A Living Tradition
Presented on Zoom April 18 th 2021 by Rev. Ben Robins
It’s been a hard year. The pandemic is taking its toll. Day after day after day. Month after month after month. Into the 2nd year. For some of us, it’s been numbing. Another day within the same 4 walls. Another day without a hug. Wake up, do your routine, check the covid statistics, keep doing your routine, go to bed. Month after month. Does that ring true for you?
For some of us, it’s the opposite problem. Every day is uncertain. Wake up, not knowing where the next paycheck is coming from. Wake up, not knowing what to do with the kids. Wake up, not knowing if your coping mechanism will be deemed non-essential. Wake up, and your dog won’t give you a moment’s reprieve, and the kids are bouncing off the walls, and there’s a shortage of who knows what, and George Floyd happens, and January 6th happens.
The comedian Julie Nolke put out a short video last spring called Explaining the Pandemic to my Past Self. In the comedy sketch, Julie Nolke goes back in time to warn her past self about the pandemic. They sit together in her kitchen. Julie from the future doesn’t provide details about what will happen, because she doesn’t want to mess with the space-time continuum. She merely gives mysterious advice. She says to her past self, go on a Costco run. Stock up. She suggests getting a dog. Invest your money in Zoom. Don’t be attached to your travel plans. She asks, do you have any hobbies? Better get some hobbies. She asks, “Would you rather be in a crowded shopping mall, or at home on the couch watching Netflix.” “On the couch watching Netflix.” “Okay great, you’re going to be just fine.” How naive and optimistic.
When Julie Nolke made that video in April 2020, little did she know that another video would be needed in June. So picture the next video, in which herself from June goes back to talk with her April self, again sitting in her kitchen. Her April self is feeling good about having helped her January self. She’s feeling good about her new hobby of baking bread. Remember those innocent times? She needs a moment to take in that her June self looks worse for wear. “Is the pandemic still on?”, she asks. “Pandemic?”, replies her June self. The George Floyd protests have made her forget the pandemic. Remember how that felt? April Julie is disturbed. She asks if there is any good news. June Julie shakes her head and laughs and laughs and laughs. In the face of it all, all she can do is laugh.
When Julie Nolke made that 2nd video in June, little did she know that she would be making another video in October, and another in December. Julie Nolke can find humour in suffering, and the pandemic is the gift that keeps on giving. I don’t recall her October self having any substantive advice for her June self, just resignation. Her December self just felt stuck and overwhelmed.
And now here we are in April 2021. Another wave, another lockdown. Maybe you’re feeling both stuck and overwhelmed. The last year has been an intense example of what can happen when the rhythms of our lives are disturbed.
This week, I’ve been looking at this predicament we’re in through the lens of the living tradition.
Why do we call ourselves a living tradition? To remind ourselves how intentional we have to be in adapting to a new context. The pandemic didn’t give us a choice about changing – we had to change when the pandemic hit. Without the pandemic, we never could have pivoted online so quickly. But our self-identity helped too. We identify as a living tradition, and that gives us the best shot at changing when times change.
It’s still hard, though, to reshape ourselves. It takes ongoing intention. 200 years ago, the Unitarian poet James Russell Lowell wrote the lyrics, “New occasions teach new duties. Time makes ancient good uncouth.” “New occasions teach new duties. Time makes ancient good uncouth.” Does anyone know those lyrics? Unitarians sung those lyrics for generations. But eventually those lyrics became stale and needed to be refreshed.
We update our songs as tastes change. We update our rituals to keep them fresh. We update our beliefs as we get new information.
But that’s only half of what it means to be a living tradition. The first half of being a living tradition is bringing the past into the present, in a way that is fresh. The second half of being a living tradition is bringing the future into the present, in a way that is manageable. Out of the infinite possible futures in front of us, out of the infinite possible paths, we make our way forward.
In a pandemic, we pivot to Zoom. We try a new hobby of baking bread. We make little crafts and send them to our friends in the mail. We might have days, or even weeks, when all we can do is cuddle up in front of Netflix, but we also have that living tradition within us that calls us to create something new, to choose a fulfilling way of living that is adapted to these times.
A living tradition is a form of resilience. Resilience is the capacity to bounce back, the capacity to be yourself even in tough times. And this is not merely an individualistic resilience. Yes, we cultivate resilience in ourselves, and we also cultivate resilience in our communities. When I don’t know if I can bounce back myself, the community is there for me, somehow we bounce back together. We are resilient.
