Rev. Roger Butts, Contract Minister
Prairie UU Church, Parker, CO
Worship is the work of the people. It is something we do together. We sing together. We sometimes read together. We light candles together. We keep silence together. We explore important matters together. Sometimes we are comforted. Sometimes we are challenged.
In Unitarian Universalist contexts, we know that there will be many different approaches to life’s deepest moments and questions. I like to think that in our worship services we tell folks where to look, and maybe even how to look, but we don’t tell them what to find. That is for each person to come to in their own way, in their own time. So why do we gather together? To seek together, to encourage one another, to cheer each other on as we make our way. And to pool our resources to make a place of exploration and fellowship and support and care. And to bear witness together to our deepest values—radical equality, compassion, and a just and fair world.
In many Unitarian Universalist congregations, in most actually, you’ll find some common relics.
A flaming chalice.
A common hymnal.
Candles of Community.
The flaming chalice is the most common symbol of the Unitarian Universalist tradition. The flame is a representative of the light we seek, the light of reason, the light of peace, the light of justice. It is several decades old.
A common hymnal, well now two—a gray one and a turquoise one—so that the songs that say most about our approach to the world and to life can be sung together. Every generation has its favorites: Morning Has Broken. Spirit of Life. Now Let us Sing. Blue Boat Home. It is said that one can learn a whole lot about a congregation by what it sings.
Candles of Community is what Prairie calls the sharing of joys and sorrows and concerns with one another. In many congregations, you will have this time of sharing. It is how we lift up together our celebrations and our worries. The Quaker tradition has a lovely saying: I’ll keep you in the light. Candles of community are kind of like that.
Most UU congregations follow a pretty Protestant order of service. Call to Worship. Hymns. Special Music. Readings. Sermon. Pastoral Prayer or Joys and Sorrows. Benediction. If you travel to any UU congregation, you’d see some variation of that.
I speak of God or Spirit. Unless I am reading a quote from someone long ago, I would never gender the name of the divine. And I use many different names from different traditions for the divine. Why? Well, I think of God as love and as inhabiting the heart of all things. And so I don’t think of God as personal like many of our friends and neighbors do. I don’t think of God as intervening in the affairs of the world. I do think of God as having names and as having many of them. The world religions have all tried in various ways to name God. I like Spirit of Life. I like God of All, I like Goddess. I like Great Spirit. I like Mystery beyond imagining. The more we are free to use our imagination to try to come up with names for God, the more we are free to see the holy in all kinds of ways, new and old. When I speak of God, and if it doesn’t translate to you, I invite you to consider my children. They are now all teenagers. But when they were younger, Marta and I asked them: What do you think of when you think of God. One said: the earth. One said: Love. (The third said: What they said.) Marta and I could not have been prouder of them. So if God isn’t your cup of tea, think earth or love or goddess or tree or ocean. Often I will mean some mystery that is beyond even our wildest dreams (but always on our side and always loving).
I pray. And I meditate. Why do I pray if I do not believe that there is a God who will intervene in history? As a hospital chaplain for 7 plus years, I learned the value of grabbing hold of someone’s hands in their time of need and just praying with them. The words don’t much matter. The gesture and connection do. I think of prayer in the same way I think of say the Sermon on the Mount. The words point the way to something deep and powerful, even if they will never quite be realized. Public prayer helps us to name what is important. Mostly, I believe in the human side of prayer. Prayer may not change things by itself, but it can change people and people can change things. It is important to say that if others don’t pray, I have no problem with that. Think of public prayer as a chance for meditation and quiet.
When I say that I believe in the human side of prayer, that is an important thing to note. At the end of the day, I count myself a follower of the human Jesus, that Rabbi with such wisdom. I’ve long been a member of the UU Christian Fellowship—two decades pl I count myself as inter-spiritual, finding meaning in a variety of religious traditions (Christianity, Judaism, Buddhist, primarily) within a UU context. And I think of myself as theopoetic, finding meaning in the rich poetic traditions of all religious and spiritual journeys. All of those in service to the here and now. In that way, I am a humanist, just very open and very inter-spiritual and very poetic in my language and imagination.
On this last point, about some people being into prayer and some not. For me the most important thing about all of this is balance. If I preach 30 times a year and every sermon is on social justice, I am not providing balance. There are social justice and current affairs that must be the focus of services. But there are other things as well: history, faith development, spiritual growth, ethics, philosophy, and so on. I want all of those things to be in balance. And when it comes to radical equality and social justice, I believe that social justice should be woven into all of the things we do together in church.
The arts. I use a lot of poetry, a lot of visual arts, and a lot of contemporary music to make points about what we are trying to learn. My seminary had a Center for Religion and the Arts. There is something about the arts that hits us in the heart in ways that words simply cannot.
The head and the heart. Action and contemplation. Joys and sorrows. Individual and communal. It is all in play in worship and we learn together what works and what doesn’t. It is all balance, at least that is the goal.
I am grateful to be your minister.