During the last session of my Oral Traditions class here at Meadville Lombard Theological School this week, we ended with a storytelling festival. I thought about what story I wanted to tell, and came back to the story that is central to who I am as a Unitarian Universalist, an aspiring minister, and as a person.
You see, for me, the history of Unitarian Universalism centers on heresy. I take the meaning of heresy literally from the Greek hairesis, to choose. From Arius and Origen in ancient times, to Servetus and the Polish Brethren in the Middle Ages, to Theodore Parker and the Humanist Manifesto to modern times, our religion has been about free choice, and the free practice of religion. That story for me is best told by a fairy tale.
Once upon a time years ago, lived a young man named Henry. Henry was not a king or a prince; he wasn’t a famous soldier or a general. He was a simple man just like everybody else. He dreamed dreams like other people. He studied hard in school like other people. He grew up and began working like other people. And, he lived by a code of ethics that influenced the choices he made throughout his life.
For instance, when Henry’s parents fell on hard times, he gave up some of his goals and used all the money he had saved to secure a home for them. When Henry married, he and his wife worked for years building their own home. As his children grew, Henry scrimped and saved all of the money he could, so that they would have a chance at a better life. Henry worked for 50 years and retired. After 50 years of marriage, his wife died. Henry died peacefully a few years later. And, his children and grandchildren continue to live happily ever after.
I know Henry’s story does not make a very glamorous fairy tale. I see no Pixar productions of Henry’s life anytime in the future. There are no mythical creatures, enchanted frogs, or genies who grant wishes. No talking animals populate the narrative, and nothing happens by magic. This fairy tale contains only the choices made throughout a lifetime and the consequences of those choices. Probably every one of you here today knows a Henry, or can identify yourselves in many ways with my father. Much of his story occurs in many typical lives.
My father’s parents immigrated to America from Eastern Europe around the turn of the 20th century. My grandfather was skilled in construction using timber – not a promising vocation for a nation of steel and skyscrapers. But, he chose to come to America to find a better life. My grandmother was excommunicated by the Catholic Church for divorcing her abusive husband. She chose to come to America to live free of dogma and oppression. They met and married here, raised four children, and struggled through the Great War, the Great Depression, and another great war.
When my father returned home from the Pacific in 1945, he could have joined the thousands of servicemen entering college. Instead, he chose to invest his life savings buying his parents a farm. He then took a job as a draftsman and worked his way up the ranks in a division of a major Pittsburgh corporation. He chose a job that allowed him to spend many hours each day at home with his family. And, he chose to spend his weekends volunteering to run his children’s activities, serving his city and his church, and carrying on his father’s tradition by creating works of art out of wood.
To my father, one’s investment choices reflect one’s values. He treasured family. He believed in neighborhood and community. He respected the creative process. Most of all, he was a futurist. No matter how distressing the news, or cruel the fates, my father could see the potential for good in a situation. With enough hard work and commitment, people can always make the world a better place. Sometimes, a helping hand or a just reward is all it takes for humankind to achieve its potential for good.
My father taught me many of the values that comprise my own philosophy of life. In the end, without family, community, love of and for others, and self-respect, money and possessions cannot fulfill our lives. His life may not have been the stuff of fairy tales, but he provided me with all of the will to dream and the desire to achieve them that I will ever need. Our stories require no magic lamps and leprechauns to grant us our wishes. We only need the will and the courage to make choices.