X Without Y

This morning’s church experience was a fascinating study in contrasts, and my only real regret about the day was that the two services I attended overlapped too much for me to go attend either service in its entirety.

In my work as a professional classical pianist, I work very odd hours.  Most of my school-related work takes place during the daytime, but much of my freelance work takes place in the evenings or on weekends.  Once or twice a year I get asked by a church to play something in a morning service, and this was one of those Sundays.

I started the day out at a Unitarian Universalist congregation. I’ve accompanied the pastor’s son several times, and he called me to play the other half of a two-piano Mozart piece that they thought would make a nice prelude.  The sanctuary was lovely, vaulted ceilings and ornate (but pointedly non-specific) stained-glass windows, and there was a palpable sense of peace.  There were still the jarring juxtapositions common to this denomination, though – I can never quite get used to the pulpit, carved with symbols of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, regular Buddhism, something in Arabic, a lovely yin-yang, the Chinese symbol for happiness, and the Unitarian Universalist chalice in the middle.  Even in the short part of the service I was able to attend, so many religious traditions were referenced that my spiritual head with spinning.  The pastor’s message started with “Oh my G–, it’s 2013!” He continued to make some good points about how number superstitions cause needless fear, but (silly me) I’m just not used to starting church with the Lord’s name being taken in vain!

Then I had to zip across town to catch the important business meeting at the Friends congregation I’ve been attending.  The content of the meeting itself was immaterial – it was the contrast to where I’d just been that captured me.  This, too, was a lovely building, but it was a different kind of simplicity.  Simple stained glass, wooden pews made shiny by years’ worth of use, no pulpit, no candles, no incense, no bells, no prayer bowls, no chalice, no vestments.  The business meeting was opened with silence, but it was a deliberate silence – we were not communing with the god within, we were asking God for guidance.

What struck me most was that for all their unexpected similarities, the core of Unitarian Universalism and the Friends beliefs are in stark opposition.  Both believe firmly in a deep commitment to social justice, the importance of community, the inherent worth and dignity of each person, and a certain flexibility of personal theology.  But the first service I attended was full of the form of religion – prayers, candles, a carefully humanist liturgy, symbolism in everything from the bells to the pastor’s vestments, and the traditional Chinese prayer offered next to the traditional Orthodox Christian prayer candles. The second service I attended was full of God.

Given the choice of religion with hardly any God, or God with hardly any religion, I’ll take the second option any day.

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