By Art McDonald
Nice to be back in Danvers. Some of you were here when I last visited to preach in March when I played the role of the “Grim Reaper,” having been asked to address the topic of death! I must admit I wondered what might be going on in the Danvers congregation wanting to focus on death. So I can’t tell you how happy I am that your memory of me might be having the privilege of preaching at Julie’s installation, a time of new life for you as a congregation. What a great day for us all in the UU world and the wider community!
And, ironically I am coming to the end of my own ministerial career as Julie is in the early stages of her ministerial journey. I’ll finish up in Essex next Sunday as the choir sings the famous Scotch (but early on stolen by us Irish) tune, “The Parting Glass.” I’m may sneak into the church some of my favorite Irish Whiskey to that celebration.
As you might imagine, in these last weeks and months, I’ve been doing a lot of reflection on ministry and religious community, a journey I began 45 years ago as I entered a Catholic, monastic community with medieval roots, The Order of St. Dominic, otherwise known as the Order of Preachers.
Although I remained in that community for 10 years, 6 years in seminary, ordained in 1978, and worked for 4 years in the South Bronx, NY, there were early indications that it might not have been a perfect fit. During Seminary years, we played a lot of sports in between studies and prayers. Playing basketball I over and over again sprained my ankle and wound up going to chapel and meals on crutches. Lay people came to 5pm liturgy each day and one, now a brilliant and somewhat famous feminist scholar of the early church, Francine Cardman, who is currently on the faculty at Boston College, and I became good friends. After one of my many mishaps on the basketball court as I entered the chapel on crutches, Francine said to me very lovingly, gently but pointedly, “Art, why all this sublimation, why don’t you just get married?”
Curiously enough, I began reflecting on my monastic journey recently after reading Julie’s selection for today’s installation, beautifully read by Kelly, “Settling Down,” taken from a series of essays entitled STAYING PUT: MAKING a HOME in a RESTLESS WORLD, by Scott Russell Sanders. I read Julie’s selection several times. I don’t know what parts of the reading might have touched each of you, but I was curious why Julie chose this, what was her intent, and what parts were especially meaningful to her. Other than the general focus that her intention is to stay put as minister at Danvers UU, she replied: “My favorite part of the reading is the following: “WHAT KEPT ME THERE WAS A MIXTURE of CURIOSITY and AWE … WHEN A GOD COMES CALLING, NO MATTER HOW BAD its REPUTATION, WOULD YOU GO HIDE? IF the SIREN HAD ANNOUNCED THE SIGHTING of a DRAGON, I WOULD HAVE SAT THERE JUST the SAME, HOPING to CATCH a GLIMPSE of the SPIKED TAIL or FIERY BREATH.” Warning Danvers, Julie likes adventure and excitement, if you don’t already know that.
“Settling Down,” STAYING PUT: MAKING a HOME in a RESTLESS WORLD. So, as you all are aware, with this installation we are calling and affirming Julie to what is referred to in our denominational circles as “settled ministry.” As a former monk, when I read this, I immediately began thinking about the Rule of St. Benedict, one of the early monastics in the 6th century CE, who, when establishing his new community made stability its central charism. Benedictine monks, even though most have active ministries, stay in one community their entire life. They take a vow of stability.
As I reflected upon this Benedictine call to stability, “staying put,” if you will, I stumbled across a wonderful lecture by a theologian named Gerald Schlabach, given at a conference in 1998, entitled: “The Vow of Stability: A Premodern Way through a Hypermodern World.” The author, who is married with two children, and a promoter of what has been referred to as the “new monasticism,” describes himself as both a Mennonite and a Catholic Christian, who tries to live the Benedictine vow of stability as a lay member of a Benedictine community and suggests we all consider such attachments in a world of conflict and unsettling mobility.
Interestingly Schlabach got the idea for this article as he was driving along the Ohio Turnpike and listening to Carole King singing one of her famous tunes: “So Far Away, doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore, it would be so fine to see your face at my door, doesn’t help to know you’re just time away…one more song about moving along the highway…traveling around sure gets me down and lonely, nothing else to do but close my mind, I sure hope the road don’t come to own me…but you’re so far away, doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore, it would be so fine to see your face at my door…
The author knows that suggesting a premodern monastic prescription for a 21st century life might seem laughable to most, and he acknowledges he hasn’t lived total Benedictine stability himself, having moved around a bit with his family in search of an academic career. Nevertheless, he argues, the three vows Benedictine monks take, stability (staying put), obedience (let’s call that one accountability to one another) and conversion (commitment to live a life of peacemaking and justice), are well worth consideration by all who commit to a religious community, no matter the denomination.
