This is a service that I organized and led and wrote most of, presented at my Unitarian Universalist congregation. I’ve edited it very little from the actual document I preached from, just provided links where I felt they would be useful. I have audio of the sermon; I’ll link to it from here once it’s uploaded. If you’re here because you’re a Critical Role fan, all the CR content is in the sermon, though I encourage you to read the whole service.
* The congregation is asked to rise in body or spirit.
Please refrain from applause until after the service.
Sounding the Bell for the Service to Begin
Welcome and Greeting Your Neighbor
* Opening Hymn
#188, ”Come, Come, Whoever You Are” [Note: the linked video is of a version done by the fabulous Brother Sun. Our version that morning was a more upbeat version and not sung as a round.]
Call to Worship – Written and Presented by Jen Kitchen
Come sit by the fire and let us share stories. Let me hear your tales of far off lands, wanderer, and I will tell you of my travels. Share your experience of the holy with me, worshipper, and I will tell you of that which I find divine. Come and stay, lover of leaving, for ours is no caravan of despair, but of hope. We would hear your stories of grief and sorrow as readily as those of joy and laughter, for there is a time and a place and a hearing for all the stories of this world. Stories are the breath and word of the spirit of life, that power that we name love. Come, for our fire is warm and we have seats for all. Come, again and yet again, come speak to me of what fills your heart, what engages your mind, what resides in your soul. Come, let us worship together.
Chalice Lighting and Affirmation
Love is the spirit of this congregation and service is its heart. This is our greatest covenant: to seek the truth in freedom, to dwell together in peace, and to help one another.
Story For All Ages – Written and Presented by Jen Kitchen
”The Blue Feather”
Once upon a time, there was an old woman who traveled the world as a storyteller. Sometimes she told stories that came completely from her imagination. Sometimes she told true stories that really happened to her. Sometimes she told stories that were a mix between imagination and real life.
Mind you, she didn’t start out as a storyteller. She grew up in the usual way, a child who imagined as easily as breathing, a teen who worked hard at fitting in, a responsible adult with a child of her own, and serious work to do. Struck with a strange sadness one day, she took a rare afternoon off.
The woman sat down in her garden, and realized that this sadness inside of her had been building for some time. She wondered what could possibly be making her sad. She had food, a fine strong house, clothing that kept off the rain and wind, and people to love who loved her back. She should be happy she thought. As she counted her blessings, making a mental list in her practical way, her daughter ran by, pigtails streaming behind her in the wind, a wide smile on her face.
The daughter yelled “I’m a bird! I’m a magic bird that can fly anywhere in the world and if you pull a feather from my tail you get a wish!” The woman smiled, and called to her daughter. “Come here, my little love.” The daughter came over, then turned her back to the woman and bent over. “Take a feather, Mama! Pull a feather from my tail and make a wish!”
The woman froze, becoming still and serious. She had no idea what to wish for, but felt like there were things she wanted very much. After a moment, her impatient daughter reached back, plucked an imaginary feather, and placed it in her mother’s hand. The woman cupped her other hand over it, as if she was holding something fragile, something sacred.
Keeping back the tears that had suddenly come to her eyes, she asked “What does the feather look like?” “It’s invisible until you wish on it!” explained her daughter. “And then it’s dark blue with silver ends. That’s what wishing feathers look like!” the girl said confidently. “How do you know?” asked the woman. “I saw it in my head. I thought hard about it and I saw it for real, not pretend.” her daughter said matter-of-factly, and ran off, cawing like a crow.
The woman looked at her hands, still pretending to hold the feather, and wished she could see it as clearly as her daughter, that she had her daughter’s ability to see the imaginary as if it were real. Blue, her daughter had said, with silver tips. She closed her eyes and thought of the blue jays she used to see when she herself was a girl. They would return from the south when spring was almost there, and their blue stood out against the last silvery-white remnants of melting snow.
