Opening words: Henri Nouwen, Catholic priest and author of 40 books on spirituality…
“When we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”
We’re here this morning to be reminded…to be inspired; to remember those who have ‘been there’ for us when we needed a caring, listening ear…and to be encouraged to do the same.
We’ve all had mentors.
The word mentor comes from Homer’s poem, The Odyssey. Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, has a wise advisor named Mentor, who is a friend to Odysseus.
If you trace the root of the word mentor you will come across the Sanskrit, ‘on who thinks,’ and the Latin monitor, ‘one who admonishes.’ You’ll find a link to the word ‘mind,’ and see the connection to words like ‘spirit, intent, purpose and passion.’
That’s what I want to write about…those who encouraged me to ‘think with passion.’
Mentors come in a wide variety – most of them are not intentional mentors, but they’re people who influence us; people who come into our lives and have a significant impact on us. Sometimes we’re not even aware of that influence until years later, and they may be long gone, but their influence remains.
For example, I’ve mentioned my first grade teacher, Mrs. Harrington, from Gleason School in Medford, MA. There’s a lot I could say about her influence on me – the first adult outside of my family whose impact remains to this day.
I’ve told you about the day in the spring of first grade – that was in 1947 – when Mrs. Harrington opened the window with that long pole and said, “Now, Frank, do you see that woman,” and she pointed to a woman standing by a graveside in the cemetery that abutted the school, “I want you to read to her.” I read, projecting my voice, and when I finished she said, “See, class, that’s how it’s done.”
That’s what I mean by ‘mentoring.’
It’s also a wonderful metaphor: she opened the window; she opened something in me and invited me to get in touch with it…it wasn’t only about reading out loud and projecting my voice…it was about something inside…something about my self-confidence; something about my sense of self-esteem…something about what I later would read in Emerson’s essay on Self-Reliance where he said, “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.”
He said, “There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better for worse as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.”
Clearly, Emerson has been one of my mentors. About ministry he said, in his Divinity School Address: “The office of the true preacher is this, that he deals out his life to the people, life passed through the fire of thought.”
That was the genesis of my Dear Friends letter – the message in every newsletter since I took up the work of this ministry 29 years ago, and which I had been doing for twelve years in Attleboro.
It was encouraged by an experience I had one Sunday morning when I was assistant to the minister in Lexington while I was in seminary. Sandborn Brown, dean of students at MIT and a respected member of the Follen Church congregation, approached me after a sermon and asked if he could talk to me. He said, gently but firmly, “This morning, when you lifted your head from the sermon and told us about your grandmother, I was touched,” and he pointed to his heart, and then he said, still pointing to his heart, “This is why I come to church on Sunday,” and then, pointing to his head he added, “…not this.”
Some mentoring is brief – it cuts to the chase, as they say.
So, when I had my own congregation, I carried Sandy Brown’s mentoring, his ‘admonishment,’ with me, and it combined with Emerson’s admonishment…urging… encouragement…to ‘deal out my life, passed through the fire of thought…’
After one of my early Dear Friends letters I got a note from Herb Adams – actually I got the letter back with a note scribbled on it.
I had ‘dealt out to the people’ some incident or other and then I explained what it meant, and Herb circled my explanation and wrote his critique, saying something like: “Just tell the story and let them attach their own meaning…” Something like that. Later, in a conversation, he said, “I suppose if you didn’t tell them what it meant they would not have been able to get it on their own.”
Later, we talked at length about what was behind his suggestion, his critique.
Herb was the minister at Follen Church in Lexington and he hired me to be his assistant when I was in my first year of seminary. We worked together for two and a half years and he was the most important, significant mentor and friend I’ve ever had.
A good friend is a built-in mentor, helping us to know ourselves ‘more moderately.’ (There’s a line in Peter Shafer’s play, Equus, where the psychiatrist is reporting to the court about the boy he’s treating: “…he doesn’t have one friend, no one to help him to know himself more moderately.”
A mentor is one who helps us to know ourselves ‘more moderately.’
I mentioned Mrs. Harrington who ‘opened the window’ to my self-reliance, ala Emerson, and Herb Adams who was an official kind of mentor to start with, since I was his assistant…
Now I’ll mention an unintentional mentor, the Rev. Bob Saunders, who was minister of the Congregational Church where I was active during my last two years of college, when I had been recently married and was volunteering as youth advisor and he asked me if I’d considered seminary, to become a minister. I gave it deep and thoughtful consideration and I asked to meet with him and when I told him about my notion that the Apostle’s Creed was metaphor, explaining what I meant, he said, “You sound like a Unitarian.”
