Sources as Resources
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Unitarian Universalist Congregation
One of the first weddings I ever performed took place in the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota. I had met the couple while serving my internship in a suburb of Chicago. When they asked me to officiate at their service over the summer I was flattered, but I warned them saying I would not be in the Chicago area over the summer. I would unfortunately be in upstate New York serving as camp chaplain at Unirondack, our UU summer youth camp in the Adirondacks. They said, “No problem, the wedding is not going to be in the Chicago area anyway. We are going to get married up in the Boundary Waters. We’ll fly you to Minnesota for this.” So I said, “Yes.” (Well, first I said, “Wow!” Then I said, “Yes!”)
Now, I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the geography of Minnesota, so I’ll tell you that the Boundary Waters are an extensive series of lakes and rivers way up in the northern part of Minnesota. Camping and canoeing enthusiasts flock to the area every summer. I flew into Duluth, which is on the western edge of the first of the great lakes. The Duluth International Airport is considerably smaller than its name implies. It has four gates. It is an international airport because it has flights to Canada. So I flew into Duluth and waited in that little airport for one of the bridesmaids who was also flying in that afternoon. She rented a car and we drove two hours north along long stretches of road to a town called Ely.
The next afternoon we all piled into cars and went another half-hour or so north to a parking lot on the side of the road. Then we hiked in about a mile to the lake. Waiting for us at the lake were the ushers who paddled us across the lake in canoes, two at a time, to the little rocky clearing next to the waterfall. I was wearing sneakers, jeans, and a t-shirt. My robe and stole were rolled up in my back pack along with a water bottle and some trail mix.
A half-hour later when every one was assembled, and I had my robe on, and I had started the ceremony. I wanted to tell them, “be sure you start your relationship on sure footing. Be careful, this marriage stuff is dangerous and you need to be certain of one another.” I wanted to tell them, “Look out, what you’re about to start here is not a simple thing. The journey ahead of you is fraught with peril and hardship so make sure you really mean it and you’re ready for this.” But I looked out over the lake to the path on the other side leading back to the cars and I thought, “They all ready know all that.” Besides, this was only the third wedding I had ever done, I didn’t know how to say all that stuff anyway.
How we start things is very important. Our beginnings have a distinct impact on who we are and how we grow. In our reading this morning, Charles Stephen said we like the idea of new beginnings and starting over, but it is really all continuations. It is human nature to mark out beginnings and endings to give definition to our experiences. When we arrive at small landmarks, we pause in our steady tumbling forward to recognize the passage of time. One of the hymns in our hymnal is entitled “The Ceaseless Flow of Endless Time.” We do indeed find ourselves in this ceaseless flow, this ever progressing push of time. Charles Stephen said we find stability in these new beginnings. Generally speaking, life is a journey without particular beginnings and endings other than birth and death. It becomes very important to set aside special times to celebrate the changes, brief moments to pause and recognize our progress.
This idea which says ‘our beginnings and endings are our own arbitrary human constructions’ is a useful idea because it can help us to recognize that our past does not need to own us. Starting again is possible. Transformation and change are possible. However, this idea can also be equally unhelpful if we think we can escape our past. If we think of new beginnings as a break from yesterday, we are bound for trouble. All of your past is a part of you, all of the good stuff and all of the bad stuff. And no amount of New Beginnings will make it otherwise. Where you come from is important.
It seems to me there are three choices as to how we can deal with our past. We can choose to dwell in it; to either revel in the glory or wallow in the guilt. Most people recognize this to be unhealthy. All those wonderful self-help books are filled with the sort of wisdom that warns us against dwelling in our past: Don’t let guilt consume you. Acknowledge and move on. Don’t rest on your laurels. Today is the first day of the rest of your life.
Our second option is to ignore the past. This is also an unhealthy choice. This will allow us to have fake New Beginnings. We can talk about starting over, and turning over a new leaf, and having today be the first day of the rest of our life. But often all this does is allow us to continue to make the same bad mistakes, or to not capitalize on the gains we’ve made. If we try and say, “That was the old me, now I’m married, or, now I’m born again, or, now I’m all better so just forget all that old stuff about me.” This is a fake New Beginning because it ignores the past or pretends it doesn’t matter.
Our last option, and thus the healthy one, is to learn from the past and grow. This is where change and transformation are possible, this is where New Beginnings can take place, this is where we step forward and say, “All my gifts and all my warts are why I’m deciding to live my life in this new way from this day forward.” I picked up a great quote recently. It is from an interview with a George Shearing, Big Band pianist who is blind. The reporter asked, “Have you been blind all your life?” To which the musician replied, “Not yet.” I like this quote because it is forward looking, without ignoring the truth of the past.
Where you come from and where you have been and all that you’ve been through will never leave you. Now, this is true for cultures and countries and congregations as well. I remember a friend once complaining about our national anthem saying it is the only national anthem with rockets and bombs in the lyrics. I remember at the time agreeing with my friend and saying, “Aren’t we awful as a country to have this song that glorifies war as our national anthem. We should change it.” But as I was preparing this sermon, I thought, “Well, at least it is honest.” This country was founded as a result of war. The song says that the principles of liberty and freedom are worth fighting for and even dying for. I may not like the song, but at least it is honest about how we started.
Another example, all three of the great monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, have a significant amount of violence in connection with how they began. The early years of Islam were filled with strife, persecution, and war. Christianity’s seminal moment is the violent execution of its leader. Judaism began not with Adam and Eve or even with Abraham or Jacob, figures which literary and historical scholars generally agree were mythic characters rather than actual people. Judaism formed when Moses took the Hebrew people out of bondage, across the wilderness and into the promised land, a land filled with other people they has to conquered before they could really move in.
Over these past few years, much attention has been given to the accusation that Islam is a violent religion. Thankfully we have also heard the counterpoint saying Islam is basically a peaceful religion. I certainly can’t stand in judgment as to which statement is true, and I tend to think that both statements are somewhat true and somewhat false depending on where you are looking and what you are wanting to see. Certainly there are passages in the Koran and practices believers do and events littered throughout history which we can point to and say, “look, here we see peace” or, “look, here we see violence.” Of course, we can do that with Judaism and with Christianity. And it is not an insignificant connection that all three of these great religious traditions began amid violence.
This is not so with Unitarian Universalism. For one thing we don’t have a sacred book with which to contradict ourselves. But I think we can fairly say that both Unitarianism and Universalism as they began here in America, did not have violent beginnings. Now, European Unitarianism has a few martyrs, but there was not for example a Michael Servetus movement or following. Instead, we have stories about how radical we have been and how upsetting we were to mainstream religion and society. This is not to say we are exempt from having character flaws sown into our origins, just that violence is not one of them.
The major negative component to crystallize in our beginnings as Universalists was the over-focusing on one message. If you follow the history of the Universalist denomination, you’ll notice that when we were no longer the only church focusing on God’s love, there was a sharp decline in our membership. As one Universalist minister put it, “Hell became less of a burning issue.” When we found ourselves to be no longer the only show in town with that message, it was difficult to expand our message to met the changing world. For Unitarians it was character flaws crystallized in our beginnings were flaws such as arrogance, elitism, and a cold intellectualism which detests emotional responses in religion matters. Between you and me, I’ll take those flaws over violence any day.
We, as a movement, are making efforts to address our communal original character flaws, but they will never not be the flaws we’ve had from our beginning. The good side to this is that we will always be known for the social advancement and justice work recorded in American history, whether or not we are still working for justice today. We will always have the freedom of individual conscience as our first principle regardless of how much emphasis we place on community. Who we were when this all started has a lasting and important impact on who we are now and on who we may possible grow to be. When the two traditions merged, we experienced a balancing that will serve as a true New Beginning so long as we remember both traditions and how they started and grew. I am not suggesting that every Unitarian Universalist today is over focused on one message and is struggling to be less arrogant, elitist, and overly-rational. I’m simply saying this was our starting point and always will be.
At nearly every formal or semi-formal gathering of new members or visitors we intentionally go around the circle and invite everyone to share a little of their journey which brought them to this congregation. More and more we are hearing that people come here for community and a humbling respect for the mystery surrounding the major religious questions.
We don’t ask new people to tell us their name and theological perspective, their least popular belief, or their favorite middle-centuries pope. We ask, “Who are you, where did you come from, and how did you end up hear?” One time I sat down and wrote out my most eloquent response yet to those questions.
We have, within each of us, echoes of memories beyond us. There are traces of lives and loves which are not ours, and yet belong to us and shape who we are and how we see the world. I am a fourth generation Unitarian Universalist. My personal religious and spiritual history would be incomplete without saying something about the echoes of the lives and loves I carry.
My mother’s mother’s mother, Cora Arvilla Beadle Miller, was one of the founding members of the Old Stone Universalist Church of Schuylur Lake, NY. That is the same church where my mother’s mother, Marie Elizabeth Miller Strong, played the organ and was Superintendent of the Church School, and where my mother’s father, Ashley Walter Strong, was Moderator and then President of the New York Convention of Universalists in the mid 1950’s. It is the same church, The Old Stone Universalist Church, where my mother, Elizabeth May Strong, now a Minister of Religious Education, grew up and began teaching when she was in eighth grade.
We have, within each of us, echoes of memories beyond us; traces of lives and loves which are not ours, and yet belong to us. My mother’s mother’s mother was a church builder. May I be so blessed as to be the same.”
What I learned here was that not only must I contend with my own past, that part of my history for which I was there; but I must also reconcile all that is a part of me that came before I even showed up! Thus it is, certainly with nations and congregations. You all inherit the great wonderfulness and all the blemishes and warts that this congregations has stood for over the years.
Seeing as I began with a story from Northern Minnesota, let me return there for my closing. There is a song I know with the line “The Mississippi is mighty, but it starts in Minnesota at a place that you could walk across with five steps down.” (Ghost by The Indigo Girls) That river which cuts across the whole country from top to bottom, is a major landmark on our map and has featured prominently in American history and in the contemporary lives of many people. It is a powerful river. And it is a powerful metaphor. It overflows now and then and floods towns and plains. Each of us is like that river. We all started in some small way in some remote place and lead mighty lives now. And I bet that a lot of you have experienced the analogous flooding in one form or another. You do well to know and understand the implications of what has gone on upstream. That is your past. If you can acknowledge the good and bad in your past, you will be prepared for the challenges coming from upstream. They can serve you and give you great strength. You will be better suited to be intentional about what you send downstream, into the beaconing future.
In a world without end,
May it be so.