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Playing the
[Chalice] Church Game [Chalice]

Presented September 17, 2000, by Ellen Taylor

Opening words: #580

Opening Hymn: #361 - Enter, Rejoice, and Come In

Responsive Reading: #466

Offertory: The offering will now be given and received in grateful appreciation of our shared hopes and values.

Meditation: #434

Reading: from Still Sounds the Buoy from the Sea, by John Brigham

Playing the Church Game

As someone who has grown up in a society of people who accept as fact a concept that I question, I have spent a lot of time wondering how it is that millions of people, for hundreds of years, have shared a belief in something that cannot be proven. As a young person, I had a vague theory that, since by its very nature it is internal and intangible, religious faith must be something one simply chooses, much the way one chooses a best friend or a favorite sport. On the other hand, I also thought that surely religion must have some external validity in order to attract and maintain so many devout followers for so long. Then again, on the other hand, if it did have external validity, it would be provable and everyone would be of the same religion. It didn't take long for me to run out of hands!

The institutionalization of religion made even less sense to me as I was growing up. Even if I had thought of myself as a deeply religious person, whatever relationship I had with God was inside myself. I compared a clergyman to a medium in a seance - someone to run interference. I didn't see how praying with a room full of other people would enhance the validity of my prayer. And I certainly didn't understand why people would tithe a portion of their incomes and spend a couple hours a week listening to some guy chanting in a dead language or shouting threats of hell. So I've wondered, as vague and costly and time consuming as religion and church are, why do humans bother with them and how do we come to choose which religion and church to bother with?

Not only are there different religions, there are different concepts of what religion is. For some, it encompasses science and philosophy and psychology and mathematics. Others would say it's simply a matter of faith. Many say it's the set of myths we rely upon to make sense of the world and our existence in it. Some say it's all of the above. After much thought and many conversations with friends, I say it's all of the above, and it's also a game. And just as one game does not fit all, one religion does not fit all. Some prefer football, some prefer baseball. Some prefer Buddhism, some prefer Christianity.

I don't mean this in an irreverent or disrespectful way. I believe that it is a very serious game. Religion is a game in that the two concepts share defining characteristics. A game is a pastime in which players strive for victory by following certain rules and strategies. Pastime, victory, rules, strategies. We certainly pass a lot of time with religion. Victory in religious terms can be salvation, heaven, eternal life, enlightenment, nirvana, inner peace…. The rules are the ten commandments or the five pillars... In fact, we have books full of rules and strategies for specific versions of the game - the Bible, the Koran, the Torah.

The first and foremost rule of the game of religion is the one I've just broken: NEVER ADMIT IT'S A GAME. There are two reasons for this rule. First of all, the word "game' has a connotation of triviality or insignificance. I'm sure we all recognize that religion has played quite a significant role, directly and indirectly, in the history of the world, from the Roman Empire to the Crusades to the Holocaust, and it continues to play a significant role in our post-modern culture. Religion pervades every aspect of our lives, so deserves credence. Think about ways in which cultures (with individual exceptions, of course) use religion. We don't merely bother with it - we attach it, with ceremony, to every passage of our lives.

At birth, we have christenings (or variations of). As we pass from childhood into adulthood, we have Bar Mitzvahs and confirmations. When we choose our life partners, we have church weddings, and when we die, our ministers conduct our funerals. Why? Why does virtually every culture bother to attach religious significance to the natural milestones of life?

I think we do it for two reasons. One is that we humans tend to need explanations, as evidenced by our toddlers' persistent "why?" Science is an example of another game we play to help us make sense of the world. Is it more valid than religion? Being able to name gravity doesn't explain its existence. Anyway, when the earthly answers aren't quite enough, we come up with other-worldly answers. For example, the pain we feel when a loved one dies is so excruciating that we must find a way to live with it or we go mad. Earthly, or scientific, answers aren't terribly comforting. Logical maybe, but not comforting. Some people choose to cope by thinking of resurrection and eternal life. Many want to think of their loved ones as just being elsewhere, in a better place, such as heaven. And the ritual of a funeral helps us cope.

