Past as Prologue

There was a time in my ministry here where I felt like every meeting or gathering I was in, I found myself saying “well that’s a can of worms.”  It got so common that at a certain point I just started saying: “wow, there are so many cans, and so many worms.”

But lately I’ve realized, I’ve started to say something else: “how did we get here?”

The two are not disconnected.

My first few years at Foothills were like one big scratch and sniff sticker….like…what’s this one…?

Congregational life is often a lot like family life, people get so accustomed to holding the stories close, we stop seeing what’s right in front of us.  It’s mostly not intentional or conscious. It’s just – the water we swim in.

It’s not until someone new shows up and simply sees things, steps into a story already in progress, notices what has become invisible to everyone else.  It’s like suddenly everyone feels like they have new eyes.  They suddenly see stuff that was there all along but they had no idea.

For example, growing up, most nights we ate our family dinner at bar stools around our kitchen counter.  We did not have a large kitchen.  And there were five of us.  So it was pretty tight.  But I never really thought about it, or saw that it was an issue, until one of my friends came over and was like, why does your dad have to eat all smushed up against the wall? I’d never noticed!

That was my job those first couple years, to be that friend that came for dinner.  Just show up and see.  Sometimes name things out loud.  Often not.  Sometimes just my presence was enough.

I showed up in a lot of places, wherever I could get an invite, and sometimes I didn’t even wait for that, I just showed up.  You all were really gracious, thank you.  Which is why, at a certain point it really was: so many cans, so many worms.

Until that is, some time last year – this is my 7th year – our 7th year by the way – so in my sixth year of showing up – it became apparent – there was so much out on the table, everywhere.  We needed to find a way to make some sense of it all.  Understand the story we are all in, the story we’ve been writing even as we’ve been living it.  Put it all in order, try to get a sense of the cause, and effect.  How did we get here?

Any time any of us show up in a community, a family, a country – we always arrive in the middle of a story already in progress, a story that starts impacting us and that we start impacting right away – when we move to town, or walk through the doors, or when we are born, or adopted, or when we get married.  It’s what Rebecca Parker means when she talks about inheriting covenant before we create covenant.

Covenant is one of those church words that can be kind of inaccessible, I know, so let me break it down a little.  At its most basic level, covenant is a promise of enduring relationship between 2 or more people.  It’s a promise of loyalty, and love, and it requires an ongoing practice of trust, and accountability.  So what’s she’s saying is, before we even begin to choose what commitments we will make in our lives, we inherit this web of relationships, promises that have produced us, this moment, commitments that have created us, these lives here and now – commitments kept, and un-kept; the web that has held, and failed, broken, and pieced back together in triumph, and loss, and reconciliation, and redemption.

You’ve probably heard about these studies that have come out, about generational trauma, and historical trauma. They are pretty remarkable.

They show that even if we are multiple generations from the direct trauma experience, if somewhere in our family there was trauma, we carry these things in our DNA – as if we ourselves had been there,

and also, we are learning the ways that trauma accumulates across generations.

This has been especially apparent in Native American populations, Jewish holocaust survivors, Japanese Internment survivors, African Americans, and I’d have to imagine, is what is brewing in today’s immigrant community, especially those who have known family separation and zero tolerance.

This accumulation of grief, and pain, and unresolved grief.

Sometimes these studies have met with a lot of resistance.

Which makes sense.

Since ancient times, people have been uneasy with this idea of the “sins of the father” being passed down generation to generation.  It’s one of the points of tension throughout the Hebrew Bible – the Torah talks about God taking out vengeance for three or four generations past the original offense, but then in the prophets –

the text promises no such thing would ever happen.  That each person gets a fresh start.

But these studies remind us of something I think we know – even if we wish it weren’t true – we are all always stepping into a story that started long before we arrived, and this story has an impact on us, necessarily, inescapably.

People resist these studies because we don’t want to believe that we’re stuck in whatever story our parents, or grandparents lived in – that we are trapped in those same loops of pain, and struggle. Certainly, we do not want to believe that we are caught in a story where for nearly the first 150 years of this country, women did not have the right to vote – because we were not considered a full person, with full rights.  But here we are.

If the past few weeks have taught us anything, it is that this is the story we have inherited, and it does impact us.  And sometimes, in weeks like this, it feels exactly like we are caught in a loop.

But actually what the studies show, is that although we are inevitably impacted by this inheritance, we are not caught forever.  If we can learn this story we have stepped into, understand it, then we can still choose.

Or more accurately, if we can learn the stories.

Because – as Chimamanda Adichie’s 2009 TED Talk put it, to imagine the past as a single story – is dangerous.

