In the Beginning: The Puritan Origins of Today’s Unitarian Universalist Process of rCredentialing and Ordaining of Ministers

Judging from three different Facebook threads, as well as some changes proposed to the Unitarian Universalist Association’s bylaws (on which I have absolutely no opinion), some folks would like a short, snappy, easily-shared timeline of where our polity came from.

When the Puritan elders of Massachusetts Bay received a royal charter to found a constellation of parishes throughout the wilderness of New England in the 1630s, they defined their vision with ample reference to the Hebrew Bible. Like Moses, they were taking God’s covenant into a wilderness (which, as in the Hebrew Bible, already belonged to somebody else, but that’s another issue; still, attention must be paid) and setting up an interlaced network of communities which would nourish, educate, and, occasionally, correct each other. The secular affairs of these communities would be run through democratic self-government by the men of the village, meeting weekly in Town Meeting. The religious affairs would fall under the purview of theologically educated, publicly supported ministers.

The mutual nurture, education, and correction would take place through free travel among marketplaces and social institutions in the best road system of the original thirteen colonies. The mutual nurture, education, and, occasionally, correction of these same towns assembled for religious purposes would be accomplished by having the ministers preach weekly not only to their own congregations but weekly to one other town as well. This system was so different from what we today call “pulpit visits” that I strive to rename the system as “pulpit rotation.” For a minister would indeed come around again — over two to four decades of service, he would come to know the neighboring towns as thoroughly as he knew his own. There were no hotels, so he would sleep, eat, bathe, and sometimes be sick in the homes of parishioners all over the colony. And there were no secrets, because someone in his own congregation would welcome a diverse but not distant collection of his ministerial colleagues, week after week.  Seminarians and new graduates took part in the rotation, so that by the time a congregation wanted to elect one to a vacant pulpit, or add him as relief for an aging pastor, the entire Standing Order had an opinion. To exercise their vested interest, delegates of neighboring congregations were called to vote on the ordination immediately before it would take place.

There were no Sundays off.

When ministers visited each others’ parishes, (King’s Chapel apparently joined the rotation sometime after its Loyalist majority absconded during the War for Independence) they kept their eyes open for “promising youths” who might fill pulpits in later years. Both Theodore Parker and Henry Ware, Sr were poor young men of good lineage who received encouragement for the ministry from their own and other ministers. Unlike Ralph Waldo Emerson, a PK many times over, Parker and Ware, Sr. simply had a chance to show their interest, and, like Emerson, receive opportunities that let them work towards and through Harvard.

They also kept their eyes open for women who would make good ministers’ wives. In the 1830s, when Henry Ware, Jr lost his first wife and was distraught that he had to house his young children with his sister until he could find another wife, his colleagues arranged that his pulpit rotation hospitality included suitable potential partners. And one of them, impoverished but able, did indeed become the wife who maintained his ministry during both his illnesses and his denominational absences.

By this social process — codified but not identified in The Cambridge Platform of 1648 — the Standing Order could both encourage the freedom of individual consciences and yet center the town’s identity in its First Parish. It is therefore a mistake to attempt to transplant the dictates of the Cambridge Platform without reference to the changes in social environment. The system lasted until October 1830.

So whence came The Boston Ministers’ Association, that forerunner of the UUA’s Ministerial Fellowship Committee? It early arose, as sort of a town meeting for ministers, and met faithfully. Still does. And you can find its records in the Massachusetts Historical Society, so don’t take my word for it.

In the Massachusetts Historical Society you can find the incessant journaling of Rev. Dr. John Pierce of Brookline’s First Parish. He never missed an ordination, dedicated many a meetinghouse (including the one where I currently worship, which required a week of hard travel in a New England January) and kept notes on practically every meeting that was held among the congregational ministers who found themselves transitioning from quiet village preachers into the leaders, thinkers, and victims of the Unitarian Controversies.  Dr. Pierce’s journals are a one-man NSA of that era.

