The Poetry Of Mary Oliver In Unitarian Universalist Liturgy

[This was originally a paper I wrote for my doctoral program in 2008. – Victoria Weinstein]

There’s Something About Mary: The Poetry Of Mary Oliver Among Unitarian Universalists

There are three poems by Mary Oliver in the most recent Unitarian Universalist hymn book, Singing the Living Tradition.  To put her prominence in context, there are six readings in the hymnal by Ralph Waldo Emerson, one by Henry David Thoreau, seven by Rabindranath Tagore, and eleven from the Book of Isaiah. She is therefore not overly-represented in the hymn book, but is unquestionably the poet of choice in Unitarian Universalist congregations all over the country and was chosen to give the prestigious Ware Lecture at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in 2007. If any secular literary source can be said to have achieved the status of “sacred scripture” within a religious movement, it is safe to say this of Mary Oliver’s poetry among the Unitarian Universalists.

As a woman named Marcia wrote recently on a blog posting asking Unitarian Universalists to comment about the prevalence of Mary Oliver poetry in their worship services, “All I know is that when people ask me if we read from the bible during worship services, i say ‘Yes, but not as often as we read mary oliver.’[1]  On the same post a woman named Terri comments, “The very first UU service I attended featured a Mary Oliver poem…and the very first UU small group session I attended on Prayer used her poem “Morning Poem”[2]

Unitarian Universlist minister Judy Welles writes,

I use Mary Oliver a LOT. . . I love the simplicity of her poetry; I respect the art of saying something very rich and nuanced with just a very few words. She is a MASTER at that. And she loves life so much. And she is so grateful. She takes great pleasure in simple things, notices things to be grateful for that most of us would miss. To put it simply: she knocks my socks off.[3]


So what is this about? What about Mary Oliver’s poetry speaks so powerfully to members of this small religious movement? I have two key theories, one positive and one more cynical, that I want to explore more fully in this paper:

  1. Oliver writes poetry that is imbued with theology that is particularly resonant with the Transcendentalist, neo-pagan and ambiguously Theistic strands of Unitarian Universalism (I use the term “ambiguously Theistic” to refer to those who do not identify as traditional Theists, but who may be agnostic with a strong mystical bent, or atheistic with a sense of immanent divinity that, for personal reasons, they refuse to name as God). Oliver’s talent for capturing theophany and immanence in a few verses or images is breathtaking. She is the Muse of choice for many who have trouble articulating the holiness in everyday things and events, but who strongly feel its presence.
  2. Oliver writes poetry that is almost entirely interior; preoccupied with private thoughts, feelings and reactions to her immediate natural surroundings. It is the rare poem that takes Oliver into an urban or even suburban setting or finds her among a group of other human beings. In her poetic persona, she prefers the company of her dog, irises, otters or grasshoppers to that of people (save her beloved partner Molly Malone Cook who appears unnamed in many of her poems).  “Oliver worship” within Unitarian Universalism in the current era may represent, therefore, a holding onto rampant individualism and self-absorption that is currently being challenged by 21st century proponents of a far stronger community ethos in the denomination.

Speaking as an individual, I am a sincere fan of Mary Oliver’s poetry. Speaking as a minister and liturgist, I believe that her prevalence in Unitarian Universalist worship is a mixed blessing, and that her poetry should be more intentionally balanced with other poetic voices; especially those that lift up the importance of seeking transcendence truths in community.


The first reading by Mary Oliver that appears in Singing the Living Tradition is her poem “Wild Geese,” (from Dream Work, 1986).  It is reprinted in its entirety but made into a responsive reading, as the italics will indicate:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.


Imagine the reaction of the newcomer to Unitarian Universalist worship hearing a minister or liturgist intone that first line, “You do not have to be good.”

