Among Friends – 24/3/24

Hybrid Service: ‘Among Friends’ – Jane/Congregation – 24/3/24

Musical Prelude: Beethoven, Das Glück der Freundschaft, op.88 (played by George Ireland)

Opening Words: ‘The Hand that is Offered’ by Carolyn Owen-Towle and Gary Kowalski (combined, adapted)

Enter into this time of worship.
Come, bringing all of who you are.
Rest and quiet your week-worn spirit, for you are here
to touch again eternal springs of hope and renewal.

Calm your hurried pace. For this hour let the cares,
the fretfulness and worry be set aside.
You are so very worthy of moving on,
of making new efforts, of trying again.
Know that you are not alone.
There is strength and caring support for you here.
You will find comfort if you but ask. Look around.
You are a part of potential community. You can make it what you will.

So in this quiet hour may our spirits be renewed.
In this gathering of friends may we be ready to extend ourselves
to those in need, and with trust to receive the hand that is offered.

In this community of ideals may we remember the principles that guide us
and reflect upon those things that give meaning to our lives,
renewing our dedication to serve the highest that we know.

In this time of worship, may our minds be open to new truth,
and our hearts be receptive to love, as we give thanks
for this life we are blessed to share. (pause)

Words of Welcome and Introduction:

These opening words by Carolyn Owen-Towle and Gary Kowalski 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. Welcome also to anyone who’s watching on YouTube or listening to the podcast at a later date – we’ve not given you a namecheck for a while – it’s delightful to know that we’re reaching people the world over and we’d love to hear from you if you’re a regular viewer or listener – drop us an email! For anyone who doesn’t know me, my name is Jane Blackall, and I’m Minister with Kensington Unitarians.

This morning’s service is the second of two linked Sundays exploring the theme of ‘Friendship’. I introduced the theme last week – don’t worry if you missed it, today’s service will stand alone – though if you want to catch up later you can always watch it on YouTube or listen to the podcast. This morning four congregation members – Gaynor, Carolyn, Liz, and Roy – will be offering their reflections on friendship – and there’ll be an invitation to reflect on your own circles of friends along the way.

But let’s pause, and check in with ourselves, before we go any further. How are you doing this morning – in body, mind, and spirit? Maybe you need to take a conscious breath or two to settle in. Take a moment to tune in to your feelings and, if you can, to just observe them quite neutrally… and if you’ve discovered any worry, or agitation, or preoccupation, see if you can set that aside for now. Anything you really need to deal with, you can pick up again in an hour or so… or maybe you’ll find, by then, you can just let it go. We make this hour sacred with our presence and intention. So let’s be here now, just as we are, and give our attention to that which matters most in life.

Chalice Lighting: ‘We Light this Chalice’ by 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 this gathering is part.

(light chalice)

For every time we are disappointed and we choose to hope:
We light this chalice.

For every time we make a mistake and we decide to start again:
We light this chalice.

For every time we are lonely and we let someone be our friend:
We light this chalice.

Hymn 62 (purple): ‘Here We Have Gathered’

Let’s sing together now. Our first hymn is number 62 in the purple book, ‘Here We Have Gathered’. For those joining via Zoom the words will be up on screen. Feel free to stand or sit as you prefer.

Here we have gathered, gathered side by side;
circle of kinship, come and step inside!
May all who seek here find a kindly word;
may all who speak here feel they have been heard.
Sing now together this, our hearts’ own song.

Here we have gathered, called to celebrate
days of our lifetime, matters small and great:
we of all ages, women, children, men,
infants and sages, sharing what we can.
Sing now together this, our hearts’ own song.

Life has its battles, sorrows, and regret:
but in the shadows, let us not forget:
we who now gather know each other’s pain;
kindness can heal us: as we give, we gain.
Sing now in friendship this, our hearts’ own song.

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 John Daniel

Let’s take those joys and concerns into an extended time of prayer. This prayer is based in part on some words by John Daniel (on his poem, in fact, titled ‘A Prayer Among Friends’. 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)

Among other wonders of our lives,
we are alive with one another,
we live here in the light of this
unlikely world that isn’t ours for long.

May we spend generously
the time we are given.

May we enact our responsibilities
as thoroughly as we enjoy our pleasures.

May we see with clarity,
seeking a vision that serves all beings.

May we honour the mystery
surpassing our sight.

