Sunday, September 25, 2016

Ministry on the Side of Love

When I was in seminary, one of our requirements was to read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Divinity School Address. 
In it, he was addressing the Harvard graduates –
the soon to be ministers who would fill our Unitarian pulpits. 
And he had some harsh words to describe
what he was experiencing in the pulpits at that time.
Most of the ministers had been taught to lead worship
and preach the word in a formal manner –
providing rituals, exposition and explanation as an expertly trained theologian,
 but not as a human being.  ­ Here is an excerpt from Emerson’s address:
“Whenever the pulpit is usurped by a formalist,
then is the worshiper defrauded and disconsolate.
We shrink as soon as the prayers begin,
which do not uplift, but smite and offend us.
We are fain to wrap our cloaks about us, and secure,
as best we can, a solitude that hears not.
 I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say,
 I would go to church no more…. 
A snow storm was falling around us.
The snow storm was real; the preacher merely spectral;
 and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him,
and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow.
 He had lived in vain.
He had no one word intimating that he had laughed or wept,
 was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined.
If he had ever lived and acted, we were none the wiser for it.
The capital secret of his profession, namely, to convert life into truth,
 he had not learned.
Not one fact in all his experience, had he yet imported into his doctrine.
 This man had ploughed, and planted, and talked, and bought, and sold;
he had read books; he had eaten and drunken; his head aches; his heart throbs;
he smiles and suffers; yet was there not a surmise, a hint, in all the discourse,
that he had ever lived at all. Not a line did he draw out of real history.
The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life, — life passed through the fire of thought.

Well, I took that lesson Emerson tried to teach to heart – and I have shared from my own experiences and my own truth – not too much I hope though.  Because the other extreme of this preacher that Emerson observed – is the one who is too self-absorbed in her own drama – and pulls from nothing but personal experience.  That too – can be very frustrating.  So hopefully I’ve found a balance when ministering to you folks.  But today, just today – since you are installing me as your minister, I am going to share a bit more with you about my own background, the influences of family in my life that have shaped me, as well as my evolutionary calling to ministry and my efforts to m­­­inister with you and others on the Side of Love!

First – I must lift up my family – especially my parents,
 for they were a great influence.
My parents, JG and Christine Altman, taught me to work.
 They were both workaholics
and their strong work ethic was preached daily in our household. 
My dad was a car dealer and farmer and my mother was a beautician. 
Both were well known in the community as good, hard-working folks. 
They were examples of how folks could “work their way up”
to having the “American” way of life, including home ownership, a nice car,
 and decent clothes for their children. 
My dad used to say I could have anything I wanted. 
I just had to know how much to want. 
And indeed, I never did really want to join the Country Club or wear fine jewelry, so our lifestyle was fine with me.
In addition to a strong work ethic,
my mother provided a model of a woman
who could “be someone” in her own right.
 In addition to being a wife and mother,
she was the best beautician in Statesboro. 
She would start with the first customer at 6:30 a.m. and work till 6 or 7 at night.  That was in the days of “standing appointments,”
and people waited till someone moved or died
so that they could get a standing appointment with my mom.
 I was proud of her. 
And since I spent a lot of time working in the beauty shop, sweeping up the hair, handing rollers to mama, mixing shampoo, folding the towels, answering the phone and making the appointments, and keeping the books,
I learned from my mom a lot about how to treat people. 
My mother was almost always kind to everyone, even when she was tired. 
Mama was a compassionate woman. 
She really cared about the people, not just the money they paid her.  
My mom also gave me a love for books. 
She would come home from work and do cooking and cleaning
then she would read to me and she would read her own books. 
So I learned from my mom that books were magical and wonderful.
 And indeed, I am a very different person than most of my friends
from elementary and high school because I read.
My dad loved cars.  Sometimes we thought he loved cars more than us. 
We didn’t dare get a scratch or dent on a car.
 (Note:  If I get a dent on my car now, I wear it as a badge of independence.)    
My dad was concerned with what people thought. 
He and my brother had huge fights over the length of my brother’s hair in the 60's.  He would force my brother to cut his hair.  No dents there either.  
My dad was a very conservative man. 
Of course, that’s not unusual for this region. 
Racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia were dominant
when I was growing up and my dad fully adopted this way of life.  
He had a hard time expressing his love for me,
 till he got Alzhiemers and didn’t even know who I was.
 Then he was loving everybody!
In her wonderful book To the lighthouse and back, my friend Mary Doll said,
 “We spend half our lives trying to understand ourselves
by getting over the influence of our parents.  But that is not the point. 
The point is to understand how we are like our parents,
despite our difference with them. 
We come from ancestors so there is no use pretending we have birthed ourselves.”   Indeed, I am like my parents. 
I’m hard working, compassionate, and I try to fix all the dents in my life
(except the one on my car).

