Each week, as I prepare the shape of our Sunday gathering, one of the most important steps is to organise the music, which is something that Stephen and I do collaboratively. Often, I find a song in one of our books whose words seem just right, and then I ask Stephen whether it's good or not. What I mean by that question is that he like other expert musicians, can look at a piece of music, know what it sounds like, know whether it will be hard to sing or heard to learn. Real musicians have access to a world that is invisible to me. They know and can hear and imagine things that I cannot.
It was something of a revelation for me to see real musicians at work. I have found it truly awesome - almost miraculous - to observe as they use skills that I not only do not have, but can't imagine what it would be like to possess. Unfortunately, that is something I am not likely ever to find out.
When I reflect upon my life so far, I notice a series of transformations - as I encountered, struggled with, and finally incorporated some new way of being or doing. “We are not unlike a particularly hardy crustacean” said Gail Sheehy. And with each stage, we shed a way of life that has become safe and protective - it is dangerous - it is frightening. But it also means the opportunity to grow and stretch in ways we could not have imagined.
Learning to walk is dangerous compared to crawling. Running is dangerous compared to walking.
What strikes me as most interesting about these changes and stages of growth is not just how remarkable it is that we are capable of learning and of such profound change - but how astoundingly ignorant I usually was at any point of the real nature and experience of the stage that was to follow.
Can a speechless baby imagine what it means or feels like to be verbal. As a person bought-in to the myth that material success is the meaning of life, I could no more imagine where I am today than I can now imagine what it would be like for those notes on a page to appear to me as music that I can somehow experience, evaluate, and understand.
It is part of the human condition that what we don't yet know is not only a mystery, but it is also a mystery whose very nature and shape are beyond our understanding. We look at the unknown with the only ways of understanding we have - the known. And the known is often a grossly inadequate way to understand the unknown. How do you explain what a blue sky looks like to a person who has been blind from birth. How do you explain the beauty of Bach's music to a person who has never heard a sound?
Our human growth is like this. We may be motivated or not to move forward, but we can not fully comprehend the destination until we have arrived.
Growth and change means moving from a state we understand and know to one we not only do not know but cannot know before we reach it.
Why should we change? Admittedly, it is sometimes necessary, or nearly so. Walking, talking, reading, using the toilet, getting dressed, eating... these are rather essential skills if you want to fit into society at all.
But why change beyond this? Why learn new languages, take up an instrument, visit a place we've never been, learn to write code, learn to write poetry, cultivate compassion, learn about philosophy or religion or grow in any of the many other ways we voluntarily commit to doing from time to time.
A french Catholic priest, Michel Quoist - wrote a wonderful prayer many years ago. The words are meant to be from the perspective of God. Here’s an adapted excerpt:
“I like youngsters. I want people to be like them. I don't like old people unless they are still children. Youngsters – twisted, humped, wrinkled, white-bearded – all kinds of youngsters, but youngsters.
I like them because they are still growing. They are on the road, they are on their way. But with grown-ups there is nothing to expect any more. They will no longer grow, no longer improve. They have come to a full stop.
It is disastrous – grown-ups thinking they have arrived.”
The caricature we have of the elderly is that they have stopped growing - stopped being open to change and growth. I’ve researched it and you know what, the best authorities attest that you can indeed teach an old dog new tricks! They may have less energy or need to rest a bit more, but an older dog is no less of learning than a young one.
And I have seen it. I have seen older people who are delighted to stretch their minds, try new things, learn new ways of being. I have also seen young people who have retired in their minds and have decided to stop changing at a tender age.
I am now 56. When I was young, I thought that when I become old - by which I meant over 30 - I would be done. I would be grown up. I would be set in who I am and cease from shedding shells and stretching in new ways.
So far, I haven’t. I hope I never do.
But I’m not entirely sure why I hope that. I want to offer you two ways of thinking about it. They are not entirely different.
The first is encapsulated in author Pearl S. Buck’s words: “Growth itself contains the germ of happiness.”
In 19th century American Unitarian thought, this became a dominant stream. One of Unitarianism’s greatest leaders and thinkers, William Ellery Channing, extolled the value of what he called “self-culture” - the notion that our very purpose is tied up with our growth. A few words from Channing:
“We were made to grow. Our faculties are germs, and given for an expansion, to which nothing authorizes us to set bounds. The soul bears the impress of illimitableness.”
This was a remarkably modern way of thinking, especially when you imagine it in contrast to the dominant expression of the time that spoke in terms of growing close to the divine, rather than expanding our own natures.
20th century thinker Erich Fromm would then place growth right at the center of what it means to live well, saying “There is no meaning to life except the meaning [one] gives to his life by the unfolding of [human] powers, by living productively.”
Is growth itself the source of meaning and joy in life?
I want to offer an alternative, which brings us back to the prayer written by Michel Quoist. “I like youngsters. I want people to be like them. I don't like old people unless they are still children.”
Is the wonder of this youngsterness in the new ways that are learned? Well, there is something wonderful indeed about each new stage and each new shedding of a shell. I would not give up some of the new ways that my growth has brought to me - I imagine you would say the same.
But perhaps, what is most important and most life-affirming is not what changes we make, but our very openness to them. Perhaps the very ability to be surprised, to be awestruck, to be amenable to the new is the source of our joy.
I want to suggest that it’s not as important that we learn to speak Mandarin or Spanish, learn about the thought of Hegel, learn to work with wood, learn to hear the music we see or any number of other intellectual advances as it is to be open and embracing of what comes.
Charles Dickens may have had it right then in words that are both hopeful and terrifying, "The important thing is this: to be ready at any moment to sacrifice what you are for what you could become."
The important thing is not the change itself, but the readiness.
Let’s finally direct our attention from the individual to the communal. I was in a workshop very recently where we were all asked to think of something we really love about our congregations. It came to me in an instant: “It is their continuing willingness to change.”
A community, in this way, has many of the attributes of an individual. There are communities that have become grown-ups - done, no longer on the road, sure that they have arrived at maturity and completion.
And there are communities that are youngsters - even if their chronological age is well over three hundred years as ours is, they retain a childlike willingness to discover the new, to seek the wonderful, to delight in play, and to shed their protective shells for the unknown promise of tomorrow.
New Unity gazes with wonder at the world and the possibilities that come our way. We are prepared to open our doors to the new and the different. We are prepared to sacrifice what we are for what we can become.
May you - and we - be forever young.