Wednesday, January 30, 2019

All Things New?

This morning's reading from the book of Ezekiel is strange- I just want to say what I’m assuming you all are thinking. That whole book attributed to the Prophet Ezekiel is one of the strangest things in the whole bible. Growing up Unitarian UNiversalist I don’t think we ever mentioned Ezekiel. But when a preacher named James Forbes shared this passage with a group of clergy I had a shock of recognition. Because at that moment I felt like a pile of dry bones, and I think a lot of my colleagues did too.

This is a fact of life. Everyone goes through times when they feel invigorated and excited -- full of purpose and curiosity. And everyone goes through times when you feel like a crusty old fossil. But this passage suggests that God can renew even a pile of very old bones, can “Cause breath to enter them” and to bring them back to life. Traditionally this passage refers to the people of Israel, but in that moment at our preaching workshop Forbes , a minister himself, was trying to give encouragement to us and to our congregations. He wanted us to have faith that even if we felt like dry bones, the spirit of life can re-animate us.

Have you ever felt like a pile of dry bones? Sometimes it’s easy to re-animate ourselves; going out of town for the weekend, a fresh coat of paint, or reading a new book will make us feel right as rain. Other times, the dryness goes on so long and so deep that we begin to think “well, this is who I am now.”, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” But his strange passage in Ezekiel makes a promise that when we are dried up and hopeless, so hopeless that we can’t even imagine renewal, it is still possible.

That promise is hard to believe no matter who you are, even for folks who believe in the God of the Hebrew scriptures. But it can be even harder if you are an atheist or an agnostic. Whenever I struggle to believe I turn to nature; when I look at the natural world I learn things as amazing as any miracles in the bible. Recently I found such a promise in the ecosystems of the dessert. Writer Craig Childs has spent years wandering deserts in search of water, finding ephemeral pools of all sizes that come and go as rains fall and water evaporates. Here in the twin tiers, we sometimes have a dry month or two, but in the dessert it could be years, decades or centuries without a drop of water, and yet when rain does fall the pools spring to life as Childs describes here:
“Skirting a pool that measured about one hundred feet in length, we could see a prickly pear cactus lurking in the depths. It was surrounded by Triops and a cloud of fairy shrimp. The cactus had not fallen in. It had grown there prior to the water, indicating that years of drought must have preceded this water. When this pool is dust, it must retain the seeds of aquatic life for however long it takes a cactus to grow.

To survive, these aquatic-desert organisms have taken an evolutionary course that rejects mechanisms of survival used by most everything else. … They shrivel up until they are dry as cotton balls, releasing all of their water, entering a state known as anhydrobiosis. Life without water. [p. 61]

“There appear to be no working parts in these orgnaisms; they are as dead as rocks. If a Mars lander were given a scoop of dust from a dry water hole and allowed to run all of the spores and shrimp eggs and desiccated adults of various species through its battery of life-finding tests, it would conclude that no life was ever present.” [p. 64]
This, to me, is a hopeful promise. Even when all indications lead us to believe we are dry dust devoid of life, somehow life finds a way. Like a valley of dry bones these little organisms wait for the water that must one day come.

A few Christmases ago, a friend gave me an amaryllis bulb. Who knows how long it had sat in a box on a warehouse shelf before I put it in my window and watered it. This poor thing went literally months without growing. A fingernail of green kept me hopeful so I continued to care for it. Then all of a sudden, with no change in the care I was giving, it began rapidly growing what seemed like inches a day. A beautiful flower bloomed and then withered in its time. Long green leaves filled up my window long after the flower was gone. The following winter I waited obediently for it to die back and flower again, but it never did. The lush greens enjoyed the sunny window, but it never flowered that year. Without a dormant period, the plant never flowers. I took it outside over the summer and waited, as fall came, for it to die back. The days got shorter and colder, some nights neared freezing, but still no change. Finally the first hard frosts came and I put it in the basement to force a dormant period. It was sad, when I went down there to get the snow shovels, to see the green leaves looking wilty and desiccated, until it died back to a brown husk. Finally the alarm I had set on my calendar chimed and I was free to bring it back inside. It looked really dry and brown. A week went by. No change. Had I killed it? Finally after 10 days that fingernail of green peeked up like hope.

