Sermons 2020-21

Worship Wave of the Future

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Worship Wave of the Future

Rev. Douglas Taylor


I was talking with someone from another church community recently about how thankful he was for the online worship services folks are doing. He said it made it possible for a friend of his to attend who had not been able to attend for several years due to a severe mold allergy combined with the relatively mild levels of mold in their old church building. On Zoom, his friend has not missed a Sunday and loves being back in the community.

I was talking with someone else this week about how they find the online worship to be stilted and flat. She appreciates the effort, she assured me, and will keep showing up; but she longs for face-to-face contact again. The intellectual stimulation is nice, but the community is missing.

Another friend was lamenting the difficulty of hosting their pagan rituals online. They laughed about their shift from an earth-centered practice to a technology-centered practice. They smiled wistfully when they explained to me that even online in our separate houses, we are all still in the same universe. The energy each person puts out will always find its way even if we are not in the same room breathing the same air.

My sermon today is a companion to one I delivered back in the spring based on Arundhati Roy’s piece “The Pandemic Is a Portal.”  In that piece Roy wrote:

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”

This pandemic has had an impact on our worshiping community. Here we are online. This pandemic has pushed us to ‘break with the past and imagine [our] world anew.” We pivoted our worship services online instead of in-person for our health and the continuing health of others in our community. This spring, the Board, in consultation with the UUA and current scientific recommendations, voted to plan to remain worshiping online through this coming church-year, through until May 2021.

Let me unpack that a little. The Board’s intention is not to lock us into doing online worship and online everything for the next full year. Only that we are planning for things to be online. When it is safe to meet in person, we will do so. If it is safe to meet for worship in-person before May 2021, then we will shift our plans. But for now, our planning revolves around us staying online for worship for the coming year.

At our recent Board Retreat a week ago we began plans for a ‘reopening team,’ a group of thoughtful people to advise the Board about when and how we can host in-person activities throughout this coming year.

Worship is a very risky activity for a variety of reasons; but a small group of people meeting outside, masked and socially-distanced … that is a manageable risk in many people’s minds. We’re looking into what we can host and how we can offer some in-person activities as we go forward.

What we do at this point will necessarily be different from what we have been doing in-person all along. (Mark 2:21) “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse.” For a while back in the spring I tried hard to keep doing all the things we had been doing – but do them online. I discovered that does not work. We need to find new ways to do these things. We need patchwork garments that will not rend and tear from our simple use.

All of which brings me around to the article we used for our reading this morning and the author’s suggestion that churches need to shift their mindset away from being a physical community with an online presence to becoming a digital community with a physical presence. We need to get a new garment – to carry that metaphor along – instead of patching the old one in the new setting. And I don’t agree. I think Carey Nieuwhof is a very wise preacher and church trend observer I think Nieuwhof is smart and perceptive. But I also think he is wrong on this point.

I resonate with Nieuwhof when he writes that a crisis such as this pandemic “is not just a disruptor, it’s an accelerator.” The seven trends he listed are not wildly new ideas, they are just wildly accelerated ideas. He talked about things like valuing flexibility and agility in our church staff teams during this disruption. That makes a lot of sense to me. He talked about how this pandemic is compounding the long trend we have been on from denominational allegiance, or ‘brand loyalty’ if you will. I think his comments about the trend toward home-based spirituality instead of ‘church-building-based’ spirituality are spot on. We’ve been working on that for a while in our community. I will admit, the only part of his predictions I did not agree with is the part I had our Worship Associate read to you – that part about needing to become a digital organization with a physical presence.

I mean, obviously, here we are. We are functioning as a digital organization while our physical presence is under renovation! Obviously, we are putting a lot of energy into our website and our capacity for zoom meetings and our digital communications. And obviously we are not going to stop doing those things when we can get back in person. We know now how to offer a live online version of our worship; we are not going to forget how to do it when we are back in our building.

And Nieuwhof is right when he says the digital connection is better for some people, giving greater access to those who are hindered by distance or timing or illness. He’s right on that count. But here is where I think he is off base.

He draws the comparison of retail stores in a mall and retail stores online. He warns that brick-and-mortar businesses are learning that you can’t compete unless you invest deeply in the online digital sales as well. And, the stores that really thrive are the ones the live online primarily. By that comparison, Nieuwhof is saying religious communities need to do the same.

