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The Service of the Living Tradition

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General Assembly 2009 Event 3029

Sermon: "A Lifetime Isn’t Long Enough" (PDF, 7 pages) by Rev. Dr. Mary J. Harrington
Service Text (PDF, 17 pages)

In spite of a fierce electrical storm and a direct lightning strike to the Salt Palace glass tower and the loss of some of the power to the convention center, including that which powered the lights, worship went on schedule! Kenneth Ewan and Natasha Steinmacher, music leaders for the worship service, directed the congregation in joyful singing. After warming up with a traditional round, “Sing and Rejoice,” the congregation sang “Meditation on Breathing” by Unitarian Universalist composer Sarah Dan Jones, and then completed the ingathering trio of songs with a rousing iteration of “Come and Go With Me” from the African American spiritual tradition.

In one of the many inspiring and moving moments of the evening, the ministerial and professional cohort being acknowledged for their achievements and those soon to leave active ministry were sung in by the congregation as they processed to and took their place on the dais. This service connects the vibrant past with the living and evolving present. In that light, the Reverend Beth Miller, from the Office of Professional Leadership at the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), welcomed the congregation, noting that in addition to welcoming ministers entering preliminary fellowship, ministers receiving final fellowship, and masters level credentialed religious educators, the Service of the Living Tradition is for the first time welcoming music directors who have completed their own professional credentialing process.

Miller noted also that this service is taking place for the 60th time. In 1949 the, director of ministry for the American Unitarian Association (AUA) called for a Service to Commemorate the Ministry It was held on May 24th of that year, acknowledging eight deceased ministers and welcoming eleven new ministers into Fellowship. Two ministers of those eleven remain with us: the Reverend Howard Box and the Reverend Raymond George Manker. Manker lit the chalice with his wife, Gretchen.

Following a reflective reading from poet Rumi, the Reverend Dr. William G. Sinkford, president of the UUA, called the roll of those Unitarian Universalist ministers who have passed from this life in the past year, as the congregation viewed their images and silently made their appreciations and their farewells. Sinkford also noted the passing of three ministers too recently to be included in this year’s service. They will be honored at next year’s service. Sinkford led the congregation in prayer for those who have gone from this life, and for those who remain, bereft. He asked that those who remain may find comfort and that all of us may find inspiration in the teachings and examples of the lives of those who are gone.

The General Assembly choir offered a musical interlude, “Down in the River to Pray,” as the worship service segued into a time for honoring the living.

Miller and the Reverend Nancy Doughty read the names of those who are retiring from active ministry. As with all groups acknowledged and honored, photographic images were displayed to the congregation on large screens in the assembly hall and at the conclusion of their naming the congregation affirmed them first with applause and then with words. Led by Ms. Anne Bancroft, Miller and Doughty, the congregation responded in the Litany of Appreciation, ending with “We rejoice and give thanks for the gifts of your service, May your days be long and joyful and when your end time is near, may the serenity of a life well lived be your joy.”

The Reverend Jory Agate, the Reverend Beth Williams, Jan Devor, Kenneth Herman and Dr. Keith Arnold read the names those of those ministers attaining Final Fellowship, Credentialed Religious Educators at the Master Level, and Unitarian Universalist Credentialed Musicians. They were addressed in a Litany of Affirmation and offered the hopeful blessing of “growing excellence, deepening satisfaction, and profound awareness of the Spirit of life and love surrounding and upholding you always.”

Ministers Entering Preliminary Fellowship were named by the Reverend David A. Petree, the Reverend Wayne Arnason and the Reverend Rob Eller Isaacs. The congregation promised, in the Litany of Welcome, to “welcome you as religious leaders” and “honor your achievement and recognize your calling.”

The Reverend Richard Nugent invited and challenged the congregation to open their hearts, checkbooks and wallets to support the Living Tradition Fund. This fund helps with the expenses of attaining a ministerial education and also addresses the needs of ministers who have encountered hardship. “We need to raise 200,000 dollars tonight,” he said. In this economic climate, our ministry had encountered greater financial need. It was received on behalf of the Living Tradition Fund by Williams with a prayer of gratitude for this support of their work.

