Opening Words and Invocations

I am liturgy geek and deeply despair of the lack of attention to our (sparse) Unitarian Universalist liturgical tradition,* and therefore obsess about the words I use to call the community to worship. Call them what you will: Invocation, Call To Celebration, Call To Worship. I never use them without serious critical reflection about what they communicate, and over the years have collected, revised and jettisoned opening words for a variety of reasons. Here I will enumerate some of those reasons, with the hope that you will contribute your own favorite Invocations or Opening Words in the comment section. I am looking for new selections for my worship archive and hope you will provide some of that inspiration!

1. Too bloody wordy!

Spare me the kitchen sink Invocation, with its endless, droning phrases and promises. Opening Words should have a rhythm and energy to them that draw the gathered community into something. Get it said, get it lifted up to God (the Highest) and get on with it!

2. Triumphalist Trumpetings have got to go.

Oh, how I repent of the times I repeated triumphalist words written by illustrious predecessors now deceased, whose assessment of the gloriousness of our tradition I once agreed with (until I got some experience, ecumenical perspective and humility).

“We are the tradition that ____________.”

“Ours is THE FAITH that ______________ (fill in “saves the world,” “cares about justice,” “rocks the Casbah,” etc.).

How about “we strive to _________?” Or better yet, “May we be led here together to  ___________ (works of love/grow  compassionate hearts/ receive healing and wholeness)?

No more “we’re AWESOME” Invocations for me. I want the opening words to be beautiful, stirring and hopeful. I want them to point us toward something in the spirit of reverence and awe, not to be a Pepsi commercial for Unitarian Universalism. The Opening Words shouldn’t differentiate us from the rest of the religious world but articulate and crystallize our most beautiful and cherished values.

3.  High-falutin’ vocab that means nothing to the too many worshipers.

This point was brought poignantly home for me when I was discussing a covenant affirmation (the old Griswold covenant) that I loved with a Unitarian Universalist woman who did not like it:

Love is the doctrine of this church

the quest of truth is its sacrament

and service is its prayer.

I thought it was the theology that she had a problem with, but it turns out that she didn’t know what the word “doctrine” or “sacrament” really meant. Fair enough! I am grateful to her to this day for sensitizing me to the fact that most folks do not speak “theological.” Make it accessible.

4. This is not a group therapy session.

Need I say more? I cringe at Calls to Celebration that make it sound as though the ushers might come around any minute and cuddle everyone in a big blankie. Certain phrases (“Circle of caring” is one — it sounds cutesy and even culty to me, and I don’t like the image of a circle, which is closed) need to be jettisoned from our language of invocation to public worship.

5. Don’t make dramatically impossible claims.

“Here we will find ________”

“Here we will experience _________”

“Here we will transcend __________”

Wording is important. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Revise Opening Words that make ridiculous claims for what one hour together in a church sanctuary can do (see: triumphalism, humility).

6. Too informal is off-putting and confusing.

“Hi, welcome to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of East Overshoe. This morning’s service is ________________.”

Huh? Are you a flight attendant or a worship leader?

Nothing stomps my anticipation for a worship service like being informed by a pleasant minister what’s on today’s agenda. This isn’t a theological issue: I served under a Humanist senior minister for two years who opened every service with a stirring Call to Celebration that never invoked God specifically, so I know this is possible and even common among us.  This is a cultural issue, and an issue of religious and spiritual authority. Ministers and worship leaders who hesitate to stand up in front of the gathered community and bring them from ordinary time to sacred time need to deal with authority issues, or more specifically, to address the lack of permission they obviously feel from the community to lead worship, and not just a meeting with hymns.

When I attend services (that’s fine: call it a “service” rather than “worship” if you like — the issue isn’t going to change) that begin with a tepid announcement of welcome, I wonder what the community thinks it is doing, who it is, and what it is offering. I want to gather my things and depart with these words,

“Let me know when you figure it out.”  If I want to attend a program, I can seek that out. If I want to attend a lecture, I know perfectly well where to find many of them. If I want to attend worship, I’ll go to another church. Unitarian Universalists need to make decisions and know who they are and what they’re offering. A murky hybrid of church and college lecture that opens with a “Hey, howya doing?” is neither fish nor fowl, and reveals serious community identity issues.