“Mode of Introduction to the Pulpit Among the Congregational Clergy of Boston and Vicinity” Memoirs of John Pierce, Vol III pp. 483 – 493

“Till within a few years it was the practice of students of Divinity to commence preaching without any form of examination or license.  When a young man wished to become candidate for the ministry, he was invited into the pulpit of some friend; and in this way, he became known as a candidate for settlement, and was accordingly invited to preach on probation.

                “At length by the exertion of Dr. Morse and others, who wished to introduce not only the system of examining candidate, but also the Church government subsisting in Connecticut, into this state, it became a vote of the Convention of Congregational ministers in Massachusetts, that no young man should be encourage to preach, but such, as obtained the approbation of some Association.”

The Reverend Dr. Jedediah Morse of First Parish, Charlestown, MA, was the Newt Gingrich of the Unitarian Controversies: not for him the mystic chords of unity; he tolerated only — and engineered finally — the polarity of theological clarity. He combated the Unitarians’ most prominent independent scholar, Miss Hannah Adams of Medfield, who published the first dictionary of all religions, past and present, as they described themselves in their own words.

As the Great Awakening of the 1730s suffused into the Second Great Awakening of the early 1800s, councils before ordinations became very tense; congregations began inviting only clergy and congregations they knew shared their sympathies.  Salvation-minded parties  withdrew from formerly town-wide congregations. 

On the 15th and 23rd of October, 1830, Henry Ware, Jr, took a theological hatchet to the pulpit rotation system in his Introductory Address to the Cambridge Theological School as its first Parkman Professor of Pulpit Eloquence and the Pastoral Care. In “The Connections Between the Duties of the Pulpit and The Pastoral Office,” he called for a preaching integrity not of theological argument but settled pastoral relationships.  It was not that he disliked the pulpit rotation system — indeed, he so generous with his ministerial presence that his health suffered and he died young –but the Industrial Revolution had caused congregations to crave stable ministers, messages, and worship rituals to anchor their rapidly-disintegrating social realm.

Cut off from their neighbors by theology, now looking inward to their pulpit, modern parishes had no friendly confidants to take them aside with cautionary or tutelary information about potential ministers. If a candidate misjudged his suitability for ministry, the comforts of that stable parish could buoy him for quite some time, to the parish’s eventual detriment. Ware and his colleagues began by sending forth their own students, properly credentialed through Boston’s Ministerial Association, because there was no other guarantor for transplanted New Englanders in search of religious continuity.

I tell this story with sympathy for the impulse to protect these parishes from the dangers that arose with their isolation from each other. But that sympathy was misplaced. The denomination’s single, centralized Ministerial Fellowship Committee, symbolized by the late, lamented headquarters at 25 Beacon Street in Boston, followed Jedediah Morse’s secretive, judgmental model (which, ironically, has been democratized by the denomination which carries on his theological views). What Morse advocated, as Pierce explained, was not the Cambridge Platform of Massachusetts, but the Saybrook Platform of Connecticut. To remain true to Massachusetts Bay, our denomination would have done better to replicate the collegiality not only among ministers but also among congregations, on regional and local bases. It is no accident that voices clamor most strongly against the MFC and the clerisy it credentials in the wake of strong UUA efforts to enhance and empower regional organizations.

Different Music for the Halloween/Thanksgiving/Hannukah/Christmas/New Year’s Part of the U.S. Year

My reaction to Christmas stuff before Thanksgiving — much less before Halloween — has been changing. A lot. This is an attempt to get a handle on what’s going on inside.

First, the facts:

I am a Unitarian Universalist minister not working in ministry, but caring for a fiancee with a serious medical condition. We live far away from my family of origin, and her illness has prevented me from seeing my aging parents and blossoming nephews and nieces — not to mention my siblings — for over a year.

Because it can be confusing to accept that all religious traditions have spiritual meaning, I have pretty much settled my liturgical life around Earth-centered paganism and the Jewish/Christian religions. This directly ties me in with my ancestry, which is Anglo-Saxon (NO Celt or Gaelic). My family has Asian and African-American members, and their traditions inform me deeply as well.

