Ministry: For Such a Time as This
Gordon B. McKeeman
Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly
Charlotte, North Carolina
June 24, 1993
If we who have chosen the critical,
purifying way in religion have neglected
some essential, it has been our propen-
sity to diminish and trivialize our
religious practices and thus to diminish
our effectiveness as liberators.
I have been, by turns, humbled, grateful, and terrified by the invitation to be the Berry Street Essayist. I have read a few of the Essays written by those who have preceded me in this role. I remember very small snatches of others that I was privileged to hear in person.
It’s a very free pulpit—say what you have on your mind or in your heart to say to your colleagues. That, in itself, is an invitation to embark on a wide-ranging journey of introspection is daunting enough. But at the end of the ride, there’s a report to be rendered—in person if possible—to one’s colleagues. And lately the time allotted for the presentation falls at the end of the day—as the shadows begin to lengthen—the day itself manifoldly enriched by the opportunity to share with and learn from each of those upon whom has been conferred the title—Expert. This has felicitous aspects. I am not fully responsible for redeeming this day. That has already been done—at least for the clergy. The title that I believe I am entitled to claim as I stand/sit before you is—survivor. There are quite a few of us, and it’s a title of credit, if not of distinction. It does bespeak perseverance, sometimes raw courage, sometimes a mastery of the art of this strategic retreat. "He/she who turns and runs away lives to fight another day.” Sometimes just dumb luck.
I do not think of myself as a towering intellect, nor a creative innovator. I am more a hunter/gatherer, a gleaner, a collector of what strikes me as useful in ministry. I discovered this as I began a perusal of sermons I have preached on occasions such as ordinations, installations, and celebrations of ministry and some few things—First Days Record pieces and Starr King catalog text—that I have written about ministry. For it is about the ministry that I wish to speak. Ministry for such a time as this.
These artifacts constitute bits of evidence about my life’s journey—that I went into the ministry with only the foggiest notion of what it was about—and have been striving to discover what the ministry is for me. In my files are some tracks of my journey and this essay retraces those steps as far as they go. And I offer them more than anything else, as an invitation to you, my ministerial colleagues both lay and clerical, to visit again the wellsprings of your ministries.
WHERE MY JOURNEY BEGAN
Some of my earliest recollections are connected to the church. My mother was a member of the Central Congregational Church of Lynn, Massachusetts. Some of what I assumed to be ministerial functions are remnants of those early years. The minister of that church, Garfield Morgan, I remember as a spellbinding orator with a deep, resonant voice that I have heard referred to as a stained glass voice. No doubt in my mind, preaching was a task of ministry. I think I have always envied those who come to the task with deep, resonant voices. Try as I might, however, deep and resonant have proven to be beyond reach. Garfield Morgan was also bald. My efforts in that direction have been somewhat more successful and are proceeding apace. Garfield Morgan was also the Chairman of the Lynn School Committee. That, too, has stuck. It establishes, for me, the sense that religion and the common weal are connected, and that religious values need to be incarnated in the practices and processes of a community—every community. I don’t recall ever hearing anyone say that it was not appropriate for him to be on the School Committee. But those little fragments of intuition about the ministry aren’t very much. Garfield Morgan had been a coal miner in his native Wales. He was no Caspar Milquetoast. Indeed he was a real he-man.
When, at age 13, I decided that I wanted to go to the Universalist Church, my mother simply said, "That’s fine. Just tell Mr. Morgan that you’re leaving.” It wasn’t easy, and I’m sure it was not very well reasoned or articulate, but Mr. Morgan seemed to understand what I found so hard to say and said, simply, "Good luck. I hope you find what you’re looking for.” That magnanimity and concern, I also took along as I left. I believe they are with me still.
Gradually, encouraged by Alice Harrison and William Wallace Rose in the First Universalist Church of Lynn, it began to dawn on me that perhaps the ministry—whatever that was—would be a good career choice. This in an era when one career per lifetime was the rule—"What are you going to be when you grow up?” was the customary phrasing. While I thought about it from time to time, there emerged no clear image of what the ministry was—what ministers did—or were trying to do. My father was not averse to my becoming a minister, but did think that age 16, or even 17, was a bit early to be making so momentous a decision. So he arranged my admission to Salem State Teachers College in the Special Education course. The tuition—$25.00 a year—was a very considerable sum for our family. How we managed to raise it, I know not. But Special Education Teachers were in demand and what they did seemed clear and straightforward—to educate the mentally retarded—now, I presume, the "intellectually challenged.” But the idea of ministry, amorphous as it was, persisted. I graduated from Salem State Teachers in 1942, about seven months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. I thought I was a pacifist (I still do). So I made application for admission to Tufts College, School of Religion, and was accepted. Surely here I would find out what the ministry was about.
Let it be said that Tufts’ nomenclature made no extravagant claims that it taught people to be ministers or about what it tried to teach. It was Tufts College School of Religion, also known as Crane Theological School. It was as if its name was credible to teach me (and others) about Religion, and/or Theology. There was a prescribed course of studies, including History of Religions, Comparative Religions, Religious Education, Biblical Literature, Homiletics, Philosophy of Religion, History of the Christian Church, Social Ethics, Parish Management, etc.—the standard theological education bill of fare. It never promised to teach me (or anyone) what the ministry was. Perhaps it assumed I already knew or that I would figure it out. I was told in the Parish Management course that the minister should expect to make 600 "parish calls” a year. In all the years my mother was an active member of the Congregational Church, I couldn’t recall our ever being "called upon” by any minister. I was encouraged by Dean Skinner of Tufts to get "some kind of church job.” I became the Director of the Church School at the First Parish Church in Canton, Massachusetts (Unitarian). But that did little clarify the question that was recurrent if unspoken—what is a minister supposed to be doing?
A bit later on, not much clearer about ministry, I was the student minister of the Universalist Church in South Acton, Massachusetts. The Universalist and Congregational churches met together to conserve fuel (a wartime measure). So the minister of the Congregational Church and I preached—he one Sunday, I the next. I also was Scoutmaster of the local Boy Scout Troop. One day the question about ministry got posed in a very insistent way. The church treasurer requested that I conduct a funeral for a cousin of hers. Somehow I knew I couldn’t refuse. But what is a minister supposed to do? I knew not! No only had I not ever conducted a funeral, I had never been to a funeral. So, with an urgency amounting to panic, I went from one faculty member to another, from one student to another, trying to find out in the most elementary terms what I was to do. It might have been simpler had I the least inkling of what the minister is trying to do—in a sermon, in a parish call, in a church newsletter, yes, even in a funeral. I look back on that day with much amusement now; somehow it helped a little. In moments of human crises, the minister is the event’s interpreter.
Well, I didn’t know where I was going, but I was making good time. I candidated for and was called to All Souls Universalist Church in Worcester, Massachusetts ($1500 a year and parsonage, utilities to be paid by the minister). This, we decided, was enough to make our marriage possible. Besides, when I got ordained there would be another $100 of annual salary.
But that underlying question was there still. Since my theological education had consisted of learning about religion—and since, contrary to the beliefs of some, there’s much to know about religion—I tried teaching adults some of what I had been taught at Tufts. A small, intensely loyal and vastly tolerant group of parishioners allowed itself to be subjected to the excursion, for a short time. Yet I felt that there was more to ministry than teaching people about religion. What that more was, I still needed desperately to discover. How, I knew not. During these very early days the ministry was almost hell, even for a Universalist! Sunday afternoons I spent reading the want ads in the newspaper, hoping to find some job for which I had the qualifications and the stomach and perhaps a clearer idea of what it was. None appeared. I was stuck with being a minister, my lifetime career choice.
The Humiliati came into existence about this time—a small group of minister who were at Tufts together who were willing to dig deeply into the question to which I so urgently needed the answer. That group provided support and encouragement and some revelations of importance, particularly about the nature and practice of worship and about commitment as well as a firmer theological base for ministry for me. While I was still far from the answer to my nagging question, the possibility that an answer might be found kept me going. Maybe Dewey was right that one learns by doing.
I had now been in the ministry for nearly ten years, every seventh day a Sunday, every day the haunting vision of making parish calls—600 a year (for me six a month was extraordinary)—and with only a few fragments of inspiration about the ministry.
