Worship as Respite

Worship is like a breathing spell in a long and arduous foot race, or the hour of roll call in a prolonged and hard-fought battle: — it is altogether indispensable to sane and wholesome living— it is important enough in life to warrant the erection of classical temples and Gothic cathedrals. It is indeed so important that one finds one’s self sometimes wondering how any of us can afford to do anything but educate ourselves in this art. — To be effectively a person and thereby help others to be persons is the sum of abiding satisfactions in life. Worship in the sense of this aim is natural and necessary, and in the Great Community all mature people worship. Its objectives are not absolutely fixed as to their content.—Von Ogden Vogt (born February 25, 1879)

I came across this post at the The Liberal Lectionary.  If  you are not familiar with this new site, I highly recommend it. This site posts quotes by people who have influenced Unitarian Universalist theology in myriad of ways.

Von Ogden Vogt was a Unitarian Minister who served the First Unitarian Society of Chicago in the early to mid 20th century.  He is best remembered for his legacy of how Unitarians and now Unitarian Universalists worship.  See The Contribution of Von Ogden Vogt.

The quote listed above has my mind thinking about worship as respite.  There are many excellent texts on how we worship today and these texts include best practices as it were or various components of a worship service.  These are important technical aspects of a worship service as if that is all that is really happening.  But I have had the experience,  I am sure many of my colleagues have as well, when a service from a technological stand point ( I do not just mean the sound systems or the use of power-point when I use the word technological) bombs and bombs big time and people will come up to me and state how profoundly moved they were in this particular service. Their hearts were moved, a barrier in their lives shifted, they found strength to go back to their lives with renewed hope and vigor.

I am amazed when grace  somehow manages to work its way through this feeble vessel that contains my being to touch another’s life.  So worship is not simply a rote set of movements or acts as Von Ogden Vogt delineated the service.  It is something far more than the sum of its parts.  It is this “breathing spell” as Von Ogden Vogt calls it that allows for the individual and the community present to feel renewed, recharged, reborn before re-engaging that arduous footrace or on-going and prolonged battle we call living the day to day.

So this  question arises:  What brings people to worship together in Unitarian Universalist congregations? What gives us that breathing spell?  What offers that sense of respite?

Perhaps part of this respite comes from the notion that for one hour at the minimum is focused not entirely on ourselves but on others.  We focus on the well being of those around us.  We listen  to the words the minister or speaker is saying (or am I in denial?).  We hear songs that reflect various  angles of the theme of the day.  We are affirmed by others.  We are seen as being worthy in the eyes of others and perhaps even in our own eyes.  There has been a meme floating around Facebook that states something like  “if you are feeling discouraged go encourage someone.”

Worship offers the possibility of even  when  we are feeling low and broken our presence, our very presence can be a source of  encouragement to another to carry on.  And that act of encouragement reverberates back to us and gives us respite from our pain, our brokenness.  We do not know how our presence and some off the cuff comment can be the very breath of life another needs.  Our participation in a communal worship helps in offering this to others, even happening without our awareness.

Some worship spaces are majestic in and of themselves.  Those who have been at First Unitarian Society in Chicago’s Hyde Park know the vaulted ceilings, the stone walls, the slate floors, the commanding pulpit set high above the people seated in the pews.  The building itself inspires awe and eternal reverence of a people who came before and hints at the people who may come in the distant future.   These are the halls where Von Ogden Vogt and James Luther Adams preached.  Where contemporary ministers like Mark Morrison Reed sang choir as a child and where Bill Schulz attended when he was in seminary at Meadville Lombard Theological School.  To enter such a space where these and others have had their formation as ministers, have been influenced by such thinkers and bastions of the faith can be in and of itself, a worshipful respite that feeds and nurtures the spirit.

Worship for Unitarian Universalists is not the lifting up a deity instead worship for Unitarian Universalists is as Von Ogden Vogt suggests a time for the gathered community to celebrate life .  In that celebration of life, whether it is the joyous or the grieving aspects, we find respite  by holding up the values and the actions they promote in our lives that will make our  journey all the more meaningful.  May we all find respite for our journeys and may we find companions to aid us along the way.

