Abiding Here with You

Dear Friends:

I am sitting in my new study at home.

It is quiet here.

The walls of the room are a deep glowing red.

The furniture is antique, passed down to me—some of it—by a birth mother I never knew.

The photograph on the table in black and white is of my mother’s family, my grandfather, a Unitarian minister, my grandmother--who never went to college--but who loved the Brontes and Emily Dickinson.

In another frame, there is the farm on the prairie where my father was born in 1913—it was lost in the Depression but that land and landscape still lives on in his eyes.

There is my favorite photo: Emily and Charlotte, ages 1 and 3, at the water’s edge in Sakonnet. And there is Rich sitting in a rocker, reading a book to a blond little boy on his lap, our son Nicholas.

In front of me on the desk, there is a small pile of stone piled on stone, just like this one, here on the pulpit today. We make these in the summer, that place by the sea that I love, where the wind blows against my face and I can smell honeysuckle and bayberry and salt, where I go to rest in the arms of the universe, the shelter of dear friends and family, where I go to rest and restore my soul.

The room is quiet: a place to think and read and write and dream and muse.

It is all right here with me, these grounding stones, these touchstones of my lives, these reminders of continuity and courage, love and loss.

You are here, too. I try to picture your faces in my mind’s eye, imagine this moment, this Sunday morning moment, my last with you as a gathered community.

Here alone in my study, at this still hour, I cannot quite imagine it. But I know that Sunday will come and you will be there and it will be good to be together.

It is.

* * * *

How much I have thought about what I want to say to you in this last sermon.

Would it be to lift up the story of this storied place, stretching back through the years, revolutions both political and intellectual, a story I have learned and loved?

Or the hope and the promise of the future here?

The difficulty and rough patches of these last few years--the wrong turns we have sometimes made, you and I, as we’ve have tried to weave our way through this thorny path of transition.

But no. I realized it is you I want to talk about, you who are in my thoughts and on my heart. Abiding here with you these last 15 years.

I’ve told you before that one of the beauties and the honors and the humbling parts of being a minister is to sit up here Sunday after Sunday and watch you walk in.

You are alone. You are with family. You are newly separated. You are with a friend. You started chemo this week or are waiting for the scan. Your mother is nearing the end. You are worried about a child. A sister. A friend.

Or today is just another day in pretty ordinary week but I remember years ago when life wasn’t ordinary for you at all.

Maybe you are new for the first time ever. We are glad you are here.

Sunday after Sunday, the room fills up; I see your faces and remember your stories.

You bring your spirit here and all it carries today, the rough parts and the smooth, the bitter and the sweet, the boundless joy that life can hold for us, and the tremendous challenges, discouragements and burdens we must sometimes bear.

It is all right here, pulsing away, like our beating hearts.

Our humanity—its frailties and flaws, its strength and gifts and beauty—all right here along with the wonder of the world in which we dwell—starry nights, rolling seas

--Along with the peril of the world in which we dwell—Connecticut, Syria--

We bring our selves and our souls and the world and together, we dwell for a time in the sanctuary of this sacred place.

* * * * *

Years ago, I was leading a retreat with the Rev. Carl Scovel on spirituality. Carl, long-time minister and spiritual director, was talking about the spiritual life, and I thought he was going to say something about prayer or spiritual discipline or all those things I think I should be doing, that I try to do and fail at again and again, it seems—

But he said something else.

“The spiritual life,” he said, “as much as it is anything else, is a matter of the company you keep.”

And yes, he meant who you hang out with, day to day, family, friends, animals you love, but he also meant the poets whose words are with you or the music that plays in your head.

The forest paths where you walk, the trees you love, the skies you scan, the ocean you return to, the lake that soothes your soul.

I thought of the company we’ve been keeping-- here these last years. You and I keeping company with one another but also with other minds, other souls, other lives.

William James who stood right here at this pulpit 109 years ago, can you believe it, and said that Emerson was an Artist (capital “A”) whose “medium was verbal and who wrought in spiritual material.”

William James, a man who rarely went to church on Sunday but who seemed to “get it” about religion, the life of the spirit, in a way that was highly intelligent, completely soulful, and so very modern even though he spoke and wrote 100 years ago. James who said that “life is IN the transitions….often more emphatically there….” Than anywhere else. Life, he said, is in “our spurts and sallies forward.”

The company we keep. You and I have kept company with some pretty amazing characters. We have read and learned and explored--

People who engaged with their times—with the world around them-- let it move them and shape them and change them.

In just a few weeks, on January 1st, it will be the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves. Well, at that epic time in American history, our spiritual ancestors were right in the thick of it.

Clara Barton, a Universalist from a backwater little town in Massachusetts, who stuttered as a child and became a nurse out of necessity when her favorite brother fell off a ladder when he was 16 and nearly died

Barton who in the Civil War went to the battlefields and saw with her own eyes what was happening—how the soldiers were dying in the wagons as they were brought to the hospitals so far away—

“No,” she said. The food and water and medicine must be brought to the fields themselves. She insisted, she organized, she made it happen.