And may we hold in our hands
the gift of good work and bear it forth whole,
as we were borne forth by a power we praise
to this one Earth, this homeland of all we love. (pause)

In our company this morning, and every time we gather in community,
there will be those among our number who are suffering, in body, mind, and spirit;
and we know too well that there is much struggle, hardship, illness and injustice the world over.
Let us spend a moment directing prayers of loving-kindness for those who suffer this day. (pause)

In our company this morning, and every time we gather in community,
there will be those among our number whose hearts are full and overflowing;
uplifted by family and friends, inspired by nature and culture, engaged in meaningful work.
Let us spend a moment directing prayers of gratitude for all that is good in our lives. (pause)

In our company this morning, and every time we gather in community,
there will be those among our number who are just getting by as best they can:
stumbling through life’s endless ups and downs and seeking to discern the next step forward.
Let us spend a quiet moment asking for what we need to face all that life brings our way. (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 193 (purple): ‘We Laugh, We Cry’

Let’s sing again. Our next hymn is number 193 in the purple book, ‘We Laugh, We Cry’. It’s quite a long hymn so it takes a bit of stamina but I know a lot of you love the message of this one. The words will be on screen as usual.

We laugh, we cry, we live, we die; we dance, we sing our song.
We need to feel there’s something here to which we all belong.
We need to feel the freedom just to have some time alone.
But most of all we need close friends we can call our very own.
And we believe in life, and in the strength of love;
and we have found a need to be together.
We have our hearts to give, we have our thoughts to receive;
and we believe that sharing is an answer.

A child is born among us and we feel a special glow.
We see time’s endless journey as we watch the baby grow.
We thrill to hear imagination freely running wild.
We dedicate our minds and hearts to the spirit of this child.
And we believe in life, and in the strength of love;
and we have found a time to be together.
And with the grace of age, we share the wonder of youth,
and we believe that growing is an answer.

Our lives are full of wonder and our time is very brief.
The death of one among us fills us all with pain and grief.
But as we live, so shall we die, and when our lives are done
the memories we shared with friends, they will linger on and on.
And we believe in life, and in the strength of love;
and we have found a place to be together.
We have the right to grow, we have the gift to believe
that peace within our living is an answer.

We seek elusive answers to the questions of this life.
We seek to put an end to all the waste of human strife.
We search for truth, equality, and blessed peace of mind.
And then we come together here, to make sense of what we find.
And we believe in life, and in the strength of love;
and we have found a joy to be together.
And in our search for peace, maybe we’ll finally see:
even to question truly is an answer.

In-Person Reflection: ‘Friends Old and New’ by Carolyn

Over these many years of my adult life, I have had a few days, now and again, of thinking I don’t have any friends. I know I’m not the only one who has these kind of thoughts. When the lockdowns started, and as they went on, a number of old friends (and also newer ones) got in touch. This made me realise that I do have friends.

When I’m not in a distressed state of mind, and I reflect on this belief that I don’t have friends, I don’t think it has a lot to do with the truth. It has much more to do with what’s in my head at a given time and it really relates to my feelings of abandonment and loneliness that I felt as a child. From time to time I stir those feelings up without noticing it, and they surface in my mind, so I believe that it’s true in the present. Sometimes when I go back over my thought pattern it’s obvious what the trigger was. Sometimes it’s not. Quite likely it was unconscious. In fact, I have heard it said that the unconscious holds 90% and the conscious only 10% of our thinking.

At those times of believing that I am without friends I need to remember something I learned from Mindfulness. I need to say to myself, “That’s my no friends story.” To explain, through a life-changing 8 week course on Mindfulness that I did quite a few years ago I can be hawk-like for being aware of negative thoughts coming into and going through my mind. They start up, they go on a bit – say it’s dark and/or raining; that really doesn’t help – after a while sooner or later, I start noticing where my mind has gone. And sometimes on the way I start labelling the kind of thoughts I’m having, which one way or another are unhelpful. I’m telling you all this because, as I said, using these techniques changed my life to make me much more contented and to live in the present because this is all we have, what is real and actual.

I used to be someone who only had one-to-one friendships, and my belief system is partly stuck in that idea. However, what I realised over the enforced periods of isolation during lockdowns, was that there are different kinds of friends. I have Church friends, some of whom I only chat to when I’m here, others I have contact with outside Sundays, perhaps because I know they are going through something difficult – so it may be for a limited period – but we always feel a bit of a bond thereafter (or at least I do). And then there are some Church friends with whom I have been out individually, and some on Church outings and associated events.

