Earth Day: In Touch with the Soil – 21/4/24

Musical Prelude: G. P. Telemann – ‘Grave’ from Sonata in C Minor for Two Bass Instruments (played by Holly Redshaw, Alison Wormell, and George Ireland)

Opening Words: ‘Beatitudes for Earth Day’ by Richard S. Gilbert (adapted)

Blessed are the heavens,
for they declare the power of creation.
Blessed is the earth, our beloved home,
for she is a planet of plenitude.
Blessed are the waters thereon,
for they gave rise to living things.
Blessed is the land, the very soil,
for it is the source of life abundant.

Blessed is the air we breathe,
for it fires us to life and love.
Blessed are the beasts of the field,
for they are glorious to behold.
Blessed are the birds of the air,
for they carve a graceful arc in the sky.
Blessed are the mountains, and the seas, and the valleys,
for their variety makes rich our habitat.

Blessed are the fields of grain, the orchards of fruit,
for they give sustenance, asking nothing in return.
Blessed are the dwellers on earth,
for the cherish the privilege of living upon it.
Blessed are they who protect the earth and all her creatures,
from the plants of the field to the trees of the forest,
for their reward shall be harmony with the web of existence.

Rejoice, and be glad, for the earth and her people are one. (pause)

Words of Welcome and Introduction:

These opening words by Richard S. Gilbert welcome all who have gathered this morning, for our Sunday service. Welcome to those of you who have gathered in-person at Essex Church, to all who are joining us via Zoom from far and wide, to all who are catching up on YouTube or on our podcast stream, our wider congregation all round the world. For anyone who doesn’t know me, my name is Jane Blackall, and I’m Minister with Kensington Unitarians. Welcome, one and all.

This morning’s service marks Earth Day (which is actually tomorrow, Monday 22nd April). It’s a day to honour our planet; to raise awareness of environmental action, conservation, and sustainability. To foster a deeper connection with nature. This year our service is titled ‘In Touch with the Soil’ – we’re really focusing in on the ‘Earth’ bit of Earth Day this year – and in the coming hour, through readings, reflections, and sharing, we’ll take time to appreciate and give thanks for the dirt beneath our feet.

Chalice Lighting: ‘Our Guiding Principles’ by Jane Blackall

Let’s light our chalice flame now, as we do each week. It’s a moment for us to gather ourselves and remember why we’re here and what we came for; to set aside any agitation we came in carrying, to focus our attention, be fully present, as we co-create this sacred space together. 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)

May the light of this chalice be a reminder of the
shared values and principles around which we gather:
upholding the inherent worth and dignity of every person;
cherishing all those diverse creatures and habitats
with whom we share this Earth, our home;
seeking human liberation and flourishing;
serving the common good of all.

Hymn 32 (purple): ‘Earth Was Given as a Garden’

Let’s sing together. Our first hymn is number 32 in your purple books, ‘Earth was Given as a Garden’. For those joining via Zoom the words will be up on screen. Feel free to 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.

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 Lucy Bunch

Let’s take those joys and concerns into an extended time of prayer. This prayer is based on some words by Lucy Bunch. 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)

This morning, as we celebrate Earth Day,
and honour this planet that is our home,

We pray with gratitude:
For Earth’s holding and sustaining love
For the air, water, and soil that feed us
For the mountains and rivers and oceans that calm our spirits
For nurturing and supporting all beings and all creation.

We pray with humility:
Help us to remember our place in the great web of life
Help us to remember that we are but a part of this great web,
and that we must each do our part
for all life to survive, thrive, and flourish.

We pray for forgiveness:
For our ignorance and wilful disregard of
the damage we humans have done to the Earth,
to the air and the waters and the soil
and the life of this beautiful planet.

We pray for fortitude:
to uphold our part in reversing
the damage we have caused,
and to make and sustain a commitment
to do our part to help heal the planet.

Hold us and sustain us,
as we strive to live in connection
with the Earth, and with all life, all our relations. (pause)

And a few quiet moments let us take some time to pray inwardly the prayers of our own hearts;
calling to mind all those souls we know to be suffering this day, whether close to home, or
on the other side of the world. Let us hold all these sacred beings in the light of love. (pause)

Let us also pray for ourselves; we too are sacred beings who face our own struggles and muddle
through life’s ups and downs. So let us take a few moments to reflect on our own lives, and
ask for what we most need this day – comfort, forgiveness, or guidance – to flourish. (pause)

And let us take just a little longer to remember the good things in life and give thanks for them.
Those moments in the past week where we’ve encountered generosity, kindness, or pleasure.
Let us cultivate a spirit of gratitude as we recall all those moments that lifted 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 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 211 (purple): ‘Where are the Voices for the Earth?’

