The Work that is Play

By Jeff Merkel

Given at Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Fairbanks, January 8, 2008.

I was trying to write about worship on Friday morning when my son Matteo started turning out all the lights in the house. I was feeling a little guilty for working on my stuff when my job description says I should be playing with him.

He was plunging us into the morning darkness for the sake of the lights shining on the Christmas tree. Teo wanted to sing to the tree.

He's already sitting as I join him. "Further away," he commands – I'm sitting too close to the tree. All the details have to be correct.

His template for this "liturgy” is all of two weeks old – we've only done this half a dozen times as a family, during the Christmas season, evenings before supper. Teo starts singing "O Tannenbaum" and I try to help him with the German. But he cuts me off. "By myself!" he commands. And at the tender age of 2 3/4 he manages to get through his solo in sort-of German, while exuberantly spinning himself around like a break dancer beside me on his butt.

A month ago I had a talk here “Religious Mentoring” which began with the reading of a poem called At the New Smithville Methodist Church by Stephen Dunn. It's a simple, sweet poem about the poet's young daughter, who goes to a local church for a week of arts and crafts, and comes home with a “Jesus Saves” button. The poet, a confirmed agnostic, is taken aback and a little petulant at the unwelcome indoctrination, but decides, partly because of the innocent enthusiasm of his young daughter for her new friends and songs, to let the week play out.

It brings the poet to think about the stories the Christians are telling her, and the lack of mythical stories which he as a parent has to offer, and how odd it is for him that she is singing “Jesus loves you” when for him, that's a part of his life long and happily abandoned, though thinking about it all again seems, for him, a little depressing. Still, he doesn't know how to place her joyous enthusiasm, and ponders it in silence as she “jumps for Jesus” in the car ride home.

It's that enthusiasm bubbling up within structure that I'm angling for this morning, Matteo's in front of the tree, the girl's as she jumps and sings, and ours as we gather in this place.

Anthropologists call this the power of ritual. Traditional churches use the term “liturgy.” I am calling this talk, “The Work that is Play,” because of the word “liturgy.”

Liturgy is the word that best defines what people in a community choose to do publicly together, those customary, repeated actions which help them affirm in public who they are and what they long for. Liturgy includes a community's repertoire of ideas, of phrases, and observances, their favorite songs, stories, images and actions woven together to explain, celebrate and share their life together.

“Liturgy” isn't necessarily about religion, really, nor is it about priests and hymnals and creeds. It's about repeated expressions of the spirit – reading important texts, sharing insights, singing songs, giving gifts, honoring those who have gone before us, lighting candles to remember, listening to music. It's about going deep into a life together, using both what is familiar and comforting as well as what is strange and exhilarating.

The word liturgy comes from the Greek, and it translates, “the work of the people.” This is why this word is so useful – it acknowledges the need for structure, while proclaiming that the celebration belongs to the people. It's the work of the people, not the priest, not the leadership, it belongs to the little kids, the elderly, the skeptical, the faithful, all. What it really refers to is how a group of everyday people use their time in community to help them live more richly, bravely, compassionately, and truthfully.

Many of us bear the wounds of religions that are dysfunctional and even dishonest, often precisely because these religions have stolen the liturgy from the people, and closed the doors to their authentic experience, their questions, their spontaneity. Because of this, I want my talking about “liturgy” in this place to remind us that what we do is fully ours to choose and to shape, a Sunday morning experience which juxtaposes serious work with honest playfulness. If it isn't fun, how could worship be true, or useful?

A codicil before we move on: I have already violated our “liturgy” by using the word “liturgy.” It's a strange, and for some, totally annoying word. We don't even feel comfortable, most of us, using the term “worship” for what we do Sundays, because it suggests that there's some god we bow down to. Our term is “Sunday Service” or “Sunday Program.” Instead of a “worship” committee, we have a “program” committee.

what I'm giving today is a “talk” not a “sermon.” It's taken me a couple years to get these different words into my consciousness, because I don't want people to turn me off when I'm talking. But today I'll ask your forbearance if I use what most of the world uses to refer to what we at UUFF do so well.

