Delivered at Channing Memorial Church, April 18, 2004.
While I was attending seminary, I served as the Director of Religious Education of a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Hayward, California. This part-time position was a true joy. Not only did it give me some extra income, it served as a bridge between my past employment as a preschool teacher and my future vocation as a minister. I worked alongside the parish minister, the Rev. Mark Belletini who continues to be a real mentor for me.
One day, Mark asked if I would be interested in doing a wedding ceremony for a couple who lived in San Francisco. The bride was Jewish and the groom had a Christian background. They wanted an interfaith service and as often is the case in that set of circumstances, a friend had recommended that they try a Unitarian Universalist minister. I was surprised to be given the referral, after all I was not yet ordained nor had I completed my studies. However, as Mark explained my pre-candidate status and my affiliation with a congregation qualified me to officiate.
While in seminary, I had a car that had been owned by several students before me. Legend had it that the original owner was Van Morrison. I never did a title search but given that it was Berkeley after all, and the car was a 1973 Datsun that was bright green or chartreuse, it certainly seemed likely. The car was known as Char (short for Chartreuse) a name she had been given long before my time. As I drove Char over the Bay Bridge to meet with the couple for the first time, I had butterflies fluttering in my stomach. Sure, I had taken a workshop on weddings but what did I have to tell them about marriage, having never been married myself? I reminded myself that Catholic priests remain single and so being married was not a necessary qualification to perform a wedding. Still, I wondered if I was prepared to be a part of such a special event in these people’s lives.
Once I met with the couple in person, all my fears melted away. They were delighted to learn that my parents are also an interfaith couple. We talked about the value of living with both traditions. Instead of a church or synagogue, they planned to be married in their living room surrounded by a few close friends and family members. This was the second marriage for the bride and she wanted to be sure to include her son in the ceremony in some way. As a Unitarian Universalist, I was able to work with them to create a wedding in which each word and action was a reflection of their beliefs and values. In the end the couple was touched to be able to give expression to their beliefs and aspirations for their marriage instead of simply having their names placed into a stale liturgy. This is one of the gifts of Unitarian Universalist ministry that I treasure most, the process of helping people articulate their deepest thoughts and creating a ritual filled with meaning to share with their loved ones.
On the day of the wedding, I put all my papers in order, put my robe in the trunk, and drove Char over the Bay Bridge from Berkeley to San Francisco. As I crossed the bridge, suddenly the butterflies returned in my stomach, only this time they felt more like bats! I suddenly realized that for the first time I was truly stepping into the role of minister. Certainly up to this point I had done lots of ministerial duties such as teaching, preaching, and attending countless committee meetings however during each of those activities I offered my individual perspective. Suddenly, I recognized that I would be putting on the mantle that had been taken up by men and women going far back into ancient times. If this couple had not found me, there would have been someone else standing with them acting in the role of officiant.
I parked Char a block away from their home and put on the emergency brake so she would not slide down the steep San Francisco hill. I remember taking a deep breath and looking at the beautiful magenta bougainvillea blossoming along a fence. I reminded myself that this ceremony was much larger than my contribution to it. Like countless generations before them, this couple was about to vow their love and commitment in the presence of their family and friends. I was not there as Amy Freedman but as a vessel guiding them through the ritual and upholding the sacredness of the event. I was overcome with awe. Taking another deep breath I asked all those who came before me to guide me as I stepped into this timeless role.
The wedding went well. From our gathering in a circle, to the son acting as the ring bearer to the final joyful cry of “Mazel Tov!” as the groom stomped on the wine glass in the Jewish tradition. I have performed many weddings and ceremonies of union since that time, well over fifty now, but I will never forget that first experience of entering into the role of minister. I continue to feel a sense of awe when entering into people’s lives in such a profound way.
“Life is nothing but moments of crossing over.”[i] Even the most ordinary day of our life involves some change and transition. Like Mary Oliver crossing the field of daisies, our lives are blessed through the many experiences that fill our days. As she writes so poignantly, perhaps it is possible that “sometime we will learn everything there is to learn: what the world is, for example, and what it means.” But at this moment, we do not have all the answers. The very not knowing keeps us moving forward, searching, with our minds and hearts open to the spirit of life that surrounds and sustains us.
