Choice and Families

Choice and Families – Pentecost #155-158

Pentecost 155 – Choices

Today is All Hallow’s Eve, a holiday which has its roots in Celtic mythology.  While In America the custom of children wearing costumes and going door to door to receive treats only dates back about one hundred years, those customs and the holiday dates back to at least the sixteenth century in Great Britain and Ireland.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania loves to brag (and rightly so!) about its Mummer’s Day Parade.  Mobile, Alabama and New Orleans, Louisiana have their costumes and joyful Mardi Gras festivities.  Rio de Janeiro draws the world with its glorious Carnival.  Clearly mankind loves a party!  Halloween, the more common name for All Hallow’s Eve, or Samhain or Calan Gaeaf were all much more than simply excuses to dress up for a party.  Ancient Celts believed in Aos Si, the spirits of the dead who could, at this liminal time, return to earth.   These spirits were presented food or drink left as an offering and it was believed that dressing up as these spirits would protect one from harm.

In the ninth century A.C.E., the Christian church made November 1st a church holiday.  November 1st was named All Saints Day (originally All Hallows Day, “hallow being a synonym for saintly’).  In the fifteenth century the custom of sharing “soul cakes” was instituted. This custom was even incorporated by William Shakespeare into the action of his play “The Two Gentleman from Verona”.

Many use Halloween as a chance to step out of their everyday persona.  The term “trick or treat” is only about seventy years old, although the concept was evident in Wales in the seventeenth century.  AS a child I remember towns and municipalities offering an extra school holiday if the youth of the area restrained themselves from trickery or malfeasance.  It really boils down to a matter of choices, doesn’t it?

In Nigeria, there is a culture known as the Yoruba.  The Yoruba believe that a person’s success in life is based solely upon the choices made – not in life but in heaven before one is born.  The Yoruba word for choice is “ayanmo” and the road to achieving one’s choice is thought by the Yoruba to be ….patience.  The Yoruba name for their supreme deity for this matter is “Ori” which translates as “head” or “mind”.  Everyone has a choice.  Those who choose a wise head will have success and a life of relative ease.  Those who make foolish choices will not find success.

The Yoruba believe that even their gods need Ori to help guide them through life.  Thus Ori is both a personal and a collective concept.  Holidays are also both personal and collective.  Hopefully, if you celebrate today, you will do so by making wide choices.  And I also hope your choices in living will help you be a better person.  We all need to make better choices and the world can always use another person who is trying to be better.

Pentecost #156 – And Then ….

The Yoruba also believe that each of us is really a part of a trinity.  They believe in the “emi”.  The word translates as “breath” but refers to the spirit of each of us.  The emi lives in one’s heart and lungs and is fed by air breathed in through our nostrils.  The emi is the very core of a person, that which is responsible for our very living, our actions, our thoughts, our loving.

This wonderful culture also has a myth of the second part of a person, the “ojiji”.  The ojiji follows a person and is the shadow or shade of a person.  When we die, the Yoruba believe our ojiji will wait in heaven for our return.  [I confess I found this such a lovely thought.  We are never truly alone; we always have our shadow, even when we cannot see it.]

The Nigerian tribe of the Yoruba gave the third spirit of the trinity the name “eleda”, although some call it “ori”.  These names are translated as “guardian soul”.  It is believed that those who have died will return to the tribe as infants.

One never really escapes one’s past in these myths yet there is a chance for retribution and confession.  We all have made choices that left us wondering “What was I thinking?” and left others if we were thinking at all.  The nice thing is that there is usually always a chance for “and then…”.  All we have to do is find the strength to start again.  It is not easy but life is always worth it.  So, by the way, are you.

Pentecost 157 – Liongo

We talked about the Kamba culture of Kenya earlier this week.  Like most African countries, Kenya is a land rich in diversity and many cultures.  The Swahili and Pokomo people live in eastern Kenya and one of their mythical heroes is the poet Liongo.  There are seven cities which claim to be the birthplace of Liongo; no one known which claim is true.  He was described as being as tall as a giant and very, very strong.  Legend tells that Liongo could not be wounded by any weapon but, like Achilles in the Greek myths, Liongo did have his vulnerable spot.  We, like Liongo, all have our weak areas.  Not everyone can be an expert or authority is all matters.  We all make mistakes; hopefully, we learn something from them.

Liongo is not really remembered just for his might or the fact the he was the king of Ozi and Ungwana in the Tana Delta and of the Shanga on Faze or Pate Island.  There are a great many songs and gungu dances whose lyrics are poems attributed to Liongo and written in Swahili.  This is fitting because, with the introduction of Islam and the change in succession from mother to father, Liongo found himself arrested.  He escaped his shackles during a loud and celebratory song sung by a nearby crowd outside the prison.  The myths of Liongo open chapter of his tale with a song.

Liongo eventually was killed by his son who knew that a needle driven into his navel would prove deadly.  There is an old adage about choosing one’s confidants wisely and Liongo’s death testifies to this adage.  Of greater importance is making sure we not only are aware of our weaknesses but respectful of them and those of others.  On this day when so many are celebrating, we need to remember to be good stewards of our fun.  The real thing to fear is ignoring the wisdom in living a healthy and safe life.

#158 – The Family Tree

Trees in Africa are tantamount to life.  It is understandable that many tribes and clans have given themselves names that include trees.  Without trees, man would not have wood for fire and food would quickly spoil without the ability to cook it.  In areas where grass is hard to find, goats climb trees to eat the green leaves.  Other animals use trees as perches before capturing their meal.  Trees are where bees make their hives in Africa and those hives provide honey.

African mythology tells that each tree has a spirit and some have more than a few.  It has been a long-ensuing debate as to whether trees are spirits or are just inhabited by them.  Regardless of where you stand on that topic, the spirit is recognized and all seek to hear its voice.

Together, trees create a family.  Forests are just large tree families and continue to be revered and respected.  Drums in Africa are made from wood and the carver works very carefully to preserve the voice of the spirit of the tree.  The boat-maker also works to keep the spirit of the wood happy.  Otherwise it is believed that an unhappy spirit will sink a boat.

Namibia has a tree that is said to open its branches and swallow people whole.  In Zaire there is a myth about the man who married a tree.  His children, born of the tree, were said to have learned the secrets of the forest spirits and grew up to become respected herbalists.

We may not instantly think of a tree when we think of the word family and yet, an illustrated genealogy is called a “family tree”. Interesting, huh?  The popular song from the 1970’s “We Are Family” is singing through my mind right now.  I live near a wooded area and, given that we are in the middle of a light rain which is the precursor to a promised storm due later today, the trees and their spirits seem to be singing.

We are a long way away from Arbor Day, six months for those of us in the United States of America.  Yet, every day is a day to respect the trees.  Every day is also a good day to respect family – yours, mine, and the family of mankind.  After all, we really are family.

Pentecost 178

Pentecost 178
My Proverbs 28

The Gathering

Somewhere around 950 ACE, the word “haerfest” came into usage. Approximately four hundred years later man had an implement that became known as the “harwe” in the Middle English language. Following the paths that languages took, based upon traveling bands and invading armies, the “w” sound became a “v”, the “ae” diphthong became just an “a”, and the word “harvest” entered the English dictionary.

The concept of a harvest was nothing new. Regardless of whatever story you believe about mankind’s beginnings, food was an integral part of survival. As man became communal, food needs became organized in how they were secured. One can wander around and eat berries but a clan soon depletes a thicket of available plant sustenance. Thus, as food sources became crops, the yield of those crops became an annual event. It is an unconscious habit to say a word of gratitude when someone hands you a small cake, piece of sweet, or drink; the mind recognizes the need for the body to have fuel. Many hands made short work of the harvesting of food sources and giving thanks for such was as natural as breathing.

Thus the countless harvest festivals held worldwide not surprisingly became festivals of gratitude. Yesterday those in the United States of America celebrated Thanksgiving Day. While many remember President Abraham Lincoln for being killed by an assassin or for being the president during America’s only organized national civil war, it was this president during this was that made the USA’s Thanksgiving Day a national holiday.

Today many countries are in the midst of their own civil war. Fanatical religious factions are holding parts of Iran under siege. Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan are under similar threats from terroristic regimes attempting to overthrow the governments. Russia has acted in such a way as to incite and exacerbate the situation and governments in its former satellite nations. On a lesser note, several countries have infighting between native groups and the current governments. How many of those have stopped, in the midst of the turmoil and fighting, to proclaim a day of thanks? How many people caught in the battle between Islamic tribes and Jewish tribes find attitudes of gratitude, are able to see the good things for the fighting?

In his proclamation, Lincoln wrote: “t has seemed to me fit and proper that they [Lincoln had previously made note of the gains during the past year compared to the misery and fighting] should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.”