Let’s sing again. Our next hymn is a new one I think – number 211 in our purple books – ‘Where are the Voices for the Earth’. I think it’s a perfectly singable tune but I’m going to ask George to play it through once in full before we sing to help us out. The words will be on screen as usual.

Where are the voices for the earth?
Where are the eyes to see her pain,
wasted by our consuming path,
weeping the tears of poisoned rain?

Sacred the soil that hugs the seed,
sacred the silent fall of snow,
sacred the world that God decreed,
water and sun and river flow.

Where shall we run who break this code,
where shall tomorrow’s children be,
left with the ruined gifts of God,
death for the creatures, land, and sea?

We are the voices of the earth,
we who will care enough to cry,
cherish her beauty, clear her breath,
live that our planet may not die.

In-Person Reading: ‘The Mysterious Sounds of the Underground’ by Phoebe Weston (excerpts, adapted) (read by John)

This reading is an excerpt from an article published in the Guardian just this week by Phoebe Weston. It gives an insight into the wondrous complexities of the unseen and oft-neglected world beneath our feet.

The sound of an earthworm is a distinctive rasping and scrunching. Ants sound like the soothing patter of rain. A passing, tunnelling vole makes a noise like a squeaky dog’s toy repeatedly being chewed.

On a spring day at Rothamsted Research, an agricultural research institution in Herefordshire, singing skylarks and the M1 motorway are competing for the airways. But the attention here is on the soundscapes underfoot: a rich ecosystem with its own alien sounds. More than half of the planet’s species live in the soil, and we are just starting to tune into what they are up to. Beetle larvae, millipedes, centipedes and woodlice have other sound signatures, and scientists are trying to decipher which sounds come from which creatures.

In a field divided up into test strips, Carlos Abrahams pushes a sensor the length of a knitting needle into the soil. With a pair of headphones on, he listens to the “poor man’s rainforest”: a dark landscape of miniature caves, tunnels and decomposing matter stewing away under our feet. Scientists from the University of Warwick are building up libraries of subterranean sounds. The soil makes different noises depending on the season and whether it’s night or day. Even in the afternoon when the soil has warmed up, sounds get richer, research suggests. Researcher Dr Jacqueline Stroud says: “The soil is such a mystery. This is like opening the door and seeing what is going on below ground. It’s a different way of exploring the world.”

Last year, a study found soil was the single most species-rich habitat on Earth, with more than half of all species living in it. But only a fraction have been identified, and most are too small to see. Noisy soil is generally healthier because it contains a greater range of bugs and worms busying around. Soil organisms alter and improve the structure of soil by passing nutrients between one another and creating an environment that is well ventilated and diverse. These webs provide food, fibre and clean water for people – topsoil is where 95% of the planet’s food is grown.

Soils that have little biodiversity are more fragile: they have lost the structure and connections that keep particles together. This means they are more likely to be washed away by floods or blown away by strong winds. An estimated 24 billion tonnes of fertile soil is lost every year through intensive farming. In total there are 70 scientists working on this bit of land, marked out in 66 plots of 24m by 24m, finding out new things about soil structure, viruses, microbes and fungi, and trialling more ecological ways of farming – making it among the most studied soil in the world.

Meditation: ‘Soil’ by Irene Mathieu

Thanks John. We’re moving into a time of meditation now. I’m going to share a poem now, to take us into three minutes of silence which will end with the sound of a bell. Then we’ll hear music from Holly, Alison, and Andrew. 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.

‘Soil’ by Irene Mathieu

the way you say soil
sounds like soul, as in

after we walked through the woods
my feet were covered in soul

when it rains
the soul turns to mud

the soul is made of decomposed
plant and animal matter;

edaphology is the study of the soul’s
influence on living things

while pedology is the study of how
soul is formed, its particular granularity.

you are rooted in a certain red patch
of soul that bled you and your

hundred cousins to life, a slow
warm river you call home.

maybe there is soul under everything,
even when we strike rock first.

the way you say soil you make
a poem out of every speck of dirt.

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

Interlude: W. A. Mozart – ‘Andante’ from Sonata in B-flat Major for Bassoon and Cello (played by Holly Redshaw, Alison Wormell, and George Ireland)

In-Person Reading: ‘Soil, Soul and Society’ by Satish Kumar (excerpts, adapted)

I’ve got another reading for you now; this is a slightly longer reading than usual, about 5 minutes, but I think that’s OK as we haven’t got a sermon today! It’s by Satish Kumar – I’m not sure how to describe him if you’ve not encountered him before – he founded the Resurgence Trust and on their website it says: ‘now in his 80s, he has devoted his life to campaigning for ecological regeneration, social justice, and spiritual fulfilment. This is an excerpt from a talk he gave back in 2012 on a theme that he returned to from many angles; it’s titled ‘Soil, Soul, Society’. He writes:

Many historical movements in the world have three key words that express their spirit. During the French Revolution, for example, the key words were liberté, égalité, fraternité and in the American Declaration of Independence you find the words “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.

‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’ is a very nice trinity but it is very human: human liberty, human fraternity, human equality. In the same way, in the Declaration of Independence, life is primarily human life, liberty is human liberty and happiness is human happiness. We have come to think that somehow human beings are at the centre of the universe. It is as if we are the most important species and that the Earth’s other species are all in our service.

But this worldview is no longer valid. Especially once we realise that we are utterly dependent on other species; we are not the rulers of the world, here to do what we like – we have to take care of the other species because we are all made of each other – we are not separate, we are all related, we are members of one Earth community.

So we need a new trinity to replace those human-centred ones. We need a new trinity that is holistic and more inclusive, that embraces the entire planet Earth and not just the human species. So I propose a new trinity: ‘Soil, Soul, Society’. And at the top of this trinity is the word ‘soil’, which represents the entire natural world. Without soil there is no food and without food there is no life, no trees, no forests. So soil represents life on Earth.

In our human-centred worldview, in our education systems, in our study of science and technology, we have come to think that soil simply means dirt, and that dirt means dirty. But dirt is not dirty: dirt is the source of life. Without dirt there is no life. Soil, therefore, represents all natural life. And the fact that we are related to and dependent on the soil. We think food comes from the supermarket; most of us don’t grow food these days.

Growing food has become a sign of underdevelopment. The word ‘peasant’ itself has become a term of an insult. I want to change that. I want to say that we must touch the soil; we must put our hands into the soil. How many times do you touch your mobile phone every day? Maybe 100 times? How many times do you touch the soil? Hardly ever! I want to give dignity to peasants, to those who grow food, to farmers and gardeners.

Soil is so important, yet we have forgotten it. Yes, we humans are important too, but the human species is only one of the 7.8 million species on Earth. We are not the kings. We are not an imperial power and the Earth is not a human colony. At the moment we behave as if we can do what we like. We can cause global warming, we can change the climate, we can alter the soil, we can destroy the rainforests, we can overfish the ocean. This attitude must change.

This is why I put the soil first. We are all part of this healthy web of life maintained by soil. It makes us humble; to be human is to be humble. The Latin word humus means soil. ‘Human’, ‘humility’ and ‘humus’ all come from the same root. The soil is so fertile, yet humble. When humans lose humility they are no longer humans.

Once, the Buddha was sitting in meditation, with his right hand above the palm of the left hand, and someone came to him and asked: “Lord Buddha, you teach compassion, forgiveness, love and forbearance – from where did you learn all these wonderful qualities? Who is your teacher?” The Buddha lifted his right hand in the bhūmiśpara mudra, which means ‘touch the Earth’ posture. Pointing towards the soil, he said: “I learned my forgiveness, compassion, friendship, kindness and all the wonderful qualities of love, beauty, unity and generosity from the Earth.”

(Satish Kumar concludes): If we can have a holistic view of soil, soul and society, if we can understand the interdependence of all living beings, and understand that all living creatures – from trees to worms to humans – depend on each other, then we can live in harmony with ourselves, with other people and with Nature.

Time for Sharing: ‘The Soil and Us’

Words from Satish Kumar. So we have eight to ten minutes now to share our own brief reflections and experiences on ‘The Soil and Us’. I invite anyone who wants to join in to come up to the mic in turn, and we’ll do it like our joys and concerns, except we are going to try and mix and mingle in-person and online, people online can chip in as you’d like, unmute and speak up when you’re ready.

