Joys and Concerns


December 02, 2001

The First Universalist Church of Rochester

The Reverend George Tyger



It is spoken of in hushed tones.  Eyes roll and throats tighten when it becomes the topic of conversation: Joys and Concerns.  Each week we come to that time in the service not knowing what to expect.  It could be just a few minutes.  It could be half an hour.  It is a universally constant unknown which causes the greatest emotional response and most consternation of any element of UU liturgical practice. 


I will be honest with you.  I have long had some reservations about the appropriateness of this element of so many UU worship services.  I have these reservations because I believe the act of sharing during Joys and Concerns can become a poor substitute for a deeper, more intimate level of sharing and caring for each other.  This is especially true of churches on the plateau of about 175 members, the point at which a church will either remain minister-centered or move ahead to be focused upon its mission and vision, regardless of who the minister may be. 


Having come to the conclusion over the past eight years of my ministry that simply ending Joys and Concerns altogether would find me riding the proverbial rail out of town, I have instead taken some time to try to seriously understand and make sense of what is such a powerful ritual for so many of us.  I will touch upon some of the larger meanings I have found in this ritual, and what I see as it relates to Unitarian Universalist theology.  Finally, I will offer to you a new way of going about this time in our service. Though I am sure my study is incomplete, I hope we can begin to rethink this ritual in a ways that integrate its meaning and power in theologically and liturgically consistent ways.


Why is this part of the service so important to us?  I believe it is at least in part because we UU’s generally do a poor job at creating places for people to truly share of themselves and the most important events of their lives in close, intimate, small-group settings. We do somewhat better at Adult RE opportunities. We do pretty well at social justice and outreach.  We are really good at having committee meetings.  But creating places that nurture truly intimate sharing of ourselves is an area where we falter, not just here, but across the broad spectrum of UU congregations, large and small.  Because we do not provide places for this kind of sharing, for intimacy, for affirmation of each and every individual’s worth and dignity on a very direct and personal level, the only place left is Joys and Concerns.  And Joys and Concerns is not such a good place for that kind of sharing to begin with.  Yet, because we have few other places created explicitly for deep connections to be forged, Joys and Concerns is forced to fill a role for which it was never meant.  Because of this, to take this time away, or to somehow reduce it, is to take from people the one place in which they might feel heard and known in the congregation as unique and sacred individuals.  


Part of rethinking Joys and Concerns, then, is to rethink the ways in which we build relationships among us.  Especially as the congregation grows, as has been clearly articulated as part of the vision we share for this place, we must be sure that Joys and Concerns does not become the only resource for sharing.  There are better, more fulfilling and more powerful ways to meet this need.  While I do not want to prevent anyone from sharing during this time, or be misconstrued as to want to censure this part of the service, it would be a strong bet that, as we get better at helping one another connect deeply outside the service, the need to share at length within it will be greatly reduced. 


What, then, is the appropriate role for this time in our service?  Let us remember first that this time falls within the larger context of a worship service of which it is but one liturgical element.  Two words seem important here – “worship” and “liturgy.”  “Worship,” from the old English root, means roughly “to shape that which is of worth.”  “Liturgy” can be traced to two Greek root words that together mean “the work of the people.”  Our worship, composed of various liturgical elements, can be seen as the work by which we shape that which is of worth in our lives.


So the question becomes, “What is it in the ritual of Joys and Concerns we strive to shape?”  I believe we seek to shape some of our basic assumptions - our basic theological or philosophical assumptions - about what it means to be a human being.  First among these is that, through connection and relationship, we bring to life something greater than any one of us alone.  Perhaps this is what is pointed to in our affirmation of faith as “the source and meaning of life.”  The ritual act of sharing the joys and concerns of our lives helps us to experience the source and meaning of life, at least symbolically, not simply as an intellectual construct, but as a living presence.


So, Joys and Concerns is more than just time set aside in our service for people to share or speak out or make announcements which they forgot to get in on time because we have no other adequate outlet for this.  It is an expression of how we understand the world and our relationship to it.  It is a ritual expression of our core beliefs.  It is a visible representation of the interconnection and interrelationship that we hold as essential to the meaning and structure of human existence.  It is a symbol for the living presence of the source and meaning of life among us.  Placed in the context of a religious service, held in a sanctuary, surrounded by religious symbols, this time takes on power beyond what is said or done. 


In this way, Joys and Concerns is a sacrament.  I bet you never though UU’s had sacraments, did you?  Of course, I do not mean this quite in the traditional way - “an outward sign of an invisible grace.”  Yet, it can be a physical act that brings to our awareness transcendent meanings normally hidden from our view – unseen but real and powerful forces in our lives just the same.  Paul Tillich, one of the seminal theologians of the last century, would say that a sacrament can be seen as the particular objects and acts in which a spiritual community experiences what he called the Spiritual Presence.


