Monday, July 25, 2016


This material is from the second of my three projected "books" -- the one called "Come Through the Door" that is a kind of anthology of religious services.   Here are two more versions of services using the template that comes from Victor Turner’s three part crossing-the threshold, being together in the liminal space, return to the world, plus the “Dilation of the Spirit”.  It ought to feel familiar to Christians.

First Unitarian Church of Chicago

When I was in seminary (1978- 1982), we took turns presenting Vespers on Fridays at 5pm in the little side chapel of First Unitarian Church.  Most of the time the space was separated from the gaping cavern of the main sanctuary by a fire curtain, but one day that curtain was up.  Looking into that darkness, feeling the cool of the unheated stone space, sensing the ghosts of so many ceremonies, I had an idea.

The next time I did Vespers, I turned all the chairs around so they were facing through that stone arch into the void.  On a low table I propped the biggest mirror I could find and put the symbolic flaming chalice in front of it.  When the students and faculty arrived, they sat more quietly than usual.  It was winter.  We were exhausted.

In-gathering and crossing the limen:

Opening words In the diminishing February twilight, we’ve hurried along under the gaunt elms and the leering stone gargoyles of the quads.  As we do weekly, we gather at the end of an arduous week of plodding through snow and hunching over books.  We come to gather comfort and respite in our small community, not so much saints as friends.

Dilation of the spirit: 

Broken world:  We risk so much by coming to seminary.  We fail, we go too deeply into debt, we turn out to be unsuited for the ministry, and we surely lose our faith, because that’s what seminary is for -- to break open our simple faith and press us down into every resource you have.  Now we find out there is no God, there is no easy way, and we are no one’s heroes.

Healing:   We are dazzled by ideas we never guessed existed and join the historical pilgrimage of learning that stretches back for many centuries.  The world opens out before us and we will be welcomed into the company of scholars.  Just when we despair, we will discover a new strength.

Then the main sermon and prayer, which revolved around the idea of KENOSIS, the classic doctrine of emptying out.  All the time we continued to look into that black void with the comparatively small mirror and flame because it was such a good sensory metaphor.

Closing words:  This week has ended.  It is over.  We have left it.  Now we go into the weekend where we will be renewed and serve congregations all over the city.  Let us be light-hearted.

(All the words above are mine.)

In 1988-1989 I served as interim the Blackfeet Methodist Parish based in Browning, Montana.  I preached from the Bible-based lectionary:  Psalm 29, Isaiah 61: 1-4, Acts 8:16-17, and Luke 3:15-17 and 21-22.  The lectionary is created by a committee that shares among several denominations.  The idea is to suggest four verses:  one each from the Psalms, the Old Testament, the New Testament and a Gospel.  If the lectionary is followed through the year, the whole Bible is included.  They only approximately focus on a theme.   I felt I should use the lectionary because my formal affiliation had been Unitarian Universalist, which is not necessarily Christian, but this congregation was nominally Christian Methodist, so I should accept their discipline.   In practise, the congregation was pretty mixed general Christian.  In practice the church is more "community" than denominational.

Here’s a sample from January 8, using the same template as above.  The sermon title was “The Wind in the Trees” and dealt with the metaphor of the tree in many religious traditions.  (The words here are all mine.)

CALL TO WORSHIP  (Responsive)

We come again in this New Year to renew our faithful attendance at this house of worship.
The calendar has turned now and we look down the length of the months for a whole year to the next Christmas.
It is cold and we draw together as families and as friends in order to keep our hearts warm.
And we warm ourselves before this great flame of glory that we give the name of God Almighty.
May those who are frightened come to be with us here where we may comfort them.  May those who are joyful come to be with us here that we may rejoice with them.  May those who love life come to be with us here, for this is a place where we love life and all its beauty.


A great wind came last week to rip at our roofs, tear at our windows, knock us off our feet when we tried to walk.  Now it is stone cold and we must watch our fires to make sure they don’t go out, watch our children to make sure they dress warmly.  We feel fragile in such a world.  On the news we hear of terrorists and nerve gas and we hear the wails of the bereaved mothers.  We are very small, oh Lord, and we must trust others to guide our country through the perils.  Keep us from the loss of hope when the chance of peace is great, but the powers of hatred are still potent.  Let us never lose hope or confidence that good will overcome evil.  We falter.


Our God has made us various and resourceful, able to draw on each other’s strengths.  We are not alone in the world, for we have families, fellow country people, wise people, strong people, people who will be with us even as we are with our God.  For if we are unable to reach out for God, behold, the wind of His Spirit reaches us and lifts us up.



The change in our lives sometimes feels like loss, but other times it is a gift and we are glad to be different.  Some of the trees who live alongside us survive by dropping their leaves and growing new ones, and others survive by conserving and renewing the old needles.  In the coming week may we both conserve and renew, sending our roots deep into the soil of our world.  For through us blows not just the cold winter winds, but also the wind of the Spirit which lifts us up everlastingly.

It’s easy to compose a service like this if there is a clear focus metaphor (trees) and then a lot of sensory and immediate experience.  These will call out emotions and connections that would never be presented by logic.  But this sermon had a lot of history in it plus the theological concept suggested by Tillich, that the Cross is a tree and that the upright points at Heaven and the transcendent, while the cross bar extends along the horizon in immanent worldly fashion.  There’s a lot of material in Joseph Campbell and many others.  

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