And here’s a shout-out: to Doug Shaheen, who gave me probably the best spiritual advice I ever got. (It could be that people go into ministry because the laity has the lion’s share of spiritual wisdom and we want to gather it for ourselves, eh?) We were talking one October, and he said the next thing was Halloween and then starting the Christmas cards.

“What?” I rebuked.

“Yes, I’ve got a lot of cards to send. So I get them out in October, and start addressing envelopes, writing cards, just two or three a night, while we’re watching tv or something.”

Obviously, that stayed with me. It took root. It has blossomed. And now I know what he was talking about.

All Saints and All Souls are not two days on the highway to Jesus, they are, for a true humanist, the high point of the year. (Thank you, Universalism, for liturgies about this. Boo, Unitarianism, for trying to level it away.)

And like any high point, they need a season coming and going, and this season needs its story and its music.

It turns out the wider wisdom is way ahead of us clergy on this one. When I googled “Music for All Saints,” the playlist was all about friends. Lost friends. Living friends. Friends in the family. Friends we wish we’d treated differently. Friends we know we want to see again.

Having worked retail for many years, I appreciate the strategy of using music to prod latent shopping impulses. But “Christmas” music has gotten harder to find, because it has to be scrubbed of theological content, and family/regional/cultural traditions vary widely.

But, boy, what if November 1 became the day all the stores started playing songs about friends? Because that’s who we shop for most passionately, our family and friends. And that’s something that no culture denies or devalues. There are tons of songs about friends. All generations. All volumes. All rhythms. All poetry styles.

When I first listened to this playlist, due to my isolation, due to my commitment to my partner (who has just walked in asking for breakfast), it hurt too much to complete. And I HATE to fly, so I dread the new unfriendly skies that await.

But that didn’t last. The focus now shines. It wiggles its toes in deep soil and tickles my innards.

So here’s what I want to put together: A calendar of readings — scriptures, poetry, whatever — that will start mid-October and carry through until American Thanksgiving. Needless to say, it will have lots of Hebrew Bible, because that’s where the Bible most fully talks about human relationships. It will have Christian longings about being together again.

And it will have much better music.

“Church History” and Trayvon Martin

The day just closed marked the anniversary of Reverend Ralph Waldo Emerson’s invited address to a small collection of students, recent alumni (Theodore Parker), and community members (including Elizabeth Peabody) at what was then known as the Theological School at Cambridge. The Divinity School Address, (DSA) as it is now known, has been called the foundational document of Transcendentalism, not so much a shot across the bow as into the powder magazine of the nascent congregational Unitarianism struggling mightily to hang onto respectability, power, and cultural relevance in a fast-changing world.

Today on Facebook, one scholar chose to highlight a theme which comes up many places in Emerson, that is, the primacy of instinctive religion over received religion. I am currently reading Self Reliance, where, if anything, church history takes a much more sustained hit than anything Emerson says in the DSA. But when I put down my Emerson to take in several hours of MSNBC commentary on the recent acquittal of George Zimmerman, in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, church history jumped out from every word.

I agree with Emerson, this is no time for quarreling over whose congregation was established first and whether or not so-and-so was ordained by such-and-such a congregation or by some other. But this IS a time for remembering the very church history made by Emerson and his allies of many faiths in reacting to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. For I heard commentators tonight, speaking about New York City’s stop and frisk policy, as well as about the acquittal (not exonoration) of a self-appointed neighborhood vigilante. For me it all came together in this video, when Joy Reid and Rev. Al Sharpton explained that this says to African Americans  that any white person, civilian or official, can challenge the presence and conduct of any black person — child, youth, adult, senior, anyone — for any reason.

These are the words of the Fugitive Slave Law, that is, to empower every white person to put every black person in the place that white person considers to be that black person’s place. The law’s intent was to institutionalize every African American in slavery, or scare them out of the country (it spurred a HUGE increase in flights to Canada via Underground Railroad). Today there is no slavery to send them back to, but perhaps our penal system has taken over that function.

