Life Passed Through the Fire of Thought
Unitarian Universalist Meeting House
January 6, 2019
The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life, — life passed through the fire of thought. – Emerson
Today is the first Sunday of the new year, with all that time stretching in front of us like a blank canvas, inviting us to paint something of beauty there, or like a blank sheaf of paper, inviting us to write words fo wisdom, humor, insight, inspiration. It is the feast of the Epiphany, and if we look with our inner eyes, we can see the three Magi making their way across the landscape with their camels and retinue, following the star to the place where the young child lies. It is Twelfth Night, time to finally take down the Christmas decorations.
But it is also a special occasion for me. This coming Thursday, January 10, will mark two important anniversaries: my late mother’s 100th birthday and the 20th anniversary of my ordination into the UU Ministry. That is no coincidence, because I planned my ordination in 1999 to be on her 80th birthday, recognizing that the step I was taking was also a fulfillment of one of her fondest wishes.
Now the quote from Emerson which forms the title of his sermon is one of those mantras I go back to time and again, and I actually used it as the title of the first sermon I preached to this congregation in April of 2008. I love the words “passed through the fire of thought.” It seems to me like the process called annealing, which is to make objects of metal or glass tougher by exposing them to flame. In many ways the process of my ministry formation was a spiritual annealing. I still have the text of the 2008 sermon and my original conception for this morning was to go through it with the perspective of ten more years and see what of it has turned out to be true and what has not.
But then it occurred to me that we are all going through a big process of discernment at the Meeting House and there is a question of whether or how long this sweet group will be able to keep a full-time minister. Now the first thing I want to say is that if you can’t keep a full-time minister, that doesn’t mean the end of your ministry to each other or to the community. Let me repeat that: if we can’t pay a full-time minister, that doesn’t have to mean the end of the ministry of the congregation.
Emerson says that preaching is life passed through the fire of thought. But preaching is not all of ministry. If I survey what I think ministry is after twenty years of practicing it, it will involve enough of my personal story to satisfy Mr. Emerson and hopefully give us all a few ideas as to how some of the ministry that I conduct now can be carried on if need be however the chips may fall in the future.
From the perspective of twenty years, it is clear to me that I didn’t know what I was getting into in seeking to enter the UU ministry. I had become a passionately active UU lay person by that time and I wanted to rediscover the idealism of my radical 1960s and do something about racism and war and inequality and injustice. I loved the idea of preaching and I had an experience doing a eulogy for a friend of mine which was quite powerful.
I liked the community I had created for folk music in Charleston and wanted to overcome the loneliness of modern life by creating and sustaining community in churches. I wanted to touch deep wells of authenticity to overcome the sterility and shallowness of American consumer culture.
Twenty years later, I don’t disparage any of those motives; I have realized that some may not have been easily attainable and some I didn’t understand correctly. But I say I didn’t know what I was getting into because it turned out that the price I paid for getting into the ministry, for making this change in my life, was so great that I would not have gone that route if I had known about it ahead of time. The very core of my life to that time, my first marriage, came apart and the home in which we raised our children was sold. I found out that this is not at all uncommon among seminarians, for the personal changes involved in transitioning from non-minister to minister are huge and any marriage has to be basically renegotiated.
And yet the closing of one door was the opening of another for me and I found that one of the creators of the music which delighted me the most was not spoken for romantically and agreed to go out with me. I had always been in love with her music, and now I found myself in love with Jacqueline.
All of that led up to the moment captured in the photo on your front cover. That is my life passed through the annealing fire of thought and loss.
What does it mean to minister? I want to break it down into various roles. My fine senior colleague Carl Scovel once told the Mass Bay District ministers that the position of minister was in the threshold, the liminal space, between the sacred and the profane. Our job was to mediate the holy. It may be startling to hear a UU minister say this, because some of the humanistically inclined among us are not sure there is a realm of the holy. But I think there are two or three specific ministerial roles that fill Carl’s description.
