August 30 2020

How Belief Endures

Most teenagers write poems. It helps to deal with the angst of those difficult years. I started when I was sixteen or seventeen, a bit late, but didn’t grow out of it. Part of the reason was that I enjoyed being creative, but was very lazy. To paint, sculpt, or photograph for instance, you need equipment. To write you only need a biro and the back of an envelope.

Not so long ago when my children said “You ought to collect what you’ve written,” I was faced with an eventual typescript of just over five hundred pages. And during lockdown (a perfect opportunity) I have been slowly editing this.

One thing I have discovered during this process is that I am not a great poet. But another thing was, that family members would like to have copies.

When WH Auden wrote an elegy for WB Yeats he said, “The death of the poet was kept from his poems.” That really expresses well what I wanted to say today. There is a distance between what we create and who we are.

To give an obvious example, the actor is not the person they portray in the play or on the screen. Cary Grant’s real name was Archibald Leach. When he was feeling depressed and troubled, someone asked him how he was, and he replied: “I wish I were Cary Grant.”

“The death of the poet was kept from his poems,” because created things have a separate life of their own. Editing and correcting five hundred odd pages clearly showed me this. I felt I was looking through an old family album, remembering when and where pieces were written. But the old photographs are not how things are now.

We create much more than paintings and poems of course. Creativity is limitless. We sing, we dance, we knit and sew, we plant our gardens, we explore; and we have thoughts and ideas which sometimes range beyond the possibilities of expression.

Some of these ideas are religious. In the history of human thought, religion has always played an enormous part. These days we think of it as the inaccurate account of how the world was made, or what humanity amounts to, but that was not always the case.

Our religious ideas, what we believe, have an existence beyond ourselves, just as, for example, the poems of Yeats have, despite the fact that their creator is dead.

What we believe or have faith in, lives independently, and has an influence which continues in the world separate from our own finite selves.

What Joseph Priestley thought about the nature of oxygen, what Albert Einstein thought about the nature of relativity, what Stephen Hawking thought about black holes in the universe, is all massively relevant and influential still.

And it isn’t just the ideas of these big names which are important. That a few hundred individuals initially believed in the principles of English Presbyterianism (which later became Unitarianism) led in 1708 led to the existence of this chapel and this present-day congregation.

And of course the intricate web of intellectual life, involving science and the arts throughout different ages and civilizations, continues to be the context of our present lives and culture. It is something we still explore, because the story of the past uncovered by historians and archaeologists is far from fully told.

The natural world, as anyone knows who loves David Attenborough, is no less mysterious now, as when cartographers marked unknown regions with dragons.

What we believe and enunciate today about our faith, our social political ethics and principles, has an independent life from ourselves, and has its effect upon our human and environmental surroundings. That effect will be felt and experienced down through history.

Do not ever think that you or your opinions do not matter. They do. What this congregation of liberal free-thinkers represents will not be swept away in time or regarded as insignificant.

It is always difficult to imagine the positive effects of the virtues we espouse, and so much easier to think of the baleful effects of evil. But kindness, generosity, sympathy, forgiveness and understanding, – gifts of the spirit we have learned are important,– are more enduringly influential in the long and short term, than meanness and hatred.

What we have decided is important about how we treat our fellow human beings and the world we live in, absolutely dwarfs and makes completely insignificant the rhetoric and cant of hate-speakers, supremacists, tyrants and war-mongers everywhere.

We know this now, and we are certain that it will endure, despite the fact that we ourselves will not.

“The death of the poet was kept from his poems.”

The influence of an obscure Galilean prophet 2000 years ago continues to be felt as a source of good. The work of scientists, writers and artists continues to illuminate our world centuries after those individuals have ceased to be.

What we make and what we believe is a creation independent of ourselves, and of a nature which lasts, and has an effect which continues to be felt.

May we live our daily lives in the light of that understanding. Amen.

Our concluding devotion comes from a UUA collection including this prayer from 1855:

“O Thou in whom we live and move and have our being, we thank thee for life, for health, for the pleasures of the senses,… for the tender ties which bind us together, and above all, for the means of spiritual progress offered to us.

As we enter on the duties of another week, may we go to them in a faithful spirit, abhorring that which is evil, and cleaving to that which is good. Wherever we are, whatever we do,… be thou a light to our feet and a lamp to our path. May our daily duties be hallowed by fidelity, truth and kindness; and may we look through them to thee.”

“And show us that the truth we see with our minds, will never be greater than the truth we love in our hearts.”1. Amen.

1. from A Powell Davies.


Sunday Service homilies from the Minister during coronavirus period