An Exhalation on Ministry

(This is the “exhortation” I delivered on Sunday afternoon 1/26 at First Congregational Church of Long Beach for the installation of Rev. Elena Larssen as the new pastor.)

An Exhalation on Ministry

One of my very favorite poems was composed by that lowest-case of all poets, ee cummings:

maggie and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach(to play one day)
and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles,
and milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;
and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles:and
may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.
For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea

If Maggie and Millie and Molly and May go down to Long Beach to play today, they will meet a wonderful woman by the name of Reverend Elena Larssen, who is very happy to be by the sea, after being far, far away from it for a long, long time. And in Elena they will find a highly polished mirror reflecting their souls back to them, helping them to find out who they really are.

Is this not the work of ministry to which Elena has been called, and in which all of us are moved to participate, whether clergy or lay, by the voice of the Christ within us? To help people find themselves. Not just the self that seems to be obvious – the ego, the personality, the name, the social identity. What others say we are, whether or not it’s really true. Elena’s work is to reveal to people the Self that is the core of their being. The self that manifests through individuation, but wells up from the transpersonal divinity that is the source and center of the cosmos. The Self that is who we really are, yet seems so elusive, lost to us in the deceptive haze of opinions and prejudices and projections.

The sea is a mystery. It’s a desert. Save but for the dark pinpricks of distant ships or gyring birds, it is a great emptiness that clears away our pretenses. It washes away our preconceptions. Its waves grind to sand our edifices of pride. It hides power and energy below its surface.

In this story from the gospel of John, that most mystical of gospels, Jesus stands on the beach. Dark mysteries writhe and surge below the waves. Jesus knows what moves under the water. He sees the unseen. He tells his friends where to drop the net. They follow his instructions and pull up a huge haul of fish. The sea is the realm of the unconscious. The waves are our fears. The Christ is the One within us who calms the waves and casts out the fear and enables us to find what we need to find below the surface. The pastor leads the people to the Christ who lives already at the center of their souls.

The people of First Congregational Church of Long Beach cast out their net, hoping to haul in a good pastor. They followed the subtle voice of the Christ as best they could. They came up with a really, really good catch. I can vouch for that. I’ve known Elena since she was 15 years old, a summer camper at UCC Camp Cazadero in northern California, when I was the high school camp co-director and chaplain. She had a soulful gaze that could look right through you, even then. She sought to plumb the mysteries, even then. And then she got the urge to clerge. After seminary, she took the job I left at Stanford as the ecumenical Protestant campus minister. She guided Stanford students as they sought the spots to cast their nets in the sea. She helped them see in the darkness, she helped them bring life to light.

It’s always ourselves we find in the sea. We find that Self, quite often, by unfinding. By recognizing what is not who we really are. When you go to the beach, you have to leave a lot behind. Half the fun of it is reducing your belongings to what fits in a wicker basket, and wearing as little clothing as possible. And when you get into the water, there’s no carrying the wicker basket. Or even the flip-flops. Is this not the work of ministry – the work of pastoring? To teach people to swim – to move freely and joyfully in the waters of the soul, unburdened by all the baggage of habit and culture. To help people shed their assumptions, drop their dead dogma on the sand, and soak up the sun of love and peace and total acceptance?

The disciples went from being fishers of fish to being fishers of women and men to being fishers of fish once again, after the death of Jesus. A person’s gotta eat, after all. Jesus understood that. Let the people eat. All the people. Not just the 1%. He helped his friends fish so that there would be fish to spread around to the 99%. Is this not the work of ministry – Elena’s calling – not just to preach justice, as Jesus did, but to make justice real, as Jesus did? To press faithfully for social and political change, so that everyone will have food on the table? Elena takes this work of justice ministry seriously, as does this congregation. When we know who we really are, when we know who we really aren’t, when we shed ourselves of all that gets in love’s way – then we know we are here not just for our selfish selves. We’re here for each other. That means changing the system so that the needs of all are met, no matter what.

So I have not come so much to exhort you, Elena, as to exhale with you. A sigh of relief that you’re back at the beach, that you have been hauled up in Christ’s fishing net to serve this church, that you have found such a wonderful place to be a fisher of women, of men, of fish, and of God.

Elena and you, Elena and me, it’s always ourselves that we find at the sea….. ahhhh and amen!

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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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