Marcia McFee is a worship consultant who works with UU's across the country. She tells the story of a mentor, an older UU friend in Alabama, whom she sees a couple times a year. Each time they meet, the friend fixes her eyes on Marcia and says, “Let us speak about the deepest things right away.”

I offer this challenge to go deep, and with enthusiasm, right at the outset of this talk, because the topic can be radioactive. The struggles over “liturgy,” the so called “worship wars,” are second only to fights over “homosexuality” in their ability to create havoc in modern mainline churches. Many churches avoid this conflict by avoiding looking at what they do Sundays, avoiding the questions, “does this work for us or anyone else, does it make a difference in our lives, our world?” This results in a situation where everyone is unoffended but also unfulfilled.

“Let us speak about the deepest things right away.” So what are the deepest things, anyway?

In a book from the middle of the last Century called The Idea of Holy , Rudolph Otto redefined the concepts “holy” and “sacred.” He notes that the words did not originally refer to people who are good or virtuous or devout, implying religiosity and morality. Rather, Otto argues that “holy” and “sacred” originally contained darkness as well as light, fear as well as wonder, and weren't about religion at all, but about places, places of mystery and power. Such places trigger altered states of awareness; from them the world looks clearer, crisper, more detailed. (Ackerman, Deep Play , 62)

There's another aspect of “deepest things,” which is the radically unexpected. You get familiar with your life, and something happens which turns things upside down. The “turnaround.” We come to a point in our lives when we're losing it, and we find a way, or life finds a way of turning us inside out so that we can see, feel, love and rejoice in life again. Laughter is a good indicator of this “turnaround” experience. Deep, hearty laughter, often at yourself. “Let us speak about the deepest things right away.”

Liturgy is both a great advantage and a terrible disadvantage of traditional churches, if you're wanting to get to the “deepest things.” In almost every other area it's a disadvantage to be traditional, but I'd say that it's an advantage from the point of view of worship, of liturgy.

That's because there's a lot of culture to pick and choose from when you're trying to figure out what to do and say together on Sunday morning. There are incredibly moving spiritual practices from the early church. There are the Psalms, those poetic praises as well as fights with the Divine. There are simple striking hymns. There are models and mentors of good people like Saint Frances who preaches to the wolves and the chickadees. There are liturgies for marrying people, welcoming people, blessing people, forgiving people, confronting people, and comforting people who sorrow. There is the liturgical year which tells you exactly what mood to strike on a given Sunday – for example, in most of Christianity, today is Epiphany, the arrival of three wise men to visit the baby Jesus.

I'll let you in on a professional secret – a lot of pastors and church leaders who don't agree with their church's beliefs or politics, manage to stay in the church by helping their communities create, Sunday after Sunday, liturgies which “speak about the deepest things” in people's lives.

So what's the disadvantage of tradition for “liturgy.” Well, you can be asleep at the wheel while life zooms past. There's no guarantee that going to church will expose you to anything real, true, or important.

This is the case with a large percentage of religion today, across the globe. I find it as exasperating when come across this lack of engagement with reality in my Yoga class, or my Buddhist reading, as I do in American Christianity. There are liturgies in every spiritual tradition which are expressly used to keep the world at bay, to keep reality from impinging on my demand to feel okay, on my projection of myself upon reality.

For the most part, UU's have given up the traditions and liturgical templates of older religions. This means, UU's face the challenge of cutting our Sunday experiences, our liturgies, from whole cloth, a task which is tremendously stimulating and challenging.

It requires due diligence. This is the only UU church I've known, and I have to say, we're pretty good at it. Week after week someone stands up here and opens their heart to us. It's my experience that even as I am always struggling to stay connected with the deepest things in my life, still, whenever I try to put them out there in sermons or even spontaneously in Chalice Circles, it's both tremendously exhilarating, incredibly scary, and also exhausting.

It's quite a challenge to do weekly Sunday programs, without much of a traditional liturgy. It's hard to constantly and diligently create Sunday services which work, challenge, liberate, and empower our life together. I suppose that's one reason why UUFF has only recently tried to keep worship going through the summer. I suspect in the past our leaders were glad to give it a rest. It's just too demanding.

