‘I’m just a fool for church people and the things that happen in church.’
At the Honey Springs Unitarian Universalist Congregation, where things are as they are everywhere, only more so, the Rev. Cotton Lovingood was looking forward to the meeting of the Worship Committee. The interim minister who had preceded him had abolished “joys and concerns” for good reason, but the people missed that part of worship. On the agenda was a discussion of ways they might bring it back in some form or other.
Check-in went well. Ben’s daughter was cute and brilliant. Gladys’s mother was in the hospital again. Phoebe and Adrian had just gotten back from a conference of anthropologists, and she had given a paper on river drumming and communication among the women of one village on the Amazon. Cotton and Laura were thinking of getting some backyard chickens, and the advice flew thick and fast. Cotton felt vaguely guilty not reminding people that you weren’t supposed to give advice at check-in, but he would have felt guilty if he had reminded them too.
Al was sitting with his leg propped up on a chair. He had twisted his knee hiking, in an accidental slide down a muddy bank. The hike had been his way of celebrating his 79th birthday, and he was plenty irritated that he was temporarily laid up. That irritation spilled over into his response to Cotton’s question about “joys and sorrows.”
“I didn’t mind them when we all knew each other. Very sensible people, we had, and the joys were about natural things like seeing a Pileated Woodpecker in the back yard, the birth of a grandchild, a slip down a mud bank,” he said as he gestured at his swollen knee. “This crowd we’ve got now is likely to talk about some demonstration in the street or their horoscope or they’ll ask for prayers for somebody’s sister’s neighbor who has a dread disease. I mean, I’m sorry that person has a disease, and I could care about the somebody or even their sister, but the neighbor? Come on.”
“I remember listening to a woman talk about how Sheila had been diagnosed with worms” Ben chimed in, “and I was feeling terrible about how long the treatment was going to be, and kind of grossed out about all of the vomiting and diarrhea, but sympathetic, and then she happened to mention that Sheila was a Weimaraner. It was weird.” Ben shook his head. “I felt kind of cheated, somehow. Like I’d wasted my human-level sympathy.”
“As if she were implying that animals are as important as people?” Gladys said. “Who is to say they’re not? We have to watch out that we don’t get so human-centric that we lose sight of the fact that we are all one.”
“I’m sorry, Gladys, but I have to disagree,” Ben said. “I mean, I believe that we are all one and all that, but humans are the pinnacle of creation. . .”
“Top of the evolutionary chain,” Al muttered.
“And I’m not sure any of us could live the way we do if we truly believed that animals were of equal importance to human beings,” Ben continued.
Cotton held up his hand. “May I bring our attention back to the joys and sorrows question?”
“Concerns, we called it,” Al said. “Sorrows . . . that sounds kind of melodramatic.”
“Emotional,” Gladys said. “People wouldn’t like how emotional it sounds.” A tiny odor of snark lingered in the air.
“I would like to have a time when people can participate in worship, whether it be silently or verbally, somehow,” Cotton said. “Is an open-mic format our only experience of this?”
“That always felt like church to me,” Al said. “I liked hearing what was going on in people’s lives. You know, as long as it wasn’t crazy or overly medical.”
“Oh,” Gladys shuddered. “We used to have this person in the congregation who had worked as an emergency responder. . . . Anyway, he had absolutely no judgment about what was appropriate as far as level of detail.”
“Quite,” said Phoebe in her gravelly British voice, dry as James Bond’s martinis. “I’ve watched surgeries in the bush without flinching, but his description of someone’s skin grafts left me green around the gills. I saw the pianist swaying on his bench. I could tell the minister wanted to stop him but she couldn’t figure out what to do, and by that time the congregation was already traumatized. Stunned.”
“You know, I heard that playing Tetris right after a traumatic experience helps prevent post-traumatic stress,” Gladys said.
