“Josh’s Swan Song”

“Josh’s Swan Song”
By Josh Leach
Delivered on May 28, 2017
At The First Parish in Bedford,MA

Thoughts to Ponder at the Beginning:

“In part because interns need to encounter the emotions associated with saying good-bye, it is customary for the intern not to maintain any contact with members of the teaching site for at least a year. […] When an intern has the opportunity to cope successfully with the grief that is a part of leaving, it enables them to gain that understanding of ministry as service.”

“I regret not having read the fine print.”

The summer of 2015, when I started my internship here, was a time of incredible hopefulness in my life. I was finally coming out of three long years of divinity school, which came immediately after my four years of college, and during much of that time I had felt directionless. As I approached graduation from div school, I was feeling immensely tired of being a student, but having not been anything else since the first day of kindergarten, I didn’t have the slightest idea what I would like to be instead. I had very little confidence in my ability to find a job and take care of myself on the education I had just received, and I know that at least some members of my extended family shared that skepticism. I felt that my life so far had been spent as an absorber of other people’s knowledge and resources and that I hadn’t done much so far to justify the investment.

But just as I was approaching commencement day in Spring 2015, at which time I assumed the bell would sound at midnight and I’d become an ordinary pumpkin again, a number of things mysteriously started to work out all at once. An email I sent to First Parish in Bedford yielded the reply that actually, they were still interested in interviewing potential student ministers. An application for what I then expected to just be a part-time summer internship at UUSC found me taking my first remunerative employment in the human rights sector. A call to clergy to join Rev. William Barber in Winston-Salem for a massive voting rights march in North Carolina found my dad and me driving South for what is probably the closest equivalent to a Freedom Summer I will ever experience. It was a season of daydreams. I spent hours stretched on the floor of the first single apartment I’d ever inhabited, listening to Bill Clinton’s My Life on audiobook, and thinking what a better Bill Clinton I would be, in my own ascent to glory.

That’s what summers are good for. More so than other seasons. Because when it came to an end, I was suddenly faced with the prospect that now I had to actually do all the work I had just committed myself to – and in particular, I had to get up and talk in front of all those people, and somehow seem like I knew what I was doing.

In my second or third service here at First Parish that August, I think we only made it about halfway through the prelude before I did the one thing I had just been warned seven or eight times not to do – namely, I turned off the mic without first turning off the sound system – or maybe it’s the other way around – anyways, this is why this is why it’s an easy mistake to make! Whatever I did, the common room was immediately flooded by the most horrible sound of shrieking static imaginable, and I stumbled out of the A/V closet trailing mops and brooms and saying “Um, sorry, sorry,” while people clutched at their ears.

During my early services in the sanctuary, I was so nervous that I would close my eyes and count up to ten and back again over and over during every welcome and announcements. My greatest fear was not that I would freeze up or lose my words or say the wrong thing. No, what I truly dreaded, in my heart of hearts, was that one of these days, I was going to get up there on the chancel, start in on my part in the service, and immediately throw up! I don’t know how that one even occurred to me. I guess it seemed like just the sort of cruelly ironic thing that would happen at the start of my internship, and follow me ever after. “All I had to do was read opening words,” I would ruefully tell my grandchildren, “How hard is that? But when I opened my mouth, guess what came out instead?” This wasn’t entirely helped by the fact that John has occasionally displayed a kind of sinister intuition in this matter, sending a text to Megan and me after a service, if he has been away, bearing the question: “How did it go – did anyone faint or vomit?”

So far, no one has, to my knowledge. Not that it actually would be the end of the world if they did. People would probably rush to help me off the chancel, clean up the mess, and share a laugh about it afterward. But at that point, I didn’t yet know the full generosity of spirit of this place. I didn’t know at what point I might be cast out and told never to return. And maybe that’s okay. For one thing, it kept the bar at a manageable height. In those early services, all I had to do was not throw up, and I was pleased with myself. The deeper questions of the sermon’s quality, etc. could wait. Moreover, the fear kept me on my toes. Reflecting on this leads me to the first of my four lessons that I learned in my two-year internship, and that I wish to convey in this sermon. Lesson number one is that it’s not always such a bad thing to be nervous, especially in the ministry.

The times when I have found myself messing up in this role have almost never been when I was most anxious. Moderate anxiety is, for better or worse, a great sharpener and focuser of the mind, and ministry requires a willingness to keep oneself in a certain state of tension. One thing you notice early on in this role is that it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve gotten something right in the past – the real question is always – how is it going to go this time? Ministry is, for better or worse, one of the ephemeral arts, like a network broadcast that is transmitted live.

