Service of the Living Tradition
General Assembly 1999 Event 402
Order of Service
Ministry Department, Unitarian Universalist Association Worship
I knew from the start that I did not want to go it alone,
that I wanted to be rooted in religious community...
to savor the world and to save it,
in the company of like-minded others—
in worship, celebration, fellowship, study,
service, spiritual discipline, and social action.
I found this in the Unitarian Universalist movement
and in each of the congregations it has been my privilege to serve.
Call to Worship
Reverend Dr. Diane Miller
"Rank by Rank, Again We Stand"
John Huntley Skrine
Recast by Carl G. Seaburg, 1990
Rank by rank, again we stand,
From the four winds gathered hither.
Loud the hallowed walls demand
Whence we come, and how, and whither.
From their stillness breaking clear,
Echoes wake to warn or cheer;
Higher truth from saint and seer
Call to us assembled here.
Ours the years' memorial store,
Honored days and names we reckon,
Days of comrades gone before,
Lives that speak and deeds that beckon.
From the dreaming of the night
To the labors of the day,
Shines their everlasting light,
Guiding us upon our way.
Though the path be hard and long,
Still we strive in expectation;
Join we now their ageless song
One with them in aspiration.
One in name, in honor one,
Guard we well the crown they won;
What they dreamed be ours to do,
Hope their hopes and seal them true.
Lighting of the Chalice
Mrs. Harold Patterson
A Litany of Remembrance
Adapted from Ralph Norman Helverson, The Reverend Beverly A. Bumbaugh, and The Reverend Dr. David E. Bumbaugh, Jr.
Minister: We are gathered in remembrance of all ministers who sought the light of understanding, who extended the fellowship of freedom, and whose words and deeds remain as a living memorial.
Congregation: We lift up thankful hearts for all ministers who dealt out to others their lives passed through the fire of thought.
We remember ministers who sought wisdom and reached across barriers of belief and doctrine, who affirmed in the spirit of truth the healing hand of argument, who served the needs of others - lifted the fallen, upheld the weak, established community, and preached the living word.
We lift up thankful hearts for all who carried on the tradition of asking questions, who went beyond false stopping places that stifled growth and weakened faith.
We remember ministers who embodied goodness, embraced the love of all people, encompassed differences of color and creed, age and sex, and surmounted every circumstance of hobbling tradition, to push back ignorance and declare the glory of God and the human spirit.
We lift up thankful hearts for the ministry of beauty, for all who have quickened our love of nature and of ourselves, who by line and color, music and ceremony, and the spoken word, helped us to rejoice in life.
We remember every minister who taught living religion, who helped us to see the limits of unexamined orthodoxies, and while standing in a particular tradition declared the religion universal, and who led us in the dedication of ourselves to the church of all souls.
We lift up thankful hearts for the ministers who have set before us examples to follow. May the work and the purpose of our calling show forth in the living and those yet to come, the ministry they proclaimed.
Welcoming New Ministers
Ms. Tamara Payne-Alex
The congregation is asked to hold all applause until the end of the service.
Recognition of Those Ministers Who Have Entered into Preliminary Fellowship
The Reverend Ellen Brandenburg
Recognition of Those Ministers Who Have Attained Final Fellowship
The Reverend Dr. Diane Miller
Extending the Hand of Fellowship
The Reverend Dr. John A. Buehrens
The Reverend Gary E. Smith
Ms. Tamara Payne-Alex
Recognition of Those Completing Service in Ministry
The Reverend Dr. John H. Weston
Presentation of Certificates of Appreciation
The Reverend Dr. John A. Buehrens
Ms. Tamara Payne-Alex
The Reverend Gary E. Smith
The Reverend William A. DeWolfe
Offering for the Living Tradition Fund
The Reverend Dr. Ralph Mero
Selection from T'hillim, Psalm 139, c.700 BCE
"Poppies" by Mary Oliver, 1992
from Dao De Jing, c.500 BCE
"Other Pulpits, Other Ministries"
The Reverend Dr. Mark Belletini
Roll Call and Prayer
The Reverend Dr. John A. Buehrens
"For All the Saints" (Adapted)
Congregation remains standing
William Walsham How
For all the saints who from their labors rest,
Who thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy name, most holy, be forever blest: Alleluia, Alleluia!
Thou wast their rock, their shelter, and their might;
Their strength and solace in the well-fought fight;
Thou in the darkness deep their one true light: Alleluia, Alleluia!
And when the strife is fierce, the conflict long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph-song,
And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong: Alleluia, Alleluia!
The Reverend David R. Hubner
"Well You Needn't"
Notes on the Service
This is the fifty-fourth annual Service of the Living Tradition of the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Ministry, which recognizes those ministers who have been granted preliminary fellowship, achieved final fellowship, or completed fulltime service and commemorates those ministers who died between May 20, 1998 and May 24, 1999.
The offering received today supports the Living Tradition Fund, which provides UU ministry students and ministers with scholarships, grants, and financial assistance in times of need.
The preacher for the service is the Reverend Dr. Mark Belletini Senior Parish Minister at First Unitarian Universalist Church in Columbus, Ohio. He has served our congregations in San Francisco and Hayward, California, the latter for 18 years. He chaired the Hymnbook Resources Commission which produced Singing the Living Tradition.
Other participants in the service are:
- The Reverend Beverly A. Bumbaugh, Minister Emerita of The Unitarian Church in Summit, NJ
- The Reverend Dr. David E. Bumbaugh, Associate Professor of Ministry and Director of Field Education, Meadville/Lombard Theological School
- The Reverend Dr. John A. Buehrens, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association
- The Reverend Gary E. Smith, President of the UU Ministers Association and Senior Minister of the First Parish in Concord, MA
- The Reverend William A. DeWolfe, President of the UU Retired Ministers and Partners Association
- Ms. Tamara Payne-Alex, member of the First Unitarian Church of San Jose, CA, who serves on the Executive Committee of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee
The staff of the Department of Ministry participating in the service are:
- The Reverend Ellen Brandenburg, Ministerial Education Director
- The Reverend David P Hubner, Ministerial Development Director
- The Reverend Dr. Ralph Mero, Church Staff Finances Director
- The Reverend Dr. Diane M. W Miller, Director of Ministry
- The Reverend Dr. John H. Weston, Ministerial Settlement Director
Representing the surviving families of ministers who have died during the past year is Sally Patterson, widow of the Reverend Harold Patterson.
The organist for the service is Stephen Smith, music director of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock, Manhasset, NY.
Music for the service is provided by Ricardo Romero, Carlos Arroyo, Pat Terry, Chris Braymen, Alan Michael, Scott Terry, and Jose Luis Reyes, playing together as Mambo jumbo.
Music in the lobby prior to the service was provided by the South Valley UU Church Handbell Choir, a three-octave ten-member choir under the direction of Cynthia Davis.
The flaming chalice was crafted by Robert Duprey, a member of the Universalist Unitarian Church of Brockton, MA.
Interpreting at today's service is Kathryn Deal of Santa Monica, CA. Ushers for the service are ministers who received Preliminary Fellowship in 1998.
We are grateful to the Reverend Douglas Morgan Strong of Plano, TX for hall arrangements and the flaming chalice "stained glass" window used in this service and to Patricia Frevert for her cover illustration.
Ministers Receiving Preliminary Fellowship
Ministry of Religious Education
Ralph Yeager Roberts
Faith Grover Scott
Laurie Jean Auffant
Jeffrey P. Barz-Snell
Paul R. Beedle
Helen Christine Brownlie
Jack D. Bryant
Brian Henry Covell
Howard N. Dana
Leonard R. DeRoche
Frances A. Dew
Lewis H. Dunlap
Amy A. Freedman
Keith W. Goheen
James E. Grant
Barbro M. Hansson
Kristen L. Harper
Mark W. Hayes
Lillie Mae Henley
M. Jean Heriot
Sandra L. Ingham
Kenneth B. Jones
Mykel Claudia Johnson
Andrew Patrick Johnston
Elizabeth A. "Kit" Ketcham
Peter S. Morales
Henry Istvan Peirce
Evelyn A. Plumb
Eleanor Maria Rice
Edmund Heyward Robinson
Thomas Robert Schade
Kathryn A. Schmitz
Jann R. Schwab
Lamb Daniel Spencer
Erin Elizabeth Splaine
Bonnie J. Tarwater
Gregory S. Ward
Kathryn Kandarian Willis
Jan Marie Carlsson-Bull
Jacqueline C. Lahey
Dale Emerson Lantz
Jerry L. Messer
Dean Marvin Staffanson
Nadine Ann Swahnberg
Susan Downing Videen
Marion B. Visel
Ministers Receiving Final Fellowship
Ministry of Religious Education
Carol S. Haag
John W. Baros-Johnson
Lee Ann Bluemel
Paul J. Boothby
Anne R. Buehler
Cynthia P. Cain
Gregory N. Chute
Heather Carrie Collins
Thomas G. Disrud
M. Ray Drennan
Sandra Douglass Fitz-Henry
Joy D. Gasta
John W. Gilmore
Clyde E. Grubbs
Heather Lynn Hanson
Robert J. Klein
Kurt Arthur Kuhwald
James M. McKinley
Robert Francis Murphy
Gretchen L. Thompson
Kaaren Anderson Waack
Erik Walker Wikstrom
Amy E. Brooks
Deborah J. Pope-Lance
Judith E. Wright
Ministers Completing Full-Time Ministries
Peter A. Baldwin
Jeanne H. Bell
David W. Brown
Beverly A. Bumbaugh
David E. Bumbaugh
Fred F. Campbell
Barbara A. Earl
Richard Spencer Hasty
William Parker Horton
Justin Giles Griffith Kahn, Sr.
Jack A. Kent
Webster L. Kitchell
Gerald R. Krick
Robert Harold MacPherson
Kenneth R. Mochel
Albert C. Niles
Clark B. Olsen
Carl R. Scovel
Neil H. Shadle
Libbie Deverich Stoddard
Robert A. Thayer
Karl A. Bach
Aldea Bernhardtine Carroll "Berna" Derby
Roy James Hatt
Paul Morton Husted
James M. Hutchinson
Walter D. Kring
J. Ford Lewis
Jack C. Loadman
John S. MacPhee
Harold W. Patterson
Carl G. Seaburg
Jefferson P Selth
William Alfred Slater
Norman L. Sparbel
Chadbourne A. Spring
Robert W. Sterling
Lois Ann White
The First Reading is part of the 139th selection in the Book of Praisesongs, called T'hillim in Hebrew, and Psalms in English. This dates probably from 700 years before the beginning of our era. You search me, 0 Eternal, you sound my depths.
Standing or sitting, you know me.
You read my inner life like a scroll.
Whether I am awake or asleep
you study me, an open book.
You surround me, enclose me,
enfold me and embrace me.
Such intimacy stuns me;
it is far, far beyond my comprehension.
Where indeed could I go to escape your breath
soft upon my neck?
Where could I flee your glance?
Shall I climb up into the sky?
Ah no, you are there before me.
Shall I burrow into the earth which shall
one day claim me?
No, for you are already there.
If I say "I will hide among the shadows,
and ask night to hide me in its dark deep folds,"
the dark will not hide me,
for night and noon are as the same to you.
Oh what mysteries! How vast it all is!
Look! I now awaken from these my reveries
and here you are again!
The Second Reading is a 1992 poem by the American poet, Mary Oliver. It's called Poppies.
The poppies send up their orange flares; swaying in the wind, their congregations are a levitation of bright dust, of thin, lacy leaves. There isn't one place in this world that doesn't drown sooner or later in those indigoes of darkness, but now, for a while, the roughage shines like a miracle as it floats about everything with its yellow hair.
Of course, nothing stops the cold, black curved blade from hooking forward. Of course, loss is the great lesson.
But I also say this: that light is an invitation to happiness, and that happiness, when it's done right, is a kind of holiness, palpable and redemptive,
Inside the bright fields, touched by their rough and spongy gold, I am washed and washed in the river of earthly delight—and what are you going to do,—what can you do about it, deep, blue night?
The third and last reading, from the Dao De Jing, traditionally attributed to a man name Laozi, but probably written by several poets and later edited around the same time as the Torah was undergoing its final revisions about 500 BCE. This is part of number 25.
Before there was the sky and the earth,
there was a Whole not split into sky and earth.
So still! So silent!
unchanging yet tirelessly in motion,
you could think of it as the mother of all things.
