Reading: I Am America, Frank Hall
I am America —
Take me away and you’ve removed a dream
You’ve taken hope away —
A vision and a promise.
I am not the country.
The country is carefully curled up in me.
I am America, the dream that gave birth to a nation,
To become a country among the nations of the world.
America: big, bold, tall, sturdy, and compassionate.
I’m coming of age — a dream taking shape
Creating a land of opportunity, equality and justice for all.
I was born in a revolutionary struggle in ’76,
My ancestors came over on the Mayflower.
They had a vision and a dream in Jamestown and Massachusetts Bay, a
vision that brought them to battlefields in Lexington and Concord with
painful birth contractions measured by Minutemen marching to Bunker
Hill, determined to be self-sufficient, independent.
I arrived full of hope, full of determination.
I am America — I mark well the birth in a log cabin
In Kentucky on February 12, 1809.
They tried to kill me at Gettysburg.
They killed my son in the Ford theater.
They killed another in Dallas,
Another in Memphis, but they haven’t killed me,
They haven’t killed the dream.
I rise up out of the ashes again and again,
I am tenacious, they can’t throw me off,
They can’t shake me loose, I can hold on!
My dream digs deep into the soul of the nation —
I embody dreams. They won’t go away.
They are persistent.
I am America: I occupy the land, I spread myself out
Gazing up at the stars, outward at the future, the dream.
My head is in the Arctic, my feet in the Pacific Islands.
I bulge with mountains and stretch with long prairies,
The rocky Maine coast is at one shoulder,
The peaceful Pacific rolls onto the other.
Minerals, forests, and a bountiful harvest provide an Abundance that
makes me a prize among the nations.
I am America, a vision and a hope of democracy.
I share power with the people.
I share wealth and the abundance with the people.
I am America, a country-in-the-making.
I am not perfect. I have my faults,
I’ve had my failures.
The vision has sometimes seemed to slip away,
The dream turned soar with greed, prejudice and hatred.
But I awake and shake off the dark night of the soul.
I promise much and I keep my promises in my own time.
I’ll deliver yet. Hang around. You’ll see.
There are great cities in my heart, working,
Circulating the life blood from shore to shore,
North to south.
The marrow of my bones comes from the indigenous peoples — from hundreds
of tribes of Native Americans; and from African peoples, and people from
England, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Russia — from Scandinavia, South
America — from the Semitic peoples — Jews, Palestinians and from people of
the rising sun — Orientals from China, Japan, Korea… from India… from every
corner of the globe.
Always hope was in the hearts of those who arrived at my shores — as the early travelers had hope
for religious and political freedom, for economic opportunity.
I am America. I am alive and well. I am substantial.
I’ve died a thousand deaths, but my soul survives,
Incarnated over and over again
From Washington to Lincoln to Jefferson;
Reinterpreted by Emerson, Thoreau and Lincoln;
Sung in the lusty songs of Whitman;
Sweetly sung again in the songs of Sandburg and Frost.
Then exemplified by Rosa Parks who sat still,
Articulated by the dream of Martin Luther King.
I am America: I’ve been betrayed by some;
Misunderstood, cheated and violated by others.
I am America, a youth among the older nations
I stand tall and proud in the assembly of nations
Strong, determined to correct the flaws,
The mistakes my statesmen made in my youth
Determined to keep the dream alive,
To bring it to full fruition.
I am America, I’ve traveled the long journey,
I’m marching the freedom march, the road is long.
I can change, adapt, reverse myself, modify and reform.
I am alterable.
The central vision that creates me remains permanent,
I don’t need help from those who try to protect me from criticism — these
friends are more difficult than those who have announced their open
hostility — I can resist the attacks of those who are hostile;
the others eat away at my core, the friends who have lost faith, or
didn’t understand me to begin with.
But I am strong. Put me to the test. I am resilient.
I can withstand the shock.
I am America, the dream-in-the-making
I travel the long journey,
I arrive again and again;
I take up residence in the hearts of dreamers
and lovers of freedom, lovers of peace and democracy,
lovers of life…
I am America. I’ll deliver yet. Hang around, you’ll see.”
Lecture: “Through the Fire of Thought”
Twenty two years ago I traveled with a group of Lutheran clergy to Central America after listening to a lecture about our government’s involvement in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras—it seemed we were on the wrong side in each of the violent conflicts there.
