“The Breath of Our Ancestors”
Heritage – it’s our theme this month – something that can be inherited – valued objects or cultural traditions – passed down from previous generations. It calls to mind our ancestors – those from whom we are descended – but also an earlier version of an instrument or an institution. We look back to these while turning forward to the idea of legacy – that long lasting impact of events or actions or of a person’s life. There are so many places I could go with this topic and I’ll admit it was hard to narrow it all down – what part of our heritage – of Unitarian Universalist heritage did I want to talk about with you?
I spent some time the other night participating in a webinar celebrating 25 years of the Women’s Leadership Institute – A Program in Applied Spirituality – which I completed in 2007 as a part of my studies at what was then Hartford Seminary. Every year some forty to fifty women from all over the globe completed these nine months of study and deep practice together so that over 1000 women were impacted by it and have gone on to impact their world. The program was led by the incomparable Miriam Therese Winter (MT we called her) a Medical Mission Sister, radical feminist, and professor at the seminary for 42 years. And it evolved out of earlier programs of her making, groundbreaking in their time at the school. What we learned was valuable as we dug into women’s spiritual and religious history, but her true legacy, the invaluable part was the way she taught. Her generosity of spirit, her gratitude for every person present, in all their fullness and messiness, the acceptance and encouragement of each creative spark, the love that emanated from this woman, for humanity and our world, passed on to us, through us. That place is a big part of my personal journey, my heritage and my ministry are, in part, her legacy living into the present and beyond. It is where my compassionate spirit was nurtured and my recognition of qualities for leadership outside of mainstream definitions were discovered and affirmed.
It is easy to become nostalgic when you look back with such fondness alongside others who were there, too, who shared the experience together. And it is easy for us to become nostalgic, also. I certainly did Friday morning as I chopped vegetables and watched “The Miracle on Main” video. It brought a tear to my eye – unless that was the onions – but I felt a part of it all and I wasn’t even around back then. I was thinking we should order ourselves some hats that say “Make UUMH Great Again” on them! Somewhere in the midst of the narration, it says that even if you didn’t appear in any of the photos, you were there, just not in the eye of the camera. And I realized that I was there in spirit and that I am a part of the legacy of that place and time, those people, and their hopes for the future. Each of us will fold into the heritage, moving from legacy to the present, a current-day version of those ancestors here.
It’s a little like human DNA – this idea of ancestral systems and institutions affecting what we know today. A bit of epigenetics where behaviors and environments cause changes that actually affect the way our genes work. Perhaps not enough generations have passed for this to be the case, but I know that all of what was happening back then is somehow a part of what is happening now – of who we are and how we act, how we respond to life in the moment. All that joy and creativity and song and food and care for the world, all those dreams for the future are a part of us. And all of what didn’t make it into the very rosy recollection presented is part of us, too. We don’t need to dwell on it, but it would serve us well to take a peek back, to acknowledge the rest of the history, to notice how it was responded to then and how that shapes our responses now in our system, our institutional life. It is a healthy practice that clears the way for implementing a sustainable future. Heritage. Ancestors. Legacy.
Poet David Whyte writes in part in his “Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words” on Nostalgia, saying it is, “the arriving waveform of a dynamic past, newly remembered and about to be re-imagined by a mind and body at last ready to come to terms with what actually occurred. . . . Nostalgia tells us we are in the presence of imminent revelation, about to break through the present structures . . . not an immersion in the past . . . it is the first annunciation that the past as we know it is coming to an end.”i
I hear a lot of late in meetings and such of what we were, what was, what we did. It is almost a lament in tone, because at some level we know what Whyte is alluding to: that an era is coming to a close and a new day is dawning here. Sandy Eisenberg Sasso is quoted in my Jewish Book of Days as telling the story of Noah’s wife who was tasked with traversing the Earth and gathering seeds from all the plants to take into the ark, to be cultivated and nurtured so that after the disastrous flood subsisdes, they will have what they need to sustain themselves. Author, Jill Hammer, suggests that some of these seeds are of imagination and truth to be preserved and that our task is to discern which seeds are meant for this kind of propagation.ii I see this as a piece of the work set before us here at the Meeting House. I’ll ask those three questions of you again – “What do we need?” “What might be nice to have?” What should we let go of for the time being?” What was previously imagined can be re-imagined. Our legacy is wrapped up in which seeds we choose to bring into the ark of our beloved community.
