“A FAREWELL TO ALMS AND OTHER WORRISOME OBLIGATIONS”
A sermon preached April 24, 2016, by the Rev. William F. Schulz, Affiliated Community Minister and President of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee upon his impending retirement from full-time ministry.
A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
Gather the stars if you wish it so.
Gather the songs and keep them.
Gather the faces of women and men.
Gather for keeping years and years.
The most frightening moment of my ministry was the very first. I was nineteen years old and had arranged to be a summer intern at First Unitarian Church of Cleveland. Expecting to have dinner with the senior minister and to be told my duties, I arrived at the church one June evening about six o’clock. The minister, Arnold Westwood, met me in the parking lot which, I noticed, was surprisingly full. “Where shall we have dinner?” I asked Mr. Westwood. “Why, in the basement of the church,” he said. “There are 300 people down there at the last pot luck supper of the church year and I want you to go down there, greet every one of them, and be a minister.” These were the most terrifying words that had ever been spoken to me. Worse even than those I had heard from my ninety-eight-year old great aunt when I was five: “Come here, Bill, and give me a great big kiss on the lips.”
“But Mr. Westwood,” I stammered, “I haven’t the faintest idea how to be a minister.” “It’s easy,” he said. “Introduce yourself to each person; ask them a question about themselves; and, no matter what they answer, just reply “Oh, that’s fascinating!’” I was reminded that the humorist Stephen Potter said that, if you are ever at a loss for words at a cocktail party, just say, in relation to whatever subject is under discussion, “Well, yes, that’s true, but not in the South.” So I plunged into the church basement for my first experience of ministry and for 47 years I have been finding everything you say to me absolutely fascinating.
But of course I’m the preacher so it’s actually I who am supposed to be fascinating. In her history of fog in London, Christine Gordon says that in the 1920s the fog was so thick in London that one Sunday the parishioners at St. Paul’s Cathedral couldn’t even see the preacher in his high pulpit but they knew he was there because they could hear him droning on about his chosen topic which, ironically enough, was “Jesus: The Light of the World.” Ministers are paid to be fascinating; all you laypeople just come by it naturally.
So what I thought I’d do this morning is to talk about three topics, three themes, that have fascinated me for more than four decades; whether I do so in a fascinating fashion will be up to you to say. These three themes had a lot to do with my becoming a minister, which I officially did in this very room on the evening of November 9, 1975, when I was ordained here and installed as minister. To give you a dramatic sense of how long ago that was, we made not a single announcement that evening asking people to turn off their cellphones. Bur just to be clear for you younger people whose sense of time may be a little skewed, while the sanctuary was lit that night solely by candlelight, it was for aesthetic effect and not because electricity had not yet been discovered, thank you very much.
Three topics, then, that have animated my ministry: evil, authenticity and mortality. First, evil.
Since we’re enmeshed in the 1970s this morning, it is appropriate to make reference to a guru of the 1970s named M. Scott Peck who was a Christian psychiatrist. Peck’s best-selling book, The Road Less Traveled, was a precursor of all the self-help books available today, including the ever-popular Mama Gena’s School of Womanly Arts, published in 2013, which encourages those people with vaginas to make model casts of their vaginas out of Play-Doh. Peck was not nearly that imaginative but in one of his books, he gave an example of what he considered an act of evil: a teenage child killed himself with a hunting rifle and his parents, otherwise loving, gave the teenager’s younger brother that exact same hunting rifle as a Christmas present. Giving that gift, Peck, said, was an act of evil.
I have never forgotten this example, both because of its inherent power and because I did not think the parents guilty of evil. Stupidity, yes. Gross insensitivity, certainly. Naivete, maybe. Grief, of course. But evil? My guess is that the parents were experiencing huge remorse; that their living son reminded them constantly of what they regarded as their failing; and that they unconsciously sought to punish themselves further by endangering their younger son as well. This is tragic but not evil.
On the other hand, truly evil deeds are very real, as I learned on almost a daily basis at Amnesty International. To call those parents evil is to insult the memory of the victims of true evil. Ante Pavelic, the leader of the Croatian Fascists during World War, had his soldiers cut out the eyes of living Serb prisoners so that he could display a basket of those eyes on his office desk. Now that is pure evil.
