Newsletter August / September 2017

From the Desk – UMB Chair, Karl Stewart

Dear All,

Come rain or shine, the spirit lives within us all to walk in the light. It’s with hope that the light of all that is our individual beliefs, we are able to walk our journey and the path set for us with joy. I’m looking forward to this year’s Summer School at the Nightingale centre in Great Hucklow, the theme for which is: ‘Walk Your Path With Joy’. I, along with several others, look forward to seeing what that brings.

Looking a little closer to home, there is learning afoot. We will be starting in the Autumn this year a new R.E. Course, which will be facilitated by our Minister Rev. John Harley, along with others, who will assist in some of the learning, and leading of the sessions. This course is called ‘The Rainbow Path’. When this course starts we look to create a safe and confidential learning gathering - we will let you know in due course how many places there are. There will be several sessions: ‘Roots’, ‘Flying Free’ and ‘In Bloom’. To outline, ‘Roots’ will be looking at Unitarian history, going back to the basics, learning and revisiting what we know. ‘Flying Free’ will be about what we do with the learning, and how we can revisit it new thinking, and enrich ourselves individually and as a community. Lastly, ‘In Bloom’ will be about using what we learn in practice. Most of all, we want this to be engaging and enhancing to one another, as we bring further dimensions to our learning.

I’m looking forward to working with everyone who attends and hope we can keep walking our paths with joy, safely in community. As we look to find the answers together, let us lead one another in the way we feel the light is leading us, and most of all let us believe in kinship and in all that is good.

As we walk with joy, may it be with with awareness, that we will feel the small stones under our feet - let us not allow our souls to harden to them, as we reap what is sown from our cornfields as the seasons enfold before us: the gospel of our harvest.

Yours in faith, with love and care.

Karl Stewart. Chair UMB.

From our Minister – Rev. John HarleyBright Lights at UMB

Re-launch: Sunday 17th September


We are getting excited that Bright Lights is going to start up again after a break of a few years. Bright Lights was initiated by Rev Lindy Latham. It was one of the first genuinely intergenerational activities on a regular basis o take root in the national Unitarian community. I have had the pleasure of leading a number of Bright Light sessions over the years.

I love the inspiring mix of creativity, felltowship, circle time, ritual, tea and cake. I think it is a refreshing formula and a more active, spontaneous way of exploring spirituality. It feels especially significant to be rekindling the Bright Lights spirit because similar groups have sprung up around the UK in other Unitarian communities. Bright Lights spawned a Unitarian publication called ‘Intergen’. It was written by Lindy, Rev Kate Dean and myself. It is a new RE resource and is jam packed full of ideas for intergenerational sessions – from icebreakers to main activities, from games to rituals. Above all Bright Lights is a fun way of growing community since people of all ages are welcome to come along. I would also say that if we really want our beloved Unitarian movement to grow we need to experiment with different, non-traditional ways of ‘doing church’, especially if we are to be of appeal to people who have yet to discover our unique faith. Bright Lights is always entertaining and engaging and feels holy in the way, by coming together, we experience one another’s holiness. These words by the 13th century mystic Rumi seem to ring bells for me: here are some fragments from his lovely poem The Community of the Spirit:

There is a community of the spirit.

Join it, and feel the delight

of walking in the noisy street

and being the noise.

Sit down in this circle.

Why do you stay in prison

when the door is wide open?

Move outside the tangle of fear thinking.

Live in silence.

Flow down and down

in always widening rings of being.


Join Bright Lights and join the community of the spirit.

For more information contact John at or Mark at

Future Bright Lights at UMB: 15 October, 19 November and 17 December.


Other events coming up:

The Rainbow Path, a brand new adult spirituality group. Wednesday 18th October and Wednesday 15 November (no December meeting) from 7-9 at Frenchay.

Worship Inspiration Forum (WIF) bimonthly on Thursdays. 12 October and 14 December from 7-9 at Frenchay. This is a support group for all those who lead worship and want to gain new ideas and approaches from others.

A manifesto for Prayer - a work in progress – Part 1
Mark Stewart

‘Help, thanks, wow.’ These are the only prayers you’ll ever need, says Anne Lamot in her book of the same title.

I’ve heard it said by some religious folk that prayer shouldn’t be your last resort, when admonishing people for not keeping up a regular practice of prayer.

And I’ve heard it said by many non-religious people: instead of praying, why don’t you actually do something?!

But I reckon I can reconcile both points of view.

Because I wonder if prayer should be your last resort. At least that could be your starting point.

Maybe prayer should be the thing you do when you’ve tried everything else practical, within your power.

Because it’s at that point when you’ve done all you can, that there is a choice – to despair and deny, or to pray and accept. You could also despair and accept or pray and deny, but I’ll get onto why I wouldn’t recommend these two options either.