I don't know its Name.
If pressed, I would call it simply, "The Way It Is."
And if pressed further to describe it,
I might stammer, "It's wonderful."
By calling it wonderful, I suppose I am saying
it is going somewhere.
And if it is going somewhere, it will go far and away.
And if it goes far and away, it will come back home again.
Welcoming the New Ministers
By Ms. Tamara Payne-Alex, Ministerial Fellowship Committee
It is my honor and pleasure to welcome our ministers into Preliminary Fellowship and Final Fellowship with the Unitarian Universalist Association. On behalf of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC) I wish to recognize and celebrate your work, your commitment, your growth, and your achievement.
As a lay member of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee I await with great expectation and confidence your contributions to our movement and to the lives and spirits of individuals both within our Association and in the larger community. I have this confidence in your ministries because I and the other members of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee have seen that promise shimmer and dance in the recommendations from your Unitarian Universalist (UU) colleagues, the testimonies of those your have already served, and in your written reflections as you struggle and grow in your call to ministry. It has lit the room and our spirits during your candidate interviews.
Many folks have offered condolences to me during my five years on the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, saying that they do not envy our work. It is true that the meetings take me away from my family for five days four times a year and that there are moments of aching sadness following a disappointing review of a candidateís progress. But I also get to experience the sting of unshed tears as I read a candidate's essay which moves and touches me. I cherish the flutter of excitement I get as I read of the skill and depth already demonstrated by a new minister serving a parish, community, or agency. Or the resounding "yes!" I feel as a student finally names that which has been stifling and weighing down their spirit and their ministry.
"And how do you know a minister when you see one?" people ask. "How can you be confident in your discernment?"
My confidence lies in the fact that I do not discern alone. My perceptions and observations are joined by the astounding depth of knowledge, skill, experience and insight of my fellow MFC members. And there are other entities which elbow in to share my seat in a candidate interview and huddle close to read over my shoulder as I review packets and renewals. These are the spirit presences of the Unitarian-Universalist ministers who have served me over my lifetime, and, as a birthright UU, there have been many. I know a minister when I see one because my life has been touched in many and profound ways by my Unitarian-Universalist ministers.
A Unitarian-Universalist minister married my parents, a Black man and a White woman, at a time when it was illegal in many states for them to be in the same company. Another UU minister provided a familiar, comforting place of worship and companionship in the midst of a strange city for my mother, a young wife with two small children and a husband who had been sent to Vietnam, for the second time. There was the minister who beamed encouragingly at me as I stood in his pulpit at age twelve to deliver my first sermon, ever so carefully printed out on three by five cards. There were the UU ministers at Commonground, at District Youth Conferences and at Star Island. The minister who took my sister and me roller skating. And the Unitarian-Universalist minister who stood next to my father as he lay in a coma, stroking his hand and describing in perfect detail what I was wearing so he might see me against the landscape of wherever he was during those long scary weeks.
And there are dozens of others. Some of these ministers I can see sitting among you. Others are no longer with us. All of their spirits and works are blended into a multi-faceted presence which never leaves me and is powerfully felt in my work on the Ministerial Fellowship Committee. It is through them I know ministry. It is through them I know the power of what you are yet to do, must do, and will do.
You join them now.
Go forward with purpose, with faith, with love. Learn from each other and from those who have shaped and breathed life and light into our ministry and our tradition. Carry with gentle and work-calloused hands your shimmering, dancing flame out into our congregations, our communities of need, and the world.
"Other Pulpits, Other Ministries"
By Rev. Mark Belletini
I first attended one of these services twenty-two years ago. That may or may not seem like a long time to you, but to me it feels like a couple of heartbeats. And look at all that has happened in the span of those heartbeats!
Take our professional ministry, for example. A quarter century ago there was only a handful of ordained women serving among us; today over fifty percent of the ministers serving us are women. And twenty-two years ago, a gay man like me was often seen as some sort of radical pioneer in our ministry. Now I'm just an ordinary preacher and pastor like everyone else.
Our worship life has changed a lot, too, in the span of those heartbeats. You see a lot more clergy robes now than you used to, and a few more candles. And, as some of you may know, back in the seventies only few of our congregations began their regular services by kindling a chalice. Now, it's s the single most common ritual you will find in any of our congregations, whether in Canada, the United States, Mexico, or Europe.
