“At its heart, I think, religion is mystical…”I have seen things…that make all my writings seem like straw.” Religions start, as Robert Frost said poems do, with a lump in the throat, to put it mildly, or with the bush going up in flames, the rain of flowers, or the dove coming down out of the sky.”
I would venture to say that there is not one person here that hasn’t been gripped by a mystical experience–despite that word ‘mystical’ maybe scaring you off a bit.
For who here has never gotten that lump in their throat, where words escape, but something happens to your body–or your breath is caught, or your body involuntarily responds to something stunning–the burning bushes that come in countless forms, and are always in our midst. If ‘mystical’ simply refers to some kind of felt encounter or experience with that which is beyond us or bigger than us that elicits something, some kind of response from our bodies–well then: being human makes mystics of us all, am I right?
Now, this kind of mystical thinking can get us very rational UU’s squirming. Some of you might be doing this already. When we consider the modern day Christian mystic, we tend to think about words like “believers,” “ecstatics,” “revivalists” “pentacostals,”…people who shake and quake and see angels and speak in tongues, dance in the aisles and shout out AMEN!…wild, spectacular stuff that leaves many of us…suspicious, to say the least.
My first UU church was one of those typical New England UU church buildings–white clapboard, steeple on top. Built in 1801, and modelled after Puritan, this is our heritage, Puritan meeting houses–called as such, with engraved letters over the front doors: MEETING HOUSE. Bolted to the floor, immoveable box pews-do you know these? And little doors that open and close. And you had to close them, once you were in so that anyone walking up and down the aisles wouldn’t run into them. So, there you are, in your box–and there you were meant to stay for the hour, hour 15 minutes. And the pew itself was hard wood, with a straight back that came up high–so turning around in your pew to take in your surroundings or each other was impossible you were under 6 feet. Some throw pillows had been added, as well as some cushioned foot stools, mercifully donated by 20th century folks who were quietly doing their best to recognize that our bodies aching and hurting in church isn’t really who we were anymore. Here, take a pillow. Try to get comfortable.
But don’t move too much, this was certainly the intention of the pews in the first place, and reflected Puritan theology well, but still remained the subtle message–still does even now. If you shift around too much the pews creak and that’s distracting. If your child kicks their legs against the base boards a thunderclap echoes throughout the sanctuary and that’s disruptive.
Please don’t clap we were reminded because this is worship, not a concert or performance. We are all trying to be reverent here. So be still and quiet down.
What is all this about?
Stillness, silence and quiet of body equals reverence. Now, Many say NO to this. But many of us still say YES. Boxed pews or not. Puritan meeting house or not.
Don’t you find this fascinating?
In the 1970’s white, WHITE, protestant churches were given a slang name that ministers, historians, theologians, and journalists began using in articles, reflections and many a commentary: The Frozen Chosen, which referred to white Christians in mainline denominations whose church services and styles of worship are formal and orderly, “stiff and reserved,” many attendees, despite feeling joy and awe in their hearts, appear “glum and torpid.” I had to look up the meaning of torpid: it’s a good one: “mentally or physically inactive, lethargic. Sluggish in functioning or acting: Numb.” “After eating too much of the holiday buffet, the man became torpid and collapsed on the sofa.”
No, our faith is no longer a Christian one, however the way we worship and do church is completely informed and guided by this white protestant expression of somewhat frozen reverence. Not all the time, but most of the time. Orderly and controlled. Let’s have fun, but not too much. Okay, we can make some noise, but let’s also remember that this is WORSHIP. Right? Some might call this DIS-embodied worship. Some.
It’s all good, it’s just what we have inherited.
Rev. Darrick Jackson, who was just with us a few weeks ago, wrote about this, at length, in an essay entitled “Othering and Belonging” which was published in the book Centering, which I can’t recommend enough. He writes that: “The intellectualism in Unitarian Universalism comes with a culture of stillness. We are expected to sit quietly in our seats, listen intently with no emotion on our faces, no movement in our bodies. We are supposed to wait until after the service to express ourselves…” He goes on to say that as a black man, “I grew up in a culture of engagement. We had permission to respond to the service, to say “Amen” when we were moved by the words or music, to clap our hands and smile and nod our heads whenever the spirit moved us… I now construct my services with UU stillness in mind; any attempt at a more embodied worship feels experimental and risky instead of one of many ways worship happens…”
HEAR THAT: One of many ways worship happens…
As you know, after service, you will be given the opportunity to lend your voice and vote to accepting the 8th Principle here at First Parish of Watertown. This principle calls us to ask vital questions, like: What is all this about? Why do we do this? Who is this for? Who is this not for? What have we inherited? And from whom did we inherit it? These are all questions we will accountably commit ourselves to exploring when we say yes to the 8th Principle. And in the asking and answering we begin to touch fingers with spiritual wholeness and healing. Because we’ve come awake. That’s the promise of this work.
And I find it delightfully serendipitous that this day, June 5th, was the date that was chosen for this vote. Because today is Pentecost Sunday. For Christians, Pentecost marks the coming of the holy spirit. One of those great and wild, embodied mystical moments in the bible. The miracle of this event is that it drew people from all parts of the known world: Egypt, Galilee, Cappadocia, Asia, and while each person only spoke and understood their native language and customs, on Pentecost the sudden sound of heaven rushed in like a mighty wind and filled the house where they were sitting. And they themselves were filled with it, and changed by it, their bodies were, and they rose to their feet and began to speak with one another, understand one another, be changed by one another, as the “Spirit gave them utterance.” They began to speak to one another. And understand one another. Be changed by one another. Be cracked open, together. Beautiful right?
Isn’t this what the 8th Principle is all about! Speaking to one another, understanding one another, being transformed: mind, heart, body, soul. Embodied, mighty-wind engagement. Letting the spirit move. Coming awake?
And the Pentacostal tradition roots itself in this embodied expression of awe and wonder and faith and praise to this day. In all its forms. And while we are not all aligned with modern Pentacostal belief, many UU’s are building bridges with this tradition so as to begin to heal this mind/body split that has been a dominant feature of modern white Western religion and Unitarian Universalism, and to also open our doors wider, stretch ourselves BE welcome, not just say it, to those who long for something more than a disembodied white culture of stillness.
Many UU’s are calling this creative revisioning in our sanctuaries and churches, being a part of THE EMERGENT CHURCH MOVEMENT. One that asks us to consider why we do things, how we do things, and who we do them for. And who they leave out. And holds us accountable to co-creating something new. Waking up. Many feel that the future of our faith tradition depends on this work. And considering why stillness and silence equals reverence, period end stop, is a great ponderable! Why does clapping elude me? Or an occasional Amen? Or a spontaneous WOW, or YES!
Start with the questions. Not so that you feel badly about yourselves, but because they are great questions! Be gone blame and guilt, let’s be curious and open. Let our hearts be awake, wide awake! That’s all. Let us not be fixed or sealed like those bolted down pews with their little doors; frozen in body or thought. Let us defrost. And see what happens! Maybe a mighty wind waits for us with this seeing-what-happens mindset.
Please know that I am not looking to turn this sanctuary into a weekly revival. Nor am I minimizing the very real soul nourishment that stillness and silence offer. For me, these are some of my most near and dear practices. I am simply asking us all to consider the more. And be willing, willing, to emerge and wake up and begin to call into question thinking and practice that mindlessly prescribes one way to do worship and church and one way to be reverent, or encounter that which is holy. Consider the MORE. Consider the WHY. The invitation in this holy place is to Let the spirit move YOU in whatever way inches you towards a feeling of wholeness, within and with one another. So let us give it the room to move. This is who we are! In 2022, this is who we are as Unitarian Universalists.
On this Pentecost Sunday, on this 8th Principle Sunday, I am here to be transformed with you friends. Believe me when I tell you that we are in this together.
Can I get an Amen?
Let’s rise now in body or in spirit and sing and clap and dance or simply let it move through you, our closing hymn: We Give Thanks #1010.
Reverend Sophia Lyons
Rev. Sophia is committed to radical welcome and spreading the good news that is our bold Unitarian Universalist faith. Some of her areas of interest include interfaith partnerships, addictions ministry, spiritual direction, and working towards collective liberation for all. Rev. Sophia aspires to live her life and fulfill her ministry guided by spiritual seeking, big love, and the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism.