
and in our own hearts where burdens, sorrow, and anxiety reside.
May there be peace, may there be grace, may there be the support we need. (longer pause)

In this quiet moment let us give thanks for the blessings in our own lives.
For home and family and friends, for faith and meaningful work, we give thanks.
For our ability to gather in this way as people of peace, we give thanks. (longer pause)

In this quiet moment let us ask for guidance to find our way in the world.
We each have our own part to play, however humble, in the world’s salvation.
May we discern what is ours to do, in the place where we stand, for the common good. (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 (on sheet): ‘The World Needs Love’

Let’s sing together now. Our next hymn is on your hymn sheets, ‘The World Needs Love’, a message that is true whenever we sing it, but particularly at this moment. It’s to a well-known tune, ‘Finlandia’. The words will be up on screen as usual. Feel free to stand or sit as you prefer.

The world needs love; so many hearts are hurting.
Grace, work through us, help us to spread your peace,
bringing to all – through your forgiving spirit –
freedom from guilt, from bitterness release.
Reconcile us; help us to share your calmness,
’till anger stills and all our conflicts cease.

The world needs hope, a vision for the future,
what life might be, if all would live in you.
Help us to lead – through your transforming spirit –
lives that reflect what you would have us do,
to share our gifts, show forth your loving kindness,
encourage all to find their hope in you.

The world needs faith, a willing dedication
of all we are and all we might yet be.
Help us to serve – through your empowering spirit –
in active faith in our community.
Love for each soul, respecting and upholding,
declares the worth of all humanity.

The world needs joy, a sense of celebration
that human lives have such diversity.
Help us to see – through your dynamic spirit –
each person’s part in life’s vitality.
Sharing our joys, supporting others’ sorrows
make our small world a better place to be.

In-Person Reading: ‘We Are All More Human Than Otherwise’ by Richard S. Gilbert (adapted)

The human race is a vast rainbow bursting into view
– a multitude of variations, each one unique and irreplaceable –
yet for all blood is red, the sky is blue, the earth is brown, the night is dark.

In size and shape we are a varied pattern
of tall and short, slim and stout, elegant and plain.
Yet for all there are fingers to touch, hearts to break,
eyes to cry, ears to hear, mouths to speak.

In tongue we are a tower of babel, a great jumble of voices
grasping for words, groping for ways to say love, peace, pity, and hope.
Faiths compete, claiming the one way; Saviours abound, pointing to salvation.
Not all can be right, not one. We are united only by our urge to search.

Boundaries divide us, lines drawn to mark our diversity,
maps charted to separate the human race from itself.
Yet a mother’s grief, a father’s love, a child’s cry,
a musician’s sound, an artist’s stroke –
they break down the boundaries and shatter the walls.

Strength and weakness, arrogance and humility, confidence and fear,
live together in each one, reminding us that we share a common humanity.

We are all more human than otherwise.

Meditation: ‘Human Beings’ by Adrian Mitchell

We’re moving into a time of meditation now. I’m going to share a poem, ‘Human Beings’ by Adrian Mitchell, to take us into the silence. It was written back in 2004 and, in keeping with the rest of our service today, it speaks to our common humanity. It’s a call for unity, and a reminder (if we really needed one) that our concerns about conflict and division in our world are sadly nothing new. The poem will take us into three minutes of silence which will end with the sound of a bell. Then we’ll hear some music from Benj and Andrew 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 are an offering, feel free to use this time to meditate in your own way.

‘Human Beings’ by Adrian Mitchell

look at your hands
your beautiful useful hands
you’re not an ape
you’re not a parrot
you’re not a slow loris
or a smart missile
you’re human

not british
not american
not israeli
not palestinian
you’re human

not catholic
not protestant
not muslim
not hindu
you’re human

we all start human
we end up human
human first
human last
we’re human
or we’re nothing

nothing but bombs
and poison gas
nothing but guns
and torturers
nothing but slaves
of Greed and War
if we’re not human

look at your body
with its amazing systems
of nerve-wires and blood canals
think about your mind
which can think about itself
and the whole universe
look at your face
which can freeze into horror
or melt into love
look at all that life
all that beauty
you’re human
they are human
we are human
let’s try to be human

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

Interlude: Adagio – Remo Giazotto-Tommaso Albinoni (played by Benjie del Rosario and Andrew Robinson)

Reflection: ‘Being Human’ by Rev. Dr. Jane Blackall

‘Church is a place where you get to practice what it means to be human’.

