In 1895 the Post -Impressionist painter Paul Gaugin made a second trip to Tahiti, this one in despair over the death of his daughter and the corruption of civilization. He intended, he said, to paint his greatest work, depicting the life journey through images of his own personal mythology, then end his life. In fact, he did create his masterpiece, but continued living. Part of the painting titled Where Did We Come From? Who Are We? Where Are We Going appears on the front of your Order of Service. I say “part” because not every figure in the painting is well dressed enough for church, if you know what I mean.
Eventually the painting came to a gallery in France, then shuffled from one gallery or museum to another until landing in The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston several years ago. Gaugin’s depiction of birth, life, death and the quest for the Beyond intrigued people in the 20th century, as much by its title as its visuals: Where Do We Come From? Who Are We? Where Are We Going? The symbols of the painting depict a story from birth through connection to resignation. The power of the painting lies not in any answers, but rather in the questions. The basic queries of human existence come to all of us again and again in our own time. Recently, while visiting us, my 27 -year -old daughter heard of the unexpected death of an inspiring mentor whom she loved greatly. That night, as we looked into the star filled sky over Plum Island, she wondered, “Mom, how can someone be here one day and not the next?” (You may think I would have a profound ministerial answer, but all I said was, “It’s hard to believe, isn’t it?” and rubbed her back.)
The Journeys of Faith that people present here once a month emerge from asking and answering such questions. And it’s no less true for congregations. Religious communities exist to respond to the fundamental questions, and communities make their own faith journeys, tell their own stories, and evolve their own myths. As respected religious scholar Karen Armstrong says, myth is not a lie: it is a story large enough and deep enough to take us to the core of reality, to allow us to deal with the chaos of life, to help us make meaning. Some myths, such as the Biblical Fall from Paradise, may bear no literal truth while, over the ages, for better or worse, explain human conditions such as suffering. But consider the first image of Earth from space – that beautiful blue globe hanging in the universe. It reflected scientific fact and also gave birth to a myth of meaning We travel together through the universe together, living and dying; we are in this as one; and it can both save and bless us to embrace that. How well we respond is a matter of faith.
If I look at Gaugin’s painting a certain way, I can imagine that the figures look just serious enough to be engaged in a ministerial search process. Joking aside, what stories of meaning have evolved in this religious community that can guide it in making its way into its fourth century?
One myth is that the congregation is nearly eternal. It is as if you have always been here, in the center of town, rock solidly part of the community. Unlike congregations counting the days until the doors will close, you don’t imagine its end. That myth of eternality could fool you someday, I suppose, but it also affords you confidence to embrace a future, to envision the possibilities. In my opinion, it means you can dare to take risks, to do more than survive. You can live out a purpose.
Another myth: you make your dreams happen through intention, determination, and sheer cussed Yankee will. That myth weaves throughout your history: when the founders determined that indeed there would become a Third Parish of Newbury in spite of the vehement objections of Second Parish; when they erected the first meeting house in the center of a wilderness; when they hoisted a 400- pound bell into its spire to mark the passages of people’s lives and call them together, then added a clock to allow to them to tell their time on this earth. As they needed a new, larger meeting house, they marched up the street and built it. They met the crying need for education among children of the parish by providing schools and even daring to pay a teacher. They treated the widows and orphans of town generously. And, of course, recently you repaired the steeple about to crumble over this town. Where do we come from? We come from here. Who are we? Determined people of faith who will constantly re-create a community of meaning to meet the challenges of life and death on the shore of New England. Where are you going? Whatever your next destination, it will be as a part of the struggles of this town and this world. A bit of a traveler myself in this interim role, I see it as clearly as from space.
Our transition work from last year revealed some of your longings. You want more ways to grow spiritually and more diverse ways to worship. You know you need new ways of welcoming so that people can move easily feel easily to belong here. Some yearn for greater impact for change in the community and more intergenerational connection in congregational life. That may not seem like a coherent body of information, but running beneath it is a very important theme: you know your purpose. Mrs. E. Vale Smith wrote that this First Religious Society is based on “a simple idea: “an intent of fulfilling their appointed work of making themselves and the world better.” How more meaningfully can we respond to the mysteries of life than to seek to make ourselves and the world better?
When you meet with your search committee and then wait through the search, keep this purpose in mind. What has enabled First Religious Society to survive and thrive has been knowing its most essential purpose but also having trust. Trust is a religious response to life, and it is the greatest strength you can tap. Trust in your purpose. Trust in that creative power of life some call God and some call the human spirit. Trust in each other. Trust your Search Committee members to know you; trust them to know where you have come from; trust then to find someone to partner with you for your next stage of life. If you do, all will be well.
Of course, we long for more existential answers as well, don’t we? I can only give you mine, which would be shared by many Unitarian Universalists. Where do we come from? We sprang from the stars and crawled from the seas and pulled our way upright, participating in a life force greater than ourselves. Who are we? We are creatures whose wisdom hasn’t evolved as fast as our knowledge, creatures who know we will die and seek meaning; people, I hope, trying to make ourselves and our world better. And where are we going? Ahh, that’s the question. Wherever it is, may we live with trust in one world.
Atkinson, Minnie. A History of the First Religious Society, Newburyport, Massachusetts, vol. 1 (1725-1933). 1933, reprinted 2001.