Service of the Living Tradition, General Assembly 2015
General Assembly 2015 Event 287
The Ministries and Faith Development Staff Group invites you to join us at this service where we honor fellowshipped and credentialed religious leaders, remember those who have died, recognize those who have completed active service, and welcome those who have received fellowship or credentialed status in the past year.
We are pleased to have Rev. Dr. Marlin Lavanhar, Senior Minister, All Souls Unitarian Church, Tulsa OK, deliver the sermon.
Marlin Lavanhar grew up in Chicago. In 1990, he received a BA in Sociology from Tulane University. Upon graduation, he spent two years in Kyoto, Japan, after which he embarked on a three-year odyssey travelling 20,000 miles around the world on a mountain bike. He returned to the U.S. and entered Harvard Divinity School where he received his M.Div. Since 2000, Marlin has served All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa as their Senior Minister where, during his tenure, membership has increased by 80%. He holds an honorary Ph.D. from Phillips Theological School. Marlin and Anitra Lavanhar have two children, Elias and Lyla.
Donald Milton III is the full time Director of Music at the UU Congregation of Atlanta. An energetic young conductor, he is also making his mark on the Atlanta choral scene. During his studies at the Univ. of Michigan, he founded an ensemble of top tier singers called Lux (now Lux Atlanta). In addition, he is Executive Director of the Atlanta Master Chorale. Donald’s degree is in Music Education and his educational experience includes teaching general music at an alternative school for emotionally impaired youth. He is an active choral clinician and guest conductor.
- Rev. Dr. Marlin Lavanhar
- Donald Milton III
- Rev. Sarah Lammert
- Emily Parker
The following final draft script was completed before this event took place; actual words spoken may vary.
Donald Milton III, Choir and Congregation
- “I’m on my way”
- “Blue Boat Home”
- ”Meditation on Breathing” (Mash up)
The Reverend Sarah Lammert: Welcome to the 54th Service of the Living Tradition!
Welcome to those who are present here in Portland and to those joining us virtually, from across the nation and around the globe.
Welcome to the surviving family members of those ministers we have lost this past year and are remembering tonight, whose contributions to our faith were many and splendid and strong.
Welcome to those of you attending General Assembly for the very first time, and to those who have joined us for many years in this annual celebration of who we are as a people of faith, and who we are called to become.
Welcome to the ministers, musicians and religious educators who have achieved various milestones in your professional lives – those of you just beginning, those in the middle, and those of you winding up long careers for which we are intensely grateful.
Welcome to the UU lay leaders, family members and friends who support and share this sacred calling and ministry.
Welcome to the youth and young adults at GA – leaders of today who inspire us with your commitment.
Welcome to our international and interfaith guests, and members of our military, veterans, and their friends and family.
Welcome all religious professionals, lay delegates, and presenters.
Welcome one and all, as we gather here, united in the mystery that is life and love and connection.
As we now begin our calling forth, you are invited to raise a glad noise as our honorees venture onto the stage.
Calling Forth Preliminary Fellows
The Reverend Wayne Arnason: I call forth from among you, these persons, who have received Preliminary Fellowship as Unitarian Universalist Ministers.
Calling Forth Credentialed Religious Educators
Tandy Scheffler: I call forth from among you, these persons, who have completed the credentialing process for Master level certification in Religious Education.
I call forth from among you, these persons, who have been certified as Credentialed Religious Educators.
Calling Forth Credentialed Music Leaders
Mary Neumann: I call forth from among you, these persons, who have been certified as Credentialed Music Leaders.
Calling Forth Final Fellows
The Reverend Wayne Arnason: I call forth from among you, these persons, who have received Final Fellowship as Unitarian Universalist ministers.
Calling Forth those Completing Full Time Service
The Rev. Richard S. Gilbert: I call forth from among you, these persons, who have completed their careers of Full-Time Service.
Emily Parker: Welcome.
Welcome to the kindred souls and the breathless pilgrims.
Welcome to the centered and the seeking, to the hopeful and the weary.
Welcome, wanders, worshipers, lovers of leaving.
Welcome to the joyous and the grieving.
Welcome to those who inspire and those who are awestruck, the students and the teachers, the artists and the engineers.
Welcome, to those waiting for the world to change and to those ready to change it.
Welcome to you.
Welcome to the divine and the human.
Welcome Spirit of Love, Freedom, Healing, and Life.
May this be a place of peace and community.
May this be a time of authenticity and opportunity.
May ours be a movement strengthened and inspired by our roots and growing into our hopes
Now, please rise in body or spirit and let us join together in singing, Rank by Rank.
