First Unitarian Church of Providence
worship & spiritual practice
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worship & spiritual practice

Spiritual practices
Contemporary Unitarian Universalism is increasingly concerned with spirituality. As Unitarian Universalists we wrestle with the actual meaning of that word even as we acknowledge its importance. For many of us we find meaning within the etymology of spirit as breath, and see that which is spiritual as a deep concern with that which gives us life. If there are principally two spiritual "styles," that of heart and that of mind, we tend to fall into that second category, following the ancient and modern ways of wisdom.

As UUs we tend to follow idiosyncratic paths, each of us seeking our unique way into depth and wisdom. Many of us have embraced spiritual disciplines ranging from Transcendental Meditation to Yoga to Tibetan Dzogchen to Insight and Zen meditation. This is in fact a brief and very incomplete list of the spiritual disciplines that attract us, but hopefully it gives a sense of our range of practices.

Probably the most important practice among us is a home-grown spiritual discipline called Small Group Ministry. The heart of this practice is found within a covenant among eight or nine or ten people to gather together regularly for a structured conversation on spiritual matters. The way the conversation is structured means that each individual speaks only one-eighth or one-ninth or one-tenth of the time. As such, the practice becomes one of deep listening. Many people have found this a transformative experience. We encourage everyone, and particularly those new among us, to give this practice a try.

Reimagining Religion is an ongoing conversation inspired by the best of recent scholarship and new developments in the study of religion, seeking religious literacy and deeper encounters with our own inner lives.

We also sponsor the Benevolent Street Zendo, a Zen meditation group that practices within the Boundless Way tradition. The Boundless Way is an emerging Western Zen community led by Unitarian Universalists who are Dharma successors in traditional Zen lineages. It is a formally structured spiritual practice, and while not to everyone’s taste, it provides an adaptation of a serious discipline to our contemporary culture that some find powerful and compelling.

Others among us are working as the Transylvania Partnership Committee, encouraging deep connections with our spiritual cousins in Middle Europe. We are in a discernment process exploring the possibility of becoming a sister congregation with the Unitarian church in Szentegyhaza, Transylvania. We see this as an opportunity to deepen our own spirituality through conversation and contact and mutual support of continental Unitarians, a parallel evolution of Western liberal religion, but one that has existed for many years as an oppressed minority.

A brief consideration of the words "worship," "religion" and "liturgy" may be helpful as a preamble to this introduction to our Sunday worship. Possibly the best definition for worship is derived from the Old English and means simply to "find worth." While there is some debate about its etymology, many people believe the word religion derives from religare, to "bind together" or to "bind back." This view certainly informs much of our common understanding of what we strive for on a Sunday morning. And, finally, liturgy means "the work of the people." All these meanings; finding worth, binding together, and work of the people; are the substance of our Sunday services.

In his famous "Divinity School Address," our ancestor Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke of two gifts to humanity from our Christian heritage: first, the Sabbath, "the jubilee of the whole world." And secondly, the institution of preaching. Sunday, "set aside for contemplation and celebration" and preaching, what Emerson called "the speech of person to person." These two things, celebration and the sermon, inform each other. Taken together, they give us much of value whatever the particular shape of our individual understandings of our contemporary free faith.

Our common concerns are the questions of life and death: Why are we here? Where are we going? Why do we die? And out of this, what is morality and social choice? How do our beliefs affect our actions? Illuminating them with stories out of our personal experiences as well as Jewish and Christian scripture, the epic of science, great mythic sources, the earth-centered traditions, and the traditions of the world’s faiths we can discover much about ourselves and the direction of our lives. In short the UU sermon is anchored in the depths of our human condition, and is about our human condition.

While we are intimately concerned with the questions of meaning and the possibilities of direction in our lives, this doesn’t mean all has to be solemn. Frequently the theme should be lighter: we need laughter and celebration and song every bit as much as reflection. Think of Emma Goldman, who said, "If I can’t dance, I won’t join your revolution." And perhaps you can picture our church as a dancing revolution. We are engaged in a dance within the mystery of the cosmos.

The preacher is a voice of the community. Certainly not the only voice; but very much the visible, corporate voice. The preacher strives to bring an intellectual, but, if done well, also a deeply personal and spiritual voice to our community’s Sunday service. And that voice needs to be understood within the context of our living community. We are drawing together, discovering what binds us together, that which gives us worth. So, this is the work of the people, all of us.

There is no great mystery in the power of liturgy. All it takes is awareness, the realization that the whole service is valuable, and giving each part its proper attention. When this is done with care and respect, then we’ve found worth, then we’ve found what connects us, then we’ve really done the work of the people.