“It is no use rediscovering any of our church’s roots, nor discerning innovative ways to be faithful to our congregation’s calling, if we won’t slow down, stay longer even if we can’t stay put indefinitely, and take something like a vow of stability. Slow down…stay longer – because there is no way to discern God’s will together without commitment to sit long together in the first place. A vow of stability – because it is no use discerning appropriate ways to be (Christian) disciples (or faithful UUs) in our age if we do not embody them through time, testing, and the patience with one another that our good ideas and great ideals need, in order to prove their worth as communal practices.”
As a contemporary shining example of the need for stability, Schlabach raises up a modern environmentalist hero, dear to UUs, Wendell Berry, who as a poet, a farmer and an environmentalist, “…has been arguing tenaciously that our very humanity may depend on local communities that sustain a relationship with the land.”
And, believe it or not, in some coincidental way, if Berry’s return to the land plea seems a stretch for most of us, doesn’t Schlabach cite one of Julie’s favorite authors, Scott Russell Sanders, who at another point in the same essay that we read from…challenges those who urge us to deal with difficulties by pulling up stakes and heading for new territory…people who root themselves in places are likelier to know and care for those places than are people who root themselves in ideas… (Sanders concludes) Those who care about nothing beyond the confines of their parish are in truth parochial, and are at least mildly dangerous to their parish; on the other hand, those who have no parish, those who navigate ceaselessly among postal zones and area codes, those for whom the world is only a smear of highways and bank accounts and stores, are a danger not just to their parish but to the planet.”
And concerning the relationship between our communities, our moral life and the future of democracy, Schlabach cites philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre, who suggests that our best hope is in renewed and localized forms of community, living lives of virtue: “Such communities must divest their hope in empire, and shape their lives through narratives capable of countering its illusions. Only within such communities and traditions – which pass on their virtues through narratives and the heroes or mentors who embody them – will intellectual, civil, and moral life survive the competing wills-to-power that are preying on us.” How appropriate these words seem for our current moment.
Finally, suggests Schlabach, “What I am saying is that any true and sustainable community will need the virtues of mutual patience and mutual submission that the vow of stability requires and engenders.”
What an incredible challenge this perspective represents for us as a nation, and more specifically for us as a denomination and you all as a congregation. But, also, what an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of our members and the wider community. But this call for stability, staying put, and community, represents, I think, a real challenge for UUs and all those who link themselves to religious community. Our UU history has been forged by a perspective coming out of the so-called left-wing of the Protestant reformation, what our theologian JL Adams calls “Radical Laicism.” We practice congregational polity; the members of the congregation decide and are in charge. We ordain and install ministers through an open, democratic process. Authority is local. It’s an amazing idea and a reaction against clerical corruption and mis-use of authority. It respects each individual voice and believes we are all sacred. It’s a utopian ideal that requires grace and goodwill to make it work. And when it works well, and I’ve personally experienced it, it is powerful and transformative.
We call what we do in UU congregations, like many others, shared ministry, a wonderful ideal. Called, professionally-trained ministers working with skilled and committed lay members with, as JL Adams reminds us (The Free Church) that the “…goal is the prophethood and priesthood of all believers, the one for the liberty of prophesying, the other for the ministry of healing,” and we accomplish this goal when we listen to one another and offer a healing and nurturing presence, and take that into the wider community to overcome injustice and inequality by our powerful, communal actions, like the one Julie and others in the congregation participated in in Lynn a few weeks back as 400 people walked the streets and called for justice for immigrants and all people. Shared ministry, an amazing call to us all, to really work requires we stay put, settle down and settle in for the long haul, thus making a home in a restless world and building an effective presence. This all takes great maturity and a deepening spiritual commitment, both on the part of the minister and the congregation. And when differences emerge, which they will, we must counter our instinct to fight or flee, remembering we are committed to staying put.
