Time is Personified in Us

by Jaco B. ten Hove
Paint Branch UU Church
October 19, 2003

[Follows ceremony awarding the "Doctor of Durability" degree to 15 Paint Branchers who've reached the 80 year milestone.]

READING INTRO:

Patrice Vecchione is an author, poet, editor, and teacher of creative writing for over 20 years. The following two paragraphs open Chapter Three of her 2001 book, "Writing and The Spiritual Life: Finding Your Voice by Looking Within." The chapter title is "The Calling Voice and Storytelling."

READING:

In 1986, the Michigan State Legislature declared Aretha Franklin's voice to be one of the state's natural resources. What a concept! The voice as a resource. A country's resources are its wealth, "its means of producing wealth," according to my dictionary. [Aretha] Franklin's voice is a spiritual resource. Every time I hear her sing, I know why. Her voice is robust and beautiful. She slips into the low places, strong and steady there, then rises up to loftier notes.

Hearing her sing I want to live in her voice because it seems to say… stay with me awhile as I sing to you: loss, regret, joy, and the presence of the holy. Her voice can also be spunky—moving fast from one sound to the next, it energizes me… When confidence is lagging, she reminds me to respect myself. Her voice resonates with fortitude and strength, harmony and melody. Franklin’s voice speaks to me in the place where I live.

Your voice is your own natural resource. Its worth in your life and the lives of others may match the birds' need for sky. [Unexpressed], your voice would remain trapped under your breath, which is like no voice at all, because it would remain invisible and unknown. When we're silent but the need to speak our necessary truths is burgeoning, we risk illness of the soul, mind, and body. And the wisdom of the self may go underground.

It’s always a risk to write and speak your truth, but the risk of not doing so is greater. You have only to speak with your own voice, in its rhythms, with its melody and cadence, the voice right there within you, your distinctly human voice. In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1993, Tom Morrison said, "Wordwork is sublime because it is generative. It makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference, the way in which we are like no other life." That generative quality can come through the voice, your voice. I can almost hear it, even from this distance.

SERMON: Time is Personified in Us Jaco B. ten Hove

"It’s always a risk" to give voice to our stories, "but the risk of not doing so is greater." And it seems to me that there is almost no better setting for us to take the risk of giving voice to our stories than in congregational life. The generative benefits of this are especially felt in multi-generational communities like ours.

Frankly, after 15 years of doing my share of memorial services, I’ve seen too many rich life stories come more fully to light only after the voice itself is stilled. So I feel called to urge us all to use the natural resource we have now to take that risk and take advantage of our congregational connections: find healthy ways to tell your story, and invite others to tell you theirs.

I believe Patrice Vecchione: "When we're silent but the need to speak our necessary truths is burgeoning, we risk illness of the soul, mind, and body." Swallowing your story does nobody any good.

The noted Jewish writer Elie Wiesel suggests that humanity appeared "because God loves stories." The popularity of a cable TV show simply called "Biography," attests to the attraction of celebrity stories, and I, for one, spent countless hours as a youngster reading the old fashioned kind of biographies—books, often about renowned baseball players. I think it is a quintessential human quality, this curiosity about how other people’s lives have been shaped by fame.

But less well-known stories—our stories—also have great appeal and value. In our lives, time itself becomes personified. We, all of us, represent the passage of time in our era. Each of us—of any age—has a story unfolding right now, rich with chapters that tell of "struggles, triumphs, loves and losses"—and more, which all add up to Meaning. We here have all lived through Y2K, for instance. Remember that? We experienced the turning of a millennium—just a number, really, but a mighty round one!

We are lucky this morning to be celebrating the meaning embodied in 15 lives lived among us to varying degrees, the very brief profiles of which just hint at incredibly rich stories. As you read through these intriguing snapshots of long lives, maybe you’ll find yourself curious enough to ask follow-up questions, such as

Bert (Donn), why do you think you wanted, from your youth, to both "understand the universe and reform the world"?

Anne (Etkin), what taught you "to accept inconsistency" and be "comfortable believing disparate things at the same time"?

Emily (Nutku), how did you come to dedicate yourself to a whole "dissertation on the use of [the words] ‘a’ and ‘the’" and their ilk?

Virginia (Knowles), what was the source of your "longtime wish to become a minister"?

Ken (Lee), what was it like, "teaching school in the White Swan Gold Mine" in Oregon in the 1930s?

Jince (Newell), why do you feel so strongly about the need to "at least reduce the terrible evil of negative stereotyping"?

Etc. Etc. We are richer for having all you Doctors of Durability among us, and we appreciate the opportunity to get to know you better. Those of us following you in age are blazing our own trails, shaping our own stories, hoping to reap some little wisdom from venerable age. Some of us will surely make it to 80 ourselves, perhaps still active in this congregation; some will be elsewhere or nowhere.