The story of the amaryllis not only reminds us that renewal is possible, but that renewal is part of a cycle. Dormancy is not a disorder. Periods were we don’t grow, don’t flower are inevitable parts of life, are necessary parts of life, as we rest and preserve our resources for the return of the rain. If you feel like dry bones right now, that doesn’t mean you are doing it wrong. It just means you are in a dry patch. It doesn’t always feel good to be dry, to be dormant, especially when we can’t see even a sliver of green, to assure us that renewal is possible. But life promises that no matter how old we get, no matter how dried up and withered we feel, something new is always possible. That’s the nature of life; life finds a way.

This is what I think the poet Longfellow meant in our hymn
“O Life that Meketh All things New
The blooming earth
our thoughts within
…in gladness hither turn again”
The renewal of other creatures that we can see with our own eyes, gives us faith that our own thoughts, our own gladness can also been renewed. We Unitarian Universalists put this promise right there in our principles and sources “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, …, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit.”

Renewal is something that every spirit needs. So this morning I invite everyone to consider, where are the places in your life, in your spirit that feel dry and withered right now?...
Join me in a moment of silent reflection…
Just notice whatever feelings, whatever images arise…

As a symbol of our innate capacity for renewal, I brought a gift for each of you today- a Gladiolus bulb. [Acidanthera Murielae]
I invite you to take one, to hold it in your hand, this living being in its dormant period.
As dry and brown as this bulb may be, inside it is stored everything it needs to grow two feet high with beautiful white flowers.
You might invite the spirit of life to bring renewal to this little bulb, and to those places in your own life where it is most needed.
When you get home, put it someplace where you can see it. Unlike the crocuses and snowdrops starting to bloom in my backyard, this plant needs to wait until after the threat of the last frost to be planted.

And when that day finally comes,  find a sunny spot and plant it about 5 inches under the soil with the pointy part pointing up. If you don’t have a spot for it, give it to a plant-loving friend you trust. And then hope, and wait.

Whether or not we believe in God, our hope for renewal is ultimately an act of faith; we don’t really know what will happen to these bulbs, or to our own spirits. We don’t really know what change, what renewal might be possible. But whether you prefer the promise of Ezekiel and the dry bones, or you prefer the promise of fairy shrimp in the dessert, or  bulbs in the winter, let us have faith in the promise of Life that maketh all things new. That’s what life does when it has the chance.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

What Are We Going to Do With All This Old Stuff?

While walking through an airport I once saw an ad for some business magazine, with a quote by some successful capitalist who said “know what you have and why you have it.” I was coming home from a retreat, in a thoughtful frame of mind, and it struck me as good wisdom for many parts of our life – a sort of mindfulness for our stuff.

Last summer I decided to apply that wisdom to books. I’d reached the point where I could not fit one more book on the bookcase, and knew it was time. Once I finally get the process started, it actually felt pretty good. I looked at each book, dusted it and the bookshelf beneath it, and decided its fate. There were some obvious candidates for the friends of the library book sale, and some surprise gems I totally forgot I had. and then the really hard choices- do I want these books more than I want a little bit of empty space on my bookshelf , than I want a clear surface on my nightstand? The end result? 8 boxes of books for the friends of the library book sale, 2 boxes to share with local ministers, tidy bookshelves with a little extra space, and some old friends rediscovered.

Another outcome- I did not go to the book sale last fall. The process of tidying up my books reminded me that having stuff is actually a lot of work. It takes up space, it takes up time. We live in a time and place where we can have stuff delivered to our door in 24 hours if we choose. It’s really easy to get new stuff. As a wise soul once said “we’re really good at getting stuff, but we’re not really good at having stuff” How often do we really know what we have, and why we have it?

Ever since her house flooded and much of her stuff was ruined and mildewed, my sister has been putting a lot of care and attention into reducing the stuff in her life. She enjoys all the space that emerges when it’s not full of stuff. She asks Marie Kondo’s question “does this bring me joy” and ends up with great bags of donations to the local thrifty shoppers store.

