Our Theological House Part 3 – How We Worship
We gather here together each Sunday, but what are we doing? Why do we do what we do? Some of what we do is simply based upon traditions.
I really do appreciate that most of you listen to the sermon, but it really is only a small part of the worship service. Every element, from the welcome, to the music, to the readings, the prayer, the chalice lighting, the offering, and yes, the coffee hour, compose together what is hopefully a meaningful worship service.
Our earlier reading explains some of what worship does, but what is worship and what is its goal? The root of the word “worship” is “worthship”, considering things of worth. “Religion” (religare) means to bind up, to reconnect, to get it all together. To participate in worship, in this sense, does not require one to have an image of a God. Atheists get to play too.
So what is the point?
According to a document prepared for the Unitarian Universalist Association the aim, the goal, of worship is to, I quote:
“Help order the religious consciousness in the individual and the group. It is to help us know and feel how we relate as individuals to ourselves, to the world, to the totality of being.
The aim of common worship is to help us face up to our individual and collective limitations and failures, to open us to sources of creative, healing, transforming, and renewing power. It is to help us discover how that which transcends our narrow individual existence can move us, challenge us, inspire us, stimulate us to think, feel, act, and be. It is to help us declare, celebrate, rejoice in those things we have discovered to be “of worth.”
Leading the Congregation in Worship incorporated a previous document by the Commission, Common Worship: Why and How, which was written on behalf of the Commission by Frederick E. Gillis (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1981).
For the last two weeks, I have been doing a series of sermons on theology based upon a book called, “A House for Hope.” If you missed them you can read my notes online on my blog.
Briefly, the book uses the metaphor of a house to talk about theology. The foundation is how we understand God and the relationship of humans to the divine. This is theology. Our location is our eschatology, how we envision the end of the world and our concept of heaven or hell. The roof is what protects us from harm: soteriology, the theology of salvation, is what saves us from evil. The walls our ecclesiology, and are what gather us into a collective space. The doorway is how we engage with the world: missiology, our mission or reason for being. The rooms are how we create a welcoming home for the spirit: pneumatology, which includes our rituals and worship practices.
We covered eschatology and soteriology in prior weeks. This week we are going to talk some about pneumatology. We’ll have three left after today: theology, ecclesiology, and missiology. Hopefully I will get to those later in the year, because I think it is important that religious communities engage the theological questions common to all human experience. That engagement is what makes us different from social clubs and social justice organizations.
Are you ready for pneumatology? Don’t stress, pneumatology is not as scary as it might sound. The word comes from the Greek pneuma, which means breath or wind. Rebecca Parker says that,
“Within (a religious community)… there breathes a sense of the Holy, a response to the Sacred Spirit or Spirits present in life, inspiring creativity, compassion and social action. Worship, art, ritual, and music shape religious community, infusing the atmosphere of its environment, making space for people to breathe.”
Take a breath. Is this a place you can breathe?
I hope so, I hope this is now or will become for you a place where you can breathe in and breathe out, a holy place, where your spirit can be restored.
Our Unitarian Universalist worship practices reflect our theologies. Practices vary from congregation to congregation, but some are common to almost all.
Music is critical in worship, because music stirs something that is beyond words, it is the real language of the soul, if the soul has a language at all.
We listen to music or we sing and the music resonates with our bodies and the space inside our lungs. The breath, the spirit begins to move within us and around us. We sing and give voice in word and music to our hopes, our dreams, and sometimes to our fears. Depending on the song, we might move or clap.
As Unitarian Universalists, we do not believe that the body or the pleasures of the body are sinful. When we sing or dance, we loosen up a bit, get out of our heads and become connected to our whole selves. One of the hymns in our hymnal contains the line, “body and spirit united once more.” That, too, is part of our theology. We sing together often during our worship services.
If a formal welcome is done, we welcome everyone because we believe that every person has inherent worth and dignity and because those of us that believe in God know that God loves everyone, no exceptions. We use the time of the announcements to invite people into the community, to engagement.
Chalice lighting words remind us of why we are here together, of the values of our faith and what our faith requires. It connects us to other congregations and the denomination as a whole.
