The Thanks That Keeps On Giving
As I wrap up my almost dozen years at the Meeting House, I am subject to bouts of longing and sadness. And all that I think I know of human psychology says that there is no magical cure for longing and sadness. Sometimes these hard feelings are quite appropriate to the situation in which we find ourselves, and that includes the present one. You have expressed and are expressing great affection for me, and I am feeling great affection for you. A sadness is a very appropriate rational reaction when you are about to part from folks for whom you feel affection.
Yet we are here upon Thanksgiving, the holiday when we are supposed to find something to be thankful for. How can we feel thankful in the face of sadness?
Typically at Thanksgiving I have told the tales of the first Thanksgiving Feast as we celebrated a cornbread and cider communion. The story preserved in the Winslow letter is one of peaceful coexistence of two very different peoples, but from a perspective of four centuries later, you can see this feast in the context of the immense tragedy of the displacement of native peoples. This is why Chatham’s late Wampanoag activist, Frank James and others suggested that Thanksgiving Day be converted into a National Day of Mourning.
I am sympathetic to that because it focuses our attention on the tragic dimension. But I have always believed that gratitude is an essential human value, skill and practice. It should be lifted up, for the practice of gratitude lifts us up. I have always found Susan Hull’s essay to strike the right balance between gratitude and suffering.
So to bring it back to this congregation and this minister, I want to acknowledge our mutual sadness at the upcoming parting, but I want to honor Thanksgiving in this sermon by expressing my lasting appreciation of the gifts you have given me as a minister and to me and Jacqueline as sojourners here among you these last years.
The first members of the congregation whom I met were the search committee who called me, chaired by Elizabeth Sjogren and consisting of Helen Pickett, Mary Chesnut, Mary Parsons, Kevin Howard, Stephen Davol and Jeff Dykens. We spent an intense weekend in interviews. I remember when we had dinner at Elizabeth’s house on Saturday night and I wanted to take a little break from church topics, so I asked, “what do you all think about Cape Wind?” Well it turned out that this was a subject about which they all had strong opinions, not at all the same.
After a candidating week, I was called to this ministry by a vote which I remember as unanimous. I had been shaken by my departure from my last settlement, and had some significant doubts about whether I was in the right profession. So the unanimous call vote was a real boost to my confidence, and I thank all of you who voted that day.
A minister works most closely with the President of the congregation, and I have been very fortunate to work with some strong Presidents: John DeSilva, Sally Davol, Walter Diggs, Dick Eccles, Beth Avery and now Joan Caputo. I felt good communication with each of them and felt that they put a tremendous amount of time, energy and creativity into the job of keeping this place together. So I am grateful for the wise leadership with whom I have worked.
On the financial side, we have also had strong leadership in these years. The first Treasurer with whom I worked was Jack Parsons and he somehow found the money to set me up with a reasonable compensation package. Dwight Wilson succeeded him and worked with Dick Eccles, the then President, to make the computer financial system organize information so that it was most useful to the decisions which needed to be made in running the congregation. Dwight was ably succeeded by Joe Zahka, who led us all to take a look at the long term sustainability of the Meeting House given declines in some key numbers. When Joe had served his time, Dwight graciously agreed to take up the post to Treasurer again.
I want to particularly thank those Presidents and those Treasurers for the stable way in which we have dealt with those declining numbers. We have never missed a payroll, and Melissa makes sure than no bill goes unpaid for longer than a couple of weeks. While we are all sad that we can’t continue with a full-time minister, many other churches have had bad news sneak up on them, leading to panics, sudden furloughs and other unpleasant surprises.
Of course, standing behind Presidents and Treasurers has been a functional and engaged Board of Trustees, a functional canvass program and the members who express confidence with their pledges. I am deeply grateful that the pledge seems to be holding up as we enter the ministerial transition. You believe in the future of the Meeting House and it is my prayer that your confidence will be justified.
I have had the pleasure of working with extraordinary staff. Ruth Treen served ably as music director when I first arrived, and then was replaced by Frank Toppa, who continues to serve. I don’t think I have to tell you what a gem you have in Frank. I had known Frank and his wife Barbara for ten years before I arrived here, and I feel that some heaven smiled on me to make him available to serve as music director here. I can’t tell you how many Sundays Frank has looked at the sermon topic and my choice of hymns and come up with just the song to insert in the service at just the right time. I imagine it isn’t always easy for a church musician to work with a minister who is less musically adept but still has his own musical ideas and a love of performing.
Now let me give a shout-out to one especial former staff member who has also been a volunteer so active I told him, “Ralph, if you wore any more hats, you would have to duck before going through a doorway.” I am of course talking about Ralph Bauer who has been sexton, Buildings and Grounds Chair, pledge chair, Endowment Board chair and general fiduciary of the whole physical plant. And Sue is cut of the same cloth: newsletter, program council, Angel Fund, and coordinator of many activities. Each of them steps up to the plate and does whatever needs doing. We all recognize how much this congregation owes to the Bauers. But Ralph has been one of the special people who will give me feedback on my acts and doings, whether I have asked for it or not. It was Ralph who came up with the idea that, to attract younger people to the congregation, we didn’t need to hire a younger minister, we just had to get Edmund to shave his beard. I did, and I looked a few years younger, but the Gen X ers did not start flooding in.