But that is precisely where he loses me. What are we selling? What is this congregation’s product? He is comparing religious communities to businesses that sell books and t-shirts. He’s buying into the idea that religion is basically a transactional experience – an exchange, I’ll give you this much in exchange for that product I value. I’m buying in, I’m just a consumer here. Religious community, many argue and I agree, is not a transactional experience but a transformational one. There is no commodification of your encounter here. Sure, we ask for money, we ask for a financial pledge. That’s probably why it seems transactional. But there is scale of fees for what we are doing together.

What would we be selling? I know that some Christian churches will say their product is dogma, their business is beliefs. To put it crassly, they are in the after-life insurance business. I would argue that is not true for even most Christian churches and it is definitely not true for our Unitarian universalist community.

To lean into that language, we can say our business is relationships. Our product is community. And Nieuwhof is suggesting religious communities shift their efforts to become a digital organization to better sell our product. Yes, there is a version of that available online and in virtual space. Yes, the energy we put out into the universe will always find its way even if we are not all in the same room breathing the same air together.

But the heartbeat of it is in in-person, face-to-face encounters. Our faith community is focused not on beliefs or dogma or the special way to get into heaven. Instead we are focused on being companions with each other on our spiritual journeys. Our mission is centered on actions and experiences we have in community together.

Can we do that online. Yes, mostly, kind of. But not completely.

I am certain this pandemic will leave a lasting mark on our community going forward. We will continue to have online class offerings. We will make sure people can donate money electronically. We will be sure to have videos of our services available on our website. And there will be an easy way to allow people to zoom into activities like committee meetings and classes as we go forward.

And, we will always return to in-person gatherings when possible, where we can touch hands, where we can better read each other’s body language, where we can sit in shared silence together listening to our communal breathing, where we can have eye contact that is not stymied by screens. Because our business is relationships, our product is community.

In short, we will do both. But I am convinced we will always have a need to gather together in person. Human touch is too basic a human need to forgo. And at the same time, we will never stop doing all we can to stay connected to the people who can’t show up physically. It is part of our commitment to be a community together. What works for one will not be the answer for everyone else.

For now, by necessity and compassion, we are online. We keep our connections, but we are not simply holding our collective breath until we can breathe together again. We are forging new connections and building community with every tool we can. That’s what we do. That’s why we are here. And here, we will always be.

In a world without end.

May it be so.

The Heron and the Despair (2)

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The Heron and the Despair

Rev. Douglas Taylor

August 16, 2020

In the Qur’an it is written:

Behold!  In the creation of the heavens and the earth;

In the alternation of the Night and the Day …

In the beasts of all kinds that He scatters through the earth …

[Here] indeed are signs for a people that are wise. (2.164)

All the world over, in scripture and in poetry through the ages, people proclaim not only how good the earth is and how blessed but also how we can learn from it.  “[Here] indeed are signs for a people that are wise.”  In various scripture we see reference to the natural world not only as a place to uncover lessons for living, but also as a wilderness that will test us.  Nature is sometimes cast as the place of temptation or a place where we get lost.  Nature is also presented in fairy tales as a dangerous place yet also a place where we must go to grow up.  The mountain top, the desert, the woods and the wilderness each carry a metaphoric or mythic tone that the actual natural locations can truly convey.

I have always loved nature, and growing up I spent a lot of time out in the woods.  My woods were not dangerous or challenging, however.  My woods were a source of centering and healing. 

I grew up among the glacier carved hills just south of Rochester NY, in a place called Bushnell’s Basin.  Across the street from my house the neighbor’s back yard dropped down several dozen feet to a broad lowland of trees and clearings that we called The Flats. Every spring and fall the Flats would become a maze of flooded creeks and overgrown puddles. The land was not useful for development and so was left to go wild with trees and shrubs, left to grow wild for the imagination and exploration of children. Once I was old enough to be outside on my own, I spent nearly every nice afternoon down in the woods.

In Leaves of Grass Walt Whitman describes how it sometimes felt for me.  He writes:

THERE was a child went forth every day;  And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became; And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.  