Suddenly, there it was, just as her daughter had described! The blue, oh the blue, was darker than the jays, was the same as the sky after sunset, before it was fully night, and the silver tips glowed like new winter snow at dawn, much brighter than the melting slush. The feather had somehow leapt out of her daughter’s imagination into the woman’s hands, and become real for her, too.
Overcome with grief, the woman put a hand to her heart and cried out “I am too set in my ways, too afraid to take chances, too scared to have faith in something I can’t see. I wish I still had the imagination of my child. That is what I am missing. Besides, I have a reputation and responsibilities. Adulthood is for what’s real, not for imagination.” However, she still held the flower gently, carefully, like a treasure that might break at any moment.
As the woman sat, head bowed, a gust of wind came up, and blew the feather out of her hand. Crying out, she ran after it, but she could not catch it. She sat down, tears flowing freely now, as she pictured the blue and silver of the feather. When she closed her eyes, she could see it so clearly, where the blue faded and gave way to silver, how the feather got darker toward the shaft, the one spot on the left where the edge was ragged. The feel of it in her hands had been like the touch of her daughter’s cheek against her own as she hugged her good night.
Unconsciously, the woman reached out her hand as if she was still holding the feather. A soft brush against her palm made her open her eyes, and there was the feather, just as she had seen it in her own head. It was back, and real, and she had imagined it for herself. The woman sat back, stunned.
After a moment, she smiled, for now she felt a little of her daughter’s easy confidence, and could imagine a path that balanced imagination and reality, and it felt like returning to a place she had never stopped longing for. She knew what to do. She went home, and wrote down the story of the feather. That was her first day calling herself a storyteller.
She began telling stories in her village, and nearby villages, until her daughter was grown with a house of her own. Then the woman traveled to faraway villages, learning their stories and sharing her own. Sometimes, after she spoke, people would share with her that they wished they too could be storytellers. “You already are one.” she would whisper to them.
“Turtles All The Way Down” – Adam Dickinson [Adam is a member of A Halo Called Fred, and to my great joy, volunteered to do the music for my service. I got to pick the two A Halo Called Fred songs he did.]
Reading by Kat Kuhl; read by Jen Kitchen
This was originally a series of tweets, and has been edited slightly to be a reading. Mostly I’ve spelled out words that were originally abbreviated to fit into 280 characters.
“Every so often someone I care about will talk to me about liking Star Wars, and I’ll say “I don’t know how much I like it. It’s a valuable tool” and sometimes they’ll look a bit confused and sad and then I won’t have time to explain. I woke up angry today and wanted to explain.
It’s hard for me to love Star Wars fully, because Star Wars is a corporate entity that spews propaganda, often carelessly. It’s one of our mythologies with potential, but I don’t think it’s in the hands of people who care about us learning to do anything other than obey and buy.
This is how I feel about superhero stuff, Disney period, any form of storytelling you’d think of as culturally important that is now owned by a corporation instead of the people. I can’t love a corporate agent, but I adore mythologies. All of this stuff that I get sullen over is owned by corporations BECAUSE people love it and tell stories about it and want to hear more (making them valuable financial assets) so there’s the potential for us to do the good work of storytelling through them. Folks listen…
So I do love Star Wars, but ONLY when it’s y’all telling it. I love your stories, your interpretations, and the ways you use it to inform your actions. I love the corrective work you do to keep it ours. I love the things we make that are about how we live and want to live better.
I just get nervous that folks forget that WE own the stories through our storytelling, that we have to listen critically to stuff made by the dragons, and that if we don’t live in ACTION, we aren’t learning the good from these stories, we’re succumbing to the agent’s trickery.
That’s all. It’s a really nice story to work in. Comics are too. But it seems foolish to uphold them as inherently great and worthy of adoration in each incarnation and under each storyteller. It’s a tool, and one that’s potentially dangerous in the hands of its current master.”