We have a wider heritage as well, our Unitarian, Universalist and Unitarian Universalist stories. Our chalice lighting this morning calls to mind these tenets of our ancestors – freedom, reason, hope, and courage grounded in love. Two of these derive from Unitarian minister and preeminent historian Earl Wilbur’s interpretation of our history in his two volume “History of Unitarianism” which notes certain recurring trends: freedom of religious thought and the unrestricted use of reason. At the time of the merger in 1961 there came an emphasis on hope for social change in our world and belief in a universal community as a necessity for the future. And the courage it takes to be a prophetic church then, and now.
The proposed UUA Article II By-Law language states, “As Unitarian Universalists, we covenant, congregation-to-congregation and through our association, to support and assist one another in our ministries. We draw from our heritages of freedom, reason, hope, and courage, building on the foundation of love.” Here we are called into the past in order to reimagine a future where the things we value guide our responses to events – local, national, and global. We are asked to apply our religion, our faith tradition, in real time where it is so urgently needed. I bring that notion of an applied spirituality to bear on my ministry wherever that takes me, and so I offer it to you today.
I read this week the UUA Statement on the Humanitarian Catastrophe in Gaza and Israel.iii It calls for “an immediate and total ceasefire, the admittance of humanitarian aid which has thankfully, begun, and the restoration of power and water to Gaza to prevent the further staggering loss of human life. . .,” it aligns itself with the United Nations and joins with “faith-based, non-governmental, and humanitarian organizations across the globe.” But it does something else, too. It harkens back to our heritage: to a 2002 Action of Immediate Witness entitled, “Toward Peace and Justice in the Middle East,” a 1979 General Resolution and a 2010 Statement of Conscience calling for a fundamental commitment to peaceful responses and addressing root causes of conflict; to 2002, 2007 and 2009 Resolutions calling for accountability for world leaders who commit crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture and genocide, a 1964 Statement on Viet Nam and a 2008 Statement on Iran both promoting the avoidance of military confrontations and the pursuit of diplomatic resolution. The list goes on but suffice it to say that we have been about the business of affirming a world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; affirming our mutual humanity and interdependence, and declaring that “when vengeance repays vengeance, it becomes an escalating and inescapable cycle of violence” from our inception. These are complex times, Dear Ones, rooted in a long history of conflict that has given rise to trauma on all sides and so we acknowledge the need to consider all of humanity, all the stories that make up the whole, while at the same time condemning the violence so anathema to the values we hold in common.
This is our heritage, grounded in Love as our source and guide. I will offer again the opportunity to be those bridge builders among peoples because we have something here so very unique and special; something the world needs, perhaps has always needed – a faith that listens to minds and hearts alike, unafraid to think and feel both, that teases out the common truths, and makes a way forward that is collaborative and wholistic. Our heritage shows us that we have answered that call in the past and those at the helm today see it as a legacy yet to be fulfilled.
Here on the hill, we may think ourselves small and powerless to impact the global nature of such crises. Our heritage says we are not alone and calls us to join with our siblings in faith and with those like valued folks of other faiths to bring about the sea change that our world is crying out for. When we engage in local interfaith justice work, the ripples extend beyond our imagination’s conjuring. As we make personal choices in our living-being-doing, the impact is felt in wider and wider circles.
Heritage. Ancestors. Legacy. We scour the Earth for seeds that will sustain us – those of us here and those of a wider humanity to which we are connected. We bring them into our unique space where they can be nurtured by the love that is our Spirit, making ready for the times in which we are called to plant and to harvest for the good of the whole.
May it be so, and Blessed be.
Rev. Tracy Johnson
UUMH Chatham, October 22, 2023
i “Nostalgia” by David Whyte in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words, Canongate Books, Ltd., Great Britian; 2014; pp. 114-5.
ii “Naamah Brings Seeds onto the Ark” by Jill Hammer in The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons, Ben Yehudah Press, New Jersey; 2018/5778; p. 63.