When I have slipped up as an intern here, it was far more often due to over-confidence, or a belief that I could allow myself to relax that tension. In my second summer here, during the first of the August services, I strode in thinking that by this point, I could do the job in my sleep. I quickly realized it was harder to come up with Welcome and Announcements on the spot than I remembered. Ministry requires keeping a firm grip on the wheel at all moments, lest the sea sweep you off in another direction. One interruption in the routine sets off a chain of further consequences. Four weeks away from the end of your internship, you may be tempted to believe – for instance – that somehow, with so little time left to go, the ordinary laws of dry cleaning will no longer apply. Of course you will still have clean and freshly-pressed clothes to wear when you open your closet door Sunday morning, you tell yourself! But lo, the dry cleaning gods have moved on. The frantic search through the hamper for something still modestly wearable yields lateness, which yields haste, which yields lack of morning coffee, and the problems pile on from there.

You have to keep on top of things in the ministry. This is a harsh truth. But it can be balanced by another. Because it so happens that no matter how white-knuckled a grip you keep on yourself as a minister, you will still manage to screw up, and this is where lesson number two comes in handy. It is as follows: When you do make mistakes, just remember that all of your insecurity, awkwardness, embarrassment, and humiliation can actually be turned to your advantage. To achieve this magical result, the great alchemy is humor, combined with the ability to say you’re sorry. People will forgive a great deal if you are capable of finding the humor in yourself, and – in more serious matters – to be able to offer a sincere apology. If I had appreciated this fully at the front end of my internship, I might not have spent so many moments of terror in the front pew in those first months. If as the new student minister I had actually thrown up on the chancel the first time I opened my mouth, for instance, it would have made quite a story for future sermons– I would just have to make sure that I became the curator of that story myself. If anyone is going to take out and display one’s more humiliating episodes like so many museum pieces, it is always better that it be oneself than anyone else.

I began to learn this early on in my internship, and I dare to say that one ministerial art in which I have achieved genuine competence since then, is that of the self-deprecating – even mortifying – personal anecdote. I recall one Sunday this past winter, when both John and Megan were away, when I woke up the morning of a service in which I was scheduled to preach. I managed to get dressed and have breakfast and be entirely ready to go, all before I came to the horrifying recollection that I had gotten a ride home from dinner the previous evening from someone else, and had therefore left my car overnight in the Wellington Station parking garage at the end of the Orange Line – a twenty-minute flat-out run from my apartment. As I sprinted over there that morning, two thoughts kept going through my mind. The first was the drumbeat of options I might pursue if I found the parking garage closed when I got there, or if my car had been towed in the middle of the night – including every one of the limited number of First Parish phone numbers I had stored on my device. Call a taxi, call Judi Curcio, call Diana Finer, call Christine Dudley-Marling, was the chant going through my head. But the second thought, never far from the first, was: “Oh well, once I get there, at least now I’ve got a good story for welcome and announcements.” I had been searching up to then for a hook, and here it was!

So that’s lessons one and two. Both, as you can see, are strategies after a fashion for forestalling and managing difficulties that arise in ministry. There are also times in this role, however – as in any profession – where all one’s craft and strategy still aren’t enough. Sometimes things are just really hard. And if I could go back and advise my Summer of 2015 self about what he should do to prepare for them, I don’t think I would tell him to shy away. But I would tell him never to feel trapped by these moments of real difficulty, but to approach them as challenges that he could just as easily have avoided, but that he is choosing to undertake because they serve a goal that matters. I recall something that was once said along these lines by a British vegetarian I knew in school. He was being taunted over lunch by a carnivorous classmate of ours who was shaking a cheeseburger under his nose and saying “ha ha, you can’t have this!” “I can have it,” the vegetarian replied, with devastating wit, “But I choose not to, because it’s horribly immoral.”

That’s lesson number three, in sum. It is to always remember and respect your own freedom. Don’t ever believe that you have to be a minister, or anything else, because you don’t. If you do stay on in the ministry or in a particular role, it’s because you have made a choice that morning to do so – a choice you could, if you were so inclined, reverse that afternoon, or sooner. And it is, paradoxically, this very ability to give ourselves permission to leave that often enables us to carry on in moments of crisis. It is the reminder that we have the agency to refuse to do something that allows us to go ahead and do it.

