Oct. 27, 2013
Dear people of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta, 100 years from now:
This letter feels a little like the Voyager 1 space probe, which was launched in 1977 and, at the time I write this, is billions of miles away. Distance is like time. 100 years in the future feels like billions of miles away too.
And, just as Voyager 1 carries a precious cargo of Earth artifacts—pictures, words, music—all fit for anyone who happens to come across it, so too does this letter. Precious cargo that is for you: our spiritual descendents who carry on the legacy of liberal religion in Atlanta. I write this letter so you might know where you came from, our hopes and fears, what stays the same in the midst of all change.
But now look at that! I’ve already started out in a presumptuous way! I called you The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta. But who knows what our name will be in 2113. Back in the 1880s, when we were born, our name was The Church of Our Father. In the 1910s, when the Universalists and Unitarians came together to form one congregation, it was changed to The United Liberal Church. And then, in the 1960s, when we moved to our present location, it became The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta. Who knows what future developments might necessitate yet another change of name?
Although to be perfect honest, indeed downright catty, I have to confess that “Unitarian Universalism” is such a very long name—way too many syllables. It’s also like having two first names—and I personally know all about that. People switch them all the time. Perhaps in your day we’ll have come up with something a little shorter and easier to say as a way of naming our faith. Perhaps? Hopefully?
Whatever the name is, I’m sure that the need for liberal religion will continue to be urgent and real. Now I will grant you that predictions about the future are always on shaky ground. I showed a video to my congregation in which people from the 1920s envisioned life in the 1960s and 2000s and beyond, and, to be honest, they were crazy. Everlasting peace and prosperity? Wedding dresses made of glass? What were they smoking? We are, as you will no doubt continue to be, because of rapid technological change, living in a time in which the future is discontinuous with the present and the past. For most of human history, that was not true. For most of history, you would live as your parents and grandparents lived, and your children would carry the exact conditions of your life forward. But not anymore. I mean, my child will never know what it was like to live without the Internet and smart phones. She will never know what it was like to enjoy Saturday morning cartoons that were actually good, or check out library books at school and look at the card in the book to see who had checked out the book too, or just to be able to slam the phone down on someone. She’ll never know it. Just like I’ll never know the world my mother and grandmother knew. Every era is a brave new world.
Nevertheless, some things never change. The need for liberal religion is one of these things. 2000 years ago, it was Jesus with his message of radical inclusivity, his saving conviction that everyone belongs to the Kingdom of God and not just the “right” sort of people. Paul his Apostle said it like this, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Now as you read this, I’ll bet you’re wondering if I’m doing it again—claiming that a famous person is a religious liberal and a Unitarian Universalist. We have a certain reputation for doing this. The answer is: you betcha! Jesus was a religious liberal. Paul was a religious liberal. Would they be Unitarian Universalist today? I like to think so.
The ancient gospel of radical inclusivity is as relevant today as ever. This was made obvious as pie to me just a few weeks ago, when more than 100 of my congregants joined me and Rev. Thickstun in marching at the Atlanta Pride Parade to witness on behalf of LGBT rights. Made me so proud of us, what we stand for. Thousands and thousands of people were on the street watching us walk past in our Standing on the Side of Love t-shirts. They saw our signs, which said that God loves everybody, that my church supports gay marriage, that every person has inherent worth and dignity. Later, one of our group said that he was “amazed and heartened at the great number of people on the streets supportive of human/gay rights and equality for all. It was very heartwarming.” All I know is that I had congregants pointing to me and shouting, This is my minister! This is my minister! to those watching us who might never have thought it possible that being gay and being religious could go together—or that a man of the cloth could affirm gays and lesbians and transgender folks unconditionally. The day meant everything for so many people who, on a regular basis, are shamed and abused and worse because of who they are. Because they just aren’t “the right sort” of people. That’s why liberal religion like Unitarian Universalism matters. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female—and we go on to add to holy scripture: there is neither gay nor straight, there is neither rich nor poor, there is neither Republican nor Democrat, there is neither black nor white, there is neither documented immigrant nor undocumented immigrant, there is neither atheist nor theist, for you are all one in the Spirit of Life, you all come from the same source and you are all destined for the same place, you are all children of Love.”
That’s it right there—do you see? The core, the essence of who we are. What justifies our existence today, and yours 100 years from now. Everyone belongs to the Spirit of Life and Love. Everyone belongs to Love. Doesn’t matter who you are, what you believe. Love is home. But a lot of people have lost their sense of that. And so our job is to help the lost get found. Our job is to be sure we are found ourselves. That’s our mission today and always. That’s what changing lives means.
