Growing Up, Going Deep

SeanDen contributes this to the comments on my last post,

I think a good portion of people come to church because they are in pain. The stories I hear are so often, “I lost my husband two months ago” or “I’m now a single mom” or “My friend died and I don’t know how to survive the grief” or “I just moved and I am lonely and wondering if I did the right thing” or “I just got a diagnosis of…”

We may think of “seekers” as blithely skipping along on a search, but often that search is more of a struggle with despair…how would we greet visitors if we assumed they were looking for something far deeper than “community”?

YES YES YES YES YES. I am so glad that Sean said this, as I wanted to write more about this in the original post but decided to save it for further reflections.

People often come through the doors of a church for the first time because they are IN PAIN. They are SUFFERING. And how many of our worship services absolutely fail to acknowledge that possibility or to minister to it? Perhaps it is addressed in a brief sentence in the Opening Words (“we seek here wholeness/we seek here healing”), but just as soon as you’re chugging along into the readings (some cerebral thing about how belief in God must be linked to a particular neurological phenomenon, or an excerpt from an article in the NY Times — nothing from the ancient, nothing from a Scripture we might recognize and react to with hives —  and the sermon (which should be heavily researched and appeal to the MIND (above all, be impressive!), most UU services I attend are interesting at best, and embarrassing pep rallies at worst. We walk up to the door marked “sacred,” point at it and say some fancy little words about it, and then turn right around and sit back down in the lobby. We have such mixed feelings about what might be through that door. Silence. Unknowing. Suffering. Eternity. Cold, dark, space. The living God. A direct experience of “that transcending mystery and wonder” that might, if we let it, bring us to our knees in awe, or bring us to tears, or bring us to repentance, or great shared sorrow, or profound humility.

When I prepare worship, I have one inviolable rule: “If this worship service could not minister to a person who has arrived in serious emotional pain and need this Sunday morning, I will have failed in one of my most serious religious obligations.”

I don’t want to lift myself up as some great ministerial exemplar, because I’m not. What I am is a very, very hard worker and Calvinist-tinged control freak about worship. Want to know why I don’t ever go out on Saturday nights when I’m leading worship the next day? Because I spend Saturday nights with a fine-tooth editorial comb, reviewing every element of the worship service and double checking for shallowness, triumphalist laziness, snark, and blithe assumptions about who “we” are. I pray through the community and consider the variety of souls who are likely to gather in those pews. And I make it my business to assure that there is at least one significant place in the service that would minister to someone who came to church that morning in the midst of personal tragedy.

I don’t ever begin my preparations for Sunday worship hoping to inspire people to become UUs. I have never in my life walked into a church on a Sunday morning needing to be inspired to become an anything. I have gone needing to experience being human with a community of people who were similarly desperate for an hour of deep connection to the larger and deeper aspect of life.

When I have taught Worship and Liturgy to seminarians I have always emphasized that each worship service has one purpose: to minister to the people who have gathered there. It is not to give a fascinating lecture, it is not to validate a group’s sense of specialness and superiority.  It is to minister to the people, which requires honesty, truth, love and courage.  To minister to any group of people, we must love them enough to spare them the ego indulgence that we can all find so easily from other sources.

It begins with ministers refusing to indulge ourselves.

Our worship should be deep and serious even if it is somewhat informal. It should be deep and serious even though it is a celebration of life. Serious does not mean lacking humor or liveliness – it is not a synonym for sombre. To worship seriously means that we never, ever forget the person who has arrived bearing a burden of suffering too great to name or acknowledge. It means that while we are laughing and singing and greeting each other with a smile, we never lose sight of the fact that this is our hour to get honest with ourselves and our God. Congregations that keep worship at the ego gratification, group-bonding level are failing in their mission, no matter how many other good works they may be doing in the wider community. Our mission and purpose is ultimately a spiritual one, not a political or social one. We are not called to be communities of shallow, self-congratulatory activists. Too many of our current worship offerings cultivate that congregational identity. I believe there are hundreds of thousands of visitors to our congregations who have visited us, experienced that shallowness of vision, purpose and behavior, and gone away with hopes crushed.






6 Replies to “Growing Up, Going Deep”

  1. Years ago Ruth Graham (the daughter, not the wife) wrote a book that I reach to often…”In Every Pew Sits A Broken Heart”. I don’t have a copy of it right now as I gave it away but Sean’s original reply and this response remind me to put it back on the list to buy (instead of going to the library to get it when I need it).

  2. Your last three sentences perfectly describe the reason for my exit from UU. Thanks for your clarity and articulate description.

  3. Thank you for this – made me want to stand up & say hallelujah! This is why, while I’m a member of a UCC church, my spiritual home will always be the rooms of recovery. In a 12-Step meetings all over the globe brokenness is a given and suffering the price of admission to a new life. When someone takes the invitation to let us know they’re new (or returning), we immediately make the meeting topic Step One.
    Our message is the unity through our common affliction, we speak from the heart to help the new person identify. We own the struggle and point to a shared spiritual solution. Or to get folksy we admit that “we can’t save our face and our ass at the same time”!
    Hour for hour, moment for moment, I have enjoyed many more spiritual experiences/awakenings in AA than in church. We seem too often to hold ritual (and crushing self-righteousness) so as to prevent something radical, unscripted or dare I say inelegant from happening.
    *** WOW gingerly stepping off soapbox *** Thanks for this articulation which brought me clarity and deep gratitude. Peace be with us all (one day at a time)

  4. Thank you for all of this – and the previous post – but most of all, thank you for this:

    “If this worship service could not minister to a person who has arrived in serious emotional pain and need this Sunday morning, I will have failed in one of my most serious religious obligations.”

    I once attended a congregation that had a “Humor Sunday” each year. Aside from the unexamined and adolescent Christian and Republican/conservative bashing – I wondered aloud what that service could possibly provide to a grieving mother or an abandoned husband or a suicidal teenager. As you say, “serious” doesn’t always mean somber – but we have to acknowledge that our role as worship leaders (ordained or lay) is to hold that room – whoever is in it, whoever has walked through the door that morning. To have some room – some offering – somewhere for the despondent as well as the celebrating (and, conversely, for the joyful as well as the downtrodden).

    [Thanks for the cringe-inducing outing of the congregation who thought it was worshipful to do as you describe. My apologizes on behalf of my faith tradition. – PB]

  5. I hopped over from BTFM out of curiosity, and read this:

    “If this worship service could not minister to a person who has arrived in serious emotional pain and need this Sunday morning, I will have failed in one of my most serious religious obligations.”

    I’m preaching Sunday and this has truly been a word from the Lord for me. Off to rewrite my sermon ! [God bless you, Alison. You go write that thang! – PB]

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