(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved

About twenty years ago, when my two daughters were much younger, I decided that our small family needed something that would uniquely identify us.  I thought about writing a funny and memorable song or poem.  My girls were indifferent to the need for such a thing, but I was determined.

I eventually self-choreographed a Slagle family dance as our identifier.  It was over-the-top ridiculous but nevertheless got the message across.  I introduced it on my birthday, tried to teach it to my girls and declared that it would henceforth be danced at all family occasions – public or private.  The dance is a combination of the chicken dance done on one leg, arms flapping like wings, barking like a seal, and a cheerleader finale spelling out our name and a loud “GO Slagle” at the end.

My girls thought it was horribly lame, and they half-heartedly learned it.  Later, they declared they would absolutely never dance it outside the family.  I was not deterred and for many years regularly reminded us to do it.  It did not matter they usually refused and I danced alone.  Whenever I suggested we do it in a public place, like at the end of sporting event in which my girls participated, they were so horrified they literally ran away.   

I was not a sadist, however, and made sure to do the dance privately  – even though I threatened otherwise.  I had my dignity to protect after all.  I’m even telling this story today with some fear, knowing you will want to see it.  No way!  It is soooo ridiculous that if I were to perform it here, you would immediately take a vote to find a new minister.

But the Slagle family dance took hold and, as my girls got older, they sometimes reminded me to do it.  They enjoyed seeing me make a fool of myself.  On a few occasions, they even danced with me.  I’ve not done it in many years and that’s too bad.  I need to do it again and with a family Easter dinner coming up, I just may do that.  I look forward to resurrecting it with future grandchildren.

The dance has become a part of our family lore.  We laugh about it and that makes me happy.  If I am remembered by my girls for anything, let it be that dance.  Even though it has never been something serious, it has helped bring us even closer.  It’s symbolic value lies in its up-front declaration that we are united, that in a very silly way we pledge our mutual support, no matter what.  In many ways, the Slagle family dance is our ritual.  I need not tell them that I love them.  Instead, I ritually – but in a funny way – show them.

And that helps introduce my April message theme – “Rituals that Define Us.”  When I suggested that theme to our Sunday Planning Team several weeks ago, I said I was reluctant to do it since it seemed perhaps too religious and boring – coming after my relatively intellectual March theme – “What is God?” 

The team, however, liked my suggestion.  It was Ann Bobonick who said that rituals need not only be solemn ones.  A ritual, she said, can be as simple as her regularly picking up her grandson Troy from school – or something else done often.  I therefore want to focus on a larger idea of rituals.  How broadly can we define them?  Why do we perform them?  How can they be both meaningful AND joyful?  Since First Sundays here are informal and lighthearted, today is a perfect one for me to consider rituals that define us for fun.

A ritual is described as an action which is regularly performed to symbolically remember or honor an occasion or idea.  Barbara Fiegs, who is a PhD psychologist at Syracuse University, says that things we do regularly are usually called routines.  They are important to us but what is different between a routine and a ritual is the degree of meaning we attach to them.  When performing something routinely, we apply very little afterthought to the action.  It has no strong symbolic value.  A ritual, however, is an action full of meaning.  Rituals are expressly intended to inspire. 

We don’t drop pebbles in a bowl of water every Sunday thinking such an act will literally do anything.  People we remember as we drop the stones into water will not be happier or healthier as a result.  Instead, WE are happier and emotionally healthier.  A dropped pebble represents the concern or joy we hold.  And, as we each practice that ritual, we are bound together in our thoughts for others.

As my message title today implies, rituals can be uplifting and fun much like my Slagle family dance.  Our First Sundays service, what we do today, is something very new but one I hope will also become a ritual – one Sunday a month when we let our hair down and are less traditional.  These services symbolically say that worship can be fun and that we are open to change.  This family we call the Gathering at Northern Hills, we ritually practice each Sunday shared beliefs in the dignity, diversity and equality of all.  But on First Sundays, we just do that in a way that is, I hope, slightly more relaxed and fun – even for those who plug their ears whenever the band rocks and rolls!

Experts assert that fun family and community rituals are vital to our well-being.  For children especially, family rituals are practices they not only can enjoy, but which implicitly convey to them identity, unity and universal values.  It may be an old adage, but the one that says: “a family that eats together, stays together” is often true.  Indeed, dining together is the number one family ritual child psychologists suggest.  A routine meal that is eaten quickly and with the TV on, can be transformed into one that is instead an enjoyable ritual.  That’s done by making family meals fun and a priority – by cooking together, recounting what everyone did that day, sharing inside jokes, trying new foods – and never making meals a time to rebuke or discipline.  Some families allow each child to pick the dinner food on a particular day of the week – for instance Taco Tuesdays, Waffle Wednesdays or, maybe for some kids, Spinach Sundays (probably not!)

