A Light Through the Cathedral Window: Reflections on Forrest Church, Rev. Arthur G. Severance

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We have lost one of our best and most representative ministers, As  
I?ve said, It?s a little bit like losing Emerson, especially if  
Emerson had stayed in the ministry!  It?s hard to believe that Forrest  
Church is really gone. Partly, as he said, because he preached 5  
farewell sermons! But also because he was larger than life. because he  
was my age, and because he was so full of life; yet he did die, and he  
will be dearly missed by thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands if  
you count those who read his books or were touched by his sermons or  
programs over those thirty plus years of ministry.

    Frank Forrester Church IV, son of the late Idaho Senator Frank  
Forrester Church III, was born September 23, 1948 in Palo Alto,  
California and  died at his home of esophageal cancer in Manhattan  
September 24, 2009 at the age of 61. He was better known as Forrest.   
While the average service for a minister is seven years, Forest served  
the historic All Souls Unitarian church in in New York City as only  
their ninth minister for 30 years , and it grew by about 1000 members  
during that time! He also wrote or edited 25 books and countless  
articles. On their web site, their is a picture of him with former  
President Bill Clinton, and you can go to sites where he was recently  
interviewed by Diane Rehms, for the 2nd time by the way, also by Terry  
Gross on NPR?s Fresh Air, PBS's Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, his  
2008 appearance on the Channel 11 Morning News, a 2008 New York Times  
article about Forrest,? His Death Postponed, a Minister Repeats his  
Farewell Sermon.? and that?s just recently because of his cancer!

From the ?Washington Post? Obituary
   ?Through his books, TV and radio appearances and newspaper columns,  
Dr. Church became a leading voice of Unitarian Universalism. He also  
led his congregation into areas of public service, including an AIDS  
task force formed in 1985, when the disease was little understood and  
greatly feared. In addition, he set up a shelter for homeless women in  
Harlem, helped organize 50 farmers markets in New York and started a  
scouting program for boys and girls at a welfare hotel.

Although he had little experience in the pulpit when he began at All  
Souls, he became one of the nation's most quotable preachers. Eight of  
his sermons were selected for inclusion in the annual anthology  
?Representative American Speeches.??

   He was awarded the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Freedom Medal  April 9, 2008?
   ?As the Senior Minister at All Souls Unitarian Church in NYC for  
three decades,...you have devoted your life tending to its frailties,  
strengths and miracles of human condition. Passionate about your faith  
and your country, you have written or edited more than two dozen books  
that speak to a people and a nation always striving to balance what  
you have called the twin traditions of ?sacred liberty? and ?divine  
order.? THrough your ministry and your writing you have inspired us to  
see ourselves as aspire to be - lovers of reason, justice, and  
equality who also sense something divine in the inalienable rights  
bestowed on each of us to ?life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.?
   These goals- and the on-going tensions between them- you have  
identified as the American Creed: that impulse to live ina nation born  
out of the secular wisdom of the Enlightenment, with liberty and  
justice for all, but guided by a higher authority that requires  
respect for a moral order/ In your monumental work published in 2007.  
entitled, So Help Me God; The Founding Fathers and the First  Great  
Battle Over Church and State, you explore how these creative tensions  
shaped the character of America in the early days of our republic- and  
shape us still- as we work to maintain the balance between faith and  
reason, between order and freedom.

You have been acknowledged by scholars and historians as one of the  
most important liberal theologians in the US during the last half of  
the 20th century century, the only pastor to be so honored. In your  
latest book, Love and Death, to be published in June, you have  
eloquently brought together ina single compelling volume your beliefs  
and teachings of the last thirty years about life, love and death. As  
one distinguished reviewer wrote: Love andDeath, a meditation on the  
end of life, is really a book about about  life- a book that shows us  
how to love ourselves and others, how to know God, how to live. Like  
C. S. Lewis and Thomas Merton, Forrest Church has deepened our sense  
of what it means to be in the world. I read his book with  
inexpressible gratitude.?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006
A letter from Forrest to the Congregation of All Souls:

Dear Friends,

With apologies for sending this word out so impersonally, I?m writing  
to share with you the news that I have esophageal cancer. A bank of  
tests conducted over the past two weeks has confirmed the existence of  
a malignant tumor high in my esophagus, and we shall determine a  
protocol for treatment (radiation, chemotherapy, and, if possible,  
surgical removal) before the end of the month. Unhappily, this is a  
particularly fierce form of cancer; happily, it apparently has not  
spread. More important than any of these cold medical facts, I am in  
good spirits and more grateful than ever for the gifts of life and  
love. All four children have descended on the household, and Carolyn  
is girding herself for the struggle ahead. She?ll be the general, I?m  
relieved to report; I?ll simply be the battlefield.