You do not have to be good!?? What kind of religion is this, anyway?  Read in a private context, I find this poem to be a beautiful statement of spiritual freedom, rejection of the efficacy of religious guilt to effect healing and wholeness (“you do not have to walk on your knees …repenting”) and a celebration of the interdependence of all life and each person’s special place in it.  Read in a corporate context, however, this poem makes me cringe.  Phrases like, “You do not have to be good” and “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves” – so hospitable to the individual reader’s soul, sound to my ear very weak and permissive theology when read responsively in a worship setting.  Do worshipers hear these words differently in the privacy of home versus the public space of the religious meetinghouse?  Are preachers being entirely responsible when they use them and then do not exegete them somewhere in the service? Or do worshipers have an instinctive understanding that poetry within the context of worship is not, in fact, literally sacred scripture but one possible illumination among many of the preacher’s message and the community’s values?

One Unitarian Universalist wrote, “[Oliver’s] poem ‘Wild Geese’ is sort of like a creed to me (and I share this in common with a minister friend of mine, who also committed the poem to heart).[4]  Given that Unitarian Universalists reject creeds, such a comment is surprisingly fervent. Another active Unitarian Universalist gave the poem even higher prominence in her spiritual life, writing,

I love Mary Oliver because her poems “West Wind #2,” “Wild Geese,” and “The Journey” saved my life–literally. They gave me the strength and courage to do some hard things–basically to get out of a life that was killing me, and into one that is full of love and joy. Oliver will always hold a special place in my heart for that.[5]

In a religious tradition that has largely abandoned language of salvation in the 21st century (emphasizing, if anything, that humanity has to save itself), it is perhaps inevitable that its adherents will seek salvific messages where they can find them in other, extra-congregational sources.

The second Mary Oliver poem which appears in the Unitarian Universalist hymnbook (also from Dream Work) is “Morning Poem.”  Again, italicized portions indicate the intention that this be used as an antiphonal or responsive reading:

Every morning the world is


Under the orange sticks of the

sun the heaped ashes of the

night turn into leaves again.

And fasten themselves to the high

branches – and the ponds appear

like black cloth on which are

painted islands of summer lilies.


If it is your nature to be happy

you will swim away along

the soft trails for hours, your

imagination alighting



And if you spirit carries within it

the thorn that is heavier than

lead – if it’s all you can do to keep on trudging –


There is still somewhere deep

within you a beast shouting

that the earth is exactly what

it wanted –


Each ponds with its blazing lilies is

a prayer heard and answered

lavishly, every morning,


Whether or not you have ever

dared to be happy,

whether or not you have ever

dared to pray.

Like “Wild Geese,” “Morning Poem” addresses the suffering individual (“the spirit that carries the thorn that is heavier than lead”), claims that the individual is in the right place (Nature or Earth) and affirms that that place is inherently sacred.  There are resonances with the Book of Genesis in the first line (“Each morning the world is created”), and again, the human is affectionately reduced to the most creaturely of beings (“soft animal” in “Wild Geese” and “a beast” in “Morning Poem”).  As in “Wild Geese,” “Morning Poem” claims that whether or not the human being is particularly religious (“whether or not you have ever dared to pray”), the natural world invites each person to actively participate in the immanent, divine order of things.  It is a reading which, when I ventured to try it with a congregation during worship, did not flow very well, but it contains some memorably beautiful images (the orange sticks of the sun/the pond with the blazing lilies) and a comforting theological message that traditional spiritual practices are not necessary to commune with the “answered prayer” that is Nature.

Emerson and Thoreau said much the same thing in far more prosaic language in the 19th century, of course, unintentionally striking a nearly-fatal blow to the nascent Unitarian movement and leaving a legacy of anti-institutionalism and sporadic church-going that has not abated since their time.  Oliver is a worthy heir to this strand of the Transcendentalist tradition, enthusiastically exhorting the reader to throw themselves down in the grass and worship in that manner, or to do so by floating in a pond, or by spending a summer’s day savoring blackberries on one’s “happy tongue.”

In the last of her contributions to the Unitarian Universalist hymn book, Oliver’s poem “In Blackwater Woods”[6] is excerpted as follows:

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

This is a fitting final verse of a poem that juxtaposes satisfaction and goodness (trees turning their own bodies “into pillars of light”) with sadness and even nihilistic imagery (“every pond/no matter what its name is/is nameless now”), but it seems a startlingly inappropriate message for a church to perpetuate.

