Entrance music – Selection of reflective music
As we look back on the year that has ended, each of us can probably recall a friend or family member whom we have lost. At this season of renewal and new hope, let us take a few moments to think about loss, and how precious and precarious all things are. Let’s take one good look at the passingness of things, the precious fragility of everything. A single blade of grass, a much-loved coffee mug, a fading photograph, a quick kiss: all speak of the wonder and transitoriness of life and death. There is beauty and wonder in this existence. And the simple truth is that this very moment is the only place where will find life and love and meaning.
Some words there from James Ishmael Ford, a Zen Buddhist priest and retired Unitarian Universalist minister.
Good morning, everyone. I’d like to extend to you all the very warmest of welcomes as we gather here today in this humble little chapel of ours. I think everyone here knows who I am, but just in case you need a reminder, my name is Clarke Roberts, and you lucky lot are the very first people for whom I am leading worship. And as you are trusting me this morning to lead you in worship, reflection or just some time away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, I think it’s only fair that you know a little about me first.
I’m 30 years old, married, and father to a not-so-small but rather chunky black cat, called Finley. I studied theology and religious studies for both my undergraduate and post-graduate degrees, and have always felt a calling in the back of my mind, to do…well, this. But I always thought that no church would have me, since my own theology veered so far from the traditions of the larger denominations. I discovered Unitarianism, and in particular this church, only last February. So, almost 12 months ago. And since that time, I have come to realise why Unitarianism is my spiritual home. We welcome those of the same beliefs, and those of different or non-existent ones. We open our doors and offer a nice hot cup of tea to those we have everything in common, and those with whom we share very little.
So, let me say the warmest welcome to you all this morning. Welcome to those familiar faces. Welcome to those new faces. And welcome to those not present here today, but who are with us in our thoughts. Welcome to your feelings of happiness and hope, as we look ahead to the coming year. And welcome to your worries about the uncertainties of existing problems, and anxieties about concerns yet to make themselves known. No matter who you are, where you come from, what you believe, what you bring with you this morning: you are more than welcome.
As is customary to our denomination of Unitarianism, I would like to light the flame of our chalice, the symbol of our movement. May its light illuminate our paths, and may its warmth embrace and protect us. May its gentle glow and flicker remind us of hope and joy, and may it serve as the focal point for our worship this Sunday morning.
Now, as we enter this space of reflection together, I would like to invite you to listen to, or join in with if you wish, our first hymn of the day, Come and Find the Quiet Centre.
Hymn 1 – Purple Book 21
This morning’s service is all about time and the importance of embracing each and every moment. Living in the moment, you may often hear it called. But what exactly does it mean: to live in the moment? Is it about meditating to achieve mindfulness? Is it about letting go or your worries and concerns? Is it about not allowing your mind to wander and forcing yourself to be present in the moment? I’d like to read you a short story about someone who was trying to answer this very question.
A short story
They sat in a lotus position, facing out over the courtyard of their sanctuary. Their eyes were closed, as they tried to meditate and ‘be present’. But the sounds of the courtyard below, and the kids that came to visit the sanctuary, annoyed them. They simply found it impossible to be mindful with all this noise.
They got up and made their way to their master. The master was in the courtyard teaching the children from a nearby town about meditation, and much to their surprise, all the children were listening attentively. They waited for the class to be over and then stepped up to the master.
“Master… Why can’t I seem to experience this presence of mind you were talking about the other day? Why can’t I seem to be more present?” they asked. The master smiled.
“Why do you think you aren’t living in the present moment?” the master asked.
They looked around, trying to think of a reasonable answer. “I can’t seem to be more present because I keep on noticing my mind wander away in thought. Besides, all the noises of the children in the courtyard were disturbing my peace. That’s why I can’t be more present.” They answered. The master looked away and observed one of the children running around in the field, playing with the grass and dancing joyously.
“Do you see that child?” the master asked softly.
“Of course, I do.” They answered, unsure of what the master was trying to tell them.
“Does that child look mindful to you? In other words, is she living in the present moment?” the master asked.
“Yes, she does, she seems happy, and free. After all, she is a child without a spec of worry on her mind.” They replied.
“Then why do you still think that you aren’t living in the present moment? If even a child can do it, why can’t you do it?” The master asked.
