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


On October 31,1517 Martin Luther, a professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg in Germany, published his ninety-five theses of criticism against the Catholic Church.  Protestantism, literally meaning “those who protest” was born.

Luther was primarily against widespread Church sales of indulgences to finance the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  An indulgence was a purchased decree, ritually offered by a Priest, Bishop or Pope, that declared a deceased person should immediately enter heaven.   A popular phrase at the time said that a gold coin no sooner rang in the bottom of an indulgence collection plate, then the soul for whom it was given would enter paradise. 

Luther was rightly horrified at the practice not just because it exploited fears of the illiterate and poor, but because it had no basis in anything Jesus taught.  Indeed, much of Jesus’ teachings were against such greed and exploitation.

Fundamentally, however, Luther was also against the Church’s use of rituals as the way to gain favor with God.  His understanding of verses in the Bible was that a person’s faith was the only determining factor for salvation and heaven.  Whether or not someone is baptized, regularly confesses sin, regularly partakes of communion, regularly tithes money to the church, or is given last rites before dying – these are rituals that have symbolic value, but are not essential to being a good and faithful person.  The Church, Luther said, had turned rituals into man-made requirements while draining them of their purpose to initiate reflection, humility and charity.

For me, Martin Luther is one of the great figures in history.  He not only fundamentally changed the understanding of God, but his protests changed prevailing thoughts about individualism, human rights, and the ability of people to think on their own – without relying on the Church to do that for them.  The Age of Reason, the Enlightenment and all advances in human rights can be linked to Martin Luther and his 95 theses.

Because I admire Luther and his courageous acts against a Church that could have burned him at the stake, I have had a skeptical view of spiritual rituals.  My concern is similar to Luther’s.  Jesus often pointed out the hypocrisy of those who pride themselves on regularly practicing rituals of praying, giving, or attending church, but who forget the purpose and meaning of those actions.  Religious hypocrites of Jesus’ day piously prayed in public, but their words were repetitious and designed to puff up the person.  Such people ritually gave to, and sacrificed for the Temple, but it was only for display.  They’d forgotten that the intent of rituals is to symbolize ethics of forgiveness, kindness and devotion.  As Jesus is alleged to have said, such hypocrites are like whitewashed tombs that appear from the outside to be clean and beautiful, but who are actually filthy, dark and full of cobwebs on the inside.

That’s the danger of spiritual rituals for me, and it’s why I still am cautious when using them.  If they are practiced or recited regularly, and always in the same way, they are in danger of becoming something done by rote memory and not with heartfelt purpose.  They start to be practiced only to seem spiritual and not with the mindset to think about what one is doing – and why.   If and when that happens, the ritual becomes meaningless and mindless.  Sadly, that is often how I practice some of our rituals.  I can appear to be like a whitewashed tomb but am instead unthinking and neglectful on the inside.  I’d rather do nothing than falsely appear to be spiritual.  As a minister, I worry about leading any of you fall into that trap.

But that does not mean I consider rituals to be bad.  Indeed, I think what we and other Unitarian Universalists ritually practice is good.  But like anything that is helpful, rituals can also be taken for granted, or they can become so repetitious that they become meaningless.  They can become empty of their symbolic power. 

What is key for me is to not forget the reasons behind our rituals.   From the dawn of history, rituals have been an integral part of human behavior.  While some religions believe they have mystical power to influence the future, we don’t think that way.  But like all people, rituals have their place in our lives.  They implicitly tell a story that what we believe is important.  They are markers for major life events – ones like a child dedication, a graduation, a marriage, or a funeral.  They also help guide our spirituality by reminding us every Sunday of values like tolerance, compassion, social justice, humility, and many others.  Rituals are so important in our lives that, as my title of this month’s message series says, they define us.

But they are useful to us only as long as we diligently remember their meaning.  None of us want to be compared to the hypocrites of Jesus’ day who, for instance, prayed but did not believe in prayer’s ability to show empathy.  Or, we don’t wish to be compared to the sixteenth century Church that greedily used rituals to collect large sums of money by manipulating members to feel fear and guilt.  Nor do we wish to be compared to some modern churches whose services are full of rituals, but empty of any life giving inspiration, warmth or thought.

For any ritual practiced in our services, I hope its purpose is not only well understood, but also well remembered.  As I said in my message last week, practices we do routinely are distinctly different from practices we do ritually.  A routine is any action done regularly but has little or no symbolic meaning.  We brush our teeth as a routine, and that’s important, but it has no meaning in our lives other than promoting oral health.  A ritual, however, is done regularly and is full of symbolic value.  We drop small colored pebbles in a bowl of water every week as a way to express a private joy or concern.  We don’t think that act has magical power to influence life.  It’s a small act, but one that has a powerful meaning.  In our minds and hearts, we remember with gratitude the richness of life, and the challenges of illness, death or heartache.  Loved ones come to mind and we are both comforted and encouraged.