For one thing, Oliver makes a definitive pastoral statement that works beautifully for her poem but that has no place in a institution whose founder advised us not to love what is mortal as though our lives depended on it, but to love God in that manner, because our lives do depend on it. Similarly, this poem strikes me as a questionable inclusion in a hymn book because, taken out of context of the larger poem, the phrases read as a therapeutic sound bite for “getting over” losses one might have suffered.  Who is to say when the time is to “let it go?” Mary Oliver doesn’t say, but grieving worshipers hearing this on a Sunday morning might legitimately wonder if they are being in some way admonished for not being able to “live in this world” appropriately.  This might be an overly-sensitive concern, but if people are listening carefully for images of God that may offend them (as they often are in a Unitarian Universalist congregation where the vast majority are “come-outers” from more conservative faith traditions– or who come unchurched and critical of traditional religion), are they not listening especially carefully also for words that may spiritually guide and advise them?

Mary Oliver is at her best and most theologically inspiring when writing about theophanies in ordinary life. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection American Primitive contains what are for me her finest poems in that vein.  In one poem, “The Kitten,” Oliver describes taking a stillborn kitten with one eye from her house cat’s bed and burying it in a field behind her house.

I suppose I could have given it

to a museum,

I could have called the local newspaper.

But instead I took it out into the field

and opened the earth

and put it back

saying, it was real,

saying, life is infinitely inventive. . .

The poet is saying that even this tiny dead being that would have been regarded as grotesque by most people is part of what is natural, and is therefore to be marveled at as evidence of an infinitely creative Creator.  It is her constant refrain; to render the unremarkable remarkable, and the ugly or even treacherous aspects of creation worthy of attention and reverence.  Oliver invites us into solidarity and fellowship with all of life.  She is the anti-Annie Dillard, who so delights in dashing sentimental or anthropomorphized notions of the natural world against the rocks of gleefully clinical descriptions of the horrors of Nature, “red in tooth and claw.”

Oliver’s magnificent poem “Humpbacks,” around which I once designed an entire worship service, is a glorious revelation of the theophany of the humpback whale (see Appendix B) as it “smashes through the surface” of the ocean and hangs “for some unbelievable part of a moment against the sky/like nothing you’ve ever imagined/ like the myth of the fifth morning galloping out of darkness/pouring heavenward.”  As in many of Oliver’s poems, this one is also about the relationship between the human body and the other embodied aspects of creation.  It begins as a creation story, evoking a “country of original fire” in which we live and move and have our being, and later echoes Genesis as it connects the magnificent appearance of the whales to “the myth of the fifth morning galloping out of [the primordial] darkness.”


As she often does, Oliver ends her poem with an exhortation to the reader, saying,

Listen, whatever it is you try

to do with your life, nothing will ever dazzle you

like the dreams of your body –

It is these exhortations, these evangelical moments in Oliver’s poems that are most treasured by those who hear her within the context of worship.  “Don’t love your life too much,” she says in the voice of a butterfly at the end of her poem[7] “One Or Two Things.” And this treasured phrase that appears at the end of “The Summer Day,” a poem I have read at half a dozen memorial services, asks her ultimate question:  “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” [8] Her theology is broad and humanistic, “incantations drawing us forward to a more authentic life.”[9]

What, then, will Unitarian Universalists make of Oliver’s development as a poet of distinctly Earth-based, broadly humanistic spirituality (with a smattering of Christian images and references sprinkled throughout), to a grieving woman hungering and thirsting after the God of Christian faith in her recent collection, Thirst?

I attended the Installation of a new Unitarian Universalist minister in March of 2008 which used Thirst’s first poem, “Messenger” as an antiphonal benediction read by several of the new minister’s colleagues. The poem begins, “My work is loving the world,” and proceeds with the usual Oliver specificity of reverence — the inevitable lists of aspects of creation she wants to be sure we will not overlook in our hasty pace of life (“Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird/Here the quickening yeast/there the blue plums/Here is the clam deep in the speckled sand”).  But at the last line, a surprise. Rather than her customary reminder that life is brief and therefore must be savored, Oliver ends her poem with a reference to eternal life:

A mouth with which to give shouts of joy

to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,

telling them all, over and over, how it is,

that we live forever.[10]

For close readers of Oliver, this phrase is a shift, a hint that something is changing in the poet’s spiritual orientation.  Later in the collection (“Musical Notation: 1”) we find Oliver referring to all of creation as God’s works – more specifically, in traditionally gendered language as “His works.”  Another surprise.