At a small, poor village in Nicaragua we listened to a Roman Catholic nun who had been working as a volunteer teacher there for thirty years. We were sitting outside on crude wooden benches—I was eager to hear about the literacy work the Liberation Theology folks had been doing there. She began by saying, simply and directly, “Now I’m going to tell you my story, and maybe you’ll see yourself in it.”
I have the notes I took that day but I don’t need a notebook to remember her opening line; I realized the deep truth in it: “Now I’ll tell you my story, and perhaps you’ll see yourself in it.”
Last summer I participated in a series of lectures on topics related to ethics. My topic was, Humor as a Moral Imperative.
I suggested that a well-developed sense of humor is a serious ethical responsibility. We clergy are expected to help folks to navigate some of the rough waters and provide some hope, some courage—life’s not easy; humor helps.
Humor helps the spirit, but there’s considerable evidence that humor has an ameliorative effect on the body as well as the mind…the spirit.
Humor–in all it’s variety–is essential to our survival, individually and collectively.
Before the week at Chautauqua had ended I was asked if I would consider doing a week-long series on a topic—or series of topics–of my choosing.
This assignment has been very much on my mind since I drove out the gate last July; I’ve been working on these lectures—trying to balance the seriousness with which I’ve taken this assignment with the humor I said was such an important ingredient to our lives, and therefore to these lectures. Ah, yes, the balance!
In July of 1838 Ralph Waldo Emerson was asked to address the graduating class of seminarians at Harvard Divinity School. He was invited to give that talk at precisely the time he had decided to leave parish ministry to take up the lecture circuit. It was a pivotal time for him.
He was leaving a profession to which he previously believed he had a calling. It was a serious decision, like a divorce.
He was 35 years old. He had been minister of Second Unitarian Church in Boston for just a few years, and he left, ostensibly over a disagreement with the Board of Trustees about the words to the communion service.
Of course there was a lot more to it than his refusal to say those words and to service communion. The deeper truth is that he was involved in a deep struggle of the spirit—his own spirit.
His first marriage had ended after only 16 months with the death of his beloved Ellen. A year later he resigned from Second Church, but continued to do pulpit supply, narrowing his ministry to fit his strengths—he was not a good parish minister, by his own admission.
Four years after Ellen’s death he married Lydia, who was to be his partner for the rest of his life.
In 1838, when he delivered the address to the Harvard Divinity School Graduates, he was 35 years old. He got the letter of invitation from the class of ’38 a few days after writing to his mother that he had decided to leave ministry altogether.
In a letter to his mother he wrote, “Henceforth perhaps I shall live by lecturing which promises to be good bread. I have relinquished my ecclesiastic charge at E. Lexington & shall not preach more except from the Lyceum.”
Unitarian Historian Conrad Wright says, (Emerson’s) “…decision was not an easy one for him to make. It involved the abandonment of the clerical tradition he had inherited; more painful, it amounted to an admission that the profession of the ministry made demands on him that he was unwilling or unable to meet. But he could not handle the situation in such a frank and undisguised form. Instead, hesought to justify himself by arguing that the church was tottering to its fall, almost all life extinct. In short, the blame for his failure as a minister lay not with himself but the institutions of organized religion, which he declared could no longer command respect.”
Professor Wright points to the ‘cluster of events’ surrounding the Divinity School Address:
Emerson wrote the letter to his mother March 14, 1838; four days later, on the 18th after attending church in Concord, he wrote in his journal: “I ought to sit and think, and then write a discourse to the American Clergy, showing them the ugliness and unprofitableness of theology and churches at this day…” Three days later, on March 21, he got a letter from a committee of the senior class of the Harvard Divinity School, inviting him ‘to deliver before them, in the Divinity Chapel, on Sunday evening the 15th of July next, the customary discourse, on occasion of their entering upon the active Christian ministry.’
Little did they know how ready he was to deliver that lecture!
A few days later, on March 25, Emerson climbed into the pulpit in East Lexington for the last time—at least in the capacity of clergyman. Two days later he wrote to the committee, accepting their invitation.
