Measured Extravagance

12 June 2002 - 11:11 p.m.

I've been known to cry during movies, funerals and weddings, but before Sunday, I would not have expected to get misty-eyed during an ordination. And during the first half of the Sunday afternoon service, I was fine - enjoying the diversity of the service (chalice lit by a girl from the youth group, responsive reading led by a local Baptist minister, sermon delivered by Ralph Yeager Roberts, a decidedly academic gay educator from Massachusetts (not so unusual) with a decidedly theistic bent (sort of unusual) who quoted Paul (more than a little unusual). It took me a while to warm up to him (what with terms like "reductive materialism" permeating his text) but I found myself ultimately appreciating the strength and tenor of his message: that our faith needs to be on guard against "the tyranny of ignorance," that it needs "sermons that stretch the mind as well as touch the heart," and that ministry needs to include theology "...otherwise this [service] is merely a very attractive farce."

Mind, appreciation is not the same as agreement - I think the last point is especially debatable. Frankly, I myself am affiliated with the church more for communal than spiritual reasons; I'm certainly not allergic to theological discourse, but I have other avenues and resources for worship and introspection. But I liked Roberts' message nonetheless - I do like sermons that wake people up, and this one was definitely a rouser for those with the ears to hear.

And then came "the act of ordination," and that's when I started wondering if I should slipped a handkerchief into my choir folder. I already knew the words, having skimmed ahead in the program, but when it came time to stand up and read them aloud, I could feel my eyes filling up:

We, the members of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville, hereby ordain you, Susan Gray, to the Unitarian Universalist ministry. We would have you speak the truth as you understand it; teach adults and children of the wonder and mystery of life and each other; challenge us in witnessing to our moral and ethical concerns; share with us our human joys and sorrows; celebrate the principles of our faith; and serve our movement and people with love.

And then "the family, friends and colleagues of Susan" were asked to rise as well, such that everyone present was standing and speaking the pledge of support and affirmation. And the atmosphere stayed charged as Susan, her voice and breath full of emotion, read her response back to the congregation; followed by the ordination prayer, the charge to the minister (delivered by the minister of Susan's childhood church, the "right hand of fellowship" (in which the newly-ordained minister is officially welcomed and recognized as a peer by another UU minister), and the customary service closing of hymn, chalice extinguishing, benediction and postlude. And then the reception, with champagne and punch and munchies and lots of hugs and discussion (said one doctor, "When [John Robinson] said, 'remind your congregations that we are bound more by what we don't know than what we know,' I thought to myself, 'I'm going to tell that to all of my students from now on'") and catching up (this weekend was my first back at church in several weeks; a neighbor of mine just returned from burying her father).

The power of ceremony, the power of community. I am by nature and by practice a skeptic and a loner, but I am also by experience a creature enthralled by the way ritual elevates words and clothes and vows and connections.

I've been listening to the Beautiful Young Man fill the dishwasher and snark at an especially vocal frog that seems to have taken up residence in one of the buckets just outside our back door. Having already tidied up the house for our weekend visitor, it made sense to invite the in-laws over for dinner. So, on the stereo, Keith Jarrett playing Handel; chilled in the fridge, a bottle of Echelon 2000 Viognier; table set with the company placemats and linen napkins. I didn't know what time they had agreed upon with the BYM, so I put out a set of appetizers, just in case: olives, cheese, crackers, smoked trout paste, and wasabi green peas.

By the time they arrived, however, the only thing left to prepare was the stir-fry and they seemed more interested in checking out the house and the yard (it's been a long time since I've felt up to hosting a proper dinner for the folks) than in noshing, so we simply poured four glasses of wine and I tucked the noshes away as I put together the final parts of dinner.

The mother-in-law brought over flowers from her garden, a bottle of Oregon Riesling (Ridgeview Blue Moon), and a container of homemade cookies. The flowers were transferred from her vase ("I couldn't find any of my disposables") to one of ours and now grace our sideboard; I put the riesling in the fridge and left the cookies on the butcher block, just out of Abbygator reach.

The menu: Indonesian-style chicken, white rice, cucumber salad (dressed with sesame oil, rice vinegar, salt and pepper), grape tomatoes (cut in half and dressed with soy sauce and wasabi), and yellow squash stir-fried with onion and tomato and spiced with fennel pollen. For dessert, green grapes and blueberries (they looked very nice together in the bowl), the cheese and crackers, Milano cookies. and coffee.

For conversation: the usual business talk; our soon-to-arrive nephew (who was to have been induced this past Sunday "but they forgot to reserve a room, and with all of the September 11 babies now coming due--" "What!?"); how best to send gifts to Canada, especially to Granddad given how often he changes his retirement digs; John Adams, John Quincy Adams (the mother-in-law's book group discussed the McCullough biography last night) and Jimmy Carter and birth order; wars and war memorials; car washes and car depreciation...

One year ago: "I'm a lucky woman - even when things don't work out quite as planned, they have a way of going quite well nonetheless."

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