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Sunday Morning Worship Service, General Assembly 2005

General Assembly 2005 Event 4002

Speakers: Rev. Robert Hardies, Rev. Barbara Wells ten Hove, Jeannie Gagné

2,787 people streamed into the arena at Fort Worth for the Sunday morning worship service at the 2005 Unitarian Unviersalist Association (UUA) General Assembly. "This is the largest crowd we've yet had in the Fort Worth arena," said John Hurley, director of the Office of Information and Public Witness at the Unitarian Unviersalist Association. "Even the opening celebration didn't have this many people."

Again this year, the worship leaders of the Sunday morning worship service at General Assembly wanted to include more than just those attending GA. An advertising campaign invited the general public. Many of those attending General Assembly invited people they met in Fort Worth to come join in worship on Sunday morning. The crowd was greeted with music before the service began, provided by Jeannie Gagne, choral director for the service, a choir of music professionals from UU congregations, and a band which included piano, bass, guitar, flute and saxophone, drums and percussion.

"I hope, like me, your spirit is full to the bursting," said the Rev. Bill Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, as he called the congregation to worship. "We invite you to join with us as we explore the transforming power of our faith." He was joined by the Rev. Barbara Wells ten Hove, co-minister of the Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church of Adelphi, Maryland, who said, "We are spiritual creatures from the beginning." The Rev. Robert Hardies, senior minister of All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington, DC, added, "Transformation happens, and we are born again."

After the prelude, ten Hove stepped forward to light the flaming chalice, a typical opening ritual in Unitarian Universalist worship services. "The chalice with a flame at its heart is a symbol of our faith," she said. "We know that the chalice is an ancient symbol of trust and community, and the flame is a symbol of transformation." By combining these two ancient symbols, a flaming chalice can be seen to represent Unitarian Universalist religious communities. "When transformation occurs in community, deep spiritual growth happens."

Following the lighting of the flaming chalice, the congregation joined in singing the first hymn, "Woyaya," from Singing the Journey, a hymnal supplement released at this General Assembly.

The Story for All Ages was presented by the KUUMBA Players of All Souls Church in Washington. Aided by costumes, dance, and props, the ensemble presented an old Sufi tale titled "The Stream."

"High in a far off mountain, a stream started in a little spring," said the narrator, as dancers in blue costumes appeared representing the stream. The stream was determined to cross a broad desert. The dancers approached a sand-colored cloth which represented the desert, and was held up by two other members of the ensemble. "The stream flung itself at the desert, but each time it did so, it disappeared," said the narrator. "But if its destiny was to cross that desert, it would surely find a way."

The wind could cross the desert, and the stream realized that it could allow itself to be absorbed by the wind, carried across the desert as vapor, and reappear on the other side as rain. But the stream didn't like that idea, saying, "I have my own identity... I won't be the same stream that I am now."

Eventually, the stream did allow itself to be carried across the desert by the wind, who "carried it beyond the horizon, and let it fall softly at the top of a new mountain, and the stream began to understand who it really was, and what it meant to be a stream." The story ended with applause from the congregation.

The choir sang an anthem titled "Healing Prayer," arranged by Nick Page, a Unitarian Universalist composer and choir director, from the traditional spiritual "There Is a Balm in Gilead." The alto soloist, Sarah Dan Jones (music director, Georgia Mountains UU Church, Dahlonega, GA) sang one verse from the traditional lyrics, "Sometimes I feel discouraged/ And think my work's in vain/ But then the holy spirit/ Revives my soul again." Starting in a mellow, relaxed mood, the anthem built to a crescendo with Stan Strickland offering solo sax and solo vocals over the choir's repeated chorus of "We pray."

Hardies then gave one of the legends from the desert fathers, "a band of monks who in the third century wandered the desert in search of god. Like Zen koans, these are stories that don't give easy answers, but invite reflection."

The reading told the story of one of the monks who went to his spiritual teacher, Abbot Joseph, for guidance. The monk was keeping all his spiritual disciplines – prayer, silence, and so on – but it wasn't enough. "I still haven't found what I seek," said the monk. "What more can I do?"

"In reply," said Hardies, "Abbot Joseph rose up and stretched his hands to heavens, and his fingers became like ten burning lamps, and he said, Why not be totally changed into fire?"

Hardies began his sermon, titled "Born Again... and Again... and Again," by saying so many people are like the befuddled monk in the story, working at their spiritual lives for years, trying everything, "but to no avail." Hardies said that sometimes he feels like the befuddled monk. "He still can't answer the questions: Why am I here? What is my purpose? He still can't fill that empty place inside himself that long and longs and longs to be filled."

Hardies said many people today feel this way. While people may go to yoga on Thursday, church on Sundays, and have a book by Thich Nhat Hanh beside their beds, many people are still not finding the answers to their deepest questions.

