What is Worship?

Reverend Brian J. Kiely, Unitarian Church of Edmonton, September 27, 2005

This service came before a discussion of the results of a recently conducted worship survey. Instead of a full sermon, I offered these comments at various points during the morning a sort of ‘director’s commentary’ on the unfolding service.

Before the service, we began with Announcements. These often generate the most controversy in any worship survey. Some people view announcements as a vital part of community life. Like visits to the market square or the town well in the old days, it is the place where information about the community is shared. Other people find them to be an intrusion into the worshipful mood they are trying to find in this sacred space, especially when there are 10 or 12 speakers in a row. Balancing these competing goods is hard. One thing we have been doing for several years is having them before the formal start of service. That way they don’t intrude on the mood the service planners are trying to create. Certainly we do need to publicize our church events and some of those from the larger community. And experience has shown that no Order of Service paragraph or bulletin board poster is as direct or effective as a spoken announcement.

This year we are trying an experiment: only the service leader and/or a Board member presents announcements. The goals are to save time and the shuffling of feet. We’ll try it for awhile. Let us know what you think.

Prelude The formal service begins with the Prelude, the first of three pieces of incidental music used in most services. Kenneth Patton wrote in ‘Let Us Worship’, “Let us love the world in heart and mind and body.” Meaningful worship needs to reach the soul and move the emotions. Touching the heart in worship is no crime against rationality. We are complex and complicated beings. Sometimes our intellects block us, keep us from accepting messages we truly need to hear. Now and then a beautiful piece of music can get past those cerebral safeguards. When I select music for a service, they are usually pieces that have moved me to tears, or elation or that have comforted me in time of trial.

The goal of the Prelude is to help members and friends move into a worshipful state. It’s time to leave the outside world behind, to quiet the mind and move away from the distractions of conversation. It is an aesthetic way to draw the circle of community.

That act of centering continues with the Opening Words. Sometimes they are chosen to be words of welcome, other times they will establish the theme for the day. As often as not, they contribute to our ability to settle down and become present to the service.

Chalice Lighting The first ritual element of our service is typically the Chalice Lighting. The symbol is both ancient and modern. In the great traditions it is the lamp of knowledge calling us to use our faculties of reason to search for sensible explanations to the challenges that face us. But fire is also a traditional symbol of community. In that sense this fire is the one around which we gather for safety and companionship. In another context it is the very spark of the spirit. You can see fire, even feel it, but in some sense it is not there. It exists ethereally in the place between wick and air.

Perhaps one of these interpretations speaks to you, perhaps not. What is sure is that in all cultures and all times, fire has stood as a metaphor for purity, passion, truth, warmth, light and even life itself. All these are wrapped up in our weekly ritual.

This year we have introduced the idea of having individuals and families (however defined!) light the chalice. They can choose appropriate words if they wish. In this context our ritual underlines the notion of community even more as we introduce ourselves to one another. In this way we also bring more voices into the shared ministry of worship leadership.

Shared or Responsive Readings In a 1981 book of Responsive Readings, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Commission on Common Worship commented:

“The Protestant tradition of chanting or reading a Psalm for the day was once a common element of worship in all (and still is in many) Unitarian Universalist congregations. Repetition made these Psalms as familiar as most popular hymns. In (the 20th) century, readings from other sources were added to the ‘canon’ of common use.”

In fact in most of the world’s major religions, the shared and common speaking of words is part of worship. Whether it is a Christian creed, a scriptural passage, a Buddhist sutra or a Hindu story from the Upanishads, there is a commonality in sharing poetic writing. Universalist minister Ken Patton wrote, “We come to be assured that brothers and sisters surround us, to restore their images on our eyes. We enlarge our voices in common speaking and singing.”

The purpose of shared readings is not to force assent to a particular idea or belief. In fact, there are two purposes. First, speaking together reminds us that the possibility for community is here among us, if we will let ourselves come into it. Second, the reading introduces us to ideas and sentiments we might not have considered. It is an invitation to think about the passage, to decide if it holds meaning for you or not.

In our Unitarian tradition we continue to honour the poets who struggle to find the right words to define and describe human experience. Worship leaders look for just the right readings to enhance their service plan.

Candles of Care and Connection In many churches this is a controversial element, although most of our congregations find some way to acknowledge the powerful moments that touch people’s lives. I am sure that any of you who have attended more than a handful of the Unitarian and Universalist services here can rehearse the arguments about how they can run long, or how some candles seem of more weight than others or that people’s concerns are more political than personal.

I think the real point of tension goes right to the heart of the idea of a religious community. There are many in western society who, for good reasons, are highly suspicious of organized religion. For some, anything that gets too ‘touchy feely’ can make us a little nervous. Secondly, there are some people come to church for a very private journey for reflection and thought. The joys and celebrations of others can intrude upon that journey. Candles bring people’s personal stories to the forefront, sometimes happy sometimes sad, sometimes neat and tidy and other times just a wee bit messy. And sometimes people are so moved by world events that the political becomes personal.

I have no doubt that some of those stories create awkward feelings. I have had them myself. But here’s the thing: this church has long prided itself on being a caring community. How can we care for one another if we don’t know each other’s stories? There are a good many here who have never and will never light a candle here and others who seem to come up on a quite regular basis. But the point of the ritual is to make it acceptable to HAVE a personal story, whether you share it publicly, privately or not at all. We are all flawed beings moving through a flawed world. We all encounter challenges at some point in our lives that seem too much to bear. The candles ritual is our weekly reminder to those who are sad, that wonderful things can and do happen everyday. And they are equally reminders to the happy and healthy, that others need their support and friendship when they are able to give it.

So I light a candle today for the act of sharing. It reminds us that we are all part of the Human Race and that we are also a welcome part of this Unitarian Church of Edmonton community.

Hymns Why do we sing in church? I looked at Unitarian music resources dating back to the early 20th century. Nowhere in the prefaces of any of these six hymnbooks did anyone try to answer that question. Perhaps it’s not a question that would even occur to a musician. The authors just took hymn-singing for granted. Few people question it, especially those in our congregations who love to sing, but there are others who don’t care to sing, or who think they can’t, or who don’t know the music. They simply stand politely and perhaps read the lyrics quietly while the rest of us carry on.

So why do we sing in church? Well, we have always done it – more or less. Hymns are part of the tradition of western religion. However there were times in the high Humanist era of the 19 40s-50s and beyond, where hymn-singing was judged to be irrelevant and too emotional for the sober, lecture-based services favoured by some congregations. It wasn’t a Puritanical belief that “music leads to dancing and dancing to touching,” as intoned in that spoofing cell phone commercial these days. Rather it was a belief that in far too many religions, appeals to emotion supplanted good solid rational ideas. That led to people being blinded by faith. For those who thought church-goers were being sold a smoke and mirror-like bill of goods, singing was part of the problem.

These days we think differently. Sure, good music and good singing touches the heart and lifts the spirit. Unitarian minister Jacob Trapp wrote, “To worship is to sing with the singing beauty of the earth.” And that’s not a bad thing. It balances the rational. Going too far to one side or the other of the rational/emotional equation is not healthy. In fact, there are a lot of people who come to church just to get that little lift. And if you join the choir and get used to singing for a couple of hours at a time, you’ll discover that singing generates mood-lifting endorphins. It’s hard to leave a Chorealis rehearsal not feeling better than when you went in.

In our services here we use hymns in different ways. Sometimes we sing songs of welcome and community. Other times we sing songs that create moods for meditation, or a sense of social justice. We create or borrow melodies that are comforting and uplifting and add words that reflect our principles and approach to religion. Some songs create energy and make you move your feet, others are calming and nurturing to the spirit. Good worship leaders pick hymns that fit the mood of that particular moment of the service using them as a link and set up for the next element.

Sermon Occasionally I get to be a guest speaker at other congregations. I always enjoy finding out just what they call this part of the service. Some say ‘sermon’, others use ‘address’ or ‘message’ or ‘program’. I suppose the title of this main piece says a great deal about a congregation’s comfort level with religious words.