Opening Hymn: “Rank by Rank”
Ferguson Activist Delegation: “Why a flaming chalice?” the question comes. It’s the cup of life, we answer. A cup of blessings overflowing. A cup of water to quench our spirits’ thirst.
A cup of wine for celebration and dedication. The flame of truth. The fire of purification. Oil for anointing, healing.
Out of chaos, fear, and horror, Thus was the symbol crafted, a generation ago.
So may it be for us, In these days of [sorrow, uncertainty, and rage].
And a light to warm our souls and guide us home.
Introit “We Are the Ones”
Remembering Those Who Have Died
Rev. Peter Morales: Each year we honor whose legacy is the ministry of our faith. As we have for generations, we will read the names of those who died during the last year.
To live is to create a legacy.
The legacy of these men and women are acts of love and service. Although much of ministry is public, more of it is private and hidden from view. Ministry is countless acts of comfort, nurture, listening, counseling and conversations that are never seen.
As I call the roll of those ministers who have died, let us rise in body or spirit and hold the memory of their ministries in our hearts.
Please join me in a spirit of prayer.
Spirit of life and love that lives within us and among us, let us feel your presence.
We mourn the loss of these good ministers. We have lost dear friends. We have lost individuals who mentored us, inspired us, consoled us. Never more will we converse with them, see their smiles, feel their touch.
May we be filled with profound gratitude for their lives. They kept the faith. They stood on the side of love year after year. They worked for justice. They handed on a precious tradition. Their lives continue to inspire us and to give us hope.
May we be worthy heirs of their legacy. The work of love is not done. Their ministries are now our ministries.
We pray for consolation for those closest to these departed. May they feel our compassion. May they find comfort.
Now, in silence, let each of us honor those who have passed and reflect on our on our place in this living faith.
Musical Response: “Grace Before Sleep”
Offering for the Living Tradition Fund
The Reverend William G. Sinkford: Our offering this evening will go to support the UUA’s Living Tradition Fund.
If this is your first General Assembly, it is my privilege to introduce you to that Fund. The Living Tradition Fund supports need-based scholarships for theological students, grants to new ministers to reduce the burden of high educational debt, and grants to ministers for emergency
assistance. There is not a person at this service who does not want to support these grants.
If you’ve been to GA before, you knew that this offering was coming. You might even have given some thought to how much you want to give. Perhaps you even wrote out your check before arriving at this service.
Supporting the Living Tradition Fund has become a part of our “living tradition.”
How much is enough to support ministers in need, when the Living Tradition Fund is one of their last resorts? How much is enough to help new ministers handle their educational debts so that they can focus on managing their new ministries? How much is enough scholarship assistance when our ministers-to-be are deciding whether or not they can answer the call?
Each of us knows our own answer to those questions and our own ability to contribute.
My request of you is not for a dollar amount or a particular increase in what you might have planned.
My request to you is this and this only: As you decide what to put in the plate or write as your pledge, let the spirit guide you.
If your contribution to this offering is coming from the cash in your wallet, let the spirit guide you as you reach in to pull those bills out.
If that check you wrote before you entered this hall is feeling a little… thin, let the spirit guide you to make a larger pledge.
Because it is the spirit moving that fills the Living Tradition Fund. It is the spirit moving in his hall and the spirit moving in our lives that allows us to answer the call for support for the ministers that serve our faith.
I hope you will give generously as I do each year. Help us, together, have the resources to answer “yes” when the ministers who serve our faith most need our help.
The offering for the Living Tradition Fund will now be gratefully received.
Rev. Marlin Lavanhar: Our reading is an excerpt of the poem “Let America Be America Again” by Langston Hughes.
Hymn: “Building a New Way”
Donald Milton: Building a New Way is the theme of the conference so we’re going to hear this hymn a lot. Here’s our MoTown version.
Sermon: "For Just Such a Time as This"
The Rev. Marlin Lavanhar: The last time I had this privilege to deliver a sermon to the General Assembly was in 2008 on Sunday morning in Ft. Lauderdale. (Were you there?)
It was just two years after I had lost my daughter, who died at the age of 3. I remember talking about her, Sienna, …and how very raw it still was then. She would be 12 this year if she had lived.
I’m going to admit something. Sometimes, even now, when I’m visiting a person from my congregation who’s dying, if it seems appropriate I’ll ask them,
“When you finally die, if it turns out there really is a heaven on the other side of all this,
and you see my little girl Sienna, will you give her a big hug for me and tell her that her mom and brother and I are doing alright and we love her?”
