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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

We are a Continuum: Honoring Our Ancestors

by Lauren Van Ham
We are a continuum. Just as we reach back to our ancestors for our fundamental values, so we, as guardians of that legacy, must reach ahead to our children and their children. And we do so with a sense of sacredness in that reaching.
Paul Tsongas
Those who have died, have never never left; The dead have a pact with the living. They are in the woman's breast, they are in the wailing child. They are with us in the home, they are with us in the crowd. The dead have a pact with the living. 
                                           Sweet Honey in the Rock (lyrics)*

For most Earth-based Traditions, the prayer practices include the Ancestors.  Consider, the Native Americans who often pray in the name, “All My Relations,” honoring all beings alive, and those returned to the Earth. Or Dia de los Muertos, in Mexico, when every November 1st, families visit their loved ones’ graves, hosting celebrative picnics, affirming the talents of their deceased relatives, and decorating sugar skulls and commemorative skeletons to embrace life and to honor death. 

When I first learned of these practices, I felt intrigued, mostly because in my culture, death was handled in a reserved fashion, in churches and funeral homes.  The dead were remembered and mourned, but not called upon.  Working in a Catholic hospital provided extra nudges.  I still smile when I think of the day the copy machine kept jamming and Brother Anthony, a warm and gentle Franciscan monk offered, “If you’re open to it, we can pray to St Jude of Hopeless Causes.  He sometimes can help with these matters.”  We prayed to St Jude – and I liked it - but I still felt cautious.  I didn’t want to be disrespectful or accused of misappropriation, borrowing incorrectly from a culture that wasn’t my own.

Then, a few years ago, I took a class on community-building with Sobonfu Some', a wonderful woman and powerful teacher who hails from Burkina Faso in West Africa.  Sobonfu said, “If you think the unemployment lines are long down here, you should see the ones our ancestors are standing in!  They are waiting to be asked.  Please!  Call on them!” 

Suddenly I got it.  I began thinking of the talents and wisdom, lying fallow in my memory of those recently gone, or long dead.  And I felt a sense of communion, immediately, when I considered how I might call on the courage of Harriet Tubman, the brilliance of Einstein, the creative genius of Jim Henson, the grace of Ginger Rogers…or the loving lap of my Grandmother..and so on.

And here’s another thing!  Our ancestors are not only in the past; we can also call on the ones yet to Be – the brave ones arriving on Earth to lend their fresh eyes and new life to shed light on our troubling patterns and trickiest problems.
With which ancestors do you most wish to take a walk or share a meal? 

Here’s something to try: as the month of Halloween approaches, along with Day of the Dead and All Saints’ Day, consider your loved ones and the ones you’ve not known personally.  Set out their pictures; light a candle; include them in your prayers.  Invite your friends to talk about their ancestors, and be sure to pray for the ones still on the way.

Let’s employ our communion of saints – ask them to look out for us, remind us of what’s important, invite their wisdom as we implement our own desire and vision for stronger communities. 

About Lauren: Lauren lives in Berkeley, CA.  She serves as Dean at The Chaplaincy Institute (ChI), an interfaith seminary and tends her private practice as a spiritual director.  You can read Lauren’s blog at: http://www.laurenvanham.com/

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Reflection and Ethics at the Hardware Store

by Doug Wysockey-Johnson

I had one of those small yet big moments at the hardware store the other day.  The story is too long to tell in detail, but the synopsis is this:  A week previous I had been in to purchase fencing for the backyard.  Due to the cashier’s error, and unknown to me at the time, I underpaid.  (He rang me up for the one roll of fencing I brought to the counter, not the 2 rolls I told him I was taking.)  Now it was a week later.  I was back, and as a new cashier gave me the price, I realized the error. 

So there was this moment, just seconds really, where a decision-making process was unfolding internally.  My first reaction was to let the whole thing slide.  “Their mistake was a few days ago…..they have no idea…….I’m not positive what happened……no harm no foul…..etc. etc.”  I was leaning pretty heavily toward not mentioning the error, especially since it now turned out that the fencing I was buying was more than I thought.  All this internal processing was happening in the few seconds it took to swipe my card and punch in my PIN. But before I hit the last number, I decided to speak up:

“Dan, I think I know what happened.  When I was in here the other day, your cashier charged me for one roll of fencing, not two. If that is the case, I guess I owe you some money.”