Each one of us is grounded in our own histories and informed by the environment in which we live. The foundations of our past and our current surroundings have a great influence on us especially when we face the larger transitions of life. Universal life passages include: Birth- Puberty- Marriage- Death. In many religions and cultures, these life stages are honored through rites of passage- rituals that help people through the transition. Even if a person does not have a religious community, when a child is born, when a youth comes of age, when they commit themselves in love, or when a loved one dies, often hold special ceremonies or gatherings are held. When something sacred is sensed, it is important to mark the time. Each moment is a continuation of our days, but when we take the time to respond with “thought or prayer or smile or grief” truly we are touched by the sacredness of life.
The reason that people are often moved to tears in rites of passage is that the beauty and transitory nature of life is brought into focus. I find that there are often as many tears at weddings and child blessings as during Memorial Services. These rituals honor a passage from one state of being to another- birth, child to youth, single to married, alive to the great Mystery beyond.
As I continue to be part of rites of passage, I am increasingly aware that the event is meaningful not only the lives of the people who are most intimately involved but in the wider circle of the gathered community. In fact it is the gathered community that gives a rite of passage meaning. Our greater mobility as a culture means that many of us no longer spend time regularly with our extended families. To be in the company of many generations is a powerful event in and of itself. Children look to their older cousins, aunts, and grandparents for a special kind of love and support. Elders are rejuvenated in the company of the generations to follow and offer stories and words of wisdom. In the company of our friends, the family that we choose for ourselves, in the presence of our religious community or even among a group of people who we have never met before, our lives are touched through their presence. For a community is formed each time more than one person meets for a purpose. The community gathered for a ritual is where we draw strength needed to effect changes inside of us.
Unitarian Universalist minister and author, Robert Fulghum reminds us, “All the stages of life include liminality.” “’Liminality’ is the word for the threshold moment—from the Latin root limin, meaning the centerline or doorway. Liminality is the moment of crossing over. It describes the transitional phase of personal change, wherein one is neither in an old state of being nor a new, and not quite aware of the implications of the event.” We cross these thresholds not only during the stages of life but every day as we make choices about how we are to live. Moving, changing jobs, coming out as gay, letting go of an activity that is no longer meaningful, adopting a child, going back to school, retiring, trying a new hobby, renovating your home, connecting with a family member or new friend, getting a pet, taking a trip, going on a diet, beginning an exercise program, or joining a church—all these things and so many more are times of transition when our lives are being sent in a new direction. When something like this occurs in your life, I encourage you to “mark the time”. Even if it is to just take a deep breath of gratitude for life itself.
As most of you are aware, I am about to cross a threshold myself. Next Saturday, I am going to be married here in this sanctuary. I am very excited! I have no doubts that Peter is the man for me. Our meeting has felt like a reunion. The depth of our connection and understanding has been profound. I look forward to joining my life’s path with his and our sharing in all that is to come.
However, I must tell you that as the day approaches, I am feeling a similar sense of awe that I felt before that wedding in San Francisco. The sense that I am stepping into a new role that is larger than myself. Only this time it is not as minister but as bride and then wife. I have guided many women through this rite of passage but it is amazing to think that soon instead of standing here as officiant I will be coming down the aisle myself as countless generations have done before me.
The community who will be gathered to celebrate this rite of passage also awes me. Not only will I join my beloved Peter up here in front of the chancel but my parents, family members, friends, and many of you will be in this Sanctuary plus all of the people who Peter holds most dear. The gathered community will be such a blessing that I never even dreamed of eloping!
I am going to close with a reading by the Rev. Barbara Hamilton-Holway. These words prepare each one of us to cross the next threshold of our lives.
Now you are ready—
As ready as you are going to be.
Neither you nor the world can wait for your fears to subside.
You need no more preparation.
You need no longer be on the outside observing.
The world awaits not your timid hesitation,
Not your clever critique,
Not your tidy observations.
The world invites your participation—
[i] Fulghum, Robert, From Beginning to End- The Rituals of Our Lives, NY: Ballantine Books, 1995, p.49.