With that, I’d love to hear your favorite and most beloved Opening Words, Chalice Lightings and Invocations. Sharing time!

I’ll go first.

Holy and beautiful is the custom

which brings us together,

in the presence of the Most High.

To face our ideals,

To remember our loved ones in absence,

To give thanks, to make confession,

To offer forgiveness,

To be enlightened, and to be strengthened.

Through this quiet hour breathes

the worship of the ages,

the cathedral music of history.

Three unseen guests attend,

Faith, hope and love:

Let all our hearts prepare them place. – Robert French Leavens

*I used to teach Unitarian Universalist Worship and Liturgy at Andover-Newton Theological School, but funding is an issue. Believe it or not, lay folk, your minister very likely graduated from seminary without one class in leading Unitarian Universalist worship. They had a UU preaching class, but it is highly likely that they were never formally instructed on how to develop and conduct the rest of the service. We hope that internships will provide that training, but that isn’t always the case.

30 Replies to “Opening Words and Invocations”

  1. One of the calls to worship that touched my soul more than any other was the simplest – and not UU. It was at a synagogue for a Friday evening Erev Shabbat/ Kabbalat Shabbat service combined with a Simchat Torah celebration. The special musicians and the regular musical staff had been tuning instruments and testing microphones. The congregation and visitors were chattering away, looking forward to the special music, some seeing friends they hadn’t for a while, not concerned about starting on time. The senior rabbi approached a microphone and said a few warm but very brief words of welcome and expectation (but not introduction) regarding the special service. 2 sentences at most. People were just beginning to settle down. And then she chanted the English words, “Shall we pray a little?” and the very musical service began.

    From that day forward, though I haven’t yet found a way to use exactly those words, I view “Shall we pray a little?” as the ideal call to worship. It does everything that is necessary. As long as words of prayer follow and prayerfulness is the heart if not the full substance of the service.

  2. As inelegant as they are, I love these words from Jerry Garcia:
    We are in reality a group of misfits; crazy people, who have voluntarily come together to work this stuff out and do the best we can and try to be as fair as possible with each other, just struggling through life.

    One of these days I might try to make it a little more elegant, but I really do like it as it stands.

  3. as a lay person the habit that rattles me most is when clergy say “and the opening words are by John Doe from his book “On the Meaning of Life” – print the author in the order of service but just say the words “I was glad when they said unto me, let us go into the House of the Lord” or “this is the day the Lord hath made, let us rejoice in it” – moderated for those who don’t like the word “Lord” or the very lovely piece from Robert French Leavens quoted above – anything but a long rambling attributed quote. [YES YES YES!!! Thanks for this! – PB]

  4. One of the things my former church did was, as part of the chalice lighting, a member of the congregation would introduce themselves and say “I am a Unitarian-Universalist because…” I liked that it made you think about just why you’re there.

    That said, if I ever lead a worship service, I’m going with this:

    “In Brightest Day
    In Blackest Night
    No evil shall escape my sight.
    Let those who worship evil’s might
    Beware my power:
    Green Lantern’s Light!”

    Because I am, and always shall be, a huge nerd. [Okay, and you know I love you, but do you really think it’s appropriate to start a service with a joke? Do you remember my earlier post about always keeping in mind the person who has come to church that morning in the aftermath of terrible news and fresh suffering? Worship isn’t about us. It’s about the ones who need us. – PB]

  5. Here are words I adapted from Ken Patton for today’s blending of the waters service. I think they work well, though a little on the long side for my taste.

    All life flows into a great common life,
    if we will only open our eyes to our companions.
    [so] Let us [gather] with the opening of all the windows of our beings,
    with the full outstretching of our spirits.
    Life comes with singing and laughter, with tears and confiding,
    with a rising wave
    too great to be held in the mind and heart and body,
    to those who have fallen in love with life.
    Let us worship, then, [this life, this precious time to be together],
    and let us learn to love.