We’re going to watch a video now of a song called Resilient. It’s by the band Rising Appalachia.
Jane, whenever you are ready.
I feel that. Do you feel that? A song like that can help me to remember that I am resilient, we are resilient.
Let’s go into more detail now about how to cultivate the resilience of our living tradition.
First of all, remember the big picture. Remember the goal. Remember the vision. Keep your spirit connected to the larger movement.
In the video we just experienced, the singers are sisters. One of them, Leah Song, spent time with the Zapatista movement in southern Mexico. The other, Chloe Smith, was an environmental activist before becoming a musician. They learned from their father that music needed to be about more than just music. Here is a quote from Chloe: “[O]ur father brought to our attention from day one: art for art’s sake is lovely, but there is something more pressing and all-encompassing about the folks who speak to the bigger picture. Our ‘human experience,’ our spiritual and social need to lean on each other, find support systems and ways to rally for a higher purpose.” That’s the first tip for our living tradition: Keep in mind what it’s all about. Put photos up that remind you of what it’s all about. Centre yourself on the ultimate good.
A second tip for cultivating a living tradition is to wiggle your roots. The Unitarian Kimberlee Anne Tomczak Carlson writes,
Feel the gravity of the earth holding you in place.
Wiggle your toes as if they were roots.
Roots connect you to the earth lending you strength.
Gently sway in the wind, turning your body like a trunk of a tree,
Leaning this way and that, bending as the air pushes and pulls.
What surrounds you, may sway you,
Make you bend and feel unbalanced
Wiggle your toes.
Know that your roots can hold you as you grow and learn.
A tree is nourished by the soil and water.
You are nourished by food the earth grows and the water it provides.
You are cared for and loved by many people.
Still yourself Know that your roots are strong.
Wiggle your roots. Wiggling your roots might mean playing with the lyrics of an old song. One of our favourite songs, Blue Boat Home, isn’t an original tune. Peter Mayer used an older tune, whose words he no longer believed. He wiggled his religious roots, and found a way to keep the music alive.
What are the patterns you find yourself in, and how might you wiggle your roots to freshen up those patterns?
A third way to cultivate the living tradition is to do work at the periphery. Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed and religious educator Jacqui James edited a collection of writings from Unitarian Universalists of colour. The book is called Voices From the Margins. Perhaps you’re familiar with it. Historians will tell you how much action there is on the edges. Ecologists will tell you how much action there is on the edges. What are your edges? What parts of yourself deserve to be heard, tended to, explored? A living tradition is often revitalized at the periphery.
A fourth way to cultivate the living tradition is to scatter seeds. Just as this congregation was a seed planted from the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto, we keep our tradition alive by scattering seeds, by creating new growth. Scattering seeds means giving energy to something that shares our essence but will grow with freedom in a new context. When too many transgender people didn’t feel fully included in our congregations, some organized and planted a new seed, called TRUUST, Transgender Religious Professional UUs Together. It’s now a thriving community. When we have energy that needs to move, plant new seeds. What needs to grow in your own life?
That’s four ways to tend to our living tradition: remember the larger vision; wiggle your roots; do work at the periphery; and scatter seeds.
A fifth way to tend to our living tradition, and to help yourself thrive in today’s world, is to cultivate antifragility. Nassim Talib describes antifragility as when your mistakes make you stronger. I don’t know about you, but I can be afraid to make mistakes. I’ve learned that activities I love the most are activities where I’m not afraid to make mistakes. Try cooking something new. Sing at the top of your lungs and don’t apologize for how it sounds. When your mistakes effect other people, take care, figure out how to cultivate antifragility together. When you’re in a rut, let yourself experiment and make mistakes. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, give yourself a break when you make a mistake. Cultivate antifragility – live so that your mistakes make you stronger.
Liberal religion is not fixed. There’s an old saying, we don’t stand for something, we move. In these times, let yourself move, let the energy in you find new patterns that connect you more deeply to the ultimate goal of love, justice, relationship, and all the good things. Perhaps your future self is already watching you discover new life.
When I’m part of a living tradition, I don’t only feel more resilient. I also feel more alive, more tuned into the world. I’m more able to see goodness around me and within me. Please join me in singing the song Wake Now My Senses. May we all find new life