To Celebrate Things of Worth

A Service Led by Barbara Wells, co-minister
Paint Branch UU Church
February 22, 2004

Call to Worship:

As Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the most famous of all American Unitarians once said, "A person will worship something – have no doubt about that." I would put it more succinctly: worship matters. Today, I invite you into worship with images from this past week in my heart and soul. On the steps of a courthouse in San Francisco, couples and families stood in line for hours to take part in a worship-filled ritual called a wedding. Weddings have been taking place for as long as humans remember. But these weddings are different. For the first time in our nation’s history, gay and lesbian couples are being legally married.

I am sure that many of those couples have already been married in the church. Our Unitarian Universalist congregations, alongside a tiny handful of other religious groups, have been marrying lesbian and gay couples in wedding services for many years. Receiving legal sanction for these couples brings our nation into a new day, and I for one am filled with joy.

Today, as we explore the meaning and purpose of worship, I return to Emerson’s words. He wrote, "That which dominates our imaginations and thoughts will determine our lives and our character. Therefore it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping, we are becoming." I believe that the spirit of love that lies at the base of these radical acts that are taking place in California is a worthy thing to dominate our thoughts and imagination. And if we become more welcoming and loving, perhaps someday our nation and world will follow. Let us take a deep breath in solidarity with those who have shown that love is always stronger than fear. (Pause) May their spirit prevail.


A Collection of Thoughts on Worship
By members of the UU Church of Annapolis and Paint Branch UU Church

Worship should attempt to touch all levels of a person—physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. The energy of the service should begin with an expressed intention or invocation to bring forth the highest good; then build to an energy that will bring forth that shift in consciousness or moment of "aha"; then come to a conclusion that assists the congregation now changed in moving back out into the world and ready to affect that change in their daily lives. (Katherine Klemstine)

A worship service feels most worshipful to me when the service is all of a piece, one seamless whole, when parts of the service flow naturally from one to another. [It’s important that] the service point to something transcendent, that the service is about something ineffable/larger/glimpsed but never fully known. (Nancy Schaeffer)

I find worship most meaningful when it reinforces my hope that compassion can become the dominant human aspiration in place of materialism, and that you and I and we are helping to bring that change. (Leo Karpeles)

I find worship most meaningful when it lifts me up emotionally, and helps give me the strength to live a more caring and loving life with my fellow human beings, and with all that is in our beautiful-but-threatened-planet. (Nancy Boardman)

The worship service offers me an opportunity for caring [about myself and others], for sacrifice [in time, energy, and money], for renewal [in mind and spirit], and for elevation [in vision and intention]. (Phillip Tawes)

Worship feels spiritual to me when I sit in the middle of the congregation and feel the group enfold me. I love to look around while singing "Spirit of Life" at the end of the service to see all the faces of the people I know and don't know, to think of all the lives joined together in that moment, to feel the strength of their voices loud and soft united in a communion of the spirit formed from experiencing the morning's service and just being together. (John Bartoli)

Worship is most meaningful for me when it touches my core; when it connects me to what I could become; when it connects me with others and with a reality and meaning that is greater than us all, but is also us and of us. We are all part of the interconnected web of existence. A good worship service reminds us of that web and celebrates it. (Lisa Fleeharty)

Choir: "God Give Me Mountains"

God give me mountains with hills at their knees, mountains too high for the flutter of trees.
Mountains that know the dark valleys of death, that have kissed a pale star and felt its last breath.
And still lift the dawn in a golden rimmed cup. Oh, God give me mountains and strength to climb up!

Sermon: To Celebrate Things of Worth — Barbara Wells

The first time I ever sang this song was in a children’s worship service at the First Parish Church, Unitarian Universalist, in Lexington, MA. I remember the feelings of wonder the song evoked in me, although my experience with mountains at the time was not great. Years later, when I moved to Seattle—near which there are lots of big and beautiful mountains—I began to understand why the song touched me so much. Mountains create in me a feeling of worship, and seeing them always evokes a sense of prayerful reverence that touches me deeply.

I expect many of you have places or sights that move you to feel worshipful. People of all kinds discover commonality when we acknowledge the things that touch us deeply. Things that matter. Things of worth. And from such feelings emerges a desire to worship. For that is what worship means. This old English word may suggest to you bowing down before a deity, but by its origins it has little to do with kings or Gods or even religion. "Worship" means simply, "to shape things of worth."

Ever since I began in ministry nearly 20 years ago, I have been fascinated by the ways human beings worship. And this fascination has led me to begin a study, which will, I hope ultimately lead to my receiving a Doctor of Ministry degree sometime in the next few years. My focus in this degree program is on worship, in particular Unitarian Universalist worship. I want to know why we worship and how we worship and whether or not the way we worship works for us as a religious people. And so I have begun my studies in the places I know best—congregations. You, the people of Paint Branch are part of my study. But I have left the safe haven of this church to work, this fall, in three other congregations: Media, PA, plus Annapolis and Columbia, MD. What I am learning is exciting and challenging and, I believe, important.