He didn’t wait for an answer before continuing. “The child doesn’t make a difference between being present and listening to her thoughts. She knows that both are happening at this very moment. If she wanders away in her imagination or thoughts, she doesn’t say to herself that she shouldn’t, that she isn’t living ‘mindfully’. The child knows perfectly well that nothing can happen outside of the present moment. Not even thoughts, or imagination.” The master looked at them and saw a slight smile on their face.
“My friend you’ve been making such a big deal out of living in the present moment that you forgot what it is really all about. To pay attention. That’s what the child does best, she pays attention to everything. And she marvels over everything. That’s all you can do to live in the present moment.” the master said.
“Thank you, master.” They said while bowing in appreciate of the wisdom the master had just imparted.
“I didn’t do anything; it was you who came to me. So go on and pay attention. Be as free as that child and live as joyous as her. It’s all you can do as a human being.”
A nice little story there, demonstrating that while we all may think we know what living in the moment is or how to do it, we can often overthink and overcomplicate it.
Now, I’d like to invite you to join in with our next hymn, or just listen and follow along with the words from your purple hymn book, which number 79: In This Time On Earth We’re Given.
Hymn 2 – Purple Book 79
As we all begin the process of ramping back up to normal life after the festivities and celebrations of the Christmas and New Year period, I think it’s as a good a time as any to take a moment to reflect. Reflect on all that has happened in our lives as the Earth begins yet another orbit around her nearest star, the Sun; one of the most certain and inevitable actions that we know of in the universe.
But like all things, the Earth’s ancient journey around her warm and life-giving chalice, will too, one day, come to an end. What will she say on the day she takes in her final glimpse of the morning sunrise? What will she think as she basks in the Sun’s warmth for the very last time? As the sun sets below her horizon for the very last time, billions of years from now, will she look back with regret at the things she didn’t do? Will she think about the photos she didn’t take and upload to Facebook and Instagram, and the likes and comments she missed out on? Will she spend her time worrying about what’s to come next? Or will she think fondly of all the moments of joy and bliss that she has been a home to, for what will then, have been more than seven billion years?
It’s impossible to know. For humans and perhaps all other life on earth will have long vanished by the time Earth herself reunites with her creator. But I’d like to ask you to pause for a while and think about your own journey around the Sun. With each seemingly every-quicker orbit we complete, there lay behind it a series of moments. Some to cherish, and some to forget. I firmly believe that as humans, one of the things we’re best at is nostalgia. In fact, if it were an Olympic sport, we’d all be prime candidates for a gold medal. It is far too easy for us to get caught up in those positive moments, lose ourselves, only coming to enjoy them after they have happened. By that point, it is often too late. Our memories and recollections are skewed by how we want to remember them. Like the stories we tell people of exploits both past and present that we add our own little embellishments to, to make them seem more (or less) than what they actually were.
How many of us can truly say that we take in each and every moment when we’re in it? How many of us can honestly say that at a time of pure and unequivocal joy, we really stopped to take it all in? How miraculous it is that we even exist, living atop a floating ball of rock in the unimaginably hostile and infinite void of space. And how beautiful it is, that our journeys around the Sun are punctuated by so many moments of joy, happiness, love and wonder.
My fear is that no one ever really takes the time to appreciate these moments. To bask in their warmth. To see their beauty. To feel their impact on our futures. My task for you, this morning, is to write down on the post-it notes on the seat next to you, a moment in your life that you know you didn’t appreciate fully while you were in it. I know for me, and it’s the inspiration behind this morning’s service, it would be my wedding. Everyone in the run-up to our wedding, was telling me and my wife to just enjoy the day. “Make sure you take a minute to take it all in, because the day will go so quickly,” they said. As I shared with you last week, I failed miserably at doing this. As I waited at the top of the aisle waiting for my wife to make her way down to me, not only was I overcome with the nerves and excitement that are, I can only imagine, totally natural for someone who’s just about to tie the knot. But I was already thinking ahead to the next part of the day, thinking about whether the food was going to be served correctly. Worrying about making sure we got all the photos of friends and family that we wanted to. Rather than soaking in the life-changing moment I was in, I was too busy focussing on the future, which is always, no matter how hard we try, completely out of our control.
And this is one of the reasons why I recently decided to take a step away from social media. Rather than enjoying the moments I spend with friends and family, there’s always a niggling voice in the back of my head, telling me to take a photo and share it to my social network, to show them all just how great and wonderful my life is. Somehow if I’m not documenting my life and living it through the lens of my iPhone camera, I’m not really doing it.
