I preached my first sermon in a full year since retiring at the end of June last year, and I was asked back to East Shore to preach! Yes, I had some reservations, yes there were minor glitches-the new church secretary left out the alternate words I wanted for "Shall We Gather by the River" that were written by old friend, John Hook, from BuxMont Fellowship back in the 70's, and she left out the very cool "Interdepedence Day" responsive reading with the "Pledge Allegiance to the Earth," but overall it was a good experience, and warmly received. It felt like old times. I miss the worship experience -the spiritual relationship with the congregation and the deep friendships; I miss the preaching. It's like singing for me. I'm including my sermon, titled "Reflections from an Aging Mirror"
2000 B.C. - Here, eat this root
1000 A.D. - That root is heathen. Here, say this prayer.
1850 A.D. - That prayer is superstition. Here, drink this potion.
1940 A.D. - That potion is snake oil. Here, swallow this pill.
1985 A.D. - That pill is ineffective. Here, take this antibiotic.
2016 A.D. - That antibiotic doesn't work anymore. Here, eat this root.
The great Psychiatrist Carl Jung had words carved over his door in Latin that said something like, "Called or not, the Gods will be present", but humorist G.K. Chesterton warns us:" Never invoke the gods unless you really want them to appear. It annoys them very much."
The title of the sermon, "Reflections from an aging mirror," implies, of course, that it is not me that is aging, but the mirror! Kind of a twist on the "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all" fairy tale line. I take it from a creative writing piece I wrote way, way back when I was still in college about an old man who was in denial about his aging, and I just celebrated my 45th reunion!
I am returning this so-called mirror and respectfully request a full refund of purchase price, because I am quite unsatisfied with your product; your mirror does not accurately reflect what should I see when I look into it. I am most definitely not the old man see in the reflection of your hideous, distorting product; You have slandered my memory and if my money is not immediately refunded, I will take legal action.
I have always been youthful and good looking and will certainly not use any mirror which distorts me so! I'm sorry to say it, but your mirrors (this is the third one I've tried!) are just not up to my standards of excellence.
Respectfully yours, Arthur Severance"
Getting older is not for sissies! My mirror is aging and yes, I'm not always pleased with the reflection I see! But I have to admit that it is me, so I want to reflect on ministry and my experiences with congregations. I am returning from Ministry Days and The Service of the Living Tradition at General Assembly where I walked across the stage for Retirement and where your 3/4 time Development Minister, Rev Denis Paul was awarded Final Fellowship in Columbus. This is actually somewhat of full circle for me because the first General Assembly I ever attended was as a seminary student when it was also here in Columbus way back in in 1984, which interestingly enough was called "Being Human in an Age of Technology" starting out with an incredible laser light show for an opening service due to the first Star Wars movie having been recently released! It doesn't seem possible that that was 32 years ago! Or that I would not graduate from seminary until 1987 or be ordained until 1988. I have been preaching since 1982 when I started seminary and now have preached at different fellowships and churches in AK,CA,CO,DE., LA,NJ,NY, NH, OK, PA, SC,and TX; I've been preaching for almost 35 years!
It's what I've missed most about the year I have been retired-preaching and leading worship was always my favorite part of ministry, the Sunday service being one of my spiritual practices, one of my ways of experiencing the spiritual if I am fortunate to be in right relationship with what I call "you, me and the universe."
I miss the sermon and worship preparation as well, because it, too, was a spiritual discipline, requiring reading, resource gathering, contemplation, creative writing, and spiritual inspiration if I was fortunate, as well as thinking, reflecting and what I like to call "sifting through the debris" of everyday living and family experience.
As some of you know, Cathie and I are planing to move back to San Antonio to be near our 3 daughters and grandchildren, so if you are looking for a beautiful 100 year old house in Mentor, please let us know. We love that house and leaving it will be heart-wrenching, but at least this move will be back to a familiar place with familiar and loving faces. Usually, we are moving the family to a new place with new faces full of expectations-some realistic and some not so much!