    [It is long, but it is lovely. Thanks- PB]

  6. I love your rules, by the way. I agree 100% and will share at the religious services (wink) committee.

  7. Generally speaking, as a lay leader, when I present a Sunday worship service, for my Opening (and Closing) Words I basically just find a quote I really like which is relevant to the theme of my service. It’s more about setting the tone for the service and its content than actually calling the congregants to worship. For instance, I did a service in November entitled “Why We OccUUpy” and I got my Opening Words from Siddhartha by Herman Hesse:

    “When someone is seeking, it happens quite easily that he only sees the thing that he is seeking; that he is unable to find anything, unable to absorb anything, because he is only thinking of the thing he is seeking, because he has a goal, because he is obsessed with his goal. Seeking means: to have a goal; but finding means: to be free, to be receptive, to have no goal.”

    We used to have a separate “Call to Worship” but we don’t do that anymore–not really sure why.

  8. PB- I’m not always good at judging how what I write is received but no, it was not something I would ever seriously consider doing. Sorry if it came off that way. [Oh my gosh, I thought you were totally serious!! My bad! LOL! Because listen – I’ve seen worse at UU congregations! – PB]

  9. We combine opening words with the chalice-lighting in my church, and my extremely competent worship leaders choose or write their words. Here’s one of my favorites Opening Words from before we did it that way. I am not sure the authorship.

    We come from all the places of our separate lives to this hour;
    From love and grief, hope and worry, solitude and activity
    to seek renewal and find celebration.
    Lifting a cloud of daily concerns, pleasures and pains,
    We pause to give thanks, to feel wonder, and to experience the
    privilege of living.

    We have been apart, let us come together; an symbolize our
    community by joining our voices in song

  10. I snorted at the Green Lantern quote–and then it hit me; opening words at a service aren’t that different from the opening words of a book. Call me Ishmael. It’s a bright cold day in April, and clocks are striking 13. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

    You don’t explain what it is you’re trying to do; you just start *doing* it. [RIGHT! Show, don’t tell. – PB]

  11. Our opening prayer at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco– the first thing we say, facing East, toward the (open) doors, amid the entire gathered assembly, which is standing together before we move, singing, into the seating area for the liturgy:
    “Blessed be God the Word,
    who came to his own and his own received him not,
    for in this way God glorifies the stranger.
    O God, show us your image in all we meet today
    that we may welcome them, and you,

  12. When I served as minister to a small Universalist church in a rural farm community, the congregation let me know that their favorite opening words were these (from a Passover haggadah).

    May the light we now kindle,
    Inspire us to use our power,
    To heal and not to harm,
    To help and not to hinder,
    To bless and not to curse,
    To serve You, Spirit of freedom.

    Eventually we began using it every Sunday as part of their standard liturgy. The congregation recited it in unison as the minister or lay leader would light the chalice. A few weeks ago I was back in that farm community for a funeral. They still use these words as their opening words and chalice lighting, at almost every worship service (Sunday or otherwise).

  13. Your Robert Leavens example hits me as jarringly Deist with “in the presence of the Most High.” I’m OK with songs, poems that are deist because they are pre-existing poetry; but an invocation is more open to choice, intent, and modification. Language can be spiritual or mystical without being deist. Can we de-deify language, similar to how we try more-or-less de-gender it? [I’m sure we can, but that goal is not of interest to me. I think the word you want is Theistic, not Deist. – PB]

  14. Rev. Weinstein:

    With respect to your response to Mr. Wilson why is that goal “not of interest” to you? You seem to be concerned in this post with many nuances of the language of opening words, fo example whether the opening words use confusing vocabulary. If some language is not meaningful to many congregants, shouldn’t that issue be considered?

  15. Dear Tim,
    If “the Most High” is too “jarringly Deist” for you and the previous commenter, we don’t have much to talk about. There’s nothing “confusing” about this language. It’s the theology you don’t approve of. Mature Unitarian Universalists understand that we are a theologically pluralistic movement. We don’t expect all the language in the service to be personally meaningful to us. It’s immature UUs who keep making this an issue. It’s not an issue, it’s a dysfunction, and in extreme cases, a pathology.

  16. Rev. Weinstein:

    Your response misinterprets my meaning.

    I didn’t say that your proposed invocation was confusing. Actually, it is quite clear.

    I think that the language “the Most High” to most listeners will simply mean God, and perhaps a personal God for many listeners. As such, this language will not be meaningful to many members of UU congregations.