“Have you noticed?” she asks.  Yes, in Thirst, we have noticed for the first time in this collection that Mary Oliver is a faithful Christian woman, weaving glorious poetry out of an all-too human struggle with meaning in the aftermath of a shattering loss.  “Dear Lord,” she begins one poem, and later in that same poem affirms, “Still I believe you will come, Lord: you will…”[11]

Will wounded ex-Christians, agnostics, humanistic, Jewish or Buddhist-oriented Unitarian Universalists who love Mary Oliver’s poetry so much that they take her words as personal creeds and commit them to memory feel betrayed by their Muse’s new direction? Will they accept it and follow where she leads with literary appreciation and healthy self-differentiation? Will they dismiss her devotion to the Christian Way as the disappointing, if understandable, reaction to losing her partner of forty years (a kind of regression, if you will)?  It will be interesting to see how frequently, if at all, poems from Thirst are included in Unitarian Universalist worship services, meditation circles and retreats.

I personally find Thirst to be Oliver’s most mature and powerful collection in a long time, as I had begun to find her work vapid and formulaic.  It is not only the details of her Christian life that I find beautiful and resonant (a description of trying to remember the lectionary lesson when one is depressed, disoriented and grieving; a simple report of attending church and then walking the dog; the plea for God to still our pounding, anxious hearts and bring us to the peace that passeth understanding; the mystery of Eucharistic transformation of bread, wine, self and community), it is the new sense of deep relationality which I find in these poems that inspires and moves me. Oliver’s shift from a poetic voice of such total interiority that it bordered, for me, on irritating self-absorption (no matter how literarily beautiful) to a voice that recognizes and even, in a bittersweet and poignant way, celebrates dependency, inter-dependency and community is, to this admirer, a great literary fulfillment.


[1] Commenter Marcia on “There’s Something About Mary,” PeaceBang blog, May 1, 2008. Spelling original.

[2] Commenter Terri, ibid.

[3] Commenter Judy Welles, ibid.

[4] Commenter Terri on “There’s Something About Mary,” PeaceBang blog, May 1, 2008.

[5] Commenter Doxy, ibid.

[6] Mary Oliver, American Primitive (Little, Brown & Company, New York: 1983), 82-83. See appendix A for complete poem.

[7] Mary Oliver, New And Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 120-122.

[8] Ibid, 94.

[9] Rev. Jen Crow, “This Wild And Precious Life,” Sermon given at First Unitarian Church of Rochester, NY, July 16, 2006.

[10] Mary Oliver, Thirst (Beacon Press: Boston, 2006), 1.

[11] Mary Oliver, “Making The House Ready For the Lord,” Thirst (Boston, Beacon Press, 2006), 13.

Second Naivete: The Mystical Way Of Faith

 Preached to the First Parish Church of Norwell, MA Dec 6, 2009

 It’s that magical, mythical time of year again. Virgin births and super novas shining directly over a little barn, angels crashing through walls to make shocking pronouncements, roly-poly men with white beards in red suits flying through the sky in a sleigh pulled by reindeer.


Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy,
“Do you hear what I hear?
Ringing through the sky, shepherd boy,
Do you hear what I hear?
A song, a song high above the trees
With a voice as big as the the sea,
With a voice as big as the the sea.”


Do you hear what I hear?


Well, sometimes the answer is just “no.”  The word from researchers lately is that some of us are genetically programmed to have a rational view of life, and others are born with a gene that makes them more prone to a mystical experiences of the transcendent. I hope this will come as good news to all of us, who join in a free religious tradition that is not invested in our believing the same things, but in seeking and creating together inner peace, higher consciousness, intellectual challenge, compassionate community and spiritual depth wherever we may find it, by whatever name we may give it.

In our religious tradition, we teach that the key to healthy community is not to get everyone theologically on the same page but to get on our own page in a healthy and mature way.  So if someone identifies as an atheist and someone calls himself a Christian and someone else says he is on a Buddhist spiritual path, we consider that a private matter, an expression of individual calling lived out in community. With this new research on the so-called God gene, it may prove true that not only is it emotionally  hurtful and even abusive to expect an entire population of people to all arrive at the same conclusion regarding the nature of the ultimate, but a violation of their actual biological composition!

