The Reverend Mark DeWolfe Sermon


November 16, 1986


Let there arise among us a spirit of compassion,
let our hearts be warmed to the presence of our brothers and sisters.
May our memories be sparked to recall
how nothing human is alien to any of us.
In this hour of quiet reflection, may we be summoned
to recognize our own pain,
the pain of other,
to offer kind hearts and willing hands
to the service of the spirit
and the human search for meaning.


We gather here this morning as seekers and finders, creators and destroyers,
givers and receivers of love.
From the day of our birth we have asked for love.
And yet as we grow and change in time,
We realize how little we really know about how love is given
And how we grow within its nurture.
Help us to recognize the love which surrounds us and in which we have our being.
Help us to understand how we can be perfect channels for that love.
Help us to see ourselves as the loving people we are and can be.
In silence now, we bring to our minds’ eye the people that have loved us and continue to love us.
People who are not here with us today, but whose love we carry with us.
People who are there every day, and whose love we sometimes take for granted.
People who might be within our circle of love, could we but extend it a little further.
In silence now, we hold these people in our hearts.
In returning from silence, we ask that our hearts may be opened to all whose names and faces have crossed our minds.  We ask

that old wounds may be healed,
that constant joys may be celebrated

and that the love we share with the people in our lives may be our abiding teacher.
– Wayne B. Arnason


I planned this sermon last month, before my hospitalization and subsequent period of recovering at home.  Some thoughts had been boiling in my mind about just why it is that liberal religious congregations take it upon themselves to care for their members.  It seemed to me that we had some reasons which were uniquely our own, part of our Unitarian Universalist tradition of faith.  The last few weeks have proven to me that I was right, and having been a recipient of care and concern for the past month, have shown me how deeply and tenderly a congregation can care for the wounded in its midst.

The phrase “pastoral care”, comes from the concept of shepherd, pastor in Latin.  In the town where I grew up, the Spanish community put on an annual Christmas play about the shepherds getting the famous announcement of Jesus’ birth and their trip to Bethlehem, and it was called, in Spanish, Los Pastores, and so it was known to Anglo and Hispanic alike.  But those shepherds are not the origin of “pastoral care”.

At the end of the gospel of John, the resurrected Jesus turns to Peter and says to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”  When Peter responds in the affirmative, Jesus enjoins him, “Feed my lambs”.  For some reason best known to the author of John (and guessed by Biblical Scholars ever since), Jesus repeats the question three times, Peter answers the same way three times, and three times, Jesus replies, “Feed my lambs”.  Perhaps the three affirmations of love balance off Peter’s three time denial of Jesus during holy week.  Or perhaps the author of John thought it would drive home a point.

From an orthodox Christian point of view, we should take care of each other because Jesus ordered it.  For some Christians that doesn’t go far enough, and they tell us that Jesus was saying that if you love God you must show it in loving people.  Others would remind us that humans are made in the image of God, and that therefore are worth caring for.  Those are the orthodox Christian theologies of pastoral care.

Such theologies can be distant from contemporary Unitarian Universalists.  For the most part, it is hard to imagine Unitarian Universalists as sheep.  They tend to be somewhat more bullish on life than the placid lambs of Jesus’ image.  They certainly do not hold a belief just because Jesus said it, and with a plurality (perhaps a majority) in this congregation not believing in God, loving God by loving people is to many of us a foreign concept.

In Judaism, taking care of the suffering in your community is a mitzvah, a work which means both commandment and blessing.   God, after all, only commands us to do things which are good for us (in theory, at least).  Contemporary rabbis in many cases are reluctant to speak of pastoral care, because in North America, it implies that it is the pastor who does the caring – that caring is the job of the religious professional.  In Jewish tradition, caring for the sick, the bereaved and the troubled is the duty – the mitzvah – of the community,  not its religious leader.  Many rabbis resent the tendency of North American Jews to hand this responsibility to the clergy, in imitation of Protestant neighbours.

Our Unitarian Universalist concept of pastoral care as the responsibility of the whole community resembles the Jewish one, though on one – no one – tells a Unitarian Universalist what to do.  We are far too independent a group of people to do anything because it is commanded – except possibly pay taxes, and then, not all of us do that.  Unitarian Universalists have our own reasons for caring, and I would like to make us cognizant of them.