Dan smiled and said, “Yep, you owe us another $37.  And by the way, thank you for your honesty.”

As I walked out of the hardware store, I felt less proud about doing the right thing than sobered by how long it took me to get there.

The Power of Reflection

Here is what I know about myself.  My first instinct is not always my best instinct.  In school, teachers often said, “trust your first response.”  That may be true in test- taking, but my default position is very often towards self-preservation, and self-interest.  Whether that is the so-called ‘lizard brain’ responsible for fight or flight, original sin or what, I have no idea.  I just know that frequently my immediate response is not always my best response. 

I guess that is why I believe so much in the power of reflection.  Whether it is a full day away, or a few seconds at the cash register, I often come closer to the person I want to be after I have been willing to pause.  It is almost like in those few seconds (or minutes or hours), I am able to remember who I am, or what I was taught as a child or who I want to be. I find the person who is more than self-preservation, more than self-interest, more than self first.  My truer self is in there, but it takes some time to find me.

Speed in work has compensations.  Speed gets noticed.  Speed is praised by others.  Speed is self important.  Speed absolves us.  Speed means we don’t really belong to any particular thing or person we are visiting and thus appears to elevate us above the ground of our labors.  When it becomes all-consuming, speed is the ultimate defense, the antidote to stopping and really looking.  If we really saw what we were doing and who we had become, we feel we might not survive the stopping and the accompanying self appraisal.  So we don’t stop, and the faster we go, the harder it becomes to stop

                                    David Whyte, Crossing the Unknown Sea, p. 117

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Prayer for Muddling Along

by Angier Brock

Recently, in a moment some might call insanity or hubris but which may also have been an act of faith, I agreed to make a box cushion seat cover, complete with piping, to help a friend who was re-upholstering a small sofa. I do not sew very much. In fact, I have had an uneasy relationship with sewing machines for most of the five and a half decades since I first learned to use an old treadle Singer in home economics class. (For the record, I was in the seventh grade—pretty much the worst year of my then-young life).

Sewing machines themselves have certainly come a long way since 1959. The one I am currently using, borrowed from my granddaughter who is now the age I was then, is a super duper amazing digital model. After several hours with the owner’s manual, I figured out how to thread it and how to fill the bobbin. I am still learning what its various communicative beeps and error messages mean. But it is a fabulous instrument. It even threads its own needle—a boon for my aging eyes and sometimes stiff fingers.

However, even a wondrous sewing machine cannot factor out all human error. It cannot ensure that I have measured the pieces and figured the seam allowances correctly, let alone cut the fabric (and matched the checked pattern) accurately. Nor can it guarantee that the piping stays where I want it, even after I have pinned it into place. And so I continue muddling along with the project. To date, I have ripped out more stitches that I have let stay. In so doing, many of all the words I have muttered to myself would not be recognized by most people as prayer.

As I write this, I cannot say for sure how this project will turn out. My friend has assured me that the sofa cushion cover need not be perfect—as it certainly will not be. But how well or poorly it will fit, how flat or puckered the piping might be, whether or not the pattern of checks aligns with the checks on other parts of the sofa, and ultimately how acceptable the cushion will be not only in my friend’s eyes but also in mine—those things remain to be seen. 

Much of life’s journey is like that. We don’t always know how our friendships, marriages, jobs, volunteer activities, or even tonight’s dinner will turn out. Though we are constantly learning, we never learn it all, and we are prone to forgetting our earlier lessons. Sometimes we choose to give up. Other times, in what may truly be an act of faith, we choose to muddle along, despite how things look.

When it is possible to do so, I am all for keeping the faith by muddling. Sometimes we do so alone, though if we are lucky, we may find a good muddling guide or guide book. Life, of course, doesn’t always allow for “do-overs.” Sometimes when we rip the stitching out of something that didn’t come together quite the way we had hoped, the fabric gets torn. Sometimes it cannot be mended. Sometimes the mending leaves scars we know are there, even if we cover them with a well-placed throw pillow.