This sermon was originally preached at First UU of Brooklyn on May 15th. It was part of a service honoring long-time and life-long members of First UU. It takes a fresh look at the practical theology of mentoring and multigenerational community.
Earlier this week I was reflecting on the old phrase, “turning a new leaf.” It likely came to mind from all the transition occurring in our lives right now. One part thinking of my parents’ health; one part wondering what our interim year will look like; and one part dreaming what may be in store for us as the next ministry begins to shine in the twinkle of our ministerial search committee’s collective eyes. From the eagle-eyed view of our decades’ long member honorees this morning, I imagine Brooklyn appears to have many such turns and probably a few twists along the way. I’ll pose two larger questions this morning to reflect upon. What does it look and feel like as we turn to our next leaf in our own lives and the life of this congregation? And what transmutes within us as we take on the long view of a million or more such turns in the life of a soul or a community of souls?
The quote atop our order of service this morning was the ultimate result of my musing: “Is the turning of a new leaf a page unread, the dying of Autumn, a Spring time resurrection, or just the bending of our soul toward the motion of the sun?” When I first posted it to twitter, it was shy the first part of the extended metaphor – I didn’t mention “a page unread.” I was writing poetically, but I had forgotten the original meaning. I was taking a phrase somewhere new while misremembering where it started from. One of our congregants, June W. got me back on path with the kind words, “I think the phrase refers to the leaf of a book, but I like the poetry of your thought.” The leaf of a book, ooh, right. I’m not sure when I last used that word in that way, aside from misquoting well-known metaphors of course. Just in case anyone else here might have grown up in a time where books only had pages, and not foliage, I’ll share with you the dictionary definition so that we’re all on the same page, as it were. “Leaf: Any of the sheets of paper bound in a book, each side of which constitutes a page.” Incidentally, an old high school classmate of mine later added, “It refers to turning to a clean page and starting fresh. It replaced ‘starting with a clean slate’ when paper became cheap.” Apparently it once meant something more along the lines that we can erase away the errors of past bad mathematics and formulate a new equation in our lives.
This innocuous interaction is a good mirror for the dynamic that often occurs in the life of a community when we’re at our best. Someone comes along and hears a thing, or a phrase, or a way of living, or a tradition. She thinks it’s meaningful, and helpful, but has a new use for it. She takes it and runs with it; hopefully bringing the idea a new life and a new direction. She makes it meaningful and relevant to her generation or to a new time. All of that’s critical in the life of a community or a person. Times change and so do needs and outlooks. But an idea or a ritual or a tradition came from somewhere and had a meaning and a value all its own. It grew out from a place of shared values of another people or another time. It can be a snapshot of a generation or a family. Where it goes and grows toward is just as important as where it came from – what soil it was rooted in. An idea or practice can grow ignorant of its foundation, but will be more rich and certainly stronger for the knowing.
I mentioned this example knowing it’s innocuous enough. We can start here and build off it to better understand other aspects of religious community…. What happens when the ideas one generation runs with are more sacred or more sensitive than a misquoted metaphor? What if it involves a lifetime of work, or a value that formed your youth? We know how hard this can be for everyone involved when new inspirations set off a struggle of values. “But we had that in our family for generations?” or “But I grew up with children in worship with us – for the entire service.” or “For me social justice work is really about…” (and I’ll let you fill in that blank knowing that it will be different for almost everyone of us.) All of us can imagine the pain that can quickly sprout from these instances.
I found some helpful advice to reframe the discussion in a book called,
“From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older” by Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi. It’s a book about aging, and eldering. In a chapter about mentoring he writes,
“Think of a canal lock that fills and empties, allowing boats to rise or descend to different levels. Because the elder is at a higher level of experience than the younger colleague, mentoring enables the water to move from one level to another through spiritual intimacy. In this exchange, communication is always a two-way process that mutually benefits both parties. The elder has more life experience and wisdom, so naturally the higher seeks its own level by flowing into the lower. At the same time, the mentee, having more vitality, naturally rejuvenates and invigorates the elder with energy and an influx of fresh ideas. Without this exchange, the elder may remain locked in the past. With their penchant for experimentation and their forward-looking mentality, young people give elders the gift of encountering the present and anticipating the future. What mentees receive, says Maurice Friedman, professor emeritus of religious studies, philosophy, and comparative literature at San Diego State University, is a readiness to bridge the past and the future.”