Moving is part of ministry, and certainly my LEAST favorite part. We are collectors as well as sentimental keepers of family heirlooms and souvenirs of countless memories and children's events as well as events from our own childhoods! As I was going through my much too large library, trying to decide what to keep and what to figure out what to do with, I came across an old book, "Stories I couldn't tell from the Pulpit When I was a Preacher," and figured that that could go now. Believe me, I have many stories I can't tell and, no I'm not going to tell them today. It reminded me of something my now retired colleague, Rev. Marilyn Sewell wrote some years ago which I've been waiting to use-
"When NOT To Call The Minister
When you want to give me "the real scoop" on another member
When you want to explain that you'll have to lower you pledge because you plan a trip to Europe next year.
When you want to tell me that you didn't like what I wore in the pulpit last Sunday.
When you want to clarify that one of the reasons you are a UU is that you have always distrusted organized religion. (Unitarian Universalism IS an organized religion.)
When you wish to inform me that as much as you would love to attend the service on Sunday, you can't because 1) the weather promises to be too nice to be indoors, or 2) you have chosen to do chores around the house."
As I reflect on the many moves of my ministry, especially the short term interim/developmental ministries in Boulder, CO, Stockton,CA, & Amherst,NY where I went by myself, I realize there was a certain amount of trauma involved from the leaving of the previous church to the going to a new church, especially by myself. Churches, of course, suffer trauma when their ministers leave for whatever reason, but they don't have to move! The next minister comes to them! The District Executives, the Bishops, if you will, come in and do exit interviews for both the departing minister and the church which can be valuable but become part of the history of both minister and congregation. One of the purposes of the interview is for an opportunity for a reflection of the special relationship between minister and congregation., but also an opportunity to reflect on the trauma involved in the moving and the changes!
Having recently returned from Ministry Days and the The Service of the Living Tradition part of General Assembly I am still basking in the inspiration of see and talking to my colleagues, the various worships services, sermons, and especially the incredible storing music! We didn't go to the whole GA this year, though I have attended over 20. Because they come at the end of the church and school year, they usually rejuvenate my tired soul and spirit! They are also like attending a UU Megachurch except that everything makes sense and you find yourself wishing that it could happen more than once a year, like some "Brigadoon" out of the mist once every century!
I see people, colleagues and congregants from the past almost 40 some years since the first time we went to a UU fellowship in 1979 and I find myself trying to quickly fit them into my memory jig saw puzzle of time, place, and sometimes even name! And now, because I have recently lost over 150 pounds and my hair has turned gray, I look a bit different as well and I can see them struggling to do the same thing. When the light of recognition finally comes over their face, and it IS obvious when that happens, they almost always say" Oh my God, it's you, Art!" And I almost always say, "You don't have to call me, God, just Art is fine."
I have served in some capacity, from student preacher twice a month, intern, quarter time, half time, consulting, interim, developmental, to full time parish minister-10 congregations-from small fellowships to mid-size churches of over 400 members. In all cases I have met great people and developed warm loving relationships, and have found others who for a variety of reasons did not develop those warm relationships with me, indeed seemed just the opposite, often for completely unknown reasons. I have been fortunate that those have been the exception and for the most part, I have had mostly wonderful warm relationships everywhere I have served.
I used to say that my job as minister meant I had to love everyone, but sometimes it took me a little while longer to "like" some of the people, but that I found with a little effort, I could do it- well almost everyone! I wish that congregations had started drawing up "behavior covenants" sooner because there always seemed to be conflicts that could have been resolved if they could have been referred to a "good relations committee" or a similar group.
I don't know how many people were able to see the Sunday worship service from General Assembly Worship last Sunday, but Cathie and I watched it streamed on our computer from out Dining Room where Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd preached an incredible sermon about relationships in congregations and how we get caught up in what she calls "fake fights we waste our time on," like "what color to paint the church bathroom,"or ego conflicts where we just want our own way, rather than trying to develop spiritual mature and loving relationships an din working for justice in the world. "The world does not need another place where like-minded liberals hang out and fight about who is in charge," she said, getting cheers, the delegates obviously resonating. I wish that her sermon could be played before every church annual meeting to remind all of us about why we are here and how much of a difference in the justice of this world we could all make if we put as much effort into justice as we did in to our disagreements or in the case of Washington, into our partisanship! Let us celebrate INTERDEPENDENCE DAY!
