Tambourines and Other Things We Don’t Do…or Why UUs Don’t Sing Gospel (well) pt. 2

I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.

(bonus points for anyone who can tell where the above quote comes from)

I am so glad that there is no UU congregation within 30 minutes of this place. That way I’m not expected to go to and be a part of it. This gives me the opportunity to go worship with people who do more than think when they cross the church house door. So I’ve been going to the nice little black Pentecostal church about a block-and-a-half from my apartment for a while now. And of course, I study their services the same way I study UU services.

You might remember that a couple of weeks ago my post was about why UUs don’t sing gospel well. My basic premise is that the reason that UUs don’t do gospel well (aside from UU inability to get over the theology of many of the songs) is that UUs don’t do suffering well. After service today I have a whole new list of things that UUs don’t do. Here’s just a portion of that list:

1. Tambourines. Maybe with the exception of the second service at All Souls-Tulsa, my guess is that if a tambourine is at a UU church, it’s got something to do with children’s RE.

2. Liturgical dance. I know the word liturgy probably scares a number of you, but deal with it. Dance can be a way that people get in touch with the divine.

3. The minister have a sermon ready but decides not to give it and all the assembled do is sing.

What I’ve noticed is that all the things that I’m talking about require that emotions be a part of the worship service. And with all of the UU focus on reason, we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater. But even more than that, do UUs preach about emotional issues? And when I’m talking about emotional issues, I’m not talking about mental health issues or social issues that have strong emotions tied to them. I’m talking about real emotional issues like shame, suffering, joy, hope, mercy, forgiveness, loneliness, resentment, fear, anger and so forth. The churches that grow talk about these issues.

I know I’m on a rant these days, but I’m looking towards next year when I have to do my internship. And I have to say, the prospect is not that thrilling. If I have to sit through another group of UUs sing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” and do it badly, I’m gonna scream. Hell, if I hear another group of UUs sing “Spirit of Life” (a song I hate beyond measure) or “Blue Boat Home” (a song I love) half-assedly, I’m gonna scream even louder. I want a UU church that knows what it is, be it hot or cold. This lukewarm mess is driving me bonkers.



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13 thoughts on “Tambourines and Other Things We Don’t Do…or Why UUs Don’t Sing Gospel (well) pt. 2

  1. Tambourines – I bought 8 of them for my fellowship specifically to use in a memorial ceremony a couple of years ago. I’ve made sure they are out and available to use at other times, and I’ve made sure that everyone knows that I view them not as my contribution but as church property to be used, but they have only been touched one time since their original use. I especially do not understand this since our congregation does have a drum circle, and quite a few of our number really enjoy drumming together. Is it something about the janglies? Or is it a matter of what people consider to show proper decorum during Sunday services, a.k.a. worship?…

    Liturgical dance – I’m all for this, and 2 other members are also interested, but none of us is a dancer (I’ve been told to my face by people who like me that I dance like a Republican) or knows any suitable dance to use. If someone with this talent were to join our group, I’d be the first to encourage them to bring this to our worship.

    Abandoning a prepared sermon for spontaneous singing?! I’m afraid that would just frighten people. The one service at which the volunteer in charge of the service didn’t show up (because a storm had knocked out her power and done quite a bit of damage to her home), the back up person just led us in joys and sorrows and then dismissed us to coffee hour 45 minutes early…

    There is, of course, more than one way to engage the emotions. If the majority of a congregation are culturally not attuned to the kind of emotional service you depict, foisting it off on them will not help them or you. It is possible to be fully emotionally engaged in a liturgically rigid service.

    I, who have never been Catholic, have found myself very strongly emotionally affected on a few occasions during Mass. never been Anglican, and yet have been moved to tears during sung Evensong. But I have also been strongly affected by charismatic Christian praise worship. And I remember when I was young being very emotionally responsive to hell-fire-and-brimstone rant-preaching of my upbringing. And Buddhist chanting of the sutras in a little temple in a bamboo grove in the town where I lived in Japan… even now the memory brings chills of wonder.

    Emotional involvement in the religious setting comes in many forms. Some positive. Some negative.

    I like Spirit of Life. I’ve never heard UU’s sing Precious Lord Take My Hand (that was a song of my fundamentalist upbringing). But to the point, the “half-assedness” of Blue Boat singing might just be a cultural issue you have to learn to deal with. We live in a culture where music is, more often than not, relegated to professionals. We buy music far more often than we make it. We listen to a recording rather than producing something live under our own steam. That is a fact that is not going to change anytime soon. We need a culture of active and collaborative amateur production of our cultural products like music before we can expect that the quality of singing in our churches will change significantly.

    But that cultural note aside, Rev. Dan Harper, Assistant Minister of Religious Education at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, posted just today a set of suggestions for improving the quality of singing in our congregations. His aim is not necessarily the emotional quality of services that you are looking for. But it is a deeper engagement, a less “half-assedness” in the singing that he seeks.