But if we stop pushing for excellence and openness in liturgy, as do many small churches, we'll slip into the phenomenon of lowest-common-denominator worship.

This is probably what you sat through if you were a kid in an average mainline small church – nothing innovative, everything familiar and safe for the people who paid the bills, and leadership which was comfortable paying the price of stability. Churches that don't push for breakthroughs, or respond to changes, also don't welcome new members with new ideas, or respond to the needs of people beyond the walls of the church.

Nor surprisingly, this happens to Unitarians as well.

In a new book by two UU ministers who spent a year visiting 40 churches known for good worship, the authors talk about how Unitarian churches are vulnerable.

Traditional Unitarian liturgy comes straight from the Puritans, very rigid, sharply reasoned, very defined, no surprises, no loose ends. The liturgy as it's handed down consists of a couple of songs, readings, a long, carefully wrought talk, with an offering, followed by announcements and, recently, coffee. Actually, it's the same with a small UCC church, a small Presbyterian church, a small Methodist or Baptist church, and what's different in the Lutheran and Episcopal is mainly that they eat wafers and drink wine at some point. The two UU pastors characterize the dying UU churches as family friendly, but neither risk-taking nor innovative, and, for all their quirkiness, insular, suffocating.

It's a problem which I talked about in my last sermon. If we aren't breaking ground in our liturgies, in our life together, quickly we come face to face with the dilemma of the poet/father in the poem, At the Smithville Methodist Church , who has rejected the Christian story, but who hasn't invested enough personal effort into a more vital, more true story to share with his young daughter.

Okay, so how do we come up with Sunday services, liturgies which “speak about the deepest things right away?” I have two hunches about this, from my experience and my reading. One is that we tell hard, exhilarating, challenging truths together. And the second is that we never forget that we are here to be friends in this work, in this search, in this dance.

How do we develop a liturgical tradition which is based on telling the truth? One celebrated truth-enhancing gift of the Unitarian Universalist movement is that we know ourselves to be non- conformists. We can be Thoreau at Walden, discovering the truth of things. We take as our discipline, our spiritual practice, the challenge to see the world with the clarity of holy disinterest. We want to know the world how it actually is, not how others have seen it, or how we wish it might be.

Our liturgies can be structured to hold us to basic principles of honesty, of hope, of telling the truth, while challenging us to use certain parts of the form – the talk, or the chalice lighting, or the joys and sorrows – to push us to grow, to expand, to learn new tricks, to take on new challenges. It's the structure that enables lay leaders to volunteer without figuring out every Sunday how to do it “right” and it also enables people who attend worship to feel like they are “home” in a familiar setting, beloved songs, remembered words.

Besides, you can only take so much “new stuff,” so much “change” and “challenge” while remaining open, emotionally. Too much “new” becomes overstimulation, and you need to protect yourself. Especially when we are talking about the goal of “speaking the deepest things right away.” Even small changes in the overall structure, when they are gratuitous, can annoy or distract, and can break the spell of a liturgy and close you right down.

Yet our goal must be to open our worship to the insights, the new voices. How to bring forth an issue which is hard to talk about, so that you are shedding new light, or helping others to join you in your concern. How to touch a chord in others, how to speak about what has taken the place of God in your life, or to tell people who don't feel comfortable with prayer why it is you still pray, or by narrating part of your life's story, showing what is your deepest hope.

These kinds of adventures in the truth could be incredible starting points for unforgettable worship services that would change lives, yours and others. Our time together on Sunday is our best opportunity to experiment within structure, to explore within bounds, to find our voice as a community..

There's nothing more exhilarating than being here on a Sunday morning when the liturgy is breaking new ground, trying out new ideas, exploring new ways to talk about our lives, when we feel raw and alive, when we get goose bumps listing to someone we barely know saying something we know so deeply it burns in us like a fire.

Times like this, we know we are touching the “holy,” the most powerful truth which is available to us. It's when time stops, and we feel like we're waking from a long sleep, and we sense we won't be the same anymore.

It won't be every Sunday that something we experience together in this place is so authentic, jarring, rich, hope-provoking that the ground shifts under us. But there will be those times, we may come to expect them.

