"A Fruitful Life"

It’s been a hard day, and seeking solace, turned to prayer. I pulled this book off my shelf because the title — Light and Peace — spoke to me. It’s a collection of prayers by Charles Hall Leonard, published by the Murray Press, a Universalist publisher, in 1915.

Leonard (1822-1918) was an outsized figure in Universalist history, was a professor and later dean of the theological school at Tufts, and remembered today I’d guess for creating Children’s Sunday, though readers of this blog may be more interested to know that he was the unacknowledged author of A Book of Prayer for the Church and the Home, or what I call usually “the Universalist prayerbook.”

Elmer Hewitt Capen
Elmer Hewitt Capen
One prayer “in memory E. H. C.” bears repeating here. That was the thirty-years’ Tufts president and Universalist minister Elmer Hewitt Capen, who died in office in 1905.

Prayers for deceased ministers have a special place in my heart, and particularly  as Terry Burke, the long-time and much-loved minister of First Parish in Jamaica Plain was laid to rest today, and with whom some day we shall each share glory.

A Fruitful Life

O God, our heavenly Father: To whom can we go, but to Thee, who art our strength in weakness, our light in darkness, and our comfort in sorrow? To-day, we know not how to speak to each other, nor how to interpret to ourselves. We turn to Thee, and, first of all, beseech Thee to awaken within us the memory of all that has been precious in the life of our great friend and leader: his wise devotion to the college into which he built his life; his intelligent administration of its affairs in a manifold range of usefulness bearing upon its progress and growing facilities, and in that loving care and interest which reached the endeavor and the struggle of the humblest student. Help us to recall the calmness of his thought, his unselfish regard for others, his generous approval of all that is right and good, and his Christ-like pity and forgiveness toward all the weak and sinful. We remember the words, spoken in private and in public, which move us to-day with new power, because of this mystic silence.

We desire also to remember all that he was and is, and will be to us, as a part of permanent influence in all the relations which distinguished his life: in the privacy of his home, in the maintenance of a loyal service to the church, in all his efforts as an educator, and in the ampler calls of citizenship.

Help us, O God, in our sense of gratitude for all that this full life has been to us now that we read it anew, know anew its noble witness to learning, to charity, to religion, and get its larger message as from open skies.

Goddard Chapel
Goddard Chapel at Tufts
We bow down before Thee, with whom are the issues of life and of death. Help us all to that acquiescence in grief, which, year by year, has been taught from this place, and, above all, breathed in the prayers that here have daily been put up in our behalf. Help these sorrowing teachers who waited for his step, were cheered, day by day, by the denials he so patiently took up, and were inspired more and more by his confident sympathy. We remember before Thee those who, in great procession along the productive years, moved through these halls, and bore hence the mark of the man they had learned to know, to honor and to love. And grant Thy especial favor to the students, in all ranks, and in all places, here and there, who are now enrolled as members of the college. Have regard unto their sad and questioning hours; and give joy to them also, that they came to know so well the man and president who greeted their coming at first.

And now, what wait we for but for grace and power, both for mind and heart; new motive in view of a great example; new ability to take up the tasks which a great leader has laid down; and new light, also, for comfort to those whose sorrow to-day is deepest, that there may be to them one fixed and tranquil object of thought and affection; and help us all to see that it is no fractional life that we are called to contemplate, but a life, forecast and fashioned in accomplishment, opening more and more into its own power and beauty, and, at the last, opening forth towards the realities of a world from which all veils were taken away. O God, most merciful and gracious, open our eyes to that grateful vision, that so we may be enabled to go on, to bear up, and to find our highest joy and peace in the field of duty to which now Thou dost send us back, and in the entrusted daily care to which Thou hast appointed us. Grant that, from the trembling moments of our human life, and from the mourner’s watch, we may go forth with uplifted heart, and a diviner purpose, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

A question for wedding officiants

Legislative and court successes have expanded same-sex couples access to legal marriage; my husband and I have benefited from it. It’s exciting to see the couples line up on the first “legal” day. Some of these will then get married on the courthouse steps, or some location nearby. It’s particularly encouraging to see Unitarian Universalist ministers take their place there.

