Singing, Shouting, and Praying

Spirituality, Part III

by Douglas Taylor


There are some are some unspoken rules, (no I don’t want to say rules, … guidelines.)  There are some unspoken guidelines about how to be a Unitarian Universalist.  The first guideline is: we don’t do that overly emotional kind of religion.  There is a story of a woman who came to visit a UU church in New England.  And as the minister was preaching, she heard something she liked and said, “Hallelujah!”  An usher hustled up the aisle and leaned over the woman asking, “Woman, are you ill?”  To which the lady replied, “Ill? No, I’ve got religion.”  At which point the usher said, “Please, not in here!”

The reason I mention our penchant against emotional spirituality is that I have come to Part III of my four-part sermon of Spiritualities.  The first two topics were ‘quiet spirituality’ and ‘activist spirituality’.  The last one will be about the intellectual side of spirituality whereas today I am exploring the emotional side of spirituality.

The emotional side of spirituality is difficult for most Unitarian Universalists to get into.  We have long had clear-headed, reasoned theologies.  We are the skeptic’s religion, the rational person’s option.  There is a tendency to shy away from emotion-based spirituality that involves a suspension of the intellect. We shy away from, and even look down on that sort of religious expression were people are jumping up and down, and clapping, and shouting “hallelujah” a lot.  But that is not all that it means to have an emotionally expressive spirituality.  Mystics from many traditions speak of the sheer joy of experiencing the divine first hand.  They speak of spiritual ecstasy and abandon!

There is a story told by Rachel Naomi Remen in her book Kitchen Table Wisdom (Healing At a Distance, p87-89) where she describes a workshop that Joseph Campbell offered to some physicians on the experience of the sacred.  He showed slides as a part of it and on slide in particular stuck in Remen’s memory, not because of the picture but because of the reaction it stirred.  The slide was of the Hindu God, Shiva in a traditional pose, dancing a ring of fire.  Shiva’s arms are all out holding various objects, one foot is raised high while the other is supported by the back of a little man crouched done giving all his attention to a leaf in his hand.

The physicians were very interested in this little man at the bottom of the slide, who was he, what did he represent?  Campbell’s laughter filled the room.  The little man represented those who were absorbed in the material world, in the world of science and study.  The little man is so absorbed in the leaf he does not even realize the living God is dancing on his back.  At times, each of us can get that way.

I mention our communal discomfort with emotional expressions of spirituality not because I want us all to feel proud of our attitude about it, not because I want us to all feel bad about our attitude toward it, but simply because I want to tweak the idea a little and get you thinking about it.  This sermon breaks down into three areas of consideration: singing, shouting and praying.

Some people don’t believe in singin’,

They say singin’ ain’t true

But if you want to get into heaven child

Your gonna have to sing some too!

There is an old joke that says the reason Unitarians are so bad at singing is because we’re always looking ahead to see if we agree with the words.

A colleague, Victoria Safford, wrote up an absolutely delightful piece about this in her meditation manual, Walking Toward Morning (p17).  She refers us to that ever-popular hymn, Amazing Grace.  There is this bizarre moment right in the first verse where the Unitarian Universalist hymnbook slaps down an asterisk and a choice.  What do you do?  Do you sing, “Amazing Grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me” or “that saved a soul like me”?  What other group’s hymnal will virtually stop the congregation mid-measure and do a theological poll?  And you have to be quick because the piano is not going to stop and wait for you, the congregation will leave you no time to ponder, Sunday is rolling on and you are called on to stake your claim right then and there!  Are you a wretch or are you a soul?

Will you risk the shocked, sidelong glace from your pew neighbor as you confess at the top of your voice your own wretchedness and the even our common condition as a fallen, faulty species.  Or would you rather chance the annoyed look as you stand there warbling on about what a pleasant soul you are, what a nice, well-rounded, sin-free, guilt-free happy soul you are?  There you stand the hymn has begun and we are careening toward that asterisk there in the hymnal while you hastily cobble together a theology of human nature.  It’s a lot to ask of people on a Sunday morning!  But that’s what we do.

I love singing in gospel choirs and it is a rare gospel song that has my kind of theology behind the words.  I started a gospel choir when I was at Meadville Lombard Theological School.  We sang hymns mostly, occasionally I found a piece that was theistic but not Christ-oriented.

When the storms of life are raging, stand by me

When the storms of life are raging, stand by me

When the world is tossing me like a ship out on the sea

Thou who rulest winds and water, stand by me.

That is still stretching it a little for me theologically, but I love the feeling I get when I am in a group and the music is rising and there is a palpable feeling of happiness and joy there.

I discovered that I learn better when I’ve been singing.  My brain integrates information better when I’m in a choir or singing in a group.  I was at a week-long minister’s retreat and for the first half, I listened to the papers that were being presented, I attend the worship services and listened to the choir.  On Wednesday afternoon I joined the choir and noticed a change in the rest of my week.  I took in and integrated the information better.  I enjoyed myself more.

