“Writing the Minns Lectures” by Mark W. Harris – April 27, 2008
“Writing the Minns Lectures” by Mark W. Harris
April 27, 2008 – First Parish of Watertown
Opening Words from Robert French Leavens
Holy and beautiful the custom which brings us together,
In the presence of the most high:
To face our ideals,
To remember our loved ones in absence,
Ti give thanks, to make confession,
To offer forgiveness,
to be enlightened, and to be strengthened.
Through this quiet hour breathes
The worship of ages,
The cathedral music of history.
Three unseen guest attend,
Faith , hope and love:
Let all our hearts prepare them place.
Many years ago in the far off city of Krakow, Poland, there lived a man named Isaac, son of Jacob. He was a poor man whose family seldom had enough to eat. He also lived at a time when dreams still held great power for people. One night he dreamed of the distant city of Prague. In his dream he saw a certain bridge over the Vltava River, and under the bridge a treasure was buried. The dream was so lifelike, he could not forget it, and this was especially so because the dream continued to recur every night for two weeks. Finally, to purge this insane image from his mind, he resolved to walk all the way to Prague to see for himself.
After several days of walking, he finally arrived in the city. Everything looked just as it did in his dream, and he soon found the exact bridge, and went underneath it to search for the treasure. Suddenly a soldier grabbed him by the the scruff of his neck, and led him away to prison for questioning. Under intense pressure form the authorities, he soon told them exactly what he was doing under the bridge – looking for a treasure he had imagined in a dream. All the soldiers quickly broke into laughter, “You stupid idiot,” they said, “Don’t you know that you can’t trust what you see in dreams.” Then, the one who had captured Isaac said, “Why, for the last two weeks I myself have dreamt that far away in the city of Krakow, in the house of one Jew, Isaac, son of Jacob, there is a treasure buried under the stove in his kitchen. But wouldn’t it be the most ridiculous thing in the world for me to go all the way there to look for it? Think how many Isaac, sons of Jacob, there are in a large city. One could waste a lifetime looking for a treasure that doesn’t exist.” Still laughing, the soldier gave Isaac a kick and sent him on his way. Then Isaac, son of Jacob, walked back to Krakow, to his own home, where he moved the stove in the kitchen, found the treasure buried underneath, and lived to a ripe old age as a rich man.
In the wake of the celebration of Passover, it seems appropriate to share a story from the Hasidic masters of eastern Europe. The story’s meaning is so simple. Our treasure is at home all the time, but we must go on a long and difficult journey in order to discover it. Home is Krakow, but he goes to Prague to discover the truth. We must risk ourselves to an uncertain future, to find the treasure that lies within. I want to think of this story in the context of writing the Minns Lectures. I hope none of you were fainting with suspicion that I was going to offer another sermon on Polish Unitarianism as soon as the word Krakow crossed my lips. Today I want to tell you a little about the journey I have taken to write the Minns Lectures. It has been long and arduous, and not without pain.
First, the facts. This week I will begin a series of five lectures that have been given more or less annually since 1944. I made application to become the lecturer, and they have honored me by choosing me for this paid historical gig. During the last few months I have given every spare minute of my life to the lectures. Susan Minns, one of the founders of the Museum of Fine Arts, among other notable accomplishments, established them in her brother’s name. He was a descendant of the first minister of First Church, Boston, and a member of Kings Chapel, and therefore the lectures are administered by a committee from both those congregations. You get a sense that they were Brahmins through and through. That makes me a little nervous since the lectures address issues of class, and there has long been a stereotype linking Unitarianism with wealth, cultural elitism and Harvard College. Well, guess what? It is an accurate stereotype, at least for Bostonians in 1850, which is not to say it is true for Universalists, or for UUs today. Yet there is this sense that as a religious institution we only appeal to a narrow segment of the population, which today we might define as a liberal, economically comfortable, well educated elite, who know what is right for America, if only the masses would listen to us. Oops, that’s part of the stereotype, too. Self-righteousness, and yes, you’ve heard it before, children who don’t behave.
Unfortunately, you are not going to get too many answers today. You’ll have to come hear the lectures. And they are very historical, maybe even more so than that infamous Polish sermon. So if history is not your thing, then you can stay home and watch the Sox, and see the lectures later when they are released in the theaters. Ok, so maybe I am exaggerating their importance. While this won’t be an overly historical sermon, it will argue that history is important not just to me or this church, but to you as well. In fact, confronting and shaping and affirming your own history is a vitally important spiritual discipline.
