A couple of weeks ago our choir Chorealis offered a remarkable service revisiting the Lord’s Prayer in words and the 23rd Psalm in Music. It was beautiful and well done. The service was entitled, “A Free and Responsible Search for Truth and Meaning: A Case Study”. I began with Chorealis Co-Director Karen Mills offering this personal reflection and issuing a challenge to the open mindedness of UU’s. It bears reprinting.
You can see the entire service at our UCE website. – Brian
Reflection by Karen Mills
When I first came to UCE, about 24 years ago, one of the very first conversations I had was with a (then) matriarch of the congregation. She asked me about myself and I said I played piano and was interested in music. She replied, almost with a warning tone, “That’s nice dear, but we DON’T sing.” Hmmm…. that bugged me.
One other thing I noticed over my first few visits was that any time words like spirit, prayer, soul, or what might be considered “spiritual language” was used in a service, there was an immediate, physical, negative reaction from congregants. Eyes would roll, arms would be crossed, and there would be harrumphing. If the Bible was quoted, the eye rolling would change to glares. That never happened with readings from any other source.
Now, these words were usually uttered by a guest speaker. But, if the minister or a member or the congregation did use them as part of the service, they immediately apologized or couched it by saying something like, “or substitute the word of your choice.”. Hmmm… that REALLY bugged me.
It bugged me not because I have any particular affection for or connection to biblical language, but because this behaviour seemed to be such a complete contradiction of the very principles that the congregation advocated so strongly for in every other situation.
Here was a group that publicly and adamantly advocated for diversity and tolerance.
Here was a group who held open-mindedness, seeking for truth and meaning, and the inherent worth and dignity of every human as their unifying bond and duty to uphold.
These were the values and principles that drew me to UCE. But why did they only apply if the person or source was anything but Christian? How could you have a free and responsible search for truth and meaning if you rejected one of the most influential and wide-reaching sources – Christianity – out of hand?
And why did I keep coming back?
Well, the answer to that last question is easy; I’m made up of about equal parts of optimism, naïveté, and stubbornness. If I see something I think should be changed, I’ll either charge in to change in – not really thinking about the consequences or details until I’m well into the thick of things – or I’ll trust that reason will prevail and people will change to my way of thinking ☺.
And, I really liked the people. They were interested and interesting. Their curiosity was insatiable. They truly wanted to make the world a better place.
So, with a lot of encouragement and support, I started organizing some singing. And, as it turns out – we do sing!
And as I got to know the people in the congregation, I found the answer to my question about the reaction to Christian sources.
Through conversations, I learned that it wasn’t so much the words themselves that they were rejecting, but the associations that came with those words. Many in the congregation at that time had painful experiences in Christian churches. They were told not to question. They were shut down if they offered a differing viewpoint. They were shunned in their communities and workplaces if they questioned the church or the Bible. More than one person told me that if they didn’t belong to a church, they couldn’t have been promoted at work. It’s hard to imagine now, but that was the world as it was in the 50s and 60s. And there weren’t many other faith communities for them to seek out. And if they were gay or lesbian, the rejection was even more severe. So UCE became their safe haven and longed-for community where they could finally question and discuss and be with like-minded people.
It appeared to me that, as a way of coping with the hurts from their pasts, many sort of “threw the baby out with the bathwater.” Any Christian references were simply rejected. But, in rejecting the “biblical packaging” they lost any of the wisdom that might have been inside the package.
All of us do the same thing, in different ways. Perhaps we’ve had a bad experience with a co-worker – after that, it’s hard to hear their ideas and feedback with an open mind.
Or maybe we attend an event that features a speaker with very different political leanings. Can we set that aside effectively enough to really hear them and see if there is something in their message that may have value for us?
To me, this is the “responsible” part of a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. We are called to consider every source and weigh its potential and only then can we reject or accept it.
And then, when we do find a message that has meaning, can we reframe it in a way that makes it more palatable to our ears, minds, and hearts?
Can we really do this? I believe we can. In fact, I know we can, because I’ve seen it. And here’s where the “case study” part comes in. Just from my story this morning, you can see that this congregation has changed. As new people joined and new ideas were put forward and some of the old hurts became less intense, our collective outlook changed.
We’re much more open to “spiritual” language now. We’re more open to looking at all sources for wisdom. This was most recently illustrated by the high attendance at Brian’s course on Jesus this past fall.
And I think this shift is great; but it has taken 20 years. Can we speed it up? (In truth, I’m made up of equal parts optimism, naïveté, stubbornness, and impatience.)
Well, I think we can do that too. Being open-minded was the first step. Now, if we become more adept at taking the wisdom we find and “packaging” it in a way that speaks to us, acceptance may come more quickly and we can start incorporating that wisdom into our lives more easily.
So, here’s part two of the case study. This morning, we’re taking two classic Christian texts – the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm (The Lord Is My Shepherd) – and showing how different composers and authors have adapted their messages into packaging that better suits their own needs and styles. We hope some ideas will strike a chord with you and open doors to new meaning in old messages.