The first is priest. Priests operate in a religious system in which there are rituals or sacraments which can only be performed by certain people. On Mt. Sinai in the Torah, God gives Moses very detailed laws on how to sacrifice to Him and how the priest must purify himself beforehand. In the Torah, this ritual practice was laid down for the tabernacle in the desert, a moveable worship space, but after King Solomon built his Jerusalem temple centuries later, it was applicable to temple practice.
This is what’s going on in the passage from Isaiah that I read, and which was read at my ordination. The narrator realizes that he is in the most sacred room in all Judaism, the holy of Holies, and that he has not gone through the ritual purification
“for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.”
This unpurified human in the presence of the Almighty would normally mean swift and certain death, but the narrator is saved by a seraph who presses a glowing coal to his lips and this absolves him of sin. Then the Lord says “whom shall I send, who will go for us?” and the narrator replies, “Here am I, send me.”
So the narrator is spared the fate that he would have under the priestly code, but he has now volunteered to be God’s messenger in the outside world. He has turned from a priest to a prophet.
I chose that passage for my ordination because I liked the idea of volunteering for a dicey mission that God would send me on. It seemed heroic.
Unitarian Universalism is not a sacramental religion. We have water communion and flower communion and cornbread and cider communion, but no one would say that these are sacraments which can only be performed by people with special credentials. So neither our professional clergy nor our lay ministers are priests. Even a child dedication or wedding in our churches can be performed by anyone.
But now prophet, that’s a different story. The function of a prophet in the Hebrew Bible is not to foretell the future, but to criticize the present. Prophets are typically recruited by God, often against their wills, to carry a message to the recalcitrant people of Israel. Usually this means reminding them that God has made a covenant with their ancestors and that they have strayed from the covenant.
The Protestant Reformation challenged the whole notion of what church is for. The Roman Catholic church at that time and down to the present, insists that the church and its sacraments are the only path to salvation. Luther and the other Protestant leaders did not buy this and insisted that the sole path to salvation was the Bible, the Word of God. Thus in Protestant practice, the priestly function of administering the sacraments took lesser importance than the educational role of the minister, in teaching the people to read their Bible. It was no coincidence that the new printing presses were soon put to work printing Bibles in the language of the people. Luther popularized the notion of a “priesthood of all believers,” the idea being that any literate layperson could interpret the Bible for him or herself.
In the twentieth century, the UU theologian James Luther Adams, who had spent the late 1930's in Nazi Germany and saw the disintegration of that society firsthand, took Luther’s idea one step further and proclaimed the “prophethood of all believers.” Everyone, clergy or lay, could witness for justice.
And we follow Adams’ idea today. Some of the great prophetic witnesses within Unitarianism or Universalism or UUism have been led by clergy, but many more have been led by lay people. We could point to abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage in the nineteenth century or in the twentieth century the effort to get Jews out of Czechoslovakia in 1939 or Dr. King’s civil rights marches.
But one recent campaign we were all around for: same-sex marriage. When the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decided the Goodridge case in 2004, I suddenly realized that same-sex marriage was a justice issue on a par with voting rights or housing discrimination. I wrote sermons and op-ed columns and appeared on cable access debates, and across the country my UU clergy colleagues did the same, as did many lay activists. When the cause of equal marriage finally won a decisive endorsement from the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015, UU clergy and lay activists could rightly claim to have been part of the solution in a weight far beyond our numbers on the national scene. We had advanced our vision of the Beloved Community.
Priest, prophet, teacher. What applies here? Not the priestly role, in Unitarian Universalism as it is today because we don’t have sacraments and such rituals as we have can be performed by anyone. But the prophetic role, social witness against injustice, can be performed by anyone, and the educational role of ministers again can be performed by anyone. I have taught classes here on Artificial Intelligence, on UU 101, on the Bill of Rights, on evil, and these are all interest areas of mine, but there is nothing special about my ministerial status that lets me teach them.
Now I’d like to turn to two other aspects of ministry that pertain here. One is pastoral ministry and the other is community ministry.
