Unitarian

First Unitarian Church of Worcester, MA  90 Main Street

On September 11, 2001 Gregory Rodriguez, who worked on the 103rd floor of One World Trade Center in New York City, died along with more than three thousand innocent people whose lives were cut short by fanatics using aircraft as bombs.  Four days after the attacks the New York Times printed a heartfelt letter from Gregory’s parents Orlando and Phyllis.  This is part of that letter:

Our son died a victim of an inhuman ideology.  Our actions [an apparent tendency toward avenging those deaths] should not serve the same purpose.  Let us grieve.  Let us reflect and pray.  Let us think about a rational response that brings real peace and justice to our world.  But let us not add to the inhumanity of our times.

As a nation prepared for the tenth anniversary of that tragedy I made plans to visit a church for Sunday worship.  I chose carefully.  I wanted to be in a thoughtful place for this anniversary, not in some place where sentimental remembrances would drip like Elmer’s Glue from the sides of theological paper plates.   And I didn’t need more jingoism, especially in the context of worship.  I needed to reflect and pray.

A few years ago I read F. Forrest Church’s “Our Chosen Faith:  An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism” (1989) in which Church cites the founding principles expressed by early “Unitarian” William Channing in the early 1800’s.

Channing’s ideal was an inclusive church–one from which no one could be excommunicated, except ‘by the death of goodness’ in one’s own breast.  He became a leader in a movement away from a harsh and dogmatic Calvinism and toward a more liberating theology.  He preached grace, not fear, and spoke of human reason as a gift.  Then he applied reason to religious life, with profound insight into human motivation, history, the Bible, and contemporary moral and social issues.  He preached not retribution, but the love of God, and the human capacity for ‘likeness of God’ in more divine living.  He spoke of Jesus less as the second person of a metaphysical trinity than as a human example of human life lived to the fullness of its spiritual capacity (Our Chosen Faith,p.28).

I am truly sorry that Forrest Church, pastor of the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City,  died recently.  But I suspected his spirit and the spirit of William Channing might be alive and well in the First Unitarian Church of Worcester.  This seemed like the right place to be on September 11, 2011.

Sunday, September 11    10:30A.M.

WINDOWS.

Hidden Treasure.  The 21st chapter of Isaiah was a resource today, but so was “The Art of Living” by first century Greek philosopher Epictetus.  Here is a text that I suspect was shared in no other Worcester Church this Sunday:

You are not an isolated entity, but a unique, irreplaceable part of the cosmos. Don’t forget this. You are an essential piece of a vast, intricate, and perfectly ordered human community. But where do you fit into this web of humanity? To whom are you beholden?

Look for and come to understand your connections to other people. We properly locate ourselves within the cosmic scheme by recognizing our natural relations to one another and thereby identifying our duties. Our duties naturally emerge from such fundamental relations are our state or nation. Make it your regular habit to consider your roles-parent, child, neighbor, citizen, leader– and the natural duties that arise from them. Once you know who you are and to whom you are linked, you will know what to do.

On this Sunday we also read a thought-provoking “Common Prayer” from The Terma Collective which included an idea which I first underlined and then which became my mantra for the week:

May we discover the gift of the fire burning in the inner chamber of our being–burning great and bright enough to transform any poison.

I spoke this mantra all day on that toxic September 11th day.  Back at home I learned that “Terma” is a Tibetan word meaning “hidden treasure”.   The Bible is full of hidden treasure.  Yet here is a faith tradition that is not bound to the “sola scriptura” ancient excavation site but rather equips members to dig anywhere they can.

Children’s Education.   This was an introduction of the church’s new Director of Education and a kick-off event for the entire program.  I was impressed to see three adults [!] assigned to every single grade/age level.  Young people met their adult mentors at the front of the hall giving us a chance to estimate the large size and scope of the effort.  My own eleven-year-old  joined the parade to see where it would take him.  He wound up in what felt to him like a “dressing room” beside the stage in a big auditorium.  He appreciated the group of 17 middle-schoolers playing a name game and then receiving empty spiral-bound notebooks the class would fill throughout the season.  I think he would genuinely enjoy participating here regularly if I let him.

The day did not start well for him, however.  We walked through the education area where adults were so busy darting from classroom to craft closet that none of them even said “hello” let alone help us find our way around.  Five minutes later a trio of children younger than my son stopped to ask us if they could help us find something.  The KIDS offered hospitality!