Interactive Story Sharing Introduced by Jen Kitchen
In a moment, I’m going to ask you to find another person, or maybe two, and share stories with each other. I’m not going to ring a bell to ask you to switch, or say anything to indicate whose turn it is. I’ve done enough of these to know that half of you will ignore such prompts. I’ll simply say when we are at the halfway point, and when there’s a minute left.
Here’s a few options for what to talk about. The folks within one group can choose the same topic or different ones, or something else entirely, it’s okay.
The super power I wish I had is…
One of my favorite things from this summer or a recent vacation was…
I’m really good at…
If I had a million dollars, I would…
I’ll always remember the smell of…
My favorite piece of clothing is…
I’m looking forward to…
[I let people chat for about 6-7 minutes before I called an end.]
Introducing the Offering [Half of our offertory each week goes to a cause near and dear to the congregation; this particular week it was UU Faith Action NJ.]
“If I Had $1,000,000”, by Barenaked Ladies, sung by Adam and Michael Dickinson [I linked to a BNL live version. I must confess, the idea of this song for our offertory gave me the giggles. I loved it!]
Silent Joys, Sorrows, and Milestones
Spoken and Silent Meditation – Written and Presented by Jen Kitchen
Something unpredictable sets my mind racing, as if my brain has feet laced into the latest running shoes and is right now circling a track lined with ideas waving handkerchiefs and room keys, each yelling “Over here!” Pinball fast, I bounce from one idea to another, moving too fast to recall anything, the traces of the lipstick from each idea’s sweet kiss fading before it even occurs to me to write anything down. Drunk on possibility, I stumble around thinking, imagining, wondering, what if-ing like my mind is in the starting blocks and Usain Bolt is next to me. Wined and dined with the promise of glory ahead, there is no thought of the coming sunrise, ideas faded, me asleep on the metaphorical mattress of the cheap hotel of my synapses, as the ideas slip away into the dim shadows. I have no commitment, no diamond ring of focus to give any of them. The words “attention deficit” are laughably small and clinical to describe the motion of the pinball. I am abandoned, contemplating all the ways in which feast can also be famine. Still, I can recall the giddy rush of our communion, for I have tasted this nectar before, and know I will again.
Something entirely predictable and ordinary sets my mind racing again, but my feet are in concrete, and instead of chasing inspiration, I am bombarded by demons of my subconscious, riding the yoked oxen of anxiety and depression, pulling from their pocket everything I have ever done even the slightest bit wrong, extrapolating and rendering every heartbreakingly specific and small detail into a future where I will never be right again, never be successful, never be happy, never be loved. I shudder and turn, side to side, looking for escape. The sunrise would be welcome now. I long for these demons to abandon me, even though I know their other pocket holds a handkerchief and a room key. They offer me platter after platter, heaped with burnt slices of scorn and disappointment. I refuse to eat, but eventually, weakened by their insistence, and discovering a strange, sad, appetite for the dishes, I succumb. It is tasteless, but familiar. This is not my first, nor my last time sitting at their table.
Something new appears, and a voice that offers no room key, no tasteless meal, but instead a shy smile and a steadfast look of trust in her eyes takes my hand and leads me away, bids me follow with the pressure of her hand in mine, holding my hand like a bird that could fly away at any minute. Slowly, carefully, I tiptoe between lush overwhelming screaming abundance and the dry desert of doubt, maintaining my balance, focused, focused, focused, on each step until suddenly I realize her hand is gone but her presence lingers, and I am on the other side. I look around, and have a moment where I fear finding myself transported without warning to where I was before, the land of pinballs and platters, cacophony and cotton balls, but I smile, for she will always be with me, and her grace is my grace, and now I know the path.
Singing Meditation (Please remain seated.)
#123, “Spirit of Life” [We sing this hymn just about every week, as do many UU congregations.]
Spirit of Life, come unto me.
Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion.
Blow in the wind, rise in the sea;
Hasta moldear la justicia de la vida.
Fuente de Amor, ven a mí, ven a mí.
