Rev. Brian J. Kiely
So what exactly do we do here on a Sunday morning? The name on the sign say we’re a church and this is a service, so does that mean it’s a worship service? And if so, what do we worship anyway?
It’s one of those frequently asked questions Unitarian ministers get. It goes along with another one that came up in our newcomer orientation session last week: Is Unitarianism a ‘religion’? If so, how so?
The answers depend on how you define the words religion and worship. If you understand religion to be an organization devoted to giving homage to some particular deity and obeying the rules and demands of that deity as defined by the leaders of the institution, then, no, we aren’t.
The thing is, those same institutions have given the words religion and worship definitions that are artificially narrow. Not surprisingly these limited definitions serve the goals of the institutions in question.
Consider the root of the word religion. It comes from the Latin verb ‘religare’ which means to tie up or bind together. You certainly can argue that a concept of a divine figure ties together all the mysteries of the universe. There is room for creation myths, fables like Pandora’s box that explain the presence of evil and so on. Divine figures can answer any question.
But there are are other ways to tie together or make sense of the world that are not in need of deities or magical beasts. Believing in God does not define religion, seeking an approach that helps us make sense of the world does.
Many Unitarians therefore interpret that word as to mean searching for the ties which bind us in community and the core beliefs that help us navigate the complexities of living in an uncertain and sometimes mysterious world.
In that understanding, the idea of a deity is not strictly required. Religion becomes the vehicle through which we search for meaning in our lives. It is the means by which we reconcile the science we know with the mysteries we do not yet understand. We are creatures that have to have answers for the things that perplex us. If we cannot have a provable answer, we have a long history of simply speculating, of choosing to believe an idea or a concept not because we know for sure it’s right, but because it makes sense and it gives us comfort. Praying to the gods of nature didn’t change the weather, but it gave our ancestors a sense that they were doing their best to ensure peace and prosperity. Trying to live our Principles does not guarantee a better world, but it can leave us with a feeling of well being and a belief that we are doing our best.
Here’s a follow on thought: Religion does not have to be institutional. Everybody has small ‘r’ religion of some kind or other, something deeply personal. You carry it around with you, a grab bag of beliefs, values, understandings, knowledge and experience. It’s how we make sense of things. In this church, a bunch of theological liberals come together to experience community and work on their personal grab bags. I think that qualifies us as a religion.
So then there’s that worship word. That would seem to be a sticky one since pretty much everywhere in the English speaking world the word worship is followed by a something or a someone who is the object of worship, “I worship X.” But a look at the root again reveals another way of thinking about it. Worship is actually a pair of words combined. They are Anglo Saxon in origin, ‘wir’ and ‘scippe’. They mean worth and shape. Together those words are well translated as worth-keeping or worth-shaping.
In other words worship is the act or ritual devoted to organizing and designing and holding the things most precious to us. It could be a deity, certainly, but it can also be so many other things. Jacob Trapp’s responsive reading suggested a much wider scope: Standing in awe under stars, being receptive to the caress of nature, working diligently as well as resting from work, seeking community, honouring the fire of spirit within us and finally embracing the ‘mystery within us reaching out to the mystery beyond”.
Worship can be so much more than praising giving obedience to a god. Worship is an act of searching – which is our service theme for this month. Searching is one of the four rubrics of our congregation’s vision statement. We search for meaning, for what’s missing, for what can make life better and richer for ourselves and for others.
Lots of people search for something in life, but increasingly in Canada, fewer and fewer of us do it in a ‘religious’ setting. That’s fine, of course, but
sometimes we church types get looked at sideways by non-religious friends and family when we fess up that we go to church. Where once church goers ruled the world, we are now the minority, scurrying about thinking twice about even admitting our quirk. But that’s okay.
Last week I made a reference to Harry Potter and how laughing at the mystical boggerts is the way to control our fears. I have another reference this week, checked and vetted by our own resident HP expert, Maria Jenkins.
It has to do with seeking and how lonely and out of place an activity that can be. Do you recall quidditch? The game they play on brooms? Mostly it’s sort of like flying handball with a bunch of twists. But on each team there is one position called a seeker.
Now here’s the interesting thing: While the rest of the team is passing the ball, lining up shots or defending against attacks as you would expect, the seeker is off playing a very different game. Seekers ignore everyone else in the stadium and instead go off in pursuit of the snitch, a small gold ball with wings that flies at tremendous speed and with great agility. Should one ever manage to catch one, the team is awarded 150 points which, except in very rare circumstances, will guarantee a win. But seeking can be a dangerous position. One must fly extremely fast and often in close confines. It takes singular focus which can lead to painful things like flying into posts and the like.
So what are the lessons? Seeking is in the end, a private and lonely task. You are both part of a larger group and yet not so much. If you succeed in your quest, you have a remarkable gift to offer others on your team. If you fail, you will be perceived as having contributed nothing. And finally, there is snitch out there for each of us, but it takes focused effort and maybe even some risk.
Searching and seeking are lonely pursuits. A good many of us come to this place to find a community of fellow seekers who wear the colours of a team that helps us feel safe and welcome. A sense of belonging comforts us along the way, especially when the search seems fog shrouded and the way is far from clear.
So here we are, Sunday morning in church engaged in the act of trying to tie our worlds together and figuring out what is worth shaping and keeping as precious.
Now what might that be? I am reminded of an old joke. The Unitarian Universalists had bought an old church and were renovating it. In the wall behind the chancel there was a niche, perhaps for an old statue or whatever behind a curtain. Some enterprising volunteer finding no tables had stuck an appliance behind the curtain. The next day the non-UU construction worker had come by and pushed back the curtain out of curiosity.
“It’s true!” she exclaimed, “They do worship the coffee pot!”
As the Jacob Trapp reading suggested we will worship many things. Each of us will have our own personal list and list of priorities naming what should be kept and shaped and placed high in our estimation. We each have to figure out what is on our list, what we don’t want there and what should be given priority. But we gather in community to get some help in thinking through that list, understanding that if we only do it alone our list can be corrupted by self-serving instincts and even self-delusion. We need others to help us find balance.
Our other reading, the one by Joshua Becker poses a wonderful question that can help us shape our list more effectively. In lifting up parts of the world or ourselves should we seek success or significance?
Success, he suggests, ends the day we die. We will score no more goals, make no more money, write no more books, teach no more students offer no more fresh parental advice. nSignificance, further suggests Becker, can last forever.
When I think about the word ‘significance’ I don’t think about titles or accolades or accomplishments. I have had a good career so far and have collected my share of titles and awards. I have enjoyed it and have had some success – enough to keep me well satisfied. But all of that is soon forgotten, even by me. Maybe even first forgotten by me. Success is nice, but its not necessarily significant.
What lasts and what seems far more important is when someone, friend, loved one co-worker, congregant appreciates some quality of my being. Significance is the handshake and the hug, the tear in the eye or the smile breaking across a face like the first dawn. It’s the thing that says that, if only for a moment, you have touched someone and perhaps changed a life, even just a tiny bit.
Joshua Becker says we might ask ourselves how we really want to be remembered and what do we want to accomplish before we die. He suggest ‘drive a really nice car’ likely won’t make the list. It’s never to late to try – early seasonal reference here – the story of Scrooge reminds us of that. There is always time to start healing relationships.
Second, Becker advises that we live a life worth copying, “Your life should look the same in private as it does in public.” That can be challenging, but he adds, “no one is perfect, just begin striving.”
Third he says focus on people, not dollars. I would expand that to think more about the quality of your living. You might want to focus on justice, on family, on animals, on nature. I think the broader point is to devote more of your effort to the quality of your living than to the quantity of your success.
And finally, he suggests starting with just one person. Trying to save the world will make you crazy. Be significant to one person – a dying parent, a young child – yours or someone else’s. Build a real relationship with that person, one with whom “Hi how are you?” is not just a social courtesy question.
You see, we come here to practice our religion, to find ways to make sense of our lives and the challenges we face. And we come here to lift up the things of significance, the qualities that will help us lead richer, better and more fulfilling lives. To search for our best selves in a place like this is the work of religion. To lift up and refine the values that will bring us significance rather than success, that’s an act of worship.