Later in our services, we have the opportunity to publicly share a joy or sorrow.  As your programs say, I believe this is our version of shared prayer.  Someone’s brief words at the microphone are not a plea to some god, nor do they have an ability to change anything.  They instead do something important for our inner selves.  We get to communally share something good and positive – or we can collectively grieve, reflect, and feel empathy.  That’s a powerful practice and one that initiates greater togetherness and more compassion.

I, however, admit to ongoing concern about that practice.  I believe in Joys and Sorrows beautiful ability to add love and celebration to our services, but I worry its purpose can be forgotten.  Indeed, about a year ago, I experimented with us not practicing Joys and Sorrows every week.  I was, however, reminded by several members that those services lacked the kind of heart and soul we want to feel.  I was wrong for undertaking that experiment and I apologize for it. 

But my equal hope is that we remember the purpose of the Joys and Sorrows ritual.  It’s purpose is implied in the name we give it.  We might broadly interpret anything that happens in life as a joy or concern.  But that broad understanding misses the original intent.  What recent personal event in your life sings in your heart, or weighs on your mind?  How can one state such feelings in a way that is spiritually motivated – to bring us together, to share, and also to respect time boundaries – those of fellow attenders who plan on the service ending after about an hour………or of our RE teachers who teach our children only for the 45 minutes they have planned?

I say all of this because I believe the intention and meaning of Joys and Concerns has always been as an opportunity to concisely share one’s innermost dreams, celebrations or laments.  That intention is in keeping with the larger values we hold dear – to support one another, to be compassionate, to foster unity, and build responsiveness to our world.  When we remember those, when they are our only motivation in its practice, we are true to why we come here.    

As I earlier said, I too often engage in some rituals by just going through the motions.  I sing the words, or do an action without remembering their meaning and value.  My mind sadly too often gets caught up in the logistics of our services – are they running smoothly, are all the elements in the right order, is the PowerPoint correct, is my message too boring, and, yes, will the service end within five or ten minutes of an hour?  I think of all those things and forget why I’m here.  How can any sense of reflection or inspiration be felt by you if I don’t feel those too?  This other-mindedness in me is something I’m working on.  I want to be present in the moment and live up to my role. 

One important ritual I confess to neglecting is our lighting of the chalice.  It’s a wonderful ritual but I often fail to ponder its purpose and symbolism as it is done.  Fortunately, the lighting ritual is for Unitarian Universalists not only a defining one, it is widely open to multiple understandings.  Its symbols are historically familiar ones – the chalice and the flame, but how we each interpret them are widely different.  Some see the chalice as representative of the so-called Holy Grail – Jesus’ communion cup.  It can thus be emblematic of our Christian roots.

Others see the chalice as representing ancient pagan cups used to ritually drink wine and joyfully celebrate life’s abundance.  Others interpret the chalice as symbolic of communal unity and togetherness – that we symbolically drink from the same cup of wisdom every Sunday.

Lighting a flame within the chalice speaks to universal concepts of purity and goodness.  Fire is an eternal force that’s existed since the beginning of time.  Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Christians all see it as a powerful emblem of their faith.  For us as UU’s, the flame can represent any of those spiritual traditions – or newer ones like Humanist and Atheist appeals to rational thinking.    

What’s important is that the comfort and tradition of regularly lighting the chalice should also lead us to reflect on what that means.  I love the fact that we usually have a child light it.  That speaks to our commitment to children and their own discovery of what is true and good.  As someone who appreciates rationality, the flame for me is symbolic of refining fact from superstition.  Fire burns away anything false and is therefore a truth agent.  More than ever, I want to be reminded of that imperative – that Unitarian Universalism stands for objective truth, that we commit ourselves to its pursuit, and that we reject rigid dogma precisely to keep our minds open for new or different insights.  (Rick Duncan’s chalice).

The national UUA organization expressly states that there is not an  official way to interpret the flaming chalice or its ritual lighting.  That statement is, in itself, emblematic of our denomination.  We purposefully do not practice rituals that are identified with other religions, we do not endorse any creeds, and we are gladly welcoming to people of all spiritual beliefs, or no beliefs.  Our spirituality derives from universal principles and practices that literally any person, anywhere in the world, could and would endorse: dignity, respect, compassion, democracy, service to others. 

When we light our flame every Sunday, we each can appreciate and reflect on it in our own way.  That’s an implicit freedom I hope we will remember.  We are not told what to think, but instead encouraged to think on our own.   I hope most of you will try, as much as possible, to arrive on time for this important ritual.  And then I hope both you and I will remember to truly honor the chalice lighting – and other rituals we practice –  by focusing on what they mean.

As much as I hope I am of some assistance to you in my minister role, I ask for your help to me.  Rituals are tools we invented to prompt us to remember, reflect and honor.  Please remind me to never let them become hollow and empty.  The ones we practice here – from those done every Sunday, to ones done annually or on special occasions, they symbolically remind us of our values and they bring us together.  They are full of symbolic meaning and, as a result, they define us.