The second reason we bother with religion is that our shared vocabulary has limitations. There are some feelings and experiences which we simply cannot verbalize sufficiently. In order to communicate these feelings to others and to ourselves, we compare them to other indescribable experiences. For example, the depth of feeling - of love, pride, and joy - which overwhelms us when our children are born is so awe-inspiring that, in order to articulate it, we must connect it to another intangible source of awe, such as an omnipotent power or supreme being. Thus, we celebrate the child's arrival with a ceremony in a place of worship. Religion is definitely not insignificant.

No, the second, more important reason for the rule NEVER ADMIT IT'S A GAME is that to call religion a game - to say that we choose the set of rules by which we want to live our lives - is to imply that all sets of rules, or all religions, are more or less equally viable. And of course inherent in some religions is the belief that they are the one true religion. So to concede that another game might work is to discredit the game chosen. Even those of us who consider ourselves among the most open-minded, don't want to admit that the choice we've made could just as easily have been a different one.

Religion gets institutionalized because it is human nature to organize and congregate with people who are like us. Once we choose our game, we search out others who have chosen the same game. Then we choose the playing field. If we choose the Catholic game, for example, we must then decide whether to play at St. Peter's or at St. Francis.

Not too long ago I had a conversation with my sister-in-law who was saying she preferred a certain Baptist church in Hannibal to the one in Palmyra. I was curious as to why and asked her what she wanted in a church. "Why do you go to church," I asked.

"I go to church to praise the Lord. The purpose of church is to give glory to God," she responded. I was fascinated. That isn't my reason for attending church, but I had to think for a while. What is my reason? I spent most of my life not attending church. Why do I bother with it now? If other people bother with church to praise the lord, why do I?

My first answer was that I come to church to be inspired and reminded to be a good person who cares for others and treats them with respect and kindness. I believe that's part of it, but if that's all it is, I could probably get that from reading on my own. So is it the socialization? Do I come here to make friends? I don't think that's all it is either. And it's not about using a minister as an intermediary or needing others to validate my prayers, as I thought when I was younger. We have hearts, minds, and souls for spiritual connections and we have family, friends and co-workers for social connections. I've decided being part of a church congregation is about the integration of social and spiritual connection; it's being connected to people and spirituality and everything else in this interdependent web of which we are a part.

When I came to that conclusion, I then had to ask myself, "so what does that mean?" What does it mean to integrate spiritual and social connections? Part of it is that having chosen the same game creates a bond between us. The bond for those of us who have chosen this particular game, the Quincy Unitarian game, is expressed in our affirmation. It is the belief that loving one another and helping one another puts us on our own paths to spiritual fulfillment. We come here to this particular playing field because it's the only liberal alternative in the area and we have chosen a liberal version of the game. We come here because these rules are the rules with which we are most comfortable.

Of course within that macro reason, everyone here comes for slightly different micro reasons. We all get something a little different out of our association with this church, simply because we're individuals. But, just as it's not only about spiritual or only about social, neither is it only about getting. It must also be about giving. Will Rogers, said, "You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give." What do we give to make our lives? This church, while not dependent on any one of us as an individual, is totally dependent on us as a whole. And of course it is as individuals together that we make the whole.

We have come to depend on this playing field to meet our needs. But it depends on us as well. Because we're busy and distracted, many of us take for granted that someone else will see to it that the floors are swept and the trash is taken out. We assume that the sidewalks will be shoveled in the winter and the grass will be mowed in the summer. We assume that the utility bills will be paid. We assume that someone will be in the pulpit every Sunday morning, that someone will provide music, and that someone will be downstairs with our children. And after all, that's what the board and staff are supposed to do. But even so, these things don't happen magically and aren't done just by board and staff. Because we have many individuals who are willing to give, and a few who give and give and then give some more, we can make those assumptions correctly. We have several incredibly committed individuals who work consistently and quietly behind the scenes to make sure that this playing field is available for all of us. And while they do a wonderful job and we are lucky to have them, it really is not solely their responsibility. Besides, just in case there is a heaven, and just in case good works do get us in, I'd hate for Ted and Frieda to be the only ones there!

