Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Dead Guys I Think About

It's more than think . . . . I find myself connecting emotionally, imaginatively, across the years to dead people. Mostly guys. I am finishing up an MDiv program and often we are asked to research someone. Usually they are men because history, regrettably, erases women from the scene. The research often leaves me with a trace of emotional connection like that hint of scent through a window on a warm summer night.

The most recent of my dead guys is the Reverend Thomas Lamb Eliot, 1841-1936. I discovered Eliot before I wrote a paper on him. Every once in a while someone writes an article about his accomplishments. He lived in Portland, Oregon for seventy years, was the first Unitarian minister in the Pacific Northwest, and must never have slept because his list of accomplishments is ridiculously long: Forest Park, the Boys and Girls Aid Society, Portland Parks (he was the one who brought in the Olmstead brothers), Superintendent of Multnomah County schools, The Oregon Humane Society (first in the nation), Portland Association of Charities, Portland Historical Society, Portland Library Association and Portland Art Association. Those are the easy to rattle off items, but he was also involved in suffrage for women, city charter reform, prison reform, mental health reform and, really, any progressive cause that fell like a beaten horse across his path. 

I easily identify with his activism. I love civic activism and engage in it as a religious practice. I can feel the web of support being created through boards and positive political influence. My tradition however has a tendency to go for the long bomb. It wants to end poverty, end racism, perhaps change our economic system for something resembling the Kingdom of God. Nothing big mind you, just everything.

In the currency of good work, I can wave Thomas Lamb Eliot around like a thousand dollar bill. See, I want to say, civic engagement IS a proud part of our tradition.

However, when you connect with these dead guys from the past, the more you dig, the more you find the sweet, sad parts of their soul. Thomas Lamb Eliot's family was part of a moral aristocracy of well-educated, well-connected Unitarian ministers.The family believed in moral culture. It was what they did,  eminently. His cousin was president of Harvard, his nephew was T.S. Eliot.  His father was the first Unitarian Minister to start a church in St. Louis, Missouri. Father Eliot was also the most influential ministerial figure of his time in St. Louis and started Washington University (where Thomas Lamb went to school).

Thomas Lamb recapitulated his father's life! Everything he did in Portland his father had already done in St. Louis. His father told him "Do not change, stick to your post, and let your influence become cumulative." One sees immediately the good eldest son doing what his father told him to do without any rebellion. Some good son's are in competition to be as violent as their father, as strong, as ruthless, as controlling, as merciless, and we can only hope that they come up short. Thomas Lamb Eliot was in competition to be good, eminently good, and he somehow managed to pull it off, with a kind and thoughtful word to everyone who crossed his path.

His story contains some episodes of overwork and collapse -- the dark side of this story. He lived before ministers had to check off the box of 'self-care' to those who evaluated them. In spite of, or perhaps because of all he did, he lived a long time and spent his retirement working for a progressive Portland. 

In his farewell address to his congregation when he retired, he said: 

What we do, my dear friends, in the world, after all, does not amount to much;one of the thing we have to get over thinking;is that we are here chiefly to do something. In God's providence, we are all here to be something, and what we are speaks and does more than the things we call actions.

His words are a surprise when you consider his life of doing. I hope he turned those words toward himself in a small moment of benediction, of being, before he tackled the next good work. 

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