of Lent, and liturgy, and things that sparkle

I believe in one God (and it doesn’t make my toes curl to continue with, “the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth . . . “).  I am happily married to the guy I started dating when I was 18.  When it comes to church attendance, though . . . let’s just say that while I have a home church and it is a beloved and important part of my life, I am open to seeing other people.

Confession: religiously speaking, I am a woman of two loves.  I love UU in its promise and power, and despite its flaws and its failings.  I could use those same words to explain how I feel about Christianity.  And specifically, increasingly, what I mean when I say “Christianity” is the church of my childhood–the love and liturgy that is the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

I don’t get to my old ELCA church very often–a couple of times a year since following, astonished, my husband’s very enthusiastic footsteps to the door of Unitarian Universalism when we were first married.  But when I do, what I find in the service is challenge, uplift, joy and peace.  These are the same qualities that I encounter in great UU worship, of which my current church is often a shining example–but I sometimes find them more poignantly in the ELCA.

And, especially now, as I spend time in discernment with a call to ministry that already makes no sense (ministry?  seriously?  what!?), I wonder what that means.

One possibility is simply that I need more depth in my UU theology to find the weight and meaning–the spiritual gravitas–that Christianity comes by easily.  A faith steeped in magic and blood and anchored by doctrine–all overlaid on other, much older religions, with their own spirit and sacrifices–comes with an intensity that makes UU as it’s currently practiced feel like a blank slate in comparison . . . or a wading pool.

Don’t misunderstand; I believe that there is incredible depth possible in UU.  For me, this is true for at least two reasons–first because, while I am not a Humanist as the word is used in UU circles, humanism as a lens on the world offers a view of almost limitless possibility for what we might achieve together.  Second, and in my life more importantly, it’s true because as I engage with my deepest spiritual practices, and UU encourages me to do this as nothing ever has, I am touching the Infinite.  And here, of course, the limits aren’t the edges of depth, but of my ability to experience it.

So, great.  But the reality is, much of the time this depth remains in UU as a latent possibility I acknowledge rather than my actual ongoing experience.  I am discovering, on the other hand, that I can walk into my local ELCA church, join the service alongside strangers, and connect with great depth almost instantly.  This, I think, is why I miss the traditional liturgy so acutely.  It seems like an odd thing to be more attached to ritual recitation than to a particular answer on the question of the virgin birth, but there you have it–for me, one of these things is merely about, but the other involves connecting with.

When I refer to myself as a UU Christian, there are questions that pop up pretty reliably.  Laypeople are inclined to ask, “So why are you here?,” or some variant thereof, and later, “why can’t you just say you’re UU?”  People who’ve gone to  seminary, on the other hand, say something different: “What does that mean to you?”  I have tended to bristle at the first set of questions, and the underlying demands “Explain yourself” and “accept the UU melting pot,”–as though in maintaining an identifiable Christian identity I have rejected UU in some way, or refused to truly enter into community.

I have tended to ignore the more nuanced second question for a different reason entirely–because it’s hard.  Here, too, I perceive a challenge of sorts . . . not an identify-defending, fear-driven challenge, but perhaps a sense of superiority: “You almost certainly don’t mean ___, so why does this label have meaning for you?”  That’s annoying, and even a bit scary–what happens if I do mean precisely the thing you think I ought not to?–but that’s not the real reason I avoid answering.  I don’t answer because I don’t know.

Here’s what I do know: Last week I went to Ash Wednesday service at Trinity.  I arrived late, shared a program and a hymnal with a stranger, and spoke to no one aside from a word of thanks to that stranger and to share the peace.  I did, however, talk to God.  Prayer is a big part of my spiritual practices–I talk to God every day.  Help Thanks Wow, as Anne Lamott puts it . . . I’m all over it.  There is something different, however, in talking to God in unison.

I was sad, and scared, and hurting . . . and the Kyrie was as balm to my soul.  Spending every Sunday–and joyfully; I do love my church–in a place where our two liturgical seasons seem to be PEACE! and CELEBRATE!,  I needed the deep purple and bare branches of the Lenten altar.  I needed to stand in the company of others and acknowledge that I have struggled and failed, and that I will again.  I needed to bow my head in prayer with words for that struggle, and for the struggles of others, and for what we do in and to the world.  I needed to break bread and share wine, to remember the Beloved Community that Jesus created, that I might do better in building and honoring that community that has been commended to me.  In short, I needed to be reminded of that which is bigger than myself, and I needed to do it with and alongside others.

