The reading this morning is the poem “Guardian Angel” from Carl Dennis’ Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, Practical Gods.
GUARDIAN ANGEL by Carl Dennis
Not the angel that helps you resist temptation
(Conscience and heart are enough for that,
And besides, when have you been tempted lately?),
But the one with advice about tactics
For possessing your share of the true and beautiful,
The one who tells you the plaid of your jacket
Will prove too loud for the soft-spoken sensitive woman
You’re destined to meet tonight in line at the theater
When everything depends on a first impression.
With the angel’s help you can open a conversation
On a fruitful subject like happiness and explain
People are wrong to seek it directly,
How it comes on the back of other things
Like losing oneself in a casual conversation
That tests our powers of empathy, not cleverness.
A practical angel, ignorant in philosophy
But peerless in group dynamics, who can show you
Why it’s unwise to urge your hesitant friend
To leave her apartment for yours too quickly,
How a sudden fear of confinement may choke off feelings
That otherwise would be sure to bloom.
And if eagerness wins out over prudence, the angel,
Instead of saying, “I told you so,” will help you
Turn from errors that can’t be altered
And sally out in quest of a local problem
Where your many talents can make a difference.
Why not get involved with the block-club committee
Dedicated to stopping the corner drugstore
From tripling in size and knocking down in the process
Houses that keep the scale of the neighborhood human?
Soon you may find yourself toasting the cause
By candlelight with your eager co-chair,
A woman fearless in the face of officialdom.
It’s true if she had an angel to help her
She wouldn’t be wearing the dress she’s wearing,
A duplicate of the one your mother wore
Thirty summers ago at Cape May when your father
Embarked full-time on his career of drinking.
But doesn’t this ignorance, which her angel
Should have dispelled, make her appealing
To someone like you, who’s quick to discern a soul mate?
As you sit across the table you can feel your heart
Swell with so much sympathy that your jacket
Feels tight in the chest, your loud plaid jacket.
“Why not remove it,” the angel you need would ask,
“And drape it out of sight on the back of your chair?”
When I was in college, there was a regular movie night in a large auditorium on campus. (This was during a study-abroad program at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK.) I decided to show up at a screening of The Exorcist. As the film was supposed to start, the organizer announced that the film reels had not arrived, and apologized that the screening would have to be cancelled. At that point a student in the audience jumped up and said, “Oh, I’ve got a video of The Exorcist back in my dorm room, and if you’d wait, I can be back in fifteen minutes.” This student happened to be a foreign exchange student from Finland and returned fifteen minutes later with a video cassette of The Exorcist dubbed into Finnish.
Truthfully, I never expected that this story would wind up as a sermon illustration…
This morning, I am interested in reflecting upon, publicly, an aspect of my job and my profession: the office of the pastor. Classically, the position of the minister consists of filling five offices, which can be remembered because they all begin with the letter “P”. The five offices of the minister are:
“Preacher”, the leader of public worship,
“Priest”, the performer of rites, rituals, and ceremonies, what one of my colleagues terms “hatching, matching, and dispatching”,
“Pedagogue” or teacher, an instructor in religious understanding,
“Prophet”, the advocate for justice in the community,
and, “Pastor”, related to the work of caring, guiding, or healing.
Now, of course, filling those five offices is not the sum of the job. In the modern congregation there are also roles like: manager of staff, consultant to leaders and committees, and occasionally administrator of this, solver of that, or opener of doors. This makes ministry one of the last true generalist professions.
However, this is changing. In this age of large-, very-large-, and mega-churches, ministry has entered a period of increased specialization. A few months ago, I sat on a panel with a number of local clergy, including the senior minister of a large Methodist Church. Before the program, we were talking about weddings, and she remarked that she hadn’t performed one in six years. “That’s not something I have the time to do anymore.” Recently, many large churches have taken to subcontracting out their pastoral care functions, which may include leasing office space to chaplain services or having an approved list of therapists, counselors, coaches, and spiritual advisors who pay the church for referrals.
