This evening I was honored, along with, if I’ve counted correctly, 161 of my ministerial colleagues who have received preliminary or final fellowship, or who have retired this year, and 14 credentialed religious educators and musicians who have received their credentials or have completed full-time service. We also paused to remember the 17 ministers who have died in the last year. It was the Service of the Living Tradition.
This was the 53rd Service of the Living Tradition at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association. This has been going on for my entire life. But in truth, it reaches back for centuries.
If you’re not a Unitarian Universalist (UU), or even if you are, you should know that we have congregational polity. That means that the power is in the people. The people form the congregations. The people call and ordain the ministers. The people, as the congregations, formed the Association, made the by-laws of the Association, and run the business of the Association. The people elect the officers of the Association. So, although my fellowship has come from the Association, and my ordination will come from the congregation, in a sense, fellowship really is from the people, as well, as that is who makes up the Association. It’s from the bottom-up.
When we gather together, as an Association, to do our business, we become like one giant congregation. So it was exciting and wonderful and delightful to have my picture shown up on the big screens (I had Twenty-One-Year-Old take a good picture for just this occasion), to hear my name called, to hear the arena (yes, this all happened in the Dunkin Donuts Arena in Providence, RI) erupt in applause and my own people cheer out loud, and to walk across the stage/chancel and shake hands with the appropriate dignitaries. As it happens, the current President of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, the final dignitary in the line, is a minister who serves my home congregation and one I’ve known for many years. So that wasn’t so much a handshake as a bonus hug.
I was thrilled to be there (did I mention that? I feel like I might have mentioned that, and yet, I keep wanting to say that), so happy to be walking with so many of my friends who had also received preliminary fellowship (and a few who received final fellowship). But amidst the joy, there was weightiness, too.
OK, Hebrew time-out: This is where I need to tell you that the Hebrew word for “honor” or “glory” is “kavod” which also means “heavy” — honor/glory is weighty. And there was definitely a weightiness to this. I think it’s brilliant that we honor all the significant passages of ministry in this one service. Most ministers will be honored in this service four times in our lives – in preliminary fellowship, final fellowship, when we retire, and when we die. Some of us might never achieve final fellowship. Some of us will die before we have the chance to retire. This was driven home this past year when a colleague died after a freak accident a few months ago. Seeing her picture on the screen reminded us of the fragility and uncertainty of life.
I was also reminded that I stand on many great shoulders. Ministry wasn’t invented with me and it won’t end with me. At the service of ordination, a minister offers the right hand of fellowship to the newly ordained minister. This is meant to symbolize the long line of ministers who stand behind, beside, and before the new minister. We are in this together. And this evening, I was in this together, with so many colleagues.
We worshipped. Oh, and the preacher this evening? Rev. Rebekah Montgomery – a colleague from my own local ministers’ association chapter, and, oh yeah, an Army chaplain who did happen to be, if I’m not mistaken, the chaplain of the year not too long ago. She rocks. We worshipped. She preached.
Once upon a time, all the ministers processed in to the service together – but remember that congregational polity thing I mentioned? A few years ago that changed. I was called up (we all were) from the congregation. I was sitting with my people, and I walked up from the congregation to take my place on the stage/chancel.
Ministry can be lonely, but, as the hymn says, “How can I be lonely? My friends are all around me? Their loving arms surround me. Day is a breaking in my soul.”
We are blessed.
That’s all I’ve got. That’s my mite.