For whatever reason, I’m on the other end of the spectrum. Perhaps there’s just a lot more stuff that brings me joy. Not just the dresses my Gramma made by hand for me and my sister when we were kids, and 40 years of diaries, but games my son played as a child, and too many cozy sweaters, and yes walls and walls covered with books. I love knowing that if a family of 6 needed a place to stay on a cold, cold night we’d have blankets and pillows for all of them. Not surprisingly I’m the family archivist. I’m the one who has Gramma’s college scrapbook, and the records my father made.

My sister’s house has big open spaces; our house has furniture on every wall. My drawers are so full it’s often hard to find things, much less close them. Hers are orderly and there’s always room to put things away. Both of us are very concerned about waste. We both compost and recycle, and trade tips about how to avoid plastic wrap. We both have been thinking a lot lately about what we have and why we have it, with very different outcomes.

As a congregation, we have stuff too and it takes some diligence to know what we have and why we have it. At least once a year the library here at the church gets so full of newly donated books that books start overflowing the shelves. That’s why a few years ago we created a library policy- we decided that our library would focus on books that were useful to church leaders right now, and we would also be an archive for historic UU books, which you can’t get at the Sayre public library.

What, then, to do with the books we are ready to release? Whereas Marie Kondo talks joyfully about filling garbage bags with clutter, as an environmentalist I cringe. If I fill up 8 boxes of books that no longer bring me joy, I feel strongly that I still have a responsibility to those books. The highest use for a book that no longer brings me joy, is to be used by someone else to whom it brings joy.[i] If old books are beyond use, they could be upcycled into art, or journals (there’s lots of this on Etsy)[ii] If it is ground up to pulp it can be made into new paper, that’s a lower purpose, but anything is better than keeping it out of landfill, where it’s of no use to us or the earth. On the other hand, if something lingers forgotten in the back of a closet, it’s not helping anyone either. The highest purpose for anything is to use it.

Our church archives seem to be multiplying like rabbits. When I First got here the archives was 2 cardboard boxes under the office desk, and now it’s a tall metal cabinet overflowing with documents. And I believe we have a responsibility to and for this stuff. Having been kept for 20 or 40 or 200 years, they can no longer be replaced with a run to the store. That’s why it’s so important that we regularly take time to ask “what do we own, and why do we own it?” Whenever the history club sits up there sorting through the archives, we always find new pieces to the story of Universalism in our Valley and beyond. But we have agreed that it’s not our job to store all of it forever, but rather to be stewards of it, which might mean offering some or all of these documents to a local historical society, or the UU libraries at Harvard or Meadville Lombard. This is more than altruism, this is a trust that we don’t have to hold everything ourselves. We will do our part by holding the archives we are called to hold, and trust others to hold the traditions and the relics that are important to the wider community.

One reason I have more stuff than my sister is that I feel a calling to preserve our traditions and history, even the parts that don’t bring me joy, even the parts that aren’t useful right now. In the same way that many of us store or off season clothes for the return of summer or winter, we store some things knowing that even if we don’t need them today, there may come a time when we, or another generation, may be glad we saved it. I was on a tour of the Cornell observatory the other night, and in one of the glass cases was a sextant, the beautiful old brass tool that sailors used to guide their way by the stars. The tour guide explained that while these have gone unused for many years, the newest generation of sailors in the navy are being trained to use them again, because while GPS could be hacked by a foreign government or interrupted by a natural disaster, the sextant technology is unaffected by such modern problems. [iii]

It would be easy to slip into thinking like a museum, as we try to be good stewards of all the cool old stuff we have. But a church is not its stuff, beautiful and old as it might be. A church is the living spirit moving in the world, is a beloved community, living ethically and growing spiritually and serving together. The first question we have to ask ourselves before we can answer “what do we have and why do we have it” is what are we for? And what do we need to do that? We could do all of that in someone’s living room downloading hymns on our phones.

The biggest stuff we have, as a congregation, are our two buildings. We have this building, built in 1850 by the Athens Universalists. It was sold in 1949 by Universalists who could no longer use it, and loved and cared for decades by the Christian Scientists. In the 1990s we bought it back, seeking the comforts of indoor plumbing and heat. It makes sense that as a congregation who spends so much of our energy and care on hospitality, community and service, that we would decide we needed a building with a working kitchen, heat, running water, and a social hall to achieve that mission. And now that we have all the amenities of modern life, this building alive with use, a building living its purpose many days each week.