Because I’m trying to get at a kind of prayer which isn’t about burying your head in the sand, but is about still being able to do something positive when faced with catastrophe or disaster. It’s about still having a choice; the choice to say ‘let not all hope be lost’. In spite of all evidence to the contrary, it is a choice that dares to believe in the impossible, in a miracle; even if out of nothing more than resistant stubbornness, and an inkling of a secret knowledge beyond time, beyond words and expression. The choice to pray might seem illogical, it might even seem self-deceptive, yet I am nudged by the whisper of an unfathomable truth; deep within my inner being, which is telling me to do it anyway.

The first step is admitting you have a problem

When did we become too grown up to pray?

As little kids our powerlessness is obvious – we’re small, we’re weak, we have no life experience, we don’t know stuff. We’re constantly aware and reminded of our helplessness when we are children, and we have no choice but to submit to being helped, even if it comes at a cost – often to our dignity and pride.

Yet when we grow up suddenly we’re meant to be self-sufficient, to be somehow above asking for help. But we do still need help when we’re grown up – a big part of me still has the emotional age of a five-year old, and I’m always aware of the vastness of everything I don’t know, and the futility of trying to know everything. Never mind trying to control the practical things which are beyond my influence – many aspects of my health, as well as the stupid actions and behaviour of other people.

We’re just as needy and helpless as adults as when we were children – and admitting this is the first step towards offering up your first prayer.

Everything you ever feared is true. So what are you going to do about it?

You could sink into a bottomless quagmire of despair – but we’ve already decided this is not a good option.

You could pick that most beloved of coping mechanisms – pretend this is not really happening. Advantages of this option include absolving yourself of any responsibility for getting out of this situation. Disadvantages include the fact that sooner of later your defences will weaken and the truth is going to come crashing in, and it’s going to be that much harder to deal with. This is kind of the pray and deny option.

To despair and accept is kind of the existential nihilist option - which might be a way for you to survive in the short term, but will mean that you suck the life out of anyone in you vicinity. This is the price of your comfort – you have essentially become an emotional black hole.

So the fourth option, which this little diatribe recommends, is to pray and to accept. To say, ‘I accept that this is really happening. I accept that I do not have full control over this situation. I accept that I need help. I accept that there is no help forthcoming. ‘O God, o God, o God, I need help’. This is the kind of prayer which Anne Lamot describes as ‘little beggy prayers’, and they come from a place of being on a knife-edge, of acute despair. And yet it is a prayer – in its raggedy, spurting out kind of way, it is a prayer. And it comes from a place of deep humility and surrender, because it comes spontaneously at that moment of recognition that I am a helpless child, lost in the world. It is a choice to cry out into the darkness for help, rather than being subsumed by it. It is a stab of sheer resistance. And in that moment we are saying that life is worth something, that our feelings are worth something, that they are important and mean something, that in spite of all the death, destruction, meanness and cruelty we see in the world, that our feelings signify. Our stab of longing, of resistance signifies. We know deep down within ourselves that the principle of life is worth fighting for.

When I first heard the news that my dad had died, Karl and I were on the train down from Bristol to Sussex. We’d had the call earlier that morning that he’d jumped from the top of a 6 storey building. He was in the deepest level coma, had sustained massive internal injuries, but that they were still operating on him, trying to save his life.

The chances weren’t good. We knew what was coming. So when I received that call from my uncle to say that he’d actually passed away, it wasn’t surprised shock or disbelief I felt. I’d been holding my breath, waiting for this news for the last two hours. As we sat on the crowded train, Karl sheltered me, turning towards me as I sat in the window seat. And it was then I was given the gift of grace to pray. To pray for my dad’s safe passing from this world, to pray for him to be taken up into the arms of the spirit, of God, of the universe; to pray for him to be held and cared for; to pray for his mum, for loved-ones to greet him; to pray for his shelter, comfort and safe keeping; to pray for his release and reconciliation, to accept, to face what was happening with hope.

Now these are not things that I believe or don’t believe in any literal or figurative sense. Prayer isn’t about what you do or don’t believe. That doesn’t matter. This was about the grace to pray in that moment. The gift of grace from God to be given the words, the focus, the intention. In that actual moment, when I needed it most, the prayer just spoke itself. But I guess I also made a choice to pray, and in that moment not to surrender, to despair. I’m not judging anyone who wouldn’t or didn’t make that choice. I’m just exploring the option; the possibility that prayer is possible.

At its heart a prayer is a wish. And just like the fact that we need to be careful what we wish for, so too we should be careful what we pray for.

As Unitarians we have inherited the tradition of being seekers of truth – we hunger after authenticity; for that which is real, even if unpalatable. And this is where the acceptance comes in. Before we can access the deep prayer, first we must boldly step through the gateway of acceptance. ‘Wisest is she who knows she does not know’ - said Socrates via Jostein Gaarder. And that’s where the prayer can come in – naked and prostrate before God – saying simply ‘help me’.

And as for the ‘thanks’ and the ‘wow’ from Anne Lamot’s holy trinity of essential prayers, they will have to wait for another day.