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Sermons: “Our Ancestors

Opening Words

"Love Is Not Concerned"
by Alice Walker
Singing the Living Tradition #564

Chalice Lighting

"At Times Our Own Light"
by Albert Schweitzer
Singing the Living Tradition #447

Opening Hymn

"For All the Saints"
Singing the Living Tradition #103

Time for All Ages

Seven Brave Women
by Betsy Hearne
[Green Willow Press, 1997]

In the old days, history marked time by the wars that men fought. The United States began with the Revolutionary War. Then there was the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, the First World War, The Second World War, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. But there are other ways to tell time. My mother does not believe that wars should be fought at all. She says history should be her story too, and she tells stories all about the women in our family who made history by not fighting in wars.

[Readings from Chapters 1-8]

Reading

Marking the Track Point Last Seen
by Hannah Nyala [Beacon Press, 1997]

My mother's mother was Ruth Haney; we called her Mammaw Ruth whenever she wasn't around and Mammaw Haney whenever she was. Tall and dark-skinned, with a strong nose and cheekbones and large hands with long fingers, Mammaw wore her name as if it were written in neon lights on a three-story marquee. "Ruth's a strong name, meant for a strong woman-and you won't find a woman nor man alive what's stronger than this one," she used to say, pointing one of those long fingers at herself emphatically and sniffing haughtily at the same time. I, of course, never doubted her for a second.

[excerpts from pages 52-54]

"Cleaning things up" is a habit you learn early, before you have a chance to ponder the extent to which it will constrain your life. It's all well and good to clean things, but when we turn to tidying up the past, whitewashing the events and people who have profoundly shaped us-all of them-we've laid our hands roughly on something priceless: the knowledge that we can walk through pleasure or pain, joy or sadness, with equal grace or clumsiness, as the case may be, that what counts is that we get through somehow. More troubling, perhaps, we've compromised the chance to walk beside the person we follow. The process of walking alongside must account for good and bad alike. Following only the good means we follow a phantom, nothing more. To find the real person, we have to be careful what we clean.

Reading

"Forgiving Our Fathers"
by Dick Lourie
from the end of the movie Smoke Signals

How do we forgive our fathers?
Maybe in a dream . . .
Do we forgive our fathers in our age or in theirs . . .
If we forgive our fathers, what is left?

Meditation/Prayer

"The Message"
by Lewis A. McGee
Been In the Storm So Long [Skinner House, 1991]

Let us rejoice that we are alive today, privileged to meet here in quest of life's meaning. The message in this season of renewal is that life is a precious gift of nature, to be lived at its best, to be enjoyed and wisely used. There is a structure to life related to the natural universe, whose laws cannot be violated with impunity-a structure related to other life around us. Those who grapple courageously with the events of life will get more joy out of living. Those who so appreciate life and are living on the high plane are ready to die at any time. The death of the individual is the price we pay for being, but the eternal life stream flows on from generation to generation.

Sermon: Our Ancestors

The process of getting lost seems complex and lengthy on the surface,but quite often is nothing of the sort. Two steps off the trail for whatever reason-flower gazing, birdwatching, rock photography, or a simple nap-and you can be just as lost as if somebody had dumped you 50 miles from the nearest building. There's no rationale behind losing your way, but trackers have to at least try to understand the process before attempting to find someone. Tracking one's life is much the same. Sometimes you have to figure out why you did a thing in order to know what it was you actually did. Retracing steps requires getting alarmingly close to what is most unknown to us: who we were at a specific point in time. Who we were without ever knowing it.

Consider those words from Hannah Nyala along with these familiar words from T.S. Eliot.:

What we call a beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we started from.

Singing the Living Tradition #685

There are all kinds of ways to commit suicide. My grandfather did it when my father was 15-a combination of alcohol, diabetes, and a tendency toward emotional extremes. My father and his two brothers and their mother apparently felt relief-or so my father related in one of the two times he ever mentioned his father in the last forty years to me. In neither instance have I ever learned my grandfather's name. I turned 40 this year. It made me think a great subtitle for the week would be:

Suppose you had the opportunity to have a mid-life crisis and bring several hundred people along for the ride.

Instead, it has made think of where my story, my stories come from-and where they will go. And this seeming far preferable to 40-year-old angst, I begin with sharing some of my ancestors' story-which, in many ways, is my own.