Sermon – Written and Presented by Jen Kitchen
“The Power of Story”
It seems appropriate that I start with a story about a story. There’s a show I watch called Critical Role and it’s not on any network you’re likely to have heard of. It started with a group of friends, who happened to be voice actors, getting together to play Dungeons and Dragons. D&D is a game played with pencil, paper, and dice, where you’re part of a group of folks who make characters and come together to create a story starring those characters, assisted by a person who provides the setting, the other characters, and the hurdles to overcome. That’s the simplest explanation I can give you in the time we have.
These friends got together to play just once, as part of someone’s birthday celebration, but they all loved it so much, they decided to keep playing together. Two years later they were still playing regularly, and began streaming their games on the internet. They started to develop a following, and soon there were thousands of people watching them every week. In a certain very niche market, they are the top show. In February of this year, they went independent, formed their own production company, and started making their own shows while still doing Critical Role, all while holding on to their day jobs as voice actors.
A few months ago, they created a Kickstarter to help them raise money to make an animated special about the characters in that first game. Kickstarter is a website that helps creators of all kinds raise money from fans or potential customers to put out a new product, many of them creative projects. The Critical Role folks had originally shopped around their proposed special to networks and large production companies without success, so they decided to go for it on their own. Their goal was 750,000 dollars, and they had 45 days to raise it. They carefully set up their campaign, and included stretch goals in case they raised more than they expected, much like we do with our annual stewardship campaign.
I need to pause a moment and explain something. The cast, humble folk that they are, regularly find it hard to believe how many people watch these “nerdy voice actors,” as they call themselves, play D&D, and so they underestimate their fanbase, known as Critters. The cast has raised money for a number of charities important to them, including Amnesty, Operation Supply Drop, and First Book, and the Critters always beat the goal that the cast announces. The cast is no different from us, really. How often do we underestimate our own abilities? How often do we have no idea of what we mean to someone else?
On March 4th of this year, the Kickstarter went live. The Critters did what they always do – blew the cast away with their support, but they stepped it up this time. They hit 750,000 dollars, the original goal for the entire 45 day campaign, in less than 45 minutes. Before the first hour was up, they hit a million dollars, and barreled through all the stretch goals before that first day was over. In the end, after the campaign was done, they raised over 11 million dollars from almost 90,000 people, I was one of them, and the one special became a 10 episode series.
So, why am I telling you about Critical Role? First, because I’m a passionate fan. They tell the kind of story that the word “epic” well describes. A group of imperfect heroes adventures together, earns gold and discovers legendary items, fights dragons and demigods, grows in power and status, and has to save the world. They also argue, fall in love, have moments of doubt, experiences both hilarious and tragic, – you grow to know and love these characters over 400 hours – about 5 times the length of the whole Game of Thrones series. This is an amazing story and a classic example of the power of storytelling.
I also love this show because I love Dungeons and Dragons. I started playing D&D when I was 12 or so, almost 40 years ago. I met my husband Scott online because of role-playing games like D&D. I’ve started to play again in part because of shows like Critical Role. Recently, I’ve started building a world for my own game, which has meant researching everything from language families to tectonic plates to the demographics of medieval villages. There’s nothing that makes you feel quite as powerful as deleting a continent off a map, writing a creation story, or inventing gods. I’m looking forward to telling my own epic stories.
Critical Role is also a shining example of improv, another passion of mine. Dungeons and Dragons, or any role-playing game, when it is run well, is telling an epic story mostly through improvisation. The person who builds the world and its people, known as the dungeon master, can do some planning for what may happen, but the players may choose to move in an entirely different direction, or a single dice roll could end up changing someone’s fate forever, for good or bad. The folks on Critical Role are all masters at this kind of improv, choosing story over “winning the game” while still doing their best to beat the bad guys.