We've also had to a match our religious education materials to our turn-of-the-century world. We are saying goodbye to our much-praised former curriculum on sexuality, and embracing a new and equally frank curriculum called Our Whole Lives. Taking a broader approach, the new material will help, not just our youth, but all of us, grappled soundly with both the timeless issues and newer realities like AIDS.
And finally, this Service of the Living Tradition itself has seen a few changes in twenty-two years.
For example, in 1977 we did not need to spruce up a Plenary Hall to worship together; we were so compact back then that all of us fit easily into Cornell University chapel.
And, there were no smatterings of applause as the young ministers like Jane Rzepka, Diane Miller, Frederica Lepore and Wayne Arnason were called up to receive their Certificates of Preliminary Fellowship. Service decorum was different in those days. And the robes you did see back then were mostly unadorned black.
Yet, despite this list of changes, the present service still beautifully echoes the very first one I attended. Then as now, we sang, "Rank by Rank Again We Stand," thrilling to the sheer power in our gathered voices.
And we rose then, just as we will rise later in the Service, to honor our dead. In 1977 I didn't know a single name on that list, but as the years have gone by, I've come to count more and more colleagues as indispensable friends. Thus, today, as you might imagine, the Roll Call has become the very center of the Service for me.
But I know for many that the sermon is important too. I know I always look forward to it. That particular June in 1977 in Ithaca, the Reverend Joyce Smith improvised her two-part sermon on the mighty sixth chapter of Isaiah. One of her most moving lines offered the startling image of "a red rose" she had "crushed" in her hand.
I can't do justice to that image here. But I do remember that later Leon Hopper and I agreed that something both luminous and heartrending had crossed the threshold of our hearts at the very moment when Joyce reached out and closed her hand over that imagined rose.
And now, somehow, here I am, standing in the pulpit Joyce blessed. I am preaching. And though this service obviously differs from the format I usually use on Sunday, I have to admit that the sermon itself feels pretty much like any of the other nine hundred sermons I've preached during my ministry.
Aye, and there's the rub. For despite the major changes I've seen these last two decades, in ministry, in worship and in curriculum, the real difference for me personally between 1977 and 1999 is this: back then, I used to sit in front of the pulpit. These days, I usually find myself standing in them.
This does not mean, however, that I've had to live without benefit of very fine sermons these last two decades.
For there are, after all, other pulpits, and other ministries.
I first opened to this revelation during my brief ministry in San Francisco.
Let me tell you about Norma's pulpit and sermon, for example. I was a newly ordained, twenty-eight-year-old minister; she was a laywoman in her fifties confined to the cancer ward in a local hospital. I went to visit her. Not long after I walked into the dimly lit room, she sensed my great discomfort and nervousness. So she preached to me this remarkable sermon: "Mark, I think it must be difficult for a young man like you to know what to say to a person my age who is dying. Maybe you are feeling helpless. Maybe you are telling yourself there is nothing you can do. But there is something you can do. I would like you to ask me some questions. Here they are...."
Norma recited a list of three questions. I asked her the questions, and then we discussed them at some length. When I left her room I wept for the gift she gave me that day. I assure you that a hospital bed can make a very fine pulpit indeed.
I also remember a sermon Priscilla preached to me once. Early one Sunday morning, she stopped me in the hall, speaking urgently with an indeterminate Slavic accent. Since I was just about to enter my office to finish my own sermon on the Czech roots of our faith, I was none too happy that she cornered me so well. Knowing my sermon topic, she told me she wanted to show me her beautiful antique book on Jan Hus, the greatest of Czech reformers. Then, setting the book aside, she started to pour out the story of her life. She described the day the Nazis came to town. "There are the Jews!" the townsfolk said, pointing to her house; and so the Nazis shot her parents before her eyes. She elaborated the terrors of surviving in a concentration camp so long. She spoke of her losses, and her life-distorting grief and rage.