After almost three decades as your minister, I have been graced with  
so many teachers, whose courage in face of life?s troubles has been a  
constant inspiration. I can also report that the theology I have  
hammered out in your good company?religion as our human response to  
the dual reality of being alive and knowing we must die, and the  
purpose of life being to live in such a way that our lives will prove  
worth dying for?offers me the same comfort during my own time of trial  
that I pray it has given you in yours.

It comforts me also that All Souls is in such excellent hands,  
ministerial and lay, and so strong in every fundamental measurement as  
an institution, that my personal troubles should, while touching the  
heart, have only the most marginal impact on the daily life and  
progress of our beloved congregation. I will be taking a medical leave  
of absence from my pastoral duties, but do hope to maintain my  
preaching schedule if I can. Galen will be in the pulpit this coming  
Sunday, and he will also find a way to keep you informed about my  
progress over the coming weeks. Assuring you that I am in the finest  
medical hands imaginable, I encourage you to send any messages to me  
through the church. The best thing you can do to bolster my already  
high spirits is to carry on all of your good works, continue to expand  
our ministries during this critical period in the life of our nation  
and world, worship to a fare-thee-well, and keep the budget balanced!

As for my three mantras?do what you can, want what you have, and be  
who you are?I practice each every day, feeling myself blessed beyond  
measure. Please know that you live in my heart, an abiding presence  
that fills my life with strength and joy.

Love,
Forrest

   I first discovered UUism in 1980 when a friend invited me to come to  
church because he thought I would like it and the rest is history of  
course.. Forrest began his career just 2 years earlier at All Souls.  
With in a year or two I would begin seminary and my journey toward UU  
ministry.  I would also hear this young minister preach a sermon on  
the cathedral of the world which would become one of  his themes and  
his last book. Looking back now, I realize that he was still a rookie  
when he preached it,  yet it was brilliant and truly Emersonian in  
depth and inspiration and even historical significance, as well as  
personal significance for it has stayed with me for almost 30 years!

   ? Imagine the world as a vast cathedral.,? Forrest would preach,?This  
cathedral is as ancient as humankind; its cornerstone is the first  
altar, marked with the tincture of blood and blessed by tears. Search  
for a lifetime ? which is all we are given ? and we shall never know  
its limits, visit all its transepts, worship at its myriad shrines,  
nor span its celestial ceiling with our gaze.
   The builders have labored in this cathedral from time immemorial.  
Daily, work begins that shall not be finished in the lifetime of the  
architects who planned it, the patrons who paid for it, the builders  
who construct it, or the expectant worshipers. Nonetheless, throughout  
human history, one generation after another has labored lovingly,  
sometimes fearfully, crafting memorials and consecrating shrines.  
Untold numbers of these today collect dust in long-undisturbed  
chambers; others, cast centuries or millennia ago from their once  
respected places, lie shattered on the cathedral floor. Not a moment  
passes without the dreams of long-dead dreamers being outstripped,  
crushed, or abandoned, giving way to new visions, each immortal in  
reach, ephemeral in grasp.?

   I would come to read most of Forrest?s books, mark them up well. and  
quote from them frequently in my sermons. I rarely missed a chance to  
hear him preach or speak at General Assembly or any other opportunity  
and eventually had the good fortune to get to know him a just a little  
over the years.

    ?Above all else,? Forrest continues?contemplate the windows. In  
the Cathedral of the World there are windows beyond number ? some long  
forgotten, covered with many patinas of dust, others revered by  
millions, the most sacred of shrines. Each in its own way is  
beautiful. Some are abstract, others representational, some dark and  
meditative, others bright and dazzling. Each tells a story about the  
creation of the world, the meaning of history, the purpose of life,  
the nature of humankind, the mystery of death. The windows of the  
cathedral are where the Light shines through.
    As with all extended metaphors, this one is imperfect. The Light  
of God (or Truth or Being itself) shines not only upon us, but out  
from within us as well. Together with the windows, we are part of the  
cathedral, not apart from it. Together we comprise an interdependent  
web of being. The cathedral is constructed out of star-stuff and so  
are we. We are that part (or known part) of creation that contemplates  
itself. Because the cathedral is so vast, our life so short, and our  
vision so dim, we are able to contemplate only a tiny part of the  
whole creation. We can explore but a handful of its many chambers. Our  
allotted span permits us to reflect on the play of darkness and light  
through remarkably few of its myriad windows. Yet, since the whole is  
contained in each of its parts, as we ponder and act on insights  
derived from even a single reflection, we may experience  
self-illumination. We may also discover or invent meanings that invest  
both the creation and our lives with coherence and meaning.?

   Forrest was one of those rare people who made you feel like you were  
important to him even as he became more famous and more people were  
wanting a piece of him. While he was arguably our most famous UU  
minister, he didn?t act it!  Indeed, he often pointed out his own  
mistakes and weaknesses, sometimes to his family?s consternation!

