A couple of years into my life in my Unitarian Universalist church, a fellow congregant told me in casual conversation that he’d been hospitalized a week earlier. When I asked him why he hadn’t told me sooner, he raised his eyebrows and said, “What exactly were you thinking you’d do?”
In the church I was part of as a teen, we’d have prayed. When tragedy struck, word would spread like a ripple through a pond. We would all have had Something To Do, and the person being prayed for would know we were thinking of them, that we cared.
That led to theologically awkward questions, of course. God has a plan, and it’s perfect, but it might change if he gets enough prayers? It’s kind of like Santa Claus: feels good but best not to think about it too carefully. It can lead to awkward questions (and, in my case, ultimately, it led me to become a Unitarian Universalist). But even as I’ve rejected the idea of a God that’s keeping a ticker counter and using it to actively choose-your-own-adventure people’s lives, I do miss praying for each other—in joy and in sorrow. I miss the shared pleases, and the shared thank yous.
Joys and Concerns is one way that UUs keep the ritual and the practice of holding one another in community. We do not light candles because we believe they have a supernatural power to them, but we do believe there is power in standing together in these moments. The ritual of the sharing embodies that belief.
It’s not without complications. As you can imagine, Joys and Sorrows (sometimes called Joys and Concerns or Milestones) can get off topic and run overtime. This is part of why you’ll find so many variations in our congregations. Often individuals light a candle while saying a few words to the congregation about their joy or sorrow, but sometimes people use stones instead of candles, sometimes people’s Joys and Sorrows are read by a service leader from cards, and sometimes they’re not present at all in a given service.
What you will find in all UU congregations is a recognition that to be in community means to be a part of each others’ stories. In joy and sorrow, we do not walk alone.