A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away... Well, actually it was the spring of 1997 in Houston, Texas. The image you see to my right is not Alderon, but Bay Area Unitarian Universalist Church. I was the chair of the Worship Committee and a leader in the congregation. I received a call from Bill Pilloski, the president of the congregation, Friday night asking me to preach on Sunday; needless to say, I was a little surprised. Our minister was supposed to be in the pulpit this Sunday. Bill went on to tell me that our minister had been asked to resign from the church due to an ethical breach, information that had not been shared with the congregation, but would be on Sunday. It was a dark time for our church. I allowed myself about half an hour or so of shock, and then started focusing on the mission, producing a sermon in the next 24 hours.
John Chapman, many of you know him as Johnny Appleseed, wrote to author Henry James in the late 19th century: “There are lots of people who can’t think seriously without injuring their minds…the cure is simple. Speak out your opinions before you think—and before the other fellow speaks. Thus you will give your mind some chance in forming them in a more natural way—unconsciously. Accustom yourself to not knowing what your opinions are til you have blurted them out, and thus find what they are.” That’s how I felt the first time I told someone in my home congregation that I believed I was to become a Unitarian Universalist minister, not a Jedi knight—though that might have been easier. This was two weeks after that Friday night call from Bill Polloski. The congregation was in the midst of pain and guilt from losing their minister—to the dark side. That Sunday, I remember thinking, “I will just tell Bill and sometime in the future, when I am ready, I will announce my intention to the whole congregation.” I was as reluctant, scared, and excited as Luke was when Obi Wan asked Luke to join him on his quest. If I actually verbalized my call to become a Unitarian Universalist Minister to real, live people, people in my church, I might really have to follow through with this. Now don’t get me wrong, I wanted to be a Unitarian Universalist minister; I had already gone through my dark nights of the soul. I was committed to pursing my call to ministry, but to tell someone, I mean besides Martha my loving wife, meant that other people would be watching me. What if I tried and failed? What would these people think of me? Well, I swallowed my fears, and embracing the force, walked up to Bill and blurted out, “Bill, I wanted to let you know that I am going to go to seminary to become a Unitarian Universalist minister. Part of this process is that a church has to sponsor me. I was hoping that Bay Area UU Church would sponsor me. Would you bring this before the Board?” Now, my heart was racing and my mind racing too, I think I heard Bill say, “Tom, that’s great. Of course I will talk to the Board. You know it would be great if I could announce to the congregation about your intent to become a Unitarian Universalist minister today. Everyone is so sad, it would really make them feel so much better.” Uhhhh,…what? The next thing I knew Bill was announcing to the congregation that I was going to seminary to become a Unitarian Universalist minister. What I remember, although I was in a fog, is applause and saying ‘thank you’ to everyone, while at the same time feeling my heart pounding out of my chest. I’d done it; I was committed, there was no turning back; and all I felt was joy.
In 2002, I preached my last sermon at Bay Area UU church. I was severing my membership and beginning my internship at another church. I preached a sermon about the process I had been through in Seminary and what I was looking forward to in my internship. After the service, one of the members came up to me and said, “We are all so proud of you. You know, when you told us you were going to become a minister a few years ago, I was a little concerned, but your preaching is so much better. I know you will be just fine.” “Uhhh, thank you,” I said.
They say that successful ministers are strong in three broad areas: administration, pastoral care, and preaching. I was already strong in two of those skill sets, but preaching. I had to work hard for many years to become a good psychotherapist and I guess I should have realized that it would take me many years of hard work to become a good preacher.
Preaching did not come naturally. I mean I had talked before thousands of people as a psychotherapist, but preaching, even in front of 10 people, felt so different. Many ministers told me I had to develop my preaching voice. What the heck is a preaching voice? As you have probably noticed, there is a difference when I am talking to you in Kreves Hall and when I am up here on Sunday mornings. I had to experiment with different ways to talk in front of people as a minister. My internship site minister supervisors tried to help me with this. And as you would probably guess, there were times when I failed in this process—mumbling, saying ah too often, leaving too much silence between sentences or words, emphasizing a word or sentence that shouldn’t be emphasized: “People wouldn't even go into science (stop) unless there was something much bigger (stop) to be discovered, something that is transcendent.”
And I hadn’t written any papers--I mean besides research papers--in 20 years. The ability to express myself, my feelings, my deepest thoughts on paper was, well, not good. And writing for speaking was something I had never really done before. I met with an English professor for about a year, relearning all the rules--sentence structure, correct use of adjectives and adverbs; writing so that people would understand who or what I was talking about—my use of the words like “he” “thing” “and” “etc.” were gradually reduced and more specific words replaced them. I still work to tighten up my writing.