After a reflective reading, written by the poet Mary Oliver and read by Sinkford and the Reverend Sarah Gibb Millspaugh, this year’s sermon was delivered by the Reverend Dr. Mary J. Harrington, who, due to illness, is no longer serving in active parish ministry although she remains active in Gulf Coast service and justice initiatives through the Long Haul organization. She has served congregations in the Mass Bay district, and her most recent ministerial settlement was the Winchester Unitarian Society in Winchester, MA.

Under the careful attention of the congregation, in a sermon titled “A Lifetime isn’t Long Enough,” Reverend Harrington described the trend toward activist and busy lives, trying to meet the many needs that are pressing upon us. She spoke of “so much that cries out for our clear seeing, our compassion, our justice-seeking.” And quoting Thomas Merton she warned with his words: “There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence, and that is activism and overwork… The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace because it kills the root of the inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

Reflecting on those demands as well as her personal struggle with a serious illness, ALS commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, Harrington turned to the things that are timeless and enriching. She reminded listeners “that having an inner life is not a luxury, it is not a recreational option, it is a necessity. It is in fact a moral and spiritual imperative. No matter how many compelling family, school or work responsibilities we may have, this is in fact our greatest responsibility: to be awake to the reality Mary Oliver reminds us of, that even ‘a lifetime isn’t long enough for the beauty of this world.’ You are part of the beauty of this world, full of rubies—exquisite jewels without price—which no one will ever enjoy, not even you, if they stay locked inside. There is a communal responsibility to share your treasure with others. It is a pressing responsibility of the greatest magnitude. It is holy work.”

Harrington offered seven areas of that responsibility for consideration. The first she said is to be present in our animal self, “to remember that we have a body and that it is good.” She did not promise that it is easy. She has “found it takes vigilance, focusing on what I care about and love most, to keep this illness from defeating my spirit, from taking me over, including my truest, deepest self. To keep realizing as colleague Mark Belletini reminds me, ‘Mary, you are not your diagnosis.’”

In her continued spiritual reflections, Harrington transcended her diagnosis as she named the spiritual responsibility of feeling and expressing gratitude. That is not easy either, for as she said, for “when the water in our jug is low and brackish, we do not have even the trim or feistiness of a moth to offer this prayer of gratitude in a meaningful way.”

We also have the capacity for perspective as she put it, “to see all around us that nothing lasts. We are able to be aware of our mortality and fragility, in ways that we humans imagine no other creatures can.” Harrington shared examples from her own life. Additional responsibilities we have are “to acknowledge the past, find healing for our spirits, and then walk away, move on... to claim and experience our own grief, the losses of our lives, care for our own people, and to bury our own dead. To sit with and comfort and companion someone who is very ill.” And lastly, she counseled to take the responsibility of “solitude, rest and Sabbath time. ” She offered more examples and experiences from her own life, adding that this faith has offered her many opportunities to learn from and with the individuals who bring an array of practices, perspectives and understandings to this shared faith. Harrington distilled her own understandings into these statements:

  • “Everything and everyone is connected; we are responsible to each other.”
  • “It’s very important to be a good person; it’s not always possible but that should never stop us from trying.”
  • "Curiosity, courage, kindness and humility create a life of both integrity and joy."
  • “Suffering and grief are terrible, can happen to anyone, are not deserved.”
  • “Healing is always possible.”
  • “Life on earth is astounding, beautiful and enough.”
  • “We are in good hands; Love underlies everything.”
  • “When all is said and done, it’s a vast and endless Mystery.”

She concluded with a recognition that “This is an enormous, glorious responsibility. This is persistent, holy, transforming work.”

Miller offered the benediction, delivering another suggestion from Harrington. “Everyday look at the world with your wide and grateful eyes.... Every day offer and bless, stand and love, surrender and praise. Live with all your might. Love with all your heart.”

Reported by Rebecca Kelley-Morgan; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.

From the General Assembly Live-Bloggers

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Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.

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