Entrance music – Selection of reflective music
All are welcome into this space the shape of the human spirit has grown and gathered to itself new images, new forms, new language with which to make its worship clear, and reverence plain. And into this space we come today.
We come with humility and also with openness, to acknowledge the presence of something greater than our individual selves, and more enduring than our individual life.
We come to affirm again that all are welcome:
faithful and doubtful, sure and uncertain, the happy, the anxious – all are welcome to join with us as we share a time in which to have our hopes renewed, our preconceptions challenged, our ideas tested and our spirits refreshed.
Some words there from Jo James, a prominent Yorkshire Unitarian.
So, good morning, to you all. As has become almost habitual in each of these services you entrust me with leading, I’d like to start by extending to you all, the very warmest of welcomes as we gather here this Sunday. Welcome to those familiar faces, and to those new faces, and to those who cannot be with us here this morning but are with us in our thoughts. Welcome to your feelings of happiness and hope. Welcome to your worries, concerns, and anxieties. No matter who you are, no matter where you come from, no matter what you believe, no matter what you don’t believe, no matter what accompanies you this morning: you are welcome. You are welcome in this space. This space of reflection and contemplation. This space of humility and vulnerability.
As you walked through the doors this morning, you entered a sanctuary. A sanctuary where you are safe to be yourself. A sanctuary where, no matter what joys, sorrows or concerns you brought with you, the warmth of our welcome remains constant.
As is customary to our denomination of Unitarianism, I would like to light the flame of our chalice, the symbol of our movement.
As we light our chalice, we think about what its light means. It represents the light within ourselves and the light within others: threads of the universal light of love.
Moment of mindfulness
So, here we are again. The end of another week. You made it. This week may have been one that you relished, one that you embraced and tackled head on. Or it may have been one that you survived. If that is the case, then I’d like you to know that no matter challenges you’re experiencing, you are now one week closer to the resolution, and whatever feelings of pain and sorrow you are feeling, have crossed off one more day on the countdown to them checking out of your life. Whatever feelings you have this morning, this space is safe for you.
In what has almost become another tradition of our time together, I’d like to invite you to just take a moment to sit in your chair and relax. Take a deep breath and notice the movement of your chest as you inhale, and then gently exhale. Focus on the sensations of your body, starting from your head and your neck, and working slowly down through your chest and out to your arms, through your elbows and wrists to the very tips of your fingers. Focus on each and every sensation you feel; move back along your arms and further down your body and into your legs, right down to the tips of your toes. As you do this, take note of how your body feels. It might be energised; it might be tired; it might be relaxed; it might just simply…be. Take 30 seconds to be still.
30 seconds of quiet.
And, in your own time, I’d like you to bring yourself back into the room.
I would like to invite you to listen to, or join in with if you wish, our first hymn of the day.
Hymn 1 – Purple Book 70 I Wish I Knew How
Introduction to the service
This morning, I’d like to talk to you about forgiveness. Now, before you all start ruminating and letting your imaginations run away with you: no. I’m not about to admit something to you for which I need forgiveness. Nor is this going to turn into some sort of mass Catholic-style confessional, where we all come up to the front, one-by-one, and reveal to the group something bad or slightly naughty that we may have done, seeking forgiveness from our peers. Although, if you’d like to, I’m sure it would make for a much more entertaining service than I had originally planned.
Forgiveness is something I’ve always been interested in and, since establishing a faith in the ministry of Jesus, have held in high regard. But it’s a funny concept, isn’t it? When I say the word “forgiveness”, you all know what I’m talking about. But if I were to ask you to define it, what would you say?
Would anyone like to have a go?
The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as: “to stop blaming or being angry with someone for something that person has done, or not punish them for something”.
I think that makes sense, don’t you? But for me, it’s only part of the answer to the question: “what is forgiveness?”
Before we get more into that, I’d like to read you a story. It’s an adaptation of one of Aesop’s fables: Two Travelers and a Bear.
TWO TRAVELLERS AND A BEAR
By Sue Reid
One cold winter’s day two friends set off to travel to the town. They talked and laughed as they strode along. It was cold and snow was falling but the two men hardly noticed – they were enjoying each other’s company so much. What a pleasant fellow he is, each of them thought. I’m glad that we are travelling together.
The road to the town lay through a forest. It was late by the time the men reached it.
‘We should turn back,’ one of them said to the other nervously. ‘It’ll soon be dark and there are bears in that forest.’