In addition to Church friends I have a local Choir friend, Carol I met only a year ago, thanks to her kindness of taking me there and back, and the regular table of people we meet up with there. Carol and I have met up just a few times outside of choir. There has to be time and willingness by both parties to make friends. I also do quite a few other group activities and feel friendly with certain people, with whom we usually have a chat. There are quite a few in the U3A, for instance, but we don’t meet outside it individually. I used to not think of these people as my friends.

In some ways it gets harder to make friends as you get older, because people are established in their social circles, if they’re lucky. On the other hand, losses through death, people moving away, or fallings out, have made it possible for me to continually make new friends (and of course, some people remain open to getting to know whoever comes along). A lot of my friends have died. And I always remember what the writer, owner and gardener of the beautiful Great Dixter, Christopher Lloyd said, “If you lose your friends, make new ones.” He was in his 70s or 80s at the time.

Sheila Puffer, was another influence on me. Thanks to her I now regard myself as being open to anyone. She is a Canadian woman who came to our Church a few years ago and now lives back in Boston. We had some tremendous fun whilst she visited London. We continue to be in touch by WhatsApp sending photos etc. It is a cliche, but friendships do need working at, and they wax and wane, as my one of my two friends called Irene is always saying. A friendship waning can be very difficult when I haven’t wanted it to, such as happened with one particular friend after getting on for 20 years.

I have changed in what I want in a friendship in recent years. I think I have become less intense on the whole. Well, not necessarily in terms of what I spend quite a lot of time doing, but in my social relationships I have become a girl who wants to have fun here in London! There’s so much to enjoy together.

Meditation: ‘A Circle of Friends’ by Starhawk (with an invitation to reflect on your circle(s))

Thanks Carolyn. We’re moving into a time of meditation now. I’m going to share a few words – which may be familiar to many of you – words by Starhawk on friendship and community – a piece I know as ‘A Circle of Friends’. These words will take us into three minutes of silence which will end with the sound of a bell. Then we’ll hear music from George. There’s an additional invitation during this time of meditation – on the back of your hymn sheets there is space for you to note down and explore your own circle (or circles) of friends – you might want to write our own name in the centre and think about who is in your circle and where you would place them at this moment in time. Who’s close to you and who’s further away? Is this changing? So let’s 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, you can use this time to meditate in your own way.

We are, perhaps, all longing to go home to some place
we have never been—a place half-remembered and half-envisioned
we can only catch glimpses of from time to time. Community.
Somewhere, there are people to whom we can speak with passion
without having the words catch in our throats.
Somewhere a circle of hands
will open to receive us, eyes will light up as we enter,
voices will celebrate with us whenever we come into our own power.
Community means strength
that joins our strength to do the work that needs to be done.
Arms to hold us when we falter.
A circle of healing. A circle of friends.
Someplace where we can be free.

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

Interlude: Stephen Schwartz, For Good, from Wicked (played by George Ireland)

In-Person Reflection: ‘Who Are My Friends?’ by Gaynor

Hello everyone, I’m Gaynor and I co-host Many Voices LGBTQ singing sessions here at Kensington Unitarians, to which you are ALL warmly invited. The next one is after the service on Sunday 7 April.

Jane asked me to say a few words about friendship. She said, ‘You have a lot of chums, right? Can you say a few words at the service on the subject?’

I have reflected on this since Jane mentioned it, and I realised a few things that might be useful to share here.

I am an extrovert (though a somewhat anxious extrovert), I am friendly and skilled at making connections, and love to network and link people together. However, even though I have many contacts, I actually don’t have a lot of friends.

I know a lot of very good people––acquaintances, associates, allies. Some folk I know only online, through Facebook, my online sobriety group, etc., or through social groups like my Nordic Walking classes in the park, or church communities, or the locals in my little corner of South-East London. I am warm, friendly, open and kind to some of these people (I’m learning in sobriety to be more aware of boundaries). But the people in this group are not necessarily friends.

So, who are my friends, and where did they come from? Some I have known since university, some I met at work, others I know from choirs, church, LGBT groups, and women’s groups. What do all these chums have in common and what makes them my friends, as opposed to acquaintances?

