When we’re young we long to be older. We look forward to things, looking into the future with a youthful sense of hopefulness, anticipation, excitement. The future holds so many opportunities.
I especially remember looking forward to my 16th birthday—then I could get my coveted driver’s license!
Before that birthday I had already bought my first car—a blue ’50 Ford coupe that had been in an accident. I got it for $75 and went to junk yards for front-end parts to fix it up. It was ready before that big birthday. I was ready!
That car was the closest I’ve ever come to idolatry! I loved it more than anyone should ever love an inanimate object. But, to me, that ’50 Ford coupe had qualities associated with active, living organisms.
My ’50 Ford coupe was my first ‘room of my own.’ It was freedom personified. It was a friend I could go to and be with. With my friend—this inanimate car—I could explore the world, or at least that which was within a 200 mile or so radius. And I could explore myself because the time I spent with the car, alone, with my girl friend, or a group of friends, took me deeper inside.
So, I loved my ’50 Ford coupe out of all balanced proportion, and, as the story goes, it came to a sad, abrupt end when I foolishly let a friend take it.
I was playing tennis in the high school court next to the parking lot. Peter McMahan, our high school principal’s son, asked if he could use my car to go get Jimmie Day, so we could play a foursome.
I watched in horror as Peter drove it out of the high school parking lot…well, not quite ‘out’ of the parking lot! He wrapped it around a telephone pole trying to burn rubber as he threw a shift into second gear. Bang!
It was a death I’ve never really accepted; I’ve had an unreasonable, purely emotional wish to replace it! I’ve actually looked at lots of ’50 Ford coupes, but every time I get in and sit behind the wheel I realize this is not my car, not my ’50 Ford. That ’50 Ford has a place in my bones—it could never be replaced.
The next day the principal called me into his office, sat me down and said, “Peter wrecked your car and he’s going to pay for a replacement, which you and I will go and buy today.”
We went to a car dealer in town and there was, indeed, a 1950 Ford in good condition. It was a four door, faded maroon, with a muffler that was so quiet no one could hear you pull into the school parking lot. “An old lady’s car,” I said to myself. But I accepted it. I was too depressed to care.
But I was saying before that beautiful blue ’50 Ford drove up with her dual exhausts, when we’re young we long to be older. When we’re young we also have an uncanny ability to be in the moment, as if eternity was wrapped up in it, as if time stopped or didn’t exist.
We magnify small losses out of all proportion and no amount of reasoning can convince us that the world didn’t just come to an end because the Peter wrecked your car, or we didn’t make the team; or she didn’t say yes; or the college said no.
The accumulation of years tends to flatten those roller coaster emotions until we begin to fear that the road ahead is all prairie!
When I was young I loved going to church. The first church I remember is the First Congregational in West Medford, Ma. We lived around the corner, which was the only denominational criteria my parents had for choosing it.
There’s a photograph of four of my brothers and me at an Easter service being baptized together. We were all dressed up.
I loved church, though I never really understood the colored maps in the Bible I got in the third grade—I wasn’t at all sure they were real, geographical places, or just religious things, which were, of course, completely separate from the real world of geography. There wasn’t much connection between the Bible and the real world, or between church on Sunday and the rest of the week in all the other down-to-earth places.
I loved getting my Bible at the end of third grade—it had my name engraved in gold letters on the front. I was crestfallen when I realized that I’d never be able to read that Bible from cover to cover, from Genesis to Revelations. I was, however, able to memorize lots of Psalms.
When I came home from church at the end of the 7th grade with a perfect attendance certificate my mother said, “So that’s where you’ve been on Sunday mornings!” No joke. When you’re one of eight kids you can do almost anything you want without being noticed.
Religion—the church—was a safe place, separate from the day-to-day realities, and I loved it.
I was the only one in the family to stick with it. I got an award in that 7th grade class for memorizing the most Psalms. The prize was an ID bracelet which I prized in a way that was similar to the way I would come to idolize the ’50 Ford. The silver-chained ID bracelet with my name engraved on front and ‘First Prize’ engraved on back, came to an ignominious end—I lost it.
Dr. Gray was the minister of the Congregational church in Woburn, where I got that ID bracelet, and one day, when I was taking my turn ringing the bell, riding the long rope up and allowing it to pull me off the floor, he said, “Frank, have you ever thought of becoming a minister?”