I have been struck more than once in my life by the fact that things that I thought my parents really wanted me to do, were the things I found it utterly impossible to do, whereas as soon as I realized they had given up hope of trying to convince me, I was suddenly able to do it. Most of the times I’ve ever taken any decisive step in matters educational or professional would fall into this category. There is a passage in a Philip Roth novel in which a young woman seeks advice on her career path from her two parents. “[Her mother] was sure to tell her to forge ahead,” writes Roth, “leaving [her] overwhelmed and feeling trapped; with [her father] there was the possibility that, if [she] made a compelling case against her own persevering, he would tell her that, if she wished, she could cut her losses and quit – which would, in turn, give her the gumption to go on.”

A convenient handle for this third lesson was provided to me by a list of advice about maintaining healthy professional boundaries that John once handed me, which was written by Rev. Ken Hurto. One of the items on the list read simply: “Keep Your Bags Packed.” What it meant was: maintain a level of emotional detachment from your professional role. Don’t let your job become your life, because this will actually deter you from being able to take the risks that you will need to take in order to do your job well. You may recall that this advice provoked a sermon from me last year on the subject of Mary Poppins as the ideal minister, since her bags are so completely packed that she can float off with her umbrella at a moment’s notice when her work is done.

In that service, I focused almost exclusively on the reassuring aspect of this notion of keeping one’s bags packed. It’s helpful to remember, after all, when the going gets tough, that you do have the power to leave if you choose. As I approach the end of my internship, however, the much more emotionally trying aspect of this good advice also comes to the fore. Because the other reason to keep your bags packed is that one day, eventually, you are going to have to leave. This is all the more true when you are a student minister, here for a defined two-year commitment. And the advice is all the more bitter when the place one is leaving is First Parish Bedford.

I knew this going in, of course. It’s very much part of the deal, and at least one can say that it’s probably easier to leave a place you have only been for two-years, than it is to leave some of the much longer-term ministerial placements that come later in one’s career. Yet even in this brief period of time, and almost imperceptibly, I have gotten to be intensely attached to this place. I couldn’t help it. It wasn’t playing fair on First Parish’s part for you all to be such an unusually fun and vibrant internship site. Where else could I have been a zombie elevator operator, a puppeteer, an answerer of OWL question box questions such as “What is the air-speed velocity of an un-laden swallow?”, and a teacher of all the wackier passages of the Bible, even the parts where God tries to kill Moses and where Onan is struck dead for failing to impregnate his brother’s widow, and somehow gotten away with calling all of it “work”? This congregation has obviously been a big part of my life, to put it mildly, and a good part too. As my parents once remarked after paying a visit here, “this congregation is so … supportive.” (They have spent a lot of time in different congregations, in different parts of the country, and there was perhaps an implied comparison underlying these words.) The advice to just put out my umbrella and float away on the breeze is suddenly seeming a lot harder than I thought.

But the last of the four lessons I have learned is that there is a time when one has to leave nonetheless, even though it is hard. There comes a point at which to stay on in a particular role is appealing to one’s sense of ego, but would not ultimately serve the larger goals for which we come together in community in the first place. And it is the latter that has to be given priority.

Perhaps the most rewarding illustration of this truth for me during my internship came from my work with the sanctuary task force. It was immensely gratifying to me from the start to be a part of this project and to see the interest it received from others. Not only is sanctuary an issue that mattes to me a great deal, it was also something specific I could point to in my internship, when I was feeling blue, to say that here perhaps was a seed that I had helped to plant that might blossom into something lasting, even if the soil, water, and nutrients were provided by others.

There was definitely a period not that long ago, however, when it was not looking like it was going to work out in accordance with my hopes. For much of the last year, the task force lacked a stable meeting schedule and lay leadership, which left me as the nominal convener of our sessions. This is a situation that no committee should ever be in. I flatter myself that I possess certain abilities, but organizing anything more complicated than a suitcase is not one of them. We’ve already heard today about my issues with dry cleaning, so you can imagine that remembering to book a meeting room with Joan every week and printing a thorough agenda were often things that got done too late in the game, if they got done at all. Added to this was the fact that I had just started a full-time job at UUSC, and in order to get to Bedford by 7 o’clock on a Wednesday night required an impossible fight through traffic and construction that could easily last two hours.

