Hospitality. What comes to mind when you hear that word? What’s your definition?
Here’s one that comes from Catholic priest Henri Nouwen: “primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.”
Congregations like ours try our hardest to create such a space of hospitality whatever the particular activity or event might be, but especially and above all in the experience of worship. And so we might sing
Come, come, whoever you are
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving
Ours is no caravan of despair
Come, yet again, come
or we might sing
We’re gonna sit at the welcome table!
We’re gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days hallelujah!
We’re gonna sit at the welcome table!
Gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days.
You can hear the stirrings of creation right in the sound of these songs—creating the free space that Henri Nouwen talks about, the free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend because it sounds friendly, it feels friendly, there’s a spot at the table for everybody who is hungry and wants to eat….
But now I want to share with you something I found in the archives of one of the congregations I used to serve—the one in Atlanta. It’s a real letter from 1974, sent to that congregation’s Membership Chair:
Dear Mr. Chairman,
I wish to withdraw my membership from the UU Congregation of Atlanta.
Having been a member of the congregation since 1925—I do this with great regret.
But I believe that a church should be somewhat spiritual and inspirational. Not an organization so completely devoted to the development of the arts—music, drama, etc., civic responsibilities and entertainment.
Your current program of “Jazz and Poetry” for Sunday morning service illustrates my feeling for what this church now stands for. And I cannot, with conscience, completely adhere to such a program.
Mrs. J. V. Rogers
Not a fun letter to receive, as you can imagine… Here’s someone who’s been a lifetime member at the welcome table—a member of the Atlanta congregation for 49 years!–but there’s been changes (no doubt well-intentioned) and now, all of a sudden, she feels like a stranger.
Things used to feel friendly, but no longer…
Do you hear Mrs. Rogers’ big feelings? She wants marshmallows but all that the church is giving her is … mushrooms.
Has that ever happened to you? You want marshmallows, you get mushrooms?
Now ESP is something else that ministers are not taught in seminary, so I can’t parapsychologically divine what was going on in Mrs. Rogers’ mind. This is always the way it is with complaints, 40 years ago or today. Unless we avoid gossip and abide by our congregational covenant, unless there is face-to-face conversation with the people who are directly involved, unless people are willing to be vulnerable with each other—UNLESS all these things happen–we can’t really know the deeper issues that are the genuine reasons for the disaffection. We just can’t get to the root of the discomfort.
Maybe Mrs. J. V. Rogers just doesn’t like the new minister, who is so very different from the previous long-settled minister whom she loved and trusted, and so when the new minister brings in this new, wacky “Jazz and Poetry” idea, well, enough’s enough!
Or, maybe Mrs. J. V. Rogers’ husband just passed, and it’s only because of him that she’s stayed loyal to the congregation. But now that he’s gone, she can finally do something else.
I mean, who knows??
But I will say this: that Mrs. Rogers’ surface complaint brings to mind two different worship styles that cut across race and class and educational background and ability and on and on, and we do well to bring awareness to them as we think about what our West Shore worship is like and how well it evokes that “welcome table” hospitality feeling….
The first of these worship styles is suggested by, for example, the silent meditation of a moment ago. A space that is emotionally toned-down and introverted, a space that protects your solitude even as you sit in a sanctuary with hundreds of others. What’s happening inside you stays inside you—an introvert’s version of Las Vegas rules. The music therefore tends to be classical music, the sermon tends to be highly cerebral, the language and rituals feel traditional and spacious, and THERE IS NO CLAPPING.
THIS is what spirituality feels like. Inspiration happens like THIS.