But most of all, I remember her remarkable testimony about the Hussite freedom-symbol which we now call "the flaming chalice." You must know that the Czech version of our symbol has a motto underneath it, "Pravda vitezi," which translates, "Truth overcomes," or "Truth prevails." Every single morning in that terrible camp, Priscilla told me, she traced a picture of a flaming chalice in the sand with her finger. Then she wrote the motto underneath it. "It gave me the strength to live each day," she said to me. "Whenever I drew the chalice in the dirt I knew in my heart that the assertions of Nazism would one day be overcome by the greater Truth that no human being may claim power over any other human being."
Priscilla's hallway sermon completely transformed my view of our worship. For me, the kindled chalice is no sweet little ritual, but a perfect invitation to live out my life in daily response to our demanding and powerful heritage. I will never be able to thank Priscilla enough for the sermon she gave me as a gift that day.
But most of all, I remember Margaret's great sermon.
Margaret was nothing less than a Unitarian Universalist powerhouse. She served our movement well: as Moderator of the Board of the San Francisco church, as a leader in the Pacific Central District, as a board member of Starr King School for the Ministry, and finally, as the Vice-Moderator of the Board of our Unitarian Universalist Association. She even shared Denny Davidoff's privilege once, chairing this Assembly when it met in Minneapolis.
Margaret's personal life, however, was as tough as her church life was glorious. She knew the worst loss a parent can know. Her first born, a terrific expressionist painter, was killed in a car accident. Her second child took her own life. Her third child, a personable young man with the looks of movie star, was arrested and tried for several terrible murders, luridly detailed in the press. Found guilty, he was incarcerated at Atascadero prison. Their fourth child grew up painfully in a decimated family, understandably broken by grief, rage, and horror.
By the time I met her, Margaret had become something of what you might call "a character." I used to say that she had lost so much in her life she didn't seem to care if she lost much else. She would often scare people with her blunt or reckless comments. Though she rarely attended Sunday services any more, her word of approval or disapproval behind the scenes still counted plenty. At first I have to admit that Margaret scared me too. But I finally grew to respect and even love Margaret very much.
On Memorial Day in 1979, Margaret called me up and said, "Can I take you for lunch at the Altamira today?" I sensed some urgency in her voice, so I went with her.
Just after we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, Margaret suddenly said, "Turn off here." I did. We snaked up a winding road draping the edge of a green hill, until we arrived at a well-hidden cemetery. Then Margaret said softly, "Stop here." Without waiting for me, she climbed out of my VW Bug and clambered up the grassy slope. There, two gravestones glowed within a burst of orange California poppies. Cut into those stones, and spotlit by the noon sun: her children's names.
With a single movement she dropped to the grass, lay prone, and began to sob with all her might. I climbed up the hill and stood next to her, but did nothing else.
After what seemed like hours to me, but which was only about 15 minutes, Margaret slowly got up, then pierced me with her wet and red eyes. "You did very well, young man, refusing to console me. You know you can't really do that, and to your credit you did not try. But I thought it might be important for you know that this is what happens after your parishioners leave the church the lovely funerals you do ... and that this can go on for a long line. Time doesn't heal as fast as they say it does." Then she started down the hill, saying, "Thank you for being kind enough to stand by me in silent witness. Now let's go to lunch."
Well, we indeed lunched at the Altamira. We talked and even laughed. But I confess I don't remember what we said or what we ate. I was still anchored back in her tears.
I knew then that those tears were points made in a truly great sermon I also knew that, contrary to her assessment, my silence back there at the cemetery revealed no great pastoral wisdom on my part, a but only simple garden-variety stupefaction. And yes, I also concluded that her sermon was probably not over yet.
Sure enough, three months later, Margaret called me up and asked, "You free for lunch today?" Of course I was. This time we crossed the Bay Bridge to the East Bay, past looming Mount Diablo. Margaret did not discuss her lunch plans for us. She just chatted about this and that, saying from time to time with a wave of her hand "Keep going, keep going."
Suddenly we caught sight of the John Muir House, a National Landmark I had passed any number of times without stopping. I vaguely remembered that the renowned naturalist, who was a friend of our own Ralph Waldo Emerson, had lived in the Bay Area much of his long life.
"Ever stop to visit John Muir's house?" Margaret asked.
"No," I said, "strangely, in all these years in California I never have."
"Well, let's go then," she said, way too cheerfully.
