A Free and Responsible Search for Truth and Meaning: A Case Study

This service was presented by Chorealis, the UCE Choir on April 6, 2014

Reflection by Karen Mills

When I first came to UCE, about 24 years ago, one of the very first conversations I had was with a (then) matriarch of the congregation. She asked me about myself and I said I played piano and was interested in music. She replied, almost with a warning tone, “That’s nice dear, but we DON’T sing.” Hmmm…. that bugged me.

One other thing I noticed over my first few visits was that any time words like spirit, prayer, soul, or what might be considered “spiritual language” was used in a service, there was an immediate, physical, negative reaction from congregants. Eyes would roll, arms would be crossed, and there would be harrumphing. If the Bible was quoted, the eye rolling would change to glares. That never happened with readings from any other source.

Now, these words were usually uttered by a guest speaker. But, if the minister or a member or the congregation did use them as part of the service, they immediately apologized or couched it by saying something like, “or substitute the word of your choice.”. Hmmm… that REALLY bugged me.

It bugged me not because I have any particular affection for or connection to biblical language, but because this behaviour seemed to be such a complete contradiction of the very principles that the congregation advocated so strongly for in every other situation.

Here was a group that publicly and adamantly advocated for diversity and tolerance.

Here was a group who held open-mindedness, seeking for truth and meaning, and the inherent worth and dignity of every human as their unifying bond and duty to uphold.

These were the values and principles that drew me to UCE. But why did they only apply if the person or source was anything but Christian? How could you have a free and responsible search for truth and meaning if you rejected one of the most influential and wide-reaching sources – Christianity – out of hand?

And why did I keep coming back?

Well, the answer to that last question is easy; I’m made up of about equal parts of optimism, naïveté, and stubbornness. If I see something I think should be changed, I’ll either charge in to change in – not really thinking about the consequences or details until I’m well into the thick of things – or I’ll trust that reason will prevail and people will change to my way of thinking ☺.

And, I really liked the people. They were interested and interesting. Their curiosity was insatiable. They truly wanted to make the world a better place.

So, with a lot of encouragement and support, I started organizing some singing. And, as it turns out – we do sing!

And as I got to know the people in the congregation, I found the answer to my question about the reaction to Christian sources.

Through conversations, I learned that it wasn’t so much the words themselves that they were rejecting, but the associations that came with those words. Many in the congregation at that time had painful experiences in Christian churches. They were told not to question. They were shut down if they offered a differing viewpoint. They were shunned in their communities and workplaces if they questioned the church or the Bible. More than one person told me that if they didn’t belong to a church, they couldn’t have been promoted at work. It’s hard to imagine now, but that was the world as it was in the 50s and 60s. And there weren’t many other faith communities for them to seek out. And if they were gay or lesbian, the rejection was even more severe. So UCE became their safe haven and longed-for community where they could finally question and discuss and be with like-minded people.

It appeared to me that, as a way of coping with the hurts from their pasts, many sort of “threw the baby out with the bathwater.” Any Christian references were simply rejected. But, in rejecting the “biblical packaging” they lost any of the wisdom that might have been inside the package.

All of us do the same thing, in different ways. Perhaps we’ve had a bad experience with a co-worker – after that, it’s hard to hear their ideas and feedback with an open mind.

Or maybe we attend an event that features a speaker with very different political leanings. Can we set that aside effectively enough to really hear them and see if there is something in their message that may have value for us?

To me, this is the “responsible” part of a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. We are called to consider every source and weigh its potential and only then can we reject or accept it.

And then, when we do find a message that has meaning, can we reframe it in a way that makes it more palatable to our ears, minds, and hearts?

Can we really do this? I believe we can. In fact, I know we can, because I’ve seen it. And here’s where the “case study” part comes in. Just from my story this morning, you can see that this congregation has changed. As new people joined and new ideas were put forward and some of the old hurts became less intense, our collective outlook changed.

We’re much more open to “spiritual” language now.  We’re more open to looking at all sources for wisdom. This was most recently illustrated by the high attendance at Brian’s course on Jesus this past fall.

And I think this shift is great; but it has taken 20 years. Can we speed it up? (In truth, I’m made up of equal parts optimism, naïveté, stubbornness, and impatience.)