We practice dining rituals here too.  We are a spiritual family after all.  The food we eat and the new people we meet every Sunday after the service, at our potlucks, on Souper Sundays, at the annual Auction, at our annual Holiday party, at Pub Nights, or at next Saturday’s Passover Seder meal, these are not routine, practical events.  They hold a spiritual significance.  They are rituals that define us. 

We don’t just say we are a beloved community.  We show it.  It’s why I say that what happens in the Quimby room after every service is far more important than what happens in here during a service.  It’s why I hope we will continue to strongly support and attend our social meals and events.  In this Sanctuary, you listen to me blah, blah, blah while you catch up on your sleep.  During social times, you get to enjoy yourselves!  We may not think them to be rituals, but they are.  Indeed, most of you say that it is the sense of community here, above all else, that brings you back.

Breaking bread together, whether at family meals or congregation social events, are rituals that do define us.  But experts say there are other fun rituals to practice.  Things we regularly do to celebrate holidays are examples.  My former wife, continuing practices begun by her parents when she was a child, continued them with our girls.  Every Christmas Eve the family reads the book The Night Before Christmas with each person reading a few lines until everyone says together the last lines – “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!”  Christmas morning is then begun by everyone opening their stockings filled with inexpensive gifts.  Bigger presents are later opened one person at a time – so that both the giver and the receiver share the spotlight.  When many family members are together, this process can take a very long time. But these are rituals practiced without question and are greatly enjoyed.  They define who that family is.

Birthdays are other events psychologists suggest as possible occasions for fun family rituals.  They are symbolically meaningful in how they are celebrated – perhaps by making the birthday person King or Queen for a day who picks whatever they and the family do.  The symbolism – and fun – are obvious.  This person is special and their life is one to celebrate.

Annual family vacations are the same.  It’s not the getting away that is important but the memories and the unity vacations build that are important.  I have a love for the western US because my family always took summer vacations out there when I was young.  My mom planned the trip for months in advance, we packed the family car and took off for two or three weeks to camp or stay in cheap motels, cook over a campfire, hike, and see wonders of nature like Old Faithful, the Grand Teton mountains, or the rugged coast of Canada’s British Columbia.  My siblings and I laughingly remember long hours riding together in the backseat, playing highway versions of scavenger hunt, or heeding the call of nature by the side of a road as passing cars honked at us.

My parents, with the time they took to plan and take annual summer vacations, told me and my siblings without words that family was important.  The ritual was in the long communal drives, the shared campfires, and the excited awe we felt in the midst of mountains and forests.  My parents rarely took us to Sunday churches.  But they did take us to nature’s cathedrals.  With our shared reverence for the outdoors, with our jokes, our car riding games, and our meals of burnt hot dogs, we ritually worshipped at the altar of love and togetherness.

A more serious but still fun ritual I began with my girls was to serve others together.  Partly due to my work as a minister and partly being intentional as a dad, I forced my teen girls to join me and other church folks to serve at charities.  Every month my daughters and I participated in a Sunday evening meal preparation at the City Gospel Mission homeless shelter in Over-the-Rhine.  I also forced them to join me on charity work trips – several to rural Appalachia to paint and repair homes, and others to Mexico to build homes, in a week’s time, for families living in crude shacks.  Like many teenagers, my girls were upset I took them away from their friends and the comforts of home, but once on these serving trips, they enjoyed themselves.  Today, they look back on them with gratitude. 

My daughter Sara has seared into her memory a young Mexican girl, whose family we helped, possessing a prized collection of bottle caps which she played with as her make-believe toy cars, trucks and people.  At the time, seeing such a thing taught Sara a lesson about materialism that I never could have imparted.  I believe those rituals of service to others, done together, symbolically told them in a mostly fun way that our family has a responsibility to give back.  These rituals of service helped make my girls who they are today – compassionate women with beautiful hearts. 

Families can do acts of service together as enjoyable ways to bond and build memories.  As a spiritual family, we do the same here.  As I hope you know, rituals of service to those in need are cornerstones of our ministry.  When volunteers here join together to cook a meal for homeless teens, assemble hygiene kits for them, or work at a the Freestore food bank, we have fun!  There is a great sense of comraderie and friendship building.  Words often attributed to Francis of Assisi are meaningful to me and ones I believe most rituals should echo.  I paraphrase them here: Preach the ethic of goodness as often as possible…………..and only when necessary, use words.

Next Sunday I plan to examine our unique UU spiritual rituals and find in their practice the symbolism and meaning I hope we can think about every time they are practiced.  In two weeks, I plan to consider rituals that relate to Easter – not as religious acts, but as ways the holiday speaks about life, death and ideals of non-violence or forgiveness.

For today, I hope our takeaway is the value of transforming routine practices into rituals that are enriching and fun.  I encourage all of us to break bread with family and friend, dance with abandon, sing out loud with joy (off key in my case), or find a loved one to serve a charity together – but do these things regularly and with meaning.  They are, indeed, fun rituals that define us.