But however long our lifeline, time becomes personified in us. Maybe you’ve gotten hold of one of those portrayals of the news headlines on the day you were born, or even during your entire birth year. (Here’s mine, a book of the most notable aspects of 1951, the cover of which shows General Douglas MacArthur, who was fired by President Truman on April 10, the very day I was born. The next morning was not exactly a slow news day, so the announcement of my auspicious birth just didn’t get much press, I’m afraid.)

But I’ve also seen—at memorial services, say—another twist on this convergence-in-time theme. It can be a stimulating exercise to put together a summary of the most noteworthy developments over the course of one person’s lifetime. In such a display, you get a sense of the thrust of time, bracketed by the birth and death of a single player.

With the pace of social and technological evolution accelerating as it is, anyone who’s lived over a big chunk of the 20th century has witnessed an unprecedented amount of change. In this class of Doctors of Durability, for instance, Ottilie, Jince and Ken were all born before World War I started. All these good folks were young during the indelible Depression. They all aged along with the automobile, airplane and mass media.

Our personal stories represent our era, which, even if relatively long, can still feel like it unfolds all too quickly. Just this week there was a newspaper cartoon of a couple with a young son walking through a cemetery. They boy looks at a headstone and asks the kind of set-up question kids often do: "What does the little dash between the dates mean," he inquires. A parent answers directly, "It means life is short."

Yes, in the entire scope of history, our lives are short; in many cases, cut even shorter than one would expect or hope. But each story contains chapters that all add up to Meaning.

Generally, if our life purpose seeks anything, it hungers after meaning, whether intentionally or not. That’s just the way we humans are constructed. Religion is one path people walk in search of meaning, but there are plenty others—career, certainly; romance and relationships, certainly; adventure, service, creativity, etc. I’m partial to liberal religion, of course, so I like to think that our faith—Unitarian Universalism—provides threads that can weave all these pursuits of meaning into a whole cloth of power and beauty.

But, as you may know, this religion of ours does not do it for you. We have to actively do the weaving; it’s not an automated loom of life. We have to participate in meaning-making and give voice to our journeys, often in community. In so doing, we improve the odds for both a deeper sense of interconnection among our fellow journeyers and more internal awareness, allowing a greater perception of our fundamental unity and wholeness.

Our stories are unfolding in the time that we personify—a short period, perhaps, when you think about it, but full of meaning. It is our journey along a unique path marked by events, thoughts, people and lessons. And hopefully, we are always growing from reflections about our lives. The past is full of learnings that inform the present and help shape the future.

This growth is facilitated best, says Unitarian Universalist author Dan Wakefield, by giving voice to our stories with others, especially when you write out and read aloud some piece of your odyssey, your journey. Wakefield is best known for his work in leading sessions on "Writing a Spiritual Autobiography," explained in a book with that sub-title [main title: "The Story of Your Life"].

What makes an autobiography "spiritual," he says, is simply that it considers a life’s meaning in the context of its journey. Often, in his long experience with this process, the writing—and reading aloud to at least one other—of a spiritual autobiography sheds new light on less examined parts of one’s personal history. Among other things, this can lighten the load of an unforgiving memory, or otherwise change one’s perception of the past in helpful, even liberating ways.

Wakefield notes that the journey behind us in time is not a set of finite items, like concrete blocks hauled out for a look-see. Our understanding of it can evolve as we evolve, can make it different, can give pieces of it more or less meaning. Since the past exists only in our mind, new insights can actually change it.

This may be a controversial way of "doing" history, but it holds true in my experience. I remember being 29 years old without a viable "career," disappointed in myself, discouraged. My self-image was that I was too undisciplined to concentrate enough—even on college—to become an expert at anything. I had a travel itch that I scratched big time, but it kept me unfocused, unproductive. It seemed that all my peers had families and houses and careers but I was just drifting, with little to show for my young adulthood.

However, in avoiding commitments, there was also nothing preventing me from going back to school, which was a bit scary, but nine years after my first two short stints in college, I went back. I can’t say I had much sense of purpose; it just seemed like the right thing to do at the time. But first I discovered that I actually enjoyed the work; it felt good to apply myself again. And then I ran smack into a philosophical orientation I did not know existed: Generalism, known in academic circles as Interdisciplinarity, the study of issues form multiple perspectives.

Suddenly, I understood myself on the path of a generalist, which meant that maybe I wasn’t supposed to specialize in any one thing, even though that’s what our culture rewards. In the face of strong pressures promoting the acquisition of expertise, I found a whole body of work describing how valuable a generalist can be; how, in fact, Interdisciplinarity can be an expertise of its own. (I wrote about this so much that I did at least become an expert at typing that long word.)