"Friends, this morning I'd like us to consider what it would mean for us, for you, to be changed into fire," said Hardies, referring to Abbot Joseph in the story. "Why not be totally changed into fire?"

Hardies then told the story of the Rev. James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist minister who heeded the call of Dr. Martin Luther King, and traveled to Selma, Alabama to join the march for civil rights in 1965. "And on the night of the march he was bludgeoned to death by four white men," said Hardies. "When I hear about people like James Reeb, I want to know, what's their story, what brings them to make such a sacrifice?"

Hardies said that Reeb started out as a conservative Christian. When Reeb found himself working as a chaplain with poor and destitute people in Philadelphia, his childhood faith told him that these people deserved punishment, but his heart told him they deserved love and compassion. "A generous love entered him, and helped to melt his cold and Calvinist heart," said Hardies. "Reeb wrote in his journal, 'When the moralist in you dies, then life begins.' He was gripped by a transforming love that would not let him go."

"This, I think, is what Abbot Joseph meant when he said, 'Why not be totally changed by fire?'" said Hardies. "Give your life over to love."

Hardies acknowledged that the phrase "born again" makes many religious liberals cringe. He mentioned a bumper sticker that he had seen that read, "Born right the first time." "It's a good line," said Hardies, "but after I thought about it for a while, it struck me as at best naive, and at worst arrogant. I don't know anyone who doesn't yearn for something more. I don't know anyone who doesn't say, I wish I could love better, love bigger." At the same time, Hardies said he was not entirely satisfied with the usual notion of being born again, as a once in a lifetime event. He quoted the poet e. e. cummings, who grew up in a Unitarian household, who once said, "we can never be born enough."

"Isn't life always calling us to rebirth?" asked Hardies. "When a loved one dies and we find the strength to go on, we are born again.... When we come out of the closet and find the strength to be openly gay or lesbian, we are born again.... With each rebirth, that transforming love takes hold of our heart, our battered old heart, and stretches it further than we thought it could stretch."

"If I had to sum it up on a bumper sticker I guess I would say: 'Born again, and again, and again.'"

Turning to the challenge religious liberals face in today's world, Hardies asserted that the challenge is a spiritual challenge, not a communications challenge. "The answer to the marginalization of the religious left will not be spin, it will be fire." The congregation responded to this with applause and cheers. "I believe with all my heart that Unitarian Universalism has a changing message for the world."

Hardies pointed out that his church is named "All Souls." But, Hardies said, "can you imagine a church named 'Some Souls'?" The congregation laughed, but then Hardies continued: "Isn't that the de facto name of the dominant religions in America today?"

"The good news that Unitarian Universalism must deliver to the world... the good news that has literally saved my life, is that a god who picks and chooses is not god at all, it is an idol," said Hardies. "We must preach the old Universalist gospel that all souls are invited to the welcome table."He called for "a love that will not let us go, will not let us down, and will not let us off." The congregation responded with cries of "Amen!"

Speaking of a religion of love, Hardies ended his sermon by saying, "Let's go out there and live it. Amen!" Hardies received a standing ovation for his sermon.

Next, ten Hove offered the prayer, while Stan Strickland accompanied her on soprano sax. "In these desert times, we may feel like that stream, unable to cross to the other side," she said, "unable to change and transform our very being, and we ask forgiveness for our fear, we ask forgiveness for the times we have created the desert.... Yet like that stream, if we have the courage, compassion, and commitment to transform ourselves, we may cross that desert and be reborn in new form."

The choir, led by Gagne, sang a second anthem, "Turn the World Around," which opened with percussion and vocal percussive effects. The anthem is another of the songs included in the new hymnal supplement, Singing the Journey .

An offering was received from the congregation, to be shared equally among three nonprofit emergency assistance agencies in Fort Worth. A total of $41,179 was collected, to be shared among Community Storehouse, Eastside Ministries of Fort Worth, Inc., and WestAid. Unitarian Universalist ministers serve on the boards of the first two agencies, and the third agency has a strong relationship with a local Unitarian Universalist church. The offertory music was a bright jazz rendition of the classic hymn, "O Come You Longing Thirsty Souls," with solos by Stan Strickland on flute, Mark Freundt on piano, and Jim Scott on guitar.

After a responsive litany, the congregation joined in singing the hymn "Love Will Guide Us." The congregation stood while singing, swaying in time to the music, with many people holding hands.

The three worship leaders offered the benediction together. "With love as our guide," said Hardies, to which Sinkford added, "We will seek a transformation that will redeem ourselves and our world," and ten Hove closed by saying, "And let the people say, 'Amen!'" With that, the congregation joined together in singing the Rev. Jason Shelton's song, "Standing on the Side of Love," which has become something of a hallmark anthem for the Unitarian Universalist faith and its embrace of all people.

Reported by Dan Harper; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.

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