Thursday, November 19, 2009

Living Beyond All We Know

“In its essential nature religion is not an intellectual speculation about the constitution of the universe or an elaborate ritual by which the priests hypnotize us into the belief that their services are indispensible to our salvation here and hereafter but rather a moral act of confidence in the meaning and purpose of life, a faith that the universe, whose children we are, contains the elements that can satisfy in some way our deepest aspirations.” (Robert J. Hutcheon, Frankness in Religion, 1929)

Unitarian Universalists seem hesitant—even a little uncomfortable—to admit that we are people of faith, perhaps because we are anxious to distinguish ourselves from the excesses that are so often associated with the expression of faith. Or perhaps it’s that we like to imagine ourselves to be on more solid ground than simply standing on faith, which we have been taught to think of as ephemeral and groundless belief. Indeed, there was recently some controversy among us, out on the prairies, because some of our members objected to the theme of the regional fall conference, which was, “Unitarianism: An Evolution of Faith.” Now if you were a Universalist, you might have objected to the omission of that part of our name. Or if you were a fundamentalist, you might have raised your eyebrows at the inclusion of the word “evolution.” But the quarrel was over the presence of the word “faith,” and some, equating faith with uncritical and unfounded belief, argued that whatever else it might be, Unitarian Universalism ought not to be described as a faith. Is that so? I don’t just beg to differ—I insist upon differing!

When we affirm “the worth and dignity of every person,” that is an affirmation of faith, for each of us can surely name many individuals who feel unworthy, perhaps even worthless, or who live in ways that invite the criticism and scorn of others. But we know that even in the worst among us there flickers the spark of the divine and that within each of us, somewhere deep inside, is the faint glimmer of a dignity of purpose.

When we seek to promote “justice, equity and compassion in human relations,” that is an act of faith, for the society in which we live is so filled with injustice, inequity and hard-heartedness that we might forgiven for believing that this is necessarily the way of the world. But we somehow feel, in the part of us called conscience, that we are called to live beyond the world’s imperfections and work toward these magnificent objectives which are so precious precisely because they are too rarely achieved.

When we proclaim “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations,” we stand on faith, because in practice, human societies are too often unaccepting of large numbers of people, and too often discouraging of the nurture of the soul that leads to happier, healthier individuals. Yet somewhere in our hearts, we know we must accept others as we long to be accepted and we understand that spiritual growth is sometimes the only thing that makes life worth living.

When we insist upon “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” we do so in faith—faith that a capricious deity doesn’t play tricks on our understanding, but that the laws of nature are reliable even if they’re not always to our liking; faith that we can discover, bit by bit, a little more about the world in which we live and even turn that knowledge to good purposes; faith that the truth will set us free, if we will only open our minds to receive it; and faith that our lives somehow have meaning, not only in joyous times but also in the times that try the human soul.

When we advocate for “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process,” that is a two-fold act of faith, for we know that the conscience is sometimes mistaken and that conscientious people are oftentimes pains in far more than the posterior regions. It is an act of faith because, while we know there are more clowns on Parliament Hill than there are in the average circus, there are many more dedicated and conscientious public servants there who struggle daily to represent the people’s will and create some reflection of the kingdom of heaven through the most unlikely of means—public policy.

When we espouse “the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all,” that is a declaration of faith, for in a world in which whole nations greedily seek after their self-interest, it compels us to walk upon the same ground as the prophets of old, and the seers of every age, who knew we must live beyond the narrow bounds of tribe and nation to embrace all people as our neighbours, if not as our kin, and extend to them the same liberties and living conditions which we would claim for ourselves.

And when we pledge our “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part,” we kneel before the entire world as the altar of our faith, for this dear and pleasant earth is our only certain home and the web of relationships we call life is our only certain immortality.

We cannot prove a single one of these affirmations but we hold them to be true. Not faith? By who’s definition? Call it whatever you want: I call it faith!