The Dalai Lama has said that his religion is kindness. For those of us who dwell together in covenanted community in the bonds of fellowship and love holding a wide and delightful variety of beliefs and experiences, that definition of religion holds a lot of promise.  Our religion is kindness, we may choose to say. Our religion – and our aspiration — is service. Our religion is a push, a pull, a prophetic challenge, and an invitation to look at the world as it is and to love it anyway.

But here we are at a time of year that plops us plumb in the middle of all of that supernatural, unbelievable stuff that I just mentioned: those ancient stories and those song lyrics that we hear and we sing and that remind many of us of the kind of religion that we are not interested in practicing and that, in fact, many of us fled from.  That’s not true for everyone, of course – for some folks, all those stars and all that magic, the flying reindeer, the baby in the stable, the Wise Men trekking across the desert is a delight, a source of treasured memories, cherished tradition and spiritual nourishment.  For others, it’s dear and quaint and fine… just so long as we don’t have too much of it.  And there are those who endure this season of songs and stories with irritation and gritted teeth until it’s over.


There was a time in my own life that I was a teeth-gritter and endure-er of sacred stories, especially Christmas stories. I could not understand how otherwise intelligent people in a scientific age could so earnestly give over their rational minds to the ancient mythos of the holiday.  Every year, practically my entire town gathered near Christmas at a place called “God’s Acre,” which was much like our village green in Norwell, only if you put three more churches around it.  There was a Congregationalist church, a Methodist Church, and I think a Baptist church – all white, all with New England steeples – and in the center of God’s Acre there was always an enormous Christmas tree lit up by a thousand lights.  Beautiful. We would stand in the cold and sing all the old classics – “Angels We Have Heard On High” and “O Little Town of Bethelehem” and “Joy To the World.” I had very mixed feelings about the lyrics. In fact, some of them sent my blood to boiling – mostly the ones about “savior” and “King.”

It took a long time — a lot of thinking and studying and praying — and a lot of paying attention to the way that sacred stories operate in people’s lives for me to embrace those songs.  I now cherish them even as I smile affectionately at some of their theological excess.

In my spiritual journey from fundamentalist rationalist to the skeptical, reverent mystic that I am today, I was helped very much from by philosopher Paul Ricouer’s notion of “second naïveté.”  Before I explain what that is, let me introduce it with a story that will help lead us there.


When I was in Romania last spring, I traveled to a small city near the village where my grandfather was born. I had one day to find his village, and because I had been robbed in Bucharest and was having bureaucratic trouble with Western Union , I had only a tiny bit of money.  The hotel staff in Fagaras helped me write out a little script in Romanian that would help me explain to a taxi driver where I wanted to go and how much money I had.  They then hailed me a taxi.  As luck would have it, I wound up getting picked up by the only English-speaking taxi driver in the entire city. His name was Gabriel Gulu, and he was very excited to have the opportunity to practice his language skills.  I wondered right away about the coincidence of finding an English-speaking taxi driver who happened to share a name with the most famous angel in the gospels.  I learned that Gabriel was born on Christmas Day.

Part of the story is that Gabriel found my grandfather’s village and spent the day chauffeuring me around the region, took me to his home for lunch, introduced me to his mother, his daughter and his wife, picked me up for dinner that night, and insisted on driving me almost four hours the next day to Sighisoara, where I would be rendezvousing with Rosalie Vida, our minister in Kadacs.

He was an angel.  As we drove to Sighisoara, Gabriel told me the story of his daughter Amalia’s birth.

In 1992, Gabriel and Donna married on Christmas Day, which is also Gabriel’s birthday.  The priest was unhappy with them because in the orthodox calendar, December 25 is a fast day, and it is inappropriate to have a feast or celebration on that day.  Gabriel and Donna, being modern people but with no desire to insult the church, decided not to have a church wedding and were married at City Hall instead.  They thought it a good compromise: they would have the Christmas anniversary they wanted and the priest would be appeased.