A fair amount of the training of clergy in my era was devoted to pastoral ministry. The word pastor means shepherd, and it is a little funny to apply it in a UU congregation. UUs after all, like to think of themselves as fiercely independent freethinkers, and the last thing they would want is for someone to look at them as sheep. Baa!
But we inherited this concept from Christianity; after all, Jesus lived and preached among people who raised sheep for a living. It was natural for him to turn the sheep into moral parables, to illustrate the love of God for each of us by telling the parable of the Good Shepherd who left the ninety-nine sheep in the fold and went back out on the mountainside in a storm to find the one lost sheep.
A minister goes through a training called Clinical Pastoral Education or CPE for short; it is usually a twelve-week course in an institution such as a hospital or rehab facility or jail. Half the time you are a chaplain in the institution, interacting with the patients or inmates. The other half of the time, you get together with the supervisor and other students in the program to go over the interactions you had and take them apart line by line. What you are trying to tease out is a view of how you interact with people in these often stressful circumstances. Robert Burns said Oh wad the power the giftie gie us
to see ourselves as others see us.
The basic theory of this training is that there are typically two sides to any encounter you have as a pastor: the pastor and the other person. If the pastor doesn’t know him– or herself, they don’t have a prayer of understanding the other person.
Whether the pastor acts in an institutional setting or a parish, it is useful to think of the setting as a system with a certain level of anxiety. Much of what goes on in a hospital or prison creates stress. The pastor’s basic job is to be what is called a non-anxious presence. When someone feeds their own anxiety into the system, the pastor tries to react non-anxiously, and this calms the system. If the pastor takes the anxiety of the first person, doubles it and feeds it back into the system, you can see that things will spiral out of control quickly.
Well that’s the theory anyway, and I try to stick by it. It’s my number one goal as minister here to be a non-anxious presence. And lay people can certainly do this, though it helps to have had a few units of CPE training.
But what about lay programs? Here in the Meeting House, we have two successful lay pastoral programs, both of them set up by my predecessors: the Pastoral Care Team which deals with a bunch of issues including some transportation needs for non-drivers, collations for funerals and memorial services, visiting shut-ins, and cards remembering birthdays and anniversaries. Then we have the Small Group Ministry program which provided pastoral interpersonal group process on a periodic basis. Both of these programs are well understood, and so long as volunteers can be found, can continue to run indefinitely whether you have a professional minister or not.
Of course, there are some pastoral occasions which are traditionally handled by clergy; visiting the family of a deceased person, and arranging a memorial service are things I do. But in lay-led congregations, lay leaders find that they can do these things as well.
The last category of ministerial role I want to hold up for your consideration is what I would call community ministry. It’s like prophetic ministry in that it involves the real world outside the four walls of the Meeting House. But it is not directed towards specific claims of injustice; rather it simply seeks to be helpful to people in need.
Here you are already doing a lot more than I am. You have the Turkey Trot, a project of two members with some assistance from others, raising thousands of dollars to be spread among needy people in Chatham and nearby towns. And a direct service to the people of this area, the Thrift Shop, which not only puts amazing amounts of money into the operating fund, but really helps needy members of the community, particularly J1 students. And it provides a rich and satisfying way for the congregation to interact with each other.
Now I’ve saved for last the hardest ministerial function to devolve on lay members: preaching. Emerson said it is life passed through the fire of thought. You all have lives, and you all have thoughts, so why should lay preaching be any different from the preaching of a fellowshipped minister?
In the early days of Universalism there was no such thing as a seminary. If the spirit moved someone to start preaching, he was often ordained on the spot, and the first generation of Universalists was very suspicious of divinity schools. But on the Unitarian side, there was a long tradition of the learned ministry and after the Universalists had established seminaries, they also preferred to get ministers from them.
When I was interviewed by the search committee here, I told them one of my goals in preaching was to connect the congregation I was serving with Unitarian and Universalist traditions, so that people would have a perspective on the movements from which they were descended, rather than seeing just the particulars of this congregation. One of the committee members responded, “yes, that’s it, that’s exactly what we want too.”