My grandmother Helen became an accountant and worked until she was in her 70's and her second stroke rendered her unable to care for herself. I do remember her well-especially the part where she said she didn't want to be kept alive and taken care of by her children, but was anyway. She would rather die. I also remember her fondness for Manhattans, usually three at dinner time when we would go out to eat-and then the perilous ride all over the road on the way home. This probably explains my tendency to want to drive when I am in a carload of people-and undoubtedly explains my always volunteering to be a designated driver.

I thought of my grandmother the night I was pulled over by a Kentucky state trooper and made to walk a line and touch my nose because I was weaving. He wasn't quite sure why I was weaving-the obvious answer seemed to be that there were 10 people in the car total, three of whom were crammed into the front seat with me. I was the sober one, which he readily figured out and escorted me and the nine tipsy teachers back to the conference hotel. My grandmother would have scolded me for having too many people in the car as clearly this would have kept me from enjoying a Manhattan or two myself. In many ways she was a remarkable woman, surviving both alcoholism, physical abuse, the stigma of all that-as well as my father and his two brothers whom she pretty much raised on her own.

I also remember her mother, my great grandmother, who came over from Sweden at the turn of the century. I think of her every time I go to dinner with my father and he orders his steak so rare it you can still hear the "moo." My grandmother had a reputation for making the best pork dishes in central Connecticut-and burning beef beyond recognition.

Two years ago, when I was in Salt Lake City, I took a trip to be among the Mormons at their genealogy center. I had been in scarier places to be sure, and I arrived with my great grandmother's name and a desire to learn more about the family that no one dared talk about.

An hour of research with a sweet, doddering older Mormon who hovered a little too attentively gave me some answers. My great grandmother had arrived around the turn of the century. Alone. Well, sort of alone. She arrived here according to the information some four months before my grandmother's older sister was born.

She became a family cook and raised four children on her own. I remind myself of that whenever I wonder if I could be a single parent or not. I could not investigate my grandfather's past-I'm not even sure if Kron is shortened from Swedish or German. Those tracks have been brushed away.

I could never-at least not yet-quite bring myself to talk about this with my father. We like silence in our family-rule number one, though I love breaking it outside of my family system. By pure coincidence, however, the genealogy center resides pretty close to a Scandinavian shop in downtown Salt Lake City. The Swedish food I brought back that November and gave to my father for Christmas ranks as the best wrapped present I ever gave him-his predictable glibness as he opened it was replaced by a slight sense of wonder and awe.

So often, many people lose their way, lose the tracks of their ancestors. I am just one among the masses.

On the other hand, my mother's side of the family is far more transparent. Being from Appalachia for centuries and England some 300 years ago, we like to joke that there are not too many prongs in that fork.

I call myself a Tennessean, despite having lived there for only a year and a half after I was born and then not again until I went to college. But I tell people I am from a hill in East Tennessee-a place more like home than any other.

My grandfather Virgil who tended the farm, drove a school bus, and served time in the Army, never learned to read-or even sign his name. My grandmother was a forger it seemed. I learned this from my father, interestingly enough, who delighted in telling me this story. Clearly, only his family secrets were worth keeping quiet.

On the other hand, my grandmother, Grace, and I are both alumni of the University of Tennessee. She taught elementary school, was quick at crossword puzzles, and with the advent of television became addicted to the Secret Storm when she retired. In addition to being a forger of her husband's name, she taught me as a child how to play-and cheat-at Scrabble. Another pork fan (perhaps this explains in part my parents' attraction to one another) she and my grandfather would keep and kill a pig and then have food for the rest of the year. Having seen the pig killed one Thanksgiving, I became a strong advocate that everyone read Charlotte's Web. I even gave it to my grandmother one Christmas-to no avail.

My grandparent's house was where everyone stopped by on a Sunday afternoon and-despite living at least three hours away in Kentucky-I knew all of my third cousins by name, as well as whom to pick for the pickup football games. We tended to not spend a lot of time in my grandparent's house-or at least I did not, regardless of the season. The cool breezes of summer made being outside easier. That and the outhouse we would have to visit behind the house. I rarely looked forward to spending the nights there.