There is something about the words of poets like Whitman that can capture and articulate my spiritual yearning in ways no theology or dogma can grasp.  Unitarian minister and activist John Haynes Holmes writes:

Nothing any theologian ever wrote about God has helped me very much, but everything that the poets have written about flowers, and birds, and skies, and seas and the saviors of the race, and God – whoever God may be – has at one time or another reached my soul.

For me, finding the writings of Wendell Berry and Aldo Leopold, Walt Whitman and Annie Dillard, Mary Oliver and Chief Seattle, has led me to a deeper understanding of my spirit.  Naturalists, poets, and great orators through the ages help me to articulate and integrate my experiences of the natural world and the rumblings within my own soul.  Yes, the words are often about flowers and birds and sky and sea, but they are also about my spirit and about God and about life lived with a fullness.

THERE was a child went forth every day;  And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became; And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.  

Those woods around my house became an indelible part of my soul for stretching cycles of years.  What have you looked upon?  What has held your attention and therefore defined some of who you are?  What do you feed your soul?  Or, what do you feed your soul when you have too much of the world?  For me, as a child, it was mostly the Flats.  It feels like I spent years down there, like it was an extension of my own home, like it was a second home.  When things were chaotic at home – or more often just empty at home – I would go out to the woods.  I was having a share of the chaos imprinted on my soul, and the emptiness.  It was good for me to also have a base of nature imprinted there as well.

I don’t want to paint my home life growing up as all bad.  There were moments; but I think over all I am a fairly typical ‘adult child of an alcoholic household.’  Time spent in nature became my spiritual touchstone. 

From time to time as a congregation we host conversations about how to handle difficult times.  Our discussion went into specifics, “What do you do when you are in the midst of the hard times? What helps?”  Well, if we give theologians the day off and let only the poets and naturalists speak, I think Wendell Berry’s poem about the heron and the despair gets as close as possible for me. 

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I do that from time to time.  I wake at night worrying, fearful of the trouble and danger in the world, concern for ‘what my life and my children’s lives may be.’  I worry some nights about the world my children are growing up in.  For me, as is implied in Berry’s poem, the extra concern for the lives of my children is something that puts it over the edge for me into the realm of despair.  I had despair for the world growing in me before I had children, don’t get me wrong.  And I don’t think people without children don’t understand or experience this sort of anxiety and heartache.  But for me, it was having children that raised my worry to a level that included others.  It became about more than just my own private fears and concerns. 

Because ultimately what I’m talking about, what I think Wendell Berry is talking about is bigger that the fear for my life and what my children’s lives may be.  It’s about the world and what’s gone wrong.  Dealing with greed and injustice, heartbreak and cruelty is hard enough.  Helping my children learn to deal with it too is that much harder.  And as an outgrowth of that, my concern grows beyond myself and my children to include all people around me that I care about.  I want to make the world a better place for everyone I care about, and I also want to strengthen everyone I care about to be better able to get through the hard times. 

So Wendell Berry feels this too, and what does he do? He says:

I go and lie down where the wood drake rests

in his beauty on the water,

and the great heron feeds.

I remember doing that as well.  I didn’t have herons and drakes there in the Flats.  But I remember going out to those woods around my house when I was old enough to think of it as ‘communing’ with nature. I would go with the express purpose of calming down and getting grounded.  I did find wood drakes and loons, though, in the Stillwater lakes around Camp Unirondack.  And the heron … I’ve probably told the story a dozen times of the time I was up at Unirondack as a young man, sitting on the dock in the early morning when a heron flew onto the lake and nearly settled on that same dock where I sat meditating.  It glided past me less than a foot from my shoulder while I sat breathless.  I could see the blue feathers, the curve of its neck, the black of its eye as it swept silently past me and sailed low over the water back across the lake away from me and out of sight.

Even just remembering the experience brings to mind the profound feelings I had of connectedness and peace in that moment.  Annie Dillard, after experiencing something like that with a tree of lights wrote, “I had been all my life a bell, and never knew it until that moment I was lifted and struck.” (from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek) I think I have spent a good portion of my life since that encounter stopping at lakes and looking for birds and listening to the ringing in my soul.

What is it about such experiences that change them from seeing another bird as you go through your day to seeing through to the depth of living?  Perhaps it is simply an openness on our parts that might fit any moment that can slip in and crack us open all the way.