More than that—it is a faith worth risking everything we have for the hope it inspires. “We all live beyond our objective knowledge,” wrote Robert J. Hutcheon. “Business, especially in its early stages, is a venture. Radio was at first a venture. So was aeronautics. So is every marriage. We live toward and plan for a future which we never really know until it becomes the present and the past. The element of belief, hope and trust is very large in every forward-moving life and to eliminate this element would bring complete stagnation. We must strive to eliminate risk and to act on objective knowledge as far as possible but to refuse to venture beyond that is to limit the possibilities of life.”

Unitarian Universalists have been too timid for too long. We are reticent to offend, we are reluctant to express our faith to others, and we are so allergic to proselytizing that we find it difficult, at times, even to be proactively welcoming. In that reticence, ours seems almost to be the quintessential Canadian religion. In other aspects of our lives, we’re not nearly so modest—we offend people politically all the time, without giving it a second thought, and we are scarcely reluctant to express our social views. As for welcoming others, I wonder if we simply fear being rejected. At the heart of it all, I suspect that we’re actually risk averse.

This is where we need real leadership—and we need it to come from our strongest, most vital congregations and their ministers. Our faith needs its congregations and adherents to ring out the glad tidings of liberal religion as crisply and clearly as the carillon in the Peace Tower.

In the closing chapter of Frankness in Religion, Robert J. Hutcheon reflected on the hope of immortality, which he came to understand as a quality of living rather than a duration of existence. In the end, any intimations of immortality, any glimpses of eternity, any hints of transcendence that may come to us, will be found in “whether we have the courage and the venturesomeness to live ourselves as though it were true and to treat our neighbors, not as hewers of wood and drawers of water, but as though they were immortal spirits in the earthly stage of an unpredictable evolution.” An evolution of faith, perhaps?

We are called to live beyond all we know. We are called to embody in our very lives the best of this liberal religious tradition we hold dear—its teachings and its truths, its principles and its practices, its faith and its fortitude. We are called to strive to achieve its highest aspirations—of a world more fair, a society more just, and a nation more compassionate and kind. We are immortal spirits on an earthly journey—brimming with faith, motivated by hope, and inspired by love. And through this, we can surely live beyond all we know.

Excerpted and adapted from a sermon delivered at the installation of Rev. John N. Marsh as minister of the First Unitarian Congregation of Ottawa on Monday, November 16, 2009.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Taverns and Tabernacles

On an autumn day in 1857, Henry David Thoreau confided to his journal, “One wonders that the tithing-men and fathers of the town are not out to see what the trees mean by their high colors and exuberance of spirits, fearing that some mischief is brewing. I do not see what the Puritans did at that season when the maples blazed out in scarlet. They certainly could not have worshipped in groves then. Perhaps that is what they built meeting-houses and surrounded themselves with horse-sheds for.” As the most noteworthy resident of Concord ever to resign from its First Parish, it is somehow comforting to think that he simply preferred the blazing forest groves of autumn to the clean lines of the meeting house as a suitable place to worship. Nearly seventeen years had passed since he had sent the town clerk a note indicating that he did not wish to be considered a member of the church, an act which today might lead someone to quip, “he’s just not that into you,” but at least he never said of the Unitarian church what he said of its more orthodox neighbor, after lecturing in the basement of its meeting house: “I trust I helped to undermine it.” While the Transcendentalists in Concord were institutional gadflies in their own day—sometimes something of a nuisance to the church—it’s plain that, a century and a half later, Thoreau and his philosophical companions have long since won the hearts and minds of religious liberals, laying the foundation for the dominant tendencies and expressions of Unitarian Universalism as we know it today.

Now, to my knowledge, there are not many churches around which happen to have taverns located on their campuses, as does the First Parish in Concord, although I do recall reading a newspaper story some years ago about a church in Florida which acquired the bar next door through a bequest from its deceased owner. Unlike Wright Tavern, which I’m told was originally acquired by First Parish so that the taps could be turned off, thereby preventing some of the men-folk from lingering there over a pint or two while the town’s more respectable residents attended worship and meetings, this Florida church continued to operate the bar next door, keeping the spirits flowing freely—but not for free!—under the watchful eyes of its priest, who no doubt saw this as an expansion of his mission field rather than an unseemly conflict. The article left me with this frightening picture of “communion on tap” and pretzels that were actually disguised wafers sprinkled with the salt of the earth. Of course, this arrangement did provide this hitherto declining congregation with a revenue stream that pretty much solved its financial difficulties.