Just recently I discovered words that Dag Hammarskjöld wrote in his Journal in 1952: "What I ask for is absurd: that life shall have a meaning. What I strive for is impossible: that my life shall acquire a meaning.”
1956—"These notes? They were signposts you began to set up after you reached a point where you needed them, a fixed point that was on no account to be lost sight of.”
1961—"But at some moment I did answer Yes to someone—or something—and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.”
Twyla Tharp, in commenting on the function of the dancer as artist in a recent PBS program on dancing, remarked, "Our responsibility is to do the best we can for the next generation.”
The first ordination sermon I preached was at the ordination of Scotty Meek in the Universalist Church in Stafford, Connecticut. I chose a text from the Book of Esther, a portion of the message Mordecai sent to Queen Esther begging her to intercede with King Ahasuerus on behalf of her people, the Jews: "Who knows, Esther, but that thou art come to the Kingdom for just such a time as this.” Here is one of my earlier notions about the ministry—that there are some timeless (not to say eternal) elements that come to intersection with moments in time—echoes that were being heard more clearly. And it is the business of ministry to bear witness to the timeless as its intersection with particular moments of time and to summon others to awareness of them. We live continuously in the flow of such moments. A sunrise, a cup of hot coffee, a glass of orange juice, a deep breath, a single unaided step seen as fragments of an enormous whole. But each day’s newspapers chronicle the dangerous, dire, disastrous consequences of trying to divide the indivisible, to seek the dominance of one special interest over others. The dreary litany is chanted incessantly, and with truly awful results. Who knows, Unitarian Universalists, that that thou art come to the kingdom for just such a time as this—to speak for the whole, the wholesome, the timeless holy. The minister is the voice, the mind, the body of the holy, ordained to be a voice of the inclusive, the comprehensive, the whole creation of God. And to summon God’s folk to that errand—that holy journey, that journey to holiness.
Another sermon that added a dimension to my understanding of ministry was about Jonah. It’s about the internal/infernal resistance/reluctance of the prophet, about the fear of failure and the fear of success, and the power not ourselves that makes for righteousness. It’s about, to use Abraham Maslow’s term, "the repression of the sublime.” "The word of the Lord came to Jonah, ‘Go to Ninevah and prophesy.’”
Abraham Maslow is cited as writing some observations on "The Jonah Complex.” "We fear our highest possibilities (as well as our lowest ones). We are generally afraid to become that which we can glimpse in our most perfect moments, under the most perfect conditions, under conditions of greatest moment/courage. We enjoy and even thrill to the god-like possibilities we see in ourselves in such peak moments. And yet we simultaneously shiver with weakness, awe and fear before these same possibilities.”
Maslow again: "Let me talk about one defense mechanism that is not mentioned in the psychology textbooks, though it is a very important defense mechanism to certain bitter and yet idealistic youngsters of today. It is the defense mechanism of desacralizing. These youngsters mistrust the possibility of values and virtues. They feel themselves swindled and thwarted in their lives…. They have heard their fathers talk about being honest or brave or bold, and they have seen their fathers being the opposite of all these things.
"The youngsters have learned to reduce the person to the concrete object and to refuse to see what he might be or to refuse to see him in his symbolic values or to refuse to see him or her eternally. Our kids have desacralized sex, for example. Sex is nothing; it is a natural thing, and they have made it so natural that it has lost its poetic qualities in many instances, which means that it has lost practically everything. Self-actualization means giving up this defense mechanism and learning or being taught to resacralize.
"Resacralizing means being willing, once again, to see a person ‘under the aspect of eternity,’ as Spinoza says, or to see him in the medieval Christian unitive perception, that is, being able to see the sacred, the eternal, the symbolic. It is to see Woman with a capital ‘W’ and everything which that implies, even when one looks at a particular woman. Another example: One goes to medical school and dissects a brain. Certainly something is lost if the medical student isn’t awed but, without the unitive perception, sees the brain only as one concrete thing. Open to resacralization, one sees a brain as a sacred object also, sees its symbolic value, sees it as a figure of speech, sees it in its poetic aspects.”
