Removing Foot from Earnest Young Puppy's Mouth

A story from a sermon by a Unitarian Universalist minister – one who served my home church what is now a long time ago – has been visiting me these past few days.  The story came completely unbidden and now that I understand its purpose, it is totally welcome.

In the story, the minister is visiting a dying member of her congregation: “a lifelong Unitarian, an atheist-geologist-empirical-humanist Unitarian, brilliant and cranky and deeply kind.”  To the minister’s surprise, he asked to hear the 23rd Psalm, joking that it must seem like a “Christian” request.  Not comprehending fully the moment, taking the exact wrong cue, this “earnest young puppy” (self-described) of a minister decided to set the dying man straight, confirming that the 23rd Psalm was not specifically Christian, but comes from a Jewish text that existed long before Jesus was born, much less died.

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Fortunately for both, the man was dying, but not yet dead.  He set the minister straight and focused her to the moment at hand.  The minister, chastened, began the prayer. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…

I just nearly did nearly the same thing.

In a few days, I will conduct my first full memorial service.  I have said a prayer at the committal of ashes of the mother of a congregant.  Quite recently, I acted as liturgical host of a funeral held at the small church I am serving on an interim basis.  I did not know the man who died (he was not a church-goer) nor his family (who are not church-goers).  They asked the emeritus minister to conduct the service, which he did with the sensibility of someone who knew the deceased and had taught in youth group the bereaved adult children several decades ago.

This upcoming memorial service is for a member of the congregation whom I met on my first day and visited in the hospital, rehab, and nursing home numerous times in his last days.  His memorial service will be many things: a small town one; one with his veteran status honored by the local American Legion chapter; one that is grounded in Christian scripture.

Christian scripture is not mine.  I am familiar with pop culture references that invoke some likely warped version of Christian scripture.  I am aware of how, in this country, more than any other faith tradition’s scripture, bits of it pop up in day-to-day secular life.  Even as an academic exercise, I am mostly unfamiliar with the New Testament (though that is about to change with the semester that starts day after tomorrow).

So in preparing the message or sermon for this memorial service, I was out of my element.  The son chose the scriptural passage: John 6:37-40.  I reflected on the passage, reading it both in the daytime and before falling asleep.  I wrestled with its meaning and context.  I read the whole chapter, hoping for further understanding.  I read not from my sterile student bible, with its annotations, but from my great-grandfather’s Masonic Bible, with hand-written notes from my great-grandmother to her husband, grounding me in rural family life.

By the time I completed it, I was pretty darn proud of the first draft.  I weaved the scriptural passage chosen by his son into a remembrance of this man, with a value added commentary the relevance of scripture in our lives.  It was, at first blush, a pretty fine piece of writing.

Thank god for mentors who stop me from putting my foot into my mouth.Image

I showed the draft to my mentor, who is someone steeped in Christian scripture.  He has been conducting rites of passage, including funerals and such, for two decades.   Kindly, generously, skillfully he led me away from my thoughts about this particular scriptural passage to the much more pressing moment of the context: comfort to the bereaved.  This deceased man’s son, this dead man’s elderly sister – they have no need of being distracted by my engagement with scripture, particularly if that distraction highlights that it is their scripture, not mine.  I don’t need to own that it is not my scripture.  I need to show them that theirs offers them comfort at this time of loss.

Duly chastened (thankfully so) this earnest young puppy of a would-be minister moved away from the scripture and toward the felt need – that place that I share with this son, with this sister.  That place we all share: naming our grief, mourning our loss, and finding ways to continue on with life.  I lay down.  I closed my eyes.  I opened to the Spirit.  I asked, “If I had just lost my mother, what would I want to hear?  If I had just lost my brother, what would I need to hear?”

It is from this shared place that I found what I hope are the right words for the right message.  Not one that is necessarily intellectually rigorous.  But one that is emotionally insightful and spiritually present: in language familiar to the grieving family, immersed in scripture that speaks to their faith and their consolation.

I was recently a part of an online conversation about the review process of the Unitarian Universalist seven principles. There were original, verbiage-saturated ones in 1961, when the Universalists and the Unitarians joined together.  The current version of the principles were adopted in 1985 and read as such:

We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;

  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;

  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;

  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;

  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;

  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;

  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Not our theology, these principles (and the concomitant sources) help to describe and explain what we collectively cherish or aspire to cherish.

At the end of 2008, the UU Commission on Appraisal, who was tasked to review these principles (and the statement about the sources from which our faith stems), suggested a slightly pithier version:

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;

  • Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations;

  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement of spiritual growth;

  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;

  • The right of conscience and the use of democratic processes;

  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;

  • Reverence for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

More than just pith, the 7th principle reflects a noteworthy change: swapped out was “respect” and in its place: reverence.

In learning about the New Testament/Christian Scriptures, I intend to bring deep respect, but because it is not my primary source of spiritual or theological inspiration, this respect — as authentic as it is — will always have a cool distance.  Not unlike what my mentor sensed in that first draft.

I do not want to bring cool distance to my ministry.  I do not want to bring respect to my ministry – I want to bring reverence.

So where to go, particularly when the scripture is not one of my choosing?  In this case, it is honoring the grief involved in the loss of a loved one.  It is in feeling the human need for succor in the face of inextricable absence and questions left unanswered by the immensity of mystery.  It is there that I hope, and intend, and aspire, to move out of respect, and into a place, a body, and a heart of reverence.

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0 Responses to Removing Foot from Earnest Young Puppy's Mouth

  1. Pat Keith # 634-5084 or 413-563-1981 says:

    Thank you, Karen, for your reverence, in writing and serving our special little church. We are deeply blessed by your deep presence.

  2. Gemma Lily says:

    Thanks for the post Irrev! Funerals, maybe especially for those you don’t know, sound really challenging. It’s interesting reading about the process. (I’m in my first *real* semester of seminary.) Peace xoxo

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