I have no way of knowing whether Henry David Thoreau ever stopped by Wright’s Tavern before it was subject to a hostile takeover by the tithing-men of First Parish, but I do know that he seems to have viewed taverns more positively than meeting houses, perhaps because there were fewer Puritans and town elders to be found in taverns. In other words, he considered the company more respectable and congenial. He himself envisioned a day when, “The tavern will compare favourably with the church. The church is the place where prayers and sermons are delivered, but the tavern is where they are to take effect, and if the former are good, the latter cannot be bad.” Of course, Thoreau neglected to say just how he imagined the goodness of those prayers and sermons would make their way into the lives of tavern patrons, in the absence of their actually showing up at church, which leads me to think that he felt that the tavern bore a greater kinship to the high colors and exuberant spirit of the forest grove than it did to the stayed environment of the meeting house.

The words “tavern” and “tabernacle” share a common Latin root, taberna, which was the diminutive form of the word tabernāculum, which was simply a tent. Over the years, I’ve had occasion to visit many homes in Concord and they are overwhelmingly beautiful and substantial, but in the end, whether we recognize it or not, human beings are forever dwelling in tents. In time, nature will reclaim the essential elements of even our most substantial homes, just as nature ultimately reclaims each of us. No less is true of the temples we build to our highest values. We dwell in tents—and we worship in tents, too.

In biblical times, the tabernacle was the portable sanctuary that the people of Israel carried with them as they made their way through the wilderness, en route to the Promised Land. The book of Exodus goes into some considerable detail about the size, shape and layout of the tabernacle, the dimensions of which have led more skeptical biblical scholars to question whether Exodus can be trusted in its description of this mobile wilderness sanctuary, which sounds like a backward projection of Solomon’s Temple. Then again, it doesn’t sound any less plausible than a circus tent to me, albeit with greater refinements. It’s said that the furnishings of the tabernacle were of the finest quality and the most costly of materials, as you would expect from a nomadic people who were erecting a place of worship that reflected their lifestyle and practices. Whether or not the details of Exodus can be trusted, it seems abundantly clear that ancient Israel maintained a collective memory of a time when its people worshipped together in a “tent of meeting,” which would have been entirely natural in a desert tradition.

As it happens, taverns and tabernacles are both gathering places—and gathering places of the spirit, no less! Sociologist Ray Oldenburg has suggested that most adults orient their lives around three places—their homes, their workplaces, and some “good third place,” which offers them an informal but public place wherein they round out their lives. Unless we’re reclusive or workaholic, we all have need of some third place which is neither our home nor our workplace, but rather a gathering place where we can find companionship and meaning—a place where we are identified as the unique individuals we are, not by our occupations or by our kinship ties. The “good third place” is that venue “where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came,” to quote a couple of lines of the theme from Cheers. So it won’t surprise you to know that the neighborhood tavern is a classic example of a good third place. But so is the tabernacle, which is to say those places where we gather to worship together in community and explore the deepest of life’s questions and concerns. We are not, as Thoreau suggested, fleeing the high colors of the forest grove, fearing that some mischief is brewing, seeking a safe haven in worship. No, our temples and tabernacles grow out of the very exuberance of spirit that he found in the woods, which others find in the local tavern, and which many of us still find in those sanctuaries where we gather to worship.

Adapted from a sermon delivered at the First Parish in Concord, Massachusetts, on Sunday, November 8, 2009.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Why Not a Health Care Revolution?

If the Scottish journalist Charles Mackay were alive today, he would undoubtedly devote a chapter of his landmark book, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, to the current health care debate in the United States. Between the failure of the news media to report honestly and the deliberate manipulation of politicians and corporate interests, it seems that many—perhaps most—Americans have succumbed to cultivated ignorance about how their health care system compares with others around the world, while they seem paralyzed by fear at the thought of meaningful health care reform, which is demonized as socialism by those who would rather suffer than change. I don’t know which delusion is worse, many Americans’ allergy to government or their fetish for private corporations, but taken together they border on madness when it comes to health care.