Seriously, we do make a life by what we give. We do get out of something what we put into it. Of course we can't all devote great amounts of time or money to this church. Many of you are like me, with jobs, families, and modest incomes. But I think you also know that when you become involved, you gain more than you give. You may sacrifice a little time or money, but you gain more of whatever it is you come here for in the first place.

Several weeks after I started coming here to church, two members of my family died within three weeks of each other. Both of them belonged to traditional Protestant churches with which they were quite involved. I was struck by the comfort their church communities seemed to offer when these two people died. Other members of the family seemed to derive solace from that contact. While I found this church interesting and stimulating, I didn't find it particularly comforting. I envied those people who seemed comforted in their grief by their churches. I wondered why I was not as comforted by my chosen game as they were and even wished that I could have chosen to play their game.

I tell you this not as criticism. To the contrary, I have since come to realize that it wasn't my choice of game or of playing field that lacked comfort-capacity. I did not find comfort here then partially because I hadn't truly sought it here, and partially because I was not yet fully a part of this congregation. The capacity to provide comfort requires a two-way street. A church building itself does not automatically give comfort, nor do sermons. It's the whole of it. It's the sanctity of the space and the messages together with the relationships with people, and involvement with the church. And that's the part I hadn't yet developed at the time.

I came to this realization with the help of [S](a member of this church), although she doesn't know it yet. A couple years after the deaths in my family, [S's husband] died. In a letter to the congregation, [S] wrote that she had never believed in angels, and had even slightly resented the concept. But, she wrote:

"You, Dear Friends, in this Church, have changed my view of Angels. You have been and are real Angels. Your energy and love have been, to me, like wings. You have held me up and given me strength…." She noted numerous acts of kindness by various people in the church and concluded with "You are my source of energy. I feel like something is lifting me right under my arms like it used to be when my parents would pick me up. It is Angel wings, I think. You Angels have given them to me with your acts of love and kindness. I am confident of your love and I am not afraid."

[S] articulated beautifully the point that the comfort in a church comes from the intertwining of social and spiritual relationships. I have been fortunate to develop some relationships in this congregation which are very dear to me - relationships which began with similar spiritual beliefs and shared concern for the common good. And I now find this church quite comforting. This may be the most dramatic, but it is just one of the many reasons we bother with church - so that we may receive comfort when we most need it, and just as importantly, so that we may offer comfort when others most need it.

It is because the players here share the bond of their particular choices that we are a caring community and that we happily attach this game's ceremonies to our lives' passages.

I encourage you to think about your particular game and your reasons for choosing it. I encourage you to think about what you get out of your association with this church. And I encourage you, if necessary, to increase your gain by increasing your commitment in whatever manner is appropriate for you. Teddy Roosevelt said, "The man who does not in some way…connect himself with some active, working church misses many opportunities for helping his neighbors, and therefore, incidentally, for helping himself."

Whatever your reasons, you have bothered to connect yourselves with this church. You've chosen this particular game on this particular playing field. So, don't just watch from the sidelines. It's more fulfilling to jump in and play.

Closing Hymn: #347 - Gather the Spirit

Closing words: by Patricia Shuttee:

We meet with eagerness and delight, needing one another for sharing. We have joys and sorrows and hopes to share, questions, things we care about and want to help make better, things that we would like to understand, ideas waiting to be heard.

Today we are together in gladness,… [in] the special community that we call our church, a community of all ages that sings its songs, tells its thoughts, asks its questions, and searches together with courage and with love.

©2000 Ellen Taylor.

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Taylor, Ellen. 2000. Playing the Church Game, http://www.uuquincy.org/talks/20000917.shtml (accessed December 11, 2018).

The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.