Thursday, August 14, 2008

Joys and Sorrows: Controversial!!

The topic of Joys and Sorrows came up on the UU Leaders listserv. It seems that congregational experts view J&S as small church behavior that we have got to eradicate if we want growth. Several years back, Stefan Jonasson came to FUS of Madison and announced that we were the largest UU congregation on this continent still doing Joys & Sorrows. It is funny to think of my congregation as this renegade, but we have not had the problems with J&S that other congregations report. In fact, we love it.

It works for us because we have trained lay ministers at the services to respond to folks and offer support after worship in addition to our regular members and (sometimes) ministers. It's crucial that people feel listened to, as we all know. It's even better when people are asked, "What can we do to help you?"

Of course, we also do J&S in such a way as to strongly discourage any acting out. We have many subtle boundaries that keep it contained. We have J&S only once a month, now the fourth Sunday of each month, near the end of the worship service when people are already looking at their watches. A worship leader introduces the time as "a few minutes," "not for announcements or political statements," etc. We have a small bowl of sand and about twelve candles -- that's it!

Everyone who attends knows that we're a HUUGE congregation and knows that we have to keep it short. Folks are careful not to go up too often, because none of us wants to be known as someone who "always" has a J or S. If someone does speak for too long or make an announcement, s/he gets a gentle reminder. Also, many people are not comfortable speaking into a microphone in front of hundreds of people. All these factors mean that people only go up for really big milestones and that we do not have too many J&S -- or at least that's the way it has been in the fifteen years I've been attending.

I've been reading that J&S isn't good in a large congregation because of the intimidation factor. Certainly, all the above factors probably do intimidate some folks who would never go up themselves, but people who don't participate sometimes seek out those who did after the service to say, "I'm going through that, too." And of course, the worship leader always lights one last candle "for all those joys and sorrows that are unspoken, but remain in our hearts and minds." One of our former ministers referred to J&S as "the real stuff of religion." Rev. Darrel calls it the central sacrament of the beloved community.

The truth is that people do feel connected during our monthly ritual, despite our numbers. Most of us choose one of our three services and attend that one and eventually see (at least) a handful of familiar faces every week, so we are not a group of complete strangers for long. First-time visitors sometimes share something, so I know that we're not totally scary to new folks!

Perhaps another reason our way works for us is that the two other Madison UU congregations have J&S also, but every week. So, it seems like a normal thing to do. At James Reeb UU Congregation, we have a long, narrow trough on legs that easily fits twenty candles. (I need to find out the proper name for that thing -- "trough on legs" does not sound quite right!) At Prairie UU Society, they don't use candles, but speak from their seats after being called upon.

For me, J&S is a very meaningful ritual. It was so important to me to announce my engagement during J&S, light a candle of hope (when trying IVF), light one for my brother's brain injury, my sister's illness, my father's lung cancer and death, Sam's heart attack and my fabulous new job. I'm very careful not to go up too often (and my memory is still working well enough that I know when I've been up and whether or not I spoke).

Way back in 1996, I first shared a joy at FUS, about finally being ready -- three years after my cat died -- to get a new kitten. I was finally over the guilt of having my elderly cat (with a thyroid tumor) put to sleep. You know, some folks snickered at me. Yes, I got laughed at by a few men in our congregation. But, after the service a couple tracked me down during coffee to ask about my cat and tell me about the death of their sixteen-year-old feline.

At James Reeb,where I work, I don't feel a need to light a candle. There, my participation is as the administrator, so I'm noting what is happening for people and praying for them or celebrating with them the whole time, rather than thinking of myself. It feels freeing and reminds me that J&S is not really about us as individuals -- it is a way to sense the connections, the God in between us all as we celebrate and mourn together.

Blessed Be and Amen,