Entrance music – Selection of reflective music
This human being is a guest house. Every morning is a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor… Welcome and entertain them all. Treat each guest honourably. The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.
Some words there from the Sufi mystic, poet, scholar and theologian, Jalal Ul-Din Rumi.
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. And, as I do, some words from Jo James:
As we kindle this flame today, we recognise the power of our symbol: a light of clarity, integrity and truthful approaches to understanding, where understanding is possible, and respectful reverence where it is not. We acknowledge our light as a signal of warmth against the cold, and brightness in the dark, of hope and joy and love against despair.
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.
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, number 148 in your purple hymn book: Spirit of Life Come Unto Me.
Hymn 1 – Purple Book 148 Spirit of Life Come Unto Me
Introduction to the service
This morning’s service has taken many forms in the process of pulling it together, which perhaps reflects the difficulty or sometimes sensitivity of the topic I’d like to discuss with you. I want to talk to you about evil and suffering. It’s not the cheeriest of subjects, but by the end of this morning, I hope that you feel hopeful about any of the challenges you’re currently facing, or that you feel prepared to face them in the future.
The inspiration for this service actually came to me way back in January, when I was first entrusted to lead you in worship. As you do when you’re proud of something you’re doing, you put it all over social media. I had lots of words of encouragement, some of surprise, but there were two people who reached out to me individually, and asked me to share my service with them, as they were seeking some sort of spiritual or religious guidance to help them through a difficult time.
The reason this service has taken many forms is because there is quite a lot to say when it comes to religion and spirituality, and evil and suffering. Afterall, there’s an entire strand of theology and philosophy dedicated to it, called theodicy. Theodicy attempts to explain the apparent contradiction between the existence of an all-powerful and all-loving God, and the existence of evil and suffering. I thought I might discuss some of those themes with you. But this isn’t an academic lecture, and actually, what would that achieve, other than allow me to stand up here pretending to sound intelligent as I throw words around like Augustinian, Irenean, original sin and soul making?
Not only that, but as I’ve read, studied and experienced life, there’s little to be gained from trying to understanding why evil exists. The fact is, for whatever reason, better or worse, evil and suffering are mainstays in our existence. Whether it takes the form of a natural disaster or disease, or crime, war and prejudice. Explaining how it’s either part of a mysterious plan that God has for us all or it’s all the fault of Adam and Eve, bring little joy or comfort to those in the midst of a period of immense personal turmoil. The theologian, John Roth, once wrote that acts of evil, such as those witnessed during the holocaust, should never be sought to be justified. And he’s right.
I actually researched theodicy for my Master’s degree, and the biggest takeaway from it was that the philosophical task was indeed, rather pointless. I bet all those theologians and philosophers feel a bit silly now! Instead, it was more important to understand how to help and engage with those who are suffering, how we might support them to get through it, and how to cope with it ourselves.
So, with that in mind, I’ve tried to write (and I hope I deliver) the kind of service I needed to hear last year, when I was experiencing my own period of hardship.
And with that, I’d like to invite you to sing our next hymn of the morning.
Hymn 2 – P204 When I am Frightened
I’d like to share with you a short story:
Once there was a man who was running a business. He faced severe losses and had to sell his properties and cars to continue running the business.
Seeing the situation, the son asked his father, “Why are you still running the business when you are at a loss?
Why don’t you shut the business?
Father smiled and replied, “My son, life can bring us many challenges and even can push us down. But we have to hope that we can overcome any challenges.”
Son, “How can hope help us?”
Father, “Ok, I will show you!
Father took his son to a big well and asked him to jump.
Son, in shock, “Father, I don’t know how to swim, So I cannot jump. But his father pushed his son to the well and went into a hiding place.
Son struggled and kept on trying to float for close to 5 minutes. Then when he was about to get drowned, the father jumped and pulled his son out of the well.
The next day, the father again took his son to the well and asked him to jump again. First, he hesitated, then he jumped into the well. Father again went into hiding.
The boy again struggled to keep floating, and he pushed harder. Time kept on running. Even after 15 minutes, he managed himself. Then Father came and pulled his son out of the well.
Father asked his son, “Why were you pushing harder than yesterday?”.
Son replied, “Yesterday, I did not know what to do when you pushed me into the well. With fear, I drowned.
But today, I know that you will come and save me if I am about to get drowned”.
Moral of the story:
Life can bring us many challenges. When we push ourselves with the hope of overcoming it and trusting people around us, we can overcome it.
It’s an interesting story, filled with, let’s just say, questionable parenting decisions. Nor would I recommend this as a sure-fire method of teaching someone to swim. However, what I like about the story is that it touches on the idea of hope as manifesting itself in other people. By putting our hope into those around us, we might find the way to overcome our challenges.
Hymn 3 – P6 As We Sing of Hope and Joy Today
It’s a strange thing, isn’t it? How would you define hope?
I think the most illustrative way of explaining hope is with the rather cliched notion of light at the end of the tunnel. It can often sound a bit trite, can’t it? I can’t count the number of times family or friends have said to me “oh you’ll be fine, there’s always light at the end of the tunnel. How you’re feeling won’t last forever.”
I remember that at the depths of my struggle with anxiety and depression last year, there was no light in sight. I felt forever trapped in an endless void, with no hope of escape. No way to illuminate the path back to normality. There was no hope. Or, at least it didn’t feel like there was. Until one day that changed everything. I won’t go into the details, but it’s fair to say that I had hit rock bottom. And once you’re there, the only way to go, is up. Fast forward to almost exactly a year on, and I’m in a totally different place. And while yes, some of the challenges linger, the hold they have over my life is greatly diminished. The light is bright. The tunnel in my rear-view mirror.
As I say at the start of our time together on a Sunday morning, every day or week that you get through is another day or week closer to the light. And, even if the light is still far away, the fact it’s getting closer is evidence that hope does and must exist.
To quote Princess Leia: “Hope is like the sun. If you only believe in it when you can see it, you’ll never make it through the night.”
My family and friends were right. The light was there, as was the end of the tunnel. I just couldn’t see it. My friends and family showed me the way. They took out a map, or in these days, their phones, and showed me the directions. It falls to those of us outside the tunnel to help illuminate the paths of those still there. I know that without my family, friends and my therapist, I wouldn’t have been able to find my way. I think we have a tendency to not want to rely on others. But, my friends, sometimes we have to. And it’s okay to.
In fact, it’s what Christians have been doing for the last two thousand years. Putting faith in Jesus and placing hope in his ministry.
As Unitarians, as we discussed last week, we’re a complicated bunch. It’s difficult to talk about traditional Christian ideas without a constant air or sense of disbelief. But, despite the many misgivings we may have about things like the crucifixion and resurrection, in that we question whether or not the death of an innocent man and his apparent resurrection have any sort of metaphysical or mystical significance, there’s no denying the beauty that exists in these ideas and stories. And I’ve said before to you and others, just because may not have actually happened as it’s told to us, it does not remove its significance or make it any less meaningful.
The artist, Prince, wrote and sang a song called The Cross, and it’s one of my favourite songs of all time. As the name suggests, it’s highly religious, and speaks to his own Christian faith. And, while I can’t claim to know his personal theology, and despite the fact he steers directly into the traditional Christian idea of the Cross as being salvific, I think we as Unitarians can take a lot from his words, if we just see the Cross as being a symbol of hope.
He opens the song with the words:
Black day, stormy night.
No hope, no love in sight.
Don’t cry, for he’s coming.
Don’t die, without knowing the Cross.
He goes on to sing:
We all have our problems,
Some big, some are small
Soon all of our problems
Will be taken by the cross
While I don’t believe there was anything magical or mystical about the cross upon which Jesus was crucified, his death is symbolic. Until the very end of his life, we are told in the Gospels that he remained committed to his faith and his hope that all would come right in the end. The Cross, therefore, can serve as a symbol upon which we too can place our faith and hope. Faith that, despite the fact we may be staring great evil and suffering in the face, if we hold onto hope, we will overcome it. For those who see Jesus’ story as an inspiration, the Cross may be that light at the end of our tunnel. The Cross is hope. We should all know hope. Our suffering is diminished by holding tightly onto hope.
I’d like to share with you another reading. And it’s perhaps one of the most beautiful passages I’ve read. I’ll share the author with you at the end. It’s called, Finding Light in the Darkness.
Reading – Finding Light in the Darkness
“Amidst the darkest of nights, when our hearts are heavy with the weight of the world’s suffering and our souls are burdened by the presence of evil, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and lost. It is in these moments, however, that the spark of hope becomes even more vital, shining brighter than ever before.