These words, from the 20th century Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams, have long resonated with me. As Jeannene mentioned at the start of the service, we made a poster with that quote on it some years ago, and it was on the ‘wayside pulpit’ on the street outside the church building for a long time (we’ve still got the poster somewhere and perhaps we’ll dig it out and put it up again).

‘Church is a place where you get to practice what it means to be human’. What do you make of that saying, I wonder? Although the saying appeals to me I realise its meaning is really quite ambiguous. There are all sorts of connotations and associations I have with this notion of ‘being human’ and in this short reflection I thought I’d offer up a few of them – along with a few more quotes from wise souls on the subject – in hope of us getting a better grip on what Adams might have been on about.

We could start, perhaps, by grounding our inquiry in the most central principle of Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists, that is, affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. And it’s not just our Unitarian principle, of course; the preamble of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: ‘Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.’

To be human is to have inherent worth and dignity – maybe we can accept that to be true in theory – but in the midst of everyday life and all its challenges it can be hard to keep that noble perspective front and centre in our minds. It is not always that easy to actually live alongside fellow humans, in the real world, where we are liable to rub each other up the wrong way and get up each other’s noses on a regular basis. But it’s when we’re struggling, when there’s conflict, when times are tough – in our homes, in our communities, or in the big geo-political crises that are so painful to witness – that’s when we need to cleave to that principle more than ever. So maybe Adams is hinting that we need to gather together on a regular basis to remind ourselves and each other that, as Desmond Tutu once said, ‘human beings are at the centre of the divine enterprise as creatures of infinite worth and dignity independent of our work, our ability, or our success. We are each created by God, like God, for God.’

This might be at the heart of ‘practicing what it means to be human’: at church, in our small groups especially, we can keep calling ourselves and each other back to awareness of our inherent worth and dignity. Let’s not forget, this is quite a counter-cultural message, in a world that seems hell-bent on convincing us that our worth is dependent on our productivity, our bank balance, our appearance, our ability, or any other accidents of birth that happen to have given us a more or less privileged situation in life. We need to reject and resist this false narrative, deprogram ourselves, and affirm that all of us are indeed ‘creatures of infinite worth and dignity independent of our work, our ability, or our success.’

As an aside, I want to tell you, this narrative has got its claws in me as much as anyone; these last few weeks when I’ve been first on holiday and then laid up with Covid for a fortnight, there’s been this nagging feeling in me that I must hurry back to work, I can’t sit around doing nothing, I must be seen to be doing something productive – even though on a conscious level I really object to that attitude – thankfully many of you have kindly reassured me that I’m not letting the side down, that the to-do list can wait, that people would muck in to cover for me, and health and rest have got to come first. I’m sure I’m not the only one who, at some level, needs that sort of reassurance, needs to be told I’m still alright, still enough, still deserving of love and support, I don’t need to earn it by relentless efforts. To be a human being is enough. By virtue of being a member of the human family I have – and you have – and everybody has – ‘infinite worth and dignity independent of our work, our ability, or our success.’

And that means all of us. Maya Angelou got straight to the point, as she so often did, when she said: ‘No human being can be more human than another human being.’ It’s easy enough to speak of the inherent worth and dignity of all humans, but when you think through the implications, it’s pretty challenging to live by… and that is why we need to ‘practice what it means to be human’; if we accept this central principle we need to work out what it means for the way we actually live our lives, and how we get along with other humans, with all our many flaws and foibles, in community. We often speak of our ‘common humanity’ – and we know in some ways we’re all in the same boat, as we tend to face universal human struggles, though the particular circumstances and challenges we have to deal with vary enormously – but as has been pointed out before this notion of ‘being in the same boat’ isn’t quite right – it might be better to say we’re in the same storm of life, but we’re in very different boats, with some clinging on to rickety life-rafts and others swanning about on luxury yachts. From the moment we’re born we find ourselves thrown into the world, with a particular set of traits from our genes, and a particular shaping and inheritance from the situation in which we are brought up. We find ourselves suddenly on stage, in the middle of this epic human drama that’s been unfolding for millennia, and we are required to take our place in this ongoing story, to improvise as best we can, no matter how ill-equipped we might feel. That’s what we’re all doing. All 8 billion humans that are currently alive (and indeed all of the humans, apparently over 100 billion of us, that have ever lived).