What I wanted to reflect upon, publicly, this morning is that narrow sliver of my profession known as the “office of the pastor.” What’s a pastor for? And more than that, in a Unitarian Universalist church, with its particular culture and theology and diversity and approach to spiritual matters, what’s a Unitarian Universalist pastor for?
And I’ll begin by first saying what a Unitarian Universalist pastor is not for. We’ll begin with the obvious: I don’t perform exorcisms (and certainly not in Finnish.) I’m being a bit facetious here, a bit silly, but it is true, there are certain types of pastoral interventions I am not asked to do. I am not asked to cast out foul demons, slay in the spirit, or perform psychic surgery. I don’t choreograph ghost dances. I don’t fill a shamanic role: no trance, séance, or soul- transnavigation here. I don’t prescribe crystal therapy, or aromatherapy. I don’t hypnotize or psychoanalyze or MMPI.
And you may respond to that by saying “Thank Goodness!” But part of me responds by saying, “Too bad.” It’d make my job a whole lot easier and remove a good bit of the uncertainty. There’s an old Gary Larson “Far-Side” cartoon that I’m fond of. It shows a man standing in a store. The storefront advertises “appliance faith healing”, and the man holds up a vacuum cleaner and invokes, “Come out, unclean spirit!” You wouldn’t bring your vacuum cleaner to an appliance faith healer. To whom, though, do you bring your grief, anxiety, fear, pre-occupation, or sadness?
Leaving the realm of facetiousness, there are other roles that I don’t fill. One of those roles is “therapist.” I’m not a therapist. How many additional years of school would that be, and how much more would I be paying in student loan? There’s another reason I’m not a therapist: when you think of the continuing education, licensing, professional development, and keeping up to date on the latest theories and techniques and so on and so forth that would seem to me to be a pre-requisite for someone ethically to call oneself a therapist, you’d wonder where I’d find the time for filling the other offices. Two pastoral care classes in seminary does not a therapist make.
So, when I go to pay a visit on someone in the hospital, what’s that all about? What is happening in that moment? This is a theological question. Perhaps, my presence is representative – that a call or a visit from me is representative of a community that expresses its concern. I come to you as an ambassador from the congregation, a larger group that is thinking of you and praying for you, but I am merely representative. Or perhaps my presence is diversionary – the visit is inherently social where we might talk about the weather and current events, forty five minutes of company, and to my credit, I’m at least a little more bearable than daytime television. Or, perhaps my presence is just that: presence. Showing up is what really matters, because ninety percent of life is showing up… isn’t that what they say? Just being there and listening is what counts. Or, perhaps, it is something else.
There is another dimension to this issue as well, which is the dimension of authority. In the counseling experience in some religious traditions, it is par for the course for the religious leader to be prescriptive, even autocratic and dictatorial. The person presents their problem, and the pastor answers by prescriptively saying, “The Bible says that thou shalt…”, or “According to our teachings, you are not permitted to…”, or, “The rules say you should…” In Unitarian Universalism we are not an “anything goes” religion, yet, at the same time, it is not as though as I have, or pretend to have, a compendious volume of sanctioned, approved, prescriptive advice bearing the stamp of religious authority. I have no such book on my shelf from which I give you definitive answers.
This gets into the complicated area of denying a person’s agency by making decisions for them, which is something I would just soon not do. I need to allow a person to own their own difficult decisions because it is they, and not I, who will have to live with the consequences of those decisions. Unitarian Universalism stresses empowering individuals to exercise free-will rather than dependency. On the other hand, when it comes to the whole business of advice-giving, my role as pastor is best served when I assist individuals in forming their own faithful responses to difficult situations, and I can do this by being an interpreter of our tradition – “this is how Unitarian Universalism has approached this issue.”
Rev. Laurel Hallman, now the minister of the large UU church in Dallas, Texas writes the following:
“Early in my ministry I began to question why people were coming to see me. The problems and issues they brought into my study were posed in psychological terms. I knew that there were enough therapists in town to cover the needs of my whole congregation. ‘Why are they coming to me?’ I asked myself. Perhaps, I answered myself, it was because I was a minister.