Several years after they married, Donna and Gabriel wanted to start a family but they had fertility problems. They saw every doctor in their town and then traveled to Bucharest to see expensive specialists (“More expensive than expensive,” Gabriel told me).  When Donna finally got pregnant, they were elated, and then cast into complete despair when she miscarried four months into the pregnancy. They visited the Bucharest doctor again who told them, “I have done everything I can do, and so have you. We have reached the limits of medicine. It is time to seek God’s help.”

Given that Romania has been under Communist rule for so long, this amazes me, but that is a direct quote.  Their doctor told them to seek God’s help.

Gabriel went to visit with a priest who is also a good friend.  His friend told Gabriel that he should search his soul for any offenses he may have committed against God.  Gabriel, a good and hard-working and honest man, could not think of anything at first. And then he began to consider his Christmas marriage in City Hall. He is not a superstitious man, he told me, but a faithful man. He and Donna re-considered what they had done. They didn’t feel that their marriage was anything but a blessing, but they decided no harm could come of being married again in the church, and so they were, thirteen years after their original union – this time in October.

Within the year, Donna was pregnant.  Amalia was born the following March.  She is a beautiful little girl and their pride and joy.

And so what does one say to this, or think about it? Coincidence? Good luck? Psychosomatic infertility?  Thanks for the nice story?

We certainly could think all of those things. One of the stages of faith development, whatever our genetic predisposition to the mystical or rationalist stance, is to critically reject all the articles of doctrine we learned and naively believed as children.  This is an important stage of faith, which leads us from mindless acceptance of harmful beliefs and doctrine to a more mature and considered evaluation of what the truth is for ourselves; according to the dictates of conscience and the knowledge earned through study, reflection and experience. From this place of maturity, I could have said to Gabriel, “Listen, I am so glad that you have Amalia, but I really don’t think God had anything to do with it (because God doesn’t punish people by withholding pregnancy from them).” Or I could have said, “Well Gabriel, you and Donna obviously had some sort of unconscious stress about your original Christmas Day wedding that prevented your conceiving a child, and it’s a good thing you engaged in a superstitious ritual so that you could release that stress and have your beautiful daughter. I’m so happy for you.”


Said the night wind to the little lamb,
“Do you see what I see?
Way up in the sky, little lamb,
Do you see what I see?
A star, a star, dancing in the night
With a tail as big as a kite,
With a tail as big as a kite.”


We need not think alike to love alike, said the 16th century Unitarian, Ferenc David.  And we need not see alike to love alike.  When kindness is our religion and our aspiration, what is required of us is not so much critical engagement but sympathetic engagement, curiosity, a willingness to share the wonder of another’s experience even when it is not our own, and even when we might not interpret its meaning in the same way.  Remember what Hamlet said to his friend? “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dream’t of in your philosophy.” In Paul Ricouer’s philosophy of second naïveté, we enter into the mystery of sacred stories not with the naïveté of one who can’t think for themselves, but by choosing to engage the poetic sensibility rather than leading with our critical, intellectual faculties.  More simply put, when we have reached the maturity of second naïveté – a kind of chosen innocence — we make a decision to abide together in wonder rather than to dismantle sacred narratives in an insistent search for rational facts.

In that taxi, from a place of second naïveté with my new friend, I could hear the story of Gabriel and his miracle child and simply be glad for his and Donna’s happiness. There are many more things in heaven and earth that I could possibly comprehend.  Why not a miracle?

There is a time, a place, and a way to analyze religious narratives for their literal truths, and a time not to.  The time to take a scalpel to religious claims is when they are made with the intention or the result of excluding, harming, dominating, or humiliating people, or any part of creation. The time not to is when a person or persons is cheered, uplifted, inspired to do good and brought to a place of deep gratitude and love by a story that may not be based in fact at all, but is nevertheless quite true.  We call those myths. We call them stories sacred stories. And as we grow older and wiser, we learn to hear them through the ears of the child; the child who is curious, the child who wants to be a good friend, the child who wonders. We do so in the name of the kindness we want to practice as our religion.