When I got here Melissa Clayton served as secretary. I soon came to know her as a straight shooter who had a good command of the information under her control and would quickly raise any questions which ought to be looked at. She moved on from the secretary position to pursue a long-time interest in emergency services, and we redefined the position to include communications coordinator and hired our own member Jan Young. Jan was a delight to work with, had great writing skills and as a member had insights into how to present our face to the public to interest new people. Unfortunately, she also had another employer who wanted more of her time, so she reluctantly bowed out, and after a search, we hired a friend of mine named Andrea Pluhar, who had a good touch with graphics design and a sophisticated knowledge of database management and communications. During her time, she came to the Sunday Service and live-streamed the sermon on Facebook. But alas, she also had other employers who coveted more of her time, so she bowed out as well. After another search, we got Karen Murdoch who has been keeping the website up and putting out the Orders of Service and weekly e-blasts, as well as sharing her general good humor and sunny outlook on life. All of the women in this role have been dedicated and competent and a joy to work with. I am so thankful that they have all been in my life.
The recent survey indicates that most of you think that the most important function of a minister is the preaching, and this is consistent with other UU congregations, and with the New England congregational tradition. Emerson said, “the true preacher can be known by this: that he passes out to his congregation his life – life passed through the fire of thought.”
But preaching is not just the minister saying whatever is on the minister’s mind. At its best, it is a part of a conversation. The minister in the pulpit holds up a giant mirror every Sunday and says “here’s how I see you; do you see yourself in this?”
And you do take my sermon topics and discuss them in small groups, as well as at coffee hour. I have tried to provide a full-text booklet every Sunday so that you can take it home and read it again.
Religion inside a congregation at its best is an ongoing conversation about what principles and values are important and how they apply to the lives we’re actually living. And in conducting that conversation, we are also embodying those values. Many if not most of us do not believe in a literal heaven after we die, but rather we put Jesus’s love command into action in our lives to try to build the Beloved Community here on earth in our lifetimes. That goal of Beloved Community can form an ethic of how we talk to one another. I see it as one of the minister’s most important jobs to try to model how we talk to one another.
Part of that is to be open to criticism. I try to model what I’d like to see in the congregation by how I behave and what I say and do not say. I will fall short of my ideal time and time again, but I try to keep that goal in mind. And this is where additional thank yous need to be given. My testing ground for how I am doing at living up to these goals is the Ministerial Relations Committee. I have been truly blessed while I have been here with strong members on the MRC who will not just tell me what I want to hear but also what I need to hear. My first Ministerial Relations Committee was a subset of the Search Committee, but since then I have had a stellar cast which are too many to remember each one, but the ones who stand out in my mind are Dwight Wilson, Marion Harcourt, Barbara Waters, Mary Chesnut, Barbara Hanrahan, and Betsey Stevens. Whoever I have left off of that list, I apologize. The Committee has brought to me the concerns of congregation members and helped me facilitate difficult conversations. If we have been able to ride out some conflict here, they should get a lot of the credit.
Now I believe that some conflict is healthy in a congregation and may lead to a deeper understanding of values. The ideal is a church to be where we bring our whole selves, not just our dressy clothes, but a place where we deal with important and sensitive issues such as justice, racism, sexism, homophobia. It is easy to espouse values of acceptance and diversity, but what does it look like to live them?
To speak deep and painful truths to one another requires a level of trust. That trust is a precious thing. It is missing from our national conversation just now, which is why it is so important that the congregation be a place where trust is maintained. I thank the congregation and particularly its small group ministry for maintaining places where truth can be spoken in a setting of intimacy among trusted friends.
Maintaining that precious level of trust does not mean avoiding difficult or sensitive subjects. It means, rather, than when hard truths need to be spoken, when we disagree on values, that our own truths be spoken in love and respect for every one else’s.
The first church I served as minister was Wakefield. When that congregation, the sixth Universalist congregation to be set up in America, devised its by-laws in the 1840s, the by-laws had a section on how to deal with disagreements, and that section simply cited a passage in the Gospel of Matthew which reads as follows [Matthew 18: 15-17 (NRSV)]:
15 "If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
In other words, even Jesus recognized that there will be disputes in a congregation. While you don’t have to handle them exactly as this passage prescribes, you must have some way of handling them which will be perceived as fair, or the congregation will not last long.
So high on my list of thanks is thanks to all of you who pull together to resolve our differences before they threaten the fabric of the whole. We can agree to disagree on any issue as long as we are agreeable in doing so.
One of the experiences which led me into ministry in the late 1980s was that a close friend in his late 40s died of a heart condition and his significant other asked me to conduct the memorial service and preach the eulogy. I discovered in that exercise that summing up a life, articulating everyone’s grief, is not at all enjoyable and yet is deeply satisfying. Because this congregation when I came to it had many people advanced in years I have conducted a good many memorials and it has been a great privilege to work with the next of kin to produce a fitting memorial service.