We also have the Old Historic Sheshequin meeting house, with its beautiful architecture and have recently been asking ourselves what we have and why we have it. A team went over to Sheshequin a year back and walked room by room to see the historic treasurers, and also to see what needed repair. We had a big meeting with neighbors and historical society members to talk about the Sheshequin building and asked “does it bring us joy?” and the answer was a resounding yes. But we have to ask- do we need 2 buildings to fulfill our mission of serving lovingly, living ethically and growing spiritually? Not particularly. So why do we continue to invest our money, time and care into the building? I think it might be because we believe the building has its own calling, its own purpose.

My neighbors across the street have an electric mower. It’s really cool. When my own mower broke, I asked if I could borrow it. I told them I was thinking of buying one just like theirs to replace it. They offered to let me just use theirs, rather than let it sit unused in their storage shed most hours of the week. And so for the past 3 years we have used it together. It makes me wonder. Who else needs our buildings? Could being stewards of that Sheshequin building means not only fixing the leaks, and preserving it for future generations, but also finding partners and neighbors who might share in its use? Is there some higher calling that building has right now?

I grew up in a family where Gramma’s tea cups were kept in a glass cabinet where they were safe. How different the cup in today’s story- where each use added to the meaning of that family heirloom. I would argue that the highest use of our old stuff as a church is not to save it on a shelf for our grandchildren, but to bring our treasures out where we can use and enjoy them together.

This isn’t really a sermon about books, or teacups or buildings. Its about knowing what we have and why we have it. So I end with an exhortation neither to tidy up, nor to store things up for the future, but with an opportunity for reflection. As we begin 2019, this is a great time to consider- what am I ready to let go of in my life, and what things have I been saving for this very moment.

I invite you to  pause for a moment of silent meditation:

What things are you holding on to?

What people

what beliefs

what plans

what obligations?

Do these things bring you joy?

Is there anything you’d like to let go of in the new year?

Is there anything you’d like to take out of storage, to enjoy and to treasure?

End Notes
[i] Environmental architect and designer Bill McDonough first introduced me to the idea that to reduce waste, materials should be used at their highest possible use. He was talking about industrial plastics and materials, but the same applies to the stuff in our homes or in our church. If a sweater can be worn, that is its highest use. If a ripped sweater can be mended, it can return to its highest use. If it is beyond mending, it can be cut up and made into a cozy scarf, whichmight be called “upcycling,” or the yarn pulled out and re-knit, we could call that recycling. If it is ground up to use as stuffing in car seats, that’s down-cycling, but anything is better than keeping it out of landfill,



Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Revolutionary Relationship

When I was a new minister I had the privilege of being mentored by Rev. Til Evans who believed that ultimately nothing was more important than relationships. She often said the most important challenge was, “moving from I to we”. For her, the divine lived in the space between people, in the quality of that connection. There are many theologians who write and preach about the sacred quality of relationship, but when I was with Til, I really felt it. When we would sit at her table drinking tea and eating whatever delicious food she had prepared, she was always fully present. She gave her whole attention, heart and mind, to me, her guest, and to the quality of what flowed between us. She told many stories to illustrate this point, but one I remember clearly was a time she was sitting at a table outside Starbucks, and a small child wandered, as small children do, over to visit with her. For Til, the openness of the child, reaching out, connecting to a stranger, the immediacy of what emerged between them was exactly what she was always watching for, the moment between them a sacred gift. But too quickly the child’s mother rushed over, apologized to Til, reprimanded the child, herding her away, thus rupturing the moment of sacred connection with a different kind of energy, the energy of propriety and privacy and separateness, of judgement and reprimand. Not long after Til told me that story I had my first child, and I have more sympathy for the mom of that story now. Once you receive enough glares and reprimands for your child simply being a child, you become guarded and wary; reflexively assuming that the natural openness, curiosity and enthusiasm we are born with will be judged and shut down as it ventures into the world. Til’s story is a useful illustration of these two forces that operate in our lives.