So being true to tradition is one aspect of preaching. There is no secret formula, and an interested lay person who takes the time to master the material can produce a sermon just as rooted in the tradition as trained clergy, but would have a pretty hard time doing it week after week.
What is harder is to develop a coherent strategy for preaching. Many Christian churches follow what is called a lectionary, a schedule which suggests Bible passages each week to preach on. In the last few years, several groups within Unitarian Universalism have put our schedules of suggested themes, such as forgiveness in January, spirituality in February etc.
I don’t have that level of formality, but I try to keep up with major holidays and holy days, and somewhere in the back of my mind I think I have an overall strategy of where I am trying to take the congregation.
That’s because you called me to this position ten years ago and I feel a certain responsibility for the overall spiritual direction of the place. Preaching is one of the tools I have to work with.
Perhaps my favorite definition of a minister is a person who tells you what you need to hear. Not what you want to hear; what you need to hear. That is what guides my selection of sermon topics.
Now one of the constant weaknesses people are pointing out in my preaching is that my sermons don’t have an action plan. To some extent, this is deliberate; I don’t want people to tell me what to do so I don’t want to tell people what to do. But I can understand the frustration if you’ve sat through twenty minutes of your precious time and you’re not sure what the preacher said and you have nothing to take away from the sermon.
So let me just close this way this morning by giving you my takeaway: after twenty years in the ministry I am convinced it was the right thing for me to do and I want to continue doing it as long as I can, here or elsewhere. And you are already doing excellent ministry here, and you will continue doing excellent ministry here whatever happens with the budget and membership.
Because there is a lot of love in this place. We have our ups and downs and our heart-wrenching losses, but at the end of the day there is a palpable love here, and I have the feeling, speaking from my twenty years into this ministry, that we’re going to be OK. That doesn’t mean we won’t be changed, it means we’ll be OK.
I will close with the words we sang a few moments ago,
Wake, now, my vision of ministry clear;
brighten my pathway with radiance here;
mingle my calling with all who will share;
work toward a planet transformed by our care.
Readings for Life Passed Through the Fire of Thought
Isaiah 6 [NRSV]
The vision of the heavenly throne room
1 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2 Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3 And one called to another and said:
"Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory."
4 The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5 And I said: "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!"
6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7 The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: "Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out." 8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I; send me!"
Divinity School Address Ralph Waldo Emerson
Delivered before the Senior Class in Divinity College, Cambridge, Sunday Evening, July 15, 1838
Whenever the pulpit is usurped by a formalist, then is the worshipper defrauded and disconsolate. ... I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say, I would go to church no more. Men go, thought I, where they are wont to go, else had no soul entered the temple in the afternoon. A snow storm was falling around us. The snow storm was real; the preacher merely spectral; and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had lived in vain. He had no one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined. If he had ever lived and acted, we were none the wiser for it. The capital secret of his profession, namely, to convert life into truth, he had not learned. Not one fact in all his experience, had he yet imported into his doctrine. This man had ploughed, and planted, and talked, and bought, and sold; he had read books; he had eaten and drunken; his head aches; his heart throbs; he smiles and suffers; yet was there not a surmise, a hint, in all the discourse, that he had ever lived at all. Not a line did he draw out of real history. The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life, — life passed through the fire of thought. But of the bad preacher, it could not be told from his sermon, what age of the world he fell in; whether he had a father or a child; whether he was a freeholder or a pauper; whether he was a citizen or a countryman; or any other fact of his biography. It seemed strange that the people should come to church. It seemed as if their houses were very unentertaining, that they should prefer this thoughtless clamor. It shows that there is a commanding attraction in the moral sentiment, that can lend a faint tint of light to dulness and ignorance, coming in its name and place. The good hearer is sure he has been touched sometimes; is sure there is somewhat to be reached, and some word that can reach it. When he listens to these vain words, he comforts himself by their relation to his remembrance of better hours, and so they clatter and echo unchallenged. ...