Well, I think we can do that too. Being open-minded was the first step. Now, if we become more adept at taking the wisdom we find and “packaging” it in a way that speaks to us, acceptance may come more quickly and we can start incorporating that wisdom into our lives more easily.

So, here’s part two of the case study. This morning, we’re taking two classic Christian texts – the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm (The Lord Is My Shepherd) – and showing how different composers and authors have adapted their messages into packaging that better suits their own needs and styles. We hope some ideas will strike a chord with you and open doors to new meaning in old messages.

 

Reading  Matthew Chapter 6 Verses 6-15 read by Robert Begg

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honoured by others. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.  But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.

“This, then, is how you should pray:

“‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil.

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.

 

Reading The Lord’s Prayer, from A New Zealand Prayer Book

read by Bev Romanyshyn

“Eternal Sprit, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver, source of all that is and that shall be. Father and Mother of us all, loving God, in whom is heaven:

 

The hallowing of your name echo through the universe! The way of your justice be followed by peoples of the world! Your heavenly will be done by all created beings! Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth.

With the bread we need for today, feed us. In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us. In times of temptation and test, strengthen us. From trials too great to endure, spare us. From the grip of all that is evil, free us.

For you reign in the glory of the power that is love, now and forever. Amen.”

 Reading The Lord’s Prayer revised by Fred F. Keip, Jr. read by John Pater

Indwelling God, who art infused throughout all existence, we hallow thee with many names. Thy Kingdom is within the human heart. We accept life for all that it can be, on earth as throughout all creation. May we continue to draw sustenance from this earth, and may we receive forgiveness equal to our own. May we ever move from separation toward union, to live in grace, with love in our hearts, forever and ever. Amen.

 

Reading The Lord’s Prayer (from Dominican Sisters Retreat, March 1993, Great Bend, Kansas) read by Maurice Bourgoin

Our Mother

Who are in all the earth

Holy is your truth

May your wisdom come

Your circle be one uniting heaven and earth

Give us today a nurturing spirit

Heal through us as we ourselves are healed

Lead us into Fullness of life

And liberate all that is good

For the Wisdom, the power and the glory,

Presence and the Goodness are Yours now and forever

Amen.

 

An Interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer by Rev. Roger Fritts

read by Gordon Ritchie

According to a 1992 study published in Newsweek, about 88% of the people in the United States pray. According to a study of Unitarian Universalists conducted in 1987, 57% of us say that we pray occasionally or often.

During difficult moments of my life I pray. I know that my silent, private prayer will not change the unchangeable. Nevertheless, in moments of doubt and fear my short, silent prayers give me comfort. They help me cope by calming me and soothing my emotions.

Some might say that my prayer is a form or regression. They might suggest that when I pray I am discarding my rational, logical side; I am setting aside what I have learned from science, and returning to my early childhood superstitious beliefs in God as a Santa Claus who will grant my prayer if I say the right words in the right way. I do not believe that if I say the right words something magical will happen. Still when the pressures build up, I find myself closing my eyes or looking off in the distance and talking silently to myself and to the unity that connects the universe, the ground of being.

• I pray that I make the right decisions as I live my life.

• I pray that the people I know and love, my family, my friends, and the members of this congregation will be kept safe.

• I pray for peace for all people.

• I pray out of Thanksgiving for all the blessings of life.

On the internet I found prayers attributed to children. I like the prayers because of their directness and honesty. Some children’s prayers are in the form of practical questions:

Speaker

Dear God, “Did you mean for the giraffe to look like that or was it an accident?”

Dear God, “Who draws the lines around the countries?”

Dear God, “My brothers told me about being born, but it doesn’t sound right. They are just kidding, aren’t they?”

Gordon

Others are statements of thanksgiving:

Speaker

Dear God, “Thank you for my baby brother, but what I prayed for was a puppy.”

Dear God, “I think the stapler is one of your greatest inventions.”

Dear God, “I didn’t think orange went with purple until I saw the sunset you made Tuesday. That was cool!”

Gordon

Still others are in the form of a confession:

Speaker

Dear God, “It rained for our whole vacation and is my father mad! He said some things about you that people are not supposed to say, but I hope you will not hurt him anyway. Your friend (but I am not going to tell you who I am).”

Dear God, “I think about you sometimes, even when I’m not praying.”

Dear God, “I bet it is very hard for you to love all the people in the world. There are only four people in our family and I can never do it.”

