Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Watering the Tree of Life in McHenry

The Lopatin Tree of Life window

On Sunday my congregation changed its name—again.  I know it seems like we do that a lot, but this one is apt to last a while.  That’s because it is drawn from the long time symbol we have used for ourselves, the treasured and beloved Tree of Life.  Nothing is official yet.  We still have to vote on it at our congregational meeting later this spring and jump through a lot of legal hoops.  But judging from the cheers when it was announced, it seems like a done deal.
For our first 60 years the congregation was the First Congregational Church of Woodstock.  Then in the midst of the Depression we voted to dually affiliate with the Universalist Church in America and call a Universalist minister—mostly to get our hands on a bequest to re-establish a Universalist presence in Woodstock.  We became the Congregational Universalist Church.
Despite the pecuniary motives for the affiliation, Universalism really took hold in the congregation.  After 1938 with one brief exception, we never called another Congregationalist.  Over time the self-identified Universalists over took the old Congregationalist in numbers, although they amicably shared the community.  By the time the Universalists consolidated with the Unitarians in 1961 to create the new Unitarian Universalist Association only a handful of the Congregationalists were left and virtually all new members identified with the Unitarian Universalists.
But by the mid 1980’s despite the congregation's Universalist roots, church leaders feared that no one in the general public understood what Universalism was any more.  But they did know and recognize the name Unitarian.  So the congregations changed its name to the Congregational Unitarian Church.
With less than a half dozen old Congregationalists left the membership voted unanimously to end affiliation with the United Church of Christ in 2000 and become an exclusively affiliated with the UUA.  But out of respect for the tradition of the church, the name remained the same.
In 2009 we wanted to reclaim our lost Universalist identity and more accurately reflect who we are, so we changed the name to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Woodstock.
It looked like we were set for at least a few more decades.  But fate intervened in the shape of an offer to donate Haystacks Manor, a shuttered restaurant facility on a wooded lot in McHenry.  In January 2012 we were in our new home and a few months later we called our new minister, the Reverend Sean Parker Dennison.  Legally we were still the UUC of Woodstock but began referring to ourselves informally as the UU Congregation in McHernry.
A name change was inevitable, but it got moved back by the press of events in a growing congregation in the midst of big changes.  Besides, picking a new name could be tough.  Everyone had ideas.  Some wanted to keep the simple geographic name.  Others were enthusiastic for Haystacks, in reference to the building which was first constructed as a private home inspired by Claude Monet’s famous paintings and later was expanded to serves as the gourmet French restaurant.  Others liked names that included geographic features like prairie or Fox River.
Rev. Sean was fond of the idea of a name that would invoke the spirit of the church.  Off the top of my head without looking at any lists, I remember Joy, Caring Community, Spirit of Life, and Jubilee.  Some even thought that in using a name like this, denominational references should be dropped, a now common practice among some Protestant and Evangelical churches seeking to reach out to the un-churched.
I also heard names with traditional Unitarian Universalist connections like All Souls, Community, or People’s.  Then there was the option of naming the congregation for a famous Unitarian or Universalist.  Civil Rights martyr Viola Liuzzo was one possibility.
With so many names in the hopper and so many other things to do, the decision was put on a back burner for a year until the Board of Trustees revisited it in February.  Half expecting a knock-down-drag out fight, the name Tree of Life—A Unitarian Universalist Congregation in McHenry County was put forward.  But it so evoked the spirit and tradition of the congregation that it was unanimously adopted after just 10 minutes of discussion.  When it was unveiled on Sunday the response of members was just as unanimous.  Also adopted by the Board was a tag line to be used on literature to reflect the character and mission of the congregation as embodied by the symbolism of the Tree—Rooted in Love—Reaching for Justice.
The proposed new name is, of course a mouthful.  Anything that has to embody our Associational affiliation is bound to be.  I am sure that in informal short hand or in the press it will be shortened to simply Tree of Life or Tree of Life—U.U.
The Tree of Life is one of the few symbols that seems to reoccur naturally in widely different world religious traditions.  It can be found among the earliest records of ancient Mesopotamia; in Chinese and Hindu sources; in folk tales from Africa and Pre-Columbian Native Americans; and in pre-Christian Europe.  In Christianity it is a balance to the quite different Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
The specifics varied.  Sometimes the Tree literally gave life to gods and/or humanity.  Sometimes its perennial fruit provided sustenance and its spreading branches shelter.  Sometimes it literally was the world, other times it supported it.  But common to all of these stories, which must have very ancient roots in human consciousness, is some sort of mystic sense that the Tree of Life unites Humanity with the natural world around us.
The Pennsylvania Dutch design.

The association of our congregation with the symbol dates back to the 1960s, after the national consolidation of the Unitarians and Universalists.  At first there really wasn’t a commonly accepted symbol for the new UUA.   The now ubiquitous Flaming Chalice was the symbol of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and some congregations were just beginning to use the lighting of a chalice as a part of Sunday services—something that was then highly controversial among the dominant Humanists who were deeply suspicious of ritual and “churchy” liturgy.
In issuing publications the new associations used a variety of symbols.  Among them was a stylized Tree of Life which adorned the cover of a modest green paper covered hymnal that the congregation began using as a supplement to its trusty old red covered Congregationalist Pilgrim Hymnal.
In the early 1980’s the congregation engaged in some deep re-imagining of itself which included the name change to Congregational Unitarian Church.  They wanted to adopt a congregational symbol that was not explicitly Christian—a Cross had previously adorned Sunday morning orders of service or that was officially in use by either of denominations to which they were affiliated.  Someone suggested the Tree on the hymnal cover.
That black silhouette featured a spreading but symmetrical tree with multiple leaf forms.  It was adopted from a 18th Century Pennsylvania Dutch design.  It was soon adorning not only Orders of Service, but stationary and literature.  Religious Education began using variant forms of the Tree and its stories in their classes. 
The congregation grew very comfortable with the symbol.  Even when it elected to become an exclusively UU congregation it did not abandon the Tree for the Flaming Chalice.  The Chalice was also used on pulpit cloths, banners and as a secondary logo on publications, but never supplanted the Tree.
When the Congregation was getting ready to celebrate the 100h anniversary of its church building in Woodstock in 2005-06, Pam Lopatin, then the co-director of Religious Education and an accomplished artist, was asked to create a series of window to celebrate our Unitarian Universalist heritage to be installed in high windows of the social room.  They were meant to balance the traditional Christian windows of the sanctuary.
Pam created nine windows.  Eight of them represented sources from which we draw inspiration—Earth Centered Spirituality or Goddess Worship, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Humanism and Science, and Native American Spirituality.  At the center of the arc of windows around the social room was the Tree of Life.  Each leaf was made from the brightly colored glass from all of the other windows.  Its roots ran deep into the earth.  And nestled in its branches was the Flaming Chalice.
When the windows were unveiled at a special service in 2006 the congregation was simply awestruck.  Together they were an artistic triumph and a statement of who we were.  But nothing struck as deep a chord as that brightly colored tree.  We were gaga, head over heels in love with that.
Another fine congregation artist, sculptor Deb Glaub recreated the Tree in clay panels for a new sign installed at the corner of Dean and South Streets.  A version of the Tree and Chalice adorned our web page.    It was found on sweat shirts.  Folks couldn’t get enough.
When the Congregation was considering making its move to McHenry, the unanimous demand was that the Tree of Life and other window be moved with us and eventually re-installed in our building.  Although they are in storage today pending a capital campaign to expand and remodel the building, they are still in the hearts of members. 
The current sign with stylized Tree of Life Logo.

The sign at the new building incorporated a black and white stylized version as a logo.  Inspired partly by the UUA’s recent redesign of its Chalice logo, I have to admit despite seeing it every Sunday, I thought that it was the UUA logo.
Just last month a beautiful quilt of the Tree created by Judy and Dave Ayres was dedicated and hung just outside the sanctuary.
All of this is why I am confident that a congregational vote on the new name is a mere formality.
The Tree of Life—that’s us folks. 

The Ayers Quilt--2013

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