I remember the moment and the turmoil it raised in me when I thought to myself, “If he really knew me he wouldn’t ask! He thinks I’m good! But there are things he doesn’t know about me. If he really knew me…”
It’s not that we were told we were sinners. I don’t recall any discussion of sin and salvation, any talk of hell and damnation during my Sunday school years. It’s just that I, personally, thought of myself as ‘not good,’ the way ministers, at least, are supposed to be good.
I don’t remember any talk of sin, but I do remember talk about Jesus who taught about goodness…about being good…about doing good. I do remember that Jesus was very special. He was good. Ministers should be like he was.
Indeed, ministers, church, religion, the Bible and so forth were in that special category, separate from down-to-earth, day-to-day life. Real life was different; in real life people aren’t so polite—they yell at one another, and fight, and want to get even. They have wars. The second world war had just ended, and we were doing ‘duck and cover’ drills in school in preparation for a big bomb to drop near us.
So I didn’t think of myself as being good, the way a minister should be. I don’t know what I said to Dr. Gray. He set wheels turning.
I did think of myself as different, or unusual, out-of-the-ordinary. But not special in the way ministers and church were special.
I had a wonderful, exciting, challenging childhood. First of all, I enjoyed it tremendously, including school. School was easy and fun. What was also fun was the thing people called work.
Work was the opportunity to earn money, to have your own money that you could hide in a book in which you cut pages and made a hole.
Very early on I came to realize, quite consciously, that the money wasn’t the only thing, the only reason to work. I realized that there was a built-in reward, a feeling of pride, a sense of self-respect, and the respect you got from other, older people, like your big brothers and parents, and the woman whose walk you shoveled when you were eight years old and she said, “What a wonderful job—I didn’t think you could do it!”
I remember shoveling that walk and getting $.50 for the job. I remember how proud I felt and after going home to warm up I was ready to go find more work.
I came to realize early on that the money wasn’t the only thing, or even the most important thing about work.
There’s a book I’m planning to write about this, about work, so I won’t belabor the point now. And I won’t go through every detail that led to my decision to do this work which I’ve been doing for the past 30 years.
Suffice it to say that I came to realize that I could not be a Christian minister, in part because of the theology that was I was expected to embrace and preach, but on a deeper level because a traditional Christian minister is ‘good,’ in a special way…in a way that seemed to take him or her out of the ordinary, down-to-earth, day-to-day world in which I always felt fully immersed, and which I loved in those early, formative years, and still love today.
I was fortunate to teach at Wellesley High School for seven years during the turbulent uncertain 60’s, which was the perfect preparation for Unitarian ministry. During that time my children Susan and Jonathan were born.
Bill Rice was minister of the Unitarian Church in Wellesley and he encouraged me to make the leap. I had been the advisor to the high school youth group for a few years and Bill said, “Frank, you should be a minister. I want you to think about it.”
When I told Bill that my theology wasn’t right, that I didn’t believe in God, he responded with a gentle compassion saying, “Well, you’re going to spend the rest of your life with that one.”
Bill was my first mentor in ministry, but like the ’50 Ford coupe and the ID bracelet, he came to an abrupt end.
Bill got me to preach my first sermon during my first year in seminary, in February 1970, and he sat in the pew as I conducted the service and delivered an eight-minute sermon on which I’d labored for over 30 hours. Two days later, to my shock and everyone’s surprise, Bill died. What a loss!
A week or so after Bill’s death I was at a Mass Bay District Annual meeting in the Winchester Unitarian church basement, the first Unitarian church I attended several years before. Sitting across the dinner table from me was Herb Adams who offered me a job as his assistant at Follen Church in Lexington.
On April 1, 1970, I began my ministry as Herb’s assistant at Follen Church, moving the family into the parsonage on Mass Ave, next to the wonderful little octagon church where Ralph Waldo Emerson had preached his final sermons, as a pulpit-supply minister for three years after leaving his full-time pulpit in Boston, and before taking up the pen full time.
I spent nearly two and one half years in Lexington with a monthly salary of $500 and the parsonage, which was a godsend.
Herb Adams, senior minister at Follen, was completing a doctorate at Harvard, cutting his work at the church to part-time. He was more than my boss—Herb became my friend and my most important mentor. More than any other person, Herb encouraged me to be myself. In fact, he demanded it of me. He still does, thirty years later.
