Souvenirs

Jan Carlsson-Bull    May 28, 2000

You have heard-most of you have heard by now-about our Time Capsule. Since the beginning of this year, there has been a committee at work, a high-energy laser-focused team, whose purpose is to document our congregational life as we conclude the 20th century and move into the 21st. Cameras, notepads, computers, cell phones-all have been at the disposal of this committee as they have moved from meeting to meeting, event to event, office to office, and into this sanctuary with their journalistic zeal. While the events of the first week in May received their most intense scrutiny, these tireless chroniclers are covering other events reflecting congregational life throughout this month. They are assembling artifacts representative of our lives over the past century. Sometime this summer the capsule will be sealed with instructions as to the timing of its opening.

We gather this morning as ancestors in the making. Just as we build on the lives of those who came before us, we trust that the great family of All Souls will extend well beyond the boundaries of our lives. On this Memorial Day Sunday I wonder if a letter is not in order, to share with you this morning and to offer to the Time Capsule, a letter directed to those who will live their lives as the heirs of this beloved community-our grand and great-grandchildren who we trust will see All Souls well into the 22nd century. Why not?

ææææææææææææææææææææææææ

Dear whoever you are..no, scratch that. Highlight. Delete. Start over. Why not begin like my grandmother began her letters?

Dear ones:

And dear ones you are. I know you, and you are but seedlings in the womb of this great family of All Souls. Uncertainty is such a staple of the time in which I write, who knows if there will even be a great family of All Souls, let alone an All Souls, New York City, to open this gift of time? We can only hope so.

It goes so quickly, as my 91-year-old mother told me recently. It's barely the blink of an eye. It's as is we offer our gift of this Time Capsule one day and you open it the next, and in that interval we live our lives and craft the legacy that is yours out of which to craft a legacy for your dear ones.

I know that not too much will really change, and yet the substance of everything changes. When I was maybe eight or nine I sat on the edge of my bed one morning looking down at my bare feet, at my still child-chubby toes, and thought that many years hence, when I would have grown into adulthood, in fact, well before then, not only those toes but my entire body would be other than it was at that moment. The cells that formed me would have worn out their welcome and new cells would have arrived, and this sequence would cycle and re-cycle throughout my lifetime. So what was it, this sense of self, this me, that continued anyway? As I write you, I trust that this fragile thread of who I am, of who we are, will find its way into your lives from ours.

Just as I am proud of so much that we do through this church, I am also embarrassed and ashamed for so much of what you will undoubtedly contend with that we have left undone, or that we have simply messed up altogether. In our larger world, Cain is still slaying Abel-brother against brother in so many renditions of that story from Genesis. Ishmael is still the child cast aside-the one of every five children of poverty. All Job's questions still stir within us as we are jarred and wrenched by the harshest of life's surprises. And we are still seeking to understand and practice some facsimile of the gospel of love and compassion.

I hope, for example, that you don't have to fear for your lives as we do because of the gun violence that has erupted over the past few years on our streets, in our schools and workplaces, even in my neighborhood post office. Exactly two weeks ago today over a hundred of our members went by bus to Washington, DC (I'll bet a bus sounds antiquated to you) to urge Congress to pass more restrictive gun legislation. It was the Mother's Day Million Mom March that you may have read about in an American history text. I took one of my daughters and told all my children it was the best Mother's Day I ever had. It was. You will, of course, know if we persevered with our message and if Congress heard us. I certainly hope a better way is long since on the books and that another scourge of violence has not simply risen to take its place.

Perhaps you know from exploring the archives that our Gun Control Task Force is just one of many committees and task forces that we work through to try to make our city and world a more inviting place. Then there's the AIDS Task Force, which we dearly hope you no longer have need of, and our Nuclear Disarmament Task Force. I guess if you're reading this, it means we've been somewhat successful with nuclear disarmament. And there's our Journey Toward Wholeness Anti-racism work. How I wonder what the course of this will be. We do try, as Unitarian Universalists, to honor those principles and purposes that are among the few things on which we highly opinionated folks tend to agree. How to live them is yet another matter. But you can read more about all this in the monthly Bulletins and coverage on our larger community of faith. We're so grateful to our Historical Society, which ensures it will all be there for you.

These issues are, for me, the lifeblood of Unitarian Universalism, but they are so because of the bonds between us as we live out our day-to-days and try not to take each other for granted, here at All Souls and in our neighborhoods and our families. In the very first sermon I gave here at All Souls, almost three years ago, I talked about this, about not taking each other for granted, and I referred to Thornton Wilder's play, "Our Town." It was a play I first saw when I was probably eight years old. Our local high school was performing it, and my mother took me.

How it struck me even then, this tale of families in a small New England town, especially the episode of the young woman known as Emily Gibbs returning to a day of her choice after she had died, knowing that she could observe, but not participate. "Choose the least important day in your life," she had been told. "It will be important enough." Emily stood at the open window of the home she had known the morning of her 12th birthday. The vision and voices of her mother, father, and brother moving through their morning litanies, were more than she could bear. How could any of us forget her words, once heard: "It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another....I didn't realize....Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?--every, every minute?"

What a rare opportunity this is-the whole idea of the time capsule that you have opened like a birthday gift. Like Emilys given a second chance, we're looking through the windows of All Souls on plain ordinary days with the opportunity to realize life while we live it. There is still time to tell one another, "I love you."

Issues will be with us always and struggles for justice are always ours to undertake and will be yours too. It's the who and what for of those issues that seize my heart.

Can I imagine life without my children, for example-all three of them-Shana, Sarah, and Lisa? Already they're young women, each of them lovely in her own right and deliciously quirky. They know me all too well. Has parenting changed much? They know how to make my heart shrink in terror and swell with pride. Of course, they know how to make me laugh till the tears roll. Certainly they know how to surprise me even, if you can imagine, on matters theological.

Consider this. I was a young mother with my then two young daughters, driving them home from school. "Mommy," asks my seven-year-old, "Do you believe in devils?" Well, devils weren't exactly on my mind at the moment, but there we were. "You've been thinking about devils," I commented, hoping to learn more. "Yeah, during recess we were talking about devils, and some of the kids think they're real." "Well, what do you think?" I countered. "I'm not sure." She ventured further. "I'm not sure about God either." (Does this strike a familiar note?) "Well, honey, some people believe in God and some don't." Throughout this interchange, my usually spirited three-year-old was sitting in the back seat, uttering not a sound. My eldest continued, "I need to think about that." At long last, a voice rose from the rear. "Well," huffed this toddler, "Everybody knows about raccoons!"

So this gives you some clue as to who my children are, with their budding nature of speculation and pronouncement. How vivid that conversation is, and how equally vivid are the conversations among the children of All Souls and those of us who have been privileged to teach and learn from them. I trust the conversations are ongoing in your generation, whether they concern matters of God or devils or getting along with each other.

While I've only been a minister here for three years, I have been privileged to walk with a number of wondrous folk who have invited me into their lives through simple conversation, through intensive work on task forces, through rites of passage-weddings, dedications, memorial services, and through countless happenings that are just plain fun-potlucks, picnics, talent nights during our annual LifeScapes retreats. I could go on.

There's a passage in the Old Testament-in Deuteronomy, I believe (5:9)-that has chafed since the first time I read it, and I think about it as I write you. It's another rendition of the Ten Commandments-I guess you know there are two-and Moses is telling the people of Israel not to make or worship any graven images, any idols. Then come the consequences for doing so: "for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me." Now this is terrifying. If it is so, I would bear the brunt of the bad behavior of my grandparents, for example, and you would bear the brunt of all my bad behavior. Time out. Let's think critically and creatively. While we do find ourselves face to face with the remnants of bad behavior of those who have lived generations ago-for example, the strife in the Middle East, racism in this country-why not consider an additional reality? We inherit as blessings the traces of thoughtful and loving and judicious behavior of those who have gone before us-cross-generational blessings. Are we not called to live out our lives with regard for what you will inherit because of what we do and don't do? We are reminded of how connected we are.

As these words flow, what I want to share with you accumulates. Christmas Eve at All Souls, Musica Viva concerts, the recent visit of the young men with the glorious voices from Zimbabwe, the sounds and silences of Sunday mornings, the high decibel ambience of our offices mid-week, the casual interchanges, the not so casual interchanges, the faces and lives I've come to know and love, the most ordinary of days that in memory's eye are, like Emily's 12th birthday, only extraordinary. "Thanks be for these life's holy times," we sing and consider.

The words of Carl Jung that will have been read by our much-loved Minister Emeritus, Richard Leonard, ring true. Memories are unrolling before our mind's eye. We are recognizing ourselves "in the inner and outer images of the past. like a preparation for an existence in the hereafter." We "try to see the line which leads through [our lives] into the world and out of the world again." We try to answer the question that life has asked us, each of us and all of us. Perhaps we impart to you not the answer, but the question that lingers. Perhaps the question is the answer.

Wendell Berry is one of my favorite poets. It was he who wrote, "All the lives this place has had, I have. I eat my history day by day." How these words resonate for me. He speaks to us now as I and we reach out to you, reminding us that as arcs in the larger circle,

"We clasp the hands of those that go before us,"

Those lovely hands of our mothers and fathers, our grandmothers and grandfathers,

Yes, even for some of us, children we have loved and lost.

We clasp "the hands of those who come after us."

That's you, our sons and daughters of tomorrow.

The hands we reach out for are yours.

We embrace you in "the larger circle of all creatures,

Passing in and out of life."

We move with you "in a dance,

To a music so subtle and vast that no ear hears it,"

Not ours, not yours, "Except in fragments."

Fragments that are souvenirs from your excursion into our lives as the congregation of All Souls here and now, a great family that extends far beyond, so far beyond, these walls and this day, a wondrous family that will reach far beyond your day also.

On this ordinary extraordinary day, we extend the arms of our hearts to embrace you. Amen. Copyright AllSouls 2000.

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