And what is its cause? We act as if history’s evil perpetrators-in-chief, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, were of an alien race. We call terrorists and murderers “monstrous” or “barbaric” to distinguish them from ourselves. Now of course we know today that there may be a genetic predisposition to violence in some people. But, apart from that, we know that evil doesn’t just magically appear and that evil acts never take place in a vacuum.
Some years ago I preached to you a sermon called “The Wisest Thing I Know” and I quoted the theologian, Sam Keen, who said “Every day we are not mourning is a day we will be taking vengeance.” Every day, in other words, that we fail to own and work through our own pain, abuse, grief, or anger is a day we may be striking out at others. Can we truly believe that those who commit what we rightly call evil deeds—abusers, torturers, murderers–have all acted just out of perversity and suffered no prior injury themselves? Never trust someone who claims not to care about the hurt they have suffered.
But of course many of us suffer grievous emotional or physical injury and don’t become doers of massive evil. For that to happen requires at least two more things: a rationale or ideology that justifies the evil and an opportunity that feeds it. Ideologues of both left and the right are dangerous people. For, after all, if I have discovered the secret to human redemption, then all you who don’t get with the program are not just misguided. You are obstacles to perfection and deserve to be eradicated. As the journalist Katherine Whitehorn said, “You can recognize the people who live for others by the haunted look on the faces of the others.” I’ve spent a lot of my career fighting with ideologues of the right and despairing of ideologues of the left.
And yet personal injury and ideology are still not enough without opportunity. Evil flourishes when circumstances seed it. Economic stress; a lack of accountability of those with power; fear for our lives; mass hysteria—these and other conditions make the appearance of evil more likely.
But here’s the good news. We can stop it. We can stop evil in its tracks. Not everywhere and every time but often. We can heal the injured; we can reject the ideologue; and we can sew circumstances that make the appearance of evil less likely. That has been one of the great imperatives of my ministry: to understand evil and to do what little I could to stop it.
And then there has been a second theme that has animated my life and ministry and that has been the quest for authenticity. By “authenticity” I mean that the face I present to the world is as close to the “true Bill” as I can get it within the bounds of social propriety. In other words, I’m not faking it; I’m showing you who I really am. Jesus reacted authentically when he asked, “Who do you say that I am?” And the theologians replied, “You are the Alpha and the Omega; you are the eschatological manifestation of the Ground of All Being; you are the Logos, the Kerygma, manifested in conflict and decision in the humanizing process,” to which a stunned Jesus could only reply, “You’re kidding, I am?” Jesus didn’t want to represent himself to be someone he was not.
Now notice I said I wanted to be authentic “within the bounds of social propriety.” Some people think authenticity is an excuse for cruelty, for saying whatever comes into their heads, no matter how hurtful. I’m not talking about that. I know this will surprise you but it’s probably not quite true that every single thing people have said to me in the last forty-odd years has been absolutely fascinating. On the other hand, what’s there to gain by telling a well-meaning person who has just spent ten minutes sharing their deepest thoughts that they’ve discovered a sure-cure for putting hyperactive children to sleep? When I was minister here, I lived in the parsonage with a wonderful woman named Ruth Eggleton who was almost eighteen years my senior. We were not married and I know that that and our age difference made some people uncomfortable. I’m also sure we were subjects of much gossip and perhaps snickering. But Ruthie was an important part of my life and to deny the relationship would have been to live a lie. And what is so remarkable is that only one couple left the church because of our living arrangements and not a single person treated Ruth or me unkindly—not when we lived together and not after we split up. I have always been deeply grateful for the congregation’s inauthenticity.
And the other problem with authenticity, with trying to be who you really are, is that each one of us is many different things. I always groan at the advice to just “be yourself.” But which self should I be? I’ve conducted about 1500 job interviews over the years and generally those people who act as if they are just being themselves are the least likely to get the job. The only authentic way to be in an important job interview is anxious, uncertain and self-conscious, while, hopefully, displaying at least a modicum of competence.
But still, even with all these caveats, I think the best life strategy is to be as authentic a person as possible, consistent with kindness. I’ve known a lot of poseurs in my life and none of them seem really happy. Anger, tears, guilt, brokenness—they’re all real and all part of life and we each need places to share them. I’ve tried to model authenticity in my life and open doors for others to be themselves too. The world makes it tough to be true to yourself but church ought to be one place where you can come closer than most.
