I have been thinking lately about the Sondheim play Into the Woods. In this play familiar characters from fairy tales go off into the woods seeking fulfillment of a cherished wish. At the end of Act I they each get their wish, and ‘they all live happily ever after.’ Until Act II, when they discover the shadow side of their wishes. As they realize the costs of their desires they also realize that the only way out of the woods is to let go of those individual wishes and work together to defeat the evil that is afoot. They come together and discover hidden strengths as the haunting song “No One Is Alone” sounds throughout the woods. At the end evil is defeated – the dragon is always slain in fairy tales – but the costs are huge. One character, the baker’s wife, pleads with her husband as she lays dying. “Tell the children the story of the woods: actions have consequences even for future generations.”
That is why the Transition Team and I are inviting you into a study of your congregation’s history. We know that in order to live happily ever after, in order to thrive as a community of faith, you need to know what happened in the woods (or wherever your particular mythic stories have taken place). You have to know together who you were because that determines, at least in part, who you are. And who you are determines who you will be in the future.
Historian Conrad Wright names four reasons for a liberal religious people to know their history. The first is that having a shared story creates social cohesion. The second is that history bestows particular symbols of communication that are essential to a group’s identity. What is this chalice that we light at the start of every service? Why is this building such an odd shape? What in the world is an RE?
The third reason is that history is rich with role models. UU minister Tim Jensen writes, “… when we allow our spiritual forebears to speak to us authentically in their own voices, we will discover in their experience potential mentors for our own religious pilgrimage. This is the miracle of a living tradition – the ability to …reveal in the lives of those who have come before us the insights that can guide us as we encounter our own future.”
The final reason is that to know where you came from enhances your self-understanding. The process of searching for a settled minister is not just about looking for the best person to fill the slot. It is about clarifying your identity as a people. Who were you? Who are you? Who do you wish to become? Part of this clarification emerges out of an encounter with your past.
The History Wall is more than just a time line of dates and names and events. It will become a profusion of stories. You may find that different people remember the same incident differently. I urge you to hear all of the versions of the story as truths. You will learn so much from each other if you approach this exercise with open minds and hearts. Eventually what emerges out of these stories is the true narrative arc of this congregation.
You will see for yourselves the themes that recur. The high and low points. The turning points. You will see for yourselves the truth of Sondheim’s assertion that actions have consequences, even for future generations.
Coming to terms with history is a shared project; we will all work on it together. As you write and read, as you learn from each other, you will experience the truth of Sondheim’s musical assertion: no one is alone. We are all in this together. Together in fellowship, together in faith.
In the interim,