“Well, everyone needed Tetris that day,” Phoebe said. “And do you remember that unfortunate person who was being hounded by the CIA? She used to complain that they were broadcasting propaganda of some kind into her back molars, I believe it was. Or the man who had come from somewhere in the Balkans who would make us all sing ‘America the Beautiful’ around patriotic holidays?”
Cotton had a sudden mental image of Fred Flintstone frantically dragging his feet on the road to stop his stone age car. This discussion was making his stomach hurt. He had heard stories about Joys and Sorrows from other church people that made his toes curl. There was the one about the Holocaust denier who’d gotten hold of the microphone, then had it taken away from him, sparking a passionate debate about how much intolerance to tolerate. There was the one about the choir member who took the mic one Sunday morning to voice concerns about the music director’s drinking.
“Okay!” Cotton may have shouted. It certainly sounded too loud in his ears. “Here are some alternatives. One, we could have people come forward to light candles in silence. . .” Billowing dust from Flintstone’s road swirled around his head.
“We should have those battery-powered candles that you flip a little switch in the bottom,” Al said, “that way you don’t have the danger of open flames.” Gladys made a rude noise.
Cotton kept talking: “or you could drop pebbles or bits of colored beach glass into a bowl of water, or,” he sped up so no one could interrupt, “people could just write their joys and sorrows. . .”
“Concerns,” Ben said helpfully.
“in a book or on cards of some kind and I could read them from the pulpit. That way, if something is inappropriate or . . o;. gross”—he felt funny saying that word; it sounded like junior high school—“I can modify it.”
“More control, eh?” Al grinned.
“I think if we are going to have this, it would be good, yes, if I had some control. Just so no one is traumatized or embarrassed. I can edit medical details. I can skip triumphant news about the Fighting Irish football games and announcements about church work days. You all count on the minister to have control of the worship service.”
“Oh, announcements,” Ben said. “It’s all coming back to me. And I remember minister after minister intoning earnestly about being brief and not making announcements.”
“Or political rants,” Gloria added, “and there was even that minister who banned children from the microphone. . . ”
“Only after a whole family got up there and let their five year old tell the whole bloody story of their trip to Disneyland,” Phoebe said. “It took twenty minutes.”
“The next week they moved it to after the sermon,” Al said.
“I think they just get nervous and keep talking,” Gladys said. Phoebe snorted.
“I love the idea of a congregation sharing one another’s joys, concerns, sorrows, milestones, large and small. It’s community building,“ Cotton said. “We get to know one another. We are not so large yet that the reading of joys and sorrows would take too much time to fit into the service. In fact, if we were a really large congregation I would think that a whole joys and sorrows service might be good to have once in a while, maybe on a Wednesday night or a Saturday afternoon. We just want to find a way to keep it from being hijacked by announcements, surgery details, and people who are temporarily isolated in their own reality.”
“Al, you said that when it was going well, it felt like church to you. I remember it feeling like church to me too. I love the people who talk too much, the kids who talk too softly, I love the people who turn the pianist green, and I love the pianist. I’m just a fool for church people and the things that happen in church.” Cotton stopped. The committee was looking at him with gentle and tolerant smiles.
They decided to try a book that people would write in as they came in, that the ushers would bring forward with the offering, giving him time during some meditation music to sort and edit the things people wrote. They would see how it worked. Gladys volunteered to donate a blank book someone had given her to feed her creative spirit. It was leather bound with thick rough-edged pages. It was a perfect use of the gift, she said, because here they were trying to create a church experience that would feed people’s need for community, beauty, spirit, and order. Al said he had time now that he was laid up for a while, and he might look into doing some wood working to make a table the book could sit on.
Phoebe announced that Adrian had been doing some cooking, and she’d brought snacks. As Adrian had been known to experiment, at times seemingly heedless of the unsuccessful nature of his concoctions, the committee adjourned with trepidation to the kitchen.
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The Rev. Meg Barnhouse, a UU World online columnist, is senior minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin, Texas, and the author of several books, including Broken Buddha. She is also a humorist and singer-songwriter. (Author’s website.)
The first time, I emerged merely breathless, wet, and cold.
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