This all started for me a long time ago, more than thirty years. At that time I was in graduate school in New Hampshire working on a thesis about my home town of New Salem. In the process of studying my home town (Think New Salem and Krakow), I began a journey. I discovered two faiths, Unitarianism and Universalism, that both affirmed the use of reason in the interpretation of the Bible, a loving God who embraced all and a basic understanding of human nature that was good. Juxtapose this with a literal understanding of the Bible stories, a judging God who filled me with unending guilt, and sinful nature that really could not do anything right or worthy in God’s eyes until Jesus saved me, and you have captured my reasons for leaving my childhood faith. It was an instant conversion. I became a born again UU. This study of my home brought me a new faith, and it also gave me a calling. I soon came to believe that living this faith and sharing it with others was what I was meant to do with my life, and so it has been ever since.
But that is not the whole story about the genesis of the lectures. I also have money and class issues. For example, having a venture capitalist as our student minister a few years ago was not the easiest task for me. These money issues were part of my journey to UU ministry. The thesis I spoke of was about the decline and failure of rural Unitarianism. The central reason why rural Unitarianism failed was that its rational, intellectual faith could not speak to plain, rural folk who needed someone to listen their needs, and not tell them what their needs were. Then when I served my first church in Palmer, Massachusetts, the then minister in Hartford, an important minister with a long Unitarian pedigree told me that my church was only there for historical reasons, and there was no way we would have a church in Palmer, a poor New England mill town in economic decline, today. It did not fit that green leafy, rich suburb filled with smart people stereotype. I think Andrea encountered some of this when she came to Watertown. Colleagues said, You mean there is a Unitarian church there? No, can’t be. A urban, industrial , immigrant community, with few WASP types simply could not sustain a UU church. That stereotype almost became a living truth, and if it were not for some brave souls, a few of whom are still among us, who said UUism can grow and thrive in Watertown, it would have happened. We are all witnesses to that revival today. In fact our annual meeting is a celebration that you do not need to be a certain kind of person to be a Unitarian Universalist except one that is open minded and understanding and willing to risk all dogmatisms in a search for truth.
My personal money issues partly came from being raised in those places where Unitarianism failed. These are rural villages and mill towns where the stereotype tells us that only hicks come from there, not educated and well-to-do UUs. You do not belong. Ever since, I looked at the content of my thesis and thought the Brahmins didn’t seem to understand. Ever since my former colleague looked at my church and said, you don’t belong among us, you are not one of us, I have longed to write these Minns lectures to say to the stereotype, that I do not have to have a certain pedigree, or education or profession to be a Unitarian Universalist. I don’t need six generations or a Ph.D., or a white collar job, which is not to say those are not fine things. Personally, it has been partly about money because my father did well financially despite being on welfare as a child during the depression, after his father’s business failed, and poverty arrived in an alcoholic stupor. So I enjoyed the benefits of money growing up, but our family values were pure working class, and now I am the educated idiot my father both wanted and feared. My education assigns me to a certain class today, but I have often felt confused, who do I belong with? And those UUs who have promoted a stereotype that we must fit a certain type in a certain kind of town have done us no favors. I first thought UUs were those people who had it made, and never had to struggle with anything. I have learned that rich and poor, educated and not so educated have religious needs that we can respond to. What is wrong with everyone feeling welcome?
That is the essential question, who do I belong with? I have thought about this a lot this year. My first sermon of the year was called “Almost an Atheist.” In that sermon I mentioned how Andrea said to me, “Oh, you still believe.” Believe in God that is. I have thought about that in the context of thinking that none of us really stray very far from our childhood faiths if we are going to have a powerful, life sustaining religious core. At first you might say that is ridiculous. Most of us UUs with a few exceptions are come outers from other religious faiths. I rejected fundamentalism, and another rejected Catholicism. We certainly don’t believe in those old ways. That is true, but we do need to integrate it into our life experience. We need it on our journey or else we only reject Krakow to come to Prague, and don’t know how to get back to Krakow, which is where our home and treasure lie.