And when the Fugitive Slave Law was passed, states like mine (Vermont) moved immediately and officially to disqualify our officials from taking part in it. This little-remembered fact led the South to abandon — until now — its push for a strong central authority supporting slavery, moving back to states’ rights as the fallback. (This explains why liberal religion needs to focus is social justice not at national television cameras, but at state legislatures.)  A Vermont lawyer in Missouri helped a family who had been living as free people despite official slave status to appeal this law. It was the Dred Scott Decision which took the question of citizenship out of the hands of states and federalized it, by declaring that Africans had no right to citizenship, no matter what state they inhabited and whether or not they were free.

And here is where church history — not omitting Rev. Emerson’s own works — becomes relevant. Unitarians, Universalists, Quakers, Congregationalists, Methodists, Baptists, and other liberal religious stood up against this pervasive persecution  to say we would not participate. Moreover, as Caucasian religious organizations, we would do everything in our power to protect African-heritage individuals from every form of second class citizenship, beginning with this omnipresent fear of persecution and endangerment.

I’ve been wrestling for over a year with the Transcendentalist conviction, which Emerson states in Self Reliance, that a person should not be distracted from the work to which they are called by anything, not even pleas from philanthropies, charities, and neighbors with whom we have no other exchanges. Does this mean we UUs ought to limit our commitment to social justice? By this definition, Emerson’s life contradicts his writings. But tonight what it means to me is that since I have brother and sister Americans who feel, in effect, that the Fugitive Slave Law is still in effect, then as an American, this is my genius, this is my locality, this is a neighbor with whom I have business. If we have to retool our focus to state-to-state emphasis, in order to counter the current strategies of oppression, that does not mean we are pulling back, but moving forward.

When She’s Sleeping…

Medical science has reduced the burden of Lynne’s Huntington’s Disease expressions when she’s awake and active. One medication lets her sit still, stand with balance, walk freely, etc. This is more than cosmetic, as muscle spasms in throat and heart are major killers in the HD collection. Other meds manage the anxiety and depression which still sends so many folks suffering with HD into isolation or suicide. And a return of capabilities further lessens these negative tendencies. All of this gives joy to those who love a person with HD, and hope to the families who know it inhabits their genetic profile.

But a heavy medication life means lots of extra sleep. When she’s up and doing, her body is a war zone between the disease on the one hand, and her intentions and her medication allies on the other. For the first year, she chose the “one quality event a day” pattern, but lately, she’s been pushing herself to stay awake all day on days which have scheduled quality time. That means on other days she sleeps around the clock.

It’s easier for me to do other things on days of getting up and taking naps. These days when she sleeps all day scare the hell out of me. My intellect observes that this is high quality sleep, with lots of deep stillness. What a joyful experience for her body, to be free of the chorea. She is putting weight back on after last year’s crisis, and one reason insurance buys the incredibly expensive anti-chorea medication is precisely this, to let the body absorb more calories than it burns. Spiraling weight-loss is another way HD kills, and it turns out to be a side-effect of the chorea, rather than part of the digestive tract anomalies, what a boon.

But as good as this deep sleep is for her, it scares the hell out of my loving heart. All day long I hover nearby, searching compulsively for the expansion and contraction of life in and out of her beautiful torso. At the depths of her stillness, I sneek little pulse-checks on her outstretched wrist, as lightly as my anxious fingers can manage.

This anxiety completely saps my ability to focus on reflective writing and ministry when she’s sleeping. There, I’ve said it. Am I sharing the joy of her body’s good day of healing? Yes. Am I unable to delegate my hopes to the bottles rattling through that drawer of her dresser and head comfortably for my computer? Yes again.

These are contradictory impulses that totally rule whole days of my life, week after week. And I can’t even figure out what kind of goal I should have for resolving the tension.

The God Who Is Not the God of Oops

It’s tough to say we need to take Newt Gingrich seriously as a theologian to whom  we respond, but he is barnstorming the Republican primary with a message about God that feel-good liberalism cannot answer.