But then there’s a second style, very clearly suggested by the music on first Sundays here a West Shore, led by the Free Spirit Band. But it’s also suggested by the part right after the silent meditation of a moment ago, when people came to the front with their joys and sorrows and there was hugging and overt smiles and tears. This second style is emotionally amped-up, not toned down. If the first style is “wintry,” then the second style is “summery.” Summer-time: meaning that what you’re feeling inside goes outside and people see it because you are clapping, you are swaying, you are standing, you are saying AMEN and SAY IT PREACHER, you are getting carried away. The preaching and the music and everything else in this style of service is meant to immerse you in a holistic, mind-heart-body experience, and it’s intense, and THIS is what spirituality feels like.
Inspiration happens like THIS.
I suspect that the Atlanta congregation, back in 1974, was trying to incorporate summery elements (jazz and poetry) into its worship, but that was a culture shift Mrs. Rogers could not (at least on the surface) abide. She was firmly in the wintry spirituality camp. Wintry spirituality is the only real kind. Don’t give me any of that summery stuff because it feels like shallow entertainment, it feels fake. So Mrs. Rogers wanted out.
“I cannot, with conscience,” she says, “completely adhere to such a program.”
All these years later, the two worship cultures (summery and wintry) are still around in Unitarian Universalist congregations across the land and in this one right here, and they still clash. But is polarization inevitable, in which one culture sees the other as fake and they want nothing to do with each other?
Is MONOculture our fate? Or can we find a way to be MULTIcultural?
Whether we prefer summery or wintry, can we sit at the same worship table and still be friends, and keep on making new friends?
Worship for Unitarian Universalists: I define it as placing ourselves in tune with positive feelings and forces like music and words and rituals and they fill our senses, they give us something specific and concrete to feel and to think, they move us, they inspire us, they reflect back to us our Unitarian Universalist values, we are changed for the better….
That’s why worship can never be equivalent to reading a menu. Reading a menu is a meal of just abstract words. That will never fill anyone’s belly–might just make you feel even more hungry. There can be no doubt about it: when we come to the worship table, we’re coming with napkin tucked into collar and knife and fork in hand. We’re famished. Give us something tasty. Move us, inspire us!
We want the real meal deal.
It’s just not going to be enough to hear our Seven Principles and Six Sources read out loud. Reading the menu of our faith can for sure pique interest, but it won’t satisfy the sharpness of our spiritual hungers. You can’t fool hunger. We want to eat Unitarian Universalist soul food. That’s what we want!
But now, what if some of us are, spiritually speaking, hungry for a big steak, and others of us are vegetarian and the very thought of steak grosses us out?
I mean, life would be easier if we were all omnivores in our spiritual tastes. We’d all just eat anything. But in reality, I think that some of us are like carnivores, and others of us are like vegetarians. We can disagree about the specific tastes of what we prefer in worship THAT MUCH, even as we completely agree on the Big Picture abstract menu of our faith.
When we come into this space, and worship sensations wash over us, that’s when our diversity over specifics gets challenging. What if the songs we sing contain meat, or the prayer that’s prayed, or the sermon that’s preached? Good for the spiritual carnivores, but what about the spiritual vegetarians? The vegetarians just can’t take such soul food into their mouths. To them it’s disgusting! They just can’t!
Take a certain three letter word, “God.” Some of us (the meat eaters) need to hear this word, else worship is a shallow experience. We come to worship under the impression that we’re being promised a juicy hamburger–but if there’s no meat in between the two buns, we will justifiably feel that we’re a victim of bait and switch. Where’s the beef? At the very least, to speak of “God” is to become aware of the crucial spiritual insight that you are not and I am not God, which is something both theists and atheists alike forget every time they get caught up in perfectionism. Beyond this, to speak of “God” is to employ a potent trigger word that activates a life force that is deeper and larger than one’s ego–to get that life force flowing more easily through our conscious lives. Exactly what that word “God” means can be all over the map, but that’s ok, we’re Unitarian Universalists! But at bottom we know that the human personality responds to poetry and symbol and story. Good things get unlocked and released.
A word like “God” can do that for us.