As we walked toward the entrance, I swear Margaret's face grew younger before my eyes. Her eyes brightened, her gait grew sure, the lines in her face vanished. She paid the admission, and we entered. Then she grabbed my hand, practically dragging me like I was her kid brother, and said with intemperate glee, "Let me show you my room!"
She pointed to a small bed set in a bright yellow closed-in porch and said, "This was my bed. See, here's where I carved my initials when I was a little girl." She looked up at my stunned eyes and explained, "My father was John Muir's ranch foreman, young man. I grew up here. This is my home."
I have to admit this took me by complete surprise.
After a while, we went out to the gardens. There, a surprisingly tall Mission fig tree loomed over all the orange poppies, over all the vines, mint, and rosemary spreading to the powder-blue hills. Margaret suddenly bolted from me, and literally skipped to the base of that tree. There, to my complete befuddlement, she hoisted herself into the lowest branches in that tree and straddled them, rocking back and forth like a little kid.
When I caught up to her, she stared off at the glowing hills, and spoke wistfully, "This where I used to sit and daydream when I was a ten-year-old girl, Mark. I used to look out over the gardens to the mountains over there, wondering what my future live would be like. I used to come here in the afternoon on days just like this, when the sun turns everything to gold, and the whole world is wide and alive. Here in this tree I tried to picture what my husband would look like. I tried to guess what names I would give my children. As you well know, Mark, my life did not turn out like I imagined back then. But I want you to know that there is deep thanksgiving in my heart as well as all the ache. There is blessing as well as curse. It's all mixed up together, the great loss and the great love, the misery and the joy. The world is tough, Mark," she concluded, "and I certainly don't think that there is some doting God anywhere looking out for me, but nevertheless you know this world of ours, it's wonderful."
She paused, then added quietly, "I owed you this, young man. Thanks for coming here with me, and helping me remember how full of wonder it all is."
I thought then that she was ending her sermon by echoing the Dao De Jing's great line, "And if pressed further to describe the Way It Is, I might stammer, "It's wonderful!" It seemed like an excellent conclusion to me.
But I was wrong. The sermon was not over yet.
Once a woman came to my office, saying she wanted to talk with me about her "problems with God and religion." She was feeling angry, she said, about all the ancient scripture her childhood church forced her to memorize. She told me that Psalm 139 especially infuriated her.
"Where can I go to escape you?
Shall I climb into the sky? You are there before me.
Shall I burrow into the earth which will one day claim me?
No, you are already there."
"What terrible intimacy!" she said of the psalm. "God has never been there for me like that. "
"Does intimacy really seem terrible to you?" I asked.
With that, she suddenly stopped talking about religion and told me instead how lonely she felt most of the time. "I don't deserve this terrible loneliness," she said to me. "Where is love in my life? Where can I find it?"
But as she started to speak more directly about her life, she realized that her anger with "God" was not the real issue.
It suddenly dawned on her that the reason she was feeling upset was not so much theological or philosophical as personal. She was deeply frustrated with her present life and wanted to place the blame elsewhere. "I'm sorry, Mark" she said to me, "I guess I'm not really here to talk with you about God and religion like I first said. I seem to be talking about my life." "There's no reason to be sorry," I said. "I usually think that a whole lot of what we call theology is often a kind of autobiography, a disguised way of talking about our own deepest life, our fears, our sadness, and even our burdensome joys. This is a most religious conversation as far as I am concerned. Especially since you told me that you don't see your loneliness as a permanent or desirable state. Your lack of satisfaction with your present life can be a very real way of saying 'Alleluia!' as far as I am concerned."
A few months later this woman told me that she had stopped fighting with her childhood God. She no longer expected intimacy ... divine or human ... to arrive as a reward or a right, or, something to be taken away as punishment. She no longer claimed "to believe" or "to not believe," or even to be some sort of agnostic. She dropped the futile calculations of "I deserve love" or "No one should ever be lonely." She just tried to pay close attention to what was really going on in her heart, in her mind, and in her life, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. She let great religious riddles remain riddles. She let religious mysteries remain mysteries. She stopped blaming God for everything. And a few years later, her heart opened to a remarkable relationship that brought her some very real happiness.