People who respond favorably to his God have known something that never touches most liberals, and that is the incredibly powerful sensation of being born again: recognizing one’s errors, acknowledging one’s likelihood of repeating them, and then asked God for a combination of help and forgiveness that sets up a sense that you might be able to avoid this trap the next time.

It does not mean you feel no temptation, it doesn’t mean you promise never to do it again. It means you have sought out, grasped and learned to use some tools you believe will help you avoid the same mistake. And the tools don’t work just because you hold them, or because you repeat the directions to yourself at key moments: they work because you work them, constantly, faithfully, even when you don’t feel the need.

Liberals, let’s face it: we are what William James called “the once born.”  We listen to these stories the same way a tone deaf person listens to subtle shifts in Gregorian chant (sorry, tone deaf folks, if that’s not the right one, it’s my best guess).  The fact that we do not hear this music does not mean no one else does, either. It means we are not in this choir, and we have to find a common language of beauty.

In the current case, we need to find a common language of God: a God who instructs and leads. One to whom we bow down, not by bending our knees, but to whom we turn with equivalent time and energy not as prophets or evangelists, but as students who keep needing the same tutorial, over and over again, not because we didn’t get it last week, but because we have just forgot quite how we did it at the time.

And here’s the trick that liberals keep missing: this is not going to be the God of that whole Monica Lewinsky hypocrisy. That “condemning you for doing what I’m doing” resonates with me as a problem, but for born-agains, God has forgiven this and Gingrich is ready not to do it again. Frankly, liberals, this is an area where we need to take an example from the Newster. Quite a few of us have made the same desperate attempt Gingrich made, to balance a new lover and a useful spouse. There are stories (often hushed up) among our clergy, there are stories among those who worship next to us, and there are plenty of stories of doing exactly this amongst our political allies, both straight and gay. So get over the hypocrisy issue — there is no one here that qualifies to cast the first stone and the less we bring it up, the better off we’re all going to be.

So if it’s not about hypocrisy, maybe we can just boil it down to dollars and sense. How much money did the country waste on that whole impeachment thing? How much money and time did we squander avoiding some significant issues, because arguing about sex — who’s having it, who ought to have it, who’s doing it which whom — is just so much more fun and manageable than looking at the kind of societal transitions we now know were going on. Maybe, but again, a lot of people believe in a fundamental character: an intrinsic self which cannot be changed or eradicated, only guided, corrected, and occasionally, repented. And frankly, that’s pretty much the experience most of us have with ourselves, so it’s not far-fetched to believe that private decisions and public ones have a common interior fountain.

So if it’s not about hypocrisy and it’s not about the private-public dichotomy, what is it?
It’s about the method of self-correction and long-term guidance our God wants us to employ.  And Unitarianism — whether theistic or atheistic — take a back seat to no one in beautiful articulations of a God who calls on us to use the powers of research, reason and double-checking BEFORE we commit to a major course of action.

Let’s look again at all that post-Puritan theology.  It boils down to this, a God who says, “Now show me your homework about this area of impact. Show me your homework in projecting this particular process that’s already underway. Show me who you’re leaving out when you make such-and-such a proposal, because remember, I created everyone. No exceptions.  And I love them.”

Newt is doing a great job selling what I call “The God of Oops.”  The God who pats your bowed head when you say, “Gee that didn’t work out the way I expected, but gosh, my intentions were good” and says, “Don’t worry, I know your heart.”

Nevermind that I doubt that God’s definition of a good heart in Newt Gingrich lives up to what I want in a President: good heart is just not an adequate method for making leadership decisions. Not for a family, not for a household, not for a neighborhood association, not for a country. The God of Oops –the one who thinks a good heart is enough — only makes one claim for what God’s honor for that good heart will do: to save each sinner in the hour of repentance. That is an hour when everyone has to walk the lonesome valley and stand alone, unaided, or kneel and pray.  And when you’re done, the God of Oops requests that you apologize to those you have wronged, even ask forgiveness. Then the God of Oops wants you to study how you made such a bad decision, and keep stripping away your self-justifications until you identify the improper joy you were trying to achieve, from a really short list.