The flaming chalice itself is a symbol that was created during World War II when our service committee was working to rescue people from Nazi Germany. When that flame is lit, our history, our present, and our future are combined during that brief moment.
In this congregation, after the chalice lighting, it is traditional to read the affirmation together. It is also our history, present and future combined. Some congregations read their mission statement instead. Both are reminders, and both define the purpose and intention of why we gather in worship.
After the opening hymn, here at UUP we call the children up to recite a greeting in both English and Spanish.
I haven’t seen this done in other congregations, but it is a nice touch, a way of more inclusive welcoming. The greeting and the story are both ways of reaffirming the commitment to children and families that has been a part of UUP from its beginning.
Our readings are sometimes the sacred texts of the various world religions, but more often they are more secular. Poetry and prose are both used. Wisdom, we believe, can be found in many places. There is little we are unwilling to examine for whatever truth or meaning might be found. Readings from our hymnal can connect us to our wider faith tradition and to the diversity it contains.
We sometimes pray together because prayer helps.
Many of us find comfort in prayer, from giving voice to our pain, from sharing the awareness that we are not alone, that if nothing else, compassion can draw us closer together. Some of us pray to the Holy, however we define that term. For others, prayer is simply a way of expressing our hopes for a better world.
Unitarian Universalist sermons, unlike many other traditions, do not follow a lectionary. The subject matter, other than around holidays, is pretty much up to the preacher and we have what is called a free pulpit and a free pew. This means, basically that the minister is free to say what they feel needs to be said, and those in the pews get to decide whether they agree or not.
The purpose of the sermon is to open up hearts and minds to something that might not have been felt or thought much about outside of church. Hopefully, it sometimes changes your mind and maybe even your heart.
If a sermon should do that, I don’t believe it is just because of the speaker or even what was said. Instead, it is pneumatology, the spirit working in the interaction and space between the words spoken and what is heard. Yeah, pneumatology is pretty mystical.
Our offering is a ritual as well, and an important part of our theology and worship service. It is partly practical of course, we need money to keep this church going, but frankly, the Sunday morning plate provides for only a small fraction of the resources we need. Instead, the offering is about acknowledging our connection, that giving and receiving is what sustains our lives as well as our spirits. We breathe out, and the plants breathe in. No one is really separate and no one is really alone. Whether you drop in a dollar, a twenty, or a hundred, you are acknowledging that this community is worth something. Remember the definition of worship, “Worthship,” considering things of worth.
The offering is not an admission charge or a fee for service, but an opportunity to participate in something that is worthwhile. I encourage you to approach the offering as the ritual it is, and to put something in the basket each and every week.
The closing words, and in smaller congregations, sometimes a closing circle, signals the end of the service and the benediction is usually a “sending forth,”, a charge to go out and act with courage to live your values. The chalice is extinguished but its light still shines.
If it worked well, a worship service will have recharged our spiritual batteries and given us the energy to better face the coming week and all the complexities of our lives.
The worship committee did a survey recently, essentially asking individuals what parts of our services they found most meaningful. Members will get a report of the results soon, and some action items resulted, but as expected, there was also a great deal of diversity of opinion.
You might want to consider later today, when you reflect back on this service, what parts spoke to you. Was it the welcome, the music, the candle lighting, the prayer, the sermon, or one of the readings? Was it simply sitting in the company of other human beings? Was it how everything flowed together or didn’t? How was the pneumatology for you today?
Then go a step further. Ask others what they found meaningful.
Maybe it was something that didn’t really speak to you as an individual. If that is true, try to just listen with curiosity, and without judgement. Remember that the whole is always greater than the parts, another aspect of our theology and our understanding of the interdependent web of life.
Emerson said, “A person will worship something, have no doubt about that…That which dominates our imaginations and thoughts will determine our lives and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful about what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”
If the worship experience can help inspire us to create more peace and justice in the world, if it can move us to compassion and to forgiveness, if it can comfort us and give us hope, then it is worthy, it is worthwhile. Blessings on all of you.