Sep 29 2009

“Amen—I Love You”: The Power of Love

For thirty years, the Rev. Dr. Forrest Church ended every sermon he preached at the All Souls Unitarian Universalist congregation in New York City with the words “Amen. I love you. And may God bless us all.” These are good words with which to open the month of October, when we will be pondering “The Power of Love.”

Forrest’s words—and his life itself—are resounding in my mind and heart these days. As I write this column, it is less than a week since Forrest passed away, and I am feeling both sadness and gratitude. Forrest was my first Unitarian Universalist minister. He became my teacher, my mentor, the person who offered me the chance to discover my true self and thus find my way to ministry. He was the kind of minister who, despite his natural reserve, lived his life right out loud. All of us in the All Souls family watched Forrest soar, stumble, fall, pick himself up again with the help of friends, family, and congregation, and work his way toward a deeper, truer life. He lived his life out loud these past three years, too, as he journeyed from a terminal diagnosis of cancer toward his dying, testing his theology every step of the way and sharing the journey with all of us through his sermons, pastoral letters, and other writings.

            “Amen. I love you. And may God bless us all.”

That “Amen” was the final punctuation mark on yet another funny, thought-provoking sermon. It didn’t mean “And so the final word has been spoken,” but rather “That is what I have to say for now; that is my truth as I know it at this moment. Amen.”

Then, looking right out at the congregation, Forrest would add, “I love you.” The first time I heard him say it, in early March 1997 during a particularly hard time in my life, it took my breath away. It was so personal and specific, yet it was clearly intended to include the strangers in the crowd—strangers like me at that time—along with every single one of the other members, friends, visitors, and strangers who had shown up that morning to sit stiffly side by side in that spacious, formal, old sanctuary. Forrest seemed to be saying that he loved each of us, even if he didn’t know us. For some folks, it was the only time all week, all month, that they heard anyone say, “I love you”; I wonder how many of us came to church just to hear those words. And Forrest was also saying that he loved us as a group, even if we didn’t feel like a “group.” The words had a mysterious, marvelous effect: hearing them, we each felt more lovable and loving; we felt united into one large loving and lovable community. Forrest’s words were a statement of faith, a constantly renewed vow. I know they made Forrest himself a better person, and they invited us into renewed relationship with our best selves and with each other. They had power, those words of love.

 Finally, Forrest would say, “And may God bless us all.” As Forrest explained, “God is not God’s name. God is our name for that which is present in each and greater than all.” With this understanding of God, then “May God bless us all” means the same thing as “I love you,” doesn’t it? It means “May we know the love that we carry within ourselves, and may we share it. May we know the Love that surrounds us all, and may we live every day within it.”

“Amen. I love you. And may God bless us all.” Amen—this is what I know for now: I, too, love you, each of you and all of you, FUCSJ. May we, too, share the love we carry within ourselves and live in the Love that surrounds us. Come, let us explore the power of love together.

With my love and gratitude,

Nancy

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