Engine Composed of Generations
Delivered on May 26, 2013 for First Unitarian Church
is memorial day -- again. When I was young, I was taught that this
was a time to remember those who had passed on before us – at the
time, I thought that meant great grandparents and ancestors previous
to them whom I'd never met. Frequently, while visiting my
grandparents in Western Wisconsin, we would drive to the cemetery
adjacent to the Rush
River Lutheran Church and visit the graves of some of those
ancestors I'd never met. Now my grandparents
are buried there as well.
Over time, I've come to realize
memorial day began as a patriotic holiday, originally created in 1866
just after the Civil War. It is a time for remembering our soldiers
who have died serving our nation in any of its many wars.
my internship at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San
Francisco, the worship group decided to offer a litany of names and
ages of the US soldiers who had died in the last year as a result of
war. SO MANY of them were 18, 19, 20, 21 years old! These are just
past the age of what we call “bridging” (which our congregation
will celebrate next weekend). I don't want to imagine losing our
young people in such a way – in bloody conflict. If you have, or
know somebody who has, for this, we grieve, and deeply.
own hymnal, there is a reading, The
Young Dead Soldiers, #583, which so harrowingly names this loss,
and the unknown meaning of the loss – waiting for us to complete
that meaning. “We were young,
they say. We have died.
for their cause. But martyrdom is not the only way, and I reject the
idea that being an adult of any age makes one somehow ready to enjoin
in a war. If you know me, you know I stand for peace – from the
core of my being I pray every day for an end
to wars, and an end to needless deaths of soldiers and civilians
of all ages. So, whether you give your last breath for something, or
whether you dedicate decades of your breathing to something, each
represents a commitment to bending the universe's arc toward justice.
That arc doesn't bend on its own, and surely not automatically.
With every hummingbird
that steps up, and every elephant, every monkey, every human with
a voice, we tug at that arc together – our attention impelling it
toward that which we call justice.
As this congregation's
outgoing campus ministry coordinator and social action coordinator, I
desire for the elders in this congregation to work continually to
more deeply embrace and include the younger generations. So many of
the young among us (in our congregation and in society at large) are
older than those who have died for our country. If people of that
young age are ready for such a task, surely those of such an age
among us are fit for the task of full inclusion in our democracies.
If our culture needs to change to be inclusive in a multi-cultural
sense, with respect to diversity of ages, then that is the work
before us. Not because of duty to some ideal, or because of a quota
to meet. But because of our practice of unconditional loving
acceptance and recognition of the first-principle inherent worth and
dignity within each of us.
In an instrumental sense, I call for
this because it makes our community whole. Because with all
generations engaged, we will have an engine.
And I know off the bat it will be an imperfect engine, but it can
an engine that moves us forward, which on its own would speak
volumes. This engine would push from behind, and pull from the
front. My understanding is that the youngest among us (my 4 year-old
son Henry included) know
what they want. Henry knows what he wants so very clearly, in such a
way that he leans in full-force heart, body, and soul (and
occasionally, lungs) to try and satisfy that desire. My
conversations with him about id,
superego and ego, never venture very far past the Id. Superego
gets magically transformed into “Super-Eagle,”
and we have gone from the world of reflection and examination into an
entirely different world of imagination. It's wonderful. And it's
id. He knows his drives, but does not know the complex context that
his drives are rooted in, or the ramifications of carrying through on
In a classical sense, the younger generations know
their drives. Meanwhile, the older generation knows the contexts in
their complexity, and would offer its wisdom based on history, while
the middle generation could work collaboratively with everyone to
create and execute a plan balancing the drives of the younger with
the cautions of the elder.
I don't believe that such a classical
model holds up entirely, because it's based on categorical
thinking. There are young people who have learned
history, and attend well to that learning. There are certainly older
people who are
in touch with their drives, and some whom wisdom has somehow eluded.
In other words, youth does not make one naïve or unlearned, and age
need not make one wise, or even experienced.
An excellent example
of a young adult who stepped up, perhaps one of our most famous
living UU's in fact, is Zach
Wahls, the Eagle Scout raised by two moms, who has not waited
until some later stage of development to engage with the world. As a
result of the work he has been a part of, this week we have the very
good news that the Boy Scouts of America have ended
their ban on openly gay scouts – a huge victory for gay youth!
This is “shoulder-to-the-wheel” kind of stuff, which I believe we
do well to encourage. Young people (within UU and beyond) tend to
have great energy for justice and a strong sense of justice, and
those in every generation can realize a win-win scenario through
multi-generational collaborative efforts.