And I’ve discovered that it doesn’t matter if the person is a Humanist, a secular-rationalist, a Buddhist or a Theist…
There is something in the very humanity of that sincere request (from a broken-hearted father) …together with the humility of facing our mortality …that allows us to suspend our disbelief. It allows us to let go of our own literalism. So that we can bathe together in the warmth and tenderness of the deep longing and the love that begged the request.
Whatever that is… that sacred place where people can meet… that is beyond belief and that binds us together in our love and our naked humanity… that’s the place I want us to go tonight.
Because we are a covenanted people… bound together by a sacred promise.
But I’m not sure we’ve ever really lived into all of what that can mean.
Let’s say for instance, I tell you that I speak in tongues. Would you laugh at me and think I’m ridiculous? What if I believe in Jesus Christ as the incarnation of God
and I read the Bible as a way of deepening my understanding of myself and the world? Can I be a member of your church? I mean, would I really feel welcome?
What if I think God is real and prayer is powerful and ritual is effective? Would your church embrace me? Would you?
Because our churches are based on the premise that there is no test of faith or belief. Which allows us to have an incredible diversity of believers at the table. And yet, I’ve seen the reactions some people get when they share certain beliefs in our congregations.
This was brought home to me in 2008, when my church welcomed Bishop Carlton Pearson. He’s a black, Pentecostal minister who led a mega-church in Tulsa for 25 years
and he and his family and many from his former congregation joined All Souls in Tulsa.
At first I thought I was going to lose my mind, because I was so excited. And then I thought I was going to lose my ministry because of all the controversy it stirred up.
It was well worth the challenges and risks because there have been so many great effects. Three months after this all happened, a long time, white member of the church walked into my office one day. He is a staunch humanist, a lawyer, about 60 years old. He said, “Marlin, I want to tell you something that I would have never told anyone in this church and never have.
“I grew up Pentecostal and to this day I still speak in tongues.”
I tried not to look too surprised. But I was shocked. I asked “How often?” and he said, “Probably about once or twice a week.” He described it as a kind of meditation that allows his mind to rest.
Once I got over my initial disbelief & quietly checked my own prejudices,
I was struck hardest by realizing that this is a central part of his spiritual life, and he has spent 30 years in our congregation and has never felt he could tell anyone in our church without being judged negatively and maybe even made to feel like an outsider. And he was right.
I know, because that’s how I felt myself initially. Of course, he’s the same intelligent, successful, rational, justice-centered man I’ve always known.
It made me bump-up against my own prejudices.
It was a pretty stark condemnation of me and my community, that he felt he had to keep his truth, his spirituality, in the closet in order to be welcome in our church.
Don’t you wonder, how many are hiding themselves and their spirituality within our congregations?
I’ll tell you one thing, we’ll never grow our churches if they’re places where people have to be spiritually closeted.
It goes against everything we say we’re about. It’s like double speak and Fox News, if we say we’re all about freedom of belief, but then we have an unspoken culture that keeps people in spiritual silos. …a culture that keeps people afraid to reveal their true selves openly to one another. It’s double speak to say we are bound by a covenant that allows us to be united without any test of creed… but then we have a culture that makes many people feel their own personal spiritual journey and beliefs don’t fit.
And it’s equally difficult to grow a church if people also don’t feel comfortable admitting their deepest fears and longings… What kind of church is it, that teaches us to act like we do not have deep existential fears and powerful longings. We come scared about losing our jobs, our health, or about our children’s futures, about getting old… or wrestling with our addictions and ways we sometimes feel pulled from our marriages or other commitments.
Our religion is built on a cultural foundation that values people appearing to be self-initiating, self-reliant, empowered, educated, and well adjusted. All of which are fine things.
The problem is that most people… including most of us… (including me) are more afraid than we let on.
Afraid that a disease or an accident will strike our children down or us.
We’re afraid of the consequences of terrorism and war,
Of politicians and religious leaders who seem to devalue gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer lives.
A criminal justice system that devalues black and brown lives…
Or border-guards who devalue immigrant lives.
Or people who devalue Muslim lives.
Or certain religions that devalue women’s lives.
Or corporations that devalue the earth or that turn everyone and everything into a means to a profit.
Or that technology is going to rob us of our humanity.
Or that we can’t beat this depression
Or survive another surgery.
We’re scared we’ll be a burden to our children
Or will lose our minds before our bodies.
Or our bodies before our minds.
If coming to church means putting on our Sunday face and hiding all of this from one another and presenting a façade of self-reliance (well, pardon me Mr. Emerson) but who wants to go to that church?