Ironically, though the Unitarians have been on the truth-telling liberal edge in America for a long time, in the past couple decades, the churches which have been growing fastest in the US are the ones which are newly breaking away from denominations,

taking that “liberal” plunge, creating in new buildings a friendly “food court” or “Starbucks” atmosphere where ordinary people feel safe meeting others, creating music which is kitschy and inspiring and spiritually engaging, and creating liturgies which help people with the problems and questions which they face in everyday life –

family issues, loneliness issues, financial issues, esteem issues, dating, eating, dying issues, the whole struggling American Dream issue.

This is our natural territory. This is UU ecosystem. But we're not growing, nationally. If we want to fulfill our potential, it will happen because what we offer in our liturgies on Sunday morning starts changing lives.

“Let us speak about the deepest things right away.”

Okay, the second aspect of our quest for services which “speak about the deepest things right away.” has to do with being friends in this work, this search, this dance.

It's about a quality of community which is open, disclosing, trusting, caring, and empowering.

And, more than likely, it's the very first thing on people's mind when they come to a church for worship. In fact, the first part of the “work of the people” or the “liturgy” at a church begins subliminally as people are arriving. Is this a church of friends? Do people seem to like one another? Do they laugh. Do they listen to one another. Are there kids? How does the community welcome and treat them? Do people light up, and open up, do they listen carefully and share thoughtfully?

A person walking in the door, may not even know what she's longing for, what he is seeking. But studies show that most people new to a community make up their minds about whether they fit in that community within their first five to eight minutes of exposure, starting in the parking lot. The best way to “warm” a congregation's personality is by welcoming, incorporating and empowering people who are warm and welcoming. You can't magically produce it where it doesn't exist just because you think you ought to. That's another thing about the liturgy of friendship, you can't fake it.

But despite the importance of first impressions for newcomers, it isn't primarily in the foyer before the service or in the coffee hour after the service that the real potential exists for connecting to the deepest things. it's in the liturgy.

It's there, through participating in the main event, that people are able to answer the big questions they are inevitably asking themselves. Is there anyone here like me? Do I have a place here? Can being here help me find my way in life? It's in the liturgy, that it becomes clear to us whether folks in the community are on an important journey that I want to be on too.

One of the surest ways of coming at this “work that is play,” has to do with this value of being friends. There's nothing like worship which is hosted by a group of friends. It's like singing parts in a choir, or playing in a improv band – everyone practices what they're good at, and when they get the whole thing together – bliss!

In other settings, I've used what Marcia McFee, the worship consultant, recommends for UU's. In her concept, there's a Sunday program coordinator, like Jana Peirce and I share responsibility for in this fellowship at the present. The coordinator(s) call forth a worship team of, say, six people who enjoy worship and enjoy one another – friends who play well together,

These six covenant to work out thematically related services for, say, a month of Sundays. All Souls UU in Tulsa has worked out a three-year cycle of worship themes for their worship teams: this past September it was Vision, October, Creation, and so on through Democracy, God, Evil, Religious Authority, Freedom, Redemption, and Mercy.

Those six people, once they have the theme they want, invite six others to a potluck to brainstorm ideas, readings, songs, personal stories, children's stories, and so on. Then all six participate each Sunday in doing the liturgy for their month. This kind of mutuality, seriousness, risk taking, playfulness, and focus can lead to a quantum leap in people's engagement in and appreciation of Sundays.

That book Worship that Works by that UU clergy couple who visited 30 churches, .

found that the one factor present in every one of those churches was a large investment in worship – friendly, practical, but challenging liturgies. And the desired outcome was not growth. It was changed lives. A side highlight was that the churches were indeed growing.

Here's the role I'd like to continue playing in our life together: I'd like to be a cheerleader for everyone who volunteers at leading or designing or giving talks at Sunday services at our fellowship. Because The best stuff comes from a very simple place. And you all know that place. It's the place of telling your truth, surrounded by friends, “speaking the deepest things right away,”

This is the formula for “the work that is play,” and for a community that remains important, vital and fun.

When you see people Jumping for Jesus, or singing Tannenbaum while break-dance spinning on their butts, you'll know that it's working.