And I Have Dealt with Presences

Whatever else it has all been about, these past sixteen years with you, these past forty-three or more years of ministry — whatever else it has been about it has been about Presences.

The word called out to me as I read through the text of the hymn I chose to follow this final sermon. I love the tune for the hymn. “Jerusalem.” It has always conjured up rows of uniformed schoolboys at Eton or Harrow or some such place singing at candlelit Vespers in clear unchanged voices singing of England’s green and pleasant land. But the text to the tune in our hymnbook is not William Blake’s ode to England’s green and pleasant land but the poet Don Marquis’ words of love for life,

Have I not known the sky and sea

Put on a look as hushed and stilled

As if some ancient prophecy drew close upon to be fulfilled?

Like mist the houses shrink and swell,

Like blood the highways throb and beat,

The sapless stones beneath my feet

Turn foliate with miracle.

And life and death but one thing are–

And I have seen this wingless world cursed with impermanence

and whirled like dust across the summer swirled,

And I have dealt with Presences behind the walls of Time and Place

And I have seen this world starbright,

Shining wonderful in space.

“And I have seen this world starbright, Shining wonderful in space.” Remarkable words of a vision of the blue orb of earth from space — a spectacle we would not see for decades after Marquis’ death.

But the words that beckoned me for this morning were, “And I have dealt with Presences behind the walls of Time and Space.” “Presences.” The word does seem to tie it all together.

Perhaps Marquis was familiar with the lines of another poem which has always been especially meaningful to me, Wordsworth’s poem he called, “Lines Composed A Few Miles North of Tintern Abbey.”

And I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,

And the round ocean and the living air,

And the blue sky and the mind of Man

A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thoughts

And rolls through all things.

My earliest sense of spirituality was formed with such ideas of Presence long before I could have recognized them in such words. I felt as a child “a Presence” that disturbed me with joy. My father, no churchman, no friend of God or Christ, sustained that sense in me with his own near-pagan conviction that there is indeed something deeply interfused, blended, indwelling in woods and ocean, rolling through all things.

C. S. Lewis, Christian poet, essayist, weaver of fantasy, had the same early experience of Presence, he writes, “From at least the age of six, romantic longing… had played an unusually central part in my experience. Such longing is in itself the very reverse of wishful thinking: it is more like thoughtful wishing.”

It is out of such “thoughtful wishing” that gods are created, spirits pursued, Presences known behind facades of time and place. “We do not want merely to see beauty,” Lewis wrote, ” . . . we want something else which can hardly be put into words to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.” “That is why,” he says, “we have peopled air and earth and water with gods and goddesses, and nymphs and elves.”

And with fairies.

Lewis said that the world of faerie is perhaps the most potent awakener of longing. He said it stirs and troubles the child, to his advantage, “…with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth.” This was my childhood world, the world of an only child, often alone, led into the depth of spirit–into The Presence; the world made mystery, always promising something more.

Perhaps it was significant that a family name, my paternal grandmother’s maiden name, was “Fairy.”

It was a minister, a Methodist minister, in my adolescence whose preaching and personal presence opened up for me the possibility that my awe and wonder and my dealings with Presence could be shared. What a marvelous life it seemed to be able, to be invited, to share one’s vision of some Sustaining Presence behind Time and Place, no matter how haltingly or imperfectly; to be immersed in a calling in which the wondrous work is to find ways to urge others to move beyond Time and Place, through ordinary days and common places, to be what I called in a sermon twenty years ago, “In the Presence.”

“And I have dealt with Presences…”

Of course, the Presences are elusive, unwilling to be named, difficult, as C. S. Lewis said, to describe, and so there is always something of a pursuit, a wrestling, a “dealing with,” a struggling with that way, that path, that doctrine, theology, declaration of saint or guru which may hold the key to transformation. There were times in my journey when the divine game of “catch me if you can” would frustrate me beyond all patience and I would say, “Alright. The hell with you.” Then a Presence would become the Pursuer, the “Hound of Heaven,” insistent, demanding, provocative.

You’ve heard the name Henry Nelson Wieman many times during our years together. Wieman, the Unitarian theologian. He described God as the Persuader–that which lures all things toward the greatest fulfillment possible for them.

I love the story in the Hebrew Scriptures of the Patriarch of Israel, Jacob, who wrestled through the night with a figure, first described as a man, then an angel, but clearly God, who would not be named. But the figure named Jacob, renamed him, “Israel,” which means, “He who wrestles with God.”

“And I have dealt with Presences.”

My ministry has been a long wrestling with God, carried out publicly, in pulpits and classrooms from Rhode Island, through New England, to this very place. In early times, like many, I demanded “the Name” — the comfort of certainty, the knowledge of truth biblical, theological, and doctrinal. Early on, I preached the Man/God, Christ, served the bread and wine in remembrance of his sacrifice, joyfully sang the hymn that still sometimes wells up from some deep Methodist storehouse in my soul,

O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder

consider all the works thy hand hath made,

I see the stars, I hear the mighty thunder,

Thy power throughout the universe displayed:

And then, as if holding out a thread from that childhood mystery of Presence, in the second verse come these wondrous lines:

When through the woods and forest glades I wander,

and hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees;

when I look down from lofty mountain grandeur,

and hear the brook, and feel the gentle breeze;

But this would not be a place to linger. Walt Whitman wrote, “However sheltered this port, and however calm these waters, you shall not anchor here. You shall sail pathless and wild seas…You will go where winds blow, waves dash, and the Yankee Clipper speeds by under full sail.” Well, that certainly sounded like Unitarian Universalism to me! (And here, given all this of winds and dashing waves, here it would be wonderful to beat to death the metaphor of Moby Dick and Ahab’s struggle with that Presence. But moving right along)

Though Unitarian Universalism seemed to be just passing by as I jumped from Methodism’s sturdy craft (please, block that metaphor), it was clearly the right path for me and Unitarian Universalist, seekers — “wanderers, worshipers, lovers of leaving” — were the right people for me.