I realized that if coming to my congregation means pretending that you don’t have any beliefs or longings that fit outside of a narrow, mostly, white, middle-class, progressive norm… Then most people probably don’t want to attend my church… Because that’s not a church as much as it’s a spiritual and emotional closet.
We need to have a coming out… in this Association.
As our culture has been learning, coming out is not just for LGBTQ people anymore.
We need a coming out in our association for those of us who are poor… or immigrants, military veterans, Christians… Theists… Republicans… and more.
The problem is that despite all our inclusiveness, in many ways, we still have a fairly spiritually and emotionally closeted culture. And it’s not just about not being welcoming to certain outsiders; it can be pretty lonely and sometimes painful even for insiders.
Do you know the original Cinderella story? Not the Disney version, but the original Grimm fairytale? In it when the prince’s courtiers come looking for the one who fits into the glass slipper, the step-sisters each try desperately to fit in. The first one cuts-off her toes and the other her heel to try to fit in. Imagine the pain of trying to stuff a bloody foot into a glass slipper. It’s painful to cut off parts of oneself in order to try to fit in… whether it’s a slipper or a church.
But if we’re not careful, that’s exactly what we end up doing when our culture sends people into closets… in order to feel like they belong. We say our churches are places where people can bring their whole selves, but I’m not convinced that’s always true.
We can change that! I’m hoping we will.
I’m inspired by the story of Queen Esther from the Hebrew Scriptures.
The story begins when the king of Persia sees Esther, a gorgeous and charming young Jewish girl who captures the king’s heart. Esther is an orphan who was raised by her cousin Mordicai, who warns her not to mention to anyone at the court that she’s a Jew.
Esther follows his advice (and hides her truth & her religion) and is soon crowned queen of the empire.
Although Mordicai spends a lot of time socializing at the king’s court and people know that he’s a Jew, they don’t know he’s related to Esther or that she is also a Jew.
One day Mordicai raises the wrath of the king’s corrupt chief officer, Haman
by refusing to bow down before him. Haman clearly has some anger management issues and in his fury he convinces the king to let him announce a royal decree to kill all of the Jews in the empire.
Upon hearing this Mordicai tears his clothes and puts on sackcloth and ashes. Before long we find Mordicai standing at the gates of the palace telling one of the court eunuchs to let Esther know what’s happening to the Jews.
This is what I love about Bible stories. You just don’t find stories like these anymore. Here we have what amounts to a Jewish gentleman standing around in a burlap sack, covered with ashes and hanging-out in the center of town talking with a eunuch. I don’t know about where you live buy we don’t see this too often in Tulsa.
I’ll never forget at my colleague and classmate Rev. Laurie Affaunt’s ordination,
When Dr. Ibrahim Farajajé, Profesor from Starr King, used this same Bible story and made the point that in their cultural context eunuchs were transgender people who lived outside of the male-female binary of their times. And he used the story of these trans-ancestors to remind us how throughout history there have always been folks who have transcended their culture’s gender norms and have played important roles in the work and salvation of society.
In this story, the eunuch takes Mordicai’s message to Esther, telling her that she must implore the king to intercede on behalf of the Jews. Esther tells the eunuch to relay back to Mordicai that, “if any person (even her), enters the royal presence in the inner court without first being summoned, there is but one law which applies: that person shall be put to death, unless of course the king extends the golden scepter to the individual, and only then may that person live.
And more importantly, Esther says, “I have not even been summoned to see the king for 30 days.” In other words, she’s worried that she may have fallen out of favor with the king and this would give him the perfect excuse to do away with her.
Mordicai is not just asking her to serve on a committee or something… he’s asking her to put her life on the line. But when Mordicai is told what Esther has said he sends this reply, ‘Do not imagine Esther, that because you are in the royal palace, you alone of all the Jews will escape. If you remain silent at such a time as this, relief and deliverance for the Jews will appear from another quarter; but you and your father’s family will perish. Perhaps it is for just such a time as this that you have become queen?’”
Esther heard the reply and found the courage to go talk to the king. She says, “in defiance of the law, I shall go to the king; if I perish, I perish.” In the end, the Jews were saved because of Esther’s courage and her religion was saved because of her willingness to reveal her truth. She saved her people with her willingness to be vulnerable and to risk rejection.
And that’s what you and I can and need to start doing more of. Being courageous and real… with each other…
Who knows, you may be here for just such a time as this. I believe you and I are here and are uniquely called for this moment. And that “now’s the time” for you and me to step out and stop being so afraid of one another and of our own truth.