Come Let Us Sing.   I did not even try to capture the sound of well-rehearsed, wonderfully balanced choir or the dynamic organ and surprising tympani using my inadequate little camera.  I am not sure how I could capture the soul of the opening Georgia Island Spiritual “Yonder Come Day” begun by a soloist standing in the very center of the congregation around which waves of harmony and rhythm swelled.    Here is the best version I could find online:

I cried during Leonard Cohen’s “Broken Hallelujah” and thanked God I was seated in the balcony to hear, feel and see the organ lead Allen Pote’s “Come Let Us Sing”.  The next best thing you can do is visit the First Unitarian Church’s music webpage (yes, their own webpage) to hear some favorite recordings and even to see this week’s selection.

I also enjoyed every congregational hymn  for the musicality of songs like “Turn Back” set to Old 124th,  the thoughtfulness of Billy Taylor’s 1992 song “I Wish I Knew” [How it would feel to be free.] and the nostalgia of the annual singing of “Rank By Rank Again We Stand” for Unitarians returning from summer hiatus to join together in song.  Singing here is sublime.

First Unitarian Church of Worcester.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WALLS

Clunky Liturgy.   Just because a poem is entitled “Common Prayer” and comes from a “Prayer” book does not mean the poem is suitable as a corporate, unison prayer.  Imagine inviting a congregation to sing Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” or Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”.   I encounter these verbose prayer-poems mostly in more traditional churches (See All-Saints Episcopal’s seven-page liturgy!) with the most awkward liturgies coming from more liberal-leaning leadership.  In these places I am pleased simply to READ and savor the poetry personally, privately, quietly.  We can join our voices afterward for some acknowledgment that we were actually reading together; something like, “LEADER:  We’re told that Mother Mary kept the words of the angel, pondering them in her heart.   PEOPLE:  We will keep these words, pondering them in our hearts.”

Parking.  Most urban churches lack the parking one would find in the suburbs, so the paucity spaces was not a problem for me.  My problem has to do with church members who take the best spots for themselves informally undercutting outside whatever compassionate message the church might attempt formally inside.  We park off of the street in downtown Worcester directly behind a cute little Miata convertible which is completely tattooed with bumper stickers:

  • “War is like smoking–So easy to start, so hard to quit.”
  • “Want to see God?  Keep texting while you drive.”
  • “My body, My health, My business, Not yours.”
  • “Wag more. Bark Less.”
  • “Don’t Believe Everything You Think.”

A man entering First Unitarian Church notices I am writing down all of these slogans and offers “That’s got to be Amy’s car.”   I don’t remember what name he suggested; I only recall thinking “What makes you think I know, or need to know, Amy?”  And then I realize that the two of us–two visitors– just walked a few blocks from our parking spot way over there while this well-known church member got the good spot by the front door.   The limited parking near the side of the church is limited further by a sign reserving the absolute closest spot for the senior pastor.  I know, I know, church leaders HAVE to be there and we wouldn’t want THEM to be late schlepping around town for a spot…like the visitors do.

 

2 Responses “Unitarian” →
  1. I’m a member of this congregation and am very proud to be a part of a warm, loving and active community. I was interested that you seemed to point out some minor “flaws” you encountered during your visit. Such as suggesting that our parking are is somehow only given to those “well known” in our church. To me that’s an unfair judgement to make. Wouldn’t it be more likely that those that are at the church early get a better parking spot, as one would going to any type of event? That just makes sense to me! When I’m early I get a good spot, and when I’m not, I don’t…..

    I’m sorry your son may not have been acknowledged by any adults in the RE program. Personally, I don’t know all the children, so I wouldn’t know if any of them are visitors or regulars. But it was nice to hear that our children, having been influenced by this congregation DID recognize a “new kid” and reached out to him to try to welcome him. That is, in the end, what it’s all about.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your feedback, Candace. I agree it is good that children took initiative to welcome newcomers. However I think it is reasonable to expect adults, who have been influenced by the church much longer than these young kids, to not only NOTICE visitors but also to physically take them where they might want to go. Your other concern about parking is logical–get there first and get the best spot. Still, I am grateful that workers at stores like Target and Best Buy park away from the closest spaces even though I am certain they arrive before anyone else. I’d like to think church-folk are capable of at least matching Best Buy’s standards. And I am mindful of a certain parable by Jesus questioning the dinner party guest who took the best spot assuming he was more deserving than others yet to arrive.

      Reply

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