Some parishioners died with instructions not to have a memorial service; in those cases, I always counsel the next of kin that the service is really for them, not for the deceased, and I can’t imagine there’s a court of justice somewhere in the sky which will fault them for wanting to gather in the Meeting House or on a beach or a backyard to sing a few songs and remember the departed loved one. We had one memorial service at the Chatham Labyrinth.
Speaking of rites of passage, I need to give a thanks here to the Pastoral Care Team, set up by Ed Hardy, which has functioned under the leadership of Sue Bauer and Ann Diggs to put on collations after funeral services, to arrange transportation to non-driving members and to provide meals and visitations to the hospitalized and homebound. A good pastoral care team takes a big burden off the minister’s shoulders, and I am blessed to have worked with them.
I don’t believe in a Day of Judgement in the hereafter as the passage in Matthew describes [Matthew 25: 31-46] when all people will pass by the judgement seat and the sheep shall be separated from the goats and the sheep will go on to eternal life but the goats shall be cast into outer darkness. But I do believe that what we do and say in real time has effects which are like ripples on a pond; they keep going after we’re gone. The good and the bad. It is in this sense that love is stronger than death.
In this, as in other UU congregations, we are bound together not by a common creed but by a covenant. The word covenant means to walk together. I have had the honor and the joy to walk together with you on this stretch of time in this place at the intersection of Main Street and Queen Anne and Crowell Roads for almost a dozen years. When I have conducted new member welcomes, I have usually sung the song “A Pleasure to Know You,” because the chorus of that song says we will “share the road awhile.” It is not a marriage, it is not ‘til death do us part, it is not like a family relationship where you have no choice but to be the child of those parents, the sibling of those siblings. We share the road awhile out of our voluntary acts in choosing to join and choosing to leave.
As the Psalm says, my cup runneth over. I can’t think of a better way to sum up the thanks I feel in my heart for all the wonderful years here than to sing this song one more time.
It's a Pleasure to Know You
It's a pleasure to know you, a pleasure to see you smile
A comfort to know we'll share the road awhile
Pleasure is fleeting, and comforts are far between
It's a pleasure to know you and the comfort you bring.
1. I came to your city after I'd left my home
And I was a stranger, dressed up in stranger's clothes
Favors I needed, but charity's out of style--
Rare as the beauty in the face of a trusting child.
2. Now they say life's a journey, a highway from birth to death
Mapped in despair, and traveled in hopelessness.
Well they may believe it, but just between you and me
The trick to the travelin' is all in the company.
3. Now lovers may leave you, lovers may turn away.
Children may scorn you--you know that they will someday,
Seasons are fickle, and fate isn't known as kind
But friends's the diamond, and trouble's the diamond mine.
READING: “Run, River, Run” by Rev. Susan Hull (published in Skirt magazine, Charleston SC ca. 1996)
“We are what we are given/and what is taken away..."
–– Wendell Berry Norman Maclean wades into the swift silver of Big Blackfoot River, casting for memories with the same reverence that he reserves for trout. Planting his feet in the slowly deepening riverbed, Norman begins to hear the long story of his life cascading by –– from his birth in Missoula, Montana, where the river banks were the breasts on which he fed as a child, through a restive adolescent initiation in the roaring rapids, the still reflections of his first love, to the dark eddies of gambling and debt that pulled his brother under. Now all are gone home before him in that great race to the sea. "Eventually," Norman concludes from the timeless sibilant prayer of water on rock, "eventually all things merge into One, and a River runs through it." There is a river that runs through us. It is Mystery, it is Life, some say God. It descends through my granite soul with the force of gravity and love, plunges through empty canyons, chisels out corridors with its wet hands and slowly, ever so, widens the cracks and crevices of my failures into pools where grace collects. The injury of the river is also its gift. Where I have been cut deeply, so there Life most deeply, most surely, flows. I don't believe that the gifts of God come in the form of goodness, but in the face of Life itself. In danger's shadow as well as dazzling light, in a disquieted heart as often as a still mind, in labor as in love. If we would receive the sacred, we must receive the river's flow, even as it injures, even as it takes away. I thank God for my handicaps said Helen Keller, unable to hear a bubbling stream or see its glistening green or put it into praise. Yet she praises: I thank God for my handicaps, for through them I have found myself, my work, my God. That, to me, is thanksgiving. It's not about being glad for the good things that have happened to us –– they are simply moments in the sun. Thanksgiving is standing still, with an injured and an open heart and letting the River run freely through us. Each year at this time, I stop and cast into the water. I recount the story of the year past, of life given and taken away: our planet's staggering losses, our moments of forgiveness, our fulgent gains. I think of a friend's child who came swimming into this world on amniotic rivers, and I remember my grandmother's final crossing over to the other shore. I remember the intense hope of eyes brimming with the vows of marriage, and the loosening tears of those whose hope was broken. I think of my own love found, or friends lost. We are what we are given and what is taken away, blessed by the name of the giver and taker... The confluence of all things returns to the Sea, the Source. The Gift unites with the Giver. Let the river run. The banks of my heart are wide with thanks