Firstly, they have my back and I have theirs. They encourage me to grow, and to ‘keep on keeping on’ with everything that brings me satisfaction in my life.

Secondly, my friends keep in contact with me, sometimes more often, sometimes less, but they check in with me and I check in with them.

Thirdly, we might not agree on absolutely everything––politics, religion, musical tastes––but some issues, like homophobia, racism, misogyny, etc., are non-negotiable for me. My friends support me, as an individual and in my relationship with my wife.

Finally, I can be fully myself with my friends, and feel safe in their company.

I have just a few ‘soul-friends’ (these are what John O’Donohue in the Celtic tradition called ‘Anam Cara’). With them, I share my deepest longings, my wildest hopes and dreams. I trust them completely. These are my ‘two-in-the-morning’ friends, people I could call in a crisis at 2 a.m. and know they would be there for me. These soul-friends are my chosen family, closer to me than most of my family of origin. Family estrangement is a deep grief, but I believe that God ensured I had soul-friends in my life to help me grow, be supported, and held.

When I talk to these friends, I feel seen and heard and understood. They offer me unconditional love. They notice if I have an, ahem, ‘area of weakness’ that might be getting in the way of my spiritual growth and can very gently point it out to me. I am with these people through thick and thin, they are my loyal companions, my soul-friends.

I’ll end with that well-known quote by Elbert Hubbard, ‘A friend is someone who knows all about you, and still loves you.’ And I do indeed; thank God for that. Amen.

In-Person Reflection: ‘Friendships Don’t Always Last a Lifetime (and That’s OK)’ by Liz

Jane asked members of the congregation to write something about an aspect of friendship. The one I’ve chosen is how the importance of a friendship doesn’t depend on how long it lasts.

I have one friendship that I’ve had from the start of my life, have had some friendships that have lasted over forty years, but I have also had some friendships that have only lasted a few years or even a few weeks.

I met my best friend very early on in life. I’m not sure whether I can say that we met in the womb. But my twin sister has been my best friend since before I could understand the concept.

I met two friends in the first year at secondary school and we have remained friends ever since. It’s true to say that we met less often during the years while they were raising their children and working but we always remained in touch. And now we’re all retired, we can meet more regularly.

On the other hand, I’ve had friends met at college or at work who have only remained friends for that period of time. The friendship didn’t outlast the course or the job. And I’m sure that many of us have had the experience of meeting people on holiday, enjoying their company but never seeing or hearing from them after the holiday finishes.

I used to feel a failure if I lost touch with, for example, work colleagues after I stopped working at a particular place of employment. I felt it reflected badly on me. Was I not interesting or funny enough? I felt the length of friendship was a mark of your value as a person.

However, I’ve come to realise that a friendship doesn’t always have to last a lifetime. Some friendships are meant to be for a certain place and time and will not endure beyond that. And that’s okay. People’s circumstances change and there may simply not be enough time and energy to maintain friendships.

I now believe that each friendship should be valued for its own sake and what you and the other person gained from the relationship at the time. A friend can play a significant role in your life even if it is not a permanent one.

In-Person Reflection: ‘Blessed by Friends’ by Roy

I don’t know about you, but l can’t imagine how life would be without my friends.

A couple of months ago, during a Heart and Soul Service here at church, when reflecting on what l felt grateful for, l said friendship. I remember also saying l was blessed with my friends, and l truly am.

But here’s the thing. I enjoy my own company and actively seek it out. I like being on my own very much. Solo visits to the cinema, theatre, museums and galleries, country walks, city walks, longer journeys, and trips overseas. Solitude is not loneliness and is very important to me. However, whilst spending time alone has many benefits, and l would recommend it, it is complemented by the curative properties of friendship.

Around 10 years ago, l had a major crisis in my life. During and after this, friendship took on a whole new meaning for me.

Suffering opens the heart to transformation. At that time I began to meet other people struggling as l was and worse. To become a friend to wounded people, l had to become a friend to myself, recognise my own weakness and need of help. The defensive barricades l had built around myself to appear strong had collapsed. Showing one’s vulnerability comes with risks of course, but learning to listen with empathy and shared understanding offers us a gift to deepen our friendships and relationships of all kinds. Companionable silence and just being with someone are often just as important as the words we exchange.