It risks reducing human complexity to something singular, two dimensional – when really life is always so many things, so many contradictions and complexities.  To insist on a single story requires flattening human experience, and choosing one slice or one lens over another – inevitably erasing some people’s experience, or erasing parts of who we are and what we know and what we care about in order to produce that clean, linear narrative.

It’s why when we talk about each of us having a piece of the truth, we should be careful.  Because we don’t mean to imply that all these pieces fit together in a single, straightforward, linear narrative.  Human beings and time and life are in reality none of these things.

Which does not stop us from wishing they were.

We aren’t just predisposed to nostalgia, as in, a sentimental longing for the past.   I mean, we are – we all have a tendency to a romanticize some other time, and place.

But not only that.  We are also predisposed to imagining that the past we long for was a universal reality on a singular universal timeline.  That it was a reality we all loved, and then we lost.  Which means that if we could just figure out the one thing that changed that reality, and then eradicate it.  We’d all be back on track.

Which is basically the entire theory behind Make America Great Again.

And actually when I think about it from this perspective, I get it.

Because I think we all can relate with this longing.  Any of us who know loss, and grief, especially an accumulation of loss, and grief – across lifetimes, and families, and whole communities.

Any of us who long to belong where we are.

It’s why I was especially heartened when I read this account about Fort Collins recently – it’s from a historian, speaking about realities in our community.  Realities I’m guessing that many of us would recognize.

It reads:

“City planners [have been] hard pressed to keep up with the city’s growth, especially in the rapidly developing suburbs.  Fort Collins population [has] almost tripled over twenty years.

New industries [have been] relocating in the area, attracting more people.  Builders [have] tried to keep pace with the growth as all-time records [have been] set for private construction.

Rapidly increasing enrollment [has] also led to a building boom on the CSU campus.  Enrollment doubled in just six years, and then almost doubled again five years after that.  The University [has] dedicated a new and larger stadium.

The social consciousness of [our time has] found expression through a variety of organizations and activities [in our community]. [Our city and CSU have also faced issues] concerning discriminatory practices against blacks and Mexican-Americans, [although] CSU [has] avoided the violence experienced by other campuses across the country.”

Although somewhat dry, it all sounds relatively accurate, like one true version of the story of us.

Which is why I found it heartening, and even hopeful.

Because – let me read you the final lines.

It reads, “The turbulent 1960s ended with little resolved on the issues of discrimination, and war.  While the unrest would carry over into the 1970s, more peaceful years were ahead.”

Right, what I just read was not actually about Northern Colorado today.  It was a report about Northern Colorado from more than a half a century ago.

Which is why I found this somewhat dry report truly heartening, and even hopeful – because it was this plain-faced reminder of the ways we inherit covenant before we create covenant.

This little snippet from our town decades ago reminds us of the story we have stepped into.  It’s the cans, and the worms, and it’s how we got here. It tells us – like Jerry said about the upcoming building campaign: we can do this.  Even if we were not there personally – and I’m guessing most of us were not – we carry these lessons in our collective breath, in our buildings, in the streets and in our schools –

here is the story we have inherited, the promises that made our lives and this place possible – and within and between and among us all live the lessons and learning we need from 50 years ago, to now.  This time the Museum volunteers described as “some of Fort Collins most turbulent years.”

History is a gift, and challenge, and a warning.  So that, once everything is on the table, we can learn, and we can choose, and we can create.  We can choose what values we will carry forward to anchor our present, and chart our future. We can choose the promises our lives will make, the stories we are going to write, the people we will commit our lives to, the vision and values our lives will serve.  In our city, our church, our families, our country.

It’s why I haven’t completely toppled over this week, even as Brett Kavanugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court.  Because we know this story, it is our story.

And also, we know the story isn’t over yet.  We’re still writing it. “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived,” Maya Angelou writes.

“But if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”

There are still more stories that are a part of us that still need to come to the table, more we can learn, more truth and complexity to hold, more power and grief and grace to bring.

So we still have the chance, even today to learn, and to create, and to choose the promises that our lives will make, the inheritance we will offer for the generations yet to come.

Together we still have this chance to write the future, a future we will not cede to anything less than a vision of abundant life, for us all.


About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley is relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy of pop culture (reflected in this blog by random posts on Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Scandal, Orphan Black, or the latest Marvel movie). She has an audacious ambition for the liberal church, believing in its capacity to transform lives and our world by way of hyper-local relationships and partnerships that inspire the unleashing of courageous love. She's all in on adrienne maree brown's emergent strategy, and finds solace in the trails in and around Fort Collins Colorado where she serves with the brilliant Rev. Sean Neil-Barron as one of the ministers of the Foothills Unitarian Church. She and her amazing partner of over 20 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (14) and Josef (12) who both relish and resent being PKs, and who keep her grounded, frustrated, inspired, and humbled, everyday. She is basically obsessed with her puppy, a large sized mutt, Charlie.
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