Whatever you call it, this part of the service is for the sharing of a main message. Hopefully the rest of the service elements have been preparing folks for the ideas which will surface here. According to the dictionary it is a “spoken or written discourse on a religious or moral subject” and sometimes, “a piece of admonition or reproof.” I am not much for reproving from the pulpit, except perhaps in certain political matters, but I do believe in the sermon is a powerful tool to prvoke thought and sometimes to persuade. I like this old Middle English word ‘sermon’. It is, indeed, a religious word, but we are an organization that should be considering ‘religious and moral’ topics. Or to put it differently, in this place we should be looking at all service topics from a religious and or moral perspective.

Sermons and worship services can cover a wide variety of topics and styles in a Unitarian church. They can be serious or silly, political or philosophical, encouragements to either reflection or action…or both. In style they can be straight ahead lectures or somewhat more fanciful meditations or even dialogues or conversations.

And the topics can range far and wide. Some years ago a colleague created a grid to help preachers plan their year. She suggested that there need to be different kinds of themes addressed each year in a well rounded congregation. There are holidays to be noted, of course. There need to be some religious and theologically themed sermons, some historical and tradition based ones, some institutional ones like Canvass Sunday. Some services need to appeal to the heart and others the head. And of course there need to be services dedicated to issues of social responsibility and justice. A good worship committee will also remember to address the various needs of the congregation. There are young and old in a church, so some intergenerational services are needed. There may be Christian or theist folks in the congregation as well as humanists and agnostics. All need to have their needs met at least some of the time. It is rather fun to try to keep all these competing needs in mind as we plan services.

And everything we do must be in the service of worship. And just what is worship in our context? Worship comes from an Anglo Saxon phrase meaning ‘worth shaping’ or celebrating the things that mean the most to us. In the Christian centuries this came to mean honouring and even adoring God and seeking his favour. Well, that’s an approach that doesn’t really work in the Unitarian Church. Not all of us believe in God, and among those that do, few of us think he or she is sitting up there preparing to intervene in our lives.

For Unitarians and Universalists today, worship is more about raising the issues that matter most to us. These include questions of personal meaning, finding ways to live a principled and moral life, finding ways to stay balanced and whole in our lives and finding ways and bring justice to the world. And along the way we want to celebrate or grieve the great events that touch our lives.

Finally, in any given service we have to remember that there are people who have just received wonderful news, and people who have received hard news, people who are happy and people who are frustrated and angry, people dealing with the issues relevant to every age of life and people who are drifting, people who have been here for decades and people making their first visit. There needs to be something that serves them all, for worship is the one thing we all do as part of a community. It is our work and our joy, our celebration and our commitment. It needs to be the best thing we do in church – every week.

Offering The offering is pretty standard fare whatever religious organization you attend. Certainly it is a necessary part of Unitarian and Universalist congregations, each of which is a freestanding body of people respoonsible for their own affairs and debts.

But the offering is more that just asking for money. It is about reminding people that they arren’t so much ‘giving’ as sharing their abundance. One job of a church community is to help people realize how much they have in life. Once we realize that we all have some blessings in life, some kind of wealth, we can discover how good it feels to share that abundance with others. Nothing feels as good as open-hearted giving of one’s self and one’s abundance.

Meditation This time of the service is designed to encourage the inward journey of self discovery. I once attended a church where in a small group, the church president, a high powered businessman, described the meditation as the only three minutes of waking silence he experienced in his week. He said that often he came to church just for those quiet moments, giving them to himself as a gift. In this reading the late Unitarian minister Jacob Trapp describes worship as, “the mystery within us reaching out to the mystery beyond. It is an inarticulate silence yearning to speak; it is the window of the moment open to the sky of the eternal.” In these next few moments, if we allow it, there is room for that mysterious connection to take place. Let us enter into the spirit of Meditation and listen to Jacob Trapp’s words.

Closing Song Years ago a Detroit congregation wrestled with whether or not to hold hands during the closing song. During the weeks of debate a woman in her 90’s came to the minister and quietly pulled on her sleeve. “I hope we keep holding hands,” she said, “I live alone and this is the only time during the week when I can touch another human being.” With permission the minister related the story. They have been holding hands ever since. The Closing Song restates our mission as religious people and reminds us that the gifts of this community can stay with us until we re-gather in this place.