That’s the spiritual meat eaters among us. They may actually like that hymn we sang earlier, #23, “Bring Many Names.” But, you know, not everyone in this space prefers meat. The spiritual vegetarians among us feel deep suspicion towards that three letter word. Perhaps it was part and parcel of years and years of abuse you experienced at the hands of parents or other adults so it triggers terrible memories for you. Perhaps it was a crutch you saw used again and again to support social prejudices of one kind or another. Perhaps you saw it used again and again to bolster arguments that were, in truth, rationally threadbare, rationally dishonest, rationally lazy. So you have abolished it from your spiritual vocabulary. You’ve crossed “God” off your list. Yes, liberal theologians might have been working overtime throughout the 19th and 20th centuries to rehabilitate that three letter word, to make it useable for skeptics and doubters. But you and we still balk. All the old, traditional connotations that have caused so much trouble aren’t going away.
Please, DON’T “bring many names.”
Furthermore, don’t tell us that we should see the varieties of “God” words as merely emotional poetry. There’s lots of other poetry we can draw on, that come with far less baggage. So why keep on bringing up the G word?
That’s the snapshot of who’s sitting around our Unitarian Universalist worship table. Spiritual carnivores, spiritual vegetarians.
When anything gets dished up in worship, the urgent question is always: Does that dish have meat in it? Does it?
There’s a whole history behind this you should know. As theologically diverse as we seem now, it was not always that way. In the 1950s we had achieved the vegetarian kind of consensus, and it lasted throughout the 1970s and even into the early 1980s. The consensus was patterned after the Humanist Manifesto of 1933, signed by thirty-four Unitarian ministers and academics (and one Universalist). “We are convinced,” said the signers, “that the time has passed for theism…. Religious institutions, their ritualistic forms, ecclesiastical methods and communal activities must be reconstituted as rapidly as experience allows in order to function effectively in the modern world.” This is what the Manifesto said. Build a religion that “would not be shaken, even if the thought of God were outgrown” (Rev. Curtis Reese). And while, in 1933, this was a hotly contested idea in our congregations and churches, by the 1950s it had become a core ethic. God really wasn’t talked about—it was meat. We didn’t use words like “worship” or “sermons” or “faith” either because they also smacked of meat. But then, in the 1980s, when our national membership numbers saw a staggering 40% decline, leaders realized that we had become too theologically narrow. They called for a greater hospitality to religious diversity—not just vegetables any longer. Meat too. Thus in 1985 came the Purposes and Principles, which talked explicitly about how we are a Living Tradition with many sources besides humanism, including mystical traditions, world religions, our parent traditions of Judaism and Christianity, the words and deeds of prophetic men and women, and earth-based spirituality. With all of these sources, spirituality-talk and God-talk (also Goddess-talk) couldn’t help but come rushing back into our congregations and churches. And with it, trouble at the welcome table.
Does that dish have meat in it? Does it?
Now, one solution some of our congregations have hit on is this: toferky. You know, tofu that’s made up to taste like turkey. Tofurkey music, tofurkey language, tofurkey atmosphere. Minimize cultural differences of any kind—wintry vs. summery spirituality, vegetarian vs. carnivore, no clapping vs. clapping.
Minimize all that. Make things generic enough to offend no one.
What do you think? Is that the kind of soul food we want to serve up?
Do you think it’s possible to create multicultural worship that offends no one, not ever?
Some time ago I was at an Interfaith Habitat for Humanity house build. I had been asked to say a few introductory words about Unitarian Universalism, so I did. Here’s a bit of what I said.
I talked about how Unitarian Universalism’s open-arms embrace of religious diversity can be viewed as an outgrowth of its historical origins in Christianity. The words “Unitarian” and “Universalist” appear in Christian history 2000 years ago, from the very beginning, and the words of Jesus and the Bible have always been central among us.
