Sunday, September 9, 2007


a homily delivered by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish Church in Portland, Maine
Ingathering Intergenerational Water Communion Service
Sunday, September 9, 2007

[extemporaneous greeting and welcome, especially to the children]

I’m just a little curious, and maybe you can show me by raising your hands, but how many of you have started back to school already? And is there anyone here still on their summer vacation? You know, this time of year always brings back a lot of memories for me, because (as you might have guessed from the number of years I continued to do it), I always kinda liked going to back to school in the fall. Not always the classroom part so much, but I really liked seeing all my friends again, and being able to go to the library on my own (without needing to get a ride from my mom); I liked recess and being able to go out on the playground (in fact, for a lot of years I used to get up early and walk to school rather than waiting at the bus stop, just so I could play basketball for an hour before the first bell). I even liked the food in the lunchroom (which you may find surprising, since my mother was actually a really good cook). But I always found the lunchroom food kind of exotic, in a bland sort of way: Sloppy Joes (which we almost never got at home), or that fluffy white bread pizza that always came in square slices, and especially the Shepherds Pie, which (unlike my mother’s, who learned how to make it from her mother, who was the daughter of an actual West Texas sheep herder), at school was always made out of hamburger, rather than real lamb.

But you know, I also always used to get a little nervous on the first day of school. My mom used to say I had “Butterflies in my Tummy,” which I thought was a rather innocuous and euphemistic manner (those are a couple of good SAT words, by the way) of describing something that made me feel so awful. That excited feeling of anticipation and expectation, but also an anxious uncertainty in the face of something on some levels familiar, yet ultimately unknown and unpredictable.

I always used to feel that way on the first day of church as well, until one year the mother of MY children asked: “What are you afraid of Tim? That the other kids won’t like you, and are going to take your milk money?” After that, it got a lot easier. I still get nervous, of course, like I do every Sunday. But like a lot of people who have to stand up in front of a lot of other people and speak in public, I’ve learned how to use that nervousness to help me concentrate -- because I also have come to understand that the day I STOP feeling nervous is probably the day I’ve run out of important things to say....

Of course, the other thing I always dreaded about those first few days back in school was having to stand up in front of the entire class and give that annual back-to-school report about “What I Did on my Summer Vacation.” And the main reason I dreaded it was not so much the speaking in public part, but rather because my family typically didn’t do ANYTHING on our summer vacation -- which was the main reason I was so happy to be going back to school in the first place.

I mean, as I kid I generally was playing some sort of organized baseball during the summer...but that was typically over by the Fourth of July, so unless we could find enough kids around the neighborhood to pull together a game, baseball was pretty much out of the question. My brothers and I all took swimming lessons (at least for part of the summer), so we went to a place called "the Aqua Dive" for those; and then once a week my mom would take us to the library. But one good rainy day (and it rains a lot in Seattle, even in the summer) and I could blow through my entire stack of books (and half of my brother’s) in a single afternoon. (In fact, my brother used to hide his library books so that I wouldn’t come into his room and take them before he had a chance to read them himself, and then he’d forget where he’d hidden them, which led to a lot of library fines which he had to pay out of his allowance...although in his mind it was really my fault and I was the one who should have had to pay).

And then, of course, when the weather was nice we rode our bikes, and played outdoors, and tried to find new and entertaining ways of getting into trouble without getting into TOO much trouble...but nothing really like the sort of things you’d want to stand up in front of an entire classroom and tell about...not even for five minutes.

Of course, it did get a little better those summers when I finally got to be old enough to go on my own to stay with my grandparents, who had retired to their one-time summer home on an island in Washington State about an hour north of Seattle. On the island I got to sail, and play on the beach, and hang out with a whole different group of kids than the ones I saw ordinarily during the regular school whose parents and grandparents had also all grown up together at the beach, and typically measured their friendships in terms of decades.

But there was a downside to staying with my grandparents too, because my grandmother was NOT a particularly good cook, although she was a relatively competent baker of cookies: toll house cookies, peanut butter cookies, and -- my personal favorite, snickerdoodles -- cookies which (and this was important for a growing boy) my grandmother baked in great quantities to make up for whatever they may have lacked in quality. But living at the beach also meant that I had to spend a few hours each day helping my grandmother in her garden: pulling up weeds, digging in the dirt, pushing the wheelbarrow -- and basically serving as her arms and legs (and in later years even her eyes) while she directed the work, and supervised to make certain it was completed to her satisfaction. And although I didn’t really appreciate it at the time, by working as my grandmother’s personal itinerant agricultural laborer, I was actually connecting with the historical roots of the “summer vacation” in a very hands-on, dirt-under-the-fingernails sort of way.

Here’s a little more preparation for the SAT. The word “vacation” comes from the same Latin root as the word “vacant,” and it means literally to be empty, or free (of content). And when I was a kid growing up, I was always told that the reason kids got a vacation from school in the summer was so they could help their parents on the farm. What I didn’t understand back then, is that I actually had it backwards: that actually, the reason kids used to go to school in the winter is that back in the “olden days,” winter was the ONLY time that children could be spared from the demanding day-to-day work of agricultural production long enough to learn how to read, and write, and count. We may idealize the family farm, but let’s face it, for most of human history working on the family farm was really pretty much a sweatshop.