Honestly, though, I’m talking about Critical Role because it is about relationships, transitions, and most of all, the rich variety of stories that can be told by people who love and trust each other. I love the relationship of the characters to one another, and the growth and change the characters experience over the course of the story. I love this group of friends who turned a game into a business and maintained their friendship and the integrity of the game. I am inspired by how extraordinarily vulnerable and honest they are with each other every week to play this game at its highest level, and honored that they invite us to watch. What they have together could easily be called a covenant, a set of promises about how they will be with one another. This is what moves me most to include them and their story in this sermon. Covenant is at the heart of our non-creedal religion. We are a covenantal faith, centered on how we are with ourselves, with each other, and with the world. On the whole, Critical Role exemplifies to me the power of story and its connection to our faith.
Without relationships we are alone. Without change we are stagnant. Without sharing what we believe to be true with those we love who love us back, we have lost something essential about what makes us human. That is what the power of story is to me: recognizing what we believe to be true, sharing those beliefs with those we trust, and taking a chance to share beyond the circles of close community. Story is at the heart of what we do here at our congregation. When we explore spirituality we are examining what we believe to be true, whether it exists in a book, inside our own heads or from any of our six sources. When we engage community, we are sharing our story with people close to us and listening to their stories. When we transform the world, we are taking our story and shouting it from the metaphorical rooftops. I also believe that stories are reflected in our affirmation. Love is the spirit of this congregation, and service is its heart. Talking and listening to one another, engaging one another, is one way we put love into action as service. We seek truth through exploring our own stories, we dwell together in peace by learning from one another’s stories, and when we listen and learn, seek and share, we are absolutely helping one another.
All this talk of story, and telling your story, may be striking fear in your heart. Fear of public speaking, fear of sharing, fear that you lack whatever it takes to tell a compelling story. My definition of creation is the act of bringing forth human expression, like story, to live outside our own heads, giving that expression form and gifting that expression with our own personal spin, so if you get nothing else out of today, know that you are creative, and that I believe in your creativity without reservation and without doubt. That spin, that combination of elements unique to us that we bring to what we express – that’s creativity, and sharing your story is one of the oldest, if not the oldest way of expressing that creativity. There is no one, no one who does not have a compelling story to tell, and every story is important. What better example of our first principle could there be? What is more inherently us than the sum of our experiences?
As humans, we are programmed to tell stories, our stories, and find ways to share them with others. You showed it earlier when you engaged in the story sharing exercise. Even when you are telling a true story from your own life, you bring yourself and your innate, natural creativity to it. You bring a point of view. You emphasize some parts and leave others out. You bring your tone of voice, your pitch, your cadence, your rate of speaking. You put emotion into your words. Without even thinking, you bring your story to life. Your ancestors created the cave paintings at Lascaux and Altamira. They wove the Bayeux Tapestry and carved the Rosetta Stone. They figured out how to make papyrus and movable type to give their stories a larger audience. As I said in the opening words, stories are the breath and word of the spirit of life. Stories are in our DNA. Whether you believe it or not, you speak story, you breathe story. It is a power I promise belongs to you.
It’s important to acknowledge that, like anything powerful, stories can harm as well as heal. Have you ever made a silly mistake and said to yourself “Ugh, I’m so stupid.”? Struggled with something at home or work and heard your inner critic suggest it will turn out to be a failure? Chose not to do something you really wanted to because you were convinced you wouldn’t be good at it, or that you would embarrass yourself? Let unreasonable fear, or self-doubt talk you out of an experience? These are all stories we tell ourselves. We internalize them and repeat them until they become ingrained habit.
Sometimes the stories that influence us come from television or magazines or movies or social media. We outsource the telling of so many of the stories we consume to “professionals”. I’m not saying that’s always a bad thing. There are compelling books, films, television shows, songs, plays, and other media out there. Clearly I have some favorites. The danger comes when the majority of the stories we consume only represent the stories it is profitable to tell, because profitable often comes at the cost of ignoring or tokenizing marginal or minority communities. These stories also often give the message that if you look or act like this, you are worthy of being loved. If you don’t, you’re not. And that’s if you’re present at all in those stories. We respond to stories through the filter of our individual experiences, as we connect what we are watching and hearing with our own life. If we are not in the stories we consume, what message does that give us?