As I reflect on aging and ministry, I find it a, like life, a journey, and even those who never travel far from their home take it. I have been fortunate to travel far from my NH home and have lived and ministered all over this country, and as the Buddhist sage has said-"No matter where you go, there you are."
In San Antonio I used to have a note that was slipped under the office door clipped to my calendar by my computer. I assume it WASN"T from a member because it addresses me as "Dear Rev. Severance," and perhaps that made it even more meaningful; it simply said, "I don't know you'll ever know how much a sermon can save a life. Thank you."
I want to argue that that was not just because it was a particularly great sermon, but that even if it was, we must put in context; that is, that that sermon was preached in that church, with its beautiful surroundings, music, maybe even the sharing of joys and concerns, and a warm and friendly congregation. We make a place holy and perhaps it comes back to us tenfold and then makes us holy! And we even get to define what the word, holy or God means to us. How holy do we want to be?
As I reflect back on my ministry, I also realize that it was never just MY ministry, but a relationship of shared ministry,,sometimes between what I call the religious dimension or the sacred, the mystery, God, Holy one, and myself and the congregation and then with individuals, and with the ancestors or past ministers, famous UUs, and even memories and history. As if there a kind of relationship stew! Oh, I'm responsible for my own actions, and yes, especially for my mistakes, and Lord knows there were many, as well as inadequacies and a few deficiencies, but sometimes when I am feeling depressed, I would go to my file that I kept called "Appreciation" where I would put cards or letters from people who's lives I had touched, and realize how much the ministerial relationship had helped someone. I constantly preached about the power of love as the basis for religions well as relationships, yet found myself forgetting that from time to time. especially during times of conflict when I wasn't feeling that love. Some people find meaning in the social events or social justice projects, and don't attend "church," but still find that religious dimension. We all need to love and be loved, and we all need to find a way to serve in some way that helps the world. The meaning of life is to find the meaning of life, which for me can be summed up in one simple, yet profound word, LOVE. I think that that is the answer to the three questions asked in the story read this morning.
I think of the many memorial service I conducted over more than 30 years. In fact the 2nd one I did was for a woman in my student ministry in Reading, PA in 1984 when I was simply preaching twice a month at a church where the minister had left and they couldn't afford an interim. But even just that limited contact, I had developed relationships with people; Cathie and I still exchange Xmas cards with the pianist and her husband which whom we became good friends. When I went to Amherst, NY, three years ago, I met a man who said he was raised in the UU church in Reading PA and realized that he had the same last name as the woman whose memorial service I did. SUre enough, it was her son. I had remembered her name, and he remembered me! I asked him to serve on my Comm. on Ministry!
I think of the countless weddings-my favorite ceremonies-what joyful occasions-with people at their happiest and the many variations over the years that celebrants have brought to those, especially during the 16 years I served in San Antonio-weddings on the Riverwalk, by the Missions, in a sunny meadow with the bride & groom riding up on horseback, and my own daughter's weddings recently at the Arena just before a Hockey Game!
I reflect on the the baby dedications celebrating a new life and recently going back to San Antonio to marry one of those babies I had dedicated! The circle of life goes round and round.
I miss being the minister in a church community, a beloved community, especially on Sunday mornings for worship; I miss leading adult Religious Education, working with the children; I don't miss all the meetings! I do miss those times when you can feel people pulling together to work for common purpose, for justice, for growth, for love.
I feel what I like to call a kind of "theological gravity" which beckons me toward it, which encourages all of us to find "IT". God to me is neither male nor female but IT, in the words of the children's game of Tag, a simple game really. Someone is chosen or volunteers to be IT, and when they touch us then we are IT. And I swear at times, I cannot help myself but see God in human form in the beauty and innocence of children at play, and God reaches down, behind me so I cannot see his/her/it's face, and says playfully and lovingly, "Tag, you are IT." And so in my turn I run to tag as many friends as I can, and even look for God, so I can in return, say, "Tag; you and I are IT." "Tag," I say to you the congregation and all the universe which must by definition include God, "we are IT."
Peace, Amen, Shalom, (Peace in Hebrew), Assalaamu Alaikum (may Peace be upon you) (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 adapdted 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."