The ministry’s task—the minister’s task is to invite people to the process of resacralizing their lives. It’s an aspect, a dimension of recovering wholeness, the holy, the sacred, of overcoming the fragmentation, separation and alienation which have given warrant to so much abuse, violence, degradation. The name of that wholeness for me was Universalism.
In it we often find ourselves at odds with some aspects of our own history. What we call our heritage is the part of our heritage that we are proud to own. Jonah found no joy in being commanded to go to Ninevah. He really hoped the Ninevites would be destroyed. Being a herald of salvation to the Ninevites was not what his ministry was supposed to be. God had a different idea. While we feel often significant discomfort in associating ourselves with the whole realm of religion, we do embrace what our colleague Duncan Howlett identified as "The Critical Way in Religion,” the cleansing, purifying, reforming of the religious stream. We identify with those who in every age have sought to remove from religion the primitive, the parochial, the magical and arbitrary elements—preserving at the same time the kernel of truth, winnowing it from the accidental, the incidental, the fanciful.
Examples of this are legion:
The prophetic movement in Judaism. Hear the words of Amos: "I hate/I despise your feast days, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies, but let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.”
The Reformation—a struggle to identify the ultimate source of authority in religion, in which Unitarian/Universalism occupied the left wing of the radical reformation, embracing the notion of individual authority as supreme and not by any to be coerced or compelled.
Puritanism—the purification of the worship of the church, the removal of any symbolism, rite, or ritual that would interpose itself between an individual and the divine presence.
The Rise of Science as the dominant method of establishing truth. We embraced it with enthusiasm, reveled in its technological triumphs—and in any conflict with other routes of arriving at truth, decided not to proceed one step further than scientific facts allow.
This trend has been proceeding long enough that some of its untoward results are becoming apparent.
Manfred Stanley, in a book entitled Beyond Progress, writes: "It is by now a Sunday Supplement truism that the modernization of the world is accompanied by a spiritual malaise that has come to be called alienation.
"At its most fundamental level, the diagnosis of alienation is based on the view that modernization forces upon us a world that, although baptized as real by science, is denuded of all humanly recognizable qualities; beauty and ugliness, love and hate, passion and fulfillment, salvation and damnation. It is not, of course, being claimed that such matters are not part of the existential realities of human life. It is rather that the scientific world view makes it illegitimate to speak of them as being ‘objectively’ part of the world, forcing us instead to define such evaluation and such emotional experience as ‘merely subjective’ projections of people’s inner lives.
"The world, once an ‘enchanted garden,’ to use Max Weber’s memorable phrase, has now become disenchanted, deprived of purpose and direction, bereft—in these senses of life itself. All that which is allegedly basic to the specifically human status in nature, comes to be forced back upon the precincts of the ‘subjective’ which, in turn, is pushed by the modern scientific view ever more into the province of dreams and illusions.”
Consequences have been many. One of them has been the rise of a religion that makes sense, but has ignored/denied the existence of the realm of non-sense, the yin to sense’s yang. One of the disturbing results has been an almost unconscious reductionism (perhaps deconstructionism would not be too strong a term) which has bidden fair to make our religion so sensible that its non-sense dimension has been diminished almost to nonexistence. By non-sense I mean what Jerome Brunner pointed to in an address to the Association for Experimental Psychology, 1979, when he declared, "Concepts in psychology are non-sense. But the best of them are liberating nonsense. And God greets in heaven those who propose liberating nonsense.” The remark might as well, or perhaps even more appropriately, be spoken of the ministry—to propose liberating non-sense. The sacrality of the human person is precisely that—liberating nonsense. It enables the Yes that is heard amid all the erosions, derogations and debasements of human beings. The sacrality of life itself—human, subhuman, superhuman—is that as well. Or as my favorite pin says, "Why let reality wreck your day?” What the ministry offers—day in, day out in both the most mundane and the most extraordinary circumstance, at the intersection of the timeless with time—is the chance to offer a liberating nonsense to whosoever may come. None can pretend that such a task is less than daunting. T. S. Eliot remarked, "To apprehend the point of intersection of the timeless with time is an occupation for a saint….” Or, at least, of one who understands the ministry to be the agent, herald, message-bearer of the sacred, the wholesome, the inclusive, the comprehensive, the unitive, the universal.
