Sunday, June 18, 2017: Genealogy as a Spiritual Practice


Prelude: Leader of the Band – Dan Fogelberg

Welcome: The Paradox of Ancestry

We gather together this morning,
Because others came before us.
Some have left examples for us to follow,
Others lessons for us to learn from,
and the paradox is that many have left both pain and joy.
We honor our ancestors this morning, not because they are perfect,
But because, without them, we would not be here,
Sharing our joy, our pain, our living and our dying.

– Christopher A. Rothbauer

Song: Gathered Here (3x)

Gathered here in the mystery of this hour
Gathered here in one strong body
Gathered here in the struggle and the power
Spirit, draw near

Chalice Lighting

The family is the center of devotion; we declare it so. The child justifies the family, for no child survives without its nurture. We live for the family, more than we live for nation, corporation, or religion. Parents have one superlative function, to bring new lives into the world, to share in the creation of persons. The old man, sorting essential works from trivia, knows fatherhood was the best of what he had to do.

– Kenneth Patton

Principles of Unitarian Universalism:

Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm and promote seven Principles:

The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Story: Grandfather’s Journal

Offering and Response (Unison)

For the gifts which we have received—and the gifts which we, ourselves, are—may we be truly grateful. Yet more than that, may we be committed to using these gifts to make a difference in the world: to increase love and justice; to decrease hatred and oppression; to expand beloved community; to share, and to keep sharing, as long as ever we can. Amen.

Song: The People’s Peace

Peace is the mind’s old wilderness cut down –
A wider nation than the founders dreamed.
Peace is the main street in a country town;
Our children named; our parents’ lives redeemed.

Not scholar’s calm, nor gift of church or state,
Nor everlasting date of death’s release;
But careless noon, the houses lighted late,
Harvest and holiday: the people’s peace.

The peace not past our understanding falls
Like light upon the soft white tablecloth
At winter supper warm between four walls,
A thing too simple to be tried as truth.

Days into years, the doorways worn at sill,
Years into lives, the plans for long increase
Come true at last for those of God’s good will:
These are the things we mean by saying, Peace.

Reading: from The Fear of Barbarians by Tzvetan Todorov

The plurality of cultures

The human being, as we have seen, is born not only within nature but also, always and necessarily, within a culture. The first characteristic of one’s initial cultural identity is that it is imposed during childhood rather than being chosen. On coming into the world, the human child is plunged into the culture of its group, which precedes it. The most salient, but also probably the most determining fact, is that we are necessarily born within one language, the language spoken by our parents or the people who look after us. … Language is common to millions or indeed tens or hundreds of millions of people: but we also receive other, more restrained heritages from the human grouping in which we grow up: ways of moving, or organizing time and space, as well as relating to other people – in short, lifestyles. During childhood, we also adopt tastes for food that remain with us throughout our lives; we interiorize certain landscapes, we memorize counting rhymes, songs and tunes that will constitute our mental universe. ….. A little later, the circle widens, for children go off to school, where they learn the basic history of the country in which they live: a few great events from the past, the names of characters who have left their mark, the most common symbols. They familiarize themselves with the literary works that are taught there, together with the names of the scientists and artists who are part of the collective memory. The common language and a set of shared references constitute what has been called the ‘essential culture’, in other words a command of the common codes that enable us to understand the world and address other people – a basic culture on to which are grafted the types of knowledge proper to the different domains of the mind, art or science, religion or philosophy. These codes are all given in advance, and not freely chosen by each individual. Another trait of the cultural affiliation of every individual is immediately obvious: we possess not one but several cultural identities, which may either overlap or else present themselves as intersecting sets. For example, a French person always comes from a particular region – the Berry, for instance – but from another angle this person also shares several characteristics with all Europeans, and thus participates in Berrichon, French, and European culture. On the other hand, within one single geographical entity, there are many different cultural stratifications: there is the culture of teenagers and the culture of retired people, the culture of doctors and the culture of street sweepers, the culture of women and that of men, of rich and of poor. Now – and this point is essential – these different cultural identities do not coincide with one another, and do not form clearly separated territories, in which these different ingredients are superimposed without remainder. Every individual is multicultural; cultures are not monolithic islands but criss-crossed alluvial plains. Individual identity stems from the encounter of multiple collective identities within one and the same person; each of our various affiliations contributes to the formation of the unique creature that we are. Human beings are not all similar, or entirely different; they are all plural within themselves, and share their constitutive traits with very varied groups, combining them in an individual way. …. What is the origin of the culture of a human group? The reply – paradoxically – is that it comes from previous cultures. A new culture arises from the encounter between several smaller cultures, or from the decomposition of a bigger culture, or from interaction with a neighbouring culture. There is never a human life prior to the advent of culture.

It is impossible to live outside all culture; it is a disaster to lose one’s culture of origin without acquiring another. Living within one’s culture without having to feel embarrassed about it is legitimate, as is leaving one’s initial culture and adopting a new one: both situations enable us to feel that we exist, and to maintain our dignity. …The aspiration to an identity and the acquisition of a culture provide the necessary condition for the construction of a fully human personality; but only opening up to otherness, with universality (and thus civilization) as its horizon, will provide us with the sufficient condition. (p. 66)

Barbarians are those who deny the full humanity of others. This does not mean that they are really ignorant or forgetful of their human nature, but that they behave as if the others were not human, or entirely human.


The concept of barbarity is legitimate and we must be able to draw on it to designate, at all times and in all places, the acts and attitudes of those who, to a greater or lesser degree, reject the humanity of others, or judge them to be radically different from themselves, or inflict shocking treatment on them. Treating others as inhuman, as monsters, as savages is one of the forms of this barbarity. A different form of it is institutional discrimination towards others because they do not belong to my linguistic community, or my social group, or my psychological type.


Being civilized

If we have one term with an absolute content, ‘barbarian’, the same will be true of its opposite. A civilized person is one who is able, at all times and in all places, to recognize the humanity of others fully. So two stages have to be crossed before anyone can become civilized: in the first stage, you discover that others live in a way different from you; in the second, you agree to see them as bearers of the same humanity as yourself. The moral demand comes with an intellectual dimension: getting those with whom you live to understand a foreign identity, whether individual or collective, is an act of civilization, since in this way you are enlarging the circle of humanity. Thus scholars, philosophers and artists all contribute to driving back barbarity. … In actual fact, no individual, let alone any people, can be entirely ‘civilized’, in this sense of the word: they can merely be more or less civilized; and the same goes for ‘barbarian’. Civilization is a horizon which we can approach, while barbarity is a background from which we seek to move away; neither condition can be entirely identified with particular beings. It consists of acts and attitudes that are barbarian or civilized, not individuals or peoples.


Lisa deGruyter

Before I started doing genealogy, even though I had read a lot of historical novels, I think I tended to think about people in different times and, to some extent, different places, as being more or less like me, and the culture they lived in more or less like mine, except of course for different technology, and obvious differences like clothes and language. Most historical novels, even ones that go back to the Vikings or prehistoric times, say The Clan of the Cave Bear, are really just costume dramas – people wear different clothes, but they don’t just have the same eternal motivations we do, they behave exactly like we would, as if their ideas, beliefs, and everyday customs were exactly like ours.

I can’t tell all the stories I have found, but one early experience I had researching might show what I mean. Much of the early court records from Augusta County, Virginia have been published, and on the web for a long time. Augusta County at the time was all of Virginia west of the Blue Ridge, including West Virginia and a chunk of what is now Pennsylvania, as far north as Pittsburgh, which Virginia claimed, so I spent a lot of time looking at those records, which have lawsuits, criminal cases, land claims, marriages, adoptions and fosterings and apprenticeships and bar licenses. One thing I started noticing was entries like

John Johnson, having proved by James Hughes that Robert Rogers bit a piece out of his ear in a difficulty–certified.

Margaret Campbell makes oath that the left ear of her son, James Beard was bitten off by a horse.

Sampson Mathews declares that he saw Joseph Love bite off the left ear of John Noland–certified.

Certified that in a fight Saml. Newgally bit off part of one of John Bingaman’s ears.

Why, I said, would anyone want it certified that a horse had bitten off his ear? As it turns out, to be able to prove you aren’t a thief or a heretic. Having your ears cropped, or nailed to the pillory, was a punishment for those and other crimes. In New England, men were legally required to keep their hair short so they couldn’t conceal a cropped ear. And I suspect that biting off ears in fights was a consequence – you were not just physically harming someone, but ruining their reputation, because