Updated: Oct 16
During the Oct. 1 worship service, our congregation sang “Rank by Rank,” a revered, old Unitarian hymn. Rev. Tovis talked about the history of that hymn, including the revisions its words have undergone through many decades, bringing it up-to-date and making it relevant to the Unitarian Universalism of today. Each time I sing that old hymn, I am filled with mystery and reverence for the many souls who actively participated in the founding and development of our religious denomination.
I first had that mysterious and reverential experience while attending the UUA’s Leadership School many years ago. During one of that program’s activities, we learned about the contributions made by the founders of our faith, after which we were asked to walk around the room in silence, gazing into the eyes of our UU ancestors whose pictures had been affixed to the meeting room’s walls. That experience moved me to tears, not only because I greatly appreciate the gifts we received from our ancestors, but also I also understand that I am now being asked – personally – to carry that heritage forward.
The words of “Rank by Rank” resound, connecting our denomination’s past with its future:
“...join we now their ageless song
one with them in aspiration.
One in name, in honor one,
guard we well the crown they won;
what they dreamed be ours to do,
hope their hopes, and seal them true.”
That is to say, those who came before us have generously bestowed upon us an incredible heritage. It is up to us to carry that heritage forward – to “hope their hopes, and seal them true” – handing it on to the next generations, as they too will do, in their turn.
And that, my friends, is the difference between history and heritage History tells us the story of what happened, while heritage asks us to take what happened and participate in moving the vision forward.
Our congregational theme for the month of October is The Gift of HERITAGE. It is indeed a profound gift, but it does not stop there: it is a gift that comes with great responsibility. In the OVERVIEW for this month’s Soul Matters materials, Rev. Scott Tayler explains it thusly:
“...[O]ur hands are connected. Our ancestors handed precious projects to us. We are asked to hand those precious projects on to those who follow. And they will hopefully continue the sacred chain. … Every choice we make has consequences for others…[in a] plotline that began before we got here and will continue after we are gone.”
As I was writing these words and thinking about what “Rank by Rank” tells us about heritage, yet another UU hymn came singing into my brain, clarifying the meaning of heritage even further. Perhaps you know this hymn?
We are not our own. Earth forms us, human leaves on nature’s growing vine, fruit of many generations, seeds of life divine.
We are not alone. Earth names us: past and present, peoples near and far, family and friends and strangers show us who we are.
Therefore let us make thanksgiving, and with justice, willing and aware, give to earth, and all things living, liturgies of care.
Let us be a house of welcome, living stone upholding living stone, gladly showing all our neighbors we are not our own!
Brian Wren's words speak about heritage in terms of the deep connections we have, not only with one another and those who came before us, but also with the earth, and with Spirit. We are the “fruit of many generations, seeds of life divine.” We form, and are formed by, the past and the present, by peoples near and far – not only by family and friends, but also by strangers. All of them “show us who we are,” and point us toward who we are becoming.
And so, “Let us be a house of welcome…gladly showing all our neighbors” the deep connections we have to everyone and everything. Having gratefully accepted the heritage bequeathed to us by our ancestors, we continue to develop and add to that heritage during our lives, and we pass that heritage on to the next generations of Unitarian Universalists, in a never-ending chain of connection that transforms ourselves and the world.
Seeking more inspiration and wisdom about The Gift of HERITAGE?
For another (rather humorous) understanding of our UU heritage, check out The Rise and Fall of Unitarianism in America, produced by The Cynical Historian.