A sermon by James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, February 14, 2010
A MINISTRY OF LOVE
somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose
me, or which i cannot touch because they are too near
your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose
or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully ,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;
nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing
(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands
There is a Unitarian Universalist minister I know, actually probably known to several of us here, prominent, highly thought of, doing some good work. What I know that some might not is that he had a rough time passing the fellowshipping process, our institutional structure for ministerial formation and licensing, which most of our congregations require of anyone who wishes to be ordained. We’re now talking a long time ago. He was young, and perhaps even a bit young for his years. Smart, smart as a whip. But, not yet fully grown into who he would become.
I think the problem all came to a head when he preached his sample sermon for the Fellowship committee. Now you need to understand the Fellowship committee which makes the final decisions on whether someone is adequately prepared to enter the process of finding a church to serve, moves around the country three times a year, and at each location meets up to a dozen people a day over a several day period. Of course there has been a lot of work by both candidate and committee leading up to the moment of each encounter.
In that meeting the candidate is expected to start off with a ten-minute worship experience featuring a homily. If it goes seconds past those ten minutes the chair stops the service cold. It can be a bit on the harrowing side for the potential minister. After hearing four or five hopefuls expounding upon what they consider important for the committee to hear, who knows what they are all thinking? But “heard it all” comes to mind…
So my friend, did I mention, now prominent among us, gave it his all. He lit a chalice, said an opening word or two then threw himself into it, expounding upon the nature of love. Ten minutes of love. Top to bottom, love. After which into the anxious waiting silence came the first question. It was a hardball. “So, after you’ve said all you have to say about love, what do you have to say then?”
He ended up with a “three.” Not exactly being thrown into the outer darkness, but it meant at least a year before he could come back to the committee, along with a list of things he might consider thinking about before returning, actually that he had to think about and do before returning. My friend is gutsy as well as smart, and he took his wounds home, licked ‘em a bit, and then did what needed doing. Mainly he got a little more life experience. It has served him well, and it has served our Association well over the ensuing years.
And, over the years that have followed, I’ve found myself thinking about that question over and over again. I mean love is a Unitarian Universalist minister’s stock in trade. If we’re not about love, what are we about? If we’re not preaching love, what should we be preaching? But, after all that can be said about love has been said, what then? Now, one of my Zen teacher friends heard this story and quick as a heartbeat replied, “Why preach a sermon on love, of course.” That’s the deep irony of love, a bottomless well, no doubt, an endless reservoir of hope for us all. That strange word love is a pointer to something as important as life itself. And definitely a worthy enterprise, even when we are pretty sure we’ve heard it all before.
On this Valentine’s Day, a celebration of the best and the silliest of love, what can this question about love mean for those of us gathered as a worshiping community? Well, I was googling around looking for a really good story on love, something that will unravel the mystery for us a little bit more, perhaps giving it a new angle or two, or just drive the deeper points home. My search terms were “love” and “story” and “unitarian” and “sermon.” A number of things popped. Quite a number, actually. But I was fascinated how many led to anecdotes collected by the UU minister turned best selling self help author Robert Fulgum.
Now you have to know about Fulgum, as he prefers to be called. He was working as a parish minister in the Pacific Northwest when someone took one of his newsletter columns, something about finding a rule for life in kindergarten, photocopied it and passed it around to friends. Ended up posted on refrigerator doors all around the country. Eventually a literary agent discovered it and that led to a series of books, nearly all hitting the New York Times Best Seller list. I understand he now lives on a small island somewhere off the coast of Greece.
We, his colleagues, pretty much everyone a would-be author, take some comfort in sharing among ourselves how Fulgum may have hit the literary big time; but you know, he really is pretty shallow. I mean do you really learn everything you need in kindergarten? But it’s dangerous to think deeper into that statement. The catch is the surface is in fact where the action usually is. You want to know about living life as it is, you want to find depth, well, you can do worse than look at some of his little vignettes of ordinary life. It’s all right here in front of us. And Fulgum has had a knack for presenting it in ways we can actually hear.
It turns out one day Fulgum decided to collect stories about love. He went to his favorite Seattle coffeehouse took over a small table and set up a sign. It read "Tell me a love story and I'll buy you a cup of coffee and make you famous." My colleague Robert Hardies saw a sermon in this. And I agree, Robert, the Hardies Robert observed of these stories “The only requirements were that they be short stories, and true. At first people hesitated, he, (Fulgum) said, they'd ‘roll their eyes and laugh and say they had a love story all right, but it wasn't short and it wasn't sweet.’ But with a little encouragement… they told it anyways. Drawn by the sign, people gathered 'round his table and listened... Story led to story and often they drew applause from the sympathetic crowd.