What is the Spiritual Presence?  The Spiritual Presence for us is not something supernatural or other-worldly.  It is not the Holy Spirit, at least not with a capital “H.”  It is, though, something real that moves through this congregation as breath moves through our bodies.  It is not something that lands upon us from on high like the apostles at Pentecost.  It is a power that is fully human, created in and among us, yet it is somehow larger than the sum of our individual parts.  It is that elusive sense of meaning, purpose, and connection that emerges in true community.  It is to feel at home in the universe.  It is to know that, amidst the turmoil and confusion of our individual lives and the life of the world, there is something larger than any of the turmoil or confusion in which and by which we each have place and importance in the world. 


Unlike traditional sacraments, this Spirit is not present merely by the act of sharing our joys and concerns in the ritual of Joys and Concerns.  That is more like magic than religion.  Instead, this act is meant as a symbol, pointing us toward that larger reality that the rest of our religious lives and work are meant to help us discover and understand.  This time cannot substitute for the hard work of forging real connections among us.  Instead, it is meant as a visible reminder of what is possible, the Spirit which we nurture here, of acceptance and love by which we each can truly feel at home.  How we undertake this act, then, can make the difference between it being a time that touches upon and reveals to us the very Spirit of our community and it being a time of trivial proclamations and self-indulgence.


What Joys and Concerns should not be, then, is a forum for voicing political positions, a place to make announcements, even really important ones, or a time to tell a funny story or give the intimate details of your latest surgery.  It is deeply personal, but it is not group therapy or a substitute for deeper and more meaningful human connection. 


What it is is a time to share and to listen with reverence and care in a way that reflects what we hope to build among us - a community spirit of compassion, caring, and deep connection to one another.  It is a time to share the very essence of the moving and powerful events of our lives. While the events themselves are vital and meaningful in and of themselves, set into the broader ritual of this time, they point us toward something larger than any one of us can be.  Because it is a ritual, or an enacted symbol, it does not rely so much upon the words spoken, full explanations or careful clarification.  A single word or phrase spoken with the honest desire to share what is meaningful, and the reciprocal desire to listen with attention and compassion, creates the true power of these moments in our service. 

Yet our lone microphone seems to me to cultivate a Phil Donahue feel more than a sacred time.  Not only is the microphone hard to handle, but it allows only those brave enough to stand up in front of 80-100 people and speak off the tops of their heads to participate.  Those joys and concerns too close to share aloud often remain hidden away.  There is little reverence that goes along with talking into a microphone.  Ultimately, this is not just a time to stand up and talk.  It is a physical enactment of some of our most important beliefs.  It is a ritual embodiment of our faith that each and every one of us has power and purpose and meaning in the world.  Our moments of great joy and deep sorrow together create meaningful lives, and these moments of everyday joys and concerns, even those not shared, are sacred moments because we have lived them. 

And so, as I created a vision of this time in my imagination, I began to wonder, “If this truly is a sacrament for us, could it not come along with a bit more sacramentalism or, at least, symbolism?  I have finally come to believe that it can, and it should.  If it truly is such an important element of the service for us, and I think it is, then we can and should fill it with meaning beyond the microphone itself.  There is real power in symbolic acts undertaken with reverence and care.   The big question is how to do this in a way that is truly Unitarian Universalist. 

Because it is where my spirituality is most strongly pulled, and also because of its openness and ability to embrace diverse theological positions, I have turned to the Buddhist tradition for inspiration.  In Buddhism, there is the concept of Right Speech.  It was well summarized in the reading from today,

I am committed to cultivate loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering.  Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am committed to learn to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope.

Loving speech and deep listening form the most basic foundations by which we can approach the sacrament of Sharing of Joys and Concerns.  This ideal is given form in the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, also called Kwan Yin.  She embodies the ideal of listening with complete compassion and presence.  Kwan Yin means, in part, “one who can listen and understand the sound of the world.”  She symbolizes the capacity we each have within us to listen with compassion and true presence.  Kwan Yin is most often represented as a woman holding a vase out of which she pours water.  The water is the water of compassion that she pours out upon the world.  This seems to be a powerful symbol to add to our time of Joys and Concerns.  Here on this altar now sits a representation of Kwan Yin, one who can listen and understand with deep compassion, reminding us of the power of this time in which we are asked to use loving speech and deep listening as we bring to life our most beloved ideals.

Before her sits a bowl of water, seeded with the water from our first service of the year, and several simple river stones.  These together become the physical embodiments of our joys and concerns being offered to the community.  By placing a stone in the water as you speak, you physically represent the powerful meaning found in this time of our service.  In this act you are offering these moments of your life to the larger community of faith, offering them that your sorrow may be held with sweet compassion, offering them that your joy be embraced with delight equal to your own.

Perhaps even more important, you need not speak to engage in this ritual.  Simply placing the stone in the bowl can be enough.  Perhaps you have a sorrow so close and so raw that you could not begin to speak it.  In silence you can offer your suffering to the full listening and understanding of this precious community.

Somehow, it has long seemed to me that this time should engage far more than our voices.  After all, we are much more than our voices.  Somehow, to engage our hearts, our minds, our voices and hands would be a more complete representation of how we seek to be together in this community - whole persons, living whole lives, as a whole community.  As we begin to engage with some new understandings of this time in our service, I hope it will become a true ritual for us - not an end itself, but something that points us toward what is truly possible as we bring the Spiritual Presence of this community alive among us and out into the world.