    Meanwhile, take a lot of deep breaths, and start firing the furnace where you hope to find some heat. 🙂

  2. Oh, and while you’re on a tear, let me suggest that WASPs (since that’s the main UU ethnic stock) do emotions differently — including suffering and do experience them in worship. The effect is often one of silent reflection and (self-)protective reserve — it’s not for everyone, but it is for me.

  3. When Sinkford suggested that UUs try to pray the Lord’s prayer I knew that it would understandably upset a few people. If you want to accept a very diverse group, you end up with vanilla or what might be better called lukewarmness.

    I am quite familiar with the letters to the seven churches where your lukewarmness quote comes from and think it is one of the best we have in literature.

    I was a Jesus Freak as a young adult and do not care any longer for cold or hot. BTDTGTTS.

  4. I’m with Scott. We don’t lack emotion at all, we just express it differently. My church just suddenly lost a young mother of little kids (and the news reached us while we were on a retreat) so I’ve seen this up close. The collective response was talking, thinking and praying. It might well have looked lukewarm but to me, and I think to us, it was what felt appropriate and comfortable.

  5. We had a music communion at our revival this summer–yes, it’s a UU church–and when I made my mix CD*, I did worry for a moment or two whether I was going to damage whoever got mine. I think there were two acoustic songs on it and a considerable amount of sheer joyous noise.

    I’m so fortunate to be a member where there’s a music director who idolizes Sweet Honey in the Rock. Today’s choir music was very good, and the small group that performed that Emma’s Revolution song made me tear up a bit. We also put a lot of emotion into Blue Boat Home (which I tried out my new-found baritone range on).

    I bought a used tenor saxophone this year (after having mine stolen a decade ago), am taking a vocal class at college (note: I live in a black-majority city. Every student in that class, and the teacher, sings in choir…except me. That’s going to change), am getting the bass guitar out, and am thinking of musician friends to invite to services.

    Many of my most spiritual** moments have come in dark smoky rooms, ears ringing, having danced to exhaustion and drenched in sweat.

    That’s probably not exactly what you’re thinking of, Kim, or maybe it is. It isn’t exactly what I want to bring to the church, either, but it’s where I’ve felt my transcendant, connected-to-everyone moments most often. I do want to bring some part of that in.

    I really do like Spirit of Life, though. I like a lot of things.

    *I also put in my spare CD of of Miles Davis’ “In A Silent Way”.

    **Whatever that means.

  6. I’ll probably write this as another post, but I want to make it really clear. I’m talking mainly about music right now. I know UUs suffer, everybody suffers at some point. I’m talking about digging into the really emotional side of suffering and singing out of that. I’m talking about singing “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” out of the resevoir of pain that we all carry.

    I do understand the difference between being emotional and emotionalism. As Ecclesiastes says, “to everything there is a season.”

  7. Paul,

    The church is a great place to start building a “culture of active and collaborative amateur production of…music”. After all, it’s one of the places where one finds it today, both fresh-built and time-tested. It’s just not so much found in UU churches as it is some others.

    I’m going to guess this has something to do with the professional academic class from which so many UU members come.

    For the Labor Day service at the church in my old town, where we were visiting my mom last week, the offertory was Satie’s “Sonatine Bureaucratique” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Z5dh3yruho). It was perfect–this is not a criticism of that wonderful service–and a perfect illustration of my point.

    Having that level of sophisticated performance easily available and an audience used to it–it’s a university town–may discourage serious amateur participatory creation.

    (Or not–we went on to a lusty version of “Solidarity Forever”.)

  8. I knew you meant the music, at least mostly. I just wanted to get a sense whether it is OK to you that UUs express emotion differently, in worship and otherwise, because my sense is that you perceive the UU way of music and worship as less optimal.

    Which you’re welcome to do in simply stating your own preferences.

  9. And yes, I should note that a great many UUs do express emotion through music, be it the style of music you’re talking about or not. (The music guy at our church wrote a requiem.) Though the very emotional music is a mood thing for me, and the very emotional worship turns me off, I don’t deny that it really works well for some people.

    I’m not saying the usual UU approach is best, I just get nervous when people start talking about our ways like they aren’t as good.

  10. “I’m not saying the usual UU approach is best, I just get nervous when people start talking about our ways like they aren’t as good.”

    I agree with you completely, Chalicechick. While it is very possible for a service not to meet the emotional needs of its congregants, it definitely is not the case that the absence of particular forms is evidence of emotional unfulfilledness. If being WASPish is what works for the congregation, it is no less emotionally fitting than Pentecostal fervor for a church of that orientation.

    Of course, the recent publicity regarding All Souls – Tulsa has led a lot of UUs to question whether UU WASP culture is preventing our growth as a denomination. After all, growing portions of the American landscape are not WASPs. So each congregation has to decide how to fulfill the needs of its longterm members while not shutting themselves off to people who are not organic participants in WASP culture but who are perfectly attuned to UU philosophy.

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