Given that we’re all just making it up as we go along, more-or-less, I’d suggest that another key aspect of ‘practicing what it means to be human’ requires us to cut ourselves, and each other, some slack. Terry Pratchett made this pithy observation, he said: ‘There is no doubt that being human is incredibly difficult and cannot be mastered in one lifetime.’ I think he’s probably right about that, I suspect we probably do only have one lifetime to play with, so we can let ourselves off striving for perfection. And yet… that’s not to say that we can’t make a meaningful mark on the world while we’re here on Earth. Even if you don’t especially believe you’re here for a reason, even if you don’t imagine you have a particular calling, at the very least you have an opportunity in life to make a difference – to touch the lives of others – to offer a little bit of help, or comfort, to those who are within reach. Rollo May said: ‘the essence of being human is that, in the brief moment we exist on this spinning planet, we can love some persons and some things, in spite of the fact that time and death will ultimately claim us all.’

To close, I want to offer some more words of wisdom from Desmond Tutu, to encourage us to stick at it, to keep on coming together as a church community, to practice what it means to be human. He said: ‘We are made for a delicate network of relationships, of interdependence. I would not know how to be a human being at all, except I learned this from other human beings.’

So – who knows – maybe what we learn from being together, faithfully showing up for one another week in and week out, in our small congregation – maybe that will generate ripples that spread out into the rest of our lives, and out into the wider world. May it be so, for the greater good of all. Amen.

Hymn (on sheet): ‘Earth Was Given as a Garden’

Time for our last hymn, it’s on your hymn sheet, ‘Earth Was Given as a Garden’, it’s a vision of a more peaceful world, and it’s to a tune that will be familiar I think. Again, please stand or sit as you prefer.

Earth was given as a garden,
cradle for humanity;
tree of life and tree of knowledge
placed for our discovery.
Here was home for all your creatures
born of land and sky and sea;
all created in your image,
all to live in harmony.

Show to us again the garden
where all life flows fresh and free.
Gently guide your sons and daughters
into full maturity.
Teach us how to trust each other,
how to use for good our power,
how to touch the earth with reverence.
Then once more will Eden flower.

Bless the earth and all your children.
One creation, make us whole,
interwoven, all connected,
planet wide and inmost soul.
Holy mother, life bestowing,
bid our waste and warfare cease.
Fill us all with grace o’erflowing.
Teach us how to live in peace.

Sharing of News, Announcements, Introductions:

Thanks to Ramona for tech-hosting and Shari for co-hosting. Thanks to Brian and Patricia for reading. Thanks to Benjie and Andrew. Thanks Liz for doing coffee and Patricia for greeting. For those of you who are in-person, please do stay for a cuppa after the service – it’s served in the hall next door. If you’re joining online hang on after for a chat with Shari and Jane.

For those of you here in person: there will be a memorial concert at 3pm today in celebration of Sue Cullen, who was a regular singer at the church, some years ago. Our own Margaret and Harold will be singing, and Andrew will be playing piano. It will be a mixed concert of songs, duets and spoken poems. The concert is free and informal with drinks and refreshments. All are welcome.

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. Send me an email if you want to sign up for Sunday or Friday. The theme is ‘Letter-Writing’.

Next Sunday our service will be titled ‘For All the Saints’, as we’re coming up to All Saints Day, that’ll be led by Jane. After next Sunday’s service Carolyn is organising lunch at a local Thai Vegetarian Buffet, that’s in Shepherd’s Bush, so please let her know ASAP if you want to go along, it’s £10 cash.

I hear our Community Singing group got off to a great start, 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 and folk songs I believe. The next session is going to be on Wednesday 1st November, that’s at 7pm, free. The dates will settle into a fortnightly pattern in the new year but for now it’s just once a month on slightly irregular dates. It’s a great opportunity for us to make connections in the local area – and it’s going to be fun too – do come along.

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. Please do sign up for the mailing list if you haven’t already. 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 Debra Haffner

As we head out into another week in this turbulent and uncertain world,
let us be planted firmly on the side of humanity, and this planet we share.

May we pray for peace and justice; may we speak up and raise our voices;
may we engage as we can in acts of resistance and loving disruption;
and may we remember to take care of ourselves, each other,
and all those precious souls we meet along the way.

May it be so, for the greater good of all. Amen.

Closing Music: Allegro – WA Mozart (played by Benjie del Rosario and Andrew Robinson)

Rev. Dr. Jane Blackall and Jeannene Powell

22nd October 2023