Margaret had a similar theology, I think. Originally, in her fig tree, she thought that "Life" owed her something, some ideal family situation with love and perpetual coziness. But then she lost just about everything like a modern day Job. So she stopped imagining that Someone Somewhere owed her anything, or would one day deal out fate with more fairness. And, like the woman who came to talk with me about religion, Margaret mostly gave up words like "belief," and "deserve," and got on with living what I would call a deeply religious life, with plenty of Alleluias despite it all. Indeed, she used these very Alleluias to conclude her sermon to me.
You see, Margaret used to order whole cases of California poppy seeds from the catalogues. Then she used to pile them into her car on weekends and scatter the seeds along the sides of every California road. On the way to visit her son in prison, she scattered seeds. On the way to visit the grave of her children, she scattered seeds. On the way to visit her childhood home, she scattered seeds. On the way to a meeting at church, she scattered seeds.
Why? Because though I think Margaret knew in her bones Mary Oliver's unvarnished truth, "Of course, loss is the great lesson," she also saw in the light of poppies precisely what the poet saw in them: "an invitation to happiness, a kind of holiness palpable and redemptive."
Realizing this, Margaret chose to up the ante on happiness and holiness. She chose to scatter the bright orange light of poppies in every nook and cranny of her beloved state, a pure unstinted redemption, fields of Alleluias despite it all.
I want to use those poppies, those insistent Alleluias, to close my own sermon this morning.
You see, I started out by noting all the changes in the last 22 years. But now I find myself wondering at century's end what changes we will see in the next twenty-two to twenty-five years. A quarter century from now, will we still be going around and around about which theology is better … a biblical psalm or a secular world scourd of God? Will we still be debating the meanings of spirituality and skepticism as if it's really not our own lives we are talking about? What would happen if we took Margaret's sermon to heart instead? What would happen if we told our own stories to each other instead of snapping, "How can you still believe that?" to each other?
What would happen, I wonder, if together...no matter our "belief or unbelief'...we knelt on the common ground we all share—the very sifted "ashes to ashes, and dust to dust" of Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, Mary Wollstonecraft, Arius and Origen of Alexandria, Pellagius of Ireland, Hosea and Adin Ballou, Susan B. Anthony, Sophia Fahs, John Dietrich, Julia Ward Howe, Abigail Adams, David Ferenc, Fausto Sozzini, John Niemojewski, Norbert Capek, the Iowa Sisterhood, Beatrix Potter, Olympia Brown, the Channings, Maria Mitchell, The Free Spirit gatherings, the radical and Spiritual Anabaptists, Theophilus Lindsey, Ken Patton, John Scott Erigena, Clarence Skinner, Joseph Priestley, Joseph Tuckerman, Whitney Young, James Reeb, Mark DeWolfe, and yes, Isaiah, Jesus, Siddartha Gotama, Mirabai, and Rumi? What if we then dug trenches in that common ground wide enough to receive our own scattered seeds?
And what if, while we knelt there cultivating our common ground, we told each other our stories truthfully? What if we could disclose to each other something of our love, our loneliness, our fear, and our losses? What if we then sowed into that cultivated earth the very seeds of hope we store in our own lives? What if we watered those seeds with the rain of our real tears, warmed them with the sun of our real laughter? What Alleluias might rise up under our feet then? What revelations might cover the earth like Margaret's poppies to restore its stolen beauty? What if we claimed our own personal stories as part of a larger Story, he unfinished Story of our Living Tradition? What if we made our own place in our mighty heritage, testifying with our lives that despite the losses and setbacks, life is a wonderful gift worthy of our fullest participation? What might happen then?
I'm glad Margaret chose to end her sermon with poppies. And, you know, even though Margaret has died, I'm not sure her sermon is really over. Neither, for that matter is Joyce's sermon, or Norma's, or Priscilla's.
I, for one, am grateful our Living Tradition has always insisted, that "Revelation is not sealed." And if we remain open to those revelations, those Alleluias, those blossoms risen from seeds we have sown, is it possible we might each experience something "redemptive and palpable," as the poet suggests?
If we do, I for one really don't care what any of us call it, holiness or God, or human relationships, or emptiness, or Spirit or even as the Dao De Jing puts it, the "Way it Is." But I do care enough to agree and exclaim with the poet that we are each and all:
"Washed and washed in the river of earthly delight, and what are you going to do, what can you do about it in the deep, blue night?"
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Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.
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