    Now, if you slightly modified the language to say

    “In the presence of what we find to be Most High”, I think the language will be more broadly meaningful. Perhaps other rewordings could be considered as well.

    I also do not expect that everything said from the pulpit will be meaningful to me. However, I thought this discussion was about regular opening words for a church service, used as a ritual that brings the congregation together to begin the worship service. And the issue is what words will be most effective in both inspiring and bringing together a congregation that may have theologically diverse perspectives.

  17. There is a world of difference in listening TO and listening FOR. Mature UUs who are willing to listen to opening words and be drawn into the spirit of reverence do not sit in wait for Theistic references and pounce on them. That is a reactionary approach to participating in our common life, and it is a destructive one. You may phrase your objection as nicely as you may, but what you are doing is pouncing and ultimately requesting that a minister censor words to make you more comfortable. Where does it end? The “Most High” sounds too much like “God” to you — for heaven’s sake, the whole point of “the Most High” is that it’s already a euphemism. When UUs request an edit of even the euphemisms, we approach pathology.

  18. The language of liturgy is local. Every congregation has its own worship tradition. Talk of what might be jarring to “most”, “many” or “some” UU’s is meaningless in a forum like this. There are congregations in which the “Most High” would not fit their tradition, and many others, whether everyone would be quite comfortable with it. But I think PB is right — clunky, wordy, grandiose, self-promoting, prosaic liturgy needs to go, because we need beauty and aspiration in worship.

    All UU’s should understand that all the attempts to restrict, limit, and circumscribe what the minister can say are really attempts to control what other UU’s can hear. So why would anyone want to prevent their fellow congregants from hearing the minister’s first choice of words?

  19. ““In the presence of what we find to be Most High”” sounds like convoluted nonsense.

    I am an atheist. But I don’t need people to muddy the language to acknowledge that they respect my beliefs. It seems odd to me that someone would attend services for the purpose of exploring spirituality and object to people proclaiming a belief in the divine.

    I expect to be able to state my truth without caveats. I expect my minister to do the same.

  20. In response to Rev. Schade, I am in favor of the freedom of the pulpit and against seeking to restrict what ministers say.

    But this discussion is about what opening words will be effective. Rev. Weinstein at the beginning of the post refers to being “obsessed[ed] about the words I use to call the community to worship”. She went on to say that the Griswold covenant Opening Words are problematic because the specific words “doctrine” and “sacrament” are confusing to many listeners. (I rather like these opening words and wonder if they work with some word substitution.)

    I also liked the opening words from Rev. Robinson, Rev. Hampton, and Derek, and thought they could be effective for many congregations.

    Finally, on the whole I liked the Leavens opening words. My comment is simply that “The Most High” is too transparent a euphemism for God, and therefore would in some UU churches not work for many listeners. I suggested a very slight modification that I thought would broaden the appeal of these opening words. .

  21. And in response to TJ Bailey, obviously my proposed editing did not work for you.

    I expect ministers to state what they believe to be true, without censorship. However, the function of a sermon, it seems to me, is somewhat different from the function of Opening Words. Rev. Weinstein said that ” Opening Words should have a rhythm and energy to them that draw the gathered community into something”. I agree. Therefore, it seems to me that a minister would want these Opening Words to express a truth that can inspire that gathered community.

  22. Now that I’m retired and seldom conducting a worship service, it’s inevitable that I sit in the pews and think about how I could do it better than [fill in the blank…]. Alas, this detracts from my experience of worship. Maybe I’ll get over it eventually.

    The UU church I now attend begins every service with a family (or an RE class, or an individual) coming into the chancel to light the chalice in silence. When it’s lit, they say “We are Unitarian Universalists,” and the congregation responds “We light this chalice in faith, in hope, and in love.” It’s okay, but I find it a little flat. It’s not enough to move me into a worshipful place.

    I LOVE what Chris Robinson submitted!