“The shortest story came from a four-year-old girl who had been standing next to Fulghum's table sucking her thumb and holding a yellow blanket against her face. ‘Do you love your blanket?’ asked Fulghum. The little girl nodded her head, ‘yes.’ ‘Does your blanket love you?’ The child shook her head… ‘No, silly!’
“One of the most telling stories came from a woman named Rita, from Denver. Rita was in her early thirties and had just gotten a divorce from her husband who had abused her. Like so many who have survived a harmful relationship, she emerged from it feeling pretty unattractive and unlovable. She told Fulghum: ‘[One day] on my way to work, I pulled up at a stoplight and a gray car pulled up to the right of me. In the car was the most handsome man I have ever seen... no one has ever looked that good.’
"’I looked at him to see if he was going to turn at the red light. He didn't. He looked back at me and smiled as though looking at me had made his day worthwhile. I was instantly in love with this gorgeous gray-haired man… a minute later he turned right and I turned left. But I knew then that there was life after divorce, even if for only a moment at the stoplight.’”
Clearly we speak of love and we speak of many things. This word love is a complex and sometimes terrible term. I think it is important to recall how in George Orwell’s 1984, the Ministry of Love is charged with controlling the populace through a litany of abuse. Love can speak of horrific wounds, of betrayal and degradation. It can be about cruel parents or lovers singing a dark melody of abandonment. It can be about estrangement or resentment or jealousy. That word love can hint of hurts so deep no one can ever plumb their depths.
And, of course, love points to something more. Clearly when we talk of love we’re talking about fire. Like with fire, while it is among the most dangerous of things, without it we’re lost in the great night. Knowing it is something dangerous, knowing there are massively unhealthy aspects to it, knowing without it our lives are empty in the worst sense of that word, what is it precisely that compels so, that draws the human heart, that leads us down so many paths, good and ill?
Now I think for Robert Hardies our minister at All Soul’s in Washington, D.C., this wonderful, terrible, complex word love is a pretty good stand in for God. I think about that. Now for me, having the brain I have, I have to pick and poke and try and be as accurate as I can. So, I have problems with the word God when it is meant to stand for a consciousness separate from us, from you and me and the world that somehow plans and directs things. I find scant evidence for that kind of God. And yet, and yet, there is something large and terrible and beautiful in our human condition, and love in all its complexity seems a pretty good term for that large and terrible and beautiful thing. And somehow in some way attributing divinity to that love makes sense.
Here’s how I see it. One of my heroes is the Christian monk Thomas Merton. Merton tells us what this love as a large and terrible and beautiful thing can be in his Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, when he writes of an incident about half a century ago, how “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, (how more ordinary, mundane, superficial could you want it?) I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people. . . even though we were total strangers. (This is the heart of awakening: let me repeat it: I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, even though we were total strangers. Merton goes on) It was like waking from a dream of separateness. . . The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. . .” No doubt for me, Thomas sings to us of what love is at its deepest possible.
I think of Thomas Merton. I think of Robert Fulgum. I think of my young ministerial colleague. I think of Robert Hardies. I think of Jan. I think of my auntie. I think of our lay ministers and our care crew, I think of you all, and I sense that reality of connection, which Thomas sings of, and which calls every UU preacher relentlessly. I feel the connections, some healthy, some not, but all always there, and my heart breaks just a little and I see through the cracks and fissures the connection, a thread that binds all of it, all of us together.
This is the love I want to hold up for you to reflect on today. And this afternoon. And this evening. And for the whole of your, of our lives. For me this is the secret heart of the enterprise, the whole human enterprise. Here we are on a lovely Sunday morning. There are any number of other things we could be about. But instead here we are, gathered to hear again, and again, and again, that the whole thing is about love. It’s a dangerous and terrible love, no doubt. And one always needs to be careful. But it is also a love that shows us the way through. Today we celebrate something more than chocolates, given by someone, given by ourselves. We are about the delirious possibility of being human. Something, I believe that can only be uncovered as we allow love to present itself, and when we follow it all the way to the bottom.
Robert Hardies in his reflection eventually returns to Fulgum who describes a restaurant in his neighborhood. It has a sign on the door. “We reserve the right to serve only those in love, those who have been in love, or those who want to be in love.” May I suggest that’s our invitation here? This is the point of our gathering. This is the way that heals all hurts. If you take nothing else home with you, let it be this. The great project of the human condition is to learn how to love, love well, love fully. The rest, well as someone else once said on a similar subject, the rest is just commentary.
In the name of that flawed and divine Love, amen.