Witness: Past, Present and Future
By Rev. Preston Mears
April 28, 2013
Six weeks ago, without explaining that she would be candidating today for a new position, our minister, The Rev. Natalie Fenimore, asked me to take the services. We discussed ideas that might fit in with the theme and hit on the idea of building a sermon on the fact that is a Mears/Thomas multi-generational family in this church—mind you, we are not the only one. So I put together the blurb for the newsletter and began work on it. Then before I had completed work on it, we learned ten days ago that our minister would be leaving us in two months. She was installed as our minister just this past Fall. I was and am hurt, confused, angry and worried about future. Natalie brought encouragement, possibility, capability, theological depth and a strong positive sense of hopefulness. And, now, it is up to us. I offer this sermon as a framework for the work we must do now to grow from our past and move into a future we need to define for ourselves.
This month we have had the theme of creativity and imagination. Two weeks ago our Natalie spoke movingly of the arts as a means of engaging our minds in imaginative ways that can lead to new understandings and possibilities. Last week we celebrated earth day by people here using art and poetry to help us in our imagination appreciate the importance of our connection to the earth for our sakes, and for the sake of future generations. I particularly liked the way Jean Smith said it regarding our earth:
Only the living can comprehend the consequences
of neglecting our Eternal Mother. If
we protect her ability to sustain life, future generations
might discover clean air, clear water, and
abundant resources—the reward for looking to the morrow.
Among educators, and noted by Natalie, it is now a well-established fact that students who are exposed to the arts–visual, musical, theatrical—perform better academically than those who are not exposed to the arts. This morning, I want to have us use our imaginations to broaden our experience and understanding of time and our being connected to our past and to our future. And, I do say, intentionally, “our future.” I believe by stretching our imaginations to include time and space is to broaden us spiritually, strengthen us emotionally and inform our choices.
Right now, in this moment, exists both past and future. And where you have both past and future, you have eternity—call it “all time” if you wish. Time is difficult to understand. Developmentally, measured time is an abstraction and one of the last things we start to learn. Children learn to read before they understand time. Go back more than 2,500 years ago, and there is no measured time. Time was noted in terms of events and seasons. The Passover story is celebrated about an event involving “our forefathers” as though it were a few generations ago, not 3,300 years ago. Call it time as event. Ezra, our 4 year old grandson is apt to measure time in terms of event: meal time, snack time, bed time. As I reflect on it as I have added the years to my life’s journey, I find myself more apt to think in terms of events and not date or X number of years ago. Maybe Ezra has it right and I am now getting old enough to appreciate that.
Human beings have always wanted to hope that there is a place, a space, a warp in time, where all the love and goodness we might hope for is there minus all the pain and difficulty we experience and that goodness and beauty go on and on. It might be called heaven, nirvana, eternity, Valhalla, the Garden, the ??? . And, in it these places, there is often the hope of being connected with loved ones who have gone before. The sense that there is more to be understood than just what we can see and touch starts early. I find hints in our children’s fantasies and fascination with things like fairies. I asked Lily why the fairy house she constructed was so small. She answered as though I really should have known, “Because, Papa, fairies are only six inches tall.” It must be so since Walt Disney decided that to be about the size of Tinker Bell!
Adults, mind you, have done things like anthropomorphizing gods giving Father Time, the Greek God Chronos with a long white beard and the Biblical God of creation an old man’s wise face, Michelangelo painted it on the dome of the Sistine Chapel reaching out to Adam, or as The Mother protecting her children. But, let us not be too quick to ridicule these images out of our empirical, scientifically, logically, Unitarian/Universalist rational oriented minds. I suggest that under them are hints and aspirations that we are here, that we have meaning, and that we make choices that make a difference.
So, let me go back to the generational thing with which I shared with the children: There were pictures of two old men: Laurie’s grandfather, Emit Pangle from North Georgia and my grandfather Howard Robinson from the North Fork of Long Island. With them is our oldest child, David, who will celebrate his 50th birthday later this year, their great grandson. It turns out both of these old men were born in 1870’s. Laurie’s grandfather farmed with mules, mine with horses. How different so many things are now since 1878 when they were born. And, come, another 87 years, there might be a picture of Ezra, our youngest grand child with a great grandchild and how different might the world and the possibilities be for that new baby. It could be the year 2,100 and what will the world be like then? Who will be looking at that picture 50 years later? Surely we are all connected in ways that go beyond the bounds of our imagination.