Just the other day on the way home Dana was asking about what kind of baby he was. How much crying did he do and so forth. Children always want to learn what they were like when they were younger because it helps them get a perspective on who they have become. In the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, one psychologist writes: “Observing, recording and preserving the memory of both large and small events of life is one of the most satisfying ways to bring order to consciousness. In a sense every individual is a historian of his or her personal existence.” We have all learned that memories of childhood and the patterns we developed determine the kind of adults we grow up to be. Many of us spend time in therapy dealing with these experiences as children of alcoholics or victims of abuse. We try to see how this experience has shaped us, and how we can reconcile ourselves to it. Sometimes psychology has focused on the negative, and especially religiously speaking, we need a more positive turn on our childhood. What kind of moral values or community compassion for others or love for others or peace for the world did we learn about that we still build upon?
If adults become private historians of our own lives, it is also true of older age. Erik Erikson believes that the last stage of the human life cycle involves the task of achieving “integrity.” That is, we bring together what we have accomplished and failed to accomplish into a meaningful story, that we claim as our own. Before my father died, he gathered his three sons for a last trip to Cooperstown , New York to see a painting of his old professional baseball team on exhibit. He wanted to integrate children with what he loved and handed on, that it, among other things, might be a bond between every one. We want to feel forgiveness for mistakes, loving connections that gave meaningful times together, and feelings of pride for what we have accomplished as a family or a community. As Carlyle wrote, “History is the essence of innumerable biographies.”
Many of us try to make sense of our history in our religious communities. Some of us think we join a UU community to purge ourselves of the theological dogmas we endured in our journeys. There is an undiscriminating rejection of the past. In the reading Conrad Wright says that this attitude of rejection is actually quite conventionally traditional, and it has a long history of its own. Furthermore this complete rejection of the past is “a form of bondage to it.” In a way it is like the undiscriminating acceptance of the orthodox faith that liberals sometimes like to make fun of with an intellectual superiority. The renewal of life depends upon the fulfillment of the past rather than the repudiation of it. What this means is that we look at what meaning we have derived from that past. Perhaps Catholicism gave you a good ethical grounding or thirst for social justice, or perhaps Fundamentalism showed me the importance of texts or story or even community, or even that an idea of God was useful to help me think about what grounded the universe in meaning, even if their concept of God was one I rejected. For I took a journey of rejection, but I also kept on journeying to come back to what meaning was gleaned from that experience as I grew and changed. And perhaps that is what Andrea has been saying to me all year.
What is central to our journeys is that we have the courage to go to the far off city, to find the way to our treasure at home. To leave home, is simply to reject the past, and never find the treasure. As Santayana said, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. To simply stay home is to stagnate, and never look to find the hidden treasure. This journey of mine has helped me discover that I can return to my home and find meaning there, even as it is transformed. I have also encountered those who never left UUism who did not finish their journey either. They stagnated by believing the stereotypes that only one kind of person belongs here, or that we know what is right. I believe that at heart Unitarian Universalism longs to be a faith that is not an exclusive club, but a wide open door that wants to experience and learn from all kinds of people, rich and poor. I often feel like we do a good job of that here in Watertown. It is a lesson we could teach UUs elsewhere. It is not easy. God knows I have issues, but I don’t want to ever feel like there is anyone, including myself who does not belong. I strive to change and grow and take the risk of a journey that will bring me home to a treasure. The social organism and the person that does not change will atrophy and die. Victor Frankl once wrote, “We who lived in the concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man or woman but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Each of us must make that continuing journey that is our life, may we always remember our past, but also live it forward into the treasure that is our future choosing to fulfill our childhood faith because it took us on a journey that brought us to Unitarian Universalism and home now to a bigger heart and a wider soul. That is our heart’s longing as a people and as a community, to give ourselves a usable past. And that is why I wrote these lectures. I looked ay my shadows, and the shadows of my adopted denomination and have used that journey to call myself to my best self, and that the understanding and love and friendship we can share among all people of all classes can bring power to our feelings of powerlessness, compassion in our times of despair, and community when we feel truly isolated.
Closing Words – from Theodore Parker
Be ours a religion which, like sunshine,
its temple, all space;
its shrine , the good heart;
its creed, all truth;
its ritual, works of love;
its profession of faith, divine living.