Please visit our YouTube channel to watch Rev. Ann Marie’s video recording of this reflection.
If you are a boomer, a person of a certain age, and pay any attention to popular culture, you are aware of how many influencers we have lost lately: Archbishop Tutu, Betty White, Bob Saget, Sydney Poitier, Meat Loaf, Thich Nhat Hanh, and many others. I was listening to NPR in the car the other day and they were featuring a program about how many famous songwriters and musicians are selling off their catalogs, or just a small part of their work and how many millions they are receiving. The NPR program was about why investors are paying so much for these catalogs. The program was also about how differently we face the inevitable. The commentator used the examples of Prince and of Aretha Franklin, who did not have wills, and had not made any arrangements for their catalogs before their deaths. He explained the confusion and ill-will among heirs that can come when artists lack the foresight to plan for their deaths. He used Bob Dylan as an example of an artist who knows he is done with his life’s work. Dylan has spent the last several years giving away his archives, selling his music and his songs, so that those who love him will benefit.
How might your loved ones benefit from what you leave when you are gone?
It is a question that is important to ask, and to answer. Legacies are important. What we do, what we create, and who we are does make an impact on this world. Maybe we don’t have a trove of artistic work that will garner millions of dollars, but we all—every one of us—exist within a sphere of influence. Every one of us will leave some kind of legacy.
Someone has learned from us. Someone benefits or is harmed by the choices we have made. Someone has heard our thoughts, our stories, our songs, our humor, listened to our souls, and will remember. Someone will taste the fruit of what we thought to plant.
We UUs stand in a long line of those brave enough to contemplate their own deaths. Many of us do make a plan for what will happen to our assets after we die. Money and what it can do is always important. Yet legacies are about so much more than money.
We are heirs of those who knew this human life is brief and precious. And they teach us that we have an obligation and an opportunity to make a difference in this world through our living, a difference that can last long into the future.
When my wife and I lived in North Carolina, I was the developmental minister with the Greensboro UU Congregation. She was the called minister at the Piedmont UU church in the northern suburbs of Charlotte. There was a man in Robin’s congregation named Carl, who had been a fairly conservative attorney for many years. After he retired, he became a UU and a farmer. He was a very interesting person. We watched him change so much over the years my wife and I knew him.
When we first met him, he was so sure white men were made to be the leaders in this world. At first, he treated my wife, Rev. Robin, as if she were a child. Over time he became a constant and steady source of support for her in her first ministry with a congregation. He learned to treat her—respect her—as his minister.
When we first met him, he was not at all convinced that racism was a problem for our faith to worry about. By the time Robin and I left North Carolina, he had become the force making sure that anti-racism work would always have a central place in the spiritual life of that small but very influential congregation where he had served as president.
He changed in so many ways during the short five or six years we knew him. We were impressed by how much he came to embody being a UU.
This is a poem Robin wrote about him after she visited his farm, where she saw the blueberry bushes he had recently planted.
It is titled “Legacy.”
Legacy by Rev. Robin Tanner I rush toward the short shrubs Like puppies in a pen, Wanting to pick them each up and snuggle the branches. “What are these?” A bittersweet excitement ensues as he says only, “The future.” I hold the hunter green un-budded branch. [he then says] “I need to cross pollinate. Create a new plant, Then plant the children of these Two.” He motions across the rows of bushes. [I ask] “How long?” My eyes are filled with the immediacy of the sweet, tart burst of a blueberry, the way the soft skin brushes the side of the tongue. “Ten years to really produce.” [he says] My eyes fall to the red clay earth as the intimacy and importance of this small shrub falls over me: An 82-year old man planting shrubs whose fruit is ten years off. He coughs to disrupt the sheer tenderness of legacy hovering about us. I am relieved to not have to find the words to say: “Thank you for the blessing of berries For the generosity of this gift.” Instead The 82-year old lawyer turned blueberry farmer hands me the offering bucket And we walk on in the sanctuary of shrubs Quietly dreaming of the pie that will be baked A decade from now. This must be how hope feels, The fruit of the ancestors dreaming In the hands of the children.
Elandria Williams was a UU child, then a young adult star who kept rising. She became the co-moderator of the UUA, serving for three years, before she died at the age of 41. Years before her unexpected, sudden death, she wrote this:
I came as a fourth grader to my congregation, the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville … This community helped bring me into social justice struggles in the world around me and inside the UUA. They brought me as a child to the place where I now work, the Highlander Center. My church opened so many doors because they held young people in high esteem and encouraged our leadership in the church and community. I will never forget going to our district’s Journey Toward Wholeness Transformation Team meeting (the UUA’s anti-racism program) and realizing that I was the youngest person there by nearly fifteen years.From “Becoming: A Spiritual Guide for Navigating Adulthood”
My religious education teachers, friends’ parents, and spirit aunts and uncles were and still are community leaders in everything from nuclear disarmament to anti-racism/anti-oppression issues. They protested U.S. military involvement in Central America and stood behind the parent of a classmate as she transitioned from male to female in the early nineties. They have been my inspiration as I work to support others who are called by their faith to change hearts, minds, and communities.
My church changed forever on July 27, 2008, when an armed man came into the sanctuary and killed two UU leaders, one a member of TVUUC and the other a member of Westside Church. This rocked our church to its core. When I first heard about it, I didn’t know who had been killed—my mom, my friends and their parents, or others who had nurtured me my entire life. I realized something that day that has stayed with me ever since: No matter what issues I have with other Unitarian Universalists regarding our visions of God/Spirit, justice, race, and age—at the root of everything is community, love, and faith. That day, something larger than our individual beliefs rose up in my mind. I thought of the principles, values, and family that are the connective tissue of our faith community and that held us weeks after the shooting, six months later on our sixtieth anniversary, and still today.
I am part of the connective tissue that holds the legacy and future of our faith….
We are the children of freedom fighters, visionaries, and radical liberal theologians.
We are the phoenix rising out of the ashes of the McCarthy era and the civil rights, women’s, and queer liberation movements.
We are the survivors and beneficiaries of youth-led and youth-focused beliefs and programming that encouraged us to be change makers, boundary pushers, and institutionalists at the same time.
We are and will be the ministers, religious educators, congregational presidents, organizers, and social change leaders our faith has led us to be.
We wear our faith as tattoos on our bodies and in our hearts as testaments to the blood, tears, dreams, and inspirations of our community ancestors and elders.
What will your legacy be? How will you be remembered? What bucket of offerings are you readying? To what new places are you going? What thresholds are you crossing? What land will you bring the rest of us into?