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“Com-passion:” A Theological Foundation for Intergenerational Worship

By Rev. John Tolley. Originally posted in Education, Worship on November 30th, 2011, on the blog "Cooking Together."

Why do we do justice work? Theologically speaking, we are guided by ancient tradition and covenants that teach us to “do unto others as we would have them do unto us.” A more contemporary articulation for Unitarian Universalists would be that to honor the inherent worth and dignity of every person means advocating for all human expression whatever the situation. Such advocacy is how we honor that worth. But when we’re crossing cultural boundaries in doing our advocacy work, we need to be mindful that our efforts do not patronize nor our expressions become misappropriation.

In my own anti-racism and anti-oppression work over the last decades, and especially in the early days of that awakening in me, I came to appreciate a way to understand “compassion” more fully. I am thinking here about the Latin roots of the word compassion: the prefix com meaning with, and passion meaning to feel. “Com-passion” equals “feeling with.”  I’m not writing about some action where one in privilege reaches down to alleviate the pain of someone less fortunate. That is a vapid, empty devaluation of the word itself. But I am talking about discovering ways to identify with those whose positions we advocate, so that their concerns and their struggles become ours in the most intimate, intuitive ways.

For me, as a young man, I struggled to create a career in the church and honor my gay identity at the same time. The prejudice and dismissal which I experienced gave me a way to begin to understand the prejudice and dismissal others had felt for whom I was attempting to be an ally. My learning style and perceptual thinking patterns are such that language is slow for me to create. I learn best by what I see and how I feel. Only then can I put words to my discoveries. So that initial “feeling with, com-passion,” gave me the portal through which I could better understand the plight of brothers and sisters different from me in any number of ways. Never were our experiences the same nor would I ever equate my fears and pain with theirs, but “feeling with” allowed me to enter the conversation and the struggle in ways more genuine that simple rhetoric would ever allow for me.

So in my years as a religious educator, first in parishes and later at Meadville Lombard Theological School, I was often challenged to create intergenerational worship that would inspire those who participated to want and wish for a better world through acts of justice and advocacy. My training and experience was primarily in the arena of religious arts and aesthetics, so that in my designs the visual and kinesthetic elements of worship were often enhanced over the auditory word. I discovered that this intuitive response on my part actually helped create meaningful services that often spoke across generations and learning styles in ways that our traditional reformed worship paradigms with an emphasis on the spoken word did not.

In the words of my colleague at Meadville Lombard, Dr. Mark Hicks, Angus MacLean Professor of Religious Education, every interchange we have with another person is a cross-cultural interchange. We are more aware of crossing cultural boundaries when we speak with people from different countries, different ethnic backgrounds or different gender identities. But as Mark explains, every human being is a world of his or her own and our goal as justice makers is to enter that world with a sense of curiosity and appreciation. Curiosity and appreciation can help save us from patronization and/or misappropriation. Consequently, I believe as religious professionals our goal is to address curiosity and build appreciation for those whom we would honor and for whom we would seek justice through worship which inspires advocacy.

So how can we create worship based on this theological foundation, through a desire to “feel with” and engender a sense of appreciation and curiosity all at the same time? I would encourage everyone to go read again Plaza Fiesta, see below. In that entry, Pat Kahn, Children and Families Program Director for the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), writes about an immersion experience created by Laura Murvartian, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta. Laura first told her own story and then led the study group through exercises that engaged all the senses—taste and smell, visuals and movement. When the whole self is engaged in this way, lessons are communicated more fully and often hearts are changed more radically. So here are some bullet-point guidelines that I have discovered in my work and that Laura’s Plaza Fiesta illustrated so well:

  • Deliver the spoken didactic in short offerings to parallel the shorter attention spans of children, not to mention over-scheduled adults! Break up “sermonettes” with music, with responsive readings or songs, dance or movement.
     
  • Use story liberally. The words, “let me tell you a story” trip an attention switch for people of all ages and when a story of either fact or fiction comes early in a service, it gives the congregation a common reference point on which to build a worship theme.
     
  • Build appreciation and curiosity with the use of song, food, pieces of art or banners that stimulate the visual and pique interest.
     
  • Invite intergenerational families to execute a portion of the liturgy; light the chalice as a family unit or take up the offering together.
     
  • Within the context of the service, invite several voices to participate. For even in an auditory experience we “tune in” more strongly when we hear a vocal change.
     
  • Include small, dramatic vignettes which you can build from improvisation so that they precisely illustrate a sermon theme. A two-minute drama can often carry more information than a twenty-minute sermon.

In truth, the creation of such an integrated service demands more time from a minister or education director than the worship which is written in the study. But the inclusion of several voices and multiple talents in the end will help build that appreciation, curiosity and empathy that is critical to authentic justice work. We remember that we do it to honor the inherent worth of those for whom we would be allies and because we “do unto others as we would have them do unto us.”

*For more information on perceptual thinking patterns and learning styles, check out Dawna Markova’s book, The Open Mind.

Rev. John Tolley is an Affiliated Faculty member at Meadville Lombard Theological School, one of the co-teachers for the Congregational Studies Signature Course and Arts and Aesthetics. He served congregations for twenty-two years in Indiana, Tennessee, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

For more information contact worshipweb@uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Thursday, December 20, 2012.

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