Gordon

Others, are petitionary:

Speaker

Dear God, “I want to be just like my Daddy when I get big, but not with so much hair all over.”

Dear God, “Please send me a pony. I never asked for anything before. You can look it up.”

Gordon

Of all the prayers that people have written and spoken, the one used most often by Christians is the Lord’s Prayer.

One reason it is so popular is that Jesus is likely to have actually said some of these words. The prayer appears in two forms in the New Testament—a shorter version in Luke and a longer version in Matthew.

A second reason the Lord’s Prayer is important to so many people is the act of repetition. If you grew up attending a Catholic or a Protestant congregation, you would have heard the words thousands of times. If you are active in a Twelve-Step group like Alcoholics Anonymous, you hear the prayer said repeatedly. We associate the words with the environment we most often heard them spoken. If it was a safe place, a place where we felt comfortable, where we felt surrounded by friends, hearing the words today brings back those positive associations.

Third, I think the power of the prayer is tied to the meanings of the words. According to the story in Luke, Jesus was praying. When he finished, a disciple said to him, “Lord, teach us how to pray, just as John the Baptist taught his disciples.”

In Matthew Jesus said, “When you pray, go into a room by yourself and shut the door behind you.” Then in Matthew’s story he spoke the words of the Lord’s Prayer.

Speaker

OUR FATHER, WHO ART IN HEAVEN . . .

Gordon

Prayers often begin with “Almighty and everlasting God” or “O God, the King eternal” or in some Unitarian Universalist churches “To Whom It may Concern.” All experts on the Bible agree that when he addressed God, Jesus spoke the word “Abba” the Aramaic word for Father. Jesus used a familiar form of address and then asked his followers to regard the familiar name as sacred.

Jesus did not say My Father, or Your Father, but Our Father. In those two words Jesus included everyone, despite their sex, their ethnic or racial background, or their life history. All of us, he said, share a common, familiar God. In these two words, Our Father, Jesus challenged the tendency of the Jewish community of his day to fragment itself and in the name of God to reject some of its own members. Personally, I prefer to begin by saying “OUR MOTHER, FATHER WHO ART IN HEAVEN . . .” This represents the inclusive spirit that Jesus taught.

The prayer continues:

Speaker

HALLOWED BE THY NAME.

Gordon

Some Bible scholars have suggested a better modern translation is “Your name be revered” instead of HALLOWED BE THY NAME, illustrating the fact that scholars are not poets.

I like the word “hallowed,” which means “greatly loved, greatly respected.” I like the way my mouth feels when I say it and the way it looks on a page. I like the way it is not an overused word, like the adjectives “wonderful” or “excellent” or “fantastic.” In all cultures people believe that over against the common place things of life some things are of a different quality. We treat them with great respect.

• It could be a hallowed place—such as the site of the World Trade Center or the Edmonton River Valley.

• It could be a hallowed time—such as the dark hours of Solstice eve.

• It could be a hallowed person—such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr or Mother Theresa.

In contrast to the common things of life some things are sacred, are hallowed.

Speaker

THY KINGDOM COME. THY WILL BE DONE, ON EARTH, AS IT IS IN HEAVEN.

Gordon

Jesus did not speak these words. The author of Matthew’s Gospel added them. Still I like them. In the evenings when the sky is clear, I look up into the night sky and see the stars, the moon, and the planets. These words of the prayer remind me of the universe of stars. They put my life in context. My few years of life are part of a vast universe of matter and energy, and I think of my very limited understanding of that universe. Much of it is a mystery. I feel humble as I imagine the scale of the universe.

Speaker

GIVE US THIS DAY OUR DAILY BREAD.

Gordon

The prayer now moves from cosmology to our practical everyday needs.

Most of us are lucky enough to take our daily meals for granted. We are one, two or three generations away from the farming life of our grandparents. We are blessed with great plenty. It is easy to take our daily bread for granted.

Still, many of you in this congregation have lived and worked in places around the earth where hunger is a reality. Some of you know much better than I of hunger in Asia, Africa, South America as well as our own country. I pray that all people will be provided with the bread we need for the day.

Speaker

AND FORGIVE US OUR TRESPASSES, AS WE FORGIVE THOSE WHO TRESPASS AGAINST US.

