Expectance

I posted on our Unitarian Universalist Facebook page this question: Imagine that the world never heard of Jesus or Christianity. And imagine that this December 25th is the birth of a special child destined to ‘save’ the world. What would you expect from this child’s life? The posting had been seen at least 27 times but only one person chose to respond to the question.

While the reasons for not posting by the other 26 people are most likely many and multi-layered, I found the lack of response telling. These past few months have been rather harsh on the American psyche. What we thought true has been proved untrue. What we thought honest has been proved dishonest. What we thought valiant has been proved cowardly and dastardly.

There is much happening today to make one’s heart sink with despair. Will we ever get it right? Will we ever as a nation truly embody our values of democracy, freedom, and justice for all? 2014 will go down in history as a violent year for our nation. We were confronted to see how little we value black lives in this nation. And the truth sent us scurrying to our safety net of stereotypes of the other. We were exposed to the truth of our nation committing unthinkable acts of torture to satisfy the morbid curiosity of two behavioral psychologists who wanted to discover how to impose helplessness and subservience in others. And this truth increased our use of euphemisms. Others commit torture we do enhanced interrogation techniques, EITs because even our euphemisms need euphemisms. Horrendous pills to swallow. How can we continue with all of this misery that we have inflicted on one another?

And then the unexpected happens. Members of this congregation announce the birth of their grandchild. In the midst of despair, a baby is born to bring joy. The mystery continues.

What will the generations say about this birth? Will they say it was on the darkest day of the year that a mighty wind blew a cleansing breath across the land when this child was born in the state of Georgia? Angels appeared in the lightning and thunder calling this child forth into life. And word of the child’s arrival spread across the people faster than the speed of sound and all shouted Hallelujahs! For they have seen the one in swaddling clothes who will bring healing to this land. Future generations will speak of this child’s birth from the perspective of knowing the whole story of their life. Just as people speak of the Christ child’s birth of long ago.

Well, we don’t know what their life will be as they grow in wisdom and stature. And we don’t know what stories will be told about their birth decades from now. But within this newborn lies not just a hope but the very real expectation that lives will be changed because of their being in this world. Lives already have been.

And that is where our hope is restored. We tell the story of Christmas because it is a child who comes forth to teach us about loving one another. The presence of children raises the oxytocin levels in our bodies. Oxytocin is the hormone that bonds mother and child, families, tribes together. It is what makes us a gentler people to each other. The presence of children playing reduces stress. It makes us a more generous people. The celebration of Christmas is not just for the children, adults need to celebrate a child focused holiday as well.

And the basis of hope is there because we do not know how any child’s life will unfold when they are born. The hope is in the potential within the coming days and weeks and years offered to this new child. What experiences will this child have that will nurture them into being loving and kind, brave and honest, ethical in their decisions? The experiences to be had are where all of us come in.

I do not believe that Jesus became the teacher and the transformer of lives by some supernatural force alone. To me stating Jesus became the teacher he was, solely because god willed it so, negates the human potential to evolve into moral and ethical creatures. Such a statement places despair right back into the picture and declares that outside supernatural forces are required to transform humanity. And my stating we each are born with the human potential to be more than we are currently, does not negate the power of faith in a person’s life. The truth is Jesus had parents, and siblings, and aunts and uncles, and cousins like John the Baptist, teachers and mentors that helped shape his life’s path. These lives helped give him the fortitude to stand firm and embody the belief that there was a better way to be than to debase and torture others.

So it is with us. If we are honest with ourselves we each have had someone in our lives; be it for a life time, a season, or a day, whose life example offered us a choice in being who we are today. We are the ones who must hold fast to the values inherent in the premise of loving our neighbors as ourselves and teach these values, embody these values in our daily lives to our children. Perhaps one of our children will grasp the mystery to creating peace and goodwill to all and heal our divisive land filled with racism, greed, and torture. May this season renew our expectancy for what could be and offer us the courage to work towards that vision.

Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa by Rev. Fred L Hammond 24 December 2014 (c). 

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.

Why Multigenerational Worship?

Because the more opportunities we have to relate to people who see the world from a different point of view the better we are at being able to function in a multi-cultural and pluralist society.

Because science has told us that the presence of children raises the chemicals in our adult bodies that produce the desire to nurture, to have compassion, and to have empathy for the other.

Because it is important for adults to have a glimpse at the future through our children in a worship setting.

Because the expressions of joy, of sorrow, of celebration, of grief, of transcendence are different in people of different ages and to see them expressed in multiple ways is expressing the fullness of our humanity.

Because our society has fractured the family into so many divided segments that to worship multi-generationally is a counter-culture act to reclaim what is being lost.

Because children help our seniors remain connected and vital.  There is nothing like witnessing a spontaneous hug from a child with an elderly person of 90 plus years and seeing the elder’s eyes light up.

Because children benefit from getting to know other adults who are not their parents by participating in the multi-generational choir and other worship activities.

Because children learn the importance of coming together as a worship community where all are valued for who they are.

Because children learn they are not just on display when they are in the full service like they could be when they are only allowed to be in part of the service and then ceremoniously ushered out.