A New Year, New Challenges

I’m getting ready for the new year, and with it, a new experience. Tomorrow I head off to Spokane to speak at the Unitarian Universalist Church. And by speak, I mean give a sermon (two actually, or rather, one sermon, given twice–at the 9:30 service and then again at 11). So, there are two elements here:

  1. Giving a sermon.
  2. Speaking at a church.

Individually, these are two things I do with some regularity. I speak at churches from time to time on a variety of subjects, from marriage equality to various aspects of Judaism. And I give sermons in a variety of Jewish contexts. But somehow, giving a sermon at a church service feels different.

Part of the difference comes from a statistic I encountered at some point during rabbinical school: ministers spend an average of 8 hours a week preparing sermons. Now, I’ll be honest: when you tell rabbis this statistic, they look at you like you’re crazy. Maybe you’ve misplaced a decimal? Most of us spend a couple of hours a week preparing our sermons, but Jewish congregations just don’t put enough emphasis on the sermon to justify that kind of time expenditure.

In any case, this feels like something new to me. And with a new year coming round tonight, it feels like a propitious way to begin 2011.

Oh, and, of course, may the new year be a wonderful year for all of us.

An Odd Shabbat Service

Tomorrow morning, I will be leading an odd (one might even say queer) shabbat service. It is for the Transforming Faith: Divining Gender conference, which deals with transgender issues from a positive faith perspective. Now, what makes this an odd experience for me is not any of the gender/transgender issues, that’s pretty comfortable for me. What makes it odd is that I’ll be leading a shabbat service for a congregation of about 100, of whom I may be the only Jew.

I’ve spent a lot of time studying how to lead Jewish prayer, thinking about how to lead Jewish prayer and actually leading Jewish prayer in a variety circumstances. However, it is only very rarely that I’ve been dealing with a primarily non-Jewish congregation. Even rarer, this is a circumstance where they have chosen to do “multi-faith” prayer rather than “inter-faith” prayer.

“Inter-faith” prayer is when you get a bunch of religions together, and they construct a service they can all live with, which isn’t really representative of any one religious tradition, but isn’t objectionable to any religious tradition (ideally). They tend to be a bit on the bland side, and often a little uncomfortable as some member of the clergy goes on autopilot and and invokes the blessing of Jesus Christ our savior (“well of course you’re Jewish, that doesn’t mean you don’t believe in Christ, does it?”). I can and do participate in these gatherings because they are important, but tend not to find them particularly satisfying.

“Multi-faith”, on the other hand, is where each faith takes one service, and lead a service which is deliberately particularistic to that faith. So I am leading the Saturday morning service as a Shabbat service (more or less). A Muslim leader is leading the Friday morning service. There are some Christian services, etc. My goal here is to present an authentic Jewish prayer experience which is accessible and meaningful to a non-Jewish congregation.

Often, much of Jewish prayer takes place in Hebrew. It’s hard to create a participatory prayer experience when only the leader has any famiarity with the language being used (note: the Catholic Church, when seeking to make the mass more accessible started using the vernacular instead of Latin). So, I’m mainly doing things that can be done in English. I think the extent of the Hebrew in the service will be 9 words: the Shema (6 words) and a chant for Ahavah Rabbah (3 words), and I’ve transliterated those 9 words.

Otherwise, I think we’ll sing a psalm in English, and do a guided meditation. Oh yes, and do some blessing of God for creation in English. All in all, it should be a nice service, give some taste of Jewish prayer, and, at the same time, come in at under 30 minutes (thereby rendering a completely inauthentic experience of shabbat morning services).

I’m looking forward to this, and think it should be fun. After the service, I go home, and plan to sleep for much of the day, and finally be rid of this cold.