UUs love the jokes about how we all think for ourselves, can’t be told what to believe, are proud that we are like trying to herd cats, and are free to develop our own spiritual paths, like the one about a visitor to a UU church, who after sitting through the sermon with growing incredulity at the ideas being spouted from the pulpit, was asked afterwards by a member, so how did you like it? To which he answered: I can’t believe half the things that minister said, expressing deep upset. Oh good, responded the member, you’ll fit right in! Individuality is precious, but so is community and consensus.
As I wind down my own ministerial journey, started 45 years ago, the first ten as part of a monastic Catholic community, the last 26 as an incredibly grateful UU minister, I’ve been reading a pamphlet entitled: “Running through the Thistles,” a reflection on how to end a long ministry well. Some years ago one of our UU ministers gave a lecture on this topic, with the same title, and, among other things, in reflecting upon the idea of shared ministry and our congregational notion of Radical Laicism said: that JL Adams notion seemed to him to “obfuscate the distinctions …and blurred the boundaries,” necessary in his mind, between clergy and laity, thus, as a “consequence …flattening of the congregational landscape that makes it more difficult to differentiate between laity and clergy…a kind of religious egalitarianism that invites us to underestimate the influence, responsibility and authority infused in the ministerial role.”
In response to this reflection on “shared ministry,” and the boundaries and distinctions and so-called “flattening of the congregational landscape making it difficult to differentiate between laity and clergy,” a retired mentor to this colleague suggested, on the same stage, in his formal response, that he wasn’t so sure that the idea of radical laicism is just the notion of JL Adams, a recent colleague, but has much earlier heritage (how about the Reformation or, even, the early church community we see in the Acts of the Apostles). This mentor went on to suggest that maybe we need much more discussion and clarity around the term shared ministry and co-ministry and just how do we understand the particular roles and responsibilities of each. I think each congregation needs to have that conversation, a wonderful way to build relationship and trust.
I must admit that one of the best complements I ever received in regard to ministry happened in Pittsburgh, my first UU ministerial calling. After an all-day urban summer camp session with about 40 neighborhood kids, very few from the actual congregation, it was a pretty messy scene so I grabbed a mop and a pail and began cleaning up with others. After finishing, I was introduced to one of the mothers who declared with a huge smile of approval: “Rev. Art, my daddy was a Baptist minister many years ago and he often said to me you can trust a minister who carries a mop.”
So that was Pittsburgh and, in that context, it was one of the ways I understood shared ministry. That may differ here in Danvers; let’s not be too literal. But you get the idea. TRUST becomes the bottom line in the quest to develop a vibrant shared ministry in any context. And building trust takes time and commitment and honesty and willingness and, yes, stability, staying put, digging in for the long haul, building something special, not pulling up stakes when you want to fight with the sermon or challenge a decision made by the board of Trustees.
So, reflecting on this ancient rule of St. benedict, with its centering on stability, writes, Schlabach, “…we might need (in our hypermodern world) to hear old lessons through voices that are new and a bit exotic for us…the lesson is that what we need may not be a new theory or ism at all, but the virtue of patience, and the practice of hunkering down to stay together through the long haul, as we listen to God and one another, believing that something is there beyond us, and beyond our every ability to construct reality, to which we must listen.”
Although I didn’t take my friend Francine Cardman’s advice to marry right away, but instead got ordained and cut my ministerial teeth in the South Bronx for 4 years, I eventually did choose to leave and marry, happily, which eventually opened up the possibility to continue ministry in a new context, a wonderfully open and affirming UU context, 12 years in Pittsburgh and 14 in Essex, for which I am incredibly grateful. And true to form, when I met at the Essex church with a representative from the regional office of the UUA for an exit interview recently, as she walked into the church hall she came over to me and asked to see the minister, who just happened to be pushing a broom, much to her surprise, and, I might add, delight. The interview was a joy with a bit of sadness sprinkled in.
So I’m delighted to be here, to no longer play the role of “grim reaper,” but rather one who is affirming a new ministry, a new relationship, with joy. My favorite line in the essay on staying put is after the partner suggested they take the food to the basement to get out of harm’s way and the protagonist said: “It’s up to you. We can go to the basement like sensible people, or we can sit here like fools and risk our necks.” And there they stayed put! “A god came calling and they decided not to hide! Julie, members of Danvers UU, this is the best risk you’ll ever take; I encourage you all to settle into it, stay put, and make it the best you can, a home of faith, hope and love in a restless, conflicted world.