And these often long-awaited, but surely quickly organized weddings make a visible challenge to the now-normal way of getting married, with expensive jewelery, elaborate arrangements and a cast of thousands. I usually advise couples to elope, and these courthouse-step services look only a short step away from an elopement. Not only do I approve, but I’m glad to see the option depicted so joyously.

But then I recall another norm, or former norm: pre-marital counseling. I’m not really qualified to do it, and I’m not convinced it’s necessary. So, for those few weddings I do these days, I don’t offer or require it. And I wonder if that was part of the arrangement that lead a couple and minister to meet on the courthouse steps?

Do you, dear wedding officiant, offer or require pre-marital counseling? Any particular reason, either way?

Following on Mandela: how a small church can hold a vigil

Last time, I mentioned I took my prayerbook to the South African embassy to pay my respects after the death of Nelson Mandela; I used it too, reading part of the funeral office near the embassy.

On my walk back I thought of all of the public calamities and thanksgivings and losses a church might face, and thought of the problems it would have putting on such an observance. Not that a church should have an act of worship at such times, but the very practical issue of how. Sitting and hearing a sermon thoughtful words isn’t gong to cut it.

I think a procession would be a good way for a small church or pair of churches to hold such an observance. With a single church, the participants could meet near the front door making a statement of purpose rallied around some relevant artifact, like the photo of the deceased or basket to collect goods for some disaster plagued area. The group then could process to the front of the church with their artifacts and hold the ceremonial parts of service. With two adjacent churches, the joint congregation could start at one, process to the other, and there end the service. If the commemoration is likely to spread past the particular congregation(s), and the buildings are not hidden, then an outside garden is the better place.

And what to say, sing? It can — indeed, should — be simple: movements make up the heart of the service. After the statement of purpose, the participants draw close to focal point. The leader may pray in commemoration of the event, then lead the people in their procession. If there is a suitable prayer, hymn or chant, let it be sung. It should be simple and rhythmic. At the destination, be it an altar-like space at the one church, or at the second church if there are two. A brief passage of praise, but if there’s a sung anthem it should be stirring and short. We have participants here, not an audience. And let the participants make their offerings — flowers, food. candles. notes. A blessing may follow, at which the leader should withhdraw. But keep the space open for silent prayer and — as may happen — tears.

Mothers Day alternatives in worship

It’s no secret that I don’t like secular holidays in church.

They raise the question, “How did this holiday become part of our story?” The implied answer is “Well, it’s not really, but we don’t have a clear way of saying yes or no to the dominant culture.”

And sometimes we must say no or else our religion becomes a subcontractor for anything that’s popular and respectable, whatever the source or meaning, and whatever the harm. And despite all the talk about radicalism, Unitarian Universalism — especially on its Unitarian site — is a deeply respectable and culture-driven religion.

The contortions to make something religious out of Mothers Day are astounding. On the one side, there’s the effort to make it a peace holiday as intended. Good luck with that. Or there’s the ever widening functional definition of motherhood, to include those who never had children or — I saw this at least once — are male. And then there’s the sometimes-seen rose distribution, which if people were being candid, I bet is as hated as it is loved.

Better to mention it — perhaps even have an event apart from worship — and move on. Or if there’s to be something liturgical for Mothers Day — and Fathers Day and Memorial Day, while we’re at it — let’s at least be honest and missional.

One could hold two brief services — before and after the main service —

  • One can be an honest lamentation about the real grief and sorrow that mothers have wrought. The abuse, neglect, favoritism, insults, humiliation, and premature parentification that their children still suffer. That kind of honest liturgy is — or should be — in our scope. There are lamentations that need a voice.
  • Another is an act of mourning for mothers who have died, and for mothers whose children have predeceased them. (Perhaps too those who hoped for children and never could have them.) A reliable, annual event — I’d also have a special All Souls service — can be a great blessing.

And these should be well promoted, to provide the kind of rare outlet that some might find too painful to otherwise admit. There’s something to be said for worshiping with strangers, and in both cases I’m thinking of several people who’s real-life religious needs are not being fulfilled around these situations.

I think this is something good and valuable and — dare I say — healing that we can provide, whether or not there’s a special cake and flowers during coffee hour.

