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Reading Between the Lines

There is a practice from the early days of Puritan worship in New England. Some of you have heard me talk about it before; it’s something I keep coming back to because it fascinates me. Worship in that place and time was not centered upon a formal sermon, prepared in advance. Rather, the crux of the service was a reading from the bible.

The reader did not, however, simply read the text and then sit down. Doing so would have been considered hollow and spiritually empty. Instead, speakers would read their passages line by line, interrupting frequently to explain the meanings as they understood them. They would also offer their interpretation of the stories and lessons they read, pointing to ways in which they found the ancient words to apply to their own lives and the lives of people in their community. When this was completed, the congregation would respond. Anyone could rise and provide their own interpretation as well – and here I really do mean anyone; in a profoundly sexist and repressive age, this may have been the place where women in these communities had the most freedom to speak their minds.

This practice eventually fell away. One of the possible reasons for this is that such an open forum became too much of a threat to those in authority, who benefited from the status quo. A lengthy address by a minister – which at that time meant a man with a high degree of formal education, almost guaranteed to have an interest in not rocking the boat – became the safer option.

That original practice of collective reading and interpretation, of paying very careful attention to a single, short text, comes from the tremendous reverence that our Puritan ancestors held for the bible. It was a singular source of guidance and inspiration for them. In our current formulation, we Unitarian Universalists tend not to feel a strong connection to that strand of our history. Our tradition affirms that wisdom and meaning can be found in many different sources, so that while the bible may be very important to some of us, it is not the sole spiritual authority for us any longer. But that attitude does not originate from discarding that book that was so precious to our forebears. Rather, it grew out of a sense that other words, other stories, and other books could convey truth and meaning too. We arrive at our collective openness to wisdom from literature both sacred and secular not by demoting the bible from a position of reverence, but by promoting everything else to reside alongside it.

So this

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summer, I want to invite us to return to an ancient practice in light of our present religious understanding. During our summer services in July and August at Dane Street beach, we will follow a version of the worship method I described: reading a relatively short text line by line, with explanation throughout, and opening a place for people to comment and reflect on how it relates to their own experience and their own lives. I want you to be a part of this. All of us have some book, some poem, some story (and for many of us, yes, some bible passage) that touches us deeply: counseling, inspiring, or challenging us. If you would be willing to share yours with the congregation on some Sunday this summer, please speak to me or to a member of the Music & Worship committee.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

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First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915

978-922-3968

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