A Charge To The Congregation

Given to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Reading, MA

The Installation of Rev. Hank Istvan Peirce

March 8 2018

It is good to be back with this congregation. Twenty-one years ago, and freshly ordained, I was your summer minister. I had a wonderful experience. Thank you for launching me into parish ministry with so much joy and support.

It falls to me to Charge the Congregation this afternoon, as one of the last elements to the liturgy we call the Installation of the Minister. It seems worthwhile to point out that what is for us today a happy and unworried occasion was for those who founded the Congregational Way a more solemn and even somewhat anxious ceremony, as those Separatists whom we today know as our “Puritan forebears” were persecuted by the Church of England for their rejection of the bishop’s authority to assign clergy to their congregations. This is a sore point in our history but as you can see from the presence of Episcopal clergy here this afternoon, we have worked it all out.

Those who established congregational polity in the 17th century wanted to see to it that the local congregation, gathered by a covenant made between themselves and their God, had the right to call their own minister and to covenant with that person to walk “in God’s ways as known and to be made known,” as they often said in their covenants.” For this innovation they were persecuted, imprisoned and in some cases executed.

Remember that when you are having a brownie in the parish hall later.

You, the congregation, own the church. This is not just a polite compliment; you literally own the property and are the stewards of all your assets. The minister is not. You, the congregation, also run the church. I am fond of reminding my own congregation that church is one of the only institutions for which the members pay for everything and do all the work.

There is no punchline. That is the punchline.

I exaggerate a bit on this point but I do it in order to make a corrective to the tendency for people to speak about their church by referencing the Minister. Sometimes I will run into parishioners in the grocery store and they will say, “I haven’t come to one of your sermons in so long!” I respond, “You haven’t attended worship? The community misses you.” I notice that your church website lists this event as “Rev. Hank’s Installation.” This is not quite right: it is YOUR installation, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Reading. This guy is one of the thirty-two clergypersons whom you, the church of the past and the church today, have found worthy to serve as minister among you. It is not Hank’s Installation, it is yours. By the authority vested in you by the congregational tradition, you can uninstall him any time.  The power rests with you, the community.  (sung) “The people have the power!”

Therefore I charge you to be the church, and to support the minister in being the minister – no more, no less.

The Minister’s job is to support the congregation in living into the mission which it sets out for itself, in discernment among its members, its history, the demands of the current moment (which are profound and urgent), and its God. There will never be unanimous agreement about what this mission should exactly be; do not let that stop you. I charge you to expect your minister to hold before you the vision and mission which guides and commands you. Expect him to preach it well, with evidence of deep attention to ancient and historical sources of wisdom, contemporary scholarship and the Scripture of your shared lives. Expect him to support your vision and mission in programming, prayer and pastoral work, and to be your chief teaching elder in connecting that mission to our Unitarian Universalist theological tradition.

I charge you each to take your own ministry seriously and to work faithfully in partnership with your settled minister. How can you be a healer, a helper, a lay pastor, a peaceful presence within the church?

In this effort, be ye direct communicators with one another. Remember that in congregational life, a triangle is a problematic shape. Do not talk about your minister, talk to him. And do the same for each other. Relationship is perhaps our most significant spiritual practice in Unitarian Universalism. It is a hard, time-consuming and it not always successful one. Remember that much of the work your minister spends time doing is attending to relationships and to process, which is invisible to the eye and noticed mostly in its absence or neglect. Rev. Hank has not been called here to keep everyone happy, but to help the church to remain faithful.

I have a special charge for you because you have called a special minister to serve you. I charge you to be aware that Hank Peirce is a minister to ministers, and is dear to many of us who are, like you, finding our hearts sore and our spirits sometimes inconsolable over the ugliness of the present moment in America, and across the planet.  I selfishly ask you – on behalf of a strained, sarcastic, and at the moment highly dysfunctional and hurting clergy cohort to be a good ministry setting for Hank because we need his heart. Hank is the lead elephant to whom many of us in this circus attach our trunks as we try to stay together. We need his spirit to be strong.

In the end, we all need each other. May this installation be an outward sign of an inward commitment not just to your new minister (and his wise and wonderful wife and daughters), but to one another, to your covenant, to the greater good that calls all of us out from our aloneness and fear and into engagement in the world, in the name of Love.