In addition to our family, I also shared some art history. In the sculpture installed at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston, my sister is seeking to evoke an uplifted sense of hope for those who come to that hospital to rehabilitate broken bodies and to learn to navigate with artificial limbs. She was installing it when the Boston Marathon bombing happened; victims of that bombing will go there to rebuild their bodies. She didn’t know the future when she designed it; she does know that she takes encouragement from family before, the work of a host of other artists and her own imagination and talent to create and, in so doing, make a difference. I believe it will. And, look at the art that has been shared here in this place. It is present, built on ideas from the past and points to what may be. And the poems we heard last week, and poetry is an art form, imagination asks us to connect with what is now and with what may be.
And what about knowledge and ideas? All the changes, all the discoveries, all the new ideas that have come in the past 100 years and that will come in the next 100 years also contain the past in the now and the possibilities of what may be. A few years ago, prompted by my brother, an Agricultural Scientist, I researched and did a sermon based on the contributions of George Washington Carver. The man, despite the fact that my growing up history books dismissed him by limited comment on his work on peanuts, is, in fact, foundational to contemporary agricultural science. After the service, Agricultural Scientist and poet member of our congregation Hiram Larew spoke to me after the service totally affirming the importance of George Washington Carver to the field of Agricultural Science.
Sometime after that, it happened that Hiram was visiting at our house when my brother was there also. They talked about the challenges and possibilities in worldwide agriculture. In them, and in that moment was a shared part in their work built on the past and a sense of a future. It was a luminescent moment for me, a shared moment with both past and future present.
I have shared with you about my family and our three generations here. Family is concrete, not abstract and so a useful point of reference. But please note, I have tied in art as having a life of its own with past and future in the moment. Similarly, ideas and the kinds of work we do, as with Agricultural Science, also have the same dynamic. I describe this to say that to be fully alive, we must know ourselves as kinfolk, albeit, by adoption. George Washington Carver, my brother and Hiram are kinfolk by adoption as are those who are better fed because of their work; my sister and a host of artists who have been, who are and yet to be, are kinfolk by adoption as will be those who will be encouraged by her sculpture, people she imagined.
And to bring it down to the here and now: Adoption is simply an act of love. Laurie and I are connected by adoption to Lily and Asher and they are totally a part of us. In fact, recently, Lily, spoke to me in a dream. I have a sense of self I inherited from my farmer grandfather that says, “If something needs fixing, YOU fix it.” If the animals need feeding, YOU feed them. If someone needs helping, You help them. If it needs doing, You do it.” I have been wrestling with an issue and wondering if I should do something about it or just let it pass. In my dream, I am sitting in a room, like Room 5 – 7, in one of those new chairs by myself. I know it is one of the rooms in the wing since the flooring is that new flooring that I helped install. In the dream I hear Lily’s very clear, distinctive voice: “Papa, why are you sitting?” It is as thought she were saying that I should do what is important because it was important to her what I do. So, for me, in the moment, is my grandfather from the past and my grand daughter, by adoption, really asking me about what is in her future.
Lily tells me about fairies, dresses up in a fairy costume, makes fairy houses: A child’s sense of wonder about possibilities that maybe can only make sense in a child’s imagination. But, then, as though she were from the future, her future, she speaks to me in a dream. Some of us are okay with the intuitive and finding meaning in all kinds of interesting places. Prophets, artists, common people have always looked for the past and the future in the present. I believe that through love we can all be adopted and are members of one another. Clearly, this adopted grand daughter, Lily, is a part of me, and as are all of the children here by adoption both in their immediate family and among us all. Clearly to, we must know that we make choices and decisions that will shape their futures. Will we protect and preserve the environment? That was the challenge from last week’s Earth Justice service–that what we do in the moment matters. We are bound together by the realities of our past, we are bound together by adoption now, and in the future.
This morning I am telling myself, I am sharing with you, that we are members of one another, that we matter, and that what we do now is built on our past and contains our future. We need to listen to ourselves and to each other unafraid to voice our feelings of anger, fears, and hopes. The listening sessions scheduled for after the next two Sunday’s services are to help us address our feelings and embrace our hopes. Perhaps some of us will be listening to voices from out of the past and the future. For sure, we need to listen to each other now and imagine our future.