And then there’s been a third animating theme in my life and ministry and that is an awareness of mortality. This theme came to me early on when I was old enough to realize that as an only child surrounded solely by adults–parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts–but lacking siblings and first cousins, I would eventually be the only one standing and then I wouldn’t be standing either. I went into the ministry in part to try to be reconciled to the inevitable dying off of my family.
In the Unitarian Universalism of the 1950s and 60s in which I grew up, death was treated largely as an inconvenience. Ministers would assure people that human beings gain immortality through the legacies we leave and that death doesn’t make life overly sad, only overly precious. But legacies are pretty flimsy things to cling to in the middle of the night when your loved one is gone and, as Woody Allen famously said, “I don’t want to gain immortality through my work; I want to gain it through not dying.” It’s pretty clear, I think, that death makes life both overly precious and overly sad.
So in the 1970s I set these bromides aside and became an existentialist, fully embracing the bleakness of our finitude. With Dylan Thomas, I thought the only appropriate response to death was to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” But constant resentment is a hard emotion to maintain and ultimately not very productive so over the years, as the magnet of death has pulled me closer, I’ve become far more reconciled to my own mortality, if not to that of those I love.
This reconciliation takes different forms. I like to walk in cemeteries not only because they are peaceful but because they remind me that if all these folks could do it, I can too. I like to meditate regularly, to attend to my breath, grateful for every one of them, because, as Kung Fu Panda says, “Yesterday is history; tomorrow is a mystery; today is a gift—that’s why they call it The Present.” Every morning Beth and I take each other’s hands and say, “This day is a blessing to us as we are to each other.” I like to focus on the most ordinary things in life as manifestations of grace for, as the late UU minister Max Coots, put it, “We should eat our breakfast eggs as though they were the sacred elements of the Eucharist, welcome flocks of grosbeaks as if they were flights of angels and walk…barefoot on the common soil, speechless with the knowledge that it is holy ground.” I like to think about how miraculous it is that this particular combination of atoms, this momentary upsurge of consciousness called “Bill Schulz,” has even been here at all. Even more, I like to smile at the unfathomable vastness and complexity of the universe—with its black holes and quantum cosmology—a universe to which I am connected, tiny and insignificant though I be. I like to look at the ocean which, along with the stars, is a tangible reflection of that vastness, and know that, when my time comes, I will simply be welcomed back into the embrace of creation from which I came, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and that that will be ok. All these are ways to practice letting go. If you haven’t adopted your own such practices, I hope you someday will. None of them helps much when our loved ones go—the only thing that even comes close to helping with that is to touch hands with those who stayed—but they do make our own mortality a little bit easier to bear.
As does, I think, having lived a life for which we can be grateful. I hope to have many more years ahead of me but, as I retire from full-time ministry, I am struck by how completed the journey feels and how much I owe its success to matters over which I had no control—the privileged circumstances of my birth; the good fortune to have traveled the path with people of generous hearts; and the luck to have started my professional life in Bedford. I did what I set out to do all those years ago listening to John Charles Thomas reach for those high notes and now it’s time to be content.
I know not everyone feels content about their lives, often for good reason, but it’s never too late to start. A Chinese philosopher was once asked, “Where is the road called hope?” and the philosopher replied, “It does not exist but, as people walk upon, it suddenly appears.” Among the ways to make it appear are to do justice, live authentically and make friends with being mortal. Thank you for the opportunity you have given me these past few years to preach what I’ve tried to practice.
About Bill Schulz…
Bill Schulz will be retiring from full-time ministry and the Presidency of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) on July 1. He was ordained here at First Parish on Nov. 9, 1975 and installed as our minister. In 1978 he took a position with the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), where he served for fifteen years, the last eight as President of the UUA. From 1994-2006, he was Executive Director of Amnesty International USA followed by four years as a Senior Fellow for Human Rights at the Center for American Progress. He has been President of UUSC and an Affiliate Minister at this church since 2010. After his retirement from UUSC, Bill will remain an Affiliated Professor at Meadville/Lombard Theological School in Chicago and will become a Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.”