As a staff, we’re feeling as though we aren’t doing a good job of communicating even though we now use more communications outlets than ever before. But somehow a great new website, a monthly newsletter, a weekly enews blast, and a Facebook page are still not helping us help you. So, we’re trying an additional outlet.
This is the first edition of a “memo” to the lay leaders of the congregation. It is being sent to all folks listed in the Leaders’ List as well as all leaders of Small Groups. The plan is that this will come out 1 or 2 times per month, on an irregular schedule. We want you to respond when you feel so moved. Sometimes we, as staff, feel as though we are operating in a vacuum, despite the fact that our only reason for being here is to help the congregation become what it wants to be. So, if there is something in this edition that sparks a suggestion or response, go ahead and send it. We are happy to hear from our leaders!
Unless otherwise noted, these news memos are written by Linda Topp.
As a leader of a small group or a committee you have learned that the office staff is trying to keep track of the participants in your group. We keep saying that we need the information for our database. “But why?” you ask. Here’s the story.
Three years ago the members of the Board of Trustees were trying to determine who exactly at UUCA are active participants in the life of the congregation. We certainly don’t take attendance on Sunday mornings and aside from knowing which people are paying on their annual commitments, we could not say whether 50 or 500 people were actively engaged in adult RE programs, small groups, choir, committees or anything else.
So, the Board allocated $25,000 to establish a fund called “Technology Upgrade” which would give the congregation the capability to identify and track participation. The Board charged the Executive with coming up with a way of answering the question, “How many UUCA members and friends are actively participating?” Using the funding allocated by the Board, we purchased additional software and training in order to enhance the database system we were already using to track membership status and giving history.
We now have an upgraded database (you know it as MY INFO) but that is only half the picture. Without leaders letting us know who their active participants are, we still have no idea if we are serving 50 or 500 different people.
The database has other cool features, too. We have the capability right now to have an online photo directory. All we need is for individuals or families to upload their own photos into their own record in MY INFO. When we need to recruit people for special projects, we can search on various interests or skills fields to find folks. But of course, we need to input these interests and skills into the database first, and we haven’t even tried to make that happen because of the resistance we are getting for all things computer-related.
So, here are some of the questions that the staff is mulling:
Is there another way to find the answer to the question, “How many UUCA members and friends are actively participating in the life of the congregation?” Or, how can we get our leaders to input data to track participation in their groups?
“Attendance” isn’t exactly what we are tracking, so is there some other way to find out who is “active” in any group or committee and if there is, how could we enter that in our database? (We don’t want our computer program to dictate how we do things, but if we can’t figure out how to capture and sort data that we’ve collected, it doesn’t really help us.)
Is “number of people actively participating” even an important question? (I think so because without that sort of feedback we don’t know where to best allocate our resources—but I could be wrong.)
Why are many congregants so resistant (or oblivious?) to using MY INFO? For building a database of interests and skills, instead of asking people to use MY INFO, what if we asked members/friends to fill out either online or paper forms similar to those that new members fill out and have volunteers input the data? Could we find volunteers to do that? Are people resistant to the computer, to the MY INFO user interface, or to the idea of being “tracked?”
How can we find volunteers to take photos and upload them to the database instead of asking individual members to do it themselves? Seems like having a photo directory would be incredibly useful to more people than me!
“Do you promise?” The question always catches our granddaughter for a second: then her reply, with a sober expression framing her big brown eyes: “Yes, I promise.”
The request is never anything of particularly great moment – thankfully her life is not yet that complicated – but even a five-year-old recognizes the weight of that question. And she’s never shy about making a similar request of us and expecting a response that is equally as serious. It is a part of our bonding with each other, the testing and trusting that creates intimacy. But it’s also an introduction to something larger and deeper that is within and between us all.
Martin Buber famously declared that we human beings are the “promise-making, promise-keeping, promise-breaking, promise-renewing” animal. Promising is not just something we do; it defines and creates us as social beings. And, as Buber’s formula suggests, it can be a challenging thing to negotiate. Not all promises are easy, not all promises are wise, not all promises are kept, and even when promises are broken that doesn’t necessarily end a relationship.
And still, promise-making is at the heart of who we are, of what we do as human beings, and, I want to argue today, something we liberal religious folk can offer up as a source of hope for the world.
Last week I told you that this is a community where you are invited to discover what your heart and mind and soul declare must be true about how the world is and our place within it. We frame that in the first half of our congregation’s mission statement, which I remind us of each Sunday – “we nurture individual search for meaning.”
The second half of that statement reminds us that we do this in community: not simply for our own edification, but with an end in mind, that we work together for “freedom, justice and love.” And it’s important to remember that those words at the end are not tagged on as an afterthought – “hey, join us here and figure yourself out and, oh, if you have the time you might want to help us out in this other work.”
We believe that this other work is integral – no, even more: necessary to any hope we may have of finding integrity and peace, of knowing who we really are. And it’s bound up in a process of promise-making that we call covenant.
This notion of covenant is very old with us and so, as you might gather, has followed some twists and turns along the way. It dates back to the 1550s in Great Britain to a religious reformer named Robert Browne who pushed for a radical shift in church life. Inspired by leaders of the Reformation in Europe, he drew on the image of God’s promise-making in the Bible to argue that churches should be gathered in a similar way. Churches, he said, should be formed based on a covenant among persons.
And instead of agreeing to a common doctrine, he said, people could agree to walk together on the basis of certain religious principles. They could choose their own ministers and teachers, put forth and debate issues to learn the truth and welcome diversity of opinion, even protest and dissent.
This notion took root and crossed the Atlantic with the Puritans and guided the formation of those first congregations in New England. In 1648 this arrangement was codified among the gathered churches in something called the Cambridge Platform, which both described and defined how covenant worked. Essentially, it laid out the practices that congregations followed that reinforced the ties within, among and beyond them through regular worship, meetings and mutual care.
In the years that followed, though, the role of covenant faded in many congregations as disputes over belief began to divide them. More conservative congregations began to set high bars of orthodoxy for people to be admitted into membership, and some congregations – including many that were later to become Unitarian – put aside the old covenants to avoid religious disputes.
It wasn’t until the 20th century that, once again, reformers in our movement called attention to this covenantal tradition and offered it as a way of reestablishing who we were and what we had to offer to the world.
What they discovered is that this notion of covenant addresses a fundamental tension in our movement. In a way, that tension is represented by the two halves of our congregation’s mission. On the one hand, we encourage and defend the right of each person to make up her or his own mind about what is true on religious questions – the search for meaning that we take to be a lifetime’s work. But if the gatherings of our congregations are to be anything more than the fitful herding of cats we must also agree on some principle that unites us.
Historians of our movement went digging into the files of some of our older churches and discovered these old documents with such expansive sentiments as these: Love is the doctrine of this church, the quest of truth is its sacrament and service is its prayer.
Covenants like these do nothing to inhibit the wide ranging explorations that we as individuals or congregations may undertake to learn and come to terms with what is true and right. But they do provide some context for the work and some understanding of the spirit in which this work is done.
So, it’s no surprise that in the mid-1980s when calls came to revise the founding documents of Unitarian Universalism to make them more inclusive, the words that were chosen were framed as a covenant. The language that we proudly point to today, that you will find mounted and framed in the foyer outside this sanctuary, is presented as principles that we as member congregations covenant to affirm and promote. They are not statements of belief; they are promises of how we will behave with each other and in the larger world.
A little over a decade ago a task force was gathered in this congregation to take us to the next step. As a member congregation of the UUA, we agreed to affirm and promote the principles it adopted, but how about with each other? What promises do we need to make to each other to make this safe space for us to be about the often challenging and emotionally risky work of building a spiritual life?
The result of that process was the covenant that we read together last Sunday as we welcomed new members and friends into this community. I invite us to read it together each time we widen the circle of this community both as a way of bringing newcomers into the promises that unite us and of concentrating our attention for a moment on the work we try to do here.
Because the fact is that we all have rough edges that can damage others, and conflict is a fact of life in any gathering of people. We serve ourselves and each other best when we acknowledge that and commit ourselves to finding ways to work through those conflicts or find healing for the injuries we do to each other. It’s tough work and can make for some uncomfortable moments, but our hope is that we will come together again and recommit ourselves to this path.
But, when you think about it, what really leads us to choose this path? The way we usually frame the answer to this question is to say that as individuals with free will we decide that it is in our interest to commit to others and bring a community into being.
Now, that’s fine and there is probably some truth to it, but, to be honest, if that’s all that underlies our commitments to one another, it’s pretty tepid broth. If my decision to enter into covenant with you is based simply on my calculation of how it will benefit me, it won’t take much for that calculation to change. I may decide that I just don’t feel like it any more, and, hey, don’t give me grief, I get to decide what’s in my interest or not. OK, but then this covenant we thought we had really doesn’t stand for much, does it?
So, what else might guide our promise-making? Rebecca Parker, president of Starr King School for the Ministry, offered a way of thinking about his in a talk she gave to General Assembly about a dozen years ago.
She suggested that the covenants we make are centered in the covenants we inherit. The fact of the matter, she said, is that “we receive who we are before we choose what we will become.” Our very existence, after all, emerged out of a web of relationships that were simply given, and everything that we do or achieve is woven together with persons and forces that ebb and flow throughout on lives. We can elect to drift on obliviously pretending that nothing we do touches anything else, but plainly that’s not the way it is. And thinking this way puts us deeply out of touch with the world before us and the very source of meaning and strength that might awaken and transform us.
When my granddaughter and I trade promises, we are not negotiating contracts to achieve our mutual interests. We are building connections of love and trust that help realize a deeper hope in both our lives.
In her book An American Childhood, Annie Dillard compares the work of writing a book to raising a child, and she could just as easily be talking about the place we move from in shaping our covenants with each other.
“Willpower has very little to do with it,” she says. “If you have a little baby crying in the middle of the night, and if you depend only on willpower to get you out of bed to feed the baby, the baby will starve. You do it out of love. . . . There’s nothing freakish about it. Caring passionately about something isn’t against nature, and it isn’t against human nature. It’s what we’re here to do.”
This is something that I think our liberal religious notion of covenant has to offer the world. We don’t create covenants with each other out of mutual self-interest. We don’t do it for fear that God will hate or condemn us if we don’t. We do it because it’s what we’re here to do. It is how we best realize the hope that we as human beings are for the world.
We are given the opportunity to tap a well in our hearts that is wider and deeper than we can know but that many of us learn to keep sheltered and hidden. We might imagine that the promises we make limit us, but in fact the opposite is true. The promises we make release the latches that make the love that we shelter away available. The testing and trusting we do with each other takes our commitment to greater depth and opens previously unimagined possibilities.
Of course, some of the promises we make are not kept or turn out to have been ill advised. So we take a step back and look for ways to reconnect. As a community we offer consolation, care, and space for healing and renewal. In the end, we remember that, while we may have been wounded, the heart is a muscle that is strengthened by being used.
Opening our hearts to each other, Rebecca Parker points out, prepares us to open our hearts to the world, to make our communities centers of resistance to oppression and injustice. The work can be challenging, but we gain courage from knowing that we are leading from the source of our strength, joined as communities gathered not out of convenience or artifice but out of our understanding of a truth at the center of our being.
It is hard, as Billy Collins puts it, to talk of all the ways we are touched and shaped in this brief snatch of eternity that we are given, where we take the vast outside into us before the lights wink out. It can be frightening, lonely.
We look for travelers to share the way with us, people who will walk along side, who will be there when we knock on their doors, hoist a pack and join us for a bit. In our promises with each other we build a structure that supports us all, that creates a crucible for our striving and searching and a shelter against the storms. Each person who joins our covenant adds a brick to that structure that, it is our hope, in time may help heal the world.
When it comes to spiritual guides, I have admitted to you before, I have a weakness for Ralph Waldo Emerson. Yes, his webs of prose can be enigmatic, even infuriating. “What on earth are you getting at here?” I want to shout at times. But at other times I am grateful for the graceful beauty, fresh insight, and brilliant extravagance of his writing.
Perhaps nothing that Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote has been more frequently quoted than the passage that Bob read from Emerson’s first book, Nature. The image of the “transparent eyeball” taking in “the currents of Universal Being” is striking and unusual. And, apparently some in Emerson’s own circle at the time thought so, too. There is a famous caricature of Emerson drawn by Christopher Cranch, an artist who was part of the Transcendentalist circle, that shows an enormous eye with a kind of pork pie hat on, perched on a small torso, complete with morning coat, striding on long legs over the countryside.
After all, from what we know of Emerson, a sweet, avuncular sort of fellow, it wasn’t the kind of expression that one would expect. In all of Emerson’s writing, outside of his journals, it is really his most personal testimony of his own spirituality.
But, of course, when we consider the project that he had in mind in writing Nature, we can understand why it is there. Nature was in many ways Emerson’s declaration of his own rebirth. With the death of his first wife, Ellen, he had given up his pastorate at Boston’s Second Church (Unitarian) and traveled to Europe to clear his mind and find a way forward in his life.
He was deeply impressed by the art and architecture of ancient cities, and he was intrigued by poets and philosophers who were challenging old ideas about biblical narratives and finding the roots of religion in personal experience. But when he got back home, rather than enlist himself with any particular thinker or school, Emerson took off on his own.
But what did that mean? The pulpit had little appeal, even if he did do supply preaching now and again for most of the rest of his life. Instead, he fashioned a notion of himself as a kind of free-lance scholar – one who would read and think and write – whose work, he later declared would be “to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances.”
In this time of talking heads, we think that we have a pretty good idea of what that meant. We can imagine him appearing on Oprah, writing a blog on the Huffington Post. But, no, there was something more. Even though he had given up the preacher’s robe he still had something of a longing for the preacher’s vocation.
He was interested not merely in “facts” but in, as he later defined the preacher’s work to new graduates at Harvard’s Divinity School, “converting life into truth.” That is, he hoped to persuade his readers that merely by attending deeply to the elements of their experience they might discover insight that would thrill their souls. And that that experience would awaken something great and holy within them, that it would, as the poet Mary Oliver said of Emerson’s hope, “turn all the heavy sails of one’s life to a moral purpose.”
So, it is no surprise that the image that came to Emerson in Nature was that of an eyeball, for the thrust of his urging is always, “Look, Look!” For, in looking we might for a moment erase that boundary between us and the blithe world. We might taste for a moment the erasure, not of the self but of egotism, that preoccupation with self, and become, in his words, “the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty.”
It’s because of passages like this that some see Emerson here proposing a new form of American mysticism, and that’s not far from the truth. When Emerson gathered a cadre of Unitarian ministers and like-minded folks that became known as the Transcendentalist Club, his goal was to clear the decks of what seemed to him the stodgy theological debates that prevailed at the time over such things as the nature of Christ’s divinity, Original Sin, the meaning of biblical miracles and all that.
In many ways he was speaking to himself as much as graduating students at Harvard’s Divinity School when he urged them to cast aside what he called the “secondary knowledge” they had taken in during their years in seminary.
“Let me admonish you to go alone,” Emerson said, “to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil. . . . Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost – cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity.”
What exactly he means by “deity” here is unclear. It is given no specific image or essence. It is more like the welcoming sense of warmth and exhilaration that he describes back in his book Nature. “In the presence of nature,” he wrote, “a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows. Nature says – he is my creature, and (in spite of) all his impertinent griefs, he shall be glad with me.”
If this is mysticism, though, it is mysticism with a twist. Unlike, say, with the Christian or Sufi mystics, who find communion in giving themselves over to the divine, Emerson views the “wild delight” we find as something more like a reunion. In Nature he writes, “the greatest delight which the fields and woods minister is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and vegetable. I am alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them. The waving of the boughs in the storm is new to me, and old.
“It takes me by surprise, and yet is not unknown. Its effect is like that of a higher thought or a better emotion coming over me, when I deemed I was thinking justly and doing right. Yet it is certain that the power to produce this delight does not reside in nature, but in man, or in a harmony of both.”
Emerson sees nothing especially privileged about this experience. It requires no special study or preparation, no incantations or physical exercises. As Emerson’s biographer Robert Richardson puts it, “Experiences of the kind Emerson here describes have happened to nearly everyone who has ever sat beneath a tree on a fine clear day and looked at the world with a sense of momentary peace and a feeling, however transient, of being at one with it.”
And yet, the question remains, once you have had such an experience, what do you make of it, what do you do with it? For Emerson it is more than a pleasant moment on a sunny day. It is the doorway into a deeper way of living.
In many ways, Emerson opened the modern conversation around something that we have come to call spirituality. Like many people today, Emerson looked at the landscape of leaders and institutions making claims about how the world works and our place in it and what he saw seemed merely rehashed and derivative.
“Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?” He was not disputing the testimony of Jesus, or Moses, of Buddha, Confucius, Lao-Tse, Mohammed.
Worthy guides, all. But, in his turn of phrase, why should not our experience also count? Indeed, if our spirituality is to be authentic, how could it not? Critics who see in Emerson’s argument for what he called “self-reliance” a kind of go-it-alone bullishness miss the point. Emerson himself makes the point in his essay by that name, “Self Reliance,” and please excuse the language of his time that uses male gender to make a point that universal to all:
“There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.”
The point is not that we have nothing to learn from others or that we can only find wisdom by wandering off on our own. It is that in the end we simply must make sense of it ourselves, and for that work we can trust our own faculties, our own minds and hearts. In this he was less a scholar than a provocateur: take ownership of the vision that living in the world gives you; look and see and act on what you learn.
The religions of the world, today as in Emerson’s day, are full of those who warn us of our fallibility, of our error and our sin, and so would have us distrust what our minds and senses teach, who urge us to give ourselves over to settled doctrine, to a way long trodden by others.
From the title of his first book, we imagine Emerson raising up the natural world as the great source of all inspiration. While I’m sure it’s true that he enjoyed his constitutionals in the brisk air of Concord, what we know about Emerson the man is that, unlike his friend Thoreau, his true home was not so much the woods, as his study. What he received on walking out of doors was literally a breath of fresh air, the vision of a world broader than his mind could ever encompass that put to shame the limited orthodoxies and philosophies that peopled his books.
“Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us by the powers they supply to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe. The sun shines today also.”
The words are old and a little high flown, but I find they resonate with me still. I’m a bit more of a nature boy than Emerson was and so the natural imagery definitely connects, but I also recognize the larger point here. It is not that by wandering in the woods you will find your spirituality. It is that we should be wary of facile of theories of the world that are cooked up in closed rooms.
The world in its astonishing beauty and complexity can be trusted and the world will ever surprise us, and we will each engage it with our own genius and on our own terms. It is this perspective that makes Emerson one of the founders of a modern liberal religious sensibility, what has been dubbed the “Spiritual Left,” and to my mind makes him relevant to us today.
Those of you who are new to us know that in some settings communities like ours are lampooned as places where, as they say, “you can believe anything you want.” In fact, the bar is much higher. Joining this community, you are invited to believe what you must, what your heart and mind and soul declare must be true and to engage with this community in sorting out the implications of those convictions.
It’s a process that I’ve abbreviated in this month’s worship theme as “choosing to choose”: taking ownership of what calls to you, whether it be in the woods or the town, and following where it leads you.
We offer this place as a crucible for all of us to work this out, to learn and grow and raise our children in an atmosphere of acceptance and trust where the blithe winds of the world and the brainstorms and controversies of centuries can blow through, where we hope to awaken something great and holy within you that will enable you to turn all the heavy sails of your life to a moral purpose.
I have to say it’s been interesting hearing people’s reactions to this week’s sermon title. “Staying put, huh?” I wouldn’t say the response has been entirely positive. Viewed from one perspective, “staying put” sounds a bit like “being stuck,” a kind of hide-bound view of the world that is stubborn and inflexible. We live in a culture that celebrates change and novelty. So, who would want to “stay put?”
That’s certainly true of us here in Asheville. We are a place on the move. Most of us here are transplants. We pulled up our roots from wherever we were and decided to give Asheville a try. We saw it as a nice place to retire to, or maybe just wanted to be near the natural beauty of this place, the agreeable climate, or the funky vibe.
It’s not for nothing that several years ago a writer surveying what he called the “geography of bliss” identified Asheville as a place where you could find it. Now, I do think it’s a little over the top to describe Asheville as “one of the happiest places” on earth, but people keep coming, and here we are, and, yeah, it’s true, it is pretty good.
This is also true of us as a religious community. Few of us grew up as Unitarian Universalists. At some point in our lives we fell away from whatever tradition we were raised in, if any, and set out looking for something different, something that more clearly matched our view of how the world worked and what matters, and here we are.
Of course, it’s also true that the hunger for change can turn into a kind of mania – skipping from place to place, from relationship to relationship, from religion to religion without really taking time to get to know, or to invest oneself in any of them. This kind of living leaves us scattered, shallow and unfocused, ultimately out of touch with others and even with ourselves as we scurry about frantically.
And the consequences of this way of living can be even deeper. If we’re always on our way to the next thing, we never truly value the things we have. We find ourselves unmoored morally and spiritually, searching for meaning without knowing how to find it.
So, yes, change is important, letting go what no longer serves us, what is destructive, dysfunctional, worn out and oppressive, but in doing so we need to have an eye for that which is life-giving, enriching, generative and hopeful, a way of being that can sustain us and support us for the long run, a place in our lives where we can stay put with integrity and joy.
This topic has been knocking around in my head for a few years, after reading a book by my colleague Michael Schuler on, in his words, “making the good life last.” He begins by disputing the assumption in popular culture that equates “the good life” with material abundance and personal stimulation. Instead of finding personal satisfaction, he says, we become more like what the Buddhists call “hungry ghosts.” We long for happiness and contentment, but we seek them in ways that only dull our cravings and never satisfy us. We compulsively seek out pleasure and prestige, but our discontent remains.
Life that is truly satisfying, Michael argues, is life that is sustainable. That is, it contributes to our own and our community’s wellbeing; it promotes a healthy earth home and fosters enduring relationships; it contributes to the common good and restores our minds and bodies.
But in order to make life sustainable, he says, we must be prepared to shift our priorities, to leave off doing some things and adopt or emphasize others. He boils down the work ahead of us to what he calls four keys of sustainable living: pay attention, exercise patience, practice prudence, and stay put.
Attention, patience, prudence . . . OK. But stay put? Let’s spend some time with this. We can begin with some thoughts from the novelist Wallace Stegner, who observed that in American culture we tend to be divided into what he called “boomers and stickers,” boomers being the folks who pull up stakes and head out to the boomtowns, and stickers being the ones who stick around for a while.
Historically, the boomers who itch for greener pastures tend to be the ones who are celebrated. But, Stegner observed, “neither the country nor the society we build out of it can be healthy if we don’t stop raiding and running. We must learn to be quiet part of the time and acquire the sense not of ownership, but of belonging.”
And belonging, of course, comes from more than just plopping down and calling some place home. It involves taking notice of where we are situated and sending out tendrils to make connections with others.
Michael Schuler points out that in earlier times there was a process of what he calls “entanglement” that came with moving to a new neighborhood. You’d be invited to someone’s porch to learn the local history or chat at leisure over the raking of leaves. Thread by thread you’d come to know each other, with relationships sealed by holiday gifts of brownies or spiced nuts, agreements to take in each other’s mail, or watch each other’s children, so that when sadness or hard times came, help arrived unbidden.
Scott Russell Sanders points out that the word “common” at the heart of community, communion, and communicate grows from two roots, “the first meaning ‘together’ or ‘next to’ and the second having to do with barter or exchange.” So, he says, “embodied in that word is a sense of our shared life as one of giving and receiving.”
He noted that even Ralph Waldo Emerson, our famous Unitarian forebear, while preaching self-reliance, “lived in a village, gave and received help, and delivered his essays as lectures for fellow citizens, whom he hoped to sway.”
Man of the mind though he may have been, Sanders says, you would have found leather buckets hanging by Emerson’s door in Concord, for he belonged to the village fire brigade.
For many of us, there were good reasons for uprooting ourselves from the soil where we were planted, and, as Sharon suggested, it is healthy for all of us to be wary of settling in, to retain a little restlessness so that we never are content to accept the unacceptable. But Emerson’s leather buckets also remind us that at some point we are called us to send out tendrils that can entwine with others, that bring us into a web of community and find there the treasure that our heart seeks.
Feeling entangled with a place also can build deeper connections. When asked what the most important thing was that every person could do to help resolve the environmental crisis, poet Gary Snyder is said to have replied: “stay put.” When we develop a commitment to a particular piece of ground, we can better understand, not just intellectually but almost viscerally, as it were, how we are linked to the land.
Last summer when I was looking for a way of deepening my own understanding of my connections to the Earth, I came upon an adult education class developed by the Northwest Earth Institute called “A Sense of Place.” Currently, Christine Magnarella Ray and I are currently leading about 20 people from this congregation in an eight-month class based on that curriculum. We blend classes discussing readings from the curriculum and discoveries that our class members have made about different natural systems with field trips to places as various as the Cherokee Indian Reservation and Craggy Gardens to center ourselves in this part of the world.
This sense of place is part of what staying put can give us, a deepening appreciation of how we are linked not just to this land but to all life. Among the readings I have turned to for this class is a book called The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell, a biologist at the University of the South. Haskell spent a year visiting almost daily a patch of old-growth forest that is about a meter square in eastern Tennessee and documenting everything he found there.
For his entry at around this date, toward the end of his year, after he has already documented insects, birds, spring flowers, trees, mushrooms and much more, Haskell turns to the most unseen realm of all: the microbial community under the leaf litter.
It is the earthy smells more than the visual clues that tip him off to what is happening in this microscopic scene, he says. With billions of microbes, many still unknown to science, interacting in that tiny spot of forest soil it is only an impressionistic glance, the least precise of his examinations all year. And still, laid out before him is this vast panorama – bacteria and fungi breaking down nutrients of all sorts and interpenetrating the tiny rootlets of plants.
It shows him, Haskell says, that Tennyson’s description of “nature red in tooth and claw” needs to be updated. We apex predators attend to the competition at the top of the food chain, but lower down we come to learn about the sharing and collaboration that hundreds of millions of years of evolution woven into the chain of life.
And that correction translates all the way up the chain to us as well. We are not fronting the world on a lonely crag; we are in community from the moment of our births until the days of our deaths – community that grows and deepens as we extend ourselves to it, as we interpenetrate the world and each other’s lives in ways greater than we can know.
And that carries us back here. One of the great gifts that we give each other in this community is staying put, staying in the game, being “long-haul” people, in Rudy Nemser’s words. It is, as our worship theme this month suggests, “choosing to choose.” That is to say, giving care and intention to the commitments we make, grounding them in something solid, and sticking with them
We enter this place affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person, but only over time do we learn all the wonders that each of us has to offer the other. The gift of community is something that improves with age, as we watch each other’s children grow, share each other’s triumphs, mourn each other’s losses.
For the past 10 years here I have been in a privileged place to watch all that and to see some of the virtue of staying put, the strength that we find when we stay with each other and treasure the depth of relationship and commitment that comes with that practice.
I told you earlier this year that I would make a practice of sharing with you some of the stories of how this congregation has made a difference in people’s lives, and today I’d like to share with you some of the people who have been among our long-haul players. Today I want to tell you about the Unicorns.
You have to go back about 40 years to find the origin story and even then it’s surrounded in some myth. I’m depending on the memories of a few of the originators, hoping I get it right.
It was said to have been a snowy December evening in 1972 when the minister at the time, Tracy Pullman, invited some younger parents to a gathering. The congregation was quite a bit smaller at the time, and Tracy hoped that these folks might form some sort of organization to get young parents like themselves involved.
They liked the idea and began organizing parties. The question came up early as to whether the group should have a title, and they agreed it should. Different iterations were tossed around until someone suggested that they were a kind of corny group of Unitarian Universalists, and so they were dubbed: the Unicorns.
It had, and still has, no official status. It was just a way to get people socializing, and from the start that was what attracted people to the group. They were young parents who got together for parties and picnics as well as “advances,” not retreats, at area YMCA camps and then an annual beach trip that I’m told continues to this day.
As the congregation grew, though, the Unicorns also took on other projects, raising money through bake sales and other ventures. When the time came in the late 1970s to construct the addition that doubled the size of Sandburg Hall and added a suite of offices and religious education classrooms downstairs, it was funding from the Unicorns that paid for schematic drawings of the project. Their initiative also helped bring in a professional fundraiser to raise money in the congregation for its construction.
Over the years the group has grown and shrunk as some members were added and others left. They have been present at the weddings of each other’s children and memorial services of each other’s loved ones and even one of their own.
They include three former congregation presidents, several former trustees, a religious education director, many RE teachers, a long-time treasurer, canvas chairs, search committee members, auction committee chair, social justice chair, a former UUA Board member, one member who arrived as a minister and another who was ordained into ministry by this congregation and later came back to serve it.
Among those still with us are Larry and Lisa Holt, Patsy Keever and Jim Aycock, Pat and Ron Godbolt, Doug and Jean Kean, Bob and Ann Lewis, Patty and Randy Vanderbeek, Clark and Anna Olsen, Chuck Campbell and Sarah York.
Individually their involvement has waxed and waned, but they have stayed put. They have watched ministers and other staff come and go and seen membership numbers rise and fall. They are long-haul people who have been here when we needed them and are with us still.
Walt Whitman, who knew the language of the heart as well as any, captures it best: Will you seek afar off? Surely you come back at last, in things best known to you, finding the best, or as good as the best – happiness, knowledge, not in another place, but this place – not for another hour, but this hour.