I married when I was 17, right out of high school.
 I married Fred Page, another very conservative man.
 (Hey, I was in South Georgia!) 
And then I hurried.  I was efficient!  I finished college in three years,
got a teaching position at the local elementary school,
 had my two babies in my early twenties,
and had my doctorate and a faculty position
at the local university before I turned 29. 
My husband Fred and I went through school together.  
He was a poor student.  Then I came along and fixed that dent. 
He has a doctorate in education also. 
We were active in First Baptist Church of Statesboro. 
My husband became a deacon at age 28.  I was proud of him. 
He was a good man, but like most of us – had his weaknesses.
 He said I was the strong one.  So I was the martyr.
 I took care of his sick parents and our children’s problems.
 He took care of a female graduate student
he was teaching down here in Brunswick, Ga.
 I forgave him and protected him.  (Mustn’t let anyone find out he was flawed!)  Later he fell in love with another young woman and wallowed in his misery.
 His depression was unbearable for us all.

Like the Buddha, I finally woke up and filed for divorce in early 1998
after almost 30 years of marriage.  Glory Hallelujah for us all! 
Now - My ex-husband is a very special friend.  I had married a good man.
 Not perfect, but a good man all the same. 
He’s still basically the same man I married.   He didn’t change. 
I did (and I’m glad).  We have two sons, now middle-aged.
 They are very different from each other.  One is a conservative, country boy.
 The other is rather liberal like his mom. 
They have had their share of difficulties in life –
and I’ve learned a whole lot about addictions, mental health and more
 as we’ve grown together.  I love them both and we are very close.
They teach me daily.
 And of course, now I’ve added Greg Brock and his children – plus two grandsons and a great-granddaughter to my brood.  So I am very blessed.
And -- What a wonderful gift Greg Brock has been ---
and one of the best things about Greg is – he’s a Unitarian Universalist!

My call to Unitarian Universalist Ministry was a slow process of evolution. 
Just as humans have slowly evolved from other primates, mammals, and vertebrates – indeed from the origins of life itself,
so has my call to ministry evolved.

When I was very young,
I was often reminded that I had survived a terrible head injury at age 3 and 1/2. 
According to my parents, I was supposed to have died,
but “the doctors and the good Lord” saved me.
  I felt special and I thought that God must really love me. 
Perhaps the messages directly and indirectly given to me
about my special circumstances provided me
with the same spiritual sense of calling that Samuel had. 
Samuel had been given to the prophet Eli to be raised
as a special man of God when he was very young.  
With the reinforcement of his special circumstances by his loving mother
and the prophet Eli, Samuel answered his calling:
1 Samuel 1:10 states:  Now the LORD came and stood there, c
alling as before, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’

Although I did not hear the audible voice of God as a child,
 I did talk to God every night.  Then I would look out of my bedroom window, which framed the steeple of my church.
 That picture was my response from God. 
The steeple pointing high into the night sky symbolized that God was with me.
  So the initial theological context for my calling
was traditional monotheism featuring a loving God.
In my later childhood my knowledge and understanding of Jesus’ love for me became the primary motivator for my desire to serve.
 I asked Jesus to come into my heart when I was nine years old.
 I listened to the stories of Jesus’ love for others
and his encouragement that we live that love. 
Reading his teachings from the New Testament motivated me to serve others.
From Matthew 25:

35For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me….40Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.”

I did not understand the concept of the Trinity.  It did not make sense to me. 
But I accepted it anyway. 
My theological context shifted to one
 in which the life and teachings of Jesus became my primary focus.
 I tried to follow Jesus’ teachings by actions such as befriending the poorest girl in my class at school and giving my beloved dolls away.
  I also sought opportunities to teach others during our “Youth Week” activities.  Preaching was out of the question for girls.  
And I didn’t question that practice.
However, that “non-questioning” changed when I reached adolescence.
 This awareness came through my school studies. 
More specifically, in the eighth grade, I was introduced to Norse Mythology. 
We did a complete unit on this mythology and
learned many of the associated stories. 
Because I had already been studying the stories presented in the Bible,
I came to the realization that much of what I was reading at school was similar.
 In fact, many of these Old Testament stories were also myths—
stories that were used to explain how the world came to be
and why things happened as they did.
 I no longer could believe that the Bible was literally true. 
Then in the tenth grade, I fell in love with biology.
 I was especially intrigued with what I learned about chromosomes and genes.  And the story of evolution was one that I could believe.
 I felt much more confident about my scientific understanding
than my theological understanding. 