The shortest wedding service

A post-church, post-lunch interlude. Found this in a decades-old Unitarian ministers’ manual. Why would someone choose this service? Perhaps for a wedding in a hospital, at a sick-bed, or for a couple in mourning where the solemnization is otherwise unavoidable. Or by two who really do want the shortest service possible!

Later. Left out a rather important part, however implied it may be.

From A Handbook for Ministers. Volume 1. Boston: American Unitarian Association, 1925. Page 32.

A Marriage Declaration

Where a mere declaration of marriage is desired the following may be used:

¶ The minister shall say:

Standing as you now do in the presence of God and these witnesses, do you covenant to take each other as husband and wife, and agree to live together as God’s ordinance and the laws of the land decree?

¶ Then shall the man and the woman each say:

I do.

¶ Then shall the minister say:

By virtue of the authority vested in me by the State, I pronounce you husband and wife.

The wedding service, legally speaking

In 2004, after marriage between persons of the same sex became legal, I wrote a blog post about what a pastor might do when the couple had already vowed themselves to each other in the only spheres available: the social, religious or both.

Husband Jonathan and I are clear that our wedding seven years ago was real, if legally imperfect and that our ceremony a couple of weeks ago was not to replace it, but finish it. To underscore this, we kept the ceremony short, informal and with language echoing back to 2003.

In full, here’s what we did, or rather what the Rev. Victoria Weinstein led us in.

On July 5, 2003, at the Universalist National Memorial Church, you Jonathan Padget and Scott Wells, vowed to each other before God and the congregation, to have and to hold one another from that day
forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until death shall you part. You sealed this vow by holding hands, exchanging rings, and with prayer and the breaking of bread.

Today, you come to add to your wedded state marriage under the law of the District of Columbia. Is this your intent?

Each: It is.

[Turning, holding hands.]

I, Jonathan, take you Scott to be my lawfully wedded husband.

I, Scott, take you Jonathan to be my lawfully wedded husband.

Forasmuch as Scott and Jonathan have thus pledged themselves each to the other in the presence of these witnesses, I do now, by virtue of authority vested in me by the District of Columbia pronounce that they
are married.

The Lord bless you with his love as a mantle on your shoulders, a crown on your foreheads, and a seal upon your hearts.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the companionship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.

Needed we more?

Legally married

As some of you know, on August 21, Jonathan Padget and I legally married at home in the company of some local friends. He and I were married at church in 2003, but now that the District of Columbia marriage law encompasses same-sex couples we wanted to “complete” our marriage. (The liturgy follows.)

The Rev. Victoria Weinstein, perhaps better known to blog readers as PeaceBang and the author of “Beauty Tips for Ministers”, conducted both the 2003 and 2010 services. And here’s the proof: a photo by Avelino Maestas.

Thanks to them and the others present — also to those who wished us well from afar.

"A Practical Wedding"

That’s the name of a blog I just started reading. (HT: Get Rich Slowly) No, I’m not getting married again. But the “wedding industrial complex” has bothered me for years, and I’ve seen the ideal of the perfect wedding get in the way of what it seemed the couple (or at least one half the couple) really wanted. How can it be that weddings — which are so frequently pitched as expressing the couple’s personality — look so much alike, distinguished by the thinnest design decisions? The most memorable weddings I officiated — some very simple, others complex and expensive, a few quite quirky — all had evidence that the couple had realistic expectations of what the celebrations entailed, and — I imagine — a well-considered budget or plan.

A good way to begin married life, I think.

A Practical Wedding

Ethical man: the end

If the “year without toilet paper” didn’t gross out willing environmentalists, perhaps the idea of composting the dead  (link to Ethical Man blog) will. I don’t care if it takes a lot of energy — about a month’s worth for a living Westerner — to cremate a body, I will not be composted or even freeze-dried, powdered and mulched. One of the hallmarks of emerging humanity was the care given by the living for the dead.

But I’m willing to compromise. Options include green burials — indeed, like farming, all burials were once green — and burial at sea.  Corpse donation for medical use ends with cremation, but your remains add value to learning so some will prefer this option, too.