Winter was worse. In addition to a cold trek outside in the morning, which lasted until 1970 when the indoor plumbing arrived to everyone's delight, there was no heat-other than the coal burning stove. It was often hotter in the winter in the living room than in the summer, a real feat for Tennessee where 95 degrees in the shade was not uncommon. My grandfather took special delight in keeping the fire going so that my grandmother and her poor circulation would remain warm enough-either that or he liked my sister and me far less than I had imagined. She and I slept on the pullout couch there when we visited.

I never forget the night when the temperature had eased over 100, and I just couldn't sleep. My sister did just fine asleep on top of the covers, but still asleep. My grandmother awoke from her unheated bedroom feeling chilled. Upon discovering me in the bathroom reading in the bathtub-I was nine at the time-she and I retired to the living room where she spent the rest of the night telling me stories of that hill, the people around it-our people she called them, and of the geography of the place. I acquired my love of geography from her, it seems. At 6 a.m., when Virge came in to the stoke the fire, he discovered us asleep on the sofa, my head cradled on my grandmother's arms. His rattling of the coals in the furnace awoke both of us, and I still considered myself refreshed despite sleeping less than half an hour. I always remembered that night. I hoped to return the favor one day.

"Is there ever a way to cut for sign along an old trail without your mind cleaning it up some? Perhaps in some ways at least, weaving a less tangled past for yourself?

"The process of getting lost seems less complex and lengthy on the surface . . . Two steps of the trail for whatever reason . . . and you can be as lost as if somebody dumped you 50 miles from the nearest building."

These words by Hannah Nyala remind me that this grandmother whom I treasured was also the mother of my mother-a woman who tries to keep peace and works meticulously not to make a mistake. My grandmother, a trailblazer along with my father's mother in many regards, considered herself extremely liberal because she used the word "colored" to describe African-Americans as opposed to the more overtly racist words of her husband and other contemporary relatives. She told me this in both 1970 and 1998, the second time well after Alzheimer's had begun to consume her life.

I suspect my grandmother would have been barely civil to Hannah Nyala's grandmother from the Sioux nation-feeling superior despite being a fellow poor Southerner and probably more alike than either would care to admit.

But that's life. There is definitely a part of me that would like to remember my grandmothers through only the lenses of toxic nostalgia. But I think they deserve better than to have to have their lives cleansed for my benefit. It was after all their life and not mine.

Last year I stood besides my grandmother's casket and reminisced about her. I remembered as much as I could, though I pondered my mother's last question to her. It was in the hospital before she died, and my mother leaned forward to her very dehydrated mother and touched her hand, "Are you being a good girl?" she asked. I wondered how many times my mother had been asked the same question. My grandmother nodded-to a question I was sure she had been asked many times in the early 1900s. I leaned forward and kissed my grandmother who grinned and chuckled.

My aunt laughed and said, "She does that when the preacher comes and visits and then kisses her good-bye too. Oh." She realized what she had said. She had meant the Southern Baptist preacher from her church. We all sort of reflected on the fact that I was "the preacher" too-for about five seconds before we left the 93-year-old good girl to sleep quietly.

My desire for stories-a product of my Appalachian heritage I suspect-has led me to collect children's books. Somewhere over the years, I have amassed some 3200 children's books, particularly of stories not told, rarely told, or those told well. No great surprise.

I am particularly fond of this Buddhist story. Soon after the Buddha began teaching, he passed a man on the road who was struck by the extraordinary joy and peacefulness in the Buddha's face. The man stopped the Buddha and asked, "Sir, what are you? Are you a god?"

"No," replied the Buddha.

"Are you some kind of magician or wizard?"

Again the Buddha replied, "No, I am not."

"Are you a man then?"

"No," said the Buddha.

"Well my friend, what are you?"

The Buddha answered, "I am awake." The night before at the funeral home I sat beside my sister and my niece Samantha who was four then. My favorite pastoral moment occurred when my folks had asked me if I thought it was all right to show Samantha her great grandmother in the casket. Samantha had wanted to see what was in the box. I said as long as Samantha could talk about this with her mother, my sister, I thought it would be okay.

My sister had explained our grandmother's death to her. But like most four year olds, the concept was a little too abstract, for now anyway. We were sitting in the pews and Karen and Samantha were talking about Great Grandma.

"Why are her eyes closed? Let's wake her up," Samantha said.

My sister, without realizing what she was saying, responded, "Honey, she's not going to wake up." And with that my sister could finally cry. Samantha, being one in a line of good girls, hugged her mother.

