"Why do we worship?"
by the Rev. Krista Taves
January 7, 2007
Reading - David Pyle, UU Seminarian
Why do we worship?... Worship... is a sacred act of meaning making. We humans are the meaning making animals... [It is] what we excel at... In worship, we intentionally and experientially seek to create meaning in relation to the ultimacy of life, the universe, and everything.
...All humans do this, whether they attend a church or not. Worship is not the limited domain of churches. People create meaning in relationship to ultimacy (theology) constantly in their lives. ...When you intentionally make the time to experience the meaning that you have given to ultimacy, I believe you are involved in worship.
Does this mean all worship is equal? I don't think so. You see, it all revolves around what the individual (or community) has chosen to experience as ultimacy, and what meaning that individual (or community) has chosen to give that ultimacy.
I grew up, in part, in the town of Knoxville, Tennessee. Never has a greater college football town been conceived. For some people, going to a [Tennessee Volunteers] football game has indeed become an act of worship. The team has come to symbolize ultimacy in a practical, accessible way for them. They worship in community, there is ritual, suspense, thrill, music, and deep emotional feeling...
I believe people who devote themselves to sporting teams, or to video games, or to the fan club of a particular pop music star are actually expressing the inherent need to worship that is within humankind. As are people who intentionally go walking in nature for a worship experience, or who find themselves fulfilled by attending protests every weekend, or who find their creation of meaning for ultimacy in silent, private meditation.
So, where does that leave the church? If worship no longer finds itself confined to within the walls of the sanctuary, does the church simply face the loss of worshippers to other expressions of worship that may be more appealing to them? ...
I believe that what churches have to offer is the opportunity to express the inherent human need to worship in ways that are Positive, Productive, Life affirming, and Injustice Challenging… ways that transform the mind, body, and spirit of individuals, communities, and the world at large. Worship of deep meaning and social consequence, which challenges our pre-conceptions, that challenges our despair and depression, which challenges our world-views and assumptions … that affirms our humanity, … affirms our spirits, and affirms our souls … that calls us to right relationship with each other as individuals, as communities, as nations, and as humanity with the world we inhabit.
Fifty years ago, in Leamington Ontario, Oak Street United Mennonite Church was about to explode into controversy. Oak Street was founded in the 1920s by Mennonite refugees fleeing the violence and social upheaval of the newly birthed Soviet Union. Since its founding, the language of worship was their mother tongue, German. But by the 1950s, many members no longer spoke German fluently and could not participate fully in church life. Some wanted to introduce English into worship. Well, you would have thought the devil had walked in the door! The proposal was met with fierce resistance from first generation immigrants who declared that their faith and community depended on resisting assimilation. To allow English worship would mean the end of their Mennonite identity. But the dissenters continued their plea. They were concerned for their children, whose faith development and connection to the church community was being compromised. But the resistance held, and in 1958 a small group of people left Oak Street and began to worship in English in the gymnasium of a local school. They were ridiculed, some were ostracized from their families, their first minister lost his teaching position at the Mennonite high school, but they held on. Faith Mennonite Church was born, and in 1963 they put in place the cornerstone of their new building.
Ten years ago, things got a little tense at "Chalice Unitarian Fellowship" in some city in some state which shall remain nameless. Like many Unitarian fellowships that were established in the 1950s, this one had been lay led for most of its existence, with a few ministers sprinkled in the mix. There was a tradition in this fellowship that many other lay led fellowships followed, and that was the talk back. After the presentation, the microphone was passed to anyone who wished to comment. This tradition reflected our belief that we are all equal and we all have important opinions that need to be heard. Sometimes talk back worked wonderfully, and it brought greater richness and depth to the service. But sometimes, it got out of control and people started arguing with each other. Some people used the talk back as a soap box to talk about their particular passion. Some used it to rip the presentation to shreds. Some used it to air grievances. Many people complained, saying the talk back took away from the service, cheapened it. Some people noticed that newcomers rarely came back. Leaders of the church often agreed, but were afraid of angering others who felt the talk back was the most important part of the service. The church declined in membership. They decided to hire a minister, and when she arrived, their services took on a more spiritual feel and the talk back began to feel even more out of place. The minister finally said that they could do what they wished with their lay led services, but there would be no talk back after her sermon. Some people were relieved. Others were furious. One angry member made a cardboard cut out of herself, put tape across the mouth, and placed it in her regular chair every Sunday the minister preached. No one questioned her. Eventually the minister left and the talk back was fully reinstated.
