Last summer I gave a lecture in the Hall of Philosophy at the Chautauqua Institute as part of a series on ethics. The talk, which I called, Humor as a Moral Imperative, suggested that a well-developed sense of humor is a serious ethical responsibility.
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. I’ve been working on those lectures.
I thought of Emerson’s charge to the graduating class of seminarians at Harvard Divinity School in 1838 in which he said, “The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life–life passed through the fire of thought.” I titled the series, “Through the Fire of Thought.”
At a new members’ meeting last Saturday several of those present told me how important it has been for them to find a place where they are encouraged to grow, spiritually, without being told they had to say they believe certain things—only that they believe in themselves and respect the same need in others.
I expressed my appreciation for the reassurance such comments bring—and I readily admit that I continue to need such reassurance. The initial response to my confession was incredulity—as if they couldn’t believe that I would doubt the value of my sermons, and of our Sunday services in general. Without dwelling on it, I told them that I have my doubts, and from time to time something essential seems to slip from my grasp.
Reflecting on the meeting later in the day I recalled a surprise question from the search committee that interviewed me here twenty-one years ago. It seemed to come out of the blue—it certainly wasn’t a question I’d given a moment of conscious thought: “Frank, what are you afraid of?”
Without missing a beat I responded, “Oh, that I’ll lose it.”
I didn’t know, then, where that answer came from, though I had been doing professional ministry for fifteen years. A professional athlete knows there will come a time when he will lose it—no more home runs. Professional pilots have to retire at an early age—you can’t wait for the necessary evidence! But what does it mean for a Unitarian minister to lose it? Lose what?
Earlier in Emerson’s graduation lecture to those Harvard Divinity students he said, “The spirit only can teach. Not any profane man, not any sensual, liar, not any slave can teach, but only he can give, who has; he only can create, who is. The man (sic) on whom the soul descends, through whom the soul speaks, alone can teach. Courage, piety, love, wisdom, can teach; and every man can open his door to these angels, and they shall bring him the gift of tongues. But the man who aims to speak as books enable, as synods use, as the fashion guides, and as interest commands, babbles. Let him hush.”
Every person can open the door to ‘those angels’ as Emerson called them. That means you, too. “There’s a good ear, in some men, that draws supplies to virtue out of very indifferent nutriment.” Inspiration is two-way street, from the pulpit to the pew, and back again. Nurture that spirit. Listen with a good ear to draw supplies to virtue from whatever nutriment comes your way.