While my theological identity may have been in flux,
my commitment to organized religion never faltered.
 I continued to be active in my church and continued to pursue my calling.
  I even had the opportunity to preach during my college years. 
The Baptist Student Union sent a team out to the prison labor camp each Sunday.  During the summer, my husband and I would be the only team members s
ince most of the other students went back to their hometowns.
 I was supposed to play the piano while he preached. 
But he didn’t really like to get up in front of folks, so I did both.
 And we didn’t tell anyone!
 Since I had the wrong body parts for considering preaching as a calling
 as a Southern Baptist, I did the next best thing and became a teacher.
My theology for the next 20 years continued to evolve,
 becoming more liberal—even as my church and denomination
were becoming more conservative.
 I closeted my beliefs (and non-beliefs) and continued to serve in ways
that I felt were authentic for me
As my own denomination moved to the right,
 I began reading Christian literature that was more liberal
 to attempt to find a way to maintain my views and still be a Christian.
 After exploring various concepts,
 I finally went back to what I was taught as a child: God is love.
 I could not believe in a supernatural, intentional being for some reason.
  But I could believe in the power of love. 
So I began to translate “God” as the power of love
and I accepted Jesus as a prime example.
After my divorce in 1998,
 I felt the desire to explore my spirituality and theology more intensely.
  I had already left the Baptist church and had moved my membership
 to a more liberal Methodist church.  But that was still too confining.
 I felt that the only religion that would allow free exploration
was Unitarian Universalism.  I began attending soon after my divorce.

By 2001, I knew that I wanted to answer the call
that I had been receiving most of my life.
  I applied to Meadville Lombard and began my ministerial studies.
 I completed my work and was ordained ten years ago
by the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro
and they also installed me as their minister serving half-time. 
When I was in seminary, folks would share with me their lack of understanding about why I would return and minister in a place like southeast Georgia. 
But this ministry – in this place – is also part of my calling.
 I strongly feel that it’s important to share our liberal religious values
here in this region –
and perhaps it’s even good for that to be shared with a Southern accent.
 So here I am.
 Now answering YOUR call to serve this congregation and this area as well.

I have chosen “Ministry on the Side of Love” as the theme for my installation – because I believe that our “Standing on the Side of Love” ministry has been so important for Unitarian Universalism in the last several years. 
We’ve used that glorious symbolism of love and compassion
as we have championed LGBTQ rights and immigrant rights –
and as we have worked for a more just criminal justice system.
 And we’ve reached out in LOVE with our financial contributions and volunteer efforts in our community activities, including agencies in Brunswick like: the local chapter of the NAACP, the Glynn Environmental Coalition, the STAR Foundation, Habitat for Humanity, the Golden Isles Arts and Huamnities, FaithWorks and its Sparrows Nest ministry as well as it’s daytime homeless shelter “The Well”, Safe Harbor, the Coastal Coalition for Children, United Way, the Abbott Institute and its activities including the upcoming Fall Forum called, “The Big Conversation” which aims to improve communication among diverse populations in the area, the Early Childhood Literacy Program, the UU Service Committee’s Guest at Your Table Program, our local PFLAG chapter founded by our own Mary Freeman, and the Glynn Environmental Program. 
All of these are worthy organizations and activities – and we appreciate the encouragement we receive by Diane Knight and others
to share generously of our time, talents, and treasure. 
There’s another activity which I want to lift up that some may not view a
s a social justice matter – but it really is. 
And that is the Jazz Nights that we have here in our Sanctuary.  O
ther than sporting events, our community can seem to still be rather segregated.  But these Jazz nights bring us together to enjoy wonderful music.
 And there is some magic happening when folks are enjoying music together.  Something shifts within us in how we connect with those around us.
 And the love that is shared on those occasions reverberates into the community.  So I encourage you to be here for these. 
The next one is Friday, September 23.
Think of it as part of our ministry in this community to show up, be supportive, and participate – ministering together on the Side of Love!

I hope that you’ll come to the installation this afternoon. 
You will hear a great message by my friend Francys Johnson.
And we will celebrate our Shared Ministry on the Side of Love!
May it be so today and for years to come!