Click here for a blog post about what music I listened to while I wrote this sermon.
by Lucille Clifton
i am running into a new year
and the old years blow back
like a wind
that i catch in my hair
like strong fingers like
all my old promises and
it will be hard to let go
of what i said to myself
when i was sixteen and
twenty-six and thirty-six
even thirty-six but
i am running into a new year
and i beg what i love and
i leave to forgive me
Robert Fulghum, author of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, is also ordained as a Unitarian Universalist minister. One of his later books, From Beginning to End, considers the subject of rituals – big rituals like weddings and funerals, as well as all those smaller rituals that happen day to day and week to week that give form and shape to our living.
As Unitarian Universalists we are often known for the distinctiveness of these life passage rituals. Those seeking us out know that having a Unitarian Universalist as their officiant means that they won’t be judged in all sorts of ways that many couples often are. They won’t have to make promises they have no intention of keeping about who will convert to what faith or in which faith the children will be raised. They won’t have to bite their tongues and cross their fingers behind their back when the minister goes on and on about something they don’t accept. The woman will not be made to promise to obey. The same sex union will be blessed. The interfaith couple will not be forced to accept the tradition of one and reject the tradition of the other. And, the ceremony will be about them, not about the minister’s dazzling and brilliant and insightful theological commentary, as dazzling and brilliant as it may be (alas!)
Unitarian Universalists are even more known for our memorial services than for our weddings. At a memorial service led by a UU minister, the service will be about the life of the person who has died, and not about the minister’s metaphysical speculation about the destination of an immortal soul. The service will be personal and personalized. It won’t be an opportunity to exploit the vulnerabilities of a captive and grieving congregation by lecturing them about their own salvation.
Perhaps, you’ve been to a service that has left you angry. Many of you have probably attended a funeral at which no evidence was ever given that the person who had died had ever lived. To paraphrase Emerson, “There was no one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined… This man had ploughed, and planted, and talked, and bought, and sold; he had read books; he had eaten and drunken; his head ached; his heart throbbed; he smiled and suffered; yet was there not a surmise, a hint, in all the discourse, that he had ever lived at all.”
Whenever I officiate at a memorial service I try to write it in a way that is true, and by true I mean deeply and intimately and unflinchingly personal. Undeniably, there is a challenge in attempting to capture a life—a life!—and reduce it down to only a few thousand words. And, at a memorial service it is my tradition to end by invoking the characteristic strengths and particular virtues of the person we are remembering and to charge the mourners to honor the life now gone by practicing those virtues, by struggling to embody those esteemed qualities and to incorporate them into our living.
“I am running into a new year,” wrote the late poet Lucille Clifton, “And, the old years blow back like a wind that I catch in my hair.” It has been a long tradition of this congregation, and of many Unitarian Universalist congregations, to set aside a day to remember those who have died in the previous year. Each congregation does it in its own way. At the congregation in Wayland, Massachusetts, where I grew up, the minister led a Remembrance service on Memorial Day. The tables during coffee hour were covered with obituaries and tributes to those who had died in the past twelve months, cut out from newspapers and magazines. One congregation in the Southwest holds a “Dia de los muertos” celebration in which members bring photographs of lost loved ones and the photos are arranged as a collage on a wall at the front of the sanctuary and the experience of worship includes a walking meditation past the wall with its assortment of photographs.
Our tradition in this congregation has been to hold a service of remembrance in the first month of the new year. We create a list of notable and recognizable names, some more notable and recognizable than others, of those who died in the previous year. And, the sermon that morning, this morning, usually selects out a few stories from two or three of the lives, stories that might inspire better living in us.
As we run into a new year, we take a moment to notice what of the old years blow back and catch in our hair. The list that you have in your order in your order of service reads like entries on a time line, telling us about where we’ve been as a people, as a world. We see these episodes from our history: Miep Gies helping to harbor Anne Frank, and Edith Shain, captured in an iconic photograph kissing a sailor in Times Square as World War II came to an end. We see dramatically disparate scenes from the year 1957, the year Barbara Billingsley first appeared on television portraying June Cleaver. 1957 was also the year Jefferson Thomas and eight of his classmates entered Little Rock’s all-white Central High School while the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army stood guard. 1957 was also the year Allen Ginsburg fell in love in Paris with a young poet named Peter Orlovsky. In these lives our history rolls out in front of us, as we remember the death of the last surviving members of Kennedy’s cabinet along with Kennedy’s speech writer, Ted Sorensen, who grew up as a Unitarian in Nebraska.