The God of Oops does not hand out free passes. You have to do a lot of work to stay in this God’s good graces. It only ends when you die, and even then, who really knows?

So perhaps when Newt’s fans hoot against folks bringing up the Monica Lewinsky hypocrisy, their real issue is anger that their God is being so totally misunderstood, misrepresented and then dismissed.

When folks are talking about God, they have significantly raised the bar. The only proper answer to one person’s God is another person’s God. Not the sacred kernel in each of our mortal selves, but some statement of what that is part of.  If there is a bit of the sacred which is in us but not of us, that entered to be carried for awhile and then dissolves back into some larger whole, we have to quit talking about our little selves and name that sacred substance, at least if we want to be in this conversation.

I don’t care what you call it in worship, when we’re all being UUs together. YOu might not call it God, but as Theodore Parker said, does it meet that test of Permanence, rise beyond and then outlast the transient? Because for purposes of political effectiveness that is what we are going to have to answer with.

Here is a  good example from our faith tradition, not using Godtalk but struggling to define an equal essence:

“The intuition of the moral sentiment is an insight of the perfection of the laws of the soul. These laws execute themselves. They are out of time, out of space, and not subject to circumstance. Thus; in the soul of man there is a justice whose retributions are instant and entire. He who does a good deed, is instantly ennobled. He who does a mean deed, is by the action itself contracted. He who puts off impurity, thereby puts on purity. If a man is at heart just, then in so far is he God; the safety of God, the immortality of God, the majesty of God do enter into that man with justice. If a man dissemble, deceive, he deceives himself, and goes out of acquaintance with his own being. A man in the view of absolute goodness, adores, with total humility. Every step so downward, is a step upward. The man who renounces himself, comes to himself.

See how this rapid intrinsic energy worketh everywhere, righting wrongs, correcting appearances, and bringing up facts to a harmony with thoughts. Its operation in life, though slow to the senses, is, at last, as sure as in the soul. By it, a man is made the Providence to himself, dispensing good to his goodness, and evil to his sin. Character is always known. Thefts never enrich; alms never impoverish; murder will speak out of stone walls. The least admixture of a lie, — for example, the taint of vanity, the least attempt to make a good impression, a favorable appearance, — will instantly vitiate the effect. But speak the truth, and all nature and all spirits help you with unexpected furtherance. Speak the truth, and all things alive or brute are vouchers, and the very roots of the grass underground there, do seem to stir and move to bear you witness. See again the perfection of the Law as it applies itself to the affections, and becomes the law of society. As we are, so we associate. The good, by affinity, seek the good; the vile, by affinity, the vile. Thus of their own volition, souls proceed into heaven, into hell.

These facts have always suggested to man the sublime creed, that the world is not the product of manifold power, but of one will, of one mind; and that one mind is everywhere active, in each ray of the star, in each wavelet of the pool; and whatever opposes that will, is everywhere balked and baffled, because things are made so, and not otherwise.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson. “An Address.”  Harvard Divinity School, 15 July 1838

The Next Direct Access

If George Huntston Williams were alive today, he would be trying to turn the Radical Reformation into a single or multiplayer computer game. George drove book publishers crazy by demanding that every character be remembered, every picture be printed, every document be quoted. And pictures of the towns, please, so readers — he always believed there would be readers — could visualize these individuals walking through these streets, assembling in this buildings, fleeing into these forests.

I had the privilege — and agony — of spending two years in search of these pictures. Creaky elevators lowered me into sections of Widener Library where I’d starve to death if those escape tubes ever gave out. Huge carts of books stood outside his door, by special permission with the Librarian, with bookmarks bristling out of them like flycatchers or bottle brushes. And always there came the mail, the dreaded mail, with publishers pleading for George to set priorities, consider the expense of inserting plates, the trouble of all those copyrights.

