A New Unity Sunday Gathering
We arrive here together
We come to join with others whose care will strengthen us
Whose sorrows will kindle our compassion
Whose joy and dreams will inspire us
Those whose influence will encourage our own growth
And yet, even if we arrive by ourselves, we are not alone
We carry with us the influence of all those whose lives have touched and changed our own
We carry with us in memory and in our very being, the influence of many people who are now beyond our reach
By the light of this flame, let us recognise with gratitude the many who have made us the people we are today
Earth song, traditional from Senegal
Listen to things more often than beings.
Hear the voice of the fire, hear the voice of the water,
Listen in the wind to the sighing of the bush:
This is the ancestors breathing.
Those who are dead are never gone;
The dead are not down in the earth:
They are in the trembling of the trees,
In the groaning of the woods,
In the water that runs, in the water that sleeps,
They are in the hut, they are in the crowd.
Those who are dead are not ever gone;
They are in the woman's breast, they are in the wailing of a child,
They are in the burning log and in the moaning rock.
They are in the weeping grasses, in the forest and the home.
Listen to things more often than beings.
Hear the voice of fire, hear the voice of water.
Listen in the wind to the sighing of the bush.
This is the ancestors breathing.
The Family Tree by Jim Wolf
One tree outlives the mighty oak
Because it's made of special folk,
Through generations changing form,
Providing shelter from life's storm.
Our parents' parents and before,
Who may have lived on distant shores,
They root our lives in memories;
We're nourished by their histories.
A sturdy trunk that lends support
And gives us care of every sort--
The fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts,
Who nurture us like tender plants.
The children, branching toward the sky,
Have brand new dreams and deeds to try.
And babies, buds that seem so small,
Will flower, so the tree grows tall.
Message, by Andy Pakula
In nine years of ministry, I have conducted many funerals. Some of them have marked the end of long lives well-lived. Other funerals have more of a tragic feel to them: people whose lives seemed far too short, or who left behind people who could not imagine how they would cope with their loss.
My colleagues often say what a privilege it is to conduct a funeral, and I agree. At almost every funeral I learn about the richness of the life that has now ended. I have a unique chance to look into the remarkable power of a single human existence, with challenges faced, hardships suffered, and achievements made.
Most of all, though, I am struck by the ways in which each life changes many others. No person is perfect, no matter how glowing their eulogy. But it is nonetheless true that none of the mourners would be who they are without the life of their now lost family member or friend.
It is even more true that none of us would be who we are without the influence of many many people who are now physically gone from us but whose spirit and memory live on in us and will continue to live on in every person whose life they influenced, whether directly or indirectly.
Each of us, no doubt, can recall to mind some of these people whose lives touched ours.
Many people come to mind who have influenced me in very positive ways. I especially think of my mother, my maternal grandfather, some more distant relatives, and many supportive school teachers.
Most of all, though, I recall the strong influence of my mother’s mother. I have spoken of my grandmother here before - a remarkably strong woman who encountered tremendous disadvantages in her life - of poverty, her mother’s early death, abandonment by her father, and pervasive bigotry but went on to support a family, send her children to University, bury her husband, and then live another quarter century to die - which - characteristically - she did on her own terms. She waited for her 103rd birthday and quietly left us.
Through it all, she never became bitter or pessimistic. She always saw possibility and a reason for laughter. She loved travel and adventure. And she loved me unconditionally. She was the person in my life I always knew would be proud and accepting of me no matter what.
My grandmother spoke often of her own grandparents - simple immigrants who helped raise her and her sisters when her own parents were gone. And later, I began to learn of some of the imaginings she had - myths that sustained her. Near death, she spoke of her ancestors as royalty. Not at all true, of course, but a vision that helped her and gave her strength. The spirits of her ancestors - both real and imagined - gave her the incredible strength to carry on.
Those ancestors touched me too - through the love and strength they gave to my grandmother, they live on in me, in my sister, in my cousins, and others.
Today, with Halloween just around the corner, seems a good day to remember those who came before us - those relationships and connections that persist despite separation in time and space.
Halloween - or All Hallows Eve is probably a Christianised version of pagan celebrations that have long taken place at this time of year, and especially of the Celtic festival of Samhain.
Samhain was understood as a time when the boundaries between the worlds of the living and dead became thin and permeable. It was a time when it was thought that spirits could cross from their separate world into ours.
The souls of the dead might also return to their homes. Families held feasts and their dead ancestors were summoned to attend. Spirits intent on causing trouble could be mollified. Spirits prepared to support and strengthen the living would be guests of honour.
Throughout time, human beings have looked to the past for strength from those who came before.
The past inspires us. People from the past live on in our memories and they show us different ways of being. They remind us of what can be possible. They inspire us with the remarkable things they did and the ways they dealt with adversity in their own lives.
Each of us stands in front of a long line of ancestors. Modern human beings emerged more than 40,000 years ago. At least 1,500 generations have lived and nurtured their children so that each one of us could be here today.
And something of each of those ancestors remains in us and with us. Their very existence should inspire us to take our places in that great human story.
There are some people whose influence has been far broader than their own descendants.
Each of us here at Newington Green Unitarian Church is probably aware of the very special person who once sat in the pews of this chapel. Mary Wollstonecraft was a powerful, intelligent, brave, and a truly transgressive figure. We have turned to her memory at many times for strength and inspiration. Some would even say that her spirit is in this place - that it continues to drive us.
Mary Wollstonecraft was mentioned and called upon when we took the controversial decision to refuse to conduct straight marriages as a political statement about what we saw as the unfairness of laws around civil partnerships. We felt authority and courage to do difficult things because of the path she trod so long before our own time.
And to be strengthened by Mary for our Marriage Equality struggle is a remarkable thing, especially since Mary's writings include passages that clearly staked out a position against same-sex relations.
But the power that Mary Wollstonecraft lends us is her spirit - not her specific words or views. The spirit we live with represents strength and courage. It encourages us to dare to defy the status quo - to question the assumptions of our age.
To honour Mary Wollstonecraft is not blindly to hold her positions, including the biases she inherited from her time, but to take her spirit forward and apply her attitude to the specifics of our own time.
Each of us have been influenced by people from the past - people who are no longer physically present.
May the memory of the past be a strength to us as we seek to live lives of meaning, of joy, and of service, today and into our tomorrows.
May it be so.