These two stories are not unique, nor are their endings inevitable. Variations of this story can be found in every church, in every denomination, in every religion. The issue will change. The actors will change. The year will change. But the dynamic is always present. There will always be people asking for change, and there will always be people resisting it. And, there is truth in the desire for change and truth in the resistance. When the change pertains to worship, this is when things can become particularly emotional, because worship is the central act of religious community. It represents our highest aspirations, places before us the object of our worship, it expresses our values, it takes us from our private individual worlds into a profound act of community and connection. The power of worship is undeniable. Done badly or irresponsibly, it can wound terribly. Done well, and for the right reasons, it can heal and strengthen wonderfully. Worship is where we seek to make real and to experience the sacred.
Twenty some years after Faith Mennonite was founded, our family still attended Oak Street United Mennonite. Their Sunday morning was structured like ours is. The adults worshipped while the children attended religious education. It was here that I gained a sense of how sacred worship was. You see, the 500-seat sanctuary had a large creaky wooden floor, and we held our classes beneath that floor, which meant that although we were separate from the adults, their presence was constantly with us. Every shift in body weight resulted in that old wooden floor creaking above our heads. When they stood for prayer, 500 bodies rose at the same time, and the wooden floor above us roared with their weight. When they sang, the solid resonance of 500 voices united in song shimmered through the floor so loudly it was difficult for us to hear the teacher. And when the minister preached, we could hear his thin voice, not so clear as to discern the words, but we knew exactly what was happening. "The Truth" was being spoken. As a young girl, that was my first experience of a sacred presence. I felt the power of that being in the roar of the floor, in shifting bodies and raised voices, and in the indiscernible words of the minister who preached its truth to the best of his ability.
I wonder if our Unitarian Universalist worship has that kind of power. I wonder if our children have a sense that worship can have that kind of power. Our faith is different from most of the faiths around us because it is not centered on God. Yes, many of us believe in God, or the Goddess, or gods, in many forms and ways. But just as many do not. We also have humanists and atheists and agnostics and Buddhists and much much more. Because we are theologically diverse, God cannot explicitly be the center of our worship. Because we do not have this clear center, and because we are so theologically diverse, it is often difficult for Unitarian Universalists to articulate what lies at the center of our worship.
What we can say with clarity and certainty is that our faith has its historic roots deeply embedded in reason and rationality, and for good reason. Both Unitarianism and Universalism began in resistance to charismatic hellfire and brimstone religions. We sought to bring a well-needed balance by encouraging people to open their minds and use them. But even in 1831, Ralph Waldo Emerson, for whom this church is named, wondered if there was some spark missing. He needed more than to simply hear about the sacred and think about it. It was more than an intellectual exercise for him. He was hungering to experience the sacred directly. Ralph Waldo Emerson has not been the last person to address our need for emotion and experience in worship. Would it surprise you to learn that we have been humorously referred to as "God's frozen people"? It is much easier for Unitarian Universalists to address the head than the heart. And it is difficult for many of us to bring our bodies into worship. Just watch us try to sing Gospel, like we did this morning, and you'll know what I mean!
Our religion has changed much since its birth over 200 years ago, but there has been a common center, and that center is about living with integrity. Being Unitarian Universalist is about constantly evaluating your life to discern if you are living with integrity, and if you find you are not, then being Unitarian Universalist is about having the courage to do something about it. This is what rests at the core of our worship. But often we turn the search for integrity into an intellectual exercise. This means that our worship is primarily a head experience. What I wonder is if we can dare create and do worship in a way that engages all of who we are, where what we feel and experience is just as important as what we think. Many of us come to worship to feel reverence and awe, to experience the full range of emotions, to approach the mystery of life with a sense of childlike wonder. This takes our whole bodies, including the heart and mind.