Gordon

Today, Bible Scholars believe that this part of the prayer originally read: “Forgive our debts to the extent we have forgiven those in debt to us.” For Jesus these words concerned the plight of the oppressed poor of his time, whose debts were probably overwhelming.

Forgiveness is one of the most difficult and pervasive elements in Christian ethics. In the 1950s a Unitarian Universalist seminary professor announced in class that he would give ten dollars to the student who could find a Protestant sermon that did not include the word, forgiveness. Yet many in our culture see forgiveness as a sign of weakness. Personally I define forgiveness as the effort to understand ourselves and others. If we truly understand ourselves and others, we may be better able to heal the pain inside us. We try to understand ourselves and other people, not as a favor to them, but so we can let go of the past and get on with our lives. This, I believe, is forgiveness. It is a great release, a fresh beginning.

Speaker

AND LEAD US NOT INTO TEMPTATION, BUT DELIVER US FROM EVIL

Gordon

This was the original end of the prayer. Modern Bible Scholars, proving again that they are not poets, suggested here that what Jesus really said was, “And please don’t subject us to test after test, but rescue us from the evil one.”

In classical Greek, the word translated “temptation” means “a test,” and refers to any experience that tries our health or our will. An illness, a death, a financial crisis, any hardship is a “test,” a temptation to which I may prove unequal. So we pray, “Help me into the future. Save me from myself.”

During the last century Unitarians had mixed feelings about the Lord’s prayer. In the 1930s Unitarians published a Red Hymnal, and the prayer was part of many sample orders of service printed in the book.

However, thirty years later, in 1964 when Unitarian Universalists published a Blue Hymnal they dropped the Lord’s Prayer. Indeed, there was no section of readings in the Blue Hymnal called “prayers.” The 1960s and 1970s were a time when many who joined Unitarian Universalist churches had negative experiences with prayer from having attended other churches. Many of our churches avoided traditional, religious language. So, we called the Sanctuary —the Great Hall, we called the sermon— an address, hymn singing was called congregational singing, and we eliminated prayers from the liturgy.

In the 1980s the theology of our religious congregations began to shift again. Many persons coming to our churches were looking for more spirituality in their lives. In 1993 the Unitarian Universalist Association published a new hymnal called Singing the Living Tradition. It has a section called “prayers” and includes two versions of the Lord’s Prayer.

Today, many in our congregation still have bad associations with prayer. They have watched the hateful and the greed prayers of ministers. They are sick of the fake healing prayers which exploit the vulnerable. They have a right to their negative feelings. No member of this church is required to pray or to even like prayers.

On the other hand, if we can separate the good from the bad, we may discover that prayer can be a meaningful part of our spiritual life.

When I feel the stresses of my life building up; when I have been wrong; when I have promised more than I can do; when I find myself in conflict with another person; when I am faced with illness in myself or in others; I take a deep breath, and say a short, silent prayer. And I pray for strength, for wisdom, and for humility.

Amen.

Meditation

In Word  Aramaic Lord’s Prayer
(Transliteration from the Syriac-Aramaic version by Neil Douglas-Klotz,
personalized by Virginia Melroy.)

O Thou, The Breathing Life of all, in the roar and whisper, in the breeze and the whirlwind, we hear your name.

Help us let go, clear the space inside, creating a holy place within for your light to shine.

Unite our “I can” to yours, so that we walk as kings and queens with every creature.

Your heart’s fervent desire then acts with ours as in all sound and light, so in all creatures on the earth.

Give us the food we need to grow through each new day.

Produce in us the wisdom and understanding we need at each new stage of our lives.

Help us to let go of our past, the hidden guilt of our failures, just as we consistently release others of the knots of their guilt.

Let us not become lost in busyness, in the surface appearance of things. But free us from what holds us back.

May abundance, fertile power, and glorious harmony return again and again, in each new age.  May this be the ground from which all our actions grow.

Amen.

Closing Words    Join Hands – Join Spirits by David R. Chapman

Good Friend, your soul is within me now,

And I hallow your spirit with my love.

Our peace will come and goodwill shall be done,

And we will learn that our Earth is our Heaven.

This day and all days, I offer you my bread, my hand and my heart.

I ask your forgiveness for my injustices as I will always offer you mine in return.

For ours is the joy to find glory in the good that we do and the love that we share,

Forever and ever.  Amen.