With absolute confidence I believe that, in your day, LGBT folk will be as acceptable as any other. Gay marriage will be old hat even in a state like Georgia. But when you look at the record of human history there’s always going to be groups who aren’t accepted, and so the radically inclusive vision will always be needed. Who knows what other “there is neither __ or __” that will need to be added to that holy scripture message from Paul the Apostle of Jesus. Without apology I have added to his word written thousands of years ago, and I hope that in your day you will unapologetically add to it too.
There’s just always going to be a need for liberality, which my dictionary (and no doubt yours) defines as “not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogmas; free from bigotry.” “Favoring proposals for reform, open to new ideas for progress, and tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others; broad-minded.” I guess what I wonder is this: if, in your day, the congregation will still feel like an island surrounded by a huge sea of conservatism, as it does today. It’s interesting: one of our members who joined 60 years ago described the church as he knew it in the 1950s as “a little island of liberalism in a sea of ultra hard-right conservatism.” He said, “We felt like we needed each other, we had to stick together.” Now, we’re around 700 members strong, with around 300 friends, and while it means we are bigger, Atlanta is even bigger still, and so is the state of Georgia, with its continuing ultra hard-right conservative streak. We are still having to stick together. Will it be like that in 2113 too?
I hope not. I really do. How amazing if more people in your day favored proposals for reform, were open to new ideas for progress, were tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others; were broad-minded. How amazing, if more and more lost people were found, were home not in some narrow constricting sense of God but in a sense of the God and spirituality that is truly… liberal.
This is one change that I hope our actions today can help create. As writer Albert Camus put it, “Real generosity towards the future lies in giving all to the present.” Our dreams for you and your living, 100 years in the future, begin to become real through us. We are the seed and the root; you are the flower.
The future is now. Yet another meaning of “liberality” is “tending to give freely; generous in amount; ample.” That’s how we have to be. Liberals not just in word but deed.
I mean, how is it that, in your day, gay marriage will be old hat—unless we are the ones who prepared the way?
How is it that, in your day, the liberal way in religion will flourish—unless we are the ones who kept it alive and growing?
We must give and give and give. As Abraham Joshua Heschel said, when he was marching beside Martin Luther King Jr. at another kind of parade, “We must pray with our feet.”
We are dreaming dreams today, and these dreams touch you too, across all the years. The most recent expression of these dreams is in the form of our Vision 2016 long-range plan aspirations: to become among the most engaging and enriching congregations in Atlanta, to increase our impact in the larger world, to motivate and inspire ourselves and others, to have the resources to fulfill our aspirations and potential. These are our hopes. We are hard at work at them, hard at work discerning what they call us to today and tomorrow. Do they call us to stay in our current building, or move? Do they call us to stay with the same kind of staffing model, or change? What do they call us to do, from top to bottom?
We are so proud of who we are. And we are impatient for more. That’s where our pride takes us. To be more than we ever thought possible, to never be satisfied with the status quo, or with less….
Here’s where a letter from you to us—100 years in the past—would be mighty helpful. To help us know what worked and what didn’t; to help us know where we waited too long to act and where we should have waited longer. It’s said that the definition of insanity is to keep on doing the same things but hope for a different result. The principle applies at every level of living. So where were we being insane, and where were we not insane at all? Well. It’s just as philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once said: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”
I treasure how one of my predecessors in the ministry put it. The Rev. Dr. John Cummings. He wrote it years before I was even born. I have received his words into my heart even as I hope you will receive mine:
What I would like to say to the people of the future [he says] is this: You will look back on us with astonishment at the truths which stared us in the face, and which we did not see. You will look with wonder at the bright toys we created, and used only for the rape of the planet and one another.
It will seem to you strange beyond believing that we reached for the stars, and did not know the simplest keys for living well together.
But know this also, you of the future: Know that even in our slumber we dreamed. In our fumbling, shadowed search for mistaken glories, even in our clumsy cruelties, it was for you that we dreamed.
Beneath the piled up centuries, below the lost and ruined rubble of all our striving, it was you who lay safe – enfolded in the womb of our dreamings; you, the first cause of all our daring! …
One day, as for centuries foretold, in that far age, in the chrysalis of time, it shall be your glory that, born into a universe without justice or mercy, our kind thought itself of justice and mercy, and put them there! Remember us for this: that in our wildest wanderings, never did we forsake that dream!
Dearest congregation of our future, 100 years away, accept this letter that bears the precious cargo of our reason for being, our hopes, our pride in who we are today, our pride in you and what you will become. You lay safe, enfolded in the womb of our dreaming. Let your glory be the justice and mercy that we put into the world, that gives you a place to stand—and also to dream, for you, too, will envision the years before you, your descendants, the future world you yourselves aspire to create. For you, as for us, it is the ultimate meaning behind all stewardship campaigns and all long range plans and all the rest that goes into building Beloved Community. It’s the ultimate reason. Hope.
I am yours, sincerely
Rev. Anthony Makar
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta