Measured Extravagance

03 April 2004 - 4:21 p.m.

Let's see...

Misia: '. . . I believe there are more than two sexes -- I'm partnered with someone who is biologically intersexed and behaviorally transgendered, and if you can tell me what that makes my sexual orientation, you're one up on me. Usually I identify my own sexual orientation as "soveriegn" and let people ask questions if they need to.'

At Velveteen Rabbi's blog, an interesting conversation touching upon prayer formats, intermarriage, and other concerns. Yehudit's comment held a particular resonance for me: ". . .sounds like for each of us, the form of our prayer service matters terribly to our ability to pray. That bothers me - I'd like to think a religiously inclined person should be able to flow with the service no matter what. But I can't do it any more than you can."

At Philocrites's perch, Nicholas Watson's critique of "elevator speeches"(i.e. "How would you describe Unitarian Universalism given only half a minute to do so?") caught my eye: "I cannot and won't learn to explain my beliefs in an elevator. If someone is sincerely interested, I'll take a few minutes to talk about it. But 30 seconds isn't enough and if you try to do it you do your religion you will do it a disservice."

I've found myself describing Unitarian Universalism a fair amount over the past year, in fact, and it is somewhat like the proverbial elephant: I feel not unlike one of the blind sages - with a different part of the elephant each time. Nicholas's comment actually makes clear for me the problem I have with the concept of the "elevator speech," which is that the question "What do Unitarian Universalists believe?" comes from different people, in different contexts, and so the answer depends on whom I'm talking to and why. (And, to be precise, I'm far more comfortable discussing about what Unitarian Universalists do than what we collectively believe - I remember skimming a suggestion or two in UU World (pace Philocrites) and thinking, "These are way too pedantic for a cocktail party.") At any rate, all of the discussions have certainly taken up at least five minutes and sometimes stretched out to several hours (at which point it's usually become not just about UU beliefs but about religious concerns in general).

The topic tends to come up because religion-related activities do occupy a sizable part of my life right now: my main day job is at an Episcopal cathedral, I'm on the board of directors at First UU and chair of the administration committee, and I worship at the local Conservative egalitarian synagogue every once in a while. So when someone asks me what chaos is keeping me (pre)occupied these days, odds are good that I'll mutter something about "twenty-three liturgies next week, oy!" or "the plasma of Christ" (a colleague's reaction to a parish using white communion wine) or finding light bulbs for music stands or picking up cupcakes for a reception, which sometimes leads to questions about First UU and/or religion - and sometimes to more general chitchat about desserts and diets and deciding to sleep in on Sundays. It's all fine. I've zero interest in converting folks - I think my church has much to offer, but I firmly believe it's up to people to seek what they need, not to be told what they should want.

(Speaking of which, a textbook case of How Not to Evangelize showed up in my guestbook the other day - it's so bad I'm inclined to dismiss it as an April Fool's joke, as I really don't understand how anyone could imagine insults, hectoring and displaying one's willful ignorance of my background would in any way convince me that this Christ guy of which they rave was up to any good.)

Anyhow. With both Palm Sunday and Pesach on the horizon, I find myself mulling over what I seek and what I need. One of the ironies of working at a church is that preparing for Holy Week is one serious mother-ark load of stress. That wasn't really a shocker, of course. What has surprised me is discovering that I am far more congregational in outlook than I realized: I used to hazard that, were I a Christian, I would have been seriously tempted by the beauty and the ritual of Episcopalian rites, but listening in on some of the discussions about the national church and diocesan organization and recognition (or rejection) of priests and laws - it's brought home to me that the hierarchy of the Episcopal church is an integral element of its identify and structure. This might sound blindingly obvious to many of you, but to me, it was something I'd never before recognized behind the eloquent prayers and the magnificent music. It is not in and of itself a bad thing - clearly there are many people who derive comfort and satisfaction from it - but it is a foreign country in which I have no wish to live.

Judaism is another matter, though. I've become more open about the fact that I'm deeply drawn to Judaism - and it's been a relief to do so - but the fact remains that I am not Jewish and have no plans to convert. (In a nutshell, just because you love something doesn't mean it's yours to have. Judaism resonates with me on multiple levels, but there are various doctrinal and logistical issues that make Unitarian Universalism a better match.) So participating in worship still feels somewhat tricky - I don't want those around me to feel unsettled or distracted by the tourist in their midst, but at the same time, I am and will always be a stranger. (To give the synagogue complete credit, they've been very welcoming - the rabbi even knows my name - and I gather the general assumption has been I'm a student who drops in when she's in town. I don't offer my religious affiliation unless asked (or when I need to confirm that my participation won't create problems, such as for the Sefer Torah), but the rabbi is aware of it, as are several regulars, so neither do I feel I'm there under false pretenses.)

A fellow I know at First UU left the choir a while back, mainly due to more pressing commitments, but also citing that the pressure of performing during the service distracted him too much from actual worship. I recognize this, to a degree: for me, performing is an act of praise and reverence and revelation (and one of the few ways to prod me out of bed at 7 a.m.) - but it is distracting, nonetheless. I find myself more focused when I'm at synagogue, in part because the services are still new to me, and in part because the constant, consistent elements of the liturgy comfort me - but also because there it is not my job to greet people or fret over storage or figure out what to bring to the next Dinners for Nine.

At the same time, were attending Shabbat services truly part of my routine rather than an occasional treat, I fully suspect I would become restless at the restrictions on my ability to participate. A while back, Kale and I were discussing the incorporation of women in liturgy, the gist of the conversation being something like this:

Kale: ". . . when I see a woman wearing tefillin I just find it to be traditionally dissonant to no obvious purpose. I don't find it offensive or distasteful or scandalous, but I do find it to be visually jarring and feel that it works against the only purpose I can see in *any* ritual observance: the maintenance of historic cultural traditions."

Mechaieh: ". . . for some people, it's far more fun to participate than to observe. I would compare it, perhaps, to watching dancing to being on the floor. (I'm not necessarily saying that it's Judaism's responsibility to accommodate that, but that's certainly some of the sense I pick up from others.)"

Kale: "That might be part of it too. I basically see synagogue ritual as a chore rather than something particularly enjoyable, so the notion that it might be "fun to participate" doesn't really occur to me either... :-)"

It strikes me more and more as such a delicate balance - how much should a service or a ritual be required or expected to fit its participants - and how much to the individual, how much to the community? (Not an either/or question, I hasten to stress, but that is where I've seen some of the tensions arising.) The mileage certainly varied over in the discussion at Velveteen Rabbi's, and it's been all over the odometer in forums at First UU and in Episcopalian dialogues as well. Also, Kale is far from the only Jew in my circle who finds my voluntary participation in synagogue somewhat weird - the week he and I traded thoughts on mechitza and aliyah, Dichroic pondered her own observance of Yom Kippur, admitting: "I honestly find it mind-boggling that people my own age regularly go to church and synagogue without being made to. I certainly don't mean to offend anyone who goes - I just mean I totally don't understand it in my gut."

And, rereading the entry, I see some glimmers of my current struggle to come to terms with Pesach - that is, what does it mean to observe Pesach when one is not a Jew? Or, put another way, because I do not have the historical or cultural requirement to participate, in what ways do I choose to participate such that my celebration of the festival is genuinely spiritual (reflective, communal, inspirational, what-have-you) rather than merely an exercise in self-indulgence via self-imposed mandates and restrictions? (I'm overstating the issue somewhat, but that sums up my internal unease - not only with Pesach but with my overall relationship with Judaism - and Unitarian Universalism, come to think of it.)

Anyhow, I'm now running late for Canvass dinner, so off I go. Blessed be, everyone.

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