My God.  I miss this.  

And yet I have to credit UU here–in seven years I’ve never officially participated on a worship team (aside from a frenetic and scary exercise at Leadership School).  Yet somehow, ritual in worship, and to some degree, worship itself, has been deconstructed, reinterpreted, made visible, and maybe even made whole, such that I connect with what we’re doing with the Kyrie in a new way.  My changed perspective is simultaneously less threatening (I never did feel threatened by my faith in any conscious way, but high church ritual is intimidating, and how often does it think to explain itself?) and more meaningful.

This deeper connection with worship is a tangible UU gift to my Christian self, and for it I am grateful.  And in this perhaps UU and protestant Christianity are the two wings of the bird of my living faith.  Maybe that oft-uttered phrase “too Christian to be UU, and too UU to be Christian” is in fact true . . . and even so, perhaps it doesn’t matter at all because it misses the point.  The challenge isn’t to pick one or be one or explain one to the other, but to access both, and everything else that is in me, in the service of God.

I will tell you something, though.  I’ve never been one for Christian accoutrements, cross jewelry included (as an evangelical pastor once asked us at vacation bible school, “Would you wear a gas chamber around your neck?  How about an electric chair?”)  So it’s odd that I happen to have this, and it’s not something I notice very often . . . but hanging at a corner of my jewelry case is a tiny silver cross.  It sparkles more than an object of torture ought to.  If it weren’t so small, it would be wholly indecent.  And it’s been catching my eye lately.

It feels like an invitation.

And so, to you pastors and ministers and seminarians of the world . . . you people inclined to ask What It Means to You to Be Christian . . . I don’t know.  But I’ll tell you this: it means something.  And I don’t want to ask permission or beg forgiveness or even answer you, necessarily . . . it’s between me and God.  But I hope there’s space in your big, rational world for a tiny sparkling cross . . . and for the vastness and weight of what comes with it.

I think it may turn out that there is no room for my heart without it.


6 thoughts on “of Lent, and liturgy, and things that sparkle

  1. There is definitely something powerful to ritual, to saying words that are as reflexive as walking and breathing (“and in Jesus Christ His only son our Lord…”).

    This is an interesting post for me, because in so many ways, I relate, and in so many ways, I completely and utterly DON’T relate, but feel the beginnings of a very interesting conversation about UU, about church, about our spiritual lives. Part of my morning ritual is to pick up my phone and scroll through facebook, reading interesting bits and pieces – the glow of the screen helps wake me up. This morning, I got out of bed just to respond to this, because it required my keyboarding 90 wpm, and not my iPhone typing 10 wpm (or whatever). So prepare yourself for a novel of a comment.

    I, too, grew up ELCA, but while I’ve reconciled much of my knee-jerk to the concepts of God and Christianity in general, thinking about my old church still makes me cringe a bit. It’s not the denomination so much as it was my own smalltown congregation. Nonetheless, it is hard for me to reconcile the justice-loving UU with the confirmation Sunday sermon of how Evil It Is To Be Gay, and Universalism with “if you get hit by a car before you’re baptized, too bad! You get Hell.” That said, I am always a little giddy when I hear familiar hymn music with new words that I can sing out in pride (though that is another story – why do we UUs find it necessary to change Christmas Carols?!), and I do love the OneNess that comes from reciting our covenant each week, much as the Nicene Creed brought comfort – This, yes This is what we ALL believe.

    Sometimes I wonder if UU doesn’t fall prey to the old adage “jack of all trades, master of none” epidemic, and if that’s not why so many youth leave us in the end. The deeper I get into my spiritual life, the less I feel served by my church (But Mandie, the point isn’t to be served, it’s to serve!). Strangely, I feel very connected to other UUs, to some of the people I met at Leadership school, to you, to the various other online groups I belong to. Those give me opportunities for close reflection and spiritual growth (maybe because they have a smaller, more intimate format?) that I don’t find in my congregation. What I find there is the opportunity to yes, socialize, to connect with the music and ritual that renew me, and to feel an abundance of stress at all of the obligations church membership has brought to my time and my family’s finances.

