Finding Our Pando

The Rev. Susan Milnor
June 18, 2017

One of the oldest known living organisms on earth is “The Trembling Giant.” What a great name. The Trembling Giant is a colony of Quaking Aspen trees in Utah with one enormous underground root system. Scientists estimate the root system, known as Pando -- which means “I spread” in Latin – to be between 80,000 and a million years old. At thirteen million pounds, it would also come in as one of the heavier organisms on earth.

For much of its life, Pando enjoyed a nearly ideal environment, with fires driving back competitors and climate changes providing good growth conditions. When the aspen trees themselves burned down, Pando survived underground and sent up new stems. So resilient is Pando that a few years ago the U.S. Postal Service created a stamp honoring it as one of the forty “Wonders of America” and, in the words of one naturalist, “an international treasure.”

When this congregation’s 300th anniversary comes up in 2025, perhaps you should make your own stamp with an image of First Religious Society on it, for it is surely a national treasure as well. No, I don’t mean this lovely Federalist meeting house; I mean the congregation, the religious community, the spiritual legacy rooted in the ground of its being. While not the very oldest in America, the congregation has had a decidedly resilient root system, which we could regard as its very own Pando.

To give our forbearers credit, they realized something resilient had taken hold here. Writing to express regret at being unable to attend the 150th anniversary celebration, Thomas Wentworth Higginson observed, “A fine flavor for antiquity is suggested when you select the centennial period of the nation to celebrate the century and a half birthday of an institution.” (His enthusiasm may have been tempered by having been fired for his abolitionist fervor.)

This resilience has brought you through this first year of the interim period strong and, I hope, collectively confident in yourselves as a congregation. Just over a year ago Harold Babcock stood in this pulpit for the last time after twenty -one years of wonderful ministry. I can only begin to imagine how much grief, sadness, appreciation and love filled this room on that day. As individuals sharing one root system, you probably quaked just a little too. Loss is hard. Change is hard. Imagining a future can be hard.

Take heart. There have been bumps, and we will undoubtedly hit some more. Ever was it so in any interim period. But so far, you have done well. You have remained engaged and committed. You have even created some momentum. And just like green shoots coming through the soil, you show signs of beginning to reach toward your new life with excitement and a sense of possibility. It is what I expected from you, but it is good.

People could point to many concrete factors that have contributed to your resilience: mostly long, stable ministries; responsible, committed lay leadership; relative financial stability; involvement in your community. Those are all true, but that’s not what I mean when I say there is a spirit or soul to a congregation that the people of each succeeding generation inherit and pass on, often without quite understanding it. All year, I’ve walked among you listening for what that soul, what runs, like branches, under the words of your history. One of the most important elements is a sense of covenant, a knowledge that we are always more whole together, looking out for each other, than going it alone. These early New England towns built houses so close to each other, of course, for their mutual protection in a new, strange, and potentially very dangerous environment. It’s why their meeting houses sat within steps of most settlers and at the center of town. You can see it in actions too, when congregants and minister spent the night on the roof beating back flames from a nearby burning mill; when lightning shattered the spire on the steeple of the original meeting house and the congregation immediately set back to work; when a new meeting house was needed and they figured out how to do it; when after each ministry, this congregation reinvented itself.

This awareness shows explicitly in the original covenant of the congregation that pledges people “to walk together in faith and fellowship of the gospel, in mutual love and watchfulness. . .?” Mutual watchfulness. . . In the secular parlance of today, the people of this congregation have most of the time had each other’s backs and the backs of those in this town. To put it in the language I prefer, the soul of this community bears a deep respect for the covenanted way of being. Of course, it does not mean you agree on everything, but, rather, that you usually disagree with respect. As the early Transylvanian Unitarian Frances David said, “We do not have to think alike to love alike.”

Bound up with that spirit of covenant, like old roots growing together, is the congregation’s sense of sacred purpose. Yes, you have valued worldly things: a beautiful building, well known architects and artisans, important public figures appearing at ceremonies. And you have loved beauty: colorful clothing in a drab and gray clad Puritan world, flowers, and music. At the one hundredth anniversary celebration, portraits of the two ministers of the first century hung on the wall and between them sat a flower arrangement in the shape of a lyre (l-y-r-e, not the other kind, “l-i-a-r.” One has to be careful to distinguish these days.)

But the congregational soul has also insisted that its home exists to touch that which is higher and deeper and to serve the wider community. The founders pledged to walk together specifically “for worship.... and promoting mutual edification in faith and holiness.” Perhaps that conviction does not strike you as remarkable, but many UU congregations struggle decade after decade, ministry after ministry, with whether they are religious, whether they want a minister, whether they have any connection to the outside world. If you send your Ministerial Search Committee out confident to speak of this place with that higher, deeper purpose and eager to serve and transform outside your walls, you will attract more potential eager candidates than you can consider.

Please note. That regard for the holy does not mean strict tradition or unchanging theology. In fact, it must call from us a spirit always looking everywhere, considering new expressions, responding deeply. Think of the words in that hymn from the 150th celebration: “We sail not on the ancient lines forever,/Yet trust no less in God, whom they revered./Our broader day with fresher light beholding,/Changing the creed, but keeping firm the faith,/Freely the ancient forms of thought remoulding,/Asking what word today the Spirit saith,.”

I don’t know what ministry you and your next minister will create together; that’s new life for you to nourish together. If yours becomes a great vision, it will tap the strongest strains of your congregational spirit: deepening the covenant, carefully balancing the big dreams with the essential purpose for which you come together, honoring the spirit. You sit here in a central place in your town, a place of knowledge, creativity, good will. and caring. Yet the world can be a place where rampant self- interest too often displaces the mutual watchfulness that allows an entire community, in all its diversity, to be fed by the roots of common ideals and dreams. At times, the world can be a place of cruel inequity and blatant injustice. We live in such a time. I believe a religious community can serve as a place where a sense of the sacred and dedication to the whole make all lives better.

That brings us back to Pando. A few years ago Pando looked to be it thriving. Two years later, when scientists returned, Pando appeared to be dying. The concern wasn’t the older trees dying, which was normal, but that young stems coming up weren’t thriving. Investigation revealed that deer and elk were eating off too many shoots before they had the chance to grow, in a sense eating more than their share of their world’s resources. Pando was holding on, but just. Scientists decided to fence off ten percent of the Trembling Giant. Within a relatively short time, the grove became green and growing again. Will the will to fence more exist? The end of the story is yet to be told.

It reminds me of the one congregation I served, which had seen some fires. Yet, good people focused on the its soul, and by the end of the interim period, hopeful shoots were springing up. One year into the next settled ministry, they looked as if they were becoming healthier and healthier. You are in a more enviable position. This congregation goes into the search vital, which will serve you well. Recently, I told a colleague that if he knows talented, faithful colleagues interested in serving a wonderful, resilient congregation, he should tell them First Religious Society will be in search.

I have loved serving as your interim minister this year, my friends. Here I get to linger for a bit with a people who know what they are and who live in a covenant of mutual watchfulness. It has been good for my soul to know yours. I am watching out for you, and I know, in moments, you watch out for me as well.

Look for your Pando and nurture it. If you do, you will pass on a story for the ages.

©2017 Susan Milnor. All rights reserved.

Atkinson, Minnie. A History of the First Religious Society in Newburyport. The Unitarian Historical Society. 1933.
Various online sources about Pando, e.g. “Pando, the Trembling Giant.”