His friend was just as scared as he was. But didn’t want his friend to know. So he laughed. ‘Pah! Bears. That’s nothing to be afraid of. I fought a bear once – and he ran away.’
The other man felt ashamed of himself. I am a coward, but he is brave, he thought. ‘Then we’ll go on,’ he said.
It was very dark in that forest. The trees grew close together. It was hard to see the road clearly. It was hard to see anything at all!
But the man wasn’t afraid anymore. He listened as his friend told him all about his fight with the bear. ‘It was very big,’ he boasted. ‘Twice as big as me. But I picked up a stick and fought it off.’
All of a sudden there was an enormous crash. And out of the bushes lumbered – a bear! The men had never seen such a huge bear. When it saw the men it licked its lips. ‘At last!’ it said, standing up on its hind legs and growling. ‘Dinner!’
With a cry of fright, the friend ran to the nearest tree and hauled himself up onto a branch.
‘Aren’t you going to fight it?’ the man cried.
‘Fight it! You must be mad,’ said his friend. ‘It will kill us.’
The man ran up to the tree where his friend crouched, trembling. ‘There’s room for us both in that tree,’ he cried. ‘Help me up.’
But his friend pushed him away. ‘No there isn’t. Find somewhere else to hide,’ he said.
‘What shall I do?’ the man thought.
The bear was so close now he could have stretched out a hand and touched it. ‘If I try to run it will run faster. If I fight it, it will kill me. It is bigger and stronger than me.’
He flung himself to the ground and lay there, as still as he could. ‘Perhaps it will leave me alone,’ he thought, ‘if it thinks I am dead.’
The bear was very hungry. It hadn’t eaten for a long time. But it was puzzled when it saw the man drop to the ground. ‘Is he dead?’ it wondered. ‘Let me see.’
It bent down, so close that the man could feel its fur brush his cheek. Then it put out a paw and prodded him. The man lay still, his heart pounding. ‘Any minute now,’ he thought, ‘that bear will tear me to pieces.’
But the bear got up. ‘He hasn’t moved. He must be dead,’ it thought. ‘And I don’t like dead meat.’ And it ambled away sadly into the forest.
The man got up and dusted himself down. He didn’t look at his friend. He was very angry with him. He had pretended to be brave, but he was a coward. He had left him to face the bear on his own.
‘I saw the bear whisper in your ear,’ the friend said climbing down from the tree. ‘What did he say?’
‘He said a man who leaves his friend to face danger isn’t a true friend.’
And with that he turned away, leaving the other to make his own way home.
I’ll leave you to ponder on that for a moment.
And with that, I’d like to invite you to sing our next hymn of the morning.
Hymn 2 – P208 When Our Heart Is In A Holy Place
So, let me start my address this morning by asking you a question: if you were the friend who had to play dead to avoid a gruesome death at the hands of a hungry bear, having been left to fend for yourself by the person you were travelling with, would you forgive them?
The concept of forgiveness is to the Christian faith, what fish and chips or ice cream are to a sunny day spent by the seaside. They go hand-in-hand. Almost inseparable, forgiveness, is one of Jesus’ key teachings. In fact, rather interestingly, when I began writing this service, I looked up ‘forgiveness’ in the Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. Its definition wasn’t quite what I had in mind. It simply said: “See atonement”.
Now, for anyone who’s remotely interested in Christian theology or who has experience attending more mainstream Christian denominations, atonement might be a term you’re familiar with. But, for the benefit of those who might not be, let me briefly explain what atonement is.
The Doctrine of Atonement, to give it it’s proper fancy Christian name, refers to the belief that Jesus, through his life, death and resurrection, reconciled humanity with God. It provides us with the understanding that all humans have sinned, and are therefore separated from God. However, given that Jesus is considered the Son of God, or God Himself in human form, it’s understood that God came to earth to save humanity from its sins.
If you break the word ‘atonement’ down into its three syllables, you get ‘at-one-ment’. The idea of atonement is that, through Jesus’ sacrifice, our relationship with God is restored; we are once again, at one with God. Jesus’ death is the ultimate demonstration of mercy and forgiveness towards mankind.
Like much of traditional Christian theology and its doctrines, the imagery is rather beautiful. But we know, as Unitarians, we don’t really have much time for doctrines, creeds or dogma. Not to mention that the Doctrine of Atonement relies heavily on the belief that Jesus was somehow, literally God in human form. Not to mention the fact that forgiveness, in the context of understanding it, as the Oxford Dictionary of World Religions wants us to, through the lens of atonement, seems somewhat far removed from the everyday situations we find ourselves in.
