[The following is the final sermon by Rev. Dr. William F. Schulz, delivered on January 9, 2020 at Ingathering worship at MLTS, a reflection on his ministry and service upon his retirement.]
Some years ago, a friend of mine received a diagnosis of terminal cancer. He set his affairs in order. He shared the news with family and friends who showered him with love and appreciation. He even wrote a popular book about the process of dying. And then he didn’t die... or at least not as soon as he expected. This was exceedingly embarrassing to him. Whenever he ran into friends on the street, they would say, “I thought you were…” and then not finish their sentence.
Well, I feel a little bit like that this morning. Last spring, at the end of the last preaching class I was scheduled to teach, the students commemorated my retirement by presenting me some very touching written words about the years of my teaching. And this past summer at the end of the humanism course, the last Intensive I was scheduled to teach, the students gave me a cake with the words “Thank you, Bill,” as well as a beautiful woven pillow with the word “Humanist” stitched into it. We keep the pillow prominently displayed in the living room. Our sweet evangelical neighbor—God bless her—knows that both my wife, Beth, and I are ministers but can’t quite grasp what kind. Upon seeing the pillow, she too said, “I thought you were…” and then didn’t finish her sentence.
And now my last Ingathering and my last sermon to the Meadville Lombard community. I’m grateful to Dr. Ortega for inviting me to preach and for not expressing astonishment that I’m still around. But it really is time for me to go after 12 wonderful years here.
Now, naturally, for my swan song, I was tempted to give you reams of advice about life and ministry, except that I’ve been giving people advice in one form or another for the last 45 years without appreciable effect. Advice can certainly be useful. Many years ago I read that, if you are a shy person like me and ever at a loss for something to say at a coffee hour or a dinner party, just say, in relation to whatever subject is under discussion, “Well, yes, that’s true, but not in the South.” You will immediately be assumed to be an expert in the subject at hand, but your remark will be thought so wise and paradoxical, so much like a Buddhist koan, that no one will want to pursue the matter further.
So, advice can be useful but, to continue the metaphor introduced this morning in Judy Brown’s poem Fire, it is more like the logs themselves than the space between the logs which makes the fire possible. So I thought that instead of offering you advice, I’d offer you a challenge—a challenge to name the space between the logs in your own lives. I want to encourage you to see if you can identify the animating themes in your life, the two or three or four recurring ideas or emotions or experiences, the signature quests, the motifs, the through-lines, if you will, that have colored your life, shaped it and defined it. Rita Dove in our reading this morning asked: “How do we measure this journey?” And then, “What is it that flutters so wildly—a flag or a bird?” Well, whatever it is that flutters, that animates your journey, it is worth identifying because it will inevitably shape and define your ministry.
To illustrate what I mean, here are the animating themes of my life—conveniently they are three in number since sermons are supposed to have no more than three points—evil, authenticity and mortality.
First, evil. I’m not sure when I first became aware that the world was not a fair place and that other people suffered more than I did. Perhaps it was when my parents took me at age five to see the slave quarters at Robert E. Lee’s mansion in Arlington, VA. Perhaps it was the chain gangs that we would pass on the highway in South Carolina and Georgia when we would drive from Pittsburgh to Florida. I don’t know when it was but from a very early age the sight of suffering scared me, turned my stomach, made me feel rage and hate. Certainly, attending an all-male high school, in which hazing and bullying were an everyday occurrence, was an excellent incubator of a human rights activist. My years at Amnesty International reminded me over and over again of how ingenious the human capacity for evil is—the Mujahadeen in Afganistan who tied their prisoners to corpses and left both the prisoners and the corpses to rot together in the relentless sun; the Salvadoran military who played a game with their bayonets that involved tossing babies into the air; the Congolese warlords who kept baskets of their vanquished enemies’ eyes on the desks at their headquarters.