Hopefully, unlike myself and the turning a new leaf metaphor, we’re all familiar with canals and locks otherwise this quote’s going to be a tough one…. It speaks to movement, back and forth. The interchange keeps the water fresh and refreshed. Wisdom lifts us all up while itself needing new life to stay fresh. I like it because it also depicts how we’re all in the same system of locks. It’s not a struggle or fight between one generation and the preceding, but rather a long river flowing from one age to another – interconnected, interspersed, and continuously reliant upon one another to move its vessels and cargo from their source to their destination. Each new decade being another lock that can open up incredible potential to face the world as it is – with all its challenges, changes and new experiences. The rabbi finishes this thought with this line, “The twenty-first century is nothing but questions that we’ve never heard before. In the fire of a mentoring relationship, young people develop a readiness to meet new, unforeseen situations in ways that carry life forward.” It seems to me that we’re invited to appreciate the value our elders have, with their longer view, in collaboration with the contemporary age’s great translators – our newest generations.
If mentoring relationships can be a collaboration of minds and spirits; realizing that both benefit from the connection; that both grow from the interchange; then how renewed – how inspired – can a religious community such as First UU be as groups of people learn, interact, exchange and connect? We can readily think of the benefits of this in the realm of the technical and professional. The details and the proclivities make sense in congregational mentoring relationships that involve architectural students, or financial expertise, or master teachers. These are all wonderful opportunities, but they are ones that we can often access in the secular world as well. As a religious community, our central commodity, our competitive advantage is in the realm of values. We’re also a rare opportunity to explore values, ethics, and theology in a communal- and self-reflective way. And this is wherein our community saves lives and renews dreams. Our membership recognition this morning constituted by folks who have been part of this community for 40 or more years speaks directly to this latter form of mentoring. We appreciate all the technical things communal elders have learned and taught in how to make the business of congregational life thrive. But we celebrate the body of values they helped steward throughout the latest quarter century and into the next.
Mentoring values is an art. It’s integral to the process of eldering. I have the suspicion that eldering is not so much about learning more stuff and knowing how to do more things and better. I expect it’s less about expertise. Eldering is coming to grips with the reality of the brevity of life. An appreciation for how precious and delicate we all are; that life ultimately is more about the questions of value than the details. The “whys” that lead to who we become overshadow the “hows” and “how tos” of daily living. Eldering is living from a place of this kind of knowing and seeking to mentor from that locale. The “longer view” speaking to the clarity of those of us whose sight might be more acute. If values are the central act of religious community, and I believe it is, then this is the greatest gift our elders can offer – both to the wider community and to themselves.
Now what is this “longer view?” I don’t believe it’s simply a factor of duration, although that does help to wizen all of us. One truth the book “Age-ing to Sage-ing” speaks to is that the failings and disappointments that sometimes feel like catastrophes may in fact be the doorways to new opportunities. The new, the fresh, the next great thing sometimes can’t come about without something else ending. The longer view reminds us that “not all that is bad,” is actually bad, in the long run. Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi writes, “When you are young and vulnerable, you see the world as either for or against you, and this view is reinforced when people do hurtful things or betray you. When you are old (of) age and climb the platform of broader understanding, you can reexamine and contemplate your foundational views of the world and recontextualize what happened to you from a more objective, less impulse-driven philosophical position. In this way, you do not have to remain imprisoned in your earlier conclusions about life.” I find that it comes down to what stories we tell about our lives – what stories come out in the moment, and which ones paint a decade or a generation. When we’ve experienced less, we may be more prone to fixating on how difficult, or downright awful, an encounter might seem. But in the longer view, most of these stories seem to open up more doorways than we can possibly imagine.
When I was in my early twenties, I was working in Information Technology. I had a solid job supervising a 24/7 computer Helpdesk; with what was then my longest term relationship, little debt and more vacation time than I could possibly use. That was a story I told for several years. But most of it was really a trap for me. I had taken that job as an opportunity to get professional experience right out of college and save up enough money to actually go into non-profit work. The truth is that I was never going to leave that job unless it became a horrible place to work. One new Vice-President later, and suddenly so many qualified, capable and expert colleagues left; many of us emotional wrecks in his wake. I could find no place of compassion or care for this particular VP. I could not find a way to “story” that experience in the affirmative. In the blink of a few months, I was miserable and needed a way out, and couldn’t see the silver lining at the end of the road. Looking back with that longer view, without that Dilbert-esque VP, I simply would not be where I am today. Back then, I honestly couldn’t imagine this new world at all.