But let me tease you a little longer.  Before I go into the reasons for engaging in pastoral care, I think it wise to admit that perhaps we don’t need a reason.  The caring and concern that I received in the past month was clearly motivated by love, and love is always its own best reason.  The heart knows reasons that reason can’t allow, I heard somewhere.  No doubt at coffee hour one of you will correct that possible misquotation and tell me its source.  That’s what congregations are for – to keep the preacher honest, if not just to keep him (or her).

So to be honest, let’s admit that we are dealing here with reasons of the heart.  We care for each other because we love each other, and that is reason enough.

Just because we don’t need reasons, though, doesn’t mean we don’t have them.  I think we have them, they’re ours, bred in our unique religious heritage to meet our unique religious needs.

We care for one another because we are important to one another.  Each of us is important to each of us.  This is as true in a congregation of thirty, where it is most obvious, as in a congregation of three hundred, where it’s a bit harder to see.  We are important to each other because we share this community.  We are connected to each other through the fellowship of this congregation.

Perhaps, again, that’s reason enough – we belong to each other, we take care of what’s ours.  But I think that’s only half the point.

This congregation is a freely gathered group of seekers after truth.  We admit to ourselves and the world that truth is an evolving thing, that our understanding of meaning changes in time, and that we support each other in seeking the meanings of the changes time brings in our lives.  We are not a faith, like others, whose revelation was sealed with the deaths of the prophet founders.  Rather, we are agents of transformation for each other, facilitating the process of growth.

I believe in angels – oh not the six-winged seraphim Isaiah described.  Angels are bringers of news, messengers from God – the good news of Jesus is ev-angel-ism.  But my angels are not like Isaiah’s six winged spirits crying “Holy, holy, holy” – mine know more than one hymn!  Mine are more like the angels of Genesis.

Whenever Jacob, Abraham or Lot encounter an angel, they (and anyone reading Genesis for the first time) don’t know until the encounter is over that it’s an angel they met.  But something about the rendezvous gave it holiness.  The characters in Genesis who bring the holy message to the patriarchs are always taken at first to be ordinary human beings.  It is the quality of the message that reveals them to be angels, messengers of God.

I have known many angels in my lifetime.  Many of them are sitting here this morning.  They are ordinary men and women, who, by sharing with me a touch of their wisdom, have brought a touch of the holy into my life.  I believe in angels because I have met them.  They are not Michael Landon style do-gooders, intervening on assignment from heavenly powers – rather they are men and women who have brought me a piece of their world, their experience, their vision.

This world is more complex than any of us can ever begin to comprehend.  We need each other, often to see around the corners of our own blindness.  We need each other to expand our vision from our narrow slice of the world into larger portions.  We need each other to bring good news when we need it, and to help us bear the burdens which come with bad news and ill tidings.

We are angels for one another, in tough times and in easy ones.  The way we share in this congregation, our thoughts, our dreams, our loves and our fears, our hopes, and visions for the future, are the stuff of which real religion is made.  It is here, with each other, that we put together the fragments of our experience into a vision of hope and world service.  Our understanding grows as we grow, and to grow most completely, we need each other.

I believe that human beings are agents of revelation to each other.  What differentiates Unitarian Universalists from other seekers after truth is that here we covenant to do it together.  We need community in very special ways: to grow religiously as total human beings, complete women, complete men.

I believe this influences our reason for doing pastoral care.  We aren’t feeding helpless lambs or following ancient commandments,  Rather, we are tending the altar fires of revelation.  When we meet each other in our suffering, we meet each other face to face with ultimate reality.  When we meet each other in our joy, we meet each other face to face with ultimate reality.  For where we find God is not only in ancient books, not only in mountain vistas, not only in ocean roar, but more often in the face of a fellow human being.

As I said, we don’t need reasons to love, but love we do.  And if we do have reasons, it is good to understand them.  I think Unitarian Universalists look after each other for the best reason around, and one I intend to hold onto for as long as I live – or until it proves false, of course!  And even if I discover that it’s really only my Unitarian Universalist reason for caring, I’ll still hold on to it.

Let me demonstrate by way of personal example the way you have all cared for me over the past month and how you have been angels of revelation to me.  This story begins before I was ill, and continues right up to this morning.  My fervent wish is that it will continue for many years yet.

Many of you have noticed, and cautioned me, about the driven character of my life before my illness – how compelled I seemed to need to be so constantly active and involved, and how I was doing too much.  You warned me, though I hardly heeded, that I was doing too much and would wear myself out.  Though you expressed it eloquently, I could not hear it.

