My Swan Song
“New occasions teach new duties.” — James Russell Lowell, The Present Crisis, 1844
There is an ancient Greek myth that relates an otherwise mute swan trumpeting just before its death. From that tale we get the phrase “swan song” to denote the closing notes of one’s life or role.
In a few days, I retire from 45 years of active Unitarian Universalist ministry. I wonder what to sing as I transition to a new way of being.
Perhaps a song in four verses:
Verse 1. Gratitude.
I am fond of quoting Meister Eckhart, 13th ct. German mystic, who said, "If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is 'Thank You,' it will be enough.” My heart is filled with gratitude for the opportunity to serve our faith and our people. The minister’s role is such a privilege: to be with people at birth, coming of age, entering adulthood, marriage, career development, sometimes divorce and other loss, retirement, at a hospital bed, and at graveside. I am humbled by all the trust people have had in me to be with them in this way. I am humbled further pondering how I could have been better. Thank you, though, is the only phrase that needs be sung.
Verse 2. Love.
We often include in worship some variation of “Love is the teaching of this church.” Our Universalist forebears were known, in the early 20th ct. as the “Love Church.” Beyond all our theological reflections and rational disputations, I so want us to be fully the Love Church, broadly embracing “beloved community” as central to our belonging and witness.
One of my church kids gave me a bracelet after hearing me preach about Universalism: a string of lettered beads that read: “WWUUD”, meaning “What would a Unitarian Universalist do?” When you turn the letters over, it said, “LOVE.” That’s enough to make the world go round and to be clear about our ministry.
Whether we draw on the Buddha’s “infinite compassion” or Hillel’s “Love your neighbor as yourself” or Jesus’ “Love your enemy” or countless other inspirations, Love is humanity’s distinctive gift, its profound need, and most elusive goal. “Love one another, love all“ is another verse to my song.
Our congregation in Salem, MA still recites an aspiration, first drafted in 1629, to describe the ministry: “We Covenant with the Lord and one with another; and do bind our selves…to walk together in all God’s ways…to reveal…(the) Blessed word of truth.”
I would sing and sing loudly to have us fully, deeply hold covenant as our center. I would have it replace our Puritan heritage of “right belief.” Right relationship — guided by Love — has to be first. Sadly, far too often, I have seen us founder on the shoals of coercive fundamentalism over theological terms. We make our congregations unlovely and unloving when we ban words or phrases from our hymns, prayers (oh, that’s one of them), and preaching.
We are not here to clone each other. The Free Church (oh, how I wish we had named ourselves that in 1961!) must be a crucible of conversation, not a court of conviction, however “pure” of error someone thinks they’ve made it. We need simply to renew the promise to walk together to discern our holy ways. Universalist founder, Hosea Ballou declared (1805): “We need not think alike to love alike.” So, Covenant is the theme of my third verse.
4. A Passion & Urgency for Justice.
When we do not live with love to guide us, we are afraid. We don’t speak our minds. We don’t open our hearts. It takes courage to be Unitarian Universalist. I am delighted to see many of our congregations taking up justice-making in their Missions. Congregational vitality is all about “growing souls, saving the world” — or at least our little part of it.
As with most transcendent values and ideals, we often know justice by its absence. There is a hurting world that needs our love. So many are befuddled and lost, not knowing who they are nor what they stand for. All too often, distrust, suspicion, animosity, even hatred characterize much of what occurs in the public square. Fear reigns.
We need our congregations to be sanctuaries, to be sure. We need sacred space for respite from the all too frequent slings and arrows that destroy the human community. Justice making begins with getting our souls well-grounded in a covenantal companionship of fellow travelers. You just cannot do it alone.
Each day you and I have a choice, to bless or to curse or to withdraw from the world. Unitarian Universalists proudly show up when needed, but let us admit the temptation to tend our own spiritual gardens and not engage with others is always present. We, too, are often afraid.
However, sanctuary reduces to a club if we stop at our doors — something, I’m sad to note — found too often in our congregations. We cannot tarry in. We need courage to push through our fears, get out the door, and return to the struggle. “Change at the pace of church” is not an honorific. It is a sad note that too often we think we have an eternity to be about making justice. We fuss over jots and titles while children go hungry. We must stop and get on with the work. The challenges of our day are urgent:
- Dismantling, confronting white supremacy and its insidious destruction of people’s lives.
- Re-thinking the economic disparities that leave a small portion of the world plenty prosperous and the rest mostly miserable.
- The apocalyptic dimensions of climate change and its impact on all the world’s living species.
I love Dorothy Day’s command: “No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There is too much work to do.” Sing, dear friends, sing it loud. We are a justice-making people!
There could be further verses, but I’ll stop here. It’s time to go. I go with gratitude, love, feeling deeply connected, and urgently awaiting a better day. I wish all of you much good work, much love, and good ministry as you grow our faith and transform our world.
I close with these words, with which I began my ministry. Included in my ordination ceremony, these notes from 19th ct. Transcendentalist, Wm. Henry Channing, aptly titled for this swan song, “My Symphony.” “To live content with small means, to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion, to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich, to study hard, think quietly, talk gently, act frankly, to listen to stars and birds, to babes and sages, with open heart, to bear all cheerfully, do all bravely, await occasions, hurry never, in a word to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common, this is to be my symphony.”