“So, one day, feeling rather bold, I asked a person who was in my office if she had prayed about her situation. Without hesitation, she said, relieved, ‘Yes. I feel like a child again, but I can’t help myself.’
“It gave me some traction, a place from which to minister. ‘Shall we pray about it now?’ I asked. She said yes, and we did. I can’t say it was transformative for her, but I had the keen sense that at some level she expected that was what we would do.
“This hasn’t always worked. I remember once visiting a woman who did not have long to live. She was a confirmed skeptic. I knew that. But I thought, perhaps, in this tender moment, she might want her minister to pray with her. ‘Would you like me to pray?’ I asked. She was so forceful in her ‘No!’ that I actually thought I might have given her a renewed reason to live!”
What Laurel Hallman is talking about here, is not about one right way, one set path. What she is talking about is a pastoral role that is grounded in the spiritual dimensions of whatever the issue is. And I’m probably doing the best in that role when I approach the yearning through spiritual practice and metaphorical language. If you were going to pray about that, what would that be like?
And it that metaphorical language that I want to concentrate on, as we come back to the image of watching The Exorcist dubbed in Finnish. The silly, tongue-in-cheek, thing to say about this story is to comment on what a skilled and worldly Priest Max von Sydow is playing. I mean he not only casts out a demon, but he learns Finnish in order to cast out a Finnish speaking demon. Now that’s skill.
Of course, that’s not really how it works. The film was a translation, created in order to allow someone else to understand and comprehend. There are a variety of pastoral techniques – from performing exorcisms, to shamanic trances, to performing ghost dances – that probably, I’m guessing, would be no more effective for you than if I tried to talk to you in Finnish. There are languages we might try to speak to one another: the language of psychotherapy, the language of sociology and social history, the language of self-help. These are all powerful tongues, but the language I speak is primarily the language of theology and its my challenge to try to translate it effectively, gracefully.
In the poem “Guardian Angel” by Carl Dennis, a poem whose content is not relevant to this sermon, but whose concept is, Dennis imagines an enchanted world, where much more is happening than meets the eye. He paints a world in which heavenly hosts are imperceptibly whispering sage advice, bits of wisdom, for us to possibly attune ourselves to. In his fantasy, the guardian angels are whispering sartorial advice (“don’t wear that plaid jacket”), conversation advice, relationship advice (“I told you so.”) Regardless of whether we heed this advice or not, our lives continue on, sometimes gracefully, and sometimes in fits and starts. Even the advice we do not manage to pick up, to the effect of triggering a painful memory or an negative association, can, with our willingness to understand, indicate an innocence more appealing than calculation.
Dennis’ poem is a poem about mystery. We don’t quite know the ways of those guardian angels. We don’t even know if they exist, but we stand in theater lines, and join block-club committees, and conjure up memories from somewhere, and dub those memories with new words and understanding.
I leave you this morning with some words from Anne Lamott, from her book Plan B. She writes these plaintive words:
“What are you supposed to do, when what is happening can’t be, and the old rules no longer apply? I remember this feeling when my mother was in the last stages of Alzheimer’s, when my brothers and I needed so much more information to go on than we had – explanations, plans, a tour guide, and hope that it really wasn’t going to be that bad. But then it was that bad, and then some, and all we could do was talk, and stick together. We managed to laugh at ourselves and at her, and at the utter hopelessness of it all, and we sought wise counsel – medical, financial, spiritual. I prayed, for things I never would imagine I’d pray for, I prayed for her to die in her sleep, I prayed that I’d never have to take the cat out of her arms and put her in a home. A nurse summoned form the Alzheimer’s Association entered into the mess with us. We said, “We don’t know what we’re doing. We don’t know if we should put her in a home, and if so, when. We don’t even know what’s true anymore.” The nurse asked gently, “How could you know?”
What a wise thing to say. The type of thing a guardian angel might whisper. Blessings!