So this new awareness of Interdisciplinary studies helped me to re-write my story, jettison a negative self-image, and eventually find what is maybe the ultimate generalist career: parish ministry. My future was altered—for the better, I think—because I grew into new understanding and reframed my past. This was a critical turning point in my own spiritual autobiography.

I learned from an examination of my past how to move more effectively, more authentically into the future. Isn’t this always the challenge of being fully alive, at every turn on the journey of life? The very influential author and mythologist Joseph Campbell is regularly quoted as saying "Follow your bliss," but too often this becomes a license for mere self-gratification. The full quotation, in proper context, is more revealing:

"To find your own way is to follow your bliss. This involves analysis, watching yourself and seeing where the real bliss is—not the quick little excitement, but real, deep, life-filling bliss."

In other words, achieving some degree of bliss requires work—hopefully authentic and rewarding work, but it can be demanding. However, the good news is that the answers are often already embedded in your story, waiting for you to dig a little bit and discover them.

Dan Wakefield suggests at least six fields in which we might do some of that personal digging, six realms of experience out of which we could write versions of our life story:

We might describe our Romantic autobiography—recounting loves, passions, families, divorce…

We might write about our Educational journey—intellectual influences and pursuits, threads of interest, travel learnings…

We might describe our Physical evolution—from the promise of youthful athletics (or not) to the later strains and pains of a well worn body…

We might portray our Professional path—steps to a career, then any job changes, highlights, lowlights, retirement…

We might even explain our Economic autobiography—from paper routes and baby-sitting to mortgages and investments…

And certainly, we might articulate our Psychological and/or Religious journey—insights into ourselves, the arc of our inner growth, in the context of our beliefs about the universe…

Would you take the risk of diagramming any of these parts of your story? Perhaps you have already, or would like to in a "Spiritual Autobiography"-type class here at Paint Branch. We are lucky to have among us an experienced leader of such workshops in Penny O’Brien, who is willing to convene a group if there is interest. Please let me or Penny know if you’d consider this opportunity.

One helpful device Wakefield offers for doing this work is to use the metaphor of a tree. We can start by drawing the tree of our life, with its roots, trunk, branches, new growth, blossoms that come and go, water sources, dead leaves or limbs, breaks from wind or lightning, initials carved in bark, bird nests, etc.

The tree is a good image for drawing out a life story also because trees rarely stand alone. And the seeds for new ones usually come from nearby elders. Notice in your life story how closely connected might be spirituality and community. Yes, we walk along paths uniquely our own, and we are often accompanied by important others, our journeys interwoven.

For me, this is a great joy of my life, to be in sacred, intentional community. As I look back, I suspect it will continue to be a strong theme in my story. It certainly is for at least some of our Doctors of Durability. Perhaps in yours as well.

"To be" at all is to mean something to someone else. A meaningful existence we cannot really create all by ourselves; it is largely given to us by the relationships of our time. May the "struggles, triumphs, loves and losses"—and more—all add up to Meaning that animates your era as it helps you say Yes" to life, truth, and love.

CLOSING WORDS

As if to confirm my proposition that there is almost no better setting for us to take the risk of giving voice to our stories than in congregational life, just this past week, a homegrown piece of music resurfaced that we will now present to you as Closing Words, written some years ago by choir member Marj Donn, with music by Dr. of Durability Emily Nutku. We give you the first three of the six verses of A Storehouse of Stories…

A Storehouse of Stories (Words by Marj Donn; music by Emily Nutku)

1. A church is a storehouse of ev’ryones’ stories.
Each person’s life cycle moves at its own pace;
Yet milestones were meant to be shared with each other:
We need other people to help celebrate.

CHORUS:
This church is a storehouse of all of our stories:
The highlights of each life are part of us all.
Together we’ve honored our choices and stages.
Our tears and our laughter have hallowed these walls.

2. When tragedy visits with losses and sorrows,
We comfort the grieving, sustain those in pain.
We’re there with our presence when words have no meaning,
Reach out to each other however we can.

CHORUS…

3. We welcome among us the newest to join us,
To share in the search for what each one believes.
May membership here be a gift that you cherish.
Your stories embellish the fabric we weave.

CHORUS…

I thank our Doctors of Durability for letting us honor them today; this is just one of many wonderful ways you enliven and deepen our congregational life. I’ll also extend the honor to all among us who are elders to any others. May we understand more of our life stories so that every heart will open to this day and each precious one following, as we invoke the Spirit of Life to join and bless us.

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