It was good-but-back-handed advice, which is a kind of mentoring-by-disagreeing. It’s how I found out that I was and am a Unitarian – but you already know that.
I listened to two Unitarian ministers – Bob Storer in Winchester, MA and Jack Mendelsohn at Arlington Street Church. Yup…I’m one of them. When I heard Bob Storer in Winchester – the first Unitarian Church I ever attended – Bob Sander’s accusation was confirmed. Later I heard about Jack Mendelsohn and sat in the pews at Arlington Street Church – they both became mentors, of a sort, without knowing me, personally.
Later I got involved in the Unitarian Church in Wellesley where I was living as well as teaching in the high school there – again I was working with the youth, and the minister, Bill Rice, was more direct with me…he said to me, “Frank, you should be a minister.”
We had known each other for two or three years by then, so it didn’t come out of the blue, but it illustrates another aspect of mentoring – a directness that cuts to the chase, as we say.
One thing led to another and I left teaching, went to seminary with Bill’s help and direct advice, encouragement and support, so in December of my first year of seminary he called me on the phone one night and said, “It’s time for you to give a sermon…how does February 8 sound?” I spent the next two months working on that sermon; February 8 came faster than usual, Bill was sitting in the pew and it turned out to be the last sermon he ever heard…he died after a fall on the ice at his vacation home in Francestown, NH.
I’ve never gotten over the feeling – the hope, really – that what I’ve been doing in ministry Bill would have his approval, that he was right in his assertion that ‘I should be a minister.’ I still have his clerical robes, though I haven’t been wearing a robe (except for Christmas eve) for many years…but the robes, which his family gave to me, saying he would ‘want me to have them,’ serves as a symbol of his mentoring to me…a huge, huge gift I treasure with a significant sense of responsibility.
I could name dozens of Unitarian Universalist ministers who have been mentors to me over these 43 years; the men and women of the Greenfield Group, a study group of which I was a member for nearly 40 years; and UU ministers I’ve met and worked with on the district level, whose friendship and forgiveness has fed and nurtured me year after year.
Now I want to name the Unitarian minister for whom I have the highest regard – my favorite minister, and one whom I regret not telling you more about over these years together: Theodore Parker. I’ve mentioned him from time to time, but in looking back, I think I failed to do justice to Parker.
Let me give you a quick thumbnail sketch of this most remarkable man, model and mentor:
Theodore Parker is universally admired, not only by Unitarian Universalists, but as one of the most influential figures in American history – he remains a model of prophetic ministry.
Parker was involved in and actively engaged in with just about every social reform movement of his time.
He was born into a large family in 1810 and by age 27 he had suffered the loss of seven siblings as well as both parents – his mother died when he was 12. He lived a little less than fifty years – dying in Florence, Italy with T.B. But he had a tremendous influence in the world.
He was active in the peace movement of his day (he openly denounced the Mexican war referring to it as ‘an infamous atrocity.’) He preached and wrote about concerns about education at all levels, especially with regard to the underprivileged; he was an outspoken advocate of women’s rights, preached about his concerns around poverty and prison reform, which he linked, and most especially he was fiercely involved in the abolition movement leading up to the Civil War.
He denounced the Fugitive Slave Act and openly defied it by helping runaway slaves find freedom here or finding refuge in Canada, working on the underground railway. His abolitionism was the most controversial political stance, but even more controversial was his religious stance.
Parker’s most well-known sermon, delivered in 1841, when he was 31 years old, was titled: A Discourse on the Permanent and Transient in Christianity, in which he said flat out that the scriptures of historic Christianity did not reflect the truth.
The Rev. David Parke, who is in the congregation this morning, edited a book of original writings by and about Unitarians 1957; he wrote in the Foreword to a book, which he titled The Epic of Unitarianism, “This book is based on three premises about history—that it is exciting, that it is important for an understanding of the present, and that it is best told in the ORIGINAL WORDS of those who made it… what is more stirring in any age than the surge of freedom in a man when new truth breaks through or when conscience shows a more excellent way? It is my aim in this book to record these ‘surges of freedom’ in the original writings which they inspired.”
