Sermon: Drafting Our Dreams

2018 January 10
by DoMC

Drafting Our Dreams

Ana Levy-Lyons

January 7, 2018

First Unitarian, Brooklyn

It is said that on the day that Jacob Trapp died, the list of tasks that he wrote for himself every morning read, for the first time, “Nothing to do; all done.” Jacob Trapp was a Unitarian Universalist minister who served the congregation in Summit, New Jersey for many years. He was a mystic and poet who brought eastern spirituality and meditation into Unitarian Universalism. He clearly had a meditator’s sense of when it was time to strive and when it was time to accept and let go. (And fun fact: He also happened to be the uncle of Rachael Arnold who is a member here and a member of the choir. Uncle Jake was her favorite uncle.)

 Jacob Trapp wrote the lyrics to the hymn we just sang:

 Wonders still the world shall witness

Never known in days of old,

Never dreamed by ancient sages,

Howsoever free and bold.

To me, these words are about faith – a specifically Unitarian Universalist faith that’s grounded in humility about how much we can know. It says we’ll witness wonders “never dreamed by ancient sages, howsoever free and bold.” Even in their wildest dreams, the great freethinkers of yesterday couldn’t envision the faraway world of tomorrow, says Jacob Trapp. This world is gonna be so good, you literally can’t even imagine it. And that’s good to hear. Because we can’t imagine it right now, many of us. It sometimes feels like the world is circling the drain and our to-do list will never end.


And yet here we are at the beginning of a new year and we are being accosted by the annual “new year, new you” propaganda. Apparently we should be charging optimistically into the future right now. We should be planning, we should be resolving, we should be promising to do better, we should be propelling ourselves forward with all the muscle we can muster. We should be dreaming of how good life will be when we finally get our act together.

This approach doesn’t work for most of us. According to the New York Times, already by today – a week into the year – about a quarter of our new year’s resolutions will have been dropped and by the end of the year most of the rest of them. There are a lot of reasons for this but I think more than anything, it’s that a resolution is about the future. And we have a really hard time projecting ourselves into the future, and an even harder time imagining a future beyond ourselves – the vision that Jacob Trapp lifts up in his song. We can’t imagine the wonders that the world shall witness, nor the nightmares, even in our wildest dreams.

Our current administration in Washington has a particularly bad case of short-termism, which is causing a lot of problems, but really it’s something that we all struggle with. Business is oriented around maximizing returns for the current quarter and is not usually considering the long arc of its impact on people and planet.

If anything, the current political situation is teaching us the vital importance of developing the capacity for this kind of long-arc thinking. This is the scale of the consciousness we try to cultivate in religious communities. Not what do we want our lives to be like in the next hour and not even what do we want our lives to be like in the next year, but what do we want our lives to mean by the time we are lying in our deathbeds, like Jacob Trapp, with a piece of paper in front of us for the day’s list of tasks? What do we want our lives to mean beyond our lifespan? How do we want to be remembered? And how do we want to have touched the world beyond the time when anybody remembers us at all?

When the native American teaching tells us to consider the impact of our actions on the next seven generations, they know that we will not know anyone in that seventh generation and that seventh generation will not remember us. It’s about faith in the meaning of our current actions to a future we can’t possibly know.

Artists also try to capture this kind of expansive consciousness. The anthem we’ll be hearing in a little while, by the British pop duo Peter and Gordon, tries to describe eternity to a child:

In the land of Oden there stands a mountain, ten thousand miles in the air.

A little bird comes winging once every million years

and sharpens its beak on the mountain and quickly disappears.

And when that mountain has worn away, this to eternity will be one single day.

Real change takes time, like a bird sharpening its beak on the side of a mountain, and slowly wearing it down.  It’s not going to happen overnight either and it’s not going to be finished in 2018. What we need in our lives and what the world needs are lasting, real transformations in how we live together. We need to set our sights on a future never known in days of old, never dreamed by ancient sages howsoever free and bold. And then we need to aim toward that future and set our pace accordingly.

When I try to think in these terms, aiming toward a distant, unknowable future, it’s a little overwhelming. It’s almost scary, like a feeling of vertigo. Infinity and eternity stretch out in all directions and what we do today will slightly impact everything forever. That’s terrifying.

In this light, it’s kind of interesting that the same man who wrote a song rhapsodic about this unimaginable future also woke up every morning and wrote himself a to do list. This seems to me to be the paradox and the heart of the spiritual project: to hold that long-arc vision in one hand and in the other hand, break it down into manageable chunks and let it guide what we’re going to do today. From the vantage point of the Land of Odin, we need to write to do lists that are reasonable and realistic for us. And we need those lists to reflect incremental changes – the bird’s beak grinding down the mountain – and shifts in how we think as well as shifts in what we do.