Over the course of the last few months, I have been asking people in all these churches the same questions I first asked our worship associates over two years ago. The first question I always ask is: "When do you feel worshipful?" This evokes response much like my feelings about mountains. Most people, when asked this question, tend to talk about their individual experience. I often hear folks say they feel worshipful in nature, in quiet solitude, and certainly in the face of new life or the death of a loved one.

For many of us, feeling worshipful is a profoundly personal and even intimate experience. This mirrors the writing of one of the foremost Unitarian Universalist ministers of the 20th century, Jacob Trapp, who wrote:

"To worship is to stand in awe under a heaven of stars, before a flower, a leaf in sunlight, or a grain of sand. To worship is to work with dedication and skill; it is to pause from work and listen to a strain of music. Worship is the mystery within us reaching out to the mystery beyond. It is an inarticulate silence yearning to speak; it is the window of the moment open to the sky of the eternal."

Trapp’s words are beautiful, capturing the awe and wonder many of us feel in nature. They also acknowledge that worship need not be something separate from our daily lives. We can and do feel worshipful in many ordinary places—sometimes even at work!

As much as I understand the power of worshipful feelings that emerge for each of us individually within our private spheres, I am more interested in what brings us together to worship. As expressed twenty years ago by the authors of a helpful manual, Leading Congregations in Worship, "When we gather together for worship, we are making the assumption that we can create some kind of common experience" [from Worship Web at]. The creation of that common experience is no small task. Yet throughout history human beings have tried to find ways to worship the things they find to be of the most worth: God, Christ, Allah, the Earth, the Ancestors, and even, to the detriment of our planet, a dictator or fanatic. Human beings are, I believe, worshipful creatures. It is in our nature to want to create rituals that bring us together in order to understand that which is most important in life.

This was reflected in some of the other responses I received when I asked people to speak more deeply about worship. They spoke of listening to and making music, participating in rituals like weddings or funerals, and the great joy of being in a community of like-minded spirits.

Clearly, worship can and does happen in community. Yet, communal worship is quite a different animal than the worshipful feelings that emerge within our own hearts. Communal worship is a shared experience among people who, particularly within our congregations, are likely to have very different needs and wants. And today, as we move deeper into the 21st century, those needs and wants are changing dramatically within Unitarian Universalism. And that change is causing all sorts of confusion and frustration within our churches. I think I have a handle on why this is so. I’ll be interested to see if you agree with me.

Modern Unitarian Universalist worship services have their roots in the Protestant Reformation with its emphasis on the Bible and the sermon. Prior to the Reformation, most Christian worship was highly ritualized, and few, if any services were even done in the common tongue of the listeners. Worship was designed to bring on the experience of awe in the presence of the Almighty. The fact that few understood the words being spoken just deepened the mystery. While there is much beauty and power in these ancient rituals, our religious ancestors longed to understand the meaning behind the rote words and rigid ritual. Thus, Protestant worship services turned away from ritual toward a more educational approach. Church services were designed to teach, and the Bible readings, sermon, and prayers did just that. The "thing of worth" to be shaped in Protestant worship was the word—the word of God, the Bible, and the preacher.

Our religious services today reflect this emphasis on the word. When asked in survey after survey, most Unitarian Universalists list the sermon as the most important element of the worship service. We are accustomed to and appreciative of the learned ministry and expect that, in worship, we will be educated. Some of our most heralded ministers of the 20th century were those who could speak profoundly to large, important issues.

I remember once, for example, when I was a student minister at Community Church in NYC, I heard their minister emeritus, Donald Harrington, preach. For 45 minutes, he spoke with erudition on the topic of genetic engineering. Once I recognized that I was essentially getting a college-level lecture on this meaningful topic I listened and learned. But I will admit that it did not feel particularly worshipful.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with this educational approach to worship, it has proven to have its limits over time. The human spirit craves learning, yes, but it also craves beauty, celebration, emotional depth and that indescribable something called spirit. We are called, I believe, to create worship experiences that offer more than just education. Worship can also be, among other things, spiritual, transformational and community-building.

For the past couple of decades, people have been arguing within our congregations about what it means to be spiritual and how our worship services can reflect spirituality. Some people believe it is all about words—whether to use such words as "God" or "prayer," for instance. Others claim it is more about feeling, claiming that the spirit is felt through the heart and not through the mind.

While there is an element of truth to both of these approaches, I suggest it goes beyond either of them to something even deeper. While I recognize that it may be impossible to ever define completely a liberal yet spiritual approach to worship, I believe we can try. One way to approach this question might be to look at worship services that are consistently done well within our congregations. Memorial services, for example.

A few years ago when I had the sad privilege of doing the memorial service here for Isabel Weston, I was approached after the service by our then kitchen queen, Hortense Parr. Hortense did not like a lot of choices I made in worship, particularly my use of religious language. Forthright and un-sentimental, she was a believer in the educational style of worship, which had been her experience throughout many years as a UU. After Isabel’s memorial service, Hortense found me in the kitchen. Her eyes shining with un-shed tears, she put her arms around me and said, "I don’t like a lot of what you do, Barbara, but you do a damn fine memorial service!" When, not many months later, Hortense died, I reflected on her words as we, with profound spirit, remembered her in worship.

Memorial services are a great example of what Unitarian Universalists do extremely effectively. Why are these services so routinely praised? Perhaps it is because they are about something that is truly important, the life and death of a person. They are also full of emotion that is not simply sentimentality. And they are a reminder that religion and the life of the spirit really matter.

Allowing ourselves to be open to mystery and wonder can bring about another way of looking at worship—as transformational, which implies positive change. Worship has, I believe the ability to change us, if we choose to let it. Weekly worship can be transformative if it regularly invites us to address issues that matter in ways that cause us to pay attention to our own lives. Worship is all about paying attention; it is all about being in the present. It can speak to us where we are, in this moment, in this place.

Not long ago a colleague of mine led a worship service for a group of 30 ministers at our annual study group. Her service was almost entirely music, and the words she spoke between the songs were words of sadness, words of hope, and words of love. For some reason, in that moment and place, I was struck so deeply that I literally sobbed through the whole service. I, who love to sing more than just about anything else in the world, was rendered voiceless by the beauty and power of worship. Afterwards, I realized that I had cried out an old pain that needed to be healed. As I was held in the musical arms of the spirit, I began the transformation toward understanding and hope.

While it does not gloss over human failure, pain or loss, worship that moves us does so because it shows us not only who we are but also who we might be. Powerful worship can truly change lives. It has changed mine. Perhaps it has changed yours.

Finally, worship can be a community-building experience. In most congregations, as it is here, the Sunday morning service is the center of church life. Worship can be welcoming. It can offer us not only educational opportunities, spiritual insights and transformation; it can also provide support for the essential human need for care and human touch. For some, the Sunday morning service is the one time each week when they are spoken to with love and touched with compassion. I was once told that I should approach each service as if someone in the congregation has a broken heart, for it is almost always true.

Thus, the shape and scope of the worship service can be a place where people are not only reminded to care, they can care right then and there. It is why the "greet your neighbor" part of our service is, in my view, an essential element of the worship experience. The touching of hands and the speaking of names has the ability to deepen a sense of community among us. So, too, the very acts of being together, listening and singing, standing and sitting, praying and reflecting in words and silence can remind us that we are not alone. And worship is one way humans have remembered their connection to each other and to the holy since the beginning of time.

When you came through those doors this morning, you made the decision to enter a church community that has, as its primary focus, a weekly worship service. While worship is by no means all a church can or should do, there is no doubt in my mind that it is one of the most important elements of religious life. I feel a bit strange talking about worship because in doing so I fear I may have intellectualized an experience instead of allowing you to feel it. But I feel so strongly that we who love education and who have centered our worship and much of our community life on learning must understand that the needs of people are changing when it comes to worship. While my parents may have gone to a Unitarian Universalist church to learn, many today tell me they come to church for more than just education. They want to be able to acknowledge the mystery and wonder of life, to dance and sing and be silent together. Some even want to pray and listen—not to lectures but to preaching. There is conflict inherent in this evolution, for our congregations are changing and change is hard.

But let me leave you with a challenge. As we move ever deeper into this new era, it’s essential that we acknowledge that our congregations far too often reflect more of the past than they do of the future. Our churches are primarily white, our liturgy Protestant, our ways of doing the work of the church pretty 20th if not 19th century. If we want to live out our principles and reach out to people of different backgrounds and experiences, isn’t it likely that some of the ways we do things will have to change? Worship that speaks only to the mind is not inclusive. Worship that seeks to touch body and spirit as well as mind might just be.

I am proud of the fact that the worship life of this church includes wonderful music, poetry, and even dance. I am excited by the evolution of our Worship Associate program, which is leading the way in helping other congregations become places where lay and clergy work together to create quality worship. And I am aware that our religious movement is truly beginning to recognize that worship matters. I am hopeful that we, and other Unitarian Universalists, will find creative and inclusive ways to spread the powerful good news of our faith—which is, in my view, the thing of worth I come here each week to worship. And what is our good news? You know it well: the unity of all of creation and the worth and dignity of all people. This powerful message can and should be shared and lived in all we do.

Ralph Waldo Emerson challenged us over 100 years ago to "be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping is what we are becoming." May we commit ourselves to become an inclusive community where we worship with our minds, hearts, bodies and souls the things of worth that really matter.

Closing Words

People will worship something.
May that something we worship be of value and worth.
Worship changes us.
May we be open to the transformative power of community ritual in which we can find hope and healing.
Worship touches our souls, as well as our minds.
May we discover the many ways we can create sacred space during this time together.
Worship matters.
May we learn to create meaningful worship experiences that are inclusive and speak with the voice of the spirit of life.
May that voice sing in our hearts as we give voice together to Carolyn’s McDade’s beautiful song, "Spirit of Life."

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