And, the decades roll forward with their sports stars and celebrities, humanitarians and artists, politicians and entrepreneurs, authors and journalists.
Each January I research this list, and compile this list, and revisit this list and what I hear during the process are those words of the poet Mary Oliver whispering to me, challenging and demanding, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
I decided that I would give my remarks this morning the title, “What humanism means to me.” The title was born out of a realization I have each and every year as I prepare the list and research these lives, and think about what it means to prepare a service named Remembrance Sunday. And, the realization I’m left with is that going through this process makes me feel the closest to the humanist tradition within Unitarian Universalism. When I talk about feeling closest to the humanist tradition I am not talking about a theological argument. I’m not talking about having to choose sides because I think such choosing of sides is a false choice. Rather, what I am talking about is feeling deeply aligned with a way of seeing, a way of making sense and discovering impactful truths.
In our humanity we bear witness to elegance and grace. I marvel at our human capacity for artistic expression and athletic achievement.
But I am also aware that much of what we do in life is not done with particular talent or acumen, but rather with bull-headed tenacity, determination, and dedication to simply showing up. The poet Marge Piercy writes, “I want to be with people who submerge in the task, who into the fields to harvest and work in a row and pass the bags along… The work of the world is common as mud. Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust. But the thing worth doing well done has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.” I am reminded that life consists largely of showing up, of putting your shoulder into what needs to be done.
The annual act of compiling this list also reminds me that human life does contain an element of the whimsical and the fanciful. A core essence of our humanity is that we are unpredictable. It is with a similar sense of astonishment and delighted whimsy that I read stories marking the death of a man named Richard LaMotta. One piece on his life began this way:
Richard LaMotta knew he had something good when he stuffed a serving of vanilla ice cream between two chocolate chip cookies and rolled it in chocolate morsels, and invented the ‘Chipwich.’And then, there is the truly sobering part of this exercise of remembering. With the sublime opportunities that come by virtue of our humanity, so too comes the opportunity to squander the one life we have been given. I don’t include many of them on the list, but the reality is that each year a least a couple of notable individuals are remembered whose lives read as records of wasted opportunities and squandered years, who chose selfishness over any concern for the welfare of others, and whose lives are remarkable for the harm they did and the havoc they wrought.
But, Lamotta had no way to market his new tasty invention. After failing to raise money to roll out the 'Chipwich' nationwide, LaMotta found a way to sell the ice cream after watching hot dog vendors in Manhattan: Streetcarts.
What started as 50 highly visible streetcarts with people standing in line for the $1 novelty, soon turned into armies of vendors nationwide. The 'Chipwich' became a success. In 2002 LaMotta sold his company… after over a billion were sold nationwide.
Each of these is an element of what it means to be human. Our lives brush against beauty and grace, an invitation to succulence. So much of life is showing up, chopping the wood and carrying the water, persevering and devoting our efforts to a worthy cause. Our lives are opportunities for transcendence, for rising above our own immediate concerns to act for a good that is larger than ourselves. And with that heroism, also whimsy and the absurd and the surprising. Life needs its social activism and its Chipwich ice cream sandwiches. And, with all of this, with all of this, comes the peril of living ignobly, of wasting the one life we have been given.
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” For me, I keep coming back to this question. If you allow this question to have the weight and the heft that it deserves you will find that it is a haunting question.
We answer this question in community, surrounded by humanity. We look to one another to remind us of what it is to live well, to help us in discernment. We look to history: we look back to help us to plot a path forward.
We are chastened by the knowledge that, as the poet said, “Everything dies at last, and too soon.” So we resolve to live so that when we come to die we do not discover that we have not lived.