   ?A 21st-century theology, ?Forrest Continues? based on the concept  
of one light (Unitarianism) and many windows (Universalism) offers to  
its adherents both breadth and focus. Honoring many different  
religious approaches, it excludes only the truth-claims of  
absolutists. This is because fundamentalists ? whether on the right or  
left ? claim that the light shines through their window only. Skeptics  
draw the opposite conclusion. Seeing the bewildering variety of  
windows and observing the folly of the worshipers, they conclude that  
there is no Light. But the windows are not the Light, only where the  
light shines through.
   ONE LIGHT, MANY WINDOWS

    One cautionary note: Universalism itself can be perverted in two  
ways. One is to elevate one truth into a universal truth: "My church  
is the one true church." The other is to reduce distinctive truths to  
a lowest common denominator: "All religion is merely a set of  
variations upon the golden rule." The Universalism I embrace does  
neither. It holds that the same Light shines through all our windows,  
but that each window is different. The windows modify the Light,  
refracting it in various patterns that suggest discrete meanings. Just  
as one cannot believe in "everything," to find meaningful expression  
Universalism must be modified or refracted through the glass of  
individual and group experience (which by definition would be less  
than universal). One can be a Buddhist Universalist, a pagan  
Universalist, a humanist Universalist, a Jewish Universalist, a  
Christian Universalist. On the other hand, one cannot in any  
meaningful sense be a Universalist Universalist; it is impossible to  
look out every window. Neither can one be, say, a Universalist  
Christian; when the modifier of one's faith becomes its nominative,  
primary allegiance is relegated to but one part of the whole that  
encompasses it...person's window, nor to apprehend the falsehood that  
we ourselves may perceive as truth, we can easily mistake another's  
good for evil, and our own evil for good. A Universalist theology  
tempers the consequences of our inevitable ignorance while addressing  
the overarching crisis of our times: dogmatic division in an ever more  
intimate, fractious, and yet interdependent world. It posits the  
following fundamental principles:

       1. There is one Power, one Truth, one God, one Light.
       2. This Light shines through every window in the cathedral.
       3. No one can perceive it directly, the mystery being forever veiled.
       4. Yet, on the cathedral floor and in the eyes of each  
beholder, refracted and reflected through different windows in  
differing ways, it plays in patterns that suggest meanings,  
challenging us to interpret and live by these meanings as best we can.
       5. Each window illumines Truth in a unique way, leading to  
various truths, and these in differing measure according to the  
insight, receptivity, and behavior of the beholder.

    I am certain that others will refine and improve upon these  
principles. I offer them as much to promote a dialogue about the  
integrity and intelligibility of Universalism for our time as I do to  
answer the many questions Universalism poses to the inquiring mind.  
Yet I offer them with complete conviction. If we Unitarian  
Universalists are unable to recognize the ground that we share, we  
shall remain only marginally effective in helping to articulate  
grounds on which all might stand as children of a mystery that unites  
far more profoundly than it distinguishes one child of life from any  
other. To the extent that we fail in this mission, we betray our  
Universalist inheritance.?

In his last sermon to his church he updated his old sermon with this  
final statement-    ?Fortunately, since the Light shines through each  
window of the cathedral, as we ponder and act on insights derived from  
even a single reflection, we may instead find illumination. In the  
Cathedral of the World, we can discover or invent meanings that invest  
both the creation and our lives with greater purpose. To me the  
purpose of life
is to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for.

One final thought. We are each on a journey, a quest for life?s  
meaning and purpose. I have found both in universalism. To save  
yourself without damning another is a wonderful thing.  Amen, I Love  
you. And May God Bless us all.?

 So may we be challenged to live up to our Unitarian Universalist  
potential. Forrest?s words and deed will live on in our history, but  
more importantly in our hearts, certainly in mine. His love was  
profound and I leave you with these words-

?The purpose of life is to live in such a way that our lives will  
prove worth dying for.?
 ?The only thing that can never be taken from us, even by death, is  
the love we give away before we go.?
       Love, love, love- love is the answer.
He truly loved his parishioners and ended his sermons with the words,?  
Amen, I Love you. And May God Bless us all.?


Amen, Peace, Shalom, (Peace in Hebrew), Assalaamu Alaikum(may Peace be  
upon you in Arabic), Abrazos a todos (Hugs all around) Namaste, (A  
Hindu greeting the divinity within you) Blessed Be, and let me add one  
more blessing that I adapted from the Spanish long before I went in to  
ministry. ?Vaya con Dios? is Spanish for Good-bye, but literally is  
?Go with God,? So I adapted it to say ?Vaya Con Su Dios, ?Go with your  
idea or interpretation of God.?

Peace,Love, Shalom,Salaam, Blessed Be,Namaste, Abrazo a Todos,Vaya con su Dios

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