Beyond Representative Dennis Kucinich and Senator Bernie Sanders, I wonder if there are enough American politicians committed to universal health care to fill a minivan. Both Kucinich and Sanders have expressed a preference for a single-payer system and both have been working to preserve the ability of individual states to implement single-payer systems, even though federal legislators lack the courage to go there. At first I was amused by many people’s reaction to a single-payer system but, after several months of freely-expressed ignorance, I’m troubled by the proliferation of misinformation and fear-mongering.

Living in Canada, with a single-payer system, I’ve always been able to choose my own doctors and no medical procedure has ever been denied me in a timely manner. No government official has ever interfered with my medical treatment. Those who naively believe that Americans are somehow freer to choose their doctors, or that insurance companies aren’t more like George Orwell’s “Big Brother” than governments, are living in a fantasy world. American health care is the most bureaucratically-driven health care system anywhere in the industrialized world. The negative aspects of bureaucracy have never been the sole preserve of government and the private insurance industry has been far less accountable to the public than any government agency.

Canada’s health care system isn’t perfect, but it’s decent. I don’t mean decent in the sense of merely acceptable or average—I mean decent in the sense that people are treated decently when seeking medical care. Our medical practitioners are able to treat us as individual patients without worrying about whether or not they’ll be paid for their efforts. Yes, we Canadians have our complaints about health care in our own country. But if you listen to us closely, our complaints are, more often than not, those of people whose basic care has already been well provided for, but whose sense of personal entitlement exceeds real and reasonable needs. We Canadians don’t choose between keeping our homes, or our jobs, and caring for a sick family member.

One significant measure of Canadians’ satisfaction with our public health care system can be seen in the fact that even most Canadian conservatives support its basic principles and practices. Most of its critics support refinement and amendment, not fundamental change—even though a few of us may sometimes invoke the words “fundamental change” as a grandiose gesture! Public health insurance is as “natural” as public roads, public libraries, and public schools.

Is there room for private insurance? Yes, but not when it comes to the provision of basic medical care! Private insurance is valuable precisely in those areas where an individual’s sense of entitlement or privilege exceeds reasonable standards for public health care. My wife and I carry supplementary insurance so that we can enjoy the privilege of being in a semi-private room in the event of being hospitalized. This coverage also reimburses us for the deductible amount on prescription drugs and covers certain cosmetic procedures. And since I travel extensively, both for work and pleasure, our supplementary insurance covers any medical charges I incur which might exceed the normal rates here in Manitoba. After all, why should Canadian taxpayers pay extra for my privileged travel habits? So even under a so-called single-payer system, there can be room for private insurers—just not at the expense of providing everyone with basic medical care.

I worry that the opportunity for meaningful health care reform in the United States has already passed. It’s unfortunate that health care reform wasn’t pursued under the banner, “Medicare for everyone,” since the competing proposals for reform have become a race to the bottom, as even a watered-down version of the public option is in jeopardy. That’s often the way it is with reforms: they favor tinkering with worn-out parts over creating new mechanisms, or utilizing established mechanisms for new purposes. It’s got me thinking that maybe what’s really needed isn’t health care reform at all—perhaps it’s time for a health care revolution!

In the Declaration of Independence, the Founding Fathers of the United States correctly observed that, “mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” The health insurance industry is counting on the truth of this observation, aided by timid elected officials masquerading as leaders. But too many have suffered too much and for too long! Since Theodore Roosevelt first proposed a national health insurance plan in 1912, vested interests have succeeded in defeating virtually every initiative to move in the direction of universal health care. Instead of tinkering with incremental reform, perhaps the time has come for Americans to let their most progressive leaders in Congress take charge of the agenda, “abolish the forms to which they are accustomed,” and embrace Medicare for everyone. Now that would be a revolutionary and transformative change for the better!