So, I ask that commit to taking pause at least once a week. Pause. Look around you. Take in the faces of those you’re with, or the scenery you’re gazing at. Listen to the voices coming from your laptop or computer as you sit on yet another Teams or Zoom call with work. Study the smiles of your friends and family as their football team scores the winning goal in the dying moments of the all-important match. Bask in the glory and sheer awesomeness that is the fact we exist. Those of you who know anything about space or take an interest in it will know, that the mere fact of our very existence is one of the greatest miracles. For all we know, we are alone in this universe. Of all the trillions of planets that exist in our universe, it’s likely that this place we call home is the only one where the miracle of life exists. This random giant ball of rock, itself formed over millions of years by ever smaller balls of rock colliding with each other in an infinitely large void, has developed in such a finely tuned and perfect way, that allows her inhabitants to think and contemplate its own very existence. That in itself, is worth reflecting on.
Each and every moment we collect and put in the photo album we call our life, is gone too soon. And when those moments are gone, it’s too late to take them in properly. It’s too late to marvel at just how wonderous our existence really is.
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. You might want to think about those special moments in your lives that we’ve been talking about this morning, or, as I often find myself doing, you might be planning what’s for tea tonight, and how long it’s going to take you to battle through that mountain of ironing that simply won’t do itself.
Music for Reflection – Gone Too Soon by Michael Jackson
That was a song called Gone Too Soon by Michael Jackson. I picked that song, not only because it happens to be one of my favourite songs (and I happen to be quite a big Michael Jackson fan), but because the lyrics have always felt quite poignant to me. He sings about some of the most mundane and everyday things: a sandcastle, a sunset, a flower. We can all experience these things in abundance whenever we want to. Our lives are full of sandcastles, sunsets, and flowers. Coffees with friends, meals out with family, nights in with someone special watching Traffic Cops or scrolling through social media. But each one is unique. But the point I believe he is making, is that that sandcastle, that sunset, and that flower will only ever be there, in that moment, once. That coffee with friends. That meal out with family. That night in with someone special watching Traffic Cops and scrolling through social media. Before you know it, they’re gone. So, take them in, enjoy and appreciate them while they’re there and in the moment. Live in the moment.
When I was writing this service, I came across so many inspirational words from various different sources about time and living in the moment, which was both a blessing and a curse. It certainly made my life easier when writing the service as I had so much content to choose from, but also dashed any hopes I had of delivering a truly ground-breaking service, as it appears everyone at some point has had something to say about living in the moment.
But the following words from Thiền Buddhist monk and founder of the Plum Village Tradition, (pronounced Tick Nat Han), really caught my attention:
Life is available only in the present moment. If you abandon the present moment, you cannot live the moments of your daily life deeply.
Let us pray, meditate or reflect together.
Father. Mother. Creator. World. Me and you. In these busy lives of ours, full of distractions and things vying for our attention, may we find the strength to resist. May we instead allow ourselves time to stop. To pause. To reflect. To take in all that is around us and enjoy each moment that punctuates our lives. May we find the courage to help those around us, for whom moments of joy and happiness are overshadowed by feelings of hopelessness and despair, find peace and remind them of the light that surely is at the end of their tunnel. May each and every one of us continue on our journey around the Sun in a way that encourages others, supports them, and loves and respects them. Amen.
Before we sing our final hymn of the morning, I’d just like to check to see if there are any notices that we need to announce.
Now, I’d like to invite to join in with or listen and follow the words to, our final hymn of the morning. It’s number 147 in your purple hymn books: Spirit of Earth, Root, Stone and Tree.
Hymn 3 – Purple Book 147
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 extinguish our chalice. And although its light and warmth fades, it does not disappear into nothing. Its smoke becomes one with the air, and its smell stays with us long after its light and warmth have vanished. Whoever you are, whatever brought you here this morning, go in peace. And remember to take in each and every moment of the precious, delicate, short, and often crazy thing we all call: life.
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 if you wish, you may substitute the word God, for love, or another word that you feel is more appropriate for you:
God (Love) be in my head,
And in my understanding;
God (Love) be in mine eyes,
And in my looking;
God (Love) be in my mouth,
And in my speaking;
God (Love) be in my heart,
And in my thinking;
God (Love) be at mine end,
And at my departing.
Exit music – Moments We Live For by In Paradise