Restore, Be, Become
Some of us are born with an activated nostalgia gene. That has been true for me from a young age. I was nostalgic about West Park Elementary School I attended … when I was in middle school. I reminisced about the good old days when I was young … in high school. I love learning about my ancestors and visiting the places they lived. Two summers ago I visited Princess Anne, Maryland where my Pusey family relatives have lived for over 200 years. At every phase of my life, the good times and especially the bad times, I deeply enjoy the wistful emotion of remembering how things used to be.
Recently, I was digitizing old videotape recordings to better preserve them and came across the startup workshop we had when I first arrived in Albany in the fall of 1999. We used a classic organizational development tool that asks participants to offer their sense of what needs to be stopped, started and continued in our congregational life. On an October Saturday, members and friends met in small groups then came back together with their poster paper to do their presentations that were videotaped. I enjoyed seeing again where we were when I started my ministry in Albany, what has stayed the same, what we stopped doing and what we started and have accomplished since then. And I found it heart warming to see people animated again who walk with us no more.
This may sound a little odd coming from someone so devoted to Buddhist mindfulness meditation. This practice intensively focuses on the present moment. Watching the breath come in and knowing the breath is coming in then noticing the change and knowing the breath is going out as it goes out isn’t past or future oriented. I’m intently focused on what is arising in this present moment and noticing it. The benefit of this kind attention is the stimulation of insight. Insight is witnessed as causes interact to activate the effects. In insight-oriented meditation, these activated connections happen spontaneously and are available to be noticed as they arise in the present moment.
That enjoyment of memory and focus on the present hasn’t interfered with my having a future orientation too. Unitarian Universalism is very future oriented. We do not look back to some idealized time in the past we’d like to recreate. Many Christians see an idealized past in scripture and strive to recreate the early Christian communities. They believe those early Christians had the best access to what Jesus taught and transmitted through his presence. Those early communities are the superior versions of Christianity that has been corrupted through institutionalization in the church.
Similarly, the followers of Mohammad (peace be upon him) would have dearly loved to be present as he came forward with his revelations and heard it from his lips. During the time of the Buddha, people got enlightened just by being in his presence, accepting and practicing his teachings. His force of presence was that strong.
We Unitarian Universalists are not immune to this backward looking to a better time. As we face massive species extinction and life-threatening climate change, many experience the yearning to go back to a simpler time. A time in North America before European colonization when Indigenous People lived in harmony with the earth. Just about anywhere on this planet before industrial development, maybe even agriculture, when humans had much less capacity to threaten ecosystems. A time when life flourished and biodiversity thrived before traveling humans brought invasive species with them.
When UUs look backward, we do it because of a love of this planet and love of humanity. We are different from apocalyptically focused Christians. These folks aren’t concerned about the past or the present because they are using their time on earth as preparation for the end-times. After the rapture, we will be left behind. For them, the earth has no value because it is only instrumental as their launching pad for salvation.
Unitarianism, Universalism and Unitarian Universalism are religious traditions that draw our strength from confidence in both divine love and human capacity to respond. Rather than depraved, fallen sinners, we’ve always focused on the best of who and what humanity can be and removing the barriers to realizing our potential. At least the last several thousand years of European civilization have been fraught with barriers and limitations. Many of us would say there is no better time to go back to, even if we could. Better to move forward into creating a more just, equitable, healthy world than we have known before. We’d like to evolve beyond who have been and become a world society with peace and liberty for all.
There are huge losses to mourn today and many will continue to suffer without necessity tomorrow. And great potential awaits us as we reshape the world to eliminate diseases, reverse climate change, restore ecosystems to support biodiversity, create a balance between human and non-human occupation of the planet, and share the resources the planet offers in a sustainable way. Technology will continue to provide ways where there were no ways before and keep us busy mitigating the unintended consequences of their discovery and use.
Humanity is the result of a long, restless process of becoming. That process will not stop or even slow down because we have concerns about the mess humanity has made or the scary trends ahead of us. We aren’t even in charge of this becoming process. We came into consciousness only very recently on the grand geological time scale of evolution.
May we do our best to use our wisdom and intelligence to point that becoming process in healthy, wholesome directions, as we have the opportunity, for the benefit of all beings. Rev. Sam