Our stories, our own authentic, real, true stories, are pieces of unfinished raw wood. They’re not always pretty. There are jagged edges that catch you unawares, and splinters that can lodge in you and hurt for a while. There are knots and bumps and dirt. It is clear what it came from, you can tell that it came from something living, and isn’t far removed from it.
Corporate stories, like in the reading from Kat Kuhl earlier, are a painted wooden chair. You know what it is when you see it. It looks nice. The sharp edges and pointy bits have been sanded and polished and varnished and waxed so everything is smooth and clean and safe. Each chair looks pretty much like the next one, and if there’s a difference, it’s a deliberate difference that has little to do with the natural characteristics of the wood and more with the processing of it. In fact, it is so processed that it doesn’t even need to be wood, it could be any material. The chair stands on its own, complete in its refined beauty. It’s a lot easier to buy a chair than to build a chair, but there is pride and a sense of accomplishment when we do it ourselves.
Like anything living, our stories all flow and change over time. They are meant to. It means that we’re exploring our worlds, trying new things, setting aside others, figuring out who we are. We hold on to some elements and let others go, sometimes just for a while, sometimes for good. This is also a pretty good description of our Coming of Age program: examining the big questions of the world and figuring out how we want to answer them right now. The changing narrative of our lives, our constant exploration and curation of the information we take in, is the logical result of a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, our fourth principle. When you change the story you tell yourself, you change your life as well, and so what we tell ourselves, what stories we permit entrance into our brain, matters.
Imagine if the scroll of messages, the background thoughts that are our constant inner soundtrack were saying “You are so loved. You can do this. Give it a try. Take a chance – something wonderful might happen. It may not go as planned but you’ve learned for next time. There are people who love you for your authentic self, who will love you no matter what.” Imagine having an inner cheerleader, instead of an inner critic, who did for you what we so often do for others but don’t always do for ourselves: respect your own inherent worth and dignity.
I’ve spent a lot of time talking about you the individual, the stories you tell yourself and those close to you. In the terms of our mission [Explore Spirituality, Engage Community, Transform the World], I’ve focused on explore spirituality and engage community. What about transform the world? Let me go back to Critical Role. They started with a very internal story – a small group of friends playing in someone’s dining room. They brought that story to a community and watched it grow and change themselves and others while maintaining what made it authentic and special. They took chances, built a company together, and set a goal, a big, wild, audacious goal that they achieved beyond their wildest dreams. Yeah, there may be some parallels there with our congregation.
We were a seed, planted here in Somerset County. We grew, developed a community, transformed. What’s next for us? What will be our big, wild, audacious goal? For years, every time I was in a larger meeting for this congregation about leadership or growth or potential, when asked what I’d love to see, my answer was always that every person, EVERY PERSON, in Somerset County should know who we were, what we stood for, and where to find us. That hasn’t changed.
What story does our congregation currently tell to the world outside our doors? Is it a compelling epic? It should be! Aren’t we too a group of imperfect heroes, on this adventure together, fighting dragons, trying to grow, hoping to change the world? I talked earlier about building my imaginary world, and here we are trying to build a real one. We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow or next year or a decade from now. But this blue feather that we brought into being is in your hands, all of you, all of us. Let us find and return to that home we all long for, and help others to find it here. Tell yourself its story, tell its story to each other, tell its story to everyone, and never doubt that you are a storyteller – you already are one.
* Closing Hymn
#118, ”This Little Light of Mine” [Note: the linked video is of a version done by the awesome Kim and Reggie Harris. Our version that morning was not nearly as energetic. :)]
These words come from Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers:
“Leave safety behind. Put your body on the line. Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind even if your voice shakes. When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say.”
“We Love You All”, Adam Dickinson [Considering the nerd level of this service, this song seemed a perfect choice!]
(The congregation is invited to join in on the chorus, which is the title of the song.)