Another category of friendship, that of love and intimate relationships, deserves a service on its own. My wife has been a wonderful friend to me, a life saving friend at the darkest time in my life and l couldn’t talk about friendship without mentioning her. However, with neither the time or scope to examine the overlap and blurred lines of friendship and other relationships, l will make do with a quote from author and teacher Joseph Campbell which sums up my thoughts on this very nicely: “Love is a friendship set to music.”

So yes, I’m blessed with friends. I’m not embarrassed to say l love people. I have very dear friends, some of whom l met right here. As for making new friends. I make them all the time.

And so…l will finish with a few words from Maya Angelou that perhaps encapsulate all that l have learnt and experienced of friendship: “l found that a friend may be waiting behind a stranger’s face.”

Hymn (on sheet): ‘Goodnight Hymn’

Thanks Roy, Liz, and Gaynor. Time for our last hymn, it’s on your little hymn sheet, the ‘Goodnight Hymn’. Please overlook the fact that it’s the wrong time of day – it’s one of my favourites – we can sing it as a blessing to each other. Please sing up and let’s enjoy our closing hymn.

To you each, my friends, tonight
I give thanks for company;
We have shared the inner light:
May that light go forth with thee.
May we give each other power –
Live with courage every hour.

As we face the coming week,
With its worries and its strife,
Strength and wisdom let us seek
In this hour’s remembered life.
May we give each other power –
Live with courage every hour.

In our homes and in the street,
In a world with sadness rife,
May we show to all we meet
Glory that we find in life.
May we give each other power –
Live with courage every hour.

To you each, my friends, tonight
I give thanks for company;
We have shared the inner light:
May that light go forth with thee.
May we give each other power –
Live with courage every hour.


Thanks to Jeannene for tech-hosting. Thanks to Charlotte for co-hosting and welcoming everyone online. Thanks to George for playing for us today and Benjie for supporting our singing. Thanks to Carolyn, Gaynor, Liz and Roy for their splendid reflections on the theme. Thanks to Patricia for greeting (welcome back!) and Liz for making coffee today. For those of you who are here in-person – please do stay for a cuppa and cake after the service – today it’s Victoria Sponge – that’ll be served in the hall next door. If you’re joining on Zoom please do hang on after for a chat with Charlotte.

Tonight we have our ‘Better World Book Club’ at 7.30pm on Zoom when we’ll be talking about ‘Laziness Does Not Exist’ by Devon Price. It’s probably too late to read that if you haven’t started it yet but please pick up the Book Club flyer which lists dates/books as far as August. Next month’s book is ‘What’s in a Name?’ by Sheela Banerjee.

We also have our regular online ‘Heart & Soul’ Contemplative Spiritual Gathering, Friday at 7pm, this week’s theme is ‘Sacrifice’. We gather for sharing and prayer and it is a great way to get to know others on a deeper level. Email me if you’d like to book your place for that.

On Wednesday night the in-person Community Singing takes place, that’s always great fun. And Sonya will be here as usual for her Nia dance classes at lunchtime on Friday.

Next Sunday at 11am will be our Easter Sunday service which will feature special music from our quartet of singers so that’s something to look forward to. And you can stay behind after the service next week for a free community yoga class led by Hannah.

Looking further ahead, as Gaynor mentioned, the next Many Voices singing group will take place on Sunday 7th April – I went along to the last one and it was smashing. And a date for your diaries: We’re going to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the founding of this congregation on Sunday 14th April – me and Sarah will be co-leading a special service – and there’ll be a congregational bring-and-share lunch after. Save the date and look out for Liz with a sign-up sheet so you can let her know what food you’re planning to bring for that.

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 Eileen B. Karpeles

As we part now one from another, let these be our thoughts:

If that which is most holy lies within the human person,
if the greatest power in the world shines, flickering and uncertain,
from each individual heart, then we can see the value in nurturing that light
– nurturing it here, together – in religious community. Among friends.

For the power of good in any one of us must at times waver.
But when a group is dedicated to nurturing the power of good,
it is rare for the light to grow dim in all individuals at the same moment.

So let us borrow courage and wisdom from one another,
to warm us and keep us until we’re together again. Amen.

Closing Music: Randy Newman, You’ve Got a Friend in Me, from Toy Story (played by George Ireland)

Rev. Dr. Jane Blackall and Congregation Members

Sunday 24th March 2024