Regardless of whether you celebrate this time of harvest thanks, time of communal appreciation and gratitude in November, October, September, or whenever, many things are constant and one of those things are the expectations of family gatherings. All too often, this holiday, like others, brings with it a sense of drama and unfulfilled expectations.

The community which sprang up centuries ago around the fields of food led to our present day family unit and celebrations. However, family relationships are complicated. Families share similar DNA and yet, no one member is an exact clone of another. Even identical twins have differences of opinions, varied tastes, contradictory likes and dislikes. As family members age, recollections differ, stories are told in various recantations, and what seems funny to one group causes pain in another. Add to that the various ages and stages of aging and the mental issues that often arise with such and the stage becomes set not for care-free celebrations but intense family dramas that result in hurt feelings, stress, and anxiety. Going “over the river and through the woods” to a family gathering becomes a trip to an emotional mine field.

Holidays can cause so much stress that there are catch phrases for it such as “holiday blues; holiday blahs”. Even the website webmd.com has multiple entries regarding such including one which speaks directly to the gathering of family. “During the holidays, a lot of childhood memories come back,” says Duckworth, who is also an assistant professor at Harvard University Medical School. “You may find yourself dwelling on what was inadequate about your childhood and what was missing.” Even parents, especially older parents, can lead the drama. The same parents who years earlier would have disdained elevated anxiety are now seemingly causing it.

Any group of people is also a group of personalities. With that comes a gathering of not only food but possible health issues, both mental and physical. Suddenly one becomes caught up in differences instead of similarities. What has been easy to ignore the past eleven months suddenly becomes impossible to bear.

Many all over the world are just entering the winter holiday season. Whether rejoicing in a good harvest or trying to brighten the dreary winter months, families will gather, friends will party. Expectations will be high, perhaps impossibly too great. Just as many have forgotten that the American Thanksgiving Day became legal in the midst of fighting and the grief that such brings, we forget that the past year also brought the spoils of planting as well as the bountiful harvest. Sri Sathya Sai Baba once said: “Life is a mosaic of pleasure and pain. Grief is an interval between two moments of joy. You have no rose without a thorn. The diligent picker will avoid the pricks and gather the flower. There is no bee without the sting. Cleverness consists in gathering the honey nevertheless.”

The fragility of life includes both the thorns of living as well as the sweet smell of harvest and beautiful vision of joy. It has been said that only a country such as the United States would legalize a day of giving thanks in the midst of a civil war that pitted brother against brother, town against town, region against region. Perhaps we should not be surprised that such a gathering of people, in spite of continued differences, annually celebrates that day and the hopes it represented then and now. Perhaps that is why we continue to gather in spite of drama and remembered grief.

Perhaps we should return to the origin of the thanksgiving celebrations and think of the harvest. No farmer always reaps a plant from every seed. Earlier this month, the University of Illinois Department of Agriculture and Consumer Economics released a comparative table of average annual percent changes in yield per harvested acre, 1967-1971 versus 2010-2014. Their findings were as follows: peanuts 2.4%; corn, 2.0%; rice, 1.5%; barley, 1.4%;soybeans, 1.4%; wheat, 1.2%; oats, .5%; sorghum, .3%. With all of the technological advances in equipment, weather forecasting, pest management, etc., none of these yields, which are considered quite good, was over 2.5%. Maybe our average annual expectations of our gatherings should be more realistic, especially since they involve people – different people living different lives in different situations all coming together in close spaces trying to impress and increase their expected “yield” of gathering.

It is a quote credited to several: “Patience with family is love. Patience with others is respect. Patience with self is confidence. Patience with God is faith.” Our life begins with family and how we spend it largely depends on family. Holidays are how we define ourselves and our creeds for living. I hope that however you celebrate, you do so with kindness and respect. When we show love and honor to others, we give it to ourselves. Responsible celebration involves more than wise imbibing of food and drink. We are the hosts and hostesses to every situation of our lives, especially the gatherings. The kindness we show to others may not be immediately reflected back to us but the character we build by doing so is a harvest worthy of the effort. We are not defined by our harvest but by the way we plow our lives. Whether it be Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, or Winter Solstice celebrations, we all have much for which to be thankful. We all have much to for which to dream and be of good cheer. We all have the need to gather together in hope and love. No man is an island. No more stands alone. We need our gatherings. We need to prepare for the harvest.

My Proverb 28

We should worry less about the harvest and worry more about the plowing. If we live a life of sowing goodness and kindness, then we reap a clear conscience.