Then I pointed out a Biblical passage of particular power for us: Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Written by Paul, this language reminds us about how Jesus would repeatedly transgress the identity politics of his time by inviting exactly the wrong kind of people to sit at his table and eat with him. Back in his day, who sat at your table made a big statement about who you were. It wasn’t the casual thing it is today. If you sat with people you weren’t supposed to sit with, you were doing something politically explosive. But that was Jesus. Explosive. Transgressive. But for a purpose. It was his way of pressing the point that everyone has inherent worth and dignity, not just some, and this affirmation has, all these years later, become our Unitarian Universalist First Principle.
And then I went on to say to the folks gathered there at the Habitat for Humanity house build, this: that over time, in the 19th and 20th centuries, Unitarian Universalists felt called to make the language of Galatians 3:28 even more open and inclusive—to say, in effect, “There is neither gay nor straight, there is neither Christian nor Buddhist, there is neither atheist nor theist, there is neither black or brown or white, but all are one in a compassionate and abundant Spirit of Life and Love.” All belong to the Welcome Table. Every one.
That is why today we should be seen as post-Christian. This is not to deny our Christian origins but only to affirm that we have grown into something “more-than-Christian.” Because: we draw from many sources not just Christianity; we seek out truth from wherever truth may come.
That’s a bit of what I said. And now the point I want to underscore is that we do not embrace our “more than” stance of openness and inclusivity as an end in itself. We embrace openness and inclusivity because it creates a unique set of circumstances under which the Spirit of Life can reveal itself in a most vital way. When the circumstances are the opposite of open, when they are the opposite of inclusive, the Spirit in the room turns oppressive, it turns hurtful, it turns traumatizing.
We don’t want that Spirit among us.
We want that open and inclusive Spirit, and Jesus showed us how to get there. The means of his Welcome Table practice led to an end that was an experience of abundant Love unlike any other experience.
Therefore we follow Jesus and we follow all those who practice the open and inclusive Welcome Table.
And therefore we grapple with all the challenges diversity raises—wintry vs. summery, meat-eaters vs. vegetarians, no clapping vs. clapping. We grapple with it all, because it’s worth the price of admission to experiencing Spirit of Life aliveness in our midst.
Spirit of life, come unto me
Sing in my heart, all the stirrings of compassion…..
I will pay the price of all the challenges of openness and inclusivity–yes I will–if it means I can get some of that Spirit of Life hope and renewal.
I will pay the price if I can get some of that Spirit of Life sense of connection and a sense of vitality.
I will pay the price if I can get some of that Spirit of Life energy that keeps me from dropping out and keeps me showing up every day with an open heart.
I will pay that price.
I do absolutely believe that all our struggles with all our differences are worth it, because it’s about removing stumbling blocks from more people plugging in and more people experiencing an abundant Spirit that liberates and renews.
Plugging into that liberating spirit–that’s why we create a free space in our worship where the stranger can enter and become a friend and no one becomes an enemy.
That’s why hospitality matters.
I just don’t think the tofurkey solution is going to work for us. Frankly, any kind of strategy that has as its number #1 priority “make everybody happy” feels wrong to me. Nothing short of a God can do that. There is no such silver bullet strategy in the human realm. The majority of the work of happiness is in fact something we each as individuals do. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. Jesus himself might be preaching from this pulpit, but what if you take mortal offense at the fact his dress is inappropriate? He’s wearing sandals! His outfit is muddy! Disrespectful! Who does he think he is?
The tofurkey solution is really just another version of perfectionism and just another way of trying to be like the omnipotent God we probably don’t even believe in.
Gotta kick the tofurkey solution to the curb.
The way forward, as I see it, is a combination of intentional worship planning and then the personal discipline each of us can bring to the table.
Start with the worship planning. It’s always been my commitment to creating worship that tries to be adequate to our Six Sources and to the multiple cultures of this community. So, over the course of a single service, here’s what we might experience at our worship table. Opening words for all ages, the welcome, a chalice lighting and a time for greeting one another warmly. The Worship Associate reflection may not contain meat. The meditation may not contain meat. But watch out for the sermon—the preacher may throw some meat out there. The choir might sing a song that contains a hefty helping of meat. But you need to know: over the course of a single service, we are trying to diversify the dishes–some strictly vegetarian, others containing meat–because we know that the hungers are diverse, the hungers are urgent.
