On Saturday, I attended a district workshop in Boston on congregational singing with Cyndi Bliss, WillReiter, Maura Snow and Carrie Little. It was led by Ysaye Barnwell, an incredible singer, composer, and historian of African and African American music. She started the Jubilee Singers at the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Washington, D.C., and is a recent retiree from "Sweet Honey in the Rock', the most amazing African American women's a cappella gospel ensemble I have ever heard. She led us through some remarkable singing in the African American tradition: no hymnals, no words up on a screen. Instead, call and response, and simple repeats. She created out of us a four-part chorus, wherein each part sang a different song that melded with the other three in incredible ways. Then she gave room for us to play with harmonies, melodies, and rhythms, helping us create what was prayer and worship and praise, all wrapped up in one.
Ysaye Barnwell making us into an impromptu choir was a metaphor for me for worship—held in a container of shared rhythm and melody, we could move from moments of unison, to parts, to call and response, to our own riffs and harmonies, until she brought us back together and led us out of the song. Attention and awareness of each other’s voices and the container of the song made it possible for us to both explore on our own and come back together. Together, we created something sacred, brought it to life.
As I have said before, our congregation has been through a lot this last year: deaths, illnesses, and other losses. In addition, it has been a long, cold winter. Folks have suffered broken bones and concussions from falls on the ice. In the last couple of weeks, I have experienced what I would call a kind of "fraughtness" or underlying angst during some of the moments of our Sunday morning worship services, perhaps a response to the weight of grief and fatigue of winter. To help reset, I asked the Worship Committee last Tuesday evening at our meeting: "What is the purpose of worship?" We had a great conversation (this is a really awesome committee!). Donna Mitchelson defined worship as "coming together to create a sense of joy." We talked about the other things we come together to create in worship: healing, hope, courage, community, and meaning, to name a few.
The "coming together" is a key part. Worship is a communal and community event where we create and hold sacred space together. We use music, words, and quiet; stillness and movement. Our gathered community is intergenerational—not just adults, children, and youth but generations of adults, and generations of Unitarian Universalism. We are theologically and spiritually diverse: theist, atheist and agnostic; Buddhist, Pagan, Jewish, Christian, Unitarian Universalist, and none or some of the above. Some of us having been coming for years, others of us have just started. Some of us are inspired by personal sharing, while others feel uncomfortable by it. Thus, worship cannot have a goal of making every person happy, meeting each person’s individual needs. We can, instead, commit to creating something powerful and worthwhile out of our coming together, grounded in the mission of our Unitarian Universalist faith—to reflect together how to do justice, love kindness, and walk attentively and humbly with our Source of being and meaning, by whatever name we give. Each of us has a responsibility to hold our piece of this sacred space and time together. The Worship Committee and I are responsible for articulating the "container"—the expectations and guidelines with regard to worship, most often the chalice lightings and the sharing of Joys and Sorrows. We do this not to try to control what people say but to help clarify and hold each other accountable to worship’s larger purpose. The chalice lighting is meant to open worship with a brief (two minute) reflection, poem, or meditation related to the speaker’s experience or expression of Unitarian Universalist faith. Cheryl, Jeanette, Ashanti and Kiema gave a lovely example of this on Sunday. Joys and Sorrows is a time to share simply and briefly a personal joy, sorrow, or appreciation, which we can then all weave together into a larger community pastoral meditation and prayer.
Over the last few months, I have grounded myself again and again in these words by the Reverend Nancy Shaffer: "To find again and again both the stillness and the community that recall you to your being held in love, so that you know indelibly: there is nowhere you can go that God is not." Worship is our weekly reset, recalling ourselves to what matters most, finding the sacred in ordinary, and coming together to create the joy, the healing, the meaning, the hope some among us might need to get through the day. It is a sacred and holy task we share.