Even at the academic level occupied by Harvard and its like, famous scholars whispered about George’s brilliant mind. Who else could command so many details, call them up so instantaneously, weave them together so extensively? Perhaps we should just say he was born into the wrong species: his mind, to the admiring, was a computer.

It took no time at all with George to see that he was no computer; this fevered man was a complicated, highly articulate mystic. And therein lies the value of turning his work into a game. His was a Reformation heart, forever  stuck in these Ember Days of Advent, believing, preaching, worshiping, a God who would soon stand before us, dwell within us, work among us. What got George out of bed every morning was a passionate commitment to the truth which drove the Reformations, Radical, Ecclessial, Magisterial (well, maybe not Magisterial): I was born to open an ossified world to a God who is dying to get back into it, to liberate hearts made into wombs from which God is shouting, “Let me out! I want you to see me, hold me, receive all this love I have for you.”

In 2011 the best way to communicate God’s urgency to these long-ago people,is a computer game. What once were bursting hearts are now restless fingers, itchy to click. What once were ravenous readers, seekers, writers are now eyes widening over graphic options, scanning the toolbar for links, dropping the history bar to catch one’s breath. In this age of endless pre-trial hearings, of bails and appeals that last for years, only a computer game can replicate a culture of soldiers snatching prophets into custody without warning or warrant, moving them into quick trials and deaths, usually horrible, within days, weeks, months, seldom years.

The Reformation era sparkled with the passion that animated George ‘s soul: an insistence on God’s right to show each person directly that God has inhabited their own neighborhood, sits at their table daily, will come again, year after year, no matter that each of us dies, no matter that time erases our stories in a parade of offspring who cannot know us, and whom we cannot know.

This is the message of the Ember Days: we will die,our children will come, generation after generation, trampling most of our details into obscurity. But this is the core of our being, an essence which will not change: each new face is a new face of God, each heart a new-made messenger of God’s love.

As the United States of America (as opposed to the United States of Mexico or some of the others we never acknowledge) heads into its next presidential election cycle, a universal fear has given voice to anger and derision, and stopped the ears of many who used to pride themselves on openness to new information. I watched Keith Obermann last night for a bit, and was simply disgusted by his reliance on invective to communicate arrogance. For 9-11-11 Paul Krugman launched a column that simply exploited the occasion to complain again about exploitation of the occasion.

I don’t disagree with the politics of either journalist, but I would like to point out, as a pastor and historian, that the purpose of formal occasions like elections and memorials is to pause and listen to each others’ stories, fitting them in with the facts we think we know, double-checking said facts against these stories, and then trying to move forward together. Doing history is so often prophetic precisely because it calls us to surrender to larger stories that may or may not support our personal narratives. That is why people prefer myths — metastories that make key points or offer up acceptable explanations of how “the we of me” (Carson McCullers’s great expression in Member of the Wedding) got to be in a certain predicament or privilege.  The anger which comes from being contradicted is why people in stress hang onto hagiography — the creation of saints who make inarguable virtue of what the individual wants to believe is the right thing to do.

At the end of next month, the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society and the  Harvard Divinity School will join together to present a panel on the late Professor of American Religious History, C. Conrad Wright. It is my honor to be on this panel, speaking on Conrad’s personal mission of using the academically maligned field of denominational history to witness, as a prophet, to covenants that in his time were under attack.

They are still fragile. They are both right and wrong for this new millennium. But that is for another day. Right now, I lift up the example of a scholar who was willing to research, study, retell and affirm stories from history that did not match the feelings of  his contemporaries. Over time, however, those stories became part of who are have become and are trying to be. And in one sense, his point still applies: Covenant means listening with pastoral openness to the stories of people whose stories do not fit with ours. Hearing them out on what they know they need and think they want.  And then, looking into our collectivity with honesty to be sure we are ready to meet those needs, without surrendering our ethics to the most extreme or hurtful of anyone’s passions.

Including ours.