Our modern idea of a summer vacation actually reflects a somewhat later time, when at first the urban wealthy, and then eventually the middle class, were able to send their families away from the hot, crowded, and all too often fatally unhealthy industrial cities to cooler, more pleasant and healthful locations for the summer -- places like the coast of Maine, for instance, where the presence of “summer people” soon began to make a significant contribution to an economy which had previously been based on fishing, farming, forestry and the various activities which support those extractive industries. And I’m told that even today this “symbiotic tension” of relative wealth and social class between Native Mainers and people “from Away” remains an important dynamic in understanding what life in the State of Maine is really all about. Before the widespread advent of summer tourism, one 19th century commentator (Edward Everett Hale) observed that the two principal exports from Maine were Granite and Ice. “But the granite is excellent hard granite,” he continued, “and the ice is very cold ice.”

Personally, over the years I’ve come to admire the British use of the word Holiday -- “Holy Day” -- rather than our American “vacation.” Not an empty time, but a time set aside and devoted to something higher and more sacred than our mundane, day to day activities. And even though sometimes it seems like what we truly worship is leisure, the opportunity to observe even just a few days of Rest and Re-Creation seems like a very worthwhile activity to me, even if it does sometimes appear to others to be mostly doing nothing.

Of course, if you were to ask me what I did this past summer on my so-called “vacation,” I would certainly have a lot to report. I flew across the country (with the dog - the first time she's ever done that) to visit my daughter and attend the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly in Portland, Oregon; then drove to Seattle to bury my mother, flew back to New England, quit my job, packed everything I own into boxes and moved here to Portland Maine to begin a new ministry working with all of you here at First Parish (where, you may have noticed, the roof is falling in). And I also did a little sailing, and played a little baseball, and even read a few books (which I’ll tell you about some other time). But even this extensive summary only barely scratches the surface.

For example, we didn’t really “bury” my mom. My mother’s body was actually cremated, and her ashes now sit on the bottom shelf of the nightstand in her bedroom on Camano Island, right on top of the ashes of her own mother, which have been there now for almost 20 years. (And there’s still a little room there for a few more of us, after which we’re probably going to have to come up with a more permanent solution).

I did conduct the memorial service for my mom, which turned out to be a very moving experience for me, and my entire family as well. My very first sacerdotal act (there’s another great SAT word) following my ordination in 1981 was to officiate at the wedding that summer of my brother Kurt and my sister-in-law Lynne. And now, one week shy of their 26th wedding anniversary, we were all together again...with, of course, an entire generation no longer present, and an entirely new one grown up to take its place, all of us assembled to observe a very different kind of religious ceremony.

And it was hard for me not to see these two events as linked together, perhaps like bookends, but I wasn’t really sure what it meant until my aunt came up to me after the service and said “25 years ago at Kurt’s wedding I thought, ‘What a Joke! That’s not a real minister -- that’s just my kid nephew in a costume.’ But today you really filled that robe, and I was very impressed...and proud.” And then I got it. It had only taken me half a lifetime, but I had finally (kind of like the Velveteen Rabbit) become a “real” minister, even for my own family.

And then the next day, we were all staying together back at the cabin (which I suppose out here in Maine you would call a “cottage”), and my brother and I got up with the early tide, and took the boat across the bay to pull his crab pots and collect a dozen or so fresh Dungeness Crab; and then when we got back, both my brothers went off to pick wild blackberries at a place they knew; and a few hours later my father and his sister (my other aunt) showed up with a freshly caught wild salmon (which - just for the historical record - they’d bought, not caught themselves) and some locally grown sweet corn -- and the cooking started, and I played a little baseball with my neices and nephews...and at one point in the afternoon, as we were all sitting on the deck looking out at the water, my sister-in-law said to me, with tears in her eyes, “This is such a perfect day. The only thing missing is Betty Jo.” And I said back to her “No, no Lynne -- you have it backwards. The thing is that Betty Jo can not be here, and we can STILL have perfect days like this.”

Now I know those of you who are more literal and scientifically-minded than most other folks are probably thinking “But Betty Jo WAS there...she was less than 30 feet away, stacked up on a shelf in the back bedroom.” But that’s not the point. The point is that we had taken our emptiness, and filled it with something Holy. And in doing so, we were “re-created” -- we participated in the miracle of Creation once again.

And then a few days later, we all had to go our separate ways again for awhile, and the next thing I knew I was standing up here in front of all of you, filled with the butterflies of nervous excitement and expectation, and just a little anxious in my anticipation of something on so many levels intimately familiar, yet ultimately unknown and unpredictable as well....

And I hope you’ll all like me, and please, Please, PLEASE don’t take my milk money, and I’m realy looking forward very much over the months and years to come to getting to know all of you, and to hearing your stories the much the same way as you have so kindly listened to me tell mine today.

This Meeting House is indeed a sacred place, a safe and welcoming “sanctuary” in the heart of this city, which we make Holy through our presence here, and by filling it with our warmth, and our love for one another, our hospitality to strangers, and our devotion and commitment to the values and principles of our shared Unitarian and Universalist faith traditions. We come from many different places, we travel many different paths. But in this place, we mingle our lives together like the waters of many rivers flowing to the ocean, perhaps in time rising as fog, falling as rain, even freezing as ice, but always, always flowing back once more into the sea from whence we all have come.