This morning outside I stood

And saw a little red-winged bird

Shining like a burning bush

Singing like a scripture verse

It made me want to bow my head

I remember when church let out

How things have changed since then

Everything holy now

I have had a handful of encounters like that which have changed me, transformed me, or deepened my sense of the world and my place in the world.  Peter Mayer’s song says it so beautifully.  I do see that everything is holy now. 

And I want to talk about God in everything; but the word ‘God,’ on the tongues of too many people, is too small a word for what I need it to mean. So for today, let the theologians hush while the poets speak of grace and suffering, beauty and despair.  Let the poets tell us something of what this experience has meant: the peace, the presence, the abiding sense of place that I find with the heron in the face of despair. 

Despair is an isolating experience.  Misery and worry turn me inward, cutting me off from my otherwise natural resources.  Experiences I carry in my heart of being in nature open me up, open me outward, open me to my connectedness. Wendell Berry’s poem says

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. 

I come into the presence of still water. 

I come into the presence of that stillness and that stillness calms my soul.

Whenever I am on Retreat – a ministers’ retreat or a writers’ retreat – I make an effort to go out and find a wild place.  Usually this means woods and lakes where I can wander around.  I remember a retreat from a few years back that was in Florida on the Gulf Coast. I was unsure what to do with beaches and the big expanse of ocean or gulf.  My spirit has always been well nourished by green branches and big hills, rambling creeks and still water.  Wendell Berry’s poem talks of coming into the presence of still water.  But as I stood on the beach with that wide open, ever-rolling water, that expansive, breathing water that is never still – I discovered that my spirit is nourished by water in motion as well as the still water.

The peace and calm that carries me through my trouble and drains my despair of its power, that peace is not simply the peace of still water and the memories of quiet, idyllic nature.  The real power of such experiences is in tapping into the rhythm of life itself.  It’s not the stillness, though it can feel that way for me at times.  It is not the stillness; it is instead the even rhythm.  The motion and the stillness belong to each other, the song and the silence together.

This is the lesson I learn from the natural world.  It is not the only lesson it has to offer.  But it is the healing one I learned to trust as a child.  Where have you gone for healing and renewal?  Your spirit needs nourishment, what do you feed yourself of beauty and love?  Where do you turn when worry and despair creep too close to your heart?  Wendell Berry goes to where the heron feeds; he goes into the presence of still water.  “And I feel above me the day-blind stars,” he writes, “waiting with their light.”

What an illuminating metaphor, “the day-blind stars.”  What guides do you seek out that are normally hidden?  The stars are here all day long, shining their light, hidden by the brilliance of the sun.  A life of the spirit can be like that too, present within you all the time though hidden within the ordinariness of living. What do you do to rediscover your center?

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake rests

in his beauty on the water,

and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. 

I come into the presence of still water. 

And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light.

For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Grace.  I rest in the grace of the world.  I need more grace in my life.  Let all those simple meanings of the word pour over you when you hear this line: grace as the unearned love of God, grace as the gracefulness of a dancer, grace as the gratitude offered before a meal, grace as the extra time offered beyond what is expected, grace as a gift.  For a time I rest in the grace, the extra time, the gratitude, the elegant dancing movement.  I rest in the grace of the world. 

When I rediscover my center, I rest in the grace of the world.  When I feed my spirit on beauty, I rest in the grace of the world.  When I find healing and renewal then I rest in the gratitude, the elegant movement, the extra time, the gift – of the world, and am free.  When despair for the world grows in me I know what I can do to be free.  It is not fail-proof, but it works often enough to be nearly so. 

All the world over, in scripture and in poetry through the ages, people have proclaimed not only how good the earth is and how blessed but also how we can learn from it.  “[Here] indeed are signs for a people that are wise.”  Take the time to step aside to rediscover your center. 

Perhaps for you as it is for me, there is grace to be found down by the still water where the wood drake rests in his beauty and the great heron feeds.  Perhaps for you as it is for me, there is memory and poetry and calm to be found just a breath away from the turmoil of the day.  Perhaps when despair comes creeping into your heart, and fear for what your life and the lives of those you love may be, there is yet a way for you to let the fear slip by and the despair to leak all its power away because you have found the way back into the woods where your spirit is nourished and your heart is healed and you can rest for a time in the elegant movement of life, and be free.

In a world without end,

May it be so