Kearsarge Unitarian Universalist
Memories, Dreams, and New Beginnings
The Rev. William E. Nelson
Autumn as the real creator: an interesting turn of phrase, isn’t it? I happen to be one of those people who enjoys all the seasons (which is probably a good thing for a person who lives in Northern New England). I tend to invest myself emotionally in each of them as it comes – even as I can envision myself reluctantly saying goodbye to each as it passes. Of all the seasonal transitions, though, this time between high summer and early autumn is among the most moving for me. One day around the middle of August something happens. There’s a kind of ethereal yet distinct change in the air. There’s a new scent, a new texture, that tells us that the leaves will soon get serious about displaying their brilliant fall colors, that soon we’ll be wearing sweaters.
On a table at home I have a little toy car on a table, a replica of a 1949 Ford station wagon, the kind with wood on its sides. I spotted it a few years ago at the Vermont Country Store, and just had to plunk down my $5.95 or whatever it was, and take it home to put on display. Why? Because it was a station wagon just like this, driven by a Mrs. Francis, that picked me up to take me to my first day of kindergarten. It’s one of those events that’s stuck in my memory as if it were yesterday – a significant picture of a significant event. And it had all happened on a day probably very much like today, a few days after Labor Day.
From childhood on, fall is a time of awakening. It’s an awakening to new things: new schools, new teachers, sometimes new friends, new experiences, new things to learn. It’s truly a time of transition, of excitement. While the world around us puts itself to a sound winter’s sleep, we humans restart our engines and get busy with all those things to which humans have to attend. Which includes, of course, for those of us inclined towards the religious pursuit, getting back to church, to synagogue, to ashram, to whatever community of faith to which we relate. We put on our fall attire and invest ourselves in the really serious business of trying to figure out who we are and what we’re doing here on this planet.
So it is that on this early September morning, immersed in the delicious, still-gentle air of late summer, that you and I gather here in the Stone Chapel at Proctor Academy. I’m very sincere when I say that it would be difficult for me to exaggerate how pleased, and how grateful I am to be with you in this room this morning. For this morning we’re setting out on a kind of journey, a journey into a new relationship that I’m hopeful will take us to some lofty destinations. We may not be picked up in a 1949 Ford station wagon, but we’ll be traveling together. And I’m hopeful that we’ll have such a good time on our journey, that whether or not we reach a destination will be a moot point; it’ll be irrelevant, because we’ll have learned that it’s the journey that’s the point.
That’s always been the way for people of a liberal religious inclination: we know that the ultimate destination, the “Absolute” we might seek may well be unattainable. But my, how we’ll have a good time along the way! And who knows? Maybe, just maybe, we’ll find as T.S. Eliot says in his Little Gidding (which I quoted in this month’s Minister’s Missive):
An important thing we have to do when we set out on a journey, though, is to pay attention to what we’re bringing along. We can take as much as we want, actually – there are no extra service charges for an extra suitcase on a spiritual flight. But we want to be sure that we travel light enough that we’re open to what we may find along the way. As religious liberalists, as Unitarian Universalists, we expect to learn something, so we want to ensure that there’s room for such learning.
The only thing we truly bring along, of course, is our selves. But what is the self? How do we define that? How do we declare it in the customs line of the spiritual journey? What I’m suggesting this morning is that we approach this elusive entity, this “self,” through some thoughts about memory, and about dreams – two thing in which most human beings have some degree of experience.
Let’s begin with memory. In his play The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde writes, “Memory . . . is the diary we all carry about with us.” This “diary,” this unique possession of each being, is a very precious thing. It contains so much that shapes us into the persons we’ve become over the years. All of our life is there: every impression, every depression; every joy, every pain, every proud moment, every shame, every fear, every comfort. All there, stored away in the brain, with its neurons, its synapses, its bright sunny meadows and its dark secret passageways. We store personal memory, familial memory, cultural memory, tactile, aural, visual olfactory memory, easy- to-recall memory and hidden-away-in-closets memory. It’s who we are.
Sometimes there are memories we’d like to forget, particularly when they’re memories of our flaws. Woody Allen, in this movie Annie Hall, cites Groucho Marx’s “I wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would take me as a member,” and then muses that maybe he should never get into a relationship in which one of the partners is himself. Many of us have some kind of secret hidden deep within, and that’s probably where it should remain. Benjamin Franklin once wrote, “Three may keep a secret, as long as two of them are dead.”
But all of this – every bit of it – we take with us everywhere we go. And maybe particularly, into the faith community, into the community in which we come seeking acceptance, seeking company, seeking understanding, seeking to be understood. I’m not saying that this is the place where all of this has to be disclosed, but rather that it has to be recognized and acknowledged, in order that we can know ourselves well enough to be able to listen to and appreciate others in our midst. For here we are, a gathering of walking, talking, breathing memory banks, trying to communicate with love and sincerity – because we need each other.
So: we have a history; each of us. But as we gather as seekers we’re more than just compilations of past events and thoughts. We’re also dreamers. As a certain political candidate has recently said, he likes to see the world not just as it is, but as it could be. Don’t we all? We yearn to see the world as it could be, and we yearn to see ourselves as we could be! For none of us is finished. Not yet, anyway. And if there’s a place where it’s appropriate to dream dreams, it seems that the church is about as good as any we can find.
Now I’m hardly naïve enough to think that just because we meet as a church, or fellowship, that we’re all going to agree on everything. Even as Unitarian Universalists, we won’t necessarily agree on everything! We’ll do a lot better than some, no doubt; but there’s always some wiggle room in there that makes for good discussion.
When I was first involved with UUs, back in the early 1970s, the term “come-outers” was used a describe UUs as a denomination made up primarily of people who’d been hurt or disillusioned or otherwise alienated from their Christian, Jewish, or whatever other background, and had found a home in this setting. But even UUs can have problems among themselves, you know.
Maybe some of you have heard the story about the man who’d been shipwrecked on a desert island for over twenty years – all by himself. Quite by accident, a group of adventurers came upon the island and decided to check it out. After both the visitors and the island’s sole resident got over the shock of encountering one another, the man took the group to his home – actually a little compound he’d built over his two decades in solitude. First he showed them his house, which they all admired. Then he took them to a second building. “This is where I go to church,” he said proudly. The new people nodded their heads approvingly and then asked, “What’s that building over there?” To which the man replied, “Oh, that’s where I used to go to church.”
Everybody has a dream of what life should be like. (Well, maybe not everybody, but a lot of the people I know do.) Memories record what has been; dreams project what could be. They envision a world where people could live in peace and at peace. What it would be like to live in the absence of strife, of jealousy, of war. Most of us, of course, are experienced enough to realize that we’re not likely to make such dreams come true in our time. But that doesn’t have to stop us from living those dreams as best we can – from living in an “as if” mode. For this is how women and men make a difference: by living “as if” it really is going to make a difference.