I went into the ministry because I wanted to confront evil and to try to stop it. As it turned out, the church is not a very effective instrument for stopping evil because it lacks the power. NGOs and social movements and benevolent governments have far more capacity to put limits on evil than the church does, but there is one thing that religious communities do better than anyone else, and that is to understand evil, to take it seriously, to call us confront it in ourselves.
When I was hiring people to work at Amnesty or UUSC, I would get very nervous when a prospective employee said that the reason they wanted to work for us was because they wanted to help people. As the journalist Katherine Whitehorn once said, "You can recognize the people who live for others by the haunted look on the faces of the others.” I wanted to hire people who recognized that survivors of evil have far more insight into iniquity than the rest of us do, and that our job is to learn from their experiences, amplify their voices and mobilize their wisdom. That’s what religious institutions at their best do—they teach us, as the theologian Sam Keen put it, that “Every day we are not mourning is a day we will be taking vengeance.” Every day we are not grieving the motes in our own eyes, every day we are not owning our own pain, is a day we will be striking out at others. “Every day we are not grieving is a day we will be taking vengeance.” The first animating theme of my ministry has been the struggle to understand evil, to address its systemic causes, and do what little I could to mitigate suffering.
And the second theme was authenticity. By “authenticity,” I mean that the face I present to the world is as close to the “true Bill” as social propriety will allow. Jesus reacted authentically when he asked, “Who do you say that I am?” And the theologians said, “You are the Alpha and the Omega; you are the eschatological manifestation of the Ground of All Being; you are the Logos, the Kairos, the Kerygma, manifested in conflict and decision in the humanizing process,” to which a stunned Jesus replied, “I am?” Jesus didn’t want to represent himself to be someone he was not.
Now, notice I said I wanted to be authentic “as far as social propriety will allow.” Some people think authenticity is an excuse for cruelty, for saying whatever comes into their heads, no matter how hurtful. I’m not talking about that kind of authenticity. I’m talking about the kind of authenticity in which people feel ok enough about themselves that they can risk being kind.
When I was in theological school here at Meadville Lombard 49 years ago, I decided to go into intensive psychotherapy. I found a wonderful woman to work with and I met with her every week for four years. I did that for one selfish and one more altruistic reason. The selfish reason was that I had been involved romantically for a good while with a person who was 18 years older than me and I thought that just possibly that had something to do with my relationship with my parents that I should better understand—just guessing. And the more altruistic reason was that I knew that ministers had a fair amount of power in relation to other people and I didn’t want to mess other people up because I was still messed up myself. I figured I’d go into therapy and get fixed—I’d stop, for example, being shy and angry—and that would be that.
Well, it won’t surprise you to hear it didn’t quite work out that way, though I did get a little less shy and a little less angry. Mostly what therapy did was to help me be unafraid of strong feelings, whether my own or other people’s, and hence taught me to be gentle with myself, present to others, and ok enough to risk being kind. I’ve known a lot of poseurs in my life and none of them seem very happy. Anger, tears, guilt, brokenness—they’re all real and we each need places to share them. I’ve tried to model authenticity in my life and ministry and to open doors for others to be authentic too. The world makes it tough to be true to yourself, but church ought to be one place where you can come closer than most.
And the third animating theme of my life and ministry has been mortality, the fact of death. In this case I know exactly when I was seized by this theme. It was when I realized, maybe at about age ten, that as the only child in my family, surrounded by a world of adults—parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, but no siblings, no first cousins—all these loving people would eventually leave me. And of course, that’s exactly what they did, one right after another. I went into the ministry to try to be reconciled to the dying.
But that, too, didn’t work out as I had expected. In the Unitarian Universalism of the 1950s and ’60s in which I grew up, death was treated largely as an inconvenience. Ministers would assure people that human beings gain immortality through the legacies we leave and that death doesn’t make life overly sad, only overly precious. But legacies are pretty flimsy things to cling to in the middle of the night when your loved one is gone or you will be gone soon. It’s pretty clear, I think, that death makes life both overly precious AND overly sad.