A little later, during the service, the "other preacher" asked us all to pray. While I talked to myself about trying to respect all religions and conjure up my own worthwhile prayer, my family-pretty much everyone in the room-closed their eyes and prayed.

Everyone except but Samantha. Conflicted with the desire to be a good girl and her real fear, she managed to say in a voice loud enough to be heard only by those of us in our row, "Wake up, Mommy! Wake up."

At the graveside, I told this story to my third cousin, Amy, and her mother, my second cousin Joan-both of whom were touched by the story. Other family gathered closely and I told the story again.

Family. The graves around me held family names. Rutherford. Stooksbury. Longmeier. Wallace. Ridenour. All of these people my ancestors.

In Native American traditions and those of many indigenous people around our planet, ancestors are regarded as sacred and held with reverence in high honor. Those people who have come before us, blazed a path, and made tracks for us in the ground.

So when did we take two steps off the trail and get lost? How did we get to a place where so many people are like my father-a man who will undoubtedly struggle with his own father's memories until he dies, no doubt leaving a similar legacy for his two children. I wonder if he will ever forgive his father? Why are we so ready to forget the past, to somehow think we are better than it, better than those who marked the trail for us?

I tend to agree with Mammaw Haney-most of the history books and some of the science books written by white folks are wrong-or at least misleading. They tell only part of a story-a story of domination and control. I remember clearly a small section in our fourth-grade geography book that informed the reader that places like Kansas and Nebraska were good for tourists who wanted to see Indian artifacts, carefully worded as Native American culture. One could even see the skeletons of Native Americans preserved for viewing and used for scientific research.

No one ever mentioned how the Native Americans felt about this. I doubt the textbook authors ever asked them. I discovered in a bookstore somewhere a children's book about the Burial Grounds of Native Americans written by two Native Americans-with extensive information about the remains of Native Americans dug up by White men.

Let me say, I had never considered the paragraph in my fourth-grade social studies textbooks about museums and artifacts as anything but positive. The textbook had not forgotten that there were Native Americans there. I was impressed that scientists were putting the skeletons to good use and that people could learn from them.

It never occurred to me how far off the trail I was. Until I saw this book. The Pawnee tribes of Nebraska and Kansas-and later resettled to Oklahoma-were deeply distressed that their ancestors remains had been disturbed. This violated their religious beliefs. So the white legislators passed laws protecting the buried remains of all people-except Indians. Only recently has this changed. And the change is still slow. If you have not read Kenn Harper's Give Back My Father's Body, then you have missed something, not only about the atrocity of dishonoring a family's request for respect for its ancestors, but also the atrocity of the way history is told. We have a lot to learn and a long way to go to return to the trail.

I wonder how likely we are in a couple hundred of years to disturb the graves of the Rutherfords and Stooksburys in the name of science. I wonder what it would be like to have my bones preserved and on display for a fourth grade field trip to examine. How we pay attention to matters of life and death is a pretty significant statement of any culture. How do we honor those who have gone before us? How do we mark the trail for those who will follow? How much of a story will we tell? How much will we clean up? How awake will we be?

We remember history through wars and domination and control and by unearthing that which is "buried" and lost. "We" meaning the dominant culture.

Native Americans and African Americans know history through living stories, shared wisdom, ritual.

Which would you prefer? And how would you live with someone making that choice for you?

I have the profound privilege of sitting with African-Americans and Native Americans in the work to dismantle racism that is part of my job. Someone asked us all in a meeting why we would subject ourselves to a job where so many of the people we worked with didn't trust what we said, where we exposed ourselves and our lives and were often greeted with disrespect if not ridicule, where denial was valued more than the truth, where often the rewards of the work were very small. Several people-all people of color-responded they did it for their ancestors, those that had died in the Middle Passage coming from Africa, those who had been moved from their land, those who had tried to escape and failed, those who had resisted domination and enslavement and violence.

This I understood. I too knew of people who had gone before me who were killed, tortured, forced to hide, ridiculed-and perhaps worst of all, then forgotten, for living the lives they had. And yet all these people had helped me be who I am today.

My mother, in going through some of my grandmother's things, found several pictures of her making molasses at the annual festival at the Museum of Appalachia. She asked me if I wanted one and I suggested she find a nice frame and wrap it up for Christmas.