There are a lot of things that people are closeted about in our congregations
Military service, Christian theology, immigration status, class background, gender-identity, political leanings… the love of prayer… having spent time in prison… mental illnesses, so many things.
I’m willing to bet that most of us have something about ourselves that we would be scared to tell the people in our congregation… but that if we did tell and we found they still love and respect us, it would be incredibly healing for us and would free others to do the same. Now that sounds like a church I’d like to attend!
A place where I can be held in love for who I really am and despite what I believe or don’t believe.
I’ll confess, I spent the first five years of my ministry apologizing to God nearly every Sunday when I came home for the ways I failed again to share honestly with my congregation how important my relationship to God is to me.
And I was the minister, yet I was scared to be fully open about my own walk with God and about my own practice of prayer.
I’ve continually pushed myself to be honest with my congregation.
This year, in a sermon, I even apologized to other white people in my church for the ways I have not always been able to hold them very well in their struggles with the transition we’ve been going through as we’ve become more diverse.
I realized that I have had great training, in and out of seminary, teaching me how to be a white ally to people of color and a straight ally to LGBTQ folks, but I have never received any training on how to be a white ally to white people who are struggling with the painful work of overcoming deeply ingrained ideas of white supremacy and privilege.
That’s been the hardest part of all the changes for me… because when I see white people who seem like they are resisting or not understanding the need to do the work, it hurts and I get scared, because I think, if these progressive, open-minded, justice-centered, smart, wonderful people aren’t willing to do what it takes, than who will?
And in my fear and pain, I have not always been a good or compassionate leader.
But when I admitted my own fear and struggle, instead of trying to pretend like I had it all figured out, shifted everything.
It allowed others to talk more freely about their own fears and mistakes.
And more and more of us stopped hiding from one another.
And, since this is a service for ministers, including many new ministers, I want to say that it took me a long time to tell my church about the problems I had in my teens with drugs.
And about the difficulty I’ve had as an adult reclaiming my tears after years of holding them in.
But as I’ve begun to teach and preach from my mistakes, rather than always talking about my successes.
It has made a huge positive difference.
Each of us needs to find the courage to be real about telling our truth.
And ministers, we need to lead the way… and many of you who have gone before me have shown me the way… I’m just a slow learner… with layers of ego that I’m still trying to peel off.
And I see something in this new generation of ministers that seems almost hardwired to authenticity.
And that feels like a great sign of hope!
I believe we are each here, and are meant to bring all of who we are, for just such a time as this.
And it matters because what we’re about… this covenanted faith,
is an extraordinary contribution to religious life in America. In fact, it’s an incredible development in the history of human social evolution. I do not think America can ever be the country it can and must be, if Unitarian Universalism does not become what it needs to be. And I don’t think humanity will ever become what it needs to be until we, or some other group, achieves the promise that this covenanted tradition offers.
So, while we’ve created a whole conference this year on the idea of discovering the “New Way”… I want to propose that it’s not a new way that we have to live into. It’s that we have to finally embody the fullness of the proposition which is the old way. We have yet to fully embrace the promise of our democratic, covenantal tradition.
Langston Hughes has that incredible poem. Let America be America Again. In which he describes the ideals of our country and he says, “That’s never been America to me. Let America be America again… the America that never was but still can be.”
I feel that way about Unitarian Universalism. Let’s let Unitarian Universalism be Unitarian Universalism again. The faith it never was yet, and yet can be. Let Unitarian Universalism be the tradition it never has been… but yet must become.
A faith for the free. Not a faith for a small sliver of the mostly, white, middle-class NPR listening audience. But a true faith for the free… all of us… of every color, culture and kind. We’ve never been that free… but let us pledge tonight that Unitarian Universalism soon will be.
We can and must redeem this faith…Not by changing it… but by living into it… in a way we never were able to before. Can you imagine that God, or the Goddess or Gaia or the spirit of love, the Universe… however you name it, may have put you here, among us, for just such a time as this? I can!
But then again… I said that tonight I want us to suspend our disbelief…
To see if we can find a meeting place where our broken-hearts and our humanity can come together and bathe in the tender understanding of love’s possibility.
So that we will truly love beyond belief. Amen.
Musical Affirmation: “Scare Away the Dark”
Closing Hymn: “The Healing Rain”
The Rev. Marlin Lavanhar: "Let us not be afraid… let us feel the healing rain… and let our love and our life call us on."
Closing Hymn: “Life Calls Us On”
Rev. Sarah Lammert: We are not waiting on our world to change.
We are the change.
We are not waiting on the platform,
We are on that moving train.
We are not hoping for justice,
We are bearing witness for Love.
Here am I, Call me.