We do this story-ing in our communities as well. Only seven years ago our congregation was wrestling with a divided community – I am told many had very different views about the ministry at that time – many loved what was here and many were left feeling the opposite. The story Brooklyn told informed newcomers that it was a divided place and that there was a view and a stand to be made. Five years ago an interim minister arrived that asked this congregation to reflect on the divides; settle styles of communication; re-covenant with one another; and to assess how and why our committees were formed and functioned.
For many it was an incredibly trying time. Difficulties may have seemed like they were too quickly forced to a head. But the story, I’m told, that was then shared was one that said “we don’t talk about the factions anymore, but we should all know that there were factions.” Four years ago our current Senior Minister arrived, and a great peace was settled upon the previous stories. It sounds almost comical to say it, but to be totally honest, when I arrived only a year after Patrick I had no idea there was ever a fight within this congregation. I know from experience here that many of us who have been here for all this transition sometimes find it hard to believe that new members might not be much aware of past discord – but the truth for likely half of us here is that there’s little discord to know.
Moving into our next interim, the congregation tells a story that we are vibrant, lively, growing, committed, vital and spirited. We are not perfect, but we have come a long way in a short time. Each of these periods were truly and honestly felt and experienced. On our better days we’ll recognize that each member and each leader along the way helped us to get to this point in our story. And whether we’d like to admit it or not, we wouldn’t be where we are now without each one of those leaders and committed volunteers. The fact that we can succeed through adversity indicates something about our character, just as much as our character is defined and refined by the same adversity.
The acute clarity of the short-term vision brings the pain and difficulty vividly to the forefront. As the Rabbi says, “When you are young and vulnerable, you see the world as either for or against you, and this view is reinforced when people do hurtful things or betray you.” And we don’t need to actually be young to still see the world this way; but it is the shorter view. “When you are old age and climb the platform of broader understanding, you can reexamine and contemplate your foundational views of the world and recontextualize what happened to you from a more objective, less impulse-driven philosophical position. In this way, you do not have to remain imprisoned in your earlier conclusions about life.” We can choose to revision all that has come before us and see it in the bigger picture – and we don’t need to be old to realize this truth about life. Doorways forever open and close, but the ones we walk through were necessary to get to where we’re going. We can always choose differently, excepting the realm of death, but the new destination will never be the same.
Our elders among us can help remind us of this truth; they can help steer us back on the path of moderation, compassion and forgiveness – ever reminding us that our family and our religious community matter more for how well it strives to support us than it seeks to always agree with us. Our longest-term members have seen a congregation of shared values living out the past forty plus years. We pass on our values in light of the changing seasons, and activities, and habits, and styles. There is an essence to the life and spirit of this congregation that can be felt and can be lived, but words would rarely suffice. It is the task of “eldering” to witness this transition; to strive to crack it open for the next generation to partake and to be enlivened by this sacramental work; for the transmission of communal spirit is a sacred endeavor. In the awareness of the precariousness of life and the appreciation for endings that enliven our beginnings we come to know the time of our lives. We honor the best of ourselves by blessing the sanctity of the lives we share in community. In doing so we become a blessing ourselves to the world around us.
At the start of this sermon I asked two questions. “What does it look and feel like as we turn to our next leaf in our own lives and the life of this congregation? And what transmutes within us as we take on the long view of a million or more such turns in the life of a soul or a community of souls?” I can not answer the first for any of us. But I can ask all of us to be open to accepting a new look and a new feel to the next page of our communal story, for the leaf must now turn. For the second question, I hope that for each of us we learn from the perpetual transition in our communal story. May it remind us that in our own lives each new challenge or adversity is for but a time – and it might just be something that opens a new path that is wondrous all in its own. With each new step, something may pass away as the Autumn leaves; something may finally birth anew as our current Springtime demands; and sometimes the change is nothing more and nothing less than our souls bending toward the motion of that perpetual light which transcends and imbues all life.
 “From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older” by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. p192-193; 1995.
 Ibid. p. 193.
 Ibid. p.97