If we who have chosen the critical, purifying way in religion have neglected some essential, it has been our propensity to diminish and trivialize our religious practices and thus to diminish our effectiveness as liberators, as resacralizers, agents of wholeness, or "the repair of the world.” The history of the world bears testimony to the most exalted efforts to bespeak the grandeur, mystery, and wonder of the world. Wherever one looks in the realms of creative endeavor, one finds the greatest architecture, music, art, sculpture, drama, ritual placed in the service of non-sense, the exalted realm of the ideal, the possible. How is it that our worship is so often uninspired, so mundane, so routinized and diminished, so devoid of a sense of central importance. It is little to be wondered that we so seldom feel refreshed, inspired or energized by it. In part, it lacks the non-sense, the emotive dimension that touches the heart, the passions, the feelings. Is it not religious bulimia to starve in the midst of the plentiful resources available?
As one takes up the task of beckoning oneself and others to respond with a ringing, rousing Yes to Life’s invitation, it becomes more and more apparent that to do so effectively requires attention to one’s own soul. Some of my ordination sermons have focused on this part of ministry—the fundamental necessity of loving the world. As Robert Frost put it in his poem, "The Lesson for Today”
I hold your doctrine of Memento Mori
And were an epitaph to be my story
I’d have a short one ready for my own,
I would have written of me on my stone:
I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.
"A lover’s quarrel” has this particular character. We are lovers, we say Yes to each other. Yes to life—to more and more of life—to its brevity, its grief, its disappointments. To its possibilities, its magnificence, its glory. We quarrel—because we glimpse further possibilities, the non-sense—and wish to lay claim to it. We remember death, and that life is brief, and that the time for love is now and more is possible. One more step toward the holy. It is to know the peace that passes understanding and that there is no peace. It is to love others as they are, warts and all, and to believe that more is possible, and to bespeak that wanting. It is to pray "Give us this day our daily bread….” and to know that we do not live by bread alone. It is to remember death, and to love life and to accept them both as holy.
More and more, then, the embracing of ministry is work for an artist—one who is alert to "apprehending the points of intersection of the timeless with time.” Tennessee Williams used a different metaphor when he said "to snatch the eternal from the desperately fleeting is the great magic trick of human existence.” Beside beds of pain, at altars where undying commitment to love and cherish are spoken, at bars of judgment where guilt and sentences are pronounced, when the doctor says "inoperable” or "terminal,” where equity and fairness are awash in the rhetoric of bigotry and blindness—in every desperately fleeting moment—to unveil something of that which lies beyond the sense, something of the eternal, the non-sense of who we are and what we may become.
I am indebted to Carl Seaburg for some dimensions of this newest stop on my journey toward ministry. In a paper delivered to the Fraters 2/1/93, Carl quoted E. L. Doctorow, who, in testimony before a House of Representatives Committee, described the work of artists as:
The work of independent witness, that often self-destructive willingness to articulate that which many feel but no one dares to say, the blundering, struggling effort to connect the visible to the invisible, to find the secret meanings of places and things, to release the spirit from the clay—that rude, stubborn, squawking self-appointed voice singing the unsingable—who we are, what we are becoming….
Let me recapitulate the work of the artist:
Now that I have spent a lifetime trying to figure out what the ministry is, I wonder whether there is any other way to do that. The Book of Hebrews speaks of faith in these words, "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” By way of illustration the author offers an example:
"By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed, and he went out knowing not whither he went.”
Yea, verily, "knowing not whither he went.” Carl Sandburg wrote of a similar experience:
"And if you start to go to that country remember first you must sell everything you have, pigs, pastures, pepper pickers, pitchforks, put the spot cash money in a ragbag and go to the railroad station and ask the ticket agent for a long slick yellow slap ticket with a blue spanch across it. And you mustn’t be surprised if the ticket agent wipes the sleep from his eyes and asks, ‘So far? So early? So soon?’”
I close with some lines from T.S. Eliot:
You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.
It’s a great calling, an inestimable privilege, an unspeakably rich opportunity—liberating nonsense.