By the sheer fact of incapacity, and the knowledge that I would have to leave one way or the other at the end of the year, I began to step back from the leadership of the sanctuary task force. It was a perilous moment, in which I feared that the whole group might unravel and we wouldn’t ever get to the vote on the measure itself. But instead, something miraculous occurred. The necessary leadership materialized, in the form of Christine and Vito. All of a sudden, I’d show up for a Wednesday night meeting, and an agenda would already be printed, and a list of action steps, and none of it came from me! Members of the congregation were leading on this, and doing a much better job of it than I could have done. Sanctuary was no longer the half-baked scheme of an outside agitator, but something that had real life in our community.

To get to that point required admitting to myself that it was okay to step back. That the whole project did not depend on me, and in fact – this was a good thing! It meant putting the success of sanctuary itself, the cause for which we had come together at all, above my own need to feel needed. And while for a time I felt that this must be proof of my inadequacies as a community organizer, I was gratified to see in a later reading of Saul Alinsky that this is exactly how it is supposed to go, at least according to him. For Alinsky, the true test of the organizer is not whether they can step into the role of leadership – but whether they know when it is time to bow out. While it may be neither possible nor desirable to ask organizers to surrender all sense of personal pride or ego in their work, the work demands that they be able to take pride in seeing collective endeavors in which they have played a part carry on without them, rather than investing their sense of self in being the center of attention. He writes:

No would-be organizer afflicted with egotism can avoid hiding this from the people with whom they are working, no contrived humility can conceal it. Nothing antagonizes people and alienates them from a would-be organizer more than the revealing flashes of arrogance, vanity, impatience, and contempt of a personal egotism. [This is what sets apart the true organizer from the mere “leader.”] The ego of the organizer is stronger and more monumental than the ego
of the leader. The leader is driven by the desire for power, while the
organizer is driven by the desire to create. The organizer is in a true sense
reaching for the highest level for which [human beings] can reach — to create, to be a “great creator,” to play God. […] They conceive of creation as the very essence of the meaning of life. […] The leader goes on to build power to fulfill their desires. The organizer finds their goal in creation of power for others to use.

I believe that much the same applies to ministers. The minister at last needs to be an organizer, in Alinsky’s sense of the term, rather than a leader. A minister must be able to prioritize the goal of building the power of humanity to create a more just and compassionate world, over any sense of personal prestige. They need to place the values of this denomination, which are the reason that we ordain ministers in the first place, above their attachment to any one position, congregation, or office. As Mark Morrison-Reed once put in, in describing the tragic “fine print” of ministry: the minister often has to “die to the congregation” when they leave “so that the ministry might live.”

This is a tall order, and far and away the hardest of the four lessons I am discussing in this sermon. But it is one that all of us, not just ministers, must try to teach ourselves, in our search for life’s meaning. While not everyone is faced with the heartbreak of having to leave a beloved congregation, we all – of whatever profession – will one day have to leave the congregation of humanity, the community of this planet. Our individual selves will not last forever. To eventually make our peace with our mortality, we must find meaning in the continuity of the larger human family, of which we are a part. We must find an affection for life itself, and a fierce willingness to protect it, over and above our life as individual beings. We must delight in the creation and enrichment of life for others, because that is the true immortality.

Ministry, it turns out, is a good preparation – among other things – for living. Which is a bold statement, but it’s hard for me to overstate the gift this congregation has given me over the past two years.

My sincerest blessings for the journey ahead, for all our future partings and beginnings, and for human life itself, which ends for every one of us, but which for all of us, is endless. May it be so. Amen.

Please join me in our closing hymn, No. 337, “Have I Not Known,” sung to the tune of “And did those feet…” if you know that one.

Our closing words are adapted from William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience. They were also the Closing Words I used in the first ever sermon I preached here at Bedford, so I offer them here as a way of coming full circle:

Sometimes books and words (and people) come to one’s awareness just at the very moment one needs them;.

Sometimes one glides over great dangers as if with shut eyes;

Sometimes the paths on which one ought not to wander are, as it were, hedged off with thorns;
Sometimes on the other side great obstacles are suddenly removed;

Sometimes when the time has come for something, one suddenly receives a courage that formerly failed;
Or one discovers thoughts, talents, even pieces of knowledge, in one’s self, that one didn’t know were there;

Sometimes a thing occurs to us at the right moment, just as it ought to do.

Sometimes, too, persons are sent to us at the right time, to offer what we would never have had the courage or resolution to undertake on our own.

Sometimes the highest resources of human cunning are unable to attain…
That which comes to us of its own accord.