  23. I love the diversity of theological orientations exhibited by our individual UU congregations. I love it that the minister of the church where I was born had signed the original Humanist Manifesto. I love it that my current minister’s mother was Lutheran and her father was Muslim. I love it that PeaceBang’s mother was Eastern Orthodox and her father was Jewish. I love it that the church I now attend has paraments with Alphas and Omegas on them hanging from its big King James pulpit Bible. I love it that the First Universalist Church of Providence, Rhode Island, has a cross and the legend “Christ Will Conquer” on their website logo. I love it that the First Unitarian Church of Providence has a Zen roshi for its pastor. And I love it that the first congregation in our association to openly declare its Unitarianism, Kings Chapel in Boston, still uses the same authentically Unitarian liturgical invocation that they adopted more than 200 years ago: “the King Eternal, Immortal, Invisible, the Only Wise God.” Most High, indeed.

    Theological diversity is not about being so bland as to never say anything from the pulpit that will disagree with the personal beliefs of any other UU anywhere in the country. If we are going to censor any religious expression anywhere that anyone might disagree with, we might as well abandon any remaining pretense to being a religious denomination, and relabel or churches as therapy groups or League of Women Voters chapters or something. Rather, theological diversity is about affirming a multiplicity of religious orientations with zeal and authenticity, and without apology.

    As a practical matter, that means there will be congregations that tend toward particular theological orientations as people of similar views gather themselves together in covenant. There will be UUs with particular theological views who will feel more at home in one congregation than another. That is as it should be. That is how we make the most authentic religious homes for the widest diversity of members overall — not by asking each congregation to be all things to all people, without contradicting anyone, and finding instead that they say nothing much to anybody.

  24. Even though it’s been a little more than a year since I left my internship congregation, come Sunday morning I say our opening words “This is a day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Granted, it’s from the Bible and I did my internship in New England, but in a lot of ways it just fits worship.

    I feel the need to respond to Tim Bartik. Freedom/Responsibility of the pulpit requires that the minister be authentically themselves [my supervisor kept telling me that during my internship, but I was really slow on the uptake–I get it now. Thanks Tom!]. When the minister is being authentically themselves, the words will be effective; whether those words are Christian, Jewish, Goddess-based, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Tao, Confucian, etc. Heck, the words could be Dog for all I care. On the flip side, the freedom/responsibility of the pew requires a listening heart that doesn’t jump because the vocabulary the minister uses isn’t the vocabulary they would use.

    Effectiveness is not based on vocabulary, it’s all about authenticity. When the minister is being authentic, the vocabulary they used will be effective.

  25. Rev. Hampton:

    I agree with you that the minister needs to be authentically themselves.

    However, I disagree that the words will necessarily be effective with all congregations if the minister is authentic.

    For example, in this thread you have mentioned two sets of opening words that you like, the one taken from Jerry Garcia, the other from the Bible. I assume that both sets represent some authentic aspect of your approach to religion. I suspect that for some congregations, the Garcia approach will be more effective, and with others, the Bible approach.

  26. Peacebang, you asked, “You may phrase your objection as nicely as you may, but what you are doing is pouncing and ultimately requesting that a minister censor words to make you more comfortable. Where does it end?” Tim did not answer you, but I want to, because I just went through that this spring. There were 319 pledging members in our congregation, a handful with the attitude Tim’s comments show. They did indeed pounce… and now my former congregation has 184 members and no minister. Given that we were running a deficit before this occurred, losing 135 pledging members most probably means the end of the congregation as it exists today. That’s where it ends.

  27. Bubbling under the surface of these comments is the growing chasm between the atheistic and theistic UUs. Lately I’ve been hearing more and more atheists mourning the safe space they used to have. Yet as a theistic UU, my experience of their safe space was my silenced space.

    None of us knows which side is right, and that used to be enough to come together. Ironically, as members stay in covenant longer, and as each of us tries to go deeper into our personal images, visions, and yes, creeds, this superficial commonality no longer suffices.

  28. Joel:

    I’m very sorry for the split in your congregation and the loss of your minister to your congregation. I know nothing about the particulars, but it obviously was painful and bitter for you.

    However, I would appreciate it if you would not assume what position I would have had on your church’s split. For all we know, I would have been one of your strongest allies.

    In any event, you have misinterpreted my comments here if you believe that I think ministers should be fired for using theological language.

  29. From those who are convinced they need to have the last word, Good Lord deliver us. Amen.

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