What are we Doing Here

Reading 1:

What's In The Temple?  [adapted]
by Tom Barrett

In the quiet spaces of my mind a thought lies still, but ready to spring.
It begs me to open the door so it can walk about.
The poets speak in obscure terms pointing madly at the unsayable.
The sages say nothing, but walk ahead patting their thigh calling for us to follow.
The monk sits pen in hand poised to explain the cloud of unknowing.
The seeker seeks, just around the corner from the truth.
If she stands still it will catch up with her.
Pause with us here a while.
Put your ear to the wall of your heart.
Listen for the whisper of knowing there.
Love will touch you if you are very still.

If I say the word God, people run away.
They've been frightened--sat on 'till the spirit cried "uncle."
Now they play hide and seek with somebody they can't name.
They know he's out there looking for them, and they want to be found,
But there is all this stuff in the way.

I can't talk about God and make any sense,
And I can't not talk about God and make any sense.
So we talk about the weather, and we are talking about God.

I miss the old temples where you could hang out with God.
Still, we have pet pounds where you can feel love draped in warm fur,
And sense the whole tragedy of life and death.
You see there the consequences of carelessness,
And you feel there the yapping urgency of life that wants to be lived.
The only things lacking are the frankincense and myrrh.

If you had a temple in the secret spaces of your heart,
What would you worship there?
What would you bring to sacrifice?
What would be behind the curtain in the holy of holies? 

Reading 2: 

Ralph Waldo Emerson:

A person will worship something, have no doubt about that. 
We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts, but it will out. 
That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. 
Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, 
for what we are worshipping we are becoming.



Listen again to the final stanza of the hymn we just sang:

Our true God we there shall find –
In what claims our heart, and mind.

And our hidden thoughts enshrine
That which for us - is Divine.

These words were written by British Unitarian minister and prolific hymn writer, John Andrew Storey.  For most religious people or groups, his would be a dangerously radical statement: it declares that what we call God, the divine, or the sacred is not necessarily determined for us by teachings handed down by church leaders, by what is written in ancient texts, or what our ministers tell us today.  Yes – we are inspired by ancient words and stories, and we do listen to those who would offer wisdom, but our religious sense is also formed and shaped by everything else that we sense and encounter around us.  

All faiths change and evolve over time and these changes are often inspired by contact with other religions.  The vast difference, however, is that we choose to encounter difference. We are conscious about openness to change.  

And so, God, for us, can be inclusively called that which “claims our heart and mind.”  

In this room today, I am sure that – if we used the word as broadly as possible – we would find many very, very different conceptions of God.  Some would speak of the God of the Hebrew Scriptures – a sometimes fierce and sometimes loving, justice-seeking God of creation and destruction.

Some would speak of the God of the New Testament: a God revealed through Jesus of Nazareth.  A God who is most identified with love.  Some might understand Jesus himself to be divine.  Others for whom Jesus is important might see him as inspired, a great teacher, the ideal model for religious living, or perhaps as one supremely attuned to the sacred nature of all life.

Others here will most closely identify God with nature and all life.  Some see God only within humankind – in the very best that we are and can be.

Still others will have no use for this word whatsoever.  For them, it is most important what we do in this life – how we treat other people and all life – what we leave behind when we are gone.

I could go on for hours to attempt to characterise all the kinds of beliefs we hold and I suspect that I would still not touch on all of the different understandings held in this room.  

And, of course, this is just a snapshot in time.  Haven’t your beliefs and perspectives changed over your lifetime?  Mine certainly have, and they continue to change as I grow and as I am exposed to more wisdom and experience.  Every person I meet – every poem I read – every book – every story – changes me in some way…

This is who we are as a religious community…  Diverse – open to change – committed to that search.  What I would like to focus on now though is what we are doing here this morning. 

There is a kind of conversation that I find I have quite often.  It begins with someone asking me “so – what do you do?”  I take a deep breath. I can’t limit my explanation to “I’m a minister” or “I’m a pastor” because this invariably gives the wrong impression – the notion that I’m in the business of telling people what to believe!  And saying “Unitarian” doesn’t help much either because, unfortunately, few people know what we are about.  And so I go on to tell them that our community draws widely upon wisdom from the world’s religious, philosophical and artistic traditions. I explain that within our community are people who would call themselves Christians, Jews, Buddhists, pagans, atheists, agnostics, and Humanists. (Have I missed anyone?)

I don’t know if – after all this – some people might not be just a bit sorry that they asked the question!  They don’t seem to run in the opposite direction though.  In fact, I usually see their faces light up with some delight at the idea that there can be freedom in religion – that there can be a faith community where each person is able to follow their own path and that is open to the changes and growth that invariably accompanies embarking on a journey toward more wholeness and meaning in life. 

Often though, the next question is a harder one for me – a question that opens up an area that I continue to struggle with.  They ask something simple like “well – with all that diversity, do you hold services?  What are they like?”

The facts are simple enough, as you know.  Our Sunday worship services follow a rather traditional format that is a remnant of our Protestant Christian heritage.  Thus, we have readings, hymns, a sermon, and prayer. But the content is very different from what you would find in any Protestant service or in the worship of our Unitarian ancestors.  Our sources are much more varied. The subjects we talk about are more universal. The words we use in our hymns and prayers are more inclusive.

But, this description only begins to scratch the surface of a very challenging question: The simplest way to put it is “What are we doing here?”

And by that, I mean here, this morning, this hour…  What are we – you and me – doing here now?

We call it a service.  Some call it a worship service.  Others bristle at the use of the word “worship” – hearing in that word a kind of religion that views God in only one particular way – as a supernatural father or king.