On Christmas night I opened the package. Samantha came and looked at it. I asked her if she remember her great grandmother. She nodded yes. I told Samantha the story of the night I couldn't sleep and how this remarkable woman told me stories. I wondered what kind of ancestor I would be for Samantha.

One Christmas morning two years before at my folks' place in Kentucky, my grandmother was up early, perhaps she never slept at all. At 5 a.m. disoriented and confused, she was dressed and packed to go home to Tennessee. She sat in the living room and wailed.

"Nobody loves me. I am all alone," she cried in a voice that woke my folks and me up. She repeated it several times. My mother got up and tried to get her to get back to bed. Now my mother tried to reason with my grandmother. A useful tactic. I remember it well from my childhood. However, to try to have a conversation with a woman with over 60 percent of her hearing gone in a dark room at five in the morning was doomed to fail. My mother just got up after an hour of this and began to fix breakfast and food for the day.

Later in the day, we sat down for our annual Christmas day Scrabble game. My grandmother asked if she had ever played this game before. She was sure she hadn't.

Often during the day she asked my mother what she could to do help. This made sense to me. She had spent most of her years being of use to others. It was what she knew.

This began a ritual that would re-occur every day for the 10 days she was there. My grandmother would wake at 5 a.m. and not know where she was or who else was there. She would pack her clothes and then sit and wail in the living room. The last two nights I offered to get up instead of my tired and frustrated mother. I would go and sit with her and hold her hand while she cried. Eventually she stopped and began telling me stories that I had heard before. We would soon fall asleep on the couch until eight or so. I had to some degree returned the favor.

Every night for dinner we had mashed potatoes because peeling potatoes was something my mother let my grandmother do. And we would all work a puzzle.

One night, probably the sixth or seventh night, the night after my mother and grandmother had a very tense and very loud conversation about my grandmother's impending move to assisted living, I was sitting at the dining room table, reading the paper. I looked up to see my mother at the doorway leading into the kitchen standing very rigidly, staring. I got up and went to see what she was looking at in the kitchen. She was watching my grandmother do the dishes.

It was at that moment my grandmother took 10 knives of various lengths and sizes and dumped them into the murky dishwater. My mother began to sweat. "Should I do anything?" she whispered.

Why she whispered was beyond me because normal conversation at that distance was clearly outside of my grandmother's hearing range.

I gave my mother a look. "If she cuts herself, at least she'll have something to do. That ambulance ride to the hospital will take up a good couple of hours."

We laughed and the tension left my mother's body.

If you would like," I offered, "I could sharpen them for you. I bet they aren't sharp enough. Then things could get really interesting."

My mother was in tears now she was laughing so hard, my grandmother obliviously retrieving and washing the knives during all of this. By the time my mother had pulled herself together, my grandmother had them finished.

She looked up from the sink, pleased with herself. She noticed my mother and me watching and asked, "Is there anything else I can do?" And then we all sat down for another game of Scrabble.

I will tell Samantha one day this story-and as many as I can remember of our ancestor, this remarkable and imperfect woman who would blaze a trail for both of us.

Have you wandered from the trail?

Who must you forgive?

For whom would you sharpen the knives, fall asleep next to, or honor in the ways of your family?

Whom have you tried to forget or cleanse?

Where does your life start and where does it end?

How will you remember? How will you be brave?

Who are your ancestors? Who are your people?

What kind of ancestor will you be?

Closing Hymn

"Guide My Feet"
Singing the Living Tradition #348

Closing Words

Rev. Amy Freedman and Rev. Keith Kron

Become aware of the hands that you are holding
Their warmth, texture, and weight

As an infant these same hands reached out
for the nourishment of milk

As a child these hands shakily wrote a name
on paper for the first time

These hands have wiped away tears, clenched in anger,
waved hello and good-bye countless times
and embraced loved ones

And now these hands are the tangible link
that connect us to one another

These are hands that have worked, are working,
and will work to make the world a better place

I invite you to look around and see those around you who have experienced so much that is life

May the circle be open but never broken

Go in peace
Go in love
Work for justice
Go forth and bless the world.

Source:

Lake Geneva Summer Assembly, Thursday, July 5, 2001

Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship. Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.

For more information contact web@uua.org.

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Last updated on Tuesday, February 19, 2013.

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