Evil and suffering are undeniable realities of our human existence, casting their shadows upon our lives and leaving us to grapple with questions that may seem unanswerable. We witness the pain and injustice in the world, and we may wonder how such darkness can coexist with goodness and light.
But let us remember that darkness cannot exist without light. It is in the presence of evil and suffering that the potential for compassion, love, and transformative change is awakened within us. It is in these moments that the true strength of the human spirit is revealed.
In the face of adversity, we find solace in the stories of countless individuals who have triumphed over unimaginable challenges. Their stories serve as beacons of hope, reminding us that resilience and courage can overcome even the darkest of nights.
Remember the hands that reach out to help, the voices that speak up for justice, and the hearts that refuse to be hardened by hate. Look for the glimmers of light that shine through the cracks, for it is in those moments that we find hope.
Though evil and suffering may cast their shadows, they cannot extinguish the flame of hope that burns within us. We are the bearers of light, the agents of change, and the catalysts for a better world. It is through our collective efforts, our empathy, and our unwavering belief in the goodness of humanity that we can overcome the forces that seek to divide and destroy.
Let us remember that happiness and sadness, joy and sorrow, are intertwined in the tapestry of life. Just as a rainbow emerges after a storm, so too does happiness arise from the depths of sadness. We must hold onto the belief that no matter how deep the darkness may seem, there is always the promise of light.
So, let us stand together in solidarity, guided by compassion and fuelled by hope. Let us be the bearers of light, spreading love and kindness wherever we go. And let us remember that even in the face of evil and suffering, we have the power to make a difference, to bring healing, and to inspire a brighter tomorrow.
May the flame of hope forever burn within us, illuminating our path and reminding us that no matter what sadness we might experience, there is always the promise of happiness at the end.”
That was written, not by a theologian, philosopher or minister. It wasn’t even written by a human being. It was written by artificial intelligence. Make of that what you will. AI may not be a source of light in darkness, but humans can be. I would ask each of you to remember to be aware of those around you. Check in from time to time, ask how people are doing. Be that source of light in the darkness. And if you are suffering right now, remember that no matter how dark and lonely it may feel, in your friends, your family and in this group gathered here today, you have a guide. A guide that will take your hand and walk you through the darkness and show you to the light.
Each of us has the power to be hope. Each of us must hold onto hope. For it is hope and love, that will conquer all.
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 – The Night King (Composed by Ramin Djawadi) by The Theorist
Those of you who watch a lot of TV might have recognised that piece of music from Game of Thrones. It’s used in a scene where there is a great battle between the forces of good and evil. At the beginning of the piece, all hope is lost and it appears as though the great evil is about to triumph over the heroes. But, as the music and tension build, the tide changes and our heroes emerge victorious. The great evil that was thought undefeatable, is vanquished. Game of Thrones had its issues in its final series, but that piece of music to me, encapsulates the struggle against and eventual triumph over evil. I think it fits perfectly with our service this morning.
Let us pray, reflect, or meditate together.
Let us pray for all who suffer:
For those suffering physical pain through injury, illness or disability;
For those in mental anguish through grief, or fear, or shame.
For those who are bereaved or bereft;
For refugees and for the homeless or dispossessed.
For those who are condemned to die in the belief
That this is the will of God.
May all who suffer find the solace of laughter and of love,
The strength to bear, and the release of rest.
That was a prayer written by Kate Taylor, a Yorkshire-based Unitarian.
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 – P144 Sing, Sing for Joy
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 James Timiney, or Jim, as I learned he likes to be called last week:
As we extinguish our chalice flame
That has shone through the worship hour,
We are reminded to keep the light shining
In our hearts, wherever our life paths leads,
So that those we meet are uplifted
By our kindness and love.
Let our relationships with others and ourselves,
Be in harmony with the world at large.
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. And this week, I’d like to replace the word God, with Hope. Although, if you’d prefer, you can say God or Love, or another word you feel more appropriate.
Hope be in my head,
And in my understanding;
Hope be in mine eyes,
And in my looking;
Hope be in my mouth,
And in my speaking;
Hope be in my heart,
And in my thinking;
Hope be at mine end,
And at my departing.
Exit music – The Cross – Prince