Far fewer men died than before.

Or Theodore Parker—he was so savagely moved by the evils of his day—by slavery most of all—

That he was called away from what he loved—books and languages and study—called into the streets of Boston, walking, meeting, preaching.

He worked so hard fighting against slavery that he literally worked his body to death and died at the age of 50 in Florence, Italy in 1860.

“The arc of the universe is long,” he said, “but it bends towards justice,” words that have taken up again and again, down through the years, even by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King.

“The spiritual life is a matter of the company we keep,” those words echo through my mind this week.

The company we have kept together, you and I, it has come from all ages, all religions--Anne Frank, Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, Michael Servetus, Francis of Assisi, and on and on.

These are the spirits we have tried to encounter together. To what have they been called? How did they hear the call, did they respond, what strange and frightening places did that sometimes take them?

I was the kid in college who didn’t want to raise her hand or open her mouth, so afraid was I of public speaking. Look where our callings can lead us!

They come from all the ages and my heart went out especially to those luminous spirits who traveled much in Concord.

Like young Mr. Thoreau who simply walked out his front door every morning and roamed over these fields and swamps and rivers and adored every bit of the natural world in which he found himself. He studied it with the eye of a scientist and he loved it with the heart of a mystic and a poet. Thoreau who calls us out of our complacency and our cynicism, out of our ruts. Never too late to begin again, he says. A new day dawns, the sun is but a morning star.

Or women like Margaret Fuller, a woman with a brain on fire and no place to take it, no college would take her, no world would have her. And so she made it up herself, her own college, designing and plowing through a curriculum more rigorous than anything Harvard was offering, this girl of 17, 18, 19, memorizing German, reading Italian poetry, making sure she met the great minds of her day. This woman of fierceness and drive who went on to become a published author, the first female correspondent, an actor on the world’s stage in the Roman revolution.

The company we keep.

I was once a broken-hearted, twenty something, lost and confused, unsure of my vocation, my direction in life, depressed, and so of course, I responded to the young man Emerson, the one I’ve told you about, there on the deck of the ship, 29 years old, his wife dead, his career lost, his health shot, sailing off into the teeth of a nor’easter on Christmas Day

“There is a power new in nature,” he said, in you and you and you, and in me. There is a power new in nature that has never been seen before, never will be seen again. What is that power, what can it do? What can you do and how will you know until you have tried?

This is life-giving stuff. In a world where there is so much that deadens and numbs and kills. We need all the life-giving stuff we can get.

The company we keep. And then, of course, there is you. So much a part of the company I have kept here these last how many years.

This Christmas Eve, I will not be with you, but I have been many other years. We have a kind of ritual in our house on that day.

My children know the drill. Last minute preparations, cleaning the house, wrapping, polishing the silver, getting some kind of simple supper ready to eat after church and through it all, they hear me muttering—memorizing one more time the words I will say by heart at the Christmas Eve service—

“In those days there went out a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed and this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria….”

It is words from that story that have been running through my head in these last days of packing up my office and saying goodbye to you: “and there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch….”

It is that word “abiding” that sticks with me.

I’m sure there are lots of sophisticated definitions of ministry out there. But when you come right down to it, the definition of ministry I carry around with me is pretty simple.

A minister is called by a congregation to be with them for a certain period of time, to share in their ways, to listen and work and be and try to love them. “Come, abide with us for a while,” the people say, “and we will abide with you.”

And the minister comes and tries to love the people and the people try to love the minister and we work on building the “beloved community.”

There is love and good things are built. And because we are human, we make mistakes, we let each other down. We try to ask forgiveness but we don’t always. We get silent and withdraw and there are misunderstandings. And that is Ok. It is real life.

In these last 15 years, we have abided with one another. I want to thank my dear and honored colleagues—Beth, Gary, Doug, Melissa, Pam, and this past year, Elaine. Ministry is not something a person does alone. It is something a gifted staff and a vital congregation do together.

How grateful I am. How can I ever thank you for this chapter in my life. For calling me to be one of your ministers. For letting me into your lives. For letting me walk with you along this pilgrim way.

It has changed me. You have changed me. I was the kid too shy to speak up. You have helped me become a preacher. A teacher. A listener. An entrepreneur. A creator of new things.

* * * * *

At home, this morning, the study is quiet. I watch the white pine out my window and can see the houses of my neighbors across the way.

It is time to stop writing for now, but I will return to this red room.

To its peace and its quiet.

To the ticking of the clock.

The rocking chair in the corner.

The quilt on the wall.

I give thanks for this day and this room and for you and for our time together.

“Nothing is ever lost” said Walt Whitman. I will not be with you as your minister, but I will carry you and your spirits and all you have taught me and given me into whatever is next, into all my adventures here and out and about around the world. I trust there will be many more. I am ready for them. You are ready for yours.

Fare thee well.