An example of what David meant is this passage from Parker’s sermon:
“Looking at the Word of Jesus, at real Christianity, the pure religion he taught, nothing appears more fixed and certain. Its influence widens as light extends ; it deepens as the nations grow more wise. But, looking at the history of what men call Christianity, nothing seems more uncertain and perishable.
“While true religion is always the same thing, in each century and every land, in each man that feels it, the Christianity of the Pulpit, which is the religion taught the Christianity of the People, which is the religion that is accepted and lived out ; has never been the same thing in any two centuries or lands, except only in name. The difference between what is called Christianity by the Unitarians in our times, and that of some ages past, is greater than the difference between Mahomet and the Messiah. The difference at this day between opposing classes of Christians the difference between the Christianity of some sects, and that of Christ himself ; is deeper and more vital than that between Jesus and Plato, Pagan as we call him.
“Anyone, who traces the history of what is called Christianity, will see that nothing changes more from age to age than the doctrines taught as Christian, and insisted on as essential to Christianity and personal salvation. What is falsehood in one province passes for truth in another. The heresy of one age is the orthodox belief and “only infallible rule” of the next. Now Arius, and now Athanasius is Lord of the ascendant. Both were excommunicated in their turn, each for affirming what the other denied. Men are burned for professing what men are burned for denying.”
At the risk of over-simplifying, he said that everything that is thought of as permanent features of Christianity are in truth transient, but what is in fact true and permanent in Christianity is simply what is ‘immutably’ true in the universe…thus marrying science and religion, as we would say today.
He was vilified for this sermon, not only by the orthodox preachers of his day, but by his fellow Unitarians, with whom he became persona non grata – a most unwelcome colleague, a person to be shunned.
He ‘stressed the immediacy of God,’ and he saw Jesus as ‘the supreme expression of God.’ He rejected the miracles attributed to Jesus and believed the Bible was full of contradictions and mistakes. He had his personal faith in God but suggested that we experience God intuitively, as Emerson stressed…it was personal and couldn’t really be expressed in unchanging creedal statements. He thought that ‘individual experience was where people should center their religious beliefs.’
In a speech about democracy delivered in 1850, Parker used the phrase, “…of all the people, by all the people, for all the people;” which Lincoln later used at Gettysburg.
Predicting the inevitable success of the abolition of slavery Parker said:
“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”
Those words were paraphrased by Martin Luther King, Jr in 1967 in his speech, “Where Do We Go From Here?” King said, “The arc of the Moral Universe is long, but It bends toward Justice.” (President Obama remodeled the oval office including a carpet with five quotations, two of which were paraphrases from Theodore Parker.)
Betty Friedan opened her 1963 book The Feminine Mystique with words Parker penned in 1853:
“The domestic function of the woman does not exhaust her powers… To make one half of the human race consume its energies in the functions of housekeeper, wife and mother is a monstrous waste of the most precious material God ever made.”
I might have mentioned William Ellery Channing and his protégé, Charles Follen; Channing is considered the father of Unitarianism in America; Follen a fierce abolitionist…so fierce, in fact, that upon his untimely death a place for his memorial service could not be found, until Rev. Samuel May was finally able to hold a memorial service for Charles Follen in March 1840 at the Marlborough Chapel
Now, as I think about my 29 years with you, I find myself confronted by what I didn’t do, what I failed to say. I tell myself not to ‘go there,’ as we like to say, but it’s inevitable that I continue to be my biggest critic…at least I think I’ve been my own biggest critic, but, of course, I’m not privy to all the criticism, thank God.
My life has been blessed with a loving family, an abundance of friends, and teachers like Mrs. Harrington and so many of the others…all through elementary school and middle and high school, college and seminary…
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the mentoring I received from the poets…one of whom is E. B. White who wrote a poem for his wife shortly before his retirement – he had been traveling a lot and looked forward to being at home with her. He wrote a poem he called Natural History:
The spider, dropping down from twig,
Unfolds a plan of her devising,
A thin premeditated rig
To use in rising.
And all that journey down through space,
In cool descent and loyal hearted,
She spins a ladder to the place
From where she started.
Thus I, gone forth as spiders do
In spider’s web a truth discerning,
Attach one silken thread to you
For my returning.
You have had mentors and models in your life – I hope that you will find ways to express your appreciation to them, if they’re still around, or tell others about them, which is the most obvious aspect of immortality – the influence lives on and, in some ways, it adds its own color and flavor to eternity.