Some Notes on Worship

The word “worship” is often understood by UU’s as a an act of subservience to God. But since not all Unitarian Universalists believe in God, and even those who do may have a different idea of their relationship with God than that of subservience, what is it that we are do when we gather for worship? In the UU context Worship is understood as “giving our attention to that which we consider to have the highest worth (our values of love, compassion, service, etc.)”. Therefore, it can be helpful to do an inner translation of that “inadequate” word to: “worthship”.

There is a distinction between personal and communal worship (which are not mutually exclusive). Personal worship practice, or discipline, is what you make it: suiting your world-view, life-stage, knowledge, experience, needs, interests, and commitments. It is highly adaptable and personal. Its purpose and structure are up to you.

Aside from whatever collaboration may be possible, communal worship will be structured for you, promoting UU values and keeping your congregation and community in mind. The “purpose” of communal worship, in the long run, is: transformational healing and empowerment!

While obviously not every service will be experienced this way, the discipline of engaging in communal worship regularly, over time, is intended to:

  • help you better understand yourself and your place in this world;
  • to cultivate love, compassion, curiosity, patience, awe and wonder, generosity, creativity, etc.;
  • to feel empowered to live your life with integrity and responsibility, and
  • to serve the greater good (the web of which we are a part).

Here are just some of the reasons individuals may have for showing up on Sunday morning:

  • they “have to” (often the case for children/teens)
  • it’s the one hour a week when they don’t have to “do” anything/get to be still (often the case for parents)
  • Who else will set up the sound system and altar, turn on the lights, put out the hymnals, etc…?
  • it’s a chance to “get out of” the stress of their lives for an hour – or to “move deeper into” issues that are meaningful (helping or challenging in positive ways)
  • a chance to connect with creativity and beauty through words, silence, music, ritual, altar displays…
  • a chance to feel “taken care of” (because the service is prepared with them in mind!)
  • it allows them to connect with ideas, ideals, music, people by whom they are known and affirmed
  • a chance to learn something, to gain a new perspective, to trust mystery, cultivate patience and generosity, connect with history/purpose…

Here’s why worship is central to congregational life:

  • Every congregation’s mission is centered in loving service. The discipline of communal worship helps prepare it’s individual members to bring that mission to life! (We can accomplish more together than apart)

Each congregation has its own standard order of service, often based upon tradition, or issues relating to the presence of children, etc., with a certain flow in mind. Many elements might be considered optional, such as Joys & Sorrows, spoken Announcements.

At the church I currently serve, worship service elements are positioned as follows:

  • Ingathering (gathering music, ringing the bowl, opening words, opening hymn)
  • Connecting with Community Identity (chalice lighting, affirmation/covenant, intergenerational story, collection),
  • Going Deeper (joys & sorrows, meditation, silence, music, sermon/homily),
  • Integrating the Experience (bridging music, closing hymn, closing words),
  • Returning to the World (announcements, postlude)

In considering the “goal” of healing transformative empowerment, it’s important to incorporate opportunities for “embodiment” (those times when “movement” is incorporated, such as sitting/standing, raising your hand for the collection, getting up for joys and sorrows, etc.) Some people criticize this as a carryover from the Catholic tradition of sitting/kneeling/standing, etc. Or, they think it is included just in order to “keep us awake”, or “manipulate us”. But there’s more to it than that.

In the Western World there is a long tradition of separating the “spiritual” from the “physical” realm (things related to the spirit are “good/pure/holy”, while things related to the physical world are “bad/fraught with temptation/sinful”). Unitarian Universalism does not make this distinction. We recognize the spiritual within the physical and ask people of faith to “embody” their spiritual beliefs and values –> be intentional, as we carry our highest ideals into the landscape of life.

Movement can be a powerful subconscious way to affirm and give expression to our lived experiences and ideals. So, we always include a few opportunities for movement in our worship service. Similarly, appropriate “touch” should be included. An example of this is: when I invite folks to join hearts and hands, or elbows, for our closing words.

Aside from having the effect just described, it also reminds people, viscerally, that they are not alone! For some this is the only time in the week when they have physical contact and this act alone can be incredibly healing and transformational. (And, of course, both movement and touch are incorporated in a way that keeps it appropriate and accessible. You don’t HAVE to hold hands, you don’t HAVE to stand.

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