If someone cuts me up at a roundabout or a colleague makes a mistake that costs me time and effort to rectify, while getting an earful from my boss, I don’t feel the need to sacrifice myself by crucifixion to forgive them. So yes, while its imagery is powerful and beautiful, I feel like it has little real-world application. Other than to those of us who try to live by Jesus’ example, it serving as the ultimate demonstration of forgiveness: “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”.
As Unitarians, we tend to understand the idea of atonement or salvation as manifesting itself as healing, dynamic love. This is channelled both through others, and from the wellspring within us. It is love, and those who love, who are the agents of salvation, whether you believe the source of love’s power is God, or something else entirely.
But, as I’m standing here talking to you all, I still can’t shake the feeling that’s something is missing from our discussion. And I think it might be the why of it. Why should we forgive? How can we forgive? What’s in it for me? Let me discuss each of those in turn.
Firstly, how can we forgive? You’ll often hear the word “forgive” followed by “and forget”. And yes, that’s one way to do it. But for many of us, we have experienced wrongdoing that cannot nor should not simply be forgotten. In many instances, negative experiences, however troubling or upsetting they are at the time we experience them, actually serve as opportunities for development in the long run. They can often act as lessons from which we learn valuable skills: resilience, self-care, strength. If we simply “forgive and forget”, how can we hope to remember the lessons we’ve learned? I think a more prudent way to forgive is also part of the why.
Empathy and compassion are key. Understanding why someone acted in the way they did can help. I’m a firm believer that very few things ever happen in a vacuum. There are almost always external factors affecting someone’s behaviour, and while it may never excuse wrongdoing, it can certainly help to explain it. The thief who stole from you because of the circumstances of their upbringing; the co-worker who failed you at the most critical time, because they were too afraid to ask for help, concerned about what people might think of them; the ex-partner who treated you poorly, because they too were young and immature, and didn’t know how to deal with complex emotions.
Again, I’m not seeking to justify these sorts of actions. There are rights and there are wrongs in this world. But by having awareness of the wider context in which certain decisions and actions are taken and committed, you can begin to understand why something happened the way it did. So, not only is having empathy and compassion the how of forgiveness, but it can also be the why.
And the why also corresponds to the what’s in it for me? I know from personal experience that forgiveness is incredibly difficult. But I’m also the sort of person who finds it equally as hard to hold ill-feelings towards others. For me, it takes almost as much energy to harbour a grudge, a strong disliking, or dare I say it, hatred, for another person. Although I have held grudges; I have disliked; and I have hated before now.
By letting go of feelings of resentment, you can set yourself free from the endless vortex of negativity. Instead of focussing on the wrongdoings of others, you can set your sights on personal growth and self-care, cultivating positive feelings.
I’d like to briefly share my experience of forgiveness. In my second year of university, I found myself in, what I understand now, a toxic and emotionally abusive relationship. I lost friends and I almost lost family. I almost lost my now-wife because of this relationship. My work at university suffered; I missed out on a First by three percentage points because my grades in second year slipped so much. The whole experience triggered a now life-long relationship with anxiety and depression.
But I forgave them. Not in the sense that we met up for coffee one afternoon and I said the words “I forgive you”. I haven’t seen them since we both left university. But I let go of all the negative feelings I had about them. I stopped letting them consume my every thought. I stopped letting my experience be a barrier to bigger and brighter things. Instead, I tried to put everything into context; I tried to make sense of why what happened, happened. I tried to complete the jigsaw of their life and the experiences they had had, that led them to behave in the way they did. And I forgave them. Now, I look back on that period of my life, not with gratitude for what happened, but instead, gratitude that I came through the experience stronger, having learned valuable lessons along the way. Lessons that have, as recently as last year, served me well.
Now, I feel like I must say this: I am not standing here in front of you this morning, dictating that you must forgive. Forgiveness is a wholly personal decision and journey to embark upon. Only you can decide to forgive. Only you can find the strength and power to forgive. It may take time. Or, you may never be able to forgive. And, I can’t stress this point enough. It. Is. Okay. Not. To. Forgive.
If you find yourself wanting to forgive without the ability to do so. That’s okay. Instead, forgive yourself for not being able to forgive others. There are some things that are, despite everything I’ve said this morning, beyond the realms of forgiveness. And that too, is perfectly okay.
For me, forgiveness is just another expression of love. And while it can be love toward the person to whom you are offering forgiveness, I actually think it’s more an act of self-love. Freeing yourself from the shackles of discontent, making extra room in your heart for happiness, can only ever be a good thing. So, if you do choose to forgive, do it for yourself.