Civil Rights & Fellowship Movements

Yesterday, I was assisting Mid-South District’s Eunice Benton to rendezvous with the Civil Rights Tour, that Rev. Gordon Gibson and Meadville Lombard Theological School has sponsored the past several years.  The tour travels to various key sites in the deep south where historical civil rights events took place. 

We were reflecting on the congregations in the deep south and the effect that the era of the civil rights movement had on their development.  The Fellowship Movement era occurred concurrently with the civil rights movement. 

In Rabbi Friedman’s work on systems theory within congregations, there is a belief that events that happen within a congregation can and will continue to be played out in varying ways decades and longer after the event.  We see this in congregations that have suffered a serious ministerial breach of conduct that if never fully dealt with within the congregation, will show up in how the congregational relationship with future ministers are played out.  Sometimes without the current congregation or current minister ever fully understanding what or why this  is happening. 

There were many Unitarian fellowships that began in the 1950’s and early 1960’s in the deep south.   These fledgling congregations formed in the midst of societal turmoil.  The two fellowship era congregations that I am most familiar with, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Jackson and the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa have their own intimate story of events in their early days of existence.  

In Tuscaloosa, the fellowship began in September of 1954 with a charter membership of 100 members. They met on the University of Alabama’s campus in the Hillel Building, the Jewish Student Union.  Eighteen months later, two African American women were enrolled at the school.  One of the students was expelled before even starting classes.  The other student did attend classes.   Ms Autherine Lucy was also invited to attend the new fellowship’s services, which according the the church archives she did.  However, riots broke out over her presence on campus and she barely escaped with her life.  The KKK roamed the campus in red hoods and baseball bats, stated in a conversation I had with one of the fellowship’s  founders.   Some members of the fellowship started a petition to try to keep her enrolled in the school. But she was also expelled.  The event of these early days in the life of this congregation were harsh.  Membership plummeted to 11 after an 18 month growth to 120 members.  The trauma on the fellowship has left deep scars.   When Governor Wallace stood on the steps of the university some ten years later to block the entrance of another two African American students from attending, this congregation was still struggling to maintain sustainability.

The congregation in Jackson, MS had a different kind of traumatic event.  They were the first integrated congregation in Mississippi.  And when their first extension minister, Rev. Donald Thompson arrived in 1963, things were looking up.  Under his leadership, the congregation started the first Headstart program for under privileged children in the state.  It too was integrated. Rev. Thompson was an outspoken advocate for civil rights.   His work was being noticed by the KKK.   He received death threats.  And then one night, a few months after Rev. James Reeb was killed in Selma, AL,  Rev. Thompson was shot in the back.  He survived and was resolved to remain in Jackson,which he did until death threats began to surface not against him but against his congregants if he remained.   This was the time period that congregations that spoke out against racism were being firebombed.  The title for the movie Mississippi Burning is no exaggeration.  When the fellowship decided to build their new church home, where it is today, the architecture they chose is one of a fortress.  There are no windows in the structure except for some skylights and the doorway into the church is protected by a wall.  Now, I am told this was coincidental and that many congregations were building similar type structures across the south.  My comment to this is, yes, this is how pervasive firebombings and sniper shootings were across the south, so build buildings that would be harder to attack in such manners.   A few years before this congregation was built, the Synagogue in Jackson was firebombed and razed to the ground by the KKK.  

This is the environment these fellowships were born into in the south.  Many fellowships that began in the south did not survive the civil rights era.  And my two examples is too small a sample to make any firm conclusion on the affects of trauma on fellowship congregations forming in this time period.  However, I would bet that there is this unresolved trauma in many of our southern fellowship era congregations that needs to be talked about, examined, and healed. 

I close with this observation. When the tragic events of the shooting at the Knoxville, TN congregation occurred last summer, the impact in congregations I am serving in AL and MS was visceral, almost like a body memory wafting through their being.  Perhaps this was true in other congregations in other locations of our nation.  But I wondered how do we affirm the bravery of these people who stood by their faith for justice during the civil rights era and honor and heal their wounds from the trauma they experienced.   Blessings,