So, in the 1970s I set these bromides aside and became an existentialist, fully embracing the bleakness of our finitude. With Dylan Thomas, I thought the only appropriate response to death was to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” But constant resentment is a hard emotion to maintain and ultimately not very productive. So more recently I have come to a different posture toward my friend mortality.
Over the past five years, I have been dealing with two different types of cancer. One appears cured but may not be; the other is indolent but will not stay that way forever. I am not in any immediate danger, but I live with this knowledge as do any of you who have or have had the disease. Most of the time I am quite calm about this fact—far more than I would be if Beth were seriously ill, for example—and in a funny way it has even been an enormous gift to me, to someone who lived most of his life as if he was the host at the party, not a temporary guest.
Among other things it has forced me to decide once and for all if I am a religious person. As some of you know, I am not one who tends to cotton to the more traditional forms and trappings of religion. I used to worry about that—how could I be a minister when I really had no use for religion? But I don’t worry about that anymore and instead take my religion where I can find it—in regular meditation; in cemeteries where I like to walk, thinking to myself, “If all these people can do it, I can too;” in the words Beth and I say in unison each morning, “This day is a blessing to us as we are to each other;” in those small manifestations of grace the late UU minister Max Coots referred to when he said, “We should eat our breakfast eggs as though they were the sacred elements of the Eucharist, welcome grosbeaks as if they were flights of angels, and touch the common soil, speechless with the knowledge that it is holy ground;” in the consolations of poetry—who cannot be moved by May Sarton’s assurance that we “come home to rest, on the long-lost country of earth’s breast, lay down our fiery vision and be blest, be blest”? I find my religion in everything from the touch of a generous hand to the contemplation of an unfathomable universe, a cosmology of quantum-ness so beyond our reckoning that the only wise response is to shout to the heavens, “Thy will, not mine, be done;” and I find it in the ocean beside which I live, the stars beneath which I wonder—both of them providing assurance that I, like the very earth itself, will be welcomed back into the embrace of Creation, held in its palm, not conscious but quiet, ashes to ashes, dust to dust—and that that will be ok. The great irony about this third animating theme is that now that I am at the end of my active ministry, I am finally prepared to be a minister. Ah well, they say timing is everything.
So, I hope you too will take a few moments to reflect upon your animating themes, for you will return to them over and over again in your ministries, and I feel pretty certain your ministries will be the richer for your having claimed them. Maybe I did just give you a bit of advice, even better than “Yes, that’s true but not in the South,” but mostly what I want to express right now is gratitude for at this point in my life that is the fourth and most abundant animating theme for me. What an enormous gift it has been—12 years spent communing with the next generation of ministers here at Meadville Lombard; 45 years of ministry, both public and private; and 70 years on the good, green earth.
Some years ago, shortly before he himself died, Ed Bradley of “60 Minutes” visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington to do a story and found a note propped up against that long, black wall. This is what the note said:
Hi, lover. I came back to say hello. I went ahead and married Dick and we have a wonderful little girl. Her favorite color is purple, the color of this stationery. I went to Arlington National Cemetery to see your grave and on it it said you got a purple heart for dying. Well, this is your purple heart for having lived. I hope our daughter has as beautiful and as wonderful a first love for her as you were for me. Goodbye. Hello. Nancy.
A heart full of gratitude—a purple heart for living. I hope every one of you will be able to claim one at the end of your ministries and the close of your lives.
Goodbye. Hello. Bill.
Rev. Dr. Bill Schulz, DMin '75, DD '87, is one of our most illustrious alums. He served as Minister at the First Parish in Bedford, MA (1975-1978); Director of the UUA Department of Social Justice (1978-1979); Executive Vice President of the UUA (1979-1985); President of the UUA (1985-1993); Executive Director of Amnesty International USA (1994-2006); and President of the UU Service Committee (2010-2016).Read More