However, as with many
religious groups, Unitarian Universalist churches have tended to lose
people while they're in their 20's, and I believe it diminishes our
drive somewhat, and consequently diminishes the strength of our
movement. This loss need not be the case. We can open this
congregation further to become more young-adult friendly, perhaps
even to the point of being young-adult centered. Or better, since
often a both/and
understanding is richer than an either/or understanding, we could
develop a multi-culture with a strong core of young adult culture.
have seen our congregation's younger population grow, even over the
last two years. And I want to be clear on one thing, lest I be
misunderstood. It would be a very big mistake for me to preach here
to the older generation only, and I do not want my words interpreted
as such. If I were preaching about how “we” need to be more
attractive to “them” these words would be marginalizing at the
same time as I'm trying to be inviting. Throughout, I have been
attempting to speak agnostic of generations, because my hope is to
speak to the larger “us.” This work of inclusion and balance –
this movement toward wholeness – requires all to feel welcome, and
all to be in discourse.
next minute or so I will
dedicate to the older generation, as I see a tendency which I believe
hinders our efforts at wholeness and inclusion. The perils
of coffee hour conversations! Some of you younger folks may have
experienced this. The issue of age-related social faux pas was
important enough for Carey MacDonald – along with the UUA office of
Young Adult Ministries – to create a flyer called “Coffee Hour
Caution” advising churchgoers on ways that they're lousing things
up in conversations, and some good ways to be warm and gracious
without inserting their feet in their mouth. I've printed up several
of these sheets to share if you're interested – some are here in
the sanctuary, and some will be downstairs. As one young adult
commented, “It [the flyer] might be a little tongue-in-cheek, but
it needs to be said.” Here are just a few things it recommends
avoiding – “How old are you?” “Have you met our other young
adult?” or “We need more young people!” Upon a little
reflection, it's clear to see how these can be experienced as
“othering” and would not be received as a hospitable welcome.
Lest we start walking on eggshells, there aren't magic words, other
than the words you would say to somebody you're initially meeting for
whom age is unimportant: “Can I introduce you to my friend?” or
“What did you think of the service?” The magic attitude for
anyone, regardless of age, is to: Introduce
yourself • Make friends • Be interested • Reach out • and
to those who identify as part of the younger generation, and to those
newly joined, this wholeness won't work without you. Expect
inclusion, and be ready to speak up for what you want. The minute
you sign the membership book, or even the minute you start to
participate, your voice ought to have an equitable place in the
discourse of this community. It's not necessary to be steeped
in UU culture to have a sharable opinion. In some cases, you may
find it beneficial to learn our ways, and in other cases, it may very
well help for our ways to be instructed by your
ways. If I were not leaving in a month, I would do my best to make
sure we (the all-inclusive “we”) make room for you, wherever
you're coming from, however long you've been in this congregation, or
on this planet.
Now, opening to make space for all to feel
welcome is one thing, and knowing ourselves is another. Here's the
take-home multi-generational pastoral part. Where are you
in the arc of your life, and how do your feelings about it affect
your connections with others? How well do you connect with yourself
at other life stages, either in the past or the future? Sometimes,
even in myself and perhaps among some who've cycled around the sun a
few times more than me, I feel a bit of envy toward the younger
generation, for your energy that seems to recover more easily from
exhaustion, and that hasn't gone stale. And occasionally there is
envy for the youthful insights unhindered by experiences which too
often serve to narrow our perspectives. And to the older generation,
those younger among us may feel envy, toward you for being settled
financially or socially, and knowing who you are. For
accomplishments that have succeeded, and for your attempted
accomplishments that instead have rewarded you with “wisdom.”
if that envy were admiration, I don't see it as particularly helpful
or connective, however. To know the arc of our lives, we are called
to take a step back, and be compassionate with ourselves. We have
each been a younger version of our self. That young person was you.
With any luck, (or for the theists here, God willing or Insha'Allah),
you will progress along your arc and become an older version of
yourself. As we come to terms with ourselves at different ages in
the span of our lives, hand-in-hand we can develop stronger more
authentic connection with others. The corollary – as we connect
with others across generations, we have a greater opportunity to find
ourselves along our own personal arc.
we are all made
of stars. This star
matter we have been fortunate enough to inherit, and imbue with
the spirit that resides within and beyond ourselves. This star
matter has cycled through humanity for countless millennia. Through
that matter, and the processes it provides a vehicle for, we are
deeply connected to our Earth and to each other. The wisdom and
drives of our long-dead ancestors call to us. The desires and
understandings of our future descendents call to us. Let us make
room for the voices of all drives and wisdom, including our own. Let
us tune and start the engine we are, and race to answer the call.
Blessed be, and amen.
join with me in singing our next hymn, Building Bridges, #1023 in
your teal hymnal.