But the word worship need not be limiting.  I prefer to think of its original sense – Worship comes to us from the Old English word “weorthscipe” – which meant simply “to ascribe worth to something.”  It was only later that the supernatural sense of worship came into use at all.  

We do worship in this sense – all of us.  We ascribe worth to something! – we come together to explore – to focus on – to contemplate – to get in touch with – that which is most worthy – most meaningful – to us.

Emerson reminds us “A person will worship something.”  We can worship material things, we can worship success, money, drugs, music, celebrities, or our fading youth… We come here because we have determined to choose what we worship, rather than have it chosen for us by churches, society, or advertisers. It is crucial to choose “for what we are worshipping, we are becoming.”

So let us speak of worship.  The challenge that I struggle with every Sunday is how to make communal worship work in such a diverse community.  

To begin to address that, let’s back up a step.  I believe that there is not just one, but three purposes to what we do here. I label them as justice, community, and spirituality.  They are related and interdependent and they must be in balance for religion to be healthy and nurturing.  We can not focus solely on justice, for we would be no different from a secular charity group and the deep foundation for our work would crumble and fall away.  We can not focus solely on community, or we would be simply a social club, with shallow interaction and a lack of greater meaning and purpose.  We can not focus solely on spirituality, lest we become selfish, inwardly-focused, and isolated.

Sunday morning worship – the one time that we all come together as a community – as one body – must touch on all three of these facets of religion. Two of them are relatively straightforward.  We can reflect on and revitalize our passion for justice without obstacles presented by our theological diversity.  We can build the cohesiveness and mutual support and caring of our community too.

It is spirituality – the third facet – that is challenging.

And this challenge creates a constant tension, which can be a creative one that propels us toward further growth and understanding.  It also carries great risks.  To lessen the tension, some congregations simply avoid spirituality altogether in their corporate worship.  Their worship tends to become an intellectual exercise.  The balance that I spoke of is lost. I do not believe this kind of worship gives people what they need.  

More troubling still, some other congregations give up on inclusiveness and diversity.  They conclude that we must all have the same beliefs to worship together.  A few Unitarian congregations have chosen an exclusively Christian route. In so doing, they have driven away the non-Christians among them.  Congregations have been split.  Committed Unitarians – people with deep connections to their religious communities – have been set adrift – forced to either conform or find a new religious home.  I can understand why such an approach is appealing, but it is quite unacceptable.  To treat a Unitarian congregation in such a way violates our deepest convictions about freedom, tolerance, and the use of reason in religion.

So, we will not take an easy way out.  How then do we cope with the challenge of meeting the spiritual needs of a theologically diverse congregation?  

The reality is that I can not lead you in Buddhist meditation, recite the Lord’s Prayer, serve communion, pray and sing in Hebrew, worship all of the Hindu avatars, lead you in Arabic Muslim prayers all at the same time.  And if we did any of these things regularly, our treasured inclusiveness would be lost.  And so, in our services, you will not be led by the hand along a Christian, Jewish, Hindu, or Muslim path.

Instead, our approach is to use worship elements and language that allow each one of us to bring different images, beliefs, and needs to the worship experience.  

We include a period of silence in each worship, when each one can reflect, meditate or pray as best suits them.  Music is another medium that is open to what you may want to bring to it.  

Our sharing of joys and sorrows is also a part of our inclusive worship.  Through the events of our individual lives, we tell one another the true and immediate stories of which a spiritual life are built.

You have also probably noticed that we use language that is open to many interpretations.  If I say “spirit of life” or “source of all,” you may identify these words with God or love or life as is most meaningful to you.  If I were to say Jesus Christ however, it might work for a few of you, but it would leave the others out or even alienate them entirely.  Just as if I were to address prayers exclusively to Allah, The Great Goddess, Adonai or the Buddha.  In a similar way, we often use poetry in our worship – poetry being language that inspires and illuminates and allows for many different readings and interpretations.  This is language that is broad – that includes.

We treasure the freedom to explore and change, and although we might be able to find elsewhere words and practices that fit more exactly with what we believe today, we have chosen to be here – where growth and change are encouraged, where we can encounter differences and new ways of thinking and seeing the world – where questioning is encouraged – and where we can change our minds without losing our community.

We choose freedom in our religion over the apparent certainty of rigid doctrine.  “Responsibility is the price of freedom.”  And this phrase, coined by philosopher Elbert Hubbard is very much true for us. When we choose freedom, we forgo the comfort, constancy, and certainty of traditional religion.  If we are to take our own paths, even with the support of our community, we must take responsibility for our journeys.  

Worship is not something that a minister can do for a congregation – even in the most dogmatic of faiths, the congregation must participate in worship.  In our faith, with its uniquely intentional-diversity, this is even more true.  

And so, this is an invitation. Let us create worship together.  Let us share in both freedom and responsibility. Ours is the freedom to explore and experience the possibilities.  Ours is the opportunity to live in the questions and encounter the wisdom of many ages and places.  And yes, ours is the responsibility to bring to worship – both here and on our own – what we have found.  

We come together here in all of our splendid differences, bringing what we bring, to explore that which we hold to be of greatest worth – the very ground of our being.  We come together recognizing that the sacredness of life is intimately tied up with community – that whether we use the word God or love or spirit or no word at all – and that, even though sacredness may be found elsewhere, the most worthy aspects of our lives are played out when we are with other beings – in our sacred communion with one another.

May it be so.

Closing Words

“What we are worshipping, we are becoming”
May you worship love, that you may be loving
May you worship peace, that you may be peaceful
May you worship life, that its energy may flow exuberantly forth from you
And may you worship the ground of being, that you may be deeply rooted in the fertile loam of all that is sacred.

Blessed be.