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Michelle, Please Take Barry to See "An American President"

Unlike many cynics, I was touched to learn that the Obamas have continued to enjoy “date nights” since moving into the White House. It’s good for their marriage and that’s good for America! I was especially heartened to discover that the Obamas went to the movies on one of their date nights—in Paris, no less. I envy them. You see, I wish my wife and I went out on more dates—it would be good for us after a third of a century together—and, in particular, I wish we went to see more movies together. (She was the popcorn lady at a city theatre when we began dating, so the cinema still sparks a sense of romance in me, while I suspect it just reminds her of work!)

I’d like to suggest a movie for the Obamas to watch on their next date night. It’s An American President with Michael Douglas and Annette Bening. (And it’s not just because every time I see Annette Benning in a movie, my wife whacks me and says, “She’s not talking to you, you know!”) I realize this is a lot to ask for, since going to see a movie about a fictional president when you’re the real thing would be like me, as a minister, going to see another tedious portrayal of Elmer Gantry. Yawn. But this movie should be required viewing on the presidential training curriculum.

I think President Obama could learn a lot from An American President that would help him to better focus on his own stated priorities and even make it easier for him to be president (though not as “easy” as the previous guy seemed to find it). If President Obama doesn’t have time to watch the whole movie, perhaps his staff could give him an executive summary and arrange a screening of a few of the more poignant scenes.

In one memorable scene, White House staffer Lewis Rothschild (played by Michael J. Fox) admonishes the president, Andrew Shepherd (played by Michael Douglas), “People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand. In real life, it’s arguable that President Obama inherited the biggest mess ever faced by an incoming president, save for Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. He inherited a sinking ship of state, plugged its holes, bailed it out, and has it chugging forward slowly. However, his Republican opponents and certain ‘Blue Dog’ Democrats have spent this past year feeding the people sand and the president has been much too reticent to respond with the leadership needed to counter their pernicious influence. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the debate over health care, in which the president, striving to embody a bipartisan spirit, has mostly compromised only with himself.

In the climax of An American President, Andrew Shepherd, having seemingly lost the woman of his dreams, recognizes that, somewhere along the way, he had also lost his nerve. He chooses to change course and return to his original, courageous vision—no compromises, because he remembers that he was morally right in the first place. At a hastily-called news conference, President Shepherd declares, “Being President of this country is entirely about character. … We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them.” After announcing that he intends to send two bills to Congress, while withdrawing watered-down measures, fashioned to appease his opponents rather than do what is needed, he promises, “I will go door to door if I have to, but I’m gonna convince Americans that I’m right …” Well, it’s time for the real-life president to do the same. President Obama needs to remember and reclaim the passionate vision that carried him to the White House in the first place and present to Congress his original plan for health care reform. Let Senators bellow and moan all they will, it’s time for the president to offer decisive leadership. He must know that his original vision for health care reform is far superior to the parody of reform that’s brewing in Congress. If Americans have been nibbling on sand for much of the past year, then the president needs to go door to door, or at least state to state, to convince them that his vision for reform was right in the first place. Mr. President, tell Congress that you expect them to pass a comprehensive health care reform bill, complete with a public option, or that they will be ones to answer to the voters for the failure to deliver universal health care.

Many people have suggested that President Obama is the most intelligent and eloquent president in a generation, perhaps longer. I agree. I have a feeling that he’s also one of the most decent men ever to occupy the Oval Office. That’s why I’m pretty confident he’d get the message of An American President—and understand that pulling out all the stops to win universal health insurance for Americans, even if he fails, will be the one act that convinces Americans that their confidence in him a year ago today was well placed.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Painting Canoes with Martha Stewart

My neighbours must imagine that the house where I live is full of night owls, since the lights are often on long past midnight. They’re sometimes still on as the sun rises in the eastern horizon, accompanied by the flickering light of the television. While I’m sometimes still awake deep into the night, engrossed in a good book or watching a classic movie, more often than not everyone in my household is sound asleep, even when the house is aglow like an all-night convenience store.