These mechanics could be learned over time with perseverance. But preaching is more than mechanics. Words that are preached are supposed to be lit by a heart that is on fire, and those words spark a flame in the hearers’ imagination and hearts. And this is not something than can be learned with perseverance. This eluded me for my first years of ministry. I wondered if I would ever improve. What finally helped me discern how to become a preacher was reading and re-reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Divinity School Address. In 1838, he preached to newly graduated ministers: “Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil. Friends enough you shall find who will hold up to your emulation Wesleys and Oberlins, Saints and Prophets. Thank God for these good men, but say, `I also am a man.' Imitation cannot go above its model. The imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity. The inventor did it, because it was natural to him, and so in him it has a charm. In the imitator, something else is natural, and he bereaves himself of his own beauty, to come short of another man's. Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, — cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity ... be to [your congregation] a divine man; be to them thought and virtue; let their timid aspirations find in you a friend; let their trampled instincts be genially tempted out in your atmosphere; let their doubts know that you have doubted, and their wonder feel that you have wondered. By trusting your own heart, you shall gain more confidence in other men.”
To put this in modern terms, I had to learn to speak my truth from my heart. I had to fearlessly share my doubts, my wonder, my experiences. I had to “cast aside conformity.” I had thought that I might imitate successful Unitarian Universalist ministers, but as Emerson says, “the imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity.” If I was to be the best minister I could be, I had to discover my own authentic voice; I had to trust that the fire of my own heart was fierce enough to reveal a shining truth; I had to learn how to catch just the right slivery rainbow of words out of a rushing river of language to give voice to those qualities that touch me—pain, beauty, joy, wonder, awe. I could only preach with authority, if I dared to examine my own heart, mind, soul, life. I had to find the divine in my life if I was to preach about the divine. Or as one of our Unitarian Universalist theologians, James Martineau wrote [understanding the divine, the spiritual, the ethical comes from] “inward apprehension, the moral analysis and the spiritual discrimination” that each of us needs to do. It is from within we can truly see the wrong from the right, the profane from the sacred. It is from within that I had to learn to preach.
I also had to learn to accept that I would experience a lot of public failures when learning to preach, and believe me, I did. One of my early lessons was that I will not hit on all cylinders every Sunday. Unitarian Universalist minister and past president of the Unitarian Universalist Association and Executive Director of Amnesty International, Reverend William F. Schultz, wrote of preaching: “There, I hold, are the characteristics of great preaching: that our words are authentic, true, evocative, and transforming. Let me add quickly that very few, if any, of my own sermons have been all four. I feel fortunate if I can satisfy two.” He goes on to say: “Thomas Wolfe advised aspiring novelists to ‘always write masterpieces…There’s a better market for them!” Fortunately sermons are not novels: They are far from the sole factor upon which the value of ministry is based. And congregations are not like critics: They are often able to find the most surprising wheat in the midst of the most tattered chaff.”
I agree completely with Schultz. On some Sundays, I feel blessed if I can hit one cylinder. And like Schultz, I am often surprised at what people take away from my sermons. Through my many years as a psychotherapist, I understand that people often hear what they need to hear, but I am still surprised that people find wisdom that touches something deep within them, even when I don’t think the sermon is my best. And then I remember: I am not just preaching, I am holding sacred space here on Sunday mornings so that people can stop in their busy lives to find the healing, wisdom, the light that they need, that is within them. In so many ways, so little of what happens in this room on Sunday mornings has to do with what I say. It’s humbling, and it’s awe-inspiring.
I know that it seems that sometimes I am preaching to our visitors; sometimes to our long-time members; sometimes to those of you who are trying to figure out if this is the faith home for you. And sometimes it seems that I am preaching to the humanists, Buddhists, Christians, to seekers, or finders, or those lost and unsure. It might seem to some of you like I must spin a Wheel of Sermons before choosing who to preach to. But what I am actually doing, what I am really always doing, is preaching the truth as I see it and feel it; that is all I can do. Though there may be times when you think, I am preaching specifically to you or at you; know that I am always preaching from me to all of you, not just to the person next to you or the person behind you. And that maybe what you are hearing is not coming from me, but from within you.
I should share that sometimes I feel called in my heart to comfort the afflicted, afflict the comforted. At times, I will pause and offer a word of hope, sharing that I know that whatever it is you are facing, however horrible or painful it might be, will pass, healing with come, you will return to life again and we will be with you throughout your difficult time. Right now, I am going to raise my voice and tell you that we have to reach out to our youth and young adults to help them. On Friday I heard from passionate young people--as young as 12--who are struggling with gender identification. They are creating a new language with words like demi-guy, gender-neutral, gender vague, non-binary identity, genderless and CIS gender to describe themselves and others. They want us all to ask them their names and the pronouns they want used for them before we engage them in conversation, so that we show that we respect them. They don’t want to be referred to as he or she anymore. They want us to no longer see their bodies, their penises and vaginas, as a reflection of their gender. Their numbers are growing. And they need safe places, including gender neutral bathrooms. Could we put this image of gender neutral bathrooms on all our bathrooms in this church to create a safe place for people who identify as male one day and female another or as neither male or female on any day?
So here it is: what it takes to write these sermons each week; what it takes to be a preacher, a minister. I must be a teacher; I must be an example in love and faith; I must speak the truth as I see it; I must provide comfort to those in need; I must use my prophetic voice to motivate; I must not neglect the blessings I have been given in this life; and I must put all of this into practice. To do all of this I must devote myself to my call. This is what I feel with every fiber of my being. And I am thankful every day for the privilege of being a Unitarian Universalist preacher, and to be your minister. Blessed Be.