I have thought that the only thing one needed to say about Unitarianism is Garrison Keillor's quip that they believe that somewhere in the darkness a candle burns. But Susan's niece Jamie, who I haven't seen since she headed off to college twenty five years ago or so is going to compel me to rethink that. This is her parting sermon at her parish - Third Unitarian Church in Chicago - a couple of weeks ago. - GWC
We light this Chalice recalling the Unitarian desire for freedom against any oppression, and in memory of the Universalist belief that love knows no bounds.
Opening Words - From Orhan Veli Kanik
“I am listening to Istanbul, intent, my eyes closed:
At first there is a gentle breeze
And the leaves on the trees
Out there, far away,
The bells of the water-carriers unceasingly ring;
I am listening to Istanbul, intent, my eyes closed.”
Orhan Veli Kanik wrote these words at end of World War One as he was watching the city he loved, and the country he loved, transition to a new noble nation state. What is striking about his poem is the ways in which the images he uses are those that have been affiliated with the city for centuries, the ancient sounds and smells of a glorious Istanbul. He continues “Kapali Charsi is serene and cool, An uproar at the market, Mosque yards are full of pigeons. While hammers bang and clang at the docks Spring winds bear the smell of sweat; I am listening to Istanbul, intent, my eyes closed”. This is a love poem about the old and the new, the clanging of steel against the iconic image of pigeons in the Mosque yard. It is memory inflected by sound and smell, it is nostalgic and at the same time completely present in a current moment. The reader is asked to blend the contemporary with the ancient. Today, we gather together to reflect on loss and legacy and consider that curious intersection of the past and future in this current moment. Today, let us renew our commitment to live out our deepest selves, to draw from moments that reveal our true work, or strongest callings, on this glorious morning! Let us gather in voice for our first hymn Enter Rejoice and Come In # 361. Please rise as you are able.
I used to take a ferry across the Bosphorus to school. Every morning I would walk through the busy streets of Istanbul, hop on a crowded ferry, cross the Bosphorus, hop off, and find a bus that would take me to Bogazici University high on the hills of Bebek. It was a heck of a trek. If you’ve ever been to one of the world’s Mega-Cities you can imagine the throngs of people that are always clogging every public space. At that time, the only public transit systems were buses, ferries, the beloved Dolmus with two bridges precariously connecting the Asian and European sides of the city. I was a ferry rider.
Every morning I would search for a seat on the crowded ferry, usually outside on the upper deck. The view of Istanbul was always remarkable and I never grew tired of the ways in which the skyline would shock me with hills, minarets, and clay roofs. One day, I stepped out onto the upper deck and notice a man sitting with two seats empty beside him. This was unusual. There had to be a reason for this. Following Turkish social norms I chose not to take one of those seats, rather I chose a seat next to a middle aged woman with space enough for a small dog to sit next to her. Seeing me she shifted over so I could sit, and I nodded with gratitude. We both knew that it would be “uncomfortable” for a young single (foreign) woman to seat herself next to a strange man, a social code I greatly appreciated.
Behind me came another woman, and noticing the two open seats, she chose one of them.
Typically, there is almost complete silence on the ferry and people take on the glazed look that many city folk throughout the world have acquired, you know, that look that says “I see you, but I don’t really see you…”
As the ferry began to pull away from the dock, the propellers deep in the water churning, the sounds of heavy water sloshing against the sides of the ferry, the man suddenly got up from his seat and began fluttering his arms up and down and walked to the outer edge of the rear of the ferry. As the ferry began to deepen its chugging and churning the seagulls flew in to congregate and collect the fish being forced to the surface, and our friend did the most remarkable thing:
He leaned over the edge of the ferry and with outstretched arms flapping up and down he began making a loud squawking sound. He leaned over the edge of the ferry as far as he could and continued this pattern. He appeared to be talking with the seagulls. It was a stunning sight to say the least, and it had caught me more than a little off guard as it did the woman who was seated next to him who quickly and quietly got up and found another seat.
I was stunned. Yet no one around me seemed surprised or concerned. In fact, those assembled for this performance did not seem disturbed in the least. The woman seated next to me must have sensed my discomfort for she turned to me and said this:
“He feels himself to be a bird”. Of course she said this in Turkish, and I must have looked at her with complete confusion because she said it again “He feels himself to be a bird”. She said this like she was telling me an extraordinary secret, and in fact she was telling me an extraordinary secret.