I suspect each of you have known these two forces- the sweetness of meeting someone heart to heart, soul to soul, and the walls that keep us apart. Gerald May, psychiatrist and theologian, speaks of this dichotomy in terms of Love and Efficiency. Living in this time and place, it’s easy to believe that our primary role is as efficient producers and consumers, and that our loving relationships to other beings are a sort of extracurricular activity. I felt this acutely as the mother of a small child, serving as a minister of the Palo Alto congregation. The demands of church life are great; e-mails phone calls, meetings and more meetings. No matter how fast I worked, I never seemed to catch up. But time runs differently for small children, who want to stop and wonder at each leaf, each shiny bit on the ground, the joy of running, and the pain of a scraped knee. Every day I felt acutely the tension between love and efficiency. I wasn’t alone. The other parents in the congregation wondered- why is life like this- why is CHURCH like this?

I’ve thought about that question long and hard these past decades, watching the forces that call us to efficiency, that call us to produce more quickly and consume ravenously. I do not believe they are leading us toward greater human health and wholeness , and they are certainly not calling us to support and grow our web of relatedness with other people and with the non-human beings with whom we share this web of life. In fact this system is literally set up to maximize quarterly profits.

In the Christian scriptures, John refers to “Principalities and powers.” Romans 8:38–39: “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God.” I’m pretty sure you can call to mind principalities and powers that value and protect institutions of profit at the expense of bodies, of life, of relatedness. I like to call these forces “Empire.” I’m sure I don’t need to tell you too much about what Empire is up to these days; you can’t turn on the news or open your Facebook feed without being assaulted by decisions that make us feel like powerless cogs in an unfeeling machine.

But these drives of empire live not only in the seats of power; empire is woven into the fabric of our lives. All of us, justice makers, activists, parents, ministers, congregations, we all are caught in those same patterns of consumerism, of efficiency and productivity.

What if those life-giving relationships, those sacred connections could be themselves a tool for dismantling empire? According to anarchist philosopher Gustov Landauer this nation, this empire we live in “is a social relationship; a certain way of people relating to one another. It can be destroyed by creating new relationships; i.e., by people relating to one another differently.” [p. 106] By differently, I mean something as simple as a genuine conversation between adult and child at the Starbucks. I mean the instinctive and primal human connections we already have in our lives. We were born to be in relationships. We were born into this interconnected web of life; the idea that we can survive somehow outside it is an illusion. I am speaking of something as simple as bringing the relationships humans have always had into the foreground, of giving them the time and the attention and the love that we too often get seduced into spending on producing and consuming.

Consider the recent success of the marriage equality movement. Organizers say what was ultimately led to the transformation of our laws and our culture was conversations between friends and family. According to API equality “People who know lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people are more likely to accept and support LGBT people. Importantly, people who have actually talked to their LGBT friends, family members, or colleagues about public policy issues that impact LGBT people are also more likely to support policies like employment nondiscrimination or the freedom to marry. Many LGBT people and non LGBT people report that having had these conversations actually strengthens the bond or relationship between them. “[i]

Unfortunately we are living in a time of increased polarization, when it feels harder and harder to have conversations with people “on the other side.” Political views harden and into opposing teams. There are few places where people talk respectfully and listen deeply to those with different views from their own. When folks talk about putting up walls, I suspect they are not talking about putting walls between themselves and their friends, their kin, their community, I suspect they are imagining putting a wall where no connection is felt. That is why, as feminist philosopher Donna Haraway puts it “making kin across divides of species, nation, gender and other borders is perhaps the most urgent task today.” [p.92]

As Robert Putnam’s book “Bowling Alone” so poignantly describes, our mainstream society is no longer growing and strengthening the web of kin, the web of connection. We foreground the individual consumer with the freedom to consume whatever goods and services they can purchase in exchange for the money they produce

“Creating intergenerational webs of intimacy and support is a radical act in a world that has privatized child-rearing, housing, subsistence and decision making” write Montgomery and Bergman write in their book Joyful Militancy [p. 101]. This is why we are here today, isn’t it? You could be home right now in your own private residence, downloading a blog about this topic, or one more interesting to you personally, but you got dressed and traveled here because you wanted to be present with this community, with this intergenerational web of intimacy and support. Maybe you’ve felt that holy feeling of connection here. I want to affirm today that whenever you gather in community this is a radical act- an urgent act with the power to transform the fabric of society through the quality of our presence with one another.

Mia Mingus writes “What I’m talking about is reinventing how we love each other and knowing that solidarity is love, collaboration is love. And really, isn’t that what queerness is all about; Loving? I am talking about growing and cultivating a deep love that starts with those closest to us and letting it permeate out. Starting with our own communities. Building strong foundations of love.

And [she continues] I just want to be clear, I am not talking about love that isn’t accountable. I am not talking about staying in harmful and dangerous or abusive relationships. The kind of love I want us to grow is accountable and assertive. Really, I am talking about collective love, where we look out for each other.” [p. 122]

This is important. Real love, real community stays engaged when things get tough, real love has boundaries, real love speaks truth with compassion.

“Because we are going to mess up. Of that I am sure.” Mingus continues “We cannot, on the one hand have sharp analysis about how pervasive systems of oppression and violence are and then on the other hand, expect people to act like that’s not the world we exist in. Of course there are times we are going to do and say oppressive things, of course we are going to hurt each other, of course we are going to be violent, collude in, voice or accept violence as normal. We must roll up our sleeves and start doing the hard work of learning how to work through conflict, pain and hurt as if our lives depended on it – because they do” [p. 104]

Even in this beloved community there are webs of connection that need to be woven, and rewoven when they are broken. Because despite our intention to be that radical web of kinship and community, we are still part of a society that teaches us many times a day that we are individuals whose freedom to consume is primary. The separateness, the otherness we long to transform in the world is right here, and this is a good place to begin, and begin again. That’s why we have a committee on ministry, so that we can tend the relationships of our community. That’s why I’m so excited about this new Circles process, so that we can sit down together and talk face to face about our experiences of being in community together, what feeds us, what challenges us, and where we need healing.

That’s certainly part of what drew me to seminary 25 years ago, and is at the core of why I’m still committed to our UU congregations after all these years. Our relationships with one another and the wider world has this radical power to reweave the patterns of empire. When I was a Religious Educator, parents often said to me “I don’t have time to work for Social Justice, I’m working and raising my children” But working for Social Justice is not just showing up at rallies and writing your Senator, it is re-weaving the fabric of relationships. So when we raise our children in a way that values relationships over products, we are dismantling empire. When we teach and practice non-violent conflict resolution, we are dismantling empire. When we reach out across denominational lines to make supper at the Methodist church, and across class lines to serve folks we don’t know, we are dismantling empire.

There have been times in our denominational history when UU churches worked for their own individual success and growth, and treated other churches like competitors. But for the 11 years I’ve been a minister in this area, I have been part of a web of relationships of clergy and congregations that links us together. The ministers share their joys and their challenges when we gather. We support one another, and support one another’s congregations as part of our covenant. When we invited the Big Flats teens to be part of our Coming of Age program as our guests, we are dismantling empire. When you send me to preach in our neighbor’s pulpits during their minister’s sabbaticals, and when ministers from all around the area come here this winter to be with you in this sanctuary waiving their usual honoraria, we are valuing relationship over financial gain. Each time we tend the web of relationship inside these walls, or branching out into the larger world, we are re-weaving the fabric of society. We are revolutionaries.

Relationships are revolutionary because that is where we ordinary people use our shared power for transformation. Building webs of kinship is a radical act, is an urgent act in our world, and I challenge each of us to heed the revolutionary call of love.


Friday, November 16, 2018

Honoring the Ancestors

Building Your Samhain Ancestor Altar - by Starhawk

The veils are thin now, and if you listen, you can hear the voices of your Beloved Dead permeating the world of the living. This is the time to meditate on your ancestors and those who have passed this year.

If you’re adopted, or don’t know anything about your ancestors, work with those you consider your spiritual ancestors. Collect their pictures, some of their favorite objects and things that remind you of them, and build an ancestor altar.

For some of us, our ancestors and family might feel problematic. Maybe they’ve done things you abhor or are ashamed of. You have choices:
You can honor them anyway and do work to release their negative choices and actions and honor their strengths and struggles.

You can go back further into your past. All of us have many, many ancestors—and we are all mixtures of mixtures of mixtures. Somewhere in those long lines, we’re all descendants of those who did terrible things—and those who did wonderful things. So call for the ancestors who have guidance and wisdom to share.
You can work with spiritual ancestors—those who are part of the line of a tradition, a line of knowledge, or a practice that you identify with.