As many of you know, we are considering some major changes to our Sunday morning worship structure, and I'll fully acknowledge that I am the person who started the conversation. I have proposed that we have a dedicated religious education hour for all ages, and that we worship together as an entire community, adults and children. Not surprisingly, this proposal has been met with many responses, ranging from outspoken enthusiasm to cautious questioning to outright resistance. I have seen a great deal of passion expressed from all corners. And I think that's a good thing. I know there is some fear that this will cause division, but I don't think it needs to do that at all. The passion means that people care about this religious community enough to be passionate, and that gives me a lot of hope.
In the discussions that we've had so far, and do not fear, there are more to come, people have spoken a great deal about what gives them meaning in worship, what they want for themselves in worship, and what they get out of worship. Some of you hope that you will get more out of worship if we worship with our children. Some of you fear that you will lose your worship if we worship with our children. I think speaking from that personal place is a good place to start. After all, we do all want something out of worship. It must give us something, or we wouldn't be here. Whether this is your first time with us, or your thousandth, you are here because you hope this time will give you something. And I believe this is natural and good.
But it is only one part of the equation. If the conversation focuses only on what we get out of worship, we will be doing ourselves a disservice, because worship is not just about what we personally get out of it. Worship is a shared experience. Its power and strength is absolutely dependent on what each one of us gives to it. We are not here to be passive receptacles, otherwise we might as well stay home and watch TV. Worship is an act of community where everyone counts and everyone contributes. If this conversation is limited to each person protecting their own interests, we will have participated in what David Pyle calls "the consumerization of worship." In a society that encourages us, almost demands of us, to navel gaze, that trains us to think we should fulfill our every last desire as soon as we possibly can, it can be hard to back away from simply what we want, but that is exactly what we are called to do, otherwise this church and the religion it teaches only reaffirms the idol of rabid individualism that is eating away at so much of American society. If this conversation is limited to each person protecting their own interests, we will have lost a valuable opportunity to practice the integrity that we seek.
I think one of the reasons there is fear about bringing children into worship is that children bring their whole bodies. Their growing wiggling little bodies. Children have not yet learned to separate from their bodies, and that means relating to them in a different way. I will admit, I myself feel fear, even though I started this process. I know that if we have children in here for the full service every Sunday that I am going to have to rethink much of what I do here. I'm going to have to stretch, and that scares me a great deal. But as I watch my fear, and look at the fear that some of you have expressed, what I wonder is this: In our reasoned and rational and adult-based faith, where we have privileged, for centuries, the head over the heart, has the possibility of bringing our children into worship exposed the idol we have made of our heads? The first generation immigrants at Oak Street made an idol out of the German language. That angry woman at Chalice Unitarian made an idol out of the talk back. What are our idols?
Let me tell you what happened at Oak Street Mennonite. Over time, even the first generation immigrants had to realize that their children and grandchildren could not participate in church life and were in danger of being lost to the community. Once they came to this place, compromises were made, but they were made in a way that respected everyone's needs. First, there were two sermons – one in English, one in German. Then there were two completely separate services – one English, one German. But people missed each other too much, so now, with only a few of the immigrants remaining, everyone attends a completely English service, and when everyone else goes to Sunday school, the oldest members remain for a short German service. Did the church die? No. Although some parts of it did, but those parts needed to die so other parts could be born.
I wish I could tell you what happened at Chalice Unitarian after that minister left but I can't because I don't know. What I do know is that churches that successfully transition away from the talk back encourage those who loved it to create what they need, outside of the service. Often this encourages the development of a revitalized adult education program.
Whenever we make idols out of some facet of our lives, the key is not simply to dismiss those idols. They are there for a reason; they respond to a deeper need. What I would encourage us to do in the days to come is to look with open eyes and minds at the idols we have made, and then to look beyond them at the real needs behind them. Let us focus on what we can offer each other. When we can look deep into each other's eyes, and into the eyes of our children, we will find our way.
Amen and blessed be.
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Send Questions or Comments to Rev. Taves: Minister@EmersonUUChapel.org