In case you haven’t noticed, its Memorial Day weekend, a time to remember those we have lost as well as prepare for the summer months ahead. It is a very interesting holiday; it simultaneously marks loss while joyously preparing for summer revelry. It is an axis in time where the past, present, and future meet cleanly on a Sunday morning! We’ve had losses this year at Third Church, and we spent time in our meditation today recognizing those losses together in silence and in voice. In this spirit, I want to spend time sharing my thoughts with you about taking leave, moving on, loss, and legacy. As you know, I am leaving Third Church at the end of June and so this presents as a critical moment for me to consider, with seriousness, the question Maureen D’Arcy asked me when she learned I was leaving. She asked me “what are you taking with you in your backpack?” I learned later that this a question posed to our young people at the beginning of their journey in their Religious Education classroom. I love the suggestion that this leaving, this letting go, this reflection today is really just another beginning. Maureen, I hope I might answer your question, although, I can promise you that I’m going to take the long way round, and it might take longer than anyone imagined, but bear with me just this once.
In the last few years, I have used the word nostalgic quite a bit to describe the current state of affairs of Unitarian Universalism write large. It is a curious concept, and I thought this talk might be a good time to unpack this a bit. The more I thought about it, the more the relationship between loss and legacy was clear, and nostalgia might be the connective tissue between these two poles. In the past, I’ve trotted out “nostalgia” as way to describe a person’s complicated feelings about the past, a longing for a time that can never return, and the real time effort that goes into trying to recreate the past in the present as a way to relive, or capture, that good feeling. According to Fredrick Jameson, the primary problem with nostalgia is that resists innovation because it is always attempting to more finely replicate the past in the present, more obsessively capture a lost wish, or chase a feeling that has long expired. In the depressing post-modern economy of Jameson’s recycled images and liberal capitalism, there is nothing new, only imperfect recreations of the past that fail to generate new creative possibilities.
For example: Remember Robert Redford and Barbara Streisand in The Way We Were? It’s a love story that offers no serious cultural reflection beyond the point that some people are incompatible, loves fades, and a serious communist cannot really hook up with a shallow Hollywood writer who, according to Wikipedia, “always takes the easy way out”. Here’s the thing, people loved this movie, I love this move, and people loved the song – Barbara Streisand singing an elegy to the 60’s in 1973. If I had pipes like Maggie I might sing it for you. What is true about this movie is that it sits in nostalgia. Even the title sticks “The Way We Were” right into our nostalgic eyeball. The entire story is of longing for a time before the truth of brokenness is revealed. The movie wants desperately to return to a Garden of Eden, the time before disappointment, shame and nakedness. It wants innocence back. The Way We Were isn’t concerned with moving on from the pain, it actually asks us to lose ourselves in loss. Extraordinary! It is exactly the kind of nostalgia that Jameson fears: recycled narcissism that offers nothing new to the story of who we are or who we could become. Granted this is a pretty old flick, but know that Hubbell, the leading man, has entered the common lexicon through Sex in the City, again recycling the image and integrating it into a not new story of women’s struggles with men. To find oneself with a Hubbell is not a good thing!
Now you might, as I do, disagree with this picture of nostalgia and notice that it is a very pathological state of being, and that if we take Jameson seriously, you’ll note that there is no escape from the circularity of the condition, and that he may assume that the narrative controls the person and that Creative agents, such as ourselves, are powerless victims to a tragic undertow like the lifeless characters in Happy Days, Leave it to Beaver, Sex in the City, and even MadMen.
In contrast I give you The Big Chill – Perhaps you remember? It is a movie that reflects on the feelings of nostalgia by a group of friends trying to discern their legacy in relation to a very important history – the political and social dissent of the late 60’s and early 70’s at the University of Michigan. As you recall, it starts with a funeral, and this funeral becomes the stage for the question “how is who WE are now related to who I was then and who WE are going to be tomorrow?” If this sounds a little schizophrenic that’s good, because it is! This is phenomenal question and it lends itself to considering the past, present and future both as individuals and as a community. The Big Chill Gang spend time alone and together trying to define and understand themselves, their dreams, their losses, and their future. I’m convinced that this is precisely the productive space that nostalgia can create for us if we are willing. Now, I’m not encouraging a weekend of reflective debauchery, which is what happens next in The Big Chill, but rather that we push into the losses, into our history, together and alone, and in doing this we might effectively engage the question of the future. The Big Chill doesn’t turn away from asking the big questions, why should we?
As people we don’t tire of revisiting the past and setting it against the present, and very possibly the future. We are grand story tellers and this is one our extraordinary gifts. We tell stories about ourselves to ourselves, alone and together. Yes, it’s true that sometime we create prisons with our stories, and we sometimes find it difficult to break free from our convictions, our self-defeat, and the comfort we take in believing what we believe. Sometimes it is hard to let go, to accept the past as it actually was, and not how we wanted it to be or wish it were. Believe me, I’ve spent many days hanging on too tight for too long to moments, days, years that are long gone, or were never quite a rosy as I wanted them to be. Our mind is funny like that, it can flip the script in a moment, see things now that we didn’t see then. Given all this, it STILL seems to me that we might have some determination in how we relate to the past, and what we are going to preserve for tomorrow. What if that in the same space of reflection, of nostalgia, exploring who we were, where we relate to the past, we become available to imagining new possibilities for ourselves and our communities? Might this be where we start building our legacy, by engaging in some intentional relating to the past? Might we think of Legacy Making as a relational process as well? The problem is not feeling nostalgic. It is how we respond to feeling nostalgic in the moment. I’ve already suggested that we might lean into our loss, our nostalgia, alone and together, as way to gain clarity and understand more about what we value and love in the world, move closer to those things that inspire us, and let go of those things that we are called to release. But the question still stands, “what do we do when we are in the thick of it? How might we avoid falling prey to the pattern of chasing the past in the present?”