I was influenced and encouraged by the people who filled the pews in that congregation. I’ve told you about Ruth Codier who confronted me and wrestled with me, and when I graduated seminary and left Ruth wrote me the poem:
Some couldn’t stand me.
You stood me.
It may be
because you stood me
I’m more standable.
Another influence came from Sandborn Brown, who was Dean of Students at MIT during my years at Follen. I had a great deal of respect and admiration for Sandy, who was an active member of the congregation. One Sunday, after I had preached, Sandy took me aside and said: “You know, Frank, this morning when you lifted up your head from the sermon and told the story about your grandmother I was very moved, and that’s why I come to church. I don’t need academic lectures, I get enough of that. I need something for my spirit…”
I remember that moment and I remember wishing that this was, indeed, what I could do…that I could give myself permission to speak from the heart…that I could give myself permission to share these heart-felt things from the pulpit…that this would be appropriate.
I wanted to believe it, but it took awhile. The seed had been planted, and before long I read these lines from Emerson’s Divinity School Address, his parting words to new graduates:
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 country; or any fact of his biography. It seemed strange that the people should come to church. It seemed as if their houses were very unentertaining…
These are a few of my mentors: Bill Rice; Herb Adams; Ruth Codier; Sandy Brown; Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Then came the poets, and an accumulation of what has become my sacred writings—my Bible. It took awhile for me to realize that sacred writings are simply those things which speak to the deeper part of you—that dig deep and help form and reform and heal the wounds; words that inspire and demand an inner response.
Robert Frost has lots of places in my personal bible. Most of what I’ve learned in my thirty years of ministry can be summarized in his wonderful poem, Mending Wall:
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or herd them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance;
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more;
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there,
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
What have I learned so far, in my thirty years?
I know that each of the men in Frost’s poem makes an important point, neither is wrong, both are right.
For example, I’ve learned that ministers, and women, and men, and children, have to have clear boundaries, which is what that wall represents.
I’ve learned that we sometimes carelessly tear down those boundaries, pulling stones away to get the rabbit out of hiding, to please some yelping dog-of-the-moment, and we have to go back and mend that wall.
As a minister I need to take the responsibility to walk the line—to keep the wall between us as we go, and to make repair. Ah, to make repair! What an important, even sacred task…this task of forgiveness!
I’ve learned that I can’t come across and pick up the stones that have fallen on your side! “To each the boulders that have fallen to each.”
But you can let me know when you’d like to meet, and ‘on a day we meet to walk the line.’ That’s the essence of pastoral counseling, or sometimes simply chatting during a social gathering.
I know, too, that our father’s sayings have wisdom and we ignore them at our peril. He likes having thought of his father’s saying so well he only repeats it! I think of that line when I hear my colleagues reading lines from their Scriptures.
There are, of course, deep truths in the Bible, and the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching and the Koran, as well as the poems.
I’ve learned that criticism of me, of my work, of my efforts, should always be heard…listened to, carefully, and where an apology is necessary, or repair is called for, I should do it now, and not defer or neglect it, for I may not have another chance. We spend a lot of time and energy mending walls! It’s important work.
I’ve learned that there’s something sacred in this work we call ministry, and sometimes it sneaks in almost unnoticed; and sometimes it’s as apparent and as demanding as helping a couple to prepare their wedding ceremony, hoping to help them make a connection to the commitment they are making…the bridge between wedding and marriage!
I’ve learned that there’s something sacred about death and about the grief that accompanies it, and that paying attention to the details around that is central to this task of ministry, central to the task of life!
I’ve learned that there are deep truths in all the world’s religions and that our Unitarian Universalist faith, while it suits me just fine, isn’t for everyone. If we’re not careful we can make the same unacceptable claim that we reject when we hear it from others—that ours is better or best, that we’re the chosen few.
In preparing this sermon I recalled a question put to me sixteen years ago by a member of the search committee, a question which took me by surprise. He said, “Frank, what do you fear?” Without hesitating I responded, “That I’ll lose it.” I learned that my fear of ‘losing it’ is illustrated perfectly in the loss of my ID bracelet the summer after the 7th grade. It’s like a line from a poem: I had memorized Psalms in church and that bracelet represented this part of my identity, who I was and wanted to be. And I lost it!
Most of all I’ve learned to pace myself and not try to fit everything in to a single sermon, which this is threatening to do, so I’ll stop.