How we plan worship at West Shore is an ongoing learning curve, and we are never not learning.
Looking towards the future: over the course weeks and months, there’s going to be some services that contain more meat, are more summery. Others services are going to have less meat and be more wintry. The strategy here, again, is not perfectionistic tofurkey, but a plan to create a wide array of services that are each super tasty and give you something to savor. Some services you will just want to get up and clap. In other services, getting up and clapping would feel completely inappropriate.
Let the tone—summery or wintry—be your guide.
Let’s just dwell on this a moment more—regarding clapping. If the energy in this space is slow and contemplative, why break the mood? Why smash it to bits with clapping? Let’s not do that. But if the energy is flowing, if we’re grooving, if the Free Spirit Band is doing its Free Spirit thang—well, if you didn’t clap, that would feel weird. Let clapping add to high energy if high energy is in the room. But if the room feels quiet and introspective, clapping becomes a distraction, and unhelpful.
As for after my sermons, well, if you get stoked, then go for it. Clap if the Spirit moves you.
So that’s a little about worship planning. Now let’s touch on some personal attitudes and practices you can bring to the worship table–“table manners,” if you will, that make for greater hospitality and reduce the chances that anyone would walk through these doors and end up having an experience that felt the opposite of friendly.
The first attitude is: If it’s served up, you don’t have to eat it. The principle underlying this goes all the way back to the doctrine of free pulpit/free pew that none other than the first (and only) Unitarian King in history, King John Sigismund, established 450 years ago. The preacher is free to preach as their conscience guides; the people in the pews are free to either accept or reject as conscience guides them.
Free pulpit/free pew.
We need to remember this if, for example, we are strict spiritual vegetarians and we’ve been served up plenty of vegetables early on in the service but then the minister goes on to throw a curveball in the meditation of the day, and he just plunked down a piece of meat. He has invoked not just “God” but “Holy, Transforming, Liberating God.” Please, you spiritual vegetarian you, don’t let it taint your experience of the entire service. Don’t allow that. Just use your fork and nudge it over to the side.
Just nudge it over.
Even more than this, know in your heart of hearts that the spiritual carnivores sitting around the table with you need to hear, once in a while, that there is a “Holy, Transforming, Liberating God” that works in this world. Hearing this feeds them. Let them be fed. Don’t demand that all your personal preferences must be satisfied in absolutely every little thing, when such a sense of entitlement means that others among us must starve.
Please be compassionate.
Please make peace with your dislike as part of your big picture commitment to West Shore’s overall diversity.
Please, see your discomfort as direct evidence that another person is being vitally fed—and please rejoice that they are being fed!
That’s attitude number one to bring to this West Shore worship table, and here is attitude number two: Your turn is coming. Let me tell you, when your religion draws from Six Sources, you’ve got a world of material to work with. It’s fantastic! But you can’t get to all of it in a single service or even a single year.
If you feel like your particular passion hasn’t come up in worship, ask me. We might have done a year-long sermon series on it just before you arrived, but you wouldn’t know that, so naturally you’re wondering why you’re not hearing much about it. But on the other hand, maybe not. So ask anyway. I’m always wanting to hear about your passions. I love you guys and we are building Beloved Community together.
Finally, attitude number three to bring to the table: Try it. Be open to a new thing.
Be like Vicki.
OK, the dish that just got served up looks really weird. Is it meat? Is it vegetable?
I can’t tell…. Smells different.
Maybe I’ll try it….
Maybe if you try it with me, that will make it more fun….
We just don’t have to be rigid, like a certain Mrs. J. V. Rogers was all those years ago.
Give it a chance—you might just grow to like it.