Hymn 3 – Green Book 99 When Jesus Walked
Reading – Forgiveness by Amanda Udis Kessler
One: It may be the hardest thing we will ever do,
Many: Caught up in our self-righteousness, honing our pain.
One: The one who offended may not deserve forgiveness
Many: And we are not obliged to offer it.
One: Why, then, should we forgive?
Many: Because we have all caused pain.
One: Because we all miss the mark.
Many: Because we can deepen our souls if we forgive.
One: Because restoring even one relationship heals many hearts.
Many: Because we would be forgiven ourselves.
One: Because drawing closer to one another builds our communities.
Many: Because the alternative is endless bitterness.
One: Because the world we seek to create is a world filled with forgiveness.
Many: Because we need not remain caught up in our self-righteousness and pain.
One: It may be the hardest thing we will ever do.
All: Let us take the first step now.
Before we spend some quiet time reflecting on whatever it is you yourself would like to reflect on this morning, as is customary for our church, I’d like to invite you to light a candle, or as is common for our congregation, candles, for any hopes, joys, thanks or concerns you may have. You may wish to vocalise your thoughts as you light your candles, but as always, you are more than welcome to light them in silence. There is also no obligation to light a candle at all. Instead, you may use this time to pray, meditate or reflect in your own space.
Candles of hopes, joys and concerns
Let us take some time to reflect and gather our thoughts. You may wish to listen to the music, or you may wish to let your mind wander.
Music for Reflection – This Tender Appeal – Allysium
In the realm of hearts, forgiveness abounds,
A balm that heals, where grace astounds.
It softens the edges of pain and strife,
Transforming darkness into radiant life.
When grievances linger, like burdens carried,
Forgiveness, a beacon, keeps hearts unburdened.
It breaks the chains of resentment’s grip,
Unlocking the doors for love to equip.
In the tapestry of life, mistakes are woven,
But forgiveness mends what’s been broken.
It casts away judgment, embraces the flaws,
A symphony of mercy that mends the cause.
Forgiveness, a choice to set souls free,
Releasing the hurt that binds you and me.
For in pardoning others, we also find,
Our own liberation, our peace of mind.
Let forgiveness ripple through every soul,
A transformative power that makes us whole.
For in this act, compassion does arise,
And love, like a phoenix, soars through the skies.
So let us extend forgiveness, far and wide,
For it holds the seeds of unity, side by side.
In the garden of forgiveness, let hearts bloom,
Embracing the beauty in our shared human loom.
Let us pray, reflect, or meditate together.
Spirit of Life and Love, here and everywhere,
May we be aware of your presence in our lives. May our world be blessed. May our daily needs be met, And may our shortcomings be forgiven, As we forgive those of others.
Give us the strength to resist wrong-doing, The inspiration and guidance to do right, And the wisdom to know the difference. We are your hands in the world; help us to grow. May we have compassion for all living beings, And receive whatever life brings, With courage and trust.
That was the alternative Lord’s Prayer, written by Unitarian Reverend Sue Woolley.
Before we sing our final hymn of the morning, I just want to check to see if there are any notices.
Now, I’d like to invite you to join in with or listen and follow the words to, our final hymn of the morning.
Hymn 4 – Purple Book 195 We Sing A Love
As always, after the service, please join us for some light refreshments, there’s always an abundance of beige goodies and sweat treats, as well as tea and coffee. Also, if you would like to pop something into our collection tray, any amount will be humbly appreciated. Although, please do not feel obliged to put anything in at all. The donation of your time here this morning is more than enough.
As we come to the end of our time together this morning, let me now extinguish our chalice. And as I do, some words from David Dawson:
We have worshipped together
In hymn and prayer,
And in the silence of loving fellowship.
We have heard thoughtful words,
And shared our hopes and concerns.
Now our worship is ending;
May the insights we have received
Support and inspire us
Until we meet again.
We extinguish the chalice,
But take its light and meaning
With us into the world.
Extinguishing of the chalice
And we will, as is the tradition of our congregation here, finish our service with the words of God Be In My Head. Although, if you’d prefer, you can love, or another word you feel more appropriate.
God be in my head,
And in my understanding;
God be in mine eyes,
And in my looking;
God be in my mouth,
And in my speaking;
God be in my heart,
And in my thinking;
God be at mine end,
And at my departing.
Exit music – Forgiveness – Paramore