Held By History, Living in Time
Rev. Fiona Heath Presented March 13th, 2022
As we heard from Mara this morning, UCM was born in a very particular time in history – a time of economic expansion, with much immigration and increasing population, and where many rejected traditional beliefs that had once held comfort but now seemed too narrow, out of step with a changing society.
We are held by this foundational history, shaped by it, this story of can-do people who did. People who needed a building and built it themselves. People who needed a different religion, found Unitarianism and shaped it to themselves.
One of UU’s essential theological identities is that we are a living tradition. our symbol is a flickering flowing flame, ever changing.
In Canada we say we are theologically alive: we seek to be ever-evolving in our understanding, open to new knowledge. We know time does not stand still, that it moves ever onward and so we try to incorporate new insights, new understandings, new ways of being as we go forward.
At the same moment though, we need the comfort and security of tradition. It’s good to know that some things don’t change.
We sing the same chalice lighting song and the same benediction for good reason – there is power in repetition – in doing the same things over and over so they sink deep into you. In being in the same place, looking out at the same birch tree, year after year.
Tradition is a way of passing meaning from one generation to the next, passing on cultural norms, family customs, religious values.
“There is beauty to be found in tradition – a beauty that may not propel us forward in the sense of quantifiable “progress” but that propels us forward as human beings in wisdom and emotional [understanding].” Katherine Rose https://www.huffpost.com/entry/why-traditions-matter_b_6993290
Tradition holds us safe even as time passes.
I was reminded of this last fall when we visited our son in Paris. One day while he was at school we wandered around the latin quarter, one of the oldest parts of Paris, near the Sienne.
I saw an old gothic church, with an open door, so I went in.
Known as St. Severin, the current building is a mix of several centuries of gothic architecture, one of the oldest in Paris. A chapel was first built here in the 12th century, building on a site of a monastery from the seventh century.
Big pale stone pillars – rough and cool to the touch – hold up soaring arches. There are no pews just ordinary chairs lined up in rows in the center.
All around the edge of the church are large alcoves dominated by stained glass and murals. The murals are medieval and in one alcove restorationists are working away, standing on scaffolding under high tech lights, carefully restoring colour to the detailed biblical figures.
The large stained glass windows are bold abstract images, full of vibrant colour, added in the seventies.
One person sits quietly praying in the center, the restorationists work and the tourists wander.
As I wander, held in the embrace of so many layers of history, music rings out, reverberating in the stone as someone plays the 18th century organ.
I leaned against a sturdy pillar, listening, in this place that isn’t just here and now but the past still alive.
Churches hold time, layers and layers, of people over the centuries adapting and shifting the space, enacting rituals over and over, holding the beauty of the past, the power of tradition, offering it to the future.
The meaning of this sacred space which honours eternity, the mystery, God, remains even as the building changes and rituals shift. Even when it holds tourists and not worshippers.
I loved this moment of feeling held in history by this ancient cathedral, the same and not the same for almost one thousand years.
I felt the beauty and power in tradition, offering those gifts of wisdom and emotional understanding.
Our history – as UUs – as UCM – is of course a little shorter! We have met on this land since 1958, Sunday after Sunday. which doesn’t seem so long after all!
Our traditions – our religious rituals – are much younger than catholic Christianity – but offer just as much wisdom and insight. For almost one hundred years we have been sharing flowers in spring, for the past seventy five years we have been lighting a chalice.
These traditions have value, they hold us together, shape our days and our years, provide comfort and wisdom. They make us who we are, remind us who we are, the people of the chalice.
The people who celebrate mystery and knowledge, love and justice. Who care more about values than belief.
And yet it is easy to mistake the tradition for the religion itself. It’s human nature to resist change, to say that something we cherish must last forever.
We can get stuck in time, stuck in the way things are.
Author Ardis Whitman wrote, “We must cherish our yesterdays, but never carry them as a burden into the future. Each generation must take nourishment from the other and give knowledge to the one that comes after.”
St Severin has been St. Severin for almost a thousand years, and it has done so by being changed over time, being made new by each generation.
We are held by history even as time moves on.