If anyone peered through the window, they might see one or more of us snoozing in the living room, with only the faint rumble of snoring to confirm that we were asleep and not actually dead. Last night, my wife fell asleep watching the Food Channel—not that cooking seems to interest her particularly—while I stretched out on the sofa. I had intended to switch to the news but, after settling in comfortably, I noticed that the remote control was not on the coffee table and I was simply too lazy to get up and find it. She who had the remote next to her was not to be roused, so in a few minutes I fell fast asleep. The television continued to beam its messages to my unconscious self.

Much to my surprise, Martha Stewart appeared, demonstrating how to create elegant, antiqued shelves on which to display ornaments and mementoes. I watched carefully as she revealed techniques for creating different effects on a variety of materials. Then suddenly, as if by magic, we found ourselves painting canoes—Martha, me and a small group of unfamiliar disciples.

I was separated from the group, finding myself alone at one end of the vessel while Martha took charge at the other. It was obvious that they needed her careful guidance, whereas I was competent to work alone at my end. Martha had us paint the gunwales bright red using bristle brushes and, finding myself far ahead of the slow group, I continued painting down the side of the canoe. I heard Martha utter a muffled instruction or two but I just kept painting and, in short order, my end of the canoe glistened like a water-borne fire-truck.

That’s when I noticed that Martha had her crew painting the canvass a deep green. Oh my God! There I was painting canoes with Martha Stewart and I had gotten the colour wrong! Not only that, but she was looking in my direction. I grabbed a paint roller and began slathering green paint over the red layer but everything was turning brown, so I kept applying more and more until green paint was flowing down the side of the canoe like wax on an overactive candle. By then, Martha was headed in my direction while I kept working frantically.

I awoke to see Rachel Ray on the television, stirring some vegetarian dish and commenting on its deep green hues. Thank goodness! Rachel Ray had saved me from Martha Stewart. I’d rather paint canoes with Rachel anyway, because she would understand it if I made a mistake. She would forgive me. Then we would have a good, hearty laugh together and eat a tasty snack.

I am generally inclined to think of dreams as random thoughts or the organic equivalent of a computer memory dump. I know that my dreams often seem to be influenced by what’s being said on the radio, which is usually set to come on some time before my alarm rings. At other times, I think our dreams offer us profound insights about who we are—our fears and concerns, our values and delights. Painting canoes with Martha Stewart reminds me that too often I am inclined to perfectionism and that, when I get things wrong, I try to correct my mistakes on my own, before anyone notices, rather than simply admitting to them and then seeking help from others. But none of us is perfect and when we pretend as if we are, fashioning ourselves into idols for all to see, we inevitably find ourselves ankle-deep in green paint. Wouldn’t it be better to let the first coat dry, have a good laugh, and then paint over it another day? And what could be better than enjoying a tasty snack while we wait?

Monday, November 02, 2009

To a Church I Love at the Beginning of a New Ministry

The Unitarian Church of Winnipeg was my spiritual home during my youth, where my development was nurtured and my call to ministry was inspired. Founded as the First Icelandic Unitarian Society in 1891 and now known as First Unitarian Universalist Church, presently located on a lovely ‘new’ campus across the river from its earlier homes, this church stands in unbroken line with its earlier incarnations. Individuals from five generations of my religiously promiscuous family have found a haven here, at differing times, when we weren’t otherwise hanging out with the Lutherans. So it was a genuine pleasure for me to be present at the installation of the congregation’s new minister, Rev. Millie Rochester, and it was a distinct privilege to be asked to deliver the Charge to the Congregation. This is what I said …

It is a delight to be with you this evening and join with you in celebrating the beginning of a new ministry and a new era in the life of First Unitarian Universalist Church. After Millie asked me if I would offer the Charge to the Congregation, I fretted about what to say for some time, as ministers are wont to do. As my anxiety grew, I awakened in the middle of the night several weeks ago—one of those measurable marks of middle age—having dreamt about this very evening! It was a classic ministerial panic nightmare: I arrived at the church late, couldn’t find my robes, and lost my way in the building. When I realized I hadn’t prepared anything to say, the words flowed as if from somewhere outside myself. Sitting on the edge of the bed that night, it struck me that what I had dreamt was exactly what I would have wished to say to you this evening, so I hurried to my desk and wrote down the essential points. “I was not looking for my dreams to interpret my life,” Susan Sontag once wrote, “but rather for my life to interpret my dreams.” It is my fervent prayer that the ministry to which you have called Millie Rochester will interpret this dream, so here is my charge to you, the congregation of my youth and the people of my dreams:

Acknowledge your minister’s rightful authority. Unitarian Universalists sometimes display an almost allergic reaction to authority, which is both unhealthy and unproductive. The minister is a servant-leader. Too many congregations emphasize the “servant” part while minimizing the minister’s role as a leader. If you are to thrive together, you will encourage and welcome your minister’s leadership in both spiritual and temporal matters, offering her the tools and support she needs to nurture a healthy spiritual community while building a strong and vital institution. You should expect to be challenged as much as you expect to be comforted.

Forgive your minister for whatever may be her human frailties and shortcomings. One of the real difficulties when a congregation calls a minister who is warm and wonderful, insightful and inspirational, earnest and energetic, is that they may expect her to be perfect, too. Millie is magnificent but beneath the superhero’s cape we call vestments is a human being—fundamentally good but not necessarily perfect. Since I know just how pernickety the members of this church can be at times, I would admonish you to get over it. Just get over it! Churches don’t need perfect ministers; they need human and humane ones. If your minister is doing her job well, she will sometimes disappoint you and, if she’s doing it exceptionally well, she may even offend you. Grant her a wide margin of forbearance whenever your feelings are a little bruised, or whenever you discover that her viewpoint is different from your own. In so doing, you will both grow in spirit. There will be times when she’s too busy or distracted or overwhelmed to give you the amount of time or attention you may crave. When that happens, remember her humanness and that she is struggling to serve the needs of this community with just two hands, however nimble; one mind, however wise; and one heart, however loving.

Compensate your minister as generously as you can. Although it is common to hear people speak of a minister’s salary, there is, in fact, a tradition of long-standing—as old as the institutions of church and synagogue themselves—which says that clergy do not receive a salary at all. That is to say, they are not paid for services rendered and they do not track billable hours. Instead, churches are called to assure their ministers a living—a decent living, I would emphasize—so that they may be freed from so-called worldly pursuits in order to seek spiritual ends and render service to the community. This may seem like a hair-splitting distinction to some, but it’s an important one. A minister who is free of worry about her material welfare will be free to serve the community without distraction, for the love of the Holy and the good of the people alone. Your generosity in providing your minister with an abundant living will enrich you more than it will ever benefit her.

Remember to mark your milestones and anniversaries together and to celebrate them lavishly. You could do a lot worse than following the customary gift sequence for wedding anniversaries. At the end of your first year together, the paper anniversary, send her notes telling her what you like about her ministry with you. If you can’t think of anything to write, send banknotes. For your second anniversary, the cotton one, send her on a shopping spree and pick up the tab. For your third, which is leather, a fancy executive chair would be a nice way to confirm the managerial authority you will have entrusted to her, while for the fourth, flowers, you might plant an even more spectacular garden than usual, below her office window, to remind you all just how much you will have grown together. On the fifth anniversary, which is wood, she’ll be so much a part of the furniture that you’ll likely need to work at reminding one another what a comfortable fit you have become. The next anniversary after that is the sabbatical anniversary. Start planning now.

Finally, strive to live into and up to your potential as a congregation. First Unitarian Universalist Church is the heir to three vibrant liberal congregations: the First Icelandic Unitarian Society, which advocated an unfettered faith among the early Icelandic immigrants; the Winnipeg Tabernacle, which emphasized the spirit over the letter in religious matters; and All Souls Church, which strived to live up to its name by welcoming a breadth of people and labouring for a society characterized by justice and goodwill. It time, these three came together as First Federated Church and, through changes of name and generations, along with an evolution of mission, stands today as First Unitarian Universalist Church. Along the way, there have been remarkable accomplishments and achievements, along with some follies and failings, but the congregation has always managed to find a way to live into its promise and its possibilities. This evening I am here to tell you that the most exciting chapter of your history began this fall, and that the promise of this new chapter is sealed here tonight. It is up to you to fulfill the promise of your unfolding future.