Next, prepare an offering. This could be some food your ancestor or Beloved Dead enjoyed, or something precious to them such as a piece of jewelry or a special book, or an art object that you create. Add this to your altar.

If there is someone you need to resolve an unfinished issue with, or make amends to, consider what you could create or offer. It could even be a pledge to do something—for example, plant a tree or take care of a child, or donate something in their name.

Finally, write a letter to your beloved dead- say thank you to someone you are grateful for, express something to someone that you didn’t get to say when they were alive. If there’s something that feels unfinished, or something that you want to carry further, write it down, and add it to your altar.

Along with your photos, memorabilia, and offerings to your beloved dead, add to your altar:
A cauldron or flame proof vessel to burn your letter
A candle (or many)

Spend some time in front of your altar in the coming days, remembering fond moments, reflecting on what was left unsaid, listening for any wisdom that may be ready to come through. When you are ready, burn your letter on the altar, to release anything you are ready to release, and to send your message out into the spirit lands.

Honoring the Ancestors
This summer I was introduced to the work of John Lockley, a white south African man trained as a Sangoma, a traditional healer in the Xhosa culture. One of the primary concepts of the Xhosa mysticism is Ubuntu, which Lockley explained this way:
“Ubuntu, like life, is seen as a circle of which we are all a part, including the dead. The ancestors are an important part of the circle because without our memory of them and our connection to our blood lineage, we lose our sense of immortality and then we fear death…[Leopard Warrior p. 63]

Xhosa culture, over hundreds if not thousands of years, has developed an intricate and beautiful practice of remembering the ancestors through prayer, [and] ceremony… People connect to izinyanya thorough their blood ancestors, thereby acknowledging their roots in the human family. Like an oak tree, the deeper its roots, the taller and more powerful its branches. For people to access the more refined states of dreaming and spirituality, they need to first connect to their blood ancestors.” [p. 64]
As I read, I noticed resistance rising in me around the role of ancestors in his tradition, so I spent some time reflecting on that resistance.

I was raised Unitarian Universalist in a rationalist humanist congregation. We focused on living ethical lives in the here and now. Humanism forsakes the metaphysical questions about the nature of the soul, and what happens to it after we die. We tend to focus on the known, the physical. We know that after death the body decomposes and the elements that made up our bodies are reused by other living beings. We focus on the work we did and the love we gave, and emphasize that we live on in the ways we affected those we live behind.

Unitarianism grew out of the protestant tradition, which has historically set aside many Catholic practices, including the catholic tradition of veneration of the dead. I had always dismissed out of hand the idea that our prayers could have some impact on the souls of our beloved dead, or that they could have some impact on the lives of the living.

(I had not yet learned that the Universalist side of our tradition had a different relationship with our beloved dead, and that there was a connection between 19th century Universalists and the Spiritualist tradition. )

Veneration of the ancestors is practiced today in large parts of the world: in Asia, in Africa, in Latin American countries, and in the Roman Catholic tradition. I realized maybe this is one of those things I had put in the category of “not my tradition” without any analysis or attempt to understand. Because it was not from my culture, I was able dismiss it as “superstitious” without any real consideration. But I remembered that this is a trick of the colonizers; we dismiss local and often ancient religious traditions as “superstition” to elevate our White European Protestant culture as correct, or civilized. And then we create taboos around the practices of other cultures, so that we don’t look too closely at them, lest we be considered superstitions or uncivilized. It’s one aspect of white supremacy culture, and I recalled our UU commitment to dismantle white supremacy culture.

I noticed that one of the pervasive practices of colonialism is to disconnect us from our roots. One of the most brutal examples of this is the cultural genocide of the Native Americans, but the requirement that people assimilate to mainstream American culture is more pervasive than that. Whether your ancestors were Irish, or Italian, or Chinese or Jewish or German, immigrants were encouraged to stop speaking their native tongue, stop worshiping in the old ways, stop celebrating the holidays of their homeland, and blend in. And many people do assimilate to survive, to find a place in our American society. Not only is this a tragic loss of culture, but it occurred to me that it has created a kind of rootlessness. We begin to believe we belong more to this moment than to our heritage, more to Instagram than to the family tree. And that if we belong only to this moment, then what brings us joy and profit in this moment is the highest good. We become a disposable culture. We lose the capacity to imagine 7 generations into the past, and so to imagine 7 generations into the future.