I recently heard a colleague comment that a study had been done whereby brain lesions were healed by applying sound vibration to a corresponding part of the brain.  After hearing that, I came home and tried to find a story about that online but with no success, so I need to call Kenn and find out where he got this.  If I remember correctly, they applied a tuning fork-like instrument to one part of someone’s brain and the vibrations and the resonance healed the lesion in another part of the brain.  There were quantum theories to explain it, but it certainly seemed to me to be an interesting concept.  Could certain vibrations and resonance patterns stimulate the brain in special ways?  Could music, could singing, stimulate certain brain area?  What might this mean for religion and spirituality?

Some people don’t believe in shoutin’,

They say shoutin’ ain’t true

But if you want to get into heaven child

Your gonna have to shout some too!

Shouting is another one of those things we don’t tend to see a lot of in Unitarian Universalist congregations.  Let me stress a nuance here: this is not about angry shouting.  This verse, this aspect of emotional spirituality, is not saying you need to express your anger by shouting more!  What it is saying is that you need to express you passion by being louder.

Colleague, Richard Gilbert has said, “Religion is more than mindless jumping up and down about how super it is to be alive.”  Many people in our churches tend to recognize that merely being alive is indeed an amazing thing.  The response to this recognition is usually a quiet gratitude rather than an exuberant shout of joy.   I certainly agree with Gilbert that jumping up and down about how super it is to be alive cannot be all there is to a religion.  However, I think we are not in any danger to reaching that point and we could, in fact, let a little shouting and hallelujah-ing into our mix without much worry.

Here is where we tend to go with our passion: social justice work can get us shouting.  We have about 30 members from this congregation down in Washington D.C. right now marching in support of reproductive rights.  Now, I already did a whole sermon on spirituality and justice.  This is just an indication of how these areas overlap.   I am reminded of the quote from American author E. B. White, “Every morning I rise with the twin desires to SAVOR the world…and SAVE it.  This makes it hard for me to plan the day.”  It seems to me we don’t have much trouble letting out a shout now and then in our desire to SAVE the world, and we shouldn’t be afraid to do the same with our desire to SAVOR it as well.

What is shouting for, after all, but to let off steam!  That old analogy of the steam-powered engine is just perfect!  Imagine yourself just full to bursting with energy shouting is releasing some of that energy.  If you’re full of negative energy, if you’re angry, shouting releases that energy.  If you’re full of positive energy, filled up with joy or gratitude, maybe you don’t want to let it out by shouting, maybe you want to hold it in and spend that energy in other ways.  Maybe instead of shouting you’ll want to go help people, or make the world even more beautiful, or share your story with someone.  The problem you’ll find is that trying to spread around this really positive energy jut builds more up inside you and you may just find you need to let some go with a joyful shout now and then.

Some people don’t believe in prayin’,

They say prayin’ ain’t true

But if you want to get into heaven child

Your gonna have to pray some too!

Praying is intimate work.  It is also one of those activities that we Unitarian Universalists believe ourselves to be no good at.  I know many of us are quite good at it.  It doesn’t take great skill.  You don’t even need to believe in an answering God to voice a prayer.  Soon, I promise, I will devote a full service to this topic.

I wrote and deleted many things for this section in preparation for this morning.  So many words can be heaped onto this topic that are unnecessary.  Prayers need not be deeply emotional things, they can be simple and light.  What prayers do need to be is real.  I commend to you the practice of prayer.  If you’ve never done it before, try it sometime.

Maybe when you are alone you could just sit down and close your eyes and breathe deep.  Reflect on your life; notice what is going on in your life or in the lives of people you love.  Then say something out loud:  God, or Spirit of Life or Eternal Spirit, or some other name that is comfortable for you, God this is what’s going on.  This is where it hurts; this is where it feels good.  This is where I want to give thanks, and this is where I need some help.   Amen.  Prayer is for when you are bursting with life or when life is bursting on you and you need to express it with words or laughter or tears, or simply with sighs and silence.  Just try it.  I can’t speak to what effect it may have.  I doubt the world will change for you, but a change may occur in you, and that may be the whole point, I don’t know.

John Haynes Holmes said that “Reason and rapture need one another, the latter to drive and lift, the former to control and guide.”  He indicates that although the two seem to be incompatible, they are necessary to each other.  This line of thinking flies right in the face of the little unspoken rule about no overly emotional stuff in our religion, thank you very much.  Another way to say it is that our reason is the steering wheel of our car, or the rudder of our ship; and our passion is the gas pedal, or the sails.  A passionless religion is powerless.  We certainly are a faith tradition that has a strong emphasis on the use of reason, but we are not and could not be passionless.  At our best ours is a full faith, embracing all that is in us for the journey.  And if that occasionally leads us into moments of abandon, let us go with joy!

I leave you with the closing lines from a poem by Kabir:

At last the notes of his flute come in,

And I cannot stop from dancing around on the floor.

In a world without end

May it be so.