    That opportunity for reflection and growth – that is supposed to be the core of UU. I think that’s why I bristled a bit when I read that you don’t have to answer, because your faith is between you and God. Because in UU, encouragement to spiritual growth is meant to be one of our very foundations, and when the deeper question of what your Christianity means to you is asked, that’s likely the point. To understand you, sure, because there is such a variety of personal meanings to the term within UU – maybe they just don’t want to put faith in your mouth, but also to engage in the very dialogue of this post. For you to shut down and say “none of your business” slams a door on an important topic.

    And the questions and points here ARE important. Church needs to be a call to live our best lives, yes, but it also needs to be a mirror to our soul. It needs to be the ultimate counselor, to reflect back upon us the gamut of human emotion, and not just in the lighting of a candle. Joy, peace, celebration, yes, and deepest sorrow, brokenness, so that we may begin to heal. It needs not only to draw us out of ourselves and into the world for service, but also to be our own oxygen mask, to save us so we may then help others. And as you imply, no flower or water communion, no coffee hour or potluck, has ever held the same power of (what?) as Holy Communion (as it used to, for me, since I no longer count myself among Christians) as sharing the wafers and wine with our community in ritual. What are we as a religion missing? Is it, for you and me, just because Holy Communion is what was etched into us in our formative years? For lifelong UUs, *do* flower and water communions hold that same power? Or is there more to it?

    One thing is certain – Christianity did not take over the world by chance. Whether the mythology is true or not, something inside of the story and its rituals connects deeply with the rhythms of our lives, both physical and spiritual.

  2. Wow, Mandie–so much to say here.

    First, your comments about your experience in your ELCA church highlight the assumptions I am making at the denominational level based on my experiences at the local level. (And I mean the very local level–I never participated in denominational activities or even visited the other ELCA church in town.) Even within my church, my firsthand experience was shaped and buffered by my family, my friends, the teaching pastor in charge of my confirmation program, etc. I forget that, and it’s important . . . within my own context, I experienced the ELCA as tolerant of questions, affirming of evolution and science (long, science-supportive discussions about this in confirmation), and willing to open itself to growth and questioning on the issues of ordination of GLBT members. Similarly, I experience UU primarily as a congregant in one specific church–my joys and frustrations with UU as a whole are rooted, inevitably, in the joys and frustrations I experience in my congregation. Obviously the ELCA experience wasn’t highly generalized (though I would have expected the opposite) . . . would you guess it’s more or less so for UU?

    • I think it’s less about the denomination and more about the congregant. For me, my experiences in church before UU were always on a local, congregational level, and also as a child (I left Christianity as a late teen). But since finding UU, I’ve attended several congregations (as a long-term “friend,” as a visitor, and now as a member), and Leadership School, and I’ve become involved in the online community as well. I think this broadens my perspective and my joys and frustrations with my congregation and my religion are thus less conflated.

  3. [from a fellow UU] I believe I have had a similar reaction to attending mass in Mexico (72-73), which was performed in Spanish in the Cuernavaca cathedral with the music of mariachi singers and musicians. It was more than ritual; it was consummately sensual (almost literally smells and bells), exactly the sort of thing that Calvin and especially Cromwell felt to be the chief sin of the RC liturgy: an attempt to seduce God with splendor.

    But to me it was the congregant (or whatever the RC word is for the person in the pew) who absorbed the splendor and was uplifted (not seduced) if only for a short time. It was certainly not about the truth of Christ’s passion, however meaningful that must have been to the other congregants. But maybe it was about my redemption in some abstract, mystical sense that I cannot yet express.

  4. I love this so much. I was born and raised UU, and, no, flower communion does not come remotely close to bread and wine communion in power and meaning. Bread and wine is our ancient indigenous ritual, too. i cry almost every time i take communion (which is almost every week). Flower communion, not so much. John is so right about the use of the sensual. I’m happy to talk any time about being a UU Christian seminarian/minister. Mandie and I are Facebook friends…look me up.

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