Which kind of brings us back to new year’s resolutions. But not the standard new year’s resolutions – we need kinder ones that both look further out and closer in. We need resolutions that are both more ambitious, yet more forgiving; more visionary, yet more practical. Instead of making our resolutions, let’s call it “drafting our dreams.”

Today in a couple minutes, I’m going to invite you to use the paper you were given when you came in and write yourself a letter. Draft your dreams for yourself in this next season of your life. Make it a private letter, no one else needs to see it, and when you’re done, put it in the envelope, seal it, and self-address it. Hand it to an usher on the way out and we’ll mail it back to you, not in one year, but in a good gestational timeframe: 9 months.

If you want to, you can make it traditional new year’s resolutions – a to-do list for the year – but I would encourage you to think of it more as setting an intention for a future beyond the horizon, beyond yourself. Think of it as an invitation for gentle, incremental, long-term growth. Think of something small that you want to shift – set yourself up for success rather than failure. Write yourself the letter that you will want to read as a check-in along the road nine months from now. Probably nothing will be finished by then, but hopefully you’ll be able to see that you’ve been on a journey.

You might write: “Over time, I will forgive myself more easily when I make mistakes.” Or, “Over time, I will become kinder to my parents.” Or, “Over time, I will treat my body more and more like the temple that it is.” Or, “Over time, I will live more and more lightly on the earth.” Or, “Over time, I will become more and more proactive in pushing my career forward.” Or, “Over time, I will make more time for my kids.” Or, “Over time, I will commit to a more and more regular meditation or prayer practice.” Notice that these are not absolutes, they are directional. They are rough drafts of a dream for your future self in your future world.

Jacob Trapp’s vision was, I think, very much like this – incremental growth toward a distant horizon, the stuff of faith. Take small steps generally pointed in the right direction by a spiritual north star and someday we’ll collectively get there. The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.

And this is very much my vision as well, with one giant, cold shower caveat: The collapse of our ecosystems today is a game changer. In Bill McKibben’s words, “unfortunately the arc of the physical universe is short, and it bends toward heat.” Environmental damage threatens to disrupt our long, gradual trajectory toward wholeness and human flourishing. The course of human history has been two steps forward, one step back for thousands of years and it is in danger of being derailed. So in this one area, the slow, incremental change approach doesn’t really work.

When Jacob Trapp wrote, “Wonders Still the World Shall Witness,” it was 1932. Aside from the very different social and political world back then, it was a very different physical world. Global temperatures had not yet begun their steep climb. Much more of our planet was still covered with forests. The polar ice caps were intact. Thousands of species of animals and plants were not yet extinct. The oceans were full of life. It was a different world. In 1932 no one could conceive of the abundance of the earth ever having a limit or the web of life being stretched to a breaking point. This was something “never dreamed by ancient sages, howsoever free and bold.” What we’re seeing now is potentially a rupture in history.

And, even with all that we know, we’re still having a really hard time conceiving of it now. And so this is my job as a spiritual leader: to pick up where people like Jacob Trapp left off and reinterpret our traditions for the needs of today. When I’m drafting my dreams for myself and our world, when I’m writing my letter to myself, I want to be able to tell my children and grandchildren: “I did everything I could to pass on to you a healing, regenerating earth and a transformed humankind. I did everything I could to make sure that there would be a seventh generation.”

I’ve talked a lot with you about making the incremental changes in the way we live – eating a plant-based diet, buying less stuff, wasting less, finding joy in community, music, art, prayer, rather than in products. And I stand by that. I believe that in the long run, it is only these changes that will save us.

But we also need some immediate changes to our laws, public policies, and corporate practices. People often ask me – “I want to do something. What can I do?” So here’s my commitment to myself and to you for at least the next nine months: every week, I will give you something specific you can do to help make sure that there is a seventh generation. It may be a senator to call about a renewable energy plan. It may be a chance to go stand in front of a bulldozer that’s building a pipeline. Every week, I’ll give you something concrete – either in a sermon, the e-news, or on my Facebook page.

Take some time now to write your own intentions and draft your own dreams. Your intentions definitely do not need to be as concrete as mine – again, this is more about setting a direction for yourself. Set a pace that’s sustainable for you, a marathon pace, not a sprint, in hopes that by the end of your life, you may be as fortunate as Jacob Trapp, and be able to write, “Nothing to do. All done.” Take five minutes now for your writing, and then we’ll listen to the Land of Odin song together.

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