As always there’s a balance to be struck; I’m not sure how many people will want to join in, and I don’t want to inhibit anyone’s sharing, but do bear in mind how long you’re speaking for so that everyone who wants to join in can get a chance to do so. Just to let you know this will be default stay in the service recording; if you want to be edited out let me know straight after the service as I’ll edit the video later this afternoon. And as with everything else it’s an invitation not an obligation.

(people come up and speak out)

If everyone who wants to speak has spoken – thank you for your contributions – and to wrap up our sharing I would just like to share the words from Wendell Berry which are on the front of the order of service: ‘The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all… Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.’ Amen.

Hymn 156 (purple): ‘The Earth is the Lord’s’

Time for our last hymn, number 156 in your purple book, ‘The Earth is the Lord’s’ – I think the tune is pretty well known – but again I’ll ask George to play it through. Sing up for our closing hymn.

‘The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.’
Creation reminds us, O God, of your love.
By grace, we are learning; as year leads to year
we’re called to be stewards, your caretakers here.

Your rainforests nurture the world that we share;
your wetlands give animals shelter and care;
your coral reefs cradle the life of the sea;
you’ve shown us, in love, what your good world can be.

Too often, O God, we abuse your good earth
and fail to remember its beauty and worth.
We take from creation much more than we need
and threaten your world through indifference and greed.

May we be good stewards of all that you give,
protecting creation wherever we live.
May we be a church that renews and restores
and lovingly cares for this earth that is yours.


Thanks to Ramona for tech-hosting. Thanks to Jeannene for co-hosting and welcoming everyone online. Thanks to John for reading and everyone who contributed to the sharing today. Thanks to Holly and Alison and George for playing for us today. Thanks to Julia for greeting and Pat and John for making coffee. For those of you who are in-person – please do stay for a cuppa and cake after the service – pear and ginger cake again this week – that’ll be in the hall next door. If you’re joining on Zoom please do hang on after for a chat with Jeannene.

At 12.30 if you’re here in person Margaret will be leading her singing class – all are welcome – that’s free of charge. And that’ll be followed by community yoga with Hannah at about 1.15.

We have our regular ‘Heart & Soul’ Contemplative Spiritual Gathering online tonight and Friday at 7pm, this week’s theme is ‘Sleep’. I must have been quite tired when I picked the theme! We gather for sharing and prayer and it is a great way to get to know others on a deeper level. Email me to book your place for that.

This week we think we have the in-person community singing on Wednesday night – that’s still TBC – so if you’re planning to come please email Jane and she’ll keep you posted.

I’m going to ask David Brewerton to come up and say a few words about some events that are happening this Thursday (Mayoral Assembly) and Saturday (Unlock Walk). Thanks David.

If you want to join in with our ‘Better World Book Club’, the next gathering will be on Zoom at 7.30pm on Sunday 28th April – we’re exploring ‘What’s in a Name?’ by Sheela Banerjee. Been getting some very positive feedback on this book from people who’ve read it already. Please do pick up a flyer if you’re here in-person as we’ve lined up all our books until August.

Next week we have our Membership Service and AGM so please do come along for that. Please fill in your membership forms ASAP to re-affirm your belonging to this congregation. If you’re someone who’s been coming to church for a while and you’re interested in becoming a member please do have a chat with me, or a committee member. It’s not about money, there’s no requirement to donate, it’s about pledging your support and affirming your sense of belonging, and it’s good for morale for those of us who are keeping the show on the road if you feel able to say ‘yes, I am a member of this congregation, this is something I am proud to be part of.’

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 Laura Horton-Ludwig

As we go forth from this sacred space,
May we celebrate Earth and our shared lives,
May we recognize our connections to all that is in and on Earth,
May we truly and deeply value the inherent worth of all
In this astonishing interconnected web of existence,
May we commit ourselves to a new way,
And may we hold our commitments and each other
Gently yet firmly. Go well and blessed be. Amen.

Closing Music: W. A. Mozart – ‘Pa-pa-pa’ (Papageno/Papagena duet) from The Magic Flute (played by Holly Redshaw, Alison Wormell, and George Ireland)

Rev. Dr. Jane Blackall

21st April 2024