Most recent religious service

> Why don’t we describe the last religious service
> we attended and then explain what was religious
> about it?

For those of you who have been reading along, you know I’m a Quaker. Yesterday at meeting for worship, I was a greeter. We meet in an old mansion on Beacon Hill, just around the corner from the UUA offices. (The house was given to “the Quakers” by a stranger in the forties or fifties. It’s now a residential community of about 20 as well as housing Beacon Hill Friends Meeting.) Because of the nature of the building, greeters stay near the (locked) door to open it in addition to welcoming people as they come in.

I propped the door open and sat on the sill to welcome late arrivals. Two couples came, and with whispered greetings I directed them to the parlor to wait for the second seating. (We ask late arrivals to wait and go in 15 minutes into meeting for worship, when the children and young people come out for First Day School.) When they went in to meeting, I continued to sit on the doorsill in case there were any really late arrivals (there was one). Even with interior doors open, it was impossible to hear any spoken messages, although I could tell there were two or three very near the end of the hour.

So on a beautiful, sunny day with a light breeze, I sat in the doorway sharing a sense of stillness and purpose with those gathered inside, until the meeting ended (with a traditional handshake for those inside), when I stepped inside for announcements and introductions.

I’d like to make a distinction between a “religious service” and an occasion when worship occurs. Friends would say that you can have a meeting for worship but that doesn’t guarantee that worship will occur; likewise, Quakers believe worship can occur anywhere, at any time.

It was religious in the sense of a religious service:
–by definition (an appointed meeting for worship within the Quaker tradition)
–by intention (those present aspired to an experience of the divine)
–by practice (it was rooted in and fostered a sense of connection; the service I was providing, though mundane, was essential in allowing people to connect).

My actual experience was also religious in the sense of worshiping (which I was not sure would be the case):
–by intent (I hoped that even sitting on the stoop I would feel a sense of connection to God and to the worshipers inside)
–by achievement (It was lovely. What a reminder of the goodness and fullness of life to sit quietly in enjoyment and to truly see a slice of the world. It was an occasion of feeling the numinous. It was atypical of my experience of Quaker worship in that the stimulus of the feeling was the external loveliness; usually, sitting in the meeting room, my attention is inwardly focused unless someone speaks. I felt a modest connection to those inside.)

spiritual formation

One of the ways I think about spiritual autobiography is in terms of spiritual formation: what has shaped the person I am, and what has shaped my spiritual life?

Only in the last couple of years have I come to realize how a particular aspect of my early life has shaped my spirituality: *Where* has shaped me.

I was born and raised in an agricultural area created from and surrounded by desert. (For inquiring minds, that would be Brawley, in Imperial County, California, about 100 miles east of San Diego and about 30 miles north of Mexico. It’s been in the news in the last year as part of a water dispute over the Colorado River involving several Western states and the federal government.)

From my upbringing, I learned that the world is a beautiful and harsh place. I learned the beauty of spareness and silence. I learned that there are certain realities of the world that must be accommodated, or there will be repercussions, up to and including death. I learned that human existence is created and made possible by hard work, cooperation, and large-scale manipulation of the natural world.

Wow! Ever since I moved to Pennsylvania, I’ve realized the desert still lives in me as an aesthetic. (Oh, those nasty, quaint country lanes in spring, overhung by that dense, brilliant green! You can’t see the bones of anything; you can’t see the contours of the landscape; you can’t see the sky!) New England countrysides are sometimes better, because the woods are less dense.

But I’m shocked to consider the other ways in which my early life shapes my response to the world in unseen ways. For instance, the desert, which is beautiful and loved as my native home, is utterly indifferent, indeed hostile, to human life. Is it any wonder that I don’t have any deep struggle to accept metaphors of the divine that are violent to human life or capricious? Do I actually believe in a God like that? Not really. (I think.... maybe I’ll find out by doing BYOT!) I certainly don’t *want* to believe in a God like that.

But it’s become clear that there may be things under the surface worth examining.

In a more traditional “spiritual autobiography” vein, here’s a link to something I’ve written to describe a particular part of my religious life. In the Religious Society of Friends, there was a traditional practice, now widely abandoned, of recognizing ministers and acknowledging elders. “Eldering” came to have the bad connotation of telling someone how they were doing something wrong. There’s a growing movement among liberal Friends to reclaim the role of elder as spiritual nurturer of ministers and of meeting communities.

eldering stories

Building Your Own Theology

I’ve joined the UU-Books mailing list that the Unitarian Universalist Association sponsors, as a way of enriching my office experience. Some of the participants on that list are working through the book Building Your Own Theology. I plan to post my contributions here with minimal editing.

I’m excited about being able to join in the BYOT experience, even though I’m not a UU. I expect my participation will be useful in my life and hope it will not be disruptive to you all. I suggest that we use a “BYOT” tag in our subject lines so that anyone not participating can more easily apply a filter or rule if they want to routinely discard our messages.

Name: Kenneth Sutton

Religious value I cherish: immediate (un-mediated) experience of the divine

Religious value I have rejected: “the use of the democratic process within our congregations”

Faith in which I was raised: cultural (i.e., not religious) Christian

Religious value with which I struggle: how to be faithful in my life to my experience of God

What I hope to get out of BYOT: A more systematic understanding of my own theology; a deeper acquaintance with UU religious thought.

Sarah Mapps Douglass: Faithful Attender of Quaker Meeting: View from the Back Bench

By Margaret Hope Bacon. With a foreword by Vanessa Julye. It’s really good to have this story published. Bits of Sarah Mapps Douglass’s story have been told before, but this pamphlet places what Margaret Bacon has found about her life into the context of the times and of her family and friendships. It makes clear a shameful part of Quaker history.

Home to Harmony

By Philip Gulley. Sentimental and moralistic, but all the same warm, loving, and generous. Phil’s Christianity isn’t willing to leave anyone behind. Harmony is a well-drawn portrait of small-town life with affectionate pokes at most everyone.