Is there some wisdom about remembering and honoring our ancestors that we have lost? A wisdom that could be like medicine to us in this disconnected time? As Lockley writes “During Sangoma rituals, I have always noted a sense of grace and humility overcome people who pray to their ancestors with an open heart. As we remember our fathers and mothers, we seem to remember our own place in the circle of life, resulting in a profound sense of belonging and openness” [p. 66]

Lockley notes that one of the main obstacles for Westerners in approaching their ancestors is that every family tree holds a history of abuse or dysfunction somewhere in its branching roots. We also struggle with our history of colonialism, systemic oppression. Certainly John Lockley was very conscious of his white ancestors’ role in the oppression of the people of South Africa. He writes “Violence creates a deep ancestral scar, and I believe it is the job of the living to reconcile the past. We can’t undo what happened, but we can create a space to witness it quietly and respect our dead. Hopefully we can then prevent mindless atrocities form happening in the future.”

When we honor our blood ancestors, Lockley encourages us not to pick and choose, not to decide who is worthy and who is not worthy of honor. He writes:
“Please take note you are honoring and praising your mother, father, and ancestors because they have given you the gift of life. You are not honoring and praising bad behavior. It is important to separate personality from consciousness. By connecting with your ancestors in this way, you are connecting with your blood and bones, your DNA, or the tree of life inside you. Be aware of any emotions or feelings that are triggered. Many people can experience profound grief when praying to their ancestors like this because their ancestors have been forgotten for generations, if not hundreds of generations. You nourish your ancestors when you pray in this way. You also nourish your own spirit, or soul, enabling it to grow and rise like a plant reaching for the light. [194]
So I decided to look at the practice of honoring the ancestors with a beginner’s mind. When we take on a new practice, an unfamiliar practice it’s good to have help. So I have included in this service the wisdom of people who already have an Ancestor practice, Like StarHawk, who comes from the Reclaiming tradition of Wicca, or Lockley who apprenticed for 10 years learning the Sangoma tradition, grateful for the wisdom they offer to us. As Lockly writes “I don’t intend to bring Xhosa or South African shamanic culture to the West as such, but rather to use its essence … to help people connect with their own ancestors and spiritual traditions.” (Lockley has a ritual for personal practice in his book that involves a bath, if that sounds interesting, I encourage you to check it out). The tradition of venerating the ancestors is one that people practice for decades, and we are just dipping our toe in the water. We acknowledge with humility all we don’t know.

With a beginner’s mind we try to enter into the experience without expectation, open to whatever emotions, ideas, memories or experience might emerge. We bring a non-judgmental compassionate awareness to our own process. If resistance emerges, we just notice that. We bring a spirit of curiosity; whatever emerges, get curious about what you notice. Maybe something will arise that we want to take back into our regular practice. Maybe we will want to learn more about a part of our family tree. Maybe it won’t resonate at all, and we can just let it go. Maybe it will help us remember to open our minds the next time we come in contact with cultures and people who honor their ancestors.

So let’s take some time today to honor our ancestors, using the practice outlined by Starhawk.

I invite you to bring to mind one of your ancestors, or someone who has passed in the last year. As Starhawk suggested, you can include your spiritual ancestors if you are adopted or otherwise disconnected from your blood ancestors.

Take a few moments to bring someone to mind, see if you can remember what it felt like to be with them.

Next as you choose I invite you to write a letter to your beloved dead- say thank you to someone you are grateful for, express something that you didn’t get to say when they were alive. If there’s something that feels unfinished, or something that you want to carry further, write it down, and add it to your altar.

When you are done writing your letter, you can either come forward and burn the letter, to release anything you are ready to release, and to send your message out into the spirit lands.

Or you can take the letter home with you, maybe build an altar of your own, Spend some time in the coming days, remembering fond moments, reflecting on what was left unsaid, listening for any wisdom that may be ready to come through.

With our beginners mind, we gather in whatever emotions we feel. We notice whether we have a greater sense of connection or disconnection. We ask ourselves, what would it mean to remember the ancestors in a way that has integrity with our own UU tradition, to your own direct experience, and to our own roots in the months and years ahead?