Time, Liam has learned, is not an arrow. Neither is it a road. It goes in no particular direction. It simply accumulates—in the body, in the world—like wood does. Layer upon layer. Light, then dark. Each one dependent upon the last. Each year impossible without the one preceding it. Each triumph and each disaster written forever in its structure. His own life, he can admit now, will never be clear, will never be unblemished, will never be reclaimed. Because it is impossible to ungrow what has already grown, to undo what is already done.
Michael Christie, Greenwood
Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire. Jorge Luis Borges
Time is a brisk wind, for each hour it brings something new… but who can understand and measure its sharp breath, its mystery and its design?” Paracelsus
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
Time says “Let there be”
every moment and instantly
there is space and the radiance
of each bright galaxy.
And eyes beholding radiance.
And the gnats’ flickering dance.
And the seas’ expanse.
And death, and chance.
Time makes room
for going and coming home
and in time’s womb
begins all ending.
Time is being and being
time, it is all one thing,
the shining, the seeing,
the dark abounding.
Hymn to Time Ursula K. Le Guin
Even though we are held by history, carrying on age old traditions, we are also living in time, which passes, every moment new, the past always receding.
Charlotte struggles to remember her nineteen year old self in first year university, and it’s so much harder for me! It is so long ago, yet I can feel traces of that anxious, excited young woman, who often fell asleep during the 8:30am history class.
As the first quote said – time accumulates—in the body, in the world—like wood does. Layer upon layer.
Time accumulating in us like rings on a tree. Each layer dependent upon the last. Each year impossible without the one preceding it. “It is impossible to ungrow what has already grown, to undo what is already done.”
Time accumulates like rings of a tree.
Each of us have layers and layers of former selves building up to create who we are right now. Nothing is lost, it’s all still with us, tree rings of time.
Unitarian Universalism is the same, well anything really – is. Created by these layers of time building up. The church in Paris is so so many layers piled up together.
Our UU rings are fewer and smaller, but still growing.
Past time accumulates like rings of a tree, creating traditions, creating a solid center to all that we do, even as we live in this fourth dimension called time, constantly moving from one moment to the next.
Even as time accumulates in us, we live in time as well, time that is “a brisk wind, for each hour it brings something new”.
Time is the air we breathe, the air we move through. In some moments, time is soft and slow, a gentle wisp of movement. In others it is a mighty wind, sharp, biting, pushing us forward too fast.
In this time, in this moment, I believe the wind is rising.
The pandemic which brought us to a stop is, fingers crossed and double crossed, coming to an end. But the world as a whole is different now. Global systems are unstable, uncertain. War and fascism are taking hold once more. Inflation is growing, housing and gas prices soaring.
We aren’t going back to normal. The wind is blowing strongly. As Frodo said, I wish this wasn’t happening in my time. But it is, so “all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
The old way of being church isn’t working in this moment. Research shows that Sunday attendance in protestant churches has been on a steady decline even before the pandemic and the pandemic only made it worse.
It’s true for Unitarian Universalists as well. We have been slowly shrinking over the past twenty years.
This doesn’t mean religion is dying, there is a corresponding rise in spiritual seekers, people need meaning, people need community, but this particular mid twentieth century protestant model of church is not working for them.
I believe our theology – our sense of interdependence with the earth, our desire to dismantle oppression, our celebration of the mystery –our theology is evolving to meet the moment and is needed now more than ever.
But our model of how we celebrate, how we gather, hasn’t evolved, it isn’t meeting people where they are.
For our theology to reach the people who need the chalice flame, because they are out there we need to re-imagine UU community life, the ways we gather and the ways we connect.
Multi-platform, on-line, and a social media presence is the new normal. It is where the next generation is and where we need to be.
At the same time, people continue to yearn for meaningful in person and interactive gatherings. Being together still matters.
This new normal will be a time of experiment, of finding out what is essential to being Unitarian Universalists in Mississauga. On Sundays we will be in a circle more often, more services will be all ages and interactive.
Spiritual exploration for kids will more often take place after the service or at other times of the week. We might try a different time for special services.
Congregational life has already changed during the pandemic, we have whole heartedly embraced committee meetings on Zoom, so I know that we have ability to figure out a new model of UU church, one that honours the past but is not held back by it.
Now is the moment to grow our community in new ways, to live on-line as well as right here, to be truly welcoming of all people who seek the chalice.
As the winds of time blow strongly, we will work together to find ways to pass on our values and update traditions so that the chalice flame burns brightly for generations to come.
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