I told you I was taking the long way round, and I’m almost there, and I want you to know that when I first considering leaving Third, I was hit with a deep sadness. I remembered what called me to Third Church four years ago, why coming to Third Church made so much sense. This made me revisit the story about the man on the ferry who felt himself to be a bird. Here was my key to considering how we might relate to the past in a way that aims at legacy making, at connecting constructively with the past.
The extraordinary truth revealed to me that day was not that some people feel themselves to be birds, but rather that connecting to and expressing one’s inner essence is a de facto way of being in the world. It is part of the glorious condition of being human. This is mind blowing stuff. Here, in our culture we would say that he THINKS he is a bird, and then bombard him with a team of social workers to help him figure out that he is a person, and his aspirations should be those of a person and not a bird. This phrase “he feels himself to be a bird” continues to remind me that feeling who we are on a deep essential level is important. This year, Brian and Maggie have led us through meditations on Sunday mornings with the purpose of supporting us in feeling more deeply and clearly, helping us create space to connect with our deepest selves, and discover the truths held in that quite space.
This moment on the ferry left a mark on me because it asked me to reconsider what “feeling” and “thinking” are, and discover who I might be if I lean more deeply into feeling myself. As you might guess, I’m kinda a thinking girl, and I confess that if I could carry a stack of emoticons around with me to deploy when appropriate, I totally would. One of the things I love about the discipline of religious life, or life in our movement, is that is asks me to do what is hard. Feeling is hard, but it is necessary. My goal is to continue to feel myself more deeply, to engage space where I am relating to past in a way that will generate new creative possibilities for the future. My hope is that by leaning into my feelings and embracing them with my whole self, I might discover that beyond longing I crave something bigger, with more endurance. Discover that I don’t have to chase the past, but rather I can create something new. Pema Chodron calls this “choosing something different” as a path of discovery.
Third Church most certainly has a legacy in me, whether you like it or not! When I am still and fully present, leaning into memories and moments I have spent serving this congregation I can honestly promise that you will never leave me. Like my friend on the ferry, I feel myself to be a Third Churcher from the inside out. It is part of the glorious expression of my being. So, what am I taking with me in my backpack?
This congregation has taught be about commitment and love. You have shown me over and over again that in building the beloved community you’ve got to show up, even when it is hard, really hard, and have the difficult conversations. Even when you’d rather go have a glass of chardonnay, ignore the emails, and turn off the phone. You show up and do the hard work and your love for each other makes this possible. This commitment and love to and for each other has taught me that even when relationships feel broken, and love feels far away, there is healing, acceptance, and a future together beyond a painful moment.
The boldness of your tradition will always be with me. Third Church has, and will continue to make, bold and courageous decisions that transform the lives of our members, for our neighbors, our city, and our planet. The choice to stay in Austin changed the corner of Mayfield and Fulton, created jobs, community, and food through our garden. Third Church sends a message everyday about service and commitment to the city of Chicago. And this pulpit has always made bold and courageous statements about justice for people and the earth. The tradition of speaking truth to power, of valuing loud and instructive voices of dissent that demand change will always inform my work and call to service.
Today, the Sustainability Task Force let the final discussion for this church year. I understand that these conversations are continuing next year as well. As you take up these conversations, I hope that you will considering leaning in to the complicated feelings, to reflect with intention, and identify those things most matter, the pieces of the past that feel most necessary and critical to the future. Third Church is an essential voice in crafting Unitarian Universalism that speaks to the urban experience. I am so grateful for my time here. Thank you for allowing me to serve your community. I can’t wait to see who you become in the future, and how your legacy will reveal itself to those who find you and come to know how phenomenal you truly are. And so it is. Please rise as you are able and join me in the closing hymn #113 Where is Our Holy Church
CLOSING WORDS and EXTINGUISHING THE CHALICE
Let us go forward rejoicing in what was, celebrating the gifts of the past with a renewed commitment to continue to fortify our legacy. Let us hear the call to celebrate justice, the bonds of loving community, and joy we find in of our lives everyday. We extinguish this Chalice but not the fire in our hearts, carry the flame. Please remain seated for the postlude.