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Last month we started ending our services with a benediction. We already had a benediction–different words each week–but it felt swallowed up in the chalice extinguishing, and then hemmed in on the other side by the postlude. Also, at Palo Alto people want to applaud the musicians, so when the postlude is the very last thing, the service ends with applause. This doesn’t always feel appropriate to the theme or mood of the service, and it tends to create the feeling that one has been at a performance.
I have visited other congregations where the very last words are a blessing, and I’ve loved the way it felt. It seemed right to have the postlude (followed by its applause) and then an element that would help us to leave with a sense of participation, mutual care, and a turning outwards. So what words of blessing? I knew I wanted them to be something we all said to each other and that we said each week, and I knew I wanted for us to make a physical connection.
I have a great affection for this passage from the preface to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and will probably give a sermon on it sometime (I could fill a book with thoughts just on the most perplexing line, “Argue not concerning God”), but it isn’t really right. It sounds like a command more than an invitation, albeit a command to do some terrific things.
Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.
Dan Harper, who is our Associate Minister of Religious Education, and I both had stories relating to the benediction said in the Concord, Massachusetts, church, where he grew up and I have visited. Actually, it was the same story: of going to the home of someone who belonged to the congregation (they were not the same someones, but two separate families) and finding that they’d put the words of the benediction on their doors, where they would see them each time they left the house. They had become a blessing that they bestowed on themselves daily.
I knew them and liked them and wondered where they’d come from, so I poked around a little. First, here’s the Concord version:
Go out into the world in peace
Hold on to what is good
Return to no person evil for evil
Strengthen the faint-hearted
Support the weak
Help the suffering
Honor all beings.
The Rev. Dr. Brent Smith has this on his website–I’m not sure whether it was, and/or is still, a regular feature at All Souls in Tulsa, where he previously served:
Be of good courage.
Search all things, and hold fast to that which is good.
Render unto no one evil for evil.
Strengthen the faint-hearted, support the weak, help the afflicted.
Love all men. Love all women. Love all children.
Love all souls, serving the Most High;
And rejoicing in the power of the Spirit. Amen.
I’m guessing that both have their origins in the Presbyterian Worship Book, because I found another site listing this, used by the Rev. Herb Swanson when he was interim pastor at St. John United Church, Columbia, Maryland, and described as “adapted from the Presbyterian Worship Book and the Bible”:
Go out into the world in peace; have courage; hold on to what is good; return no one evil for evil; strengthen the faint-hearted; support the weak; help the suffering. Honor every person that you meet. and Love and Serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.
I liked the Concord version, and pondered if anything essential to my theology was missing. There were two things: beauty and–to a lesser extent, since it was already implicit–love. I wrote two more lines and ended up with this:
Go out into the world in peace
Be of good courage
Hold fast to what is good
Return no one evil for evil
Strengthen the faint-hearted
Support the weak
Help the suffering
Rejoice in beauty
Speak love with word and deed
Honor all beings.
We have been ending the service by taking hands and saying it–a feat that the people at UUCPA attempt with good humor, since it’s not easy to hold hands and hold a piece of paper at the same time–and I see a lot of smiles. Maybe we are feeling our very flesh become a great poem.
I proposed a course called “Preaching on the Edge” to Starr King School for the Ministry for next year or later, with this 100-word description:
Great preaching takes risks and emboldens the listeners to do the same. When we go out onto the edge of our experience, our words can be more alive and authentic. When we meet the listeners on the forward edge of their experience, our words have more power to transform them. As we observe and practice different approaches to creating and delivering sermons, we will explore: spiritual practices, ministerial roles, use of the body and voice, interaction with other elements of worship, how to walk the line of appropriate risk, and responding to political, pastoral, and spiritual matters.
Few courses are accepted each year, so I don’t know when I’ll get to teach it, but I keep thinking about the ideas and assignments, and refining the syllabus. It encapsulates so much of where my preaching has been heading in the last few years. In fact, things have shifted so much that when I first proposed a course to SKSM, four years ago, no way would I have offered a course of this description, or any preaching class. I wasn’t taking, or asking, the kinds of risks then that I do now. I’m braver. When I first thought of this course, I conceived of it as “Preaching Without a Net,” but that isn’t quite right. There is a net. Finding yours is part of being a better preacher, or taking any of the brave, scary steps that life might demand.
What do you think, givers of sermons and listeners to sermons? Does your experience of the great ones match the description I’ve given?
I was inspired by a Facebook friend’s inquiry (“What songs give you goosebumps every time?”) to bring Dylan’s Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3 in the car yesterday and start it up at “Blind Willie McTell.” The goosebumps are still there.
Something I love about Dylan is that how, when he has a refrain, he will sing it differently every time. There it was on “Blind Willie McTell,” five verses and the two-line refrain sung five different ways. Next song, “When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky,” same thing. I’ve been listening to “Jokerman” for 25 years, hearing new things in it all the time, and part of the reason is that no two refrains are sung the same way.
It doesn’t sound at all gimmicky the way Dylan does it, but like the result of a singer really listening to the words he sings. He’s there with every nuance of meaning, with what’s happened in the preceding verse, and it flows out in his voice. When a singer elicits so much from the music–when his voice is so present to his words, gives them such immediacy and power, reaches down through the depths and pulls so many layers of meaning from them–the listeners do the same. My dream of a perfect Sunday morning is for my preaching to be like that.
This is hard to say, because Unitarian Universalists generally treat Thou Shalt Adore the Poetry of Mary Oliver as a commandment, except that we don’t do commandments, but I need to confess. Oh wait, we don’t do confession either. (Though we ought to. That’s for another post.)
Never mind. The point is, I think Mary Oliver is mediocre. In fact, it’s gotten to the point that I cringe when the lovely images are drawing to the inevitable conclusion, the moment when Oliver says “Look” or “Listen” and then starts asking us rhetorical questions. It’s like coming to the end of a fable by Aesop.
I am not a person who believes that poems should have morals tacked on to the end. In my experience, the best poems, the ones that eventually turn my life inside out and, like Rilke’s Apollo, inform me that I must change it, are rarely the ones that tell me in plain language what I ought to do. They are more likely to make me say “huh?” I have to read them many times before I dig out their deeper meanings, and when I hold one of those meanings in my hand I know it’s the first of many, that that poem will keep revealing more to me the more times I read it. Oliver’s poems are, in a word, obvious. When she says, or implies, “Look!” I want to say, “Hey, you’re the poet. Don’t tell me to look. Just give me something to look at, something so compelling that I don’t need to be told what to do, and scoot yourself out of the way so that I can see it.”
I once came across an essay on the internet that said better than I can why she isn’t a very good poet and, damn it, is too good not to be a very good poet, but the internet being what it is, I have no idea where to find it again. It expressed my central frustration with Oliver: that someone who can evoke the experiences of the senses so well with words, who seems so perceptive and grounded, who can see the world with clarity, and yet stops short of creating really complex art, is very disappointing.
However, the failings of her poetry make it an excellent source for liturgy. In a worship service, just as the hymns must be fairly simple to sing, the readings have to convey their meaning the first time, to listeners who don’t have another chance to go back and read them again or hear them again (though in our contemplative midweek services, we sometimes do each reading twice). They can be layered, but they also have to be very accessible. They can’t have a very big “huh?” factor. This is why I seldom use my favorite poems in services. Those require absorption; they require analysis and reflection, and many rereadings; then they take off the top of your head, to quote one of my favorite, profoundly “huh?”-inducing poets, Emily Dickinson. You often can’t get them on the first go-round. Or you might pick up something of their wisdom, but you’ll grab on to the easiest bit. Like that last line of “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” by Rainer Maria Rilke, which sounds like a moral and seems easy to grasp. But having grasped it, we still need to spend more time with the poem in order to have any sense of why, how, a headless torso can see us so penetratingly that we know we must change. At least, I did. Rilke’s language is easy (a German speaker once told me it is notable for its simplicity) but his meaning is not. Spend a little time with this poem and you may see what I mean.
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
Of course, you can use readings in a Sunday service that will have meaning on first hearing and then also repay further reading and reflection. But those are harder to find. The poems that offer most on the surface are seldom the ones that offer much more on reflection–that are, in short, great poems. Oliver’s poems are good liturgy for the same reason they are mediocre poetry. They deliver a poignant thought or a morsel of good advice for living, they do it with graceful language, they offer up images the mind can easily hold, and they have very little in them to distract the listener with “Wait, I didn’t get that bit.” They lead one with silken inexorability to a conclusion. That’s not what I look for in a poem, but it’s exactly what I need when I’m sitting in a worship service, or shaping one.
Leadership is a partnership. Just as some of my peak moments occur when I am helping to bring out the best in my congregation, others occur when the people of the congregation are bringing out the best that I have to give. I had one of those moments this past Sunday. I’d changed my topic the moment I heard the news (and oh, how glad I was that I’d turned on the computer. I could have found out about Tucson on Sunday morning on my way in to church . . . ). I didn’t have the kind of time for reflection and writing that I usually do, but that was how it had to be.
Looking down at the mishmash of paragraphs and margin notes and don’t-forget-to-mentions in my hand as I came to the pulpit, I was very tempted to preface the sermon with an apology, which was really an excuse: “Please bear with me if this isn’t as cohesive as I’d like. I was up most of the night, I’m sure you understand . . . ” But that would be a disservice to the listeners.
So I just plunged in. I spoke from the heart, and a bruised and uncertain heart it was, and I could do that because my congregation values it. Sure they want the preacher to make sense, but they care most about passion and are willing to bounce over the rough spots. Because they’ve made that clear, I could let go of my own nerves about wanting to give a more polished presentation than was possible, and give them the passion. They are making me a better preacher all the time. I’m so happy they’re my partners in this ministry.