There was a driven quality to my life – and secretly, until last spring, in fact not just secretly but subconsciously, I was acting as if the salvation of the world depended on me.  Individual me, Mark DeWolfe.  Stopping those missiles depended on me.  Saving those young lives from the streets depended on me.  And most of all, saving the Unitarian Universalist movement in Canada depended upon me.

At one point last spring, as I was nearing a state of exhaustion, it came to me: what if the world didn’t want to be saved?  And wouldn’t it be wise for some who needed me to lean on someone else, spread the burden?  And most of all, what if Canadian Unitarians didn’t want to be saved?

That led to a good hearty laugh at myself.  I had fallen victim to the plague which bothers most young clergy: I had forgotten who the saviour is in this congregation.  I was taking myself too seriously.  And my reputation too seriously.  And, vanity of vanities, my historical legacy too seriously.  What egotism!

So I had a good laugh at myself, and promised myself that would take it easy on myself.  Those of you who are thinking right now that you didn’t notice me taking it easy are exactly right – despite giving myself permission, nay even orders to slow down, I didn’t.  There was something else driving me to overwork.

One was an addiction.  I am the kind of person for whom the highest moments in my life are those when you get a group of people together, working on something – a problem, a crisis, a difficulty – and suddenly a whole new range of possibilities open.  When Adrienne Rich wrote, “The possibilities which exist between two people, or a group of people, are the most interesting thing in life,” she had my number.  I get honestly high at those moments when a group, struggling together with a problem, suddenly, or slowly, in a moment or a slow progression, achieve synergy, the energy which emerges when we are working together and which is greater than the sum of all our individual energies.  At that synergistic moment I am high as a kite.  In one way, it’s cheaper than drugs.  But the toll it was taking on my system was more expensive.

The second reason why I couldn’t stop, even when I realized both my egotism and my addiction, was a deep seated, psychological need.  This summer, the symptoms of my present illness began.  I was frightened, though I didn’t admit it to anyone, and looked for every other possible explanation for my symptoms than the one which proved to be the case.  That was probably a sign of mental health, for a healthy person would not want to believe she or he had a life threatening illness until she or he absolutely had to.  Which was certainly my case.

But during the summer I realized that I had hit a stress wall I could not conquer.  There was nothing to do but retreat – do less, take better care of myself.  Yet I was reluctant to give up any one of my commitments, for everyone seemed to need me so.  I was special to every single one of them, and to hear some of my groups say it, even crucial.  These ideas were easily discounted.  But despite my newfound humility and addiction awareness, there was still a need within me to work, work, work.  For some reason I could not give it all up.

In a long period of introspection during the summer holiday, I asked myself, what am I afraid of?  What could happen if I slowed down that I am so afraid of that I’m risking my life?  And from the depths of my mind, an answer came: deep down I was convinced that unless I worked as hard as possible to improve life for other people, they would take away my right to be alive.  Subconsciously, I believed that I had no right to be here, and that I had to earn that right from other people.  Earn it by working myself to death.

Stephen Manning pointed out to me that this is a theology of “works-righteousness,” that it is our good deeds which make us good and nothing else.  It was Catholic doctrine above all others against which the Reformers rebelled.  And it is something, you all know, that my conscious theology and the gospel I preached are completely opposite to.  I do believe that all creatures are worthy of life, and I do believe that righteousness is waiting for all of us, but deep down inside I was unable to extend it to one person – myself.

During our lives we all receive messages of our own unworthiness – in fact, capitalism depends on that message, to see how often it is implied in advertising.  You’re not with it if you don’t drink Pepsi.  “Forever Krystle” perfume will get you in with the Carringtons.

An emotionally mature human being has to a large extent overcome these messages.  Oh, we are still plagued by self-doubts of our own limitations, but an emotionally healthy adult has learned to esteem her or himself.  We all struggle, all the time to attain that maturity.

Now imagine for a moment that every time you entered a washroom you saw a graffiti which wanted you and everyone like you exterminated.  Suppose that you never saw anyone like you in advertising – only all those other people.  Suppose that every time you accidentally tuned in one of those televangelists they were spreading lies about you.  And just suppose that the voters in California had to decide on an initiative petition referendum whether or not to inter you in a concentration camp.

For some people, the messages that they have no right to live are worse than others.  I am one of those people; so are some of you.  It is something which applies to minorities of all kinds and stripes and even some majorities – like the female one.  Even when your conscious mind affirms, in struggle, your right to exist, the social messages creep into your subconscious and kick you in your tenderest spot.

And so, despite my belief that I had liberated myself from all that trash, despite my solid faith that all people are worthwhile, I lived as if I had to earn my right to my every breath.

Now there’s a hero in this story and it’s you.  You are about to come riding out of the sunset to save the day.  And I hope your role in this story will prove my feelings about the importance and efficacy of congregational pastoral care.

What I feared most was that if I didn’t earn my right to be here, people would not love me.  Sounds silly, I know, and if you had asked me three months ago I would have denied it.  But it was truly a deep seated fear in me, a fear that I would be abandoned, and therefore dead.

So what happened?  I developed a disease which not only threatened my life but made it impossible for me to function as I normally do…and as a result of which, my live is irrevocably changed.  I cannot live as I did.

But in the face of that disability, an angel appeared.  That angel is the hero of the story I promised a moment ago.  It is you.  It is you; it is my family and friends; it is my colleagues in the ministry; it is men and women of faith and most importantly love from all over the continent.

What became clear to me in the first week of my hospitalization was how much love there was for me in the world.  You probably won’t believe me, but I was shocked to learn how much you all care for me.    I know it seems silly, that of course you all love me, but remember I only knew that in the top of my head before.  Now I know it through every compartment of my brain, my heart, my body, every cell of it.  And it is making fighting this virulent virus, this deadly agent seeking to destroy me, fighting it so much easier.

So many of you came to see me in hospital, enduring the indignity of gowns and gloves and masks.  So many called by phone and so many sent cards.  And you, beloved congregation, were not alone.  My family was there, in soul and spirit and heart.  Jim Moore was – and is – an angel.  And calls from colleagues poured in, and are still pouring in, along with notes of support from lay people whose lives have touched mine through our denominational community.

I feel like Sally Field accepting her Oscar: I ought to be standing here in shocked disbelief saying, “You like me!  You really, really like me!”

Your love and support as I wrestle with this illness have been very important to me.  That sentence sounds too weak.  How can I tell you how very important they have been?  I believe they make the difference between night and day.  They tell me that I have every reason to fight the deadlines this illness gives me, to extend both the length and the quality of my life.  And it is because you – among others – have been angels to me.

So as the old radio announcer used to say, “Keep those cards and letters comin’ in folks!”

We are indeed angels to each other.  Many of you, and many faces from outside our circle, have spoken  of the hardships you have faced in life – illness, losses, disappointments, fears.  Learning of your tragedies and difficulties has been good for me not because it takes my mind off my own – they couldn’t do that – but because you have told me how you have found meaning in the face of adversity, grace in the midst of trial, strength in the face of fear.  You are and remain messengers of meaning in my life.

As you know, I now face life under very different circumstances than before.  My future is so uncertain as to be non-existent.  I can’t worry about my future now; I must instead concentrate on the present.  If I don’t have much future, I have plenty of present.  My strength is coming back, and while I will never be the hurricane I was before, and that is for the best, I will be able to work and live and grow.  And a present that rich is all I have need of.

I am grateful now for the gift of each day: for the changing autumn, winter world; for the love which enfolds me and supports me; for the blessing of being alive.  It sounds trite, but I really am more alive now than I was before.  And that makes me want to praise at the top of my reduced lungs but with all the vigour of a strengthened spirit.  And so with that desire to praise life in mind, let us all join in singing the hymn #12-n For the Beauty of the Earth.

For the beauty of the earth, for the splendour of the skies,
For the love which from our birth, over and around us lies:
Source of all, to thee we raise this, our hymn of grateful praise.

For the joy of ear and eye, for the heart and mind’s delight,
For the mystic harmony, linking sense to sound and sight:
Source of all, to thee we raise this, our hymn of grateful praise.

For the wonder of each hour of the day and of the night,
Hill and vale and tree and flower, sun and moon and stars of                            light:
Source of all, to thee we raise this, our hymn of grateful praise.

Reverend Mark DeWolfe

Thank you!

Kathy, Judy, Joan, Bert, Camille, Tisa, Susan, Anthony, Fiona.
Without your help, this work would not have been possible.

Brigitte Twomey