After a short tussle, I escaped what Emerson called “The dry bones” of Unitarian Rationalism, beckoned by Presences to the southwestern deserts and mountains. I returned from that sojourn to my Unitarian Universalist congregation transformed by experiences of coyote on the mountain trails, of walking arroyos aware of creatures watching me pass who, only moments before, had stood in the shade of that rock, licking a patch of wet stand. I had encountered Rattler, coiled on my shoe, her fury at my clumsy stomping echoing through the canyon, her head swinging, demanding, warning, slowly relenting, slithering away I think delighted by my sweat and terror. And Eagle soaring, calling to me, “fly with us, fly with us …send your spirit here.”

Presences. Presences behind the walls of Time and Place.

As I said recently in a sermon about preaching, I came in those days to see the mission of preaching to be, not to inform, not to enlighten but to enliven — to call out the Presences by which we come alive.

Throughout my ministry, I have come to believe — more than mere belief, experience — that persons, too, are windows to Presences behind their mere time and behind their mere place. It is one of the rarest privileges of ministry to be with people in their finest hours. It is also a rare privilege, though a more difficult privilege, to be with people during their not-so-finest hours — people, warts and all, who in their wartiness have mirrored the ministerial imperfections.

But, the finest hours:

Hundreds of young (and not so young) couples from whom shone love and devotion, hope and touching conviction that the future was theirs, who stood before me while I applauded their love, cautioned it (this “romance,” I say, will pass into love) and with the “authority vested in me” by state and congregation made them (not one, I have always insisted) but one in intent and one in spirit.

There are undoubtedly couples here this morning with whom I shared this joy (the first, shortly after I arrived, Emilu Bailes and Gerald Robison). These couples abide with me, not all as individual names and faces, but as Presences witnessing to the continuing beauty and stubborn persistence of human love and commitment.

And the Dedication of children. Hundreds. Babies who took firm hold of my finger for the duration, that at best: more than one took remarkably strong and unrelenting fistfuls of beard. Just last week there was Allison, who might well be the last child I welcome into religious community. She slept through it all, though. Sleeping beauty, I tried to wake her with a kiss. She has been a Presence in my Spirit throughout the week standing in for all who came before her, some of them now parents in their own right — Good Lord, a few perhaps even grandparents!

And all the Saints who from all labors rest.

It can be an odd and awesome business.

I remember still standing by a graveside on a hill in a small town in northern Maine a freezing wind cutting through my coat numbing my gloved hands, fanning the pages of my service book. He had been an eccentric, a hermit. There was no family there. No friends. Only the funeral director, his helper, and a couple of gravediggers from the town works. They were off together by the backhoe; smoking and chuckling. I made them come and stand by me. I felt that man. I felt a Presence nearby, not a ghost but a gathered Humanness and I would not have his remains go down alone.

I have done what I could to help some here in their grief, help search among the leavings of a life for the gifts, works, comings and goings, jokes, grumblings and fine, fine hours with their beloved. You may not have thought this (no reason why you should) but the agony of summoning words to soothe the pain of loss has always been far greater than for any Sunday morning sermon. Grief is a Presence so large, so demanding to be addressed, honored, that there is a dread of mere words falling helpless before it.

For years I have begun Memorial Services with the words of the great Spiritual Leader, Howard Thurman

I know I cannot enter all you feel Nor bear with you the burden of your pain;

I can but offer what my love does give:

The strength of caring, The warmth of one who seeks to understand

the silent storm-swept barrenness of so great a loss. This I do in quiet ways,

That on your lonely path You may not walk alone.

It takes the grace of Presences to accept, finally, that that is all that anyone can do.

Birth, marriage, death. Learning together. Sharing laughter. Sharing the pain of the inevitable blows we suffer on our journeys through the dailiness. This, too, is a Presence; a Presence I have felt looming larger over the past few weeks as I have gradually let go of my denial and relented of the postponement of my grief.

I mean all of it.

All of you together and everything that has been. It exists in my soul as a Presence that will remain.

Loving, leaving and letting go. The letting go is very hard. Keeping the love is the easy part.

I’m closing with the last lines of a wonderful poem by Robert Frost. The poem is called “Wild Grapes.” It’s about a girl and her older brother, gathering grapes from a vine entwined in a birch tree. The brother has climbed among the branches to pick and eat the grapes. The girl is too little for the climb. And so the brother bends a branch of the supple birch down to her. She grabs the branch but it is stronger than she, and it lifts her clear off the ground. She struggles and frets until finally brother lowers the branch again and she lets go and drops to the ground.

The poem ends,

I know I looked long at my curled-up fingers,

Before I straightened them and brushed the bark off.

My brother said: “Don’t you weigh anything?

Try to weigh something next time, so you won’t

Be run off with by birch trees into space.”

It wasn’t my not weighing anything

So much as my not knowing anything-

My brother had been nearer right before.

I had not taken the first step in knowledge;

I had not learned to let go with the hands,

As still I have not learned to with the heart,

And have no wish to with the heart–nor need,

That I can see. The mind–is not the heart.

I may yet live, as I know others live,

To wish in vain to let go with the mind–

Of cares, at night, to sleep; but nothing tells me

That I need learn to let go with the heart.