After they retired and moved away, we would stop and visit our friends Sam and MaryAnn whenever we drove up to see my Dad in Seattle. Their new home in Oregon was cozy and their hospitality was generous. They always greeted us with warmth and the smell of elegant home-cooked food. Usually Sam was in the kitchen making, for example, a Bearnaise sauce for eggs Benedict and MaryAnn had set a beautiful table of antique plates and cloth napkins, a different pattern at each place, and probably a fresh flower at the center if flowers were in season. We would sit over coffee and the delicious food talking for hours about their lives, about our lives, about what it meant to live a good life.
They were about a generation ahead of us- Eric and I were in our late twenties and Sam and MaryAnn had retired early. I wonder if they know what important role models they were to us- models not only of hospitality but of living your values? Here they had left the software industry in Silicon Valley to trade a modest retirement for the long hours of a booming industry. They had gotten off the hamster wheel to craft a life they loved, and what they loved were books, and art and people. They chose to live in a community where they knew and loved their neighbors. They took long walks visiting with local business owners. The life they made for themselves provided quiet time for thinking and writing, and a simple but charming home decorated with poetry and literary quotes writ large or hung over archways or next to a light switch.
For several years they had in their living room not a sofa with a television like we have in our own living room, but a circle of chairs facing a faux fireplace made with those cardboard bricks- a whimsical piece of imagination and casual art. The chairs, mostly wooden, were all different styles and sizes. MaryAnn explained that there were chairs in that circle for every shape and size of person. She pointed out the one her four-year-old friend favored, and another that really was only suited to the teddy bear who occupied it. She said she always wanted to have the right size chair for anyone who came to visit. And sure enough when we had a child of our own he found such a chair waiting for him.
Our beloved community, I believe, can be like that circle of chairs. All sizes and shapes, welcoming the tremendous diversity of persons. And as we live and grow and change shapes we move from chair to chair. In many parts of our life our generational difference separate us. Children grow through a school system with a separate class for every grade. Elders move into retirement communities with neighbors of their own generation. It’s true that when I was a new mom it was such a relief to hang out with other parents of young children who had already pre-padded their furniture and moved all the fragile things up beyond arm’s reach. And I admit it was also a relief when the children went to bed and the adults could talk about, well anything that took more than a few sentences to communicate. It is true that as we move through the cycle of life our bodies and minds change in what they need to feel at ease. The bean bag chair I loved as a teenager is an evil menace to anyone with tricky back or knees.
Despite our very real diversity, I agree with Religious Educator Jerome Berryman that our existential reality is really the same. In the Fahs lecture he said that children of every age “are cretures who are born to die. No one can make the journey in-out, in-between for them. They need meaning ot make their lives worth living,a nd the meaning must be of their own creation since them must life ve it. Otherwise it feels like it’s pasted on: a vicarious living. There is no difference between us and children” he said “when it comes to the existential issues of life and death.” The point Dr. Berryman was trying to make, was that our existential limits, the existential issues of every person of every age and time are the same. These are the issues a religious community exists to serve. This is why, though we segregate the 4 year-olds from the 5 year-olds when it comes to learning reading and writing, when we come together to make meaning out of our lives, we come together in one circle of all the generations who grow and change and learn and wonder why. This existential reality unites us. I remember wondering how to live knowing that someday I would die as young as 4 years old. I remember struggling for meaning as a teenager, and wondering what my life could be as a young adult. And now in midlife knowing this is the time to really live a life that means something, and trying to steer by that day to day. And looking to my elders to show me a way forward that is a life worth living. I believe that we welcome children and teens and middle aged people and elders into our circle not just because we need each other in this meaning-making process. We need one another to understand the whole-ness of life.
Let’s take a moment and think about those 7 generations and to welcome them into our circle.
The first I want to welcome is the “Great Generation”
the generation that came of age during World War 2.
These folks were born between 1901-1924.
This is also called the civic generation, because they could see the importance of contributing to civic structures of society.
Is there anyone here this morning from the Civic generation?
The next generation is the “Silent” generation, a smaller generation than the ones before and after.
These folks were born from 1925-1942.
This is the generation of Martin Luther King.
This generation, children of the great depression, was a generation for whom children really could expect to grow up to do better economically than their parents.
Is there anyone from the silent generation here this morning?
Next comes the Baby Boomer generation, so called because of the boom of babies born after ww2. 1946-1964.
This is the Woodstock generation,
the generation which has been creating policy and culture for the past decades
like Bill Gates and Bill Clinton
and are now starting to retire.
Are there any boomers here this morning?
Then comes my generation- Generation x born 1965-1976.
So called because, like our “Silent Generation” parents, we are a smaller generation, a generation less clear sense of identity than the boomers who came before.
This is the generation who grew up during the nuclear arms race and the emergence of AIDS,
and the first generation to grow up with divorced parents.
This is the generation of Paul Ryan, tony Hawk, Tina Fey, Van Jones
Next comes Generation y or “the millennial” generation born 1977-1998 or “the echo generation”
because this was another pollution boom echoing the baby boomers.
This generation was born into the computer age.
This is the generation of Mark Zuckerberg- facebook founder.
This is the generation of Mark Zuckerberg- facebook founder.
Whereas generation x were latchkey kids, this was a generation at what some call “the most child centered time in our history”
The next generation I want to welcome today is the Cyber generation, 1995-2012.
also called the Pluralist generation, because it will be the most diverse in our nation’s history
This is the generation of the folks in our Youth Religious Education program
Finally I want to welcome the generation just now being born, the generation that begins this year , 2013. The babies just being born, and those that will come after. This generation does not yet have a name.
As you can see – if we had 1 chair for each of the 7 generations in a circle, some of these chairs would be empty.
Last week as the board was finishing our meeting, one of your young teens said to the board members as they cleaned up “I miss having children here.” We all told her how much we agreed, and that we had just spent a large portion of our board meeting talking about what might come next in our ministry with children and youth. It is precisely because we know the blessing of having all generations welcomed into our beloved community that it troubles us to see those child-sized chairs in the nursery go empty for so long. We miss the thundering feet down the back steps at the end of religious education. We miss the energy and immediacy of experience our youngest members share with us.
But what makes us the most uncomfortable, I think is the idea that there is no-one to wrap in our keeping quilt as they enter the world. The fear that when Morgan and Nick – our youngest children now practically teen-agers -- when they cross the dais here for their bridging ceremony, there will be no one on the other side to wish them well on their journey. There will be no next generation to cherish our keeping quilt -- the keeping quilt that is Unitarian Universalism, that has sheltered and inspired generations. The keeping quilt that is our old Sheshequin building and all the history it holds. The keeping quilt that is this beloved community, how we know and love one another. It worries us on an almost biological level to think that this circle could be broken. And that’s a good thing. It’s good that we feel deep inside that something is wrong when people are missing from our circle. When an elder stops coming because she is no longer comfortable driving. When Generation X questions the value of traditional institutions and never seeks out a community of faith. When school aged children and their parents have to choose between church and pee wee football practices held on Sunday mornings. It’s important for us to always hold all these generations in our hearts and to keep reaching out and welcoming in people of all ages who would be sheltered by our keeping quilt.
The Keeping Quilt from this morning’s story was more than just an heirloom to be preserved on a shelf. Each time it is wrapped around a baby, held over a couple at their wedding, or draped over a table for Passover dinner, it grows in meaning and value. The quilt is not valuable because it was made of fabric that came from Russia, but because it is used in a way that binds generations together.
Our Universalist faith was vital and important as a refuge for men, women and children 200 years ago who believed that each and every soul was loved by God. And it is still a refuge today for all who believe that each and every person has inherent worth and dignity: people of every race, every gender, every sexual orientation, whether they are part of the 99% or the 1%. How Universalism moves in the world is different to every generation as politics and culture and technology change. It has sheltered and challenged us, and we will pass it on when the time comes to our children, whom we hope will change and be changed by it as well.
When I started thinking about generations, I was thinking of 5 generations- the 5 generations of persons now living. But remembered the indigenous traditions who think in terms of 7 generations, and noticed that by thinking of 7 instead of 5, we include those who came before us who are no longer living, and we include the generation who will come after us who is not even born. These generations we have never met are still tremendously important to who we are and where we are going. Consider the generation who built this building, or the even earlier generation who founded the Sheshequin church. We love this keeping quilt they made for us, even though we will never know them. The circle of generations is always there, holding us, even when we can’t see it.
I never forgot that circle of chairs at my friends house. When Nick outgrew his own little wooden toddler chair – the kind specially made with a wide base so you can’t fall out of it -- I knew this was the first chair in my circle. When Nick outgrew his trucks and blocks, we dedicated a cabinet in our living room to toys for young children so when the nieces and nephews came to visit they would know that we had saved a place for them in our circle.
In the same way the Jewish families are encouraged to set a place for the ancient prophet Elijah at Passover, I hope that we will continue to set out all 7 chairs, knowing that some of them will be empty, so that we will be ready for the diversity of newcomers that will become part of our circle as the years cycle by. These empty chairs help us hold a place for them in our hearts and minds. Never forgetting to wonder
“how is it with the elders who no longer come on Sunday morning?”
“how is it with the generation of young adults who have not found their way to a faith community”
“how is it with the little children who are just learning about this world”
“how are we preparing to welcome those not even conceived, what world are we preparing for them?”
The circle of generations is always there holding us even when we can’t see it. It is our calling as a beloved community to set out all those chairs in welcome and in remembrance.