Service 1st November 2020 at Frenchay Chapel and on Zoom, 10:30am with Karl and Mark Stewart
Welcome and Explanation - Mark
Welcome to this dedicated time of spiritual enquiry, of taking a step back, of divine perspective and of yearning heart-space.
We have chosen two distinct themes for our service today.
Firstly, a question: Are we more than the sum of our experiences? Are we more of the sum of experiences? More on that to follow.
And secondly, on the even of All Souls Day, we offer an opportunity for us to remember and honour loved ones who have passed away, especially those in our community who’ve died in the last year, and those known to us, who we would like to bring to this shared act of remembrance today.
Opening Words and Chalice Lighting - Karl
Spirit of kindness, we invite you into this space,
Spirit of compassion, open our hearts to one another
Spirit of grace, inspire us in our words and in our being,
Spirit of courage, create a cushion of safety for our vulnerability.
Blessed Spirit of my life, P.11
Are we more than the sum of our experiences?
I’ve been thinking about this lately as I’ve noticed myself getting caught up in negative feedback loops, projecting past experiences onto current ones.
I’ve been noticing how particular negative or even traumatic life experiences are brought to bear on things I’m going through now.
I catch myself having imaginary arguments with people about subjects that haven’t even come up yet.
I wonder, am I arguing with this person in my life now or with someone else from long ago.
So this observation has made me wonder to what extent we all project our past experiences onto what’s happening now?
Does this become so unconscious, so habitual, that our lives, that we ourselves can end up as no more than the sum of our experiences?
Have you ever taken against someone for no other reason than that they remind you or somebody who hurt you in the past?
They may just have the same name as that person or just even the same accent.
Sometimes I find myself in a scenario and I realise I’m projecting onto that situation what happened to me in a similar situation in the past.
For example, with my new boss, I’ve found myself projecting onto her every bad boss experience I’ve had in my career to date.
Perhaps this goes back even further. Several times in my new job I’ve caught myself remembering my first day at secondary school, when I was so petrified of doing something wrong and being given ‘lines’ to write, that I kept a sheet of pre-written lines in my pocket just in case.
And then I start to wonder, why did I do that anyway? What happened to me prior to secondary school that made me feel I needed to be on guard all the time for fear of getting into trouble?
What was I projecting onto that first day of school from my early childhood? That the world is not safe? That the minute you drop your guard that’s when they get you?
So why am I telling you all this?
What is the spiritual lesson for us all that I want to draw our from this?
Is it something about being in the present moment, about being open to the new truths and new insights that each new experience can bring, instead of pre-writing the story of each experience in my head before I’ve even had it?
Is it something about accepting the unknown-ness of each new experience, without having to pre-judge it, to pre-label it?
I wonder for how many of us this is true, and how conscious a process this is.
In terms of our religious community, I wonder how many people are letting their negative experience of one religious tradition make them dismissive or distrustful of all religious traditions.
In our community we often struggle to fathom why we don’t attract more members, when we know and meet so many people who espouse values, beliefs and outlooks which sound almost like a definition of Unitarianism.
Is it because we’re labelled as a religious community, and people’s past negative experience of religious communities tells them to give us a wide berth?
Clearly it’s important to learn and to judge from our experiences. When a child touches a hot stove top, hopefully they learn not to do it again. But we can extend this practice too far, to the point where we stop ourselves from experiencing life as it really is, because of our all the barriers of pre-judgement we’ve put up in an effort to keep ourselves safe.
I know that my catastrophising and disaster-scenario planning is actually my subsconcious’s attempt to make me feel safe in the world. Although the irony of it is that I end up feeling afraid and unsafe all the time, because I can never plan and foresee or fore-write enough.
I think that deep down we all have a deep need and a longing to feel safe, held and sheltered. And this need can drive us to some very life-limiting, horizon-limiting behaviours on the one hand, and some terribly destructive and heinous behaviours on the other. We can see this writ large and writ small: from the warped and twisted fear that must’ve driven the hate of Hitler; to the fear that allows us to turn our backs on those in need because we’ve told ourselves ‘they’re not like us’.
It takes a braver leap of compassion to feel the pain of an alien, than a kinsperson.
So if we truly want to be more than the sum of our experiences, if we truly want to be as big and as brave and as loving as God in our minds, and in our hearts; if we don’t want to let our spirits shrink, wither and die away on the vine of life, what is it going to take?
My guess is that we can’t do it alone. It’s going to take a deep and fundamental acknowledgement and recognition that we are each an integrated part of the interdependent web of all existence.
I think it’s going to be a matter of making small changes, of practice, of self-discipline and self-compassion, of reverence and honouring of our experiences. It’s going to be about listening to each other’s stories and respecting each other’s perspectives. The way in which we become more than the sum of our experiences, is to entrust our experiences to another, and see that something new is created.
Conscience guide our footsteps, P.25
Well what about summing up? We often hear the expression, ‘That about sums it up,’ and ‘That sums him up or her’. Or we hear it said on the news, ‘The judge in his summing up was heard to have said….’ Now, when we look at summing up we assume that the model delineates several typical qualities, attributes, traits and fashions.
I’ll stand back from this and ask, ‘Am I the sum of my experiences? Do I have the typical qualitative library of what you would expect to find about a person? Am I the sum of my experience just because a trait I have is that of something in the everyday? Am I who I think I ought to be? Is my experience that of always looking for a missing piece of my puzzle? Am I referred to unknowingly in the conversation I’m not present at - he’s that one who does music, or cooks, or does that job?’ I would hope there’s a little more than only that to be to known about me.
I’ll venture with you now and take you through a few of my experiences. I once worked in nursing and social care, this was a varied role. It was about learning to get to know people and understanding need, it was listening, understanding, caring, accepting, reflecting. My experience taught me about adapting, changing tone, understanding the course of what other people have been brought to. I learned very early on how someone's life has changed through age and illness. Although I haven’t done that job for a long time, I’ve taken that experience with me. I wonder how those experiences of 11 years in that role inform me now.
There is no measure or equation to show how those experiences play any more or less a part in my experiences now. It is often said it takes a lifetime to learn a trade, or hone a skill. So far as I can tell you in my experience, it takes clarity to learn the difference to know what a job is and a what a vocation is. Am I the sum of my experience? When after a second on third time of learning, I finally understand a lesson, in this sense, do I become the sum of my experience?
Aside of the job or jobs I’ve done, I have always had a vocation, this is the life course I’m living in myself and with you all here today, all of you here are also my experience. I ask again am I the sum of my experience?
Here are some questions to ponder: How do you want to know yourself? How do you want your experiences to rest with you? How are you going to make experiences count? Are you going treat them with the attention they need? Are you so much in your experience that you form a new path of discoveries to learn all the more?
Am I sum of my experience? I have so many fond memories of the vocation I have lived so far, in this experience of ministries, including that which I bring from my earlier years of church life. But to this experience now, here, standing in my experience without the need for the permission of any ecclesiastical authority, I can share with you what my experience may be, as you can share all your experiences with me. I hope for all who come through our door, our experience together will hold each and everyone in reverence and human dignity.
I said before it takes a lifetime to learn a trade, and in my experience all the time I am leaning and still learning this vocation. I ask my experience if it is in me that I light a way, if it is in me that I have enlightened, if it is in me that I can see the way with us all? I hope and I want to be more, but I’m all I can be for now. If it is in me to work God’s way then I’m not just my own sum of experience. I am the sum of all your experiences as well. You here are also my experience, and with the greatest of blessings I thank you.
Candles of Joy and Concern – Mark
Wake now my senses, P.181
On the eve of All Souls Day, it is perhaps pertinent to reflect on the tradition of Universalist Theology, which is such a strong influence on our present-day Unitarian trans-Atlantic tradition, and has we prepare to remember the souls of all our the loved ones in our community, and those known personally to us, who have passed away.
A brief explanation of Universalist theology adapted from Encyclopaedia Brittanica.com:
“Universalism is the belief in the salvation of all souls. Although Universalism has appeared at various times in Christian history, as an organized movement it had its beginnings in the United States in the middle of the 18th century. The Enlightenment was responsible for mitigating the sterner aspects of Calvinistic theology and preparing the way for the reemergence of the
doctrine of universal salvation. The Universalists believed it impossible that a loving God would elect only a portion of humankind to salvation and doom the rest to eternal punishment.
One of the movement’s leaders, Hosea Ballou preached the rejection of Calvinistic tenets, instead suggesting a Unitarian conception of God and reinterpreting the atonement: the death of Jesus was not a vicarious atonement for the sins of humanity but rather a demonstration of God’s infinite and unchangeable love for her children.”
Whatever the literal concept of the soul’s salvation may or may not mean to us personally, I feel we can all take pride and comfort in the spirit of Universalist theology; its kindness, equality and its hope.
Act of Remembrance
Sarah Cortell ‘I remember’ with Gabriel’s Oboe backing
Spiral Candelabra with ‘Carry’ chant between candles
Words by Tori Amos
Mark: Love, hold my hand
Help me see with the dawn
That those that have left
Are not gone
But they carry on
As stars looking down
As nature's sons
And daughters of the heavens
Chant between each remembrance
You will not ever be forgotten by me
In the procession of the mighty stars
Your name is sung and tattooed now on my heart
Here I will carry, carry, carry you
Include Marie, Jean
Time of Prayer
Karl: Let us enter into a time of prayer
Let us take one big step back from our thoughts
Let us fall away from our feelings
Let us release our judgement in one deep breath
And let us rest in awareness, in the silence of the present moment, where God might listen…
Mark: Let us pray for all those who are grieving at this time, and for those whose year’s mind falls at this time.
Dear God, please keep us close to our loved ones in our hearts
Allow us to feel joined with them in spirit,
Allow us to trust in the sacred, unbreakable bond of love which binds us to them,
Allow us to hope for our reunion with them in the land of spirit.
Karl: Let us pray for all those who suffer in mind, body or spirit this day, this hour, this moment.
May all beings be delivered from suffering.
May compassion triumph over meanness, love over hate and trust over fear.
May there be healing for the many wounds of heart, mind and flesh with which all creation lives,
And may there come a better, brighter tomorrow,
Mark: Let us give thanks for all the blessings in our lives; material, experiential, happenstantial.
For shelter, warmth and nourishment, we give thanks.
For kinship, rest and safety, we give thanks.
For the lessons we might learn in the difficult times, we give thanks.
For hope, help and resilience, we give thanks.
Karl: Compelled by light, compelled by life, compelled by love, may we think the thoughts, speak the words and do the work of God in the world this day.
Give thanks for life, P.44
Mark: May we never feel that the path of our lives is forewritten by bad things we have experienced before,
Karl: May we embrace each new moment with openness, enquiry and bravery,
Mark: And may loved ones we have lost be found, held and sheltered, and may we hope to see them once again in the land of the spirit.