Among the important and somewhat brash things he had to say on that warm July evening was this:
“I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say, I would go to church no more. Men go, thought I, where they are wont to go, else no soul entered the temple in the afternoon. A snow storm was falling around us. The snow storm was real; the preacher merely spectral, and the ey felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had lived in vain. He had no one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended or cheated, or chagrined. If he had ever lived and acted, we were none the wiser for it. the capital secret of his profession, namely, to convert life into truth, he had not learned. Not one fact in all his experience, had he yet imported into his doctrine. This man had ploughed, and planted, and talked, and bought, and sold; he had read books; he had eaten and drunken; his head aches; his heart throbs; he smiles and suffers; yet was there not a surmise, a hint, in all the discourse, that he had ever lived at all. Not a line did he draw out of real history. The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life–life passed through the fire of thought. But of the bad preacher, it could not be told from his sermon, what age of the world he fell in; whether he had a father or a child; whether he was a freeholder or a pauper; whether he was a citizen or a countryman; or any other fact of his biography. It seemed strange the people should come to church. It seemed as if their houses were very unentertaining, that they should prefer this thoughtless clamor. It shows there is a commanding attraction in the moral sentiment, that can lend a faint tint of light to dullness and ignorance, coming in its name and place. The good hearer is sure he has been touched sometimes; is sure there is somehwat to be reached, and some word that can reach it.”
Then Emerson said something I’d like you to listen to very carefully. He said, “I am not ignorant that when we preach unworthily, it is not always quite in vain. There is a good ear, in some men, that draws supplies to virtue out of very indifferent nutriment. There is poetic truth concealed in all the common-places of prayer and of sermons, and though foolishly spoken, they may be wisely heard…”
I’ve titled this week’s lecture series, “Through the Fire of Thought.” My task is to offer some thoughts worthy of your listening; your task is to listen with that ‘good ear,’ so that you can draw supplies to virtue out of whatever nourishment may come during our time together.
(Isn’t that a great line—that ‘there is a good ear…that draws supplies to virtue out of very indifferent nutriment.’
I took up the task of ministry 35 years ago in the very church where Emerson concluded his—at Follen Community Church in Lexington, Massachusetts. I was hired as an assistant to the minister during my first year of seminary at Boston University School of Theology; my family and I moved into the parsonage, since the senior minister, Herb Adams, was living in Cambridge while working on his doctorate at Harvard.
A few months after I arrived, following one of my early sermons, I was approached by Sandborn Brown, who was then Dean of Students at M.I.T. He approached me in the line where I was greeting folks following the service and asked if he could speak to me; he waited in the foyer, across from me, and when everyone had gone through he came and said, “I just want to tell you that when you lifted your head from the sermon this morning and told us about your grandmother I was very touched.” He pointed to his heart. Then he said, “That’s what I come for…this (pointing to his heart, again) not this (pointing to his head.) I get this all week long.”
That moment stands out for me as pivotal. It was confrontational, like Emerson’s rather brash statement to those students. I realized in that moment that my sermon preparation up to that point had been, to a great extent, an effort to prove myself…to prove that I was worthy; to show that I was an intelligent, rational, reasonable man; well informed and well-prepared.
There’s a fine line between dealing out your life to the people—passed through the fire of thought—and ego-tripping.
It’s an ongoing challenge; it’s as challenging for me today as it was thirty five years ago, a thousand sermons later… hundreds of funeral and memorial services later…hundreds of wedding ceremonies, and child dedications and coming of age ceremonies later…thousands of counseling sessions later.
The challenge in ministry is much like the basic challenges of being a person—it’s about striking a balance between talking about myself, about my own life experiences, and listening to you.
(It’s necessary for the speaker to listen to an audience—and, in fact, you are playing a significant role in this process right now! We don’t talk much about the influence of an audience on speaker; it’s greater than we usually acknowledge.)
Emerson said that the ‘office of the true preacher is to deal out his life to the people.’ (He didn’t have to de-genderize—there were no women in ministry then.)
But there’s a lot more to ministry than preaching, as important as that aspect it. It takes years to fire those thoughts in the kiln of all the deaths, divorces, disagreements and daily routine…the counseling, the committee meetings and concerns with current events.
My friend and colleague Jack Mendelsohn offers a simple truism: ‘good ministers and good congregations create one another.’ I’ve been fortunate to serve three congregations who have helped me to pass my life ‘through the fire of thought.’ I’ve been the beneficiary of a lot of good ears.
Thomas Friedman wrote an op ed when George Bush was about to go to Europe this winter which he titled Read My Ears. He was contrasting what the earlier president Bush had said: ‘read my lips.’ He said that the president’s task was to convey to our European allies that he is listening to them, that he hears their concerns and criticism.
Friedman wrote, with just a little tongue in cheek:
“Having spent the last 10 days traveling to Britain, France, Germany and Switzerland, I have one small suggestion for President Bush. I suggest that when he comes to Europe to mend fences next month he give only one speech. It should be at his first stop in Brussels and it should consist of basically three words: “Read my ears.”
“Let me put this as bluntly as I can: There is nothing that the Europeans want to hear from George Bush, there is nothing that they will listen to from George Bush that will change their minds about him or the Iraq war or U.S. foreign policy. Mr. Bush is more widely and deeply disliked in Europe than any U.S. president in history. Some people here must have a good thing to say about him, but I haven’t met them yet.
“In such an environment, the only thing that Mr. Bush could do to change people’s minds about him would be to travel across Europe and not say a single word – but just listen. If he did that, Mr. Bush would bowl the Europeans over. He would absolutely disarm and flummox people here – and improve his own image markedly. All it would take for him would be just a few words: “Read my ears. I have come to Europe to listen, not to speak. I will give my Europe speech when I come home – after I’ve heard what you have to say.”
Naturally I thought of Emerson’s allusion to the ‘good ear that can draw supplies to virtue out of very indifferent nutriment.’
Emerson never did talk about the bad ear—the one, for example, he used to listen to the Reverend Barzillai Frost; the ear we all use to find the flaw, to criticize too quickly.
Now let me deal out another piece of my life, which I’ve passed through the fire of thought:
Several years ago I was on a wilderness trip in Montana with a men’s group. We were on horseback—the pack mules carried all our stuff—the tents and food and so forth. The horses carried us.
One day the outfitter, Tom, invited any of us who wanted an adventure to climb a mountain with the horses. A few of the guys decided to stay at the camp and do some fly fishing and as the rest of us were on the horses headed for the trail head John called over to me, “Get what you came for.”
I knew what he meant, but it was a good reminder to be fully present to this experience. His reminder stayed with me and I remember thinking that my father would have loved to have been able to experience something like this, but he never got to do it. So, I thought to myself as we began the day-long trek, I was doing it for him.
It was a memorable day, full of little adventures and surprises. We reached the peek at about noon and had our lunch sitting on rocks above the tree line and the weather suddenly changed—the wind whipped up, the clouds moved in, and on that August day it started to snow up there. We decided to move back down the mountain but before we did Watts Wacker asked me to say Chief Yellow Lark’s prayer. So, with the wind whipping around I said:
“O Great Spirit whose voice I hear in the winds, hear me. I come before you one of your many children, I am small and weak, I need your strength and wisdom. Let me walk in beauty and let my eyes ever behold the red and purple sunset. Make my hands respect the things you have made, and my ears sharp to hear your voice. Make me wise so that I may understand the things you have taught my people, the lesson you have hidden in every leaf and rock. I seek strength not to be greater than my brother but to fight my greatest enemy, myself. Make me ever ready to come to you with clean hands and straight eyes so that when life fades as a fading sunset my spirit may come to you without shame.”
The Journey, by Mary Oliver
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.
i am running into a new year, Lucille Clifton
i am running into a new year
and the old years blow back
like a wind
that I catch in my hair
like strong fingers like
all my old promises and
it will be hard to let go
of what I said to myself
when I was sixteen and
twenty-six and thirty-six
even forty-six but
i am running into a new year
and I beg what I love and
i leave to forgive me
I was pleased to be present when Lucille Clifton was here at Chautauqua—she offered some powerful pieces. Summer is a time of transition. It has the taste of a new year. We’re always ‘running into a new year,’ holding on to old stuff with those ‘strong fingers,’ so we can’t let go; looking back to old promises and old ideas: ‘it will be hard to let go of what I said to myself when I was forty-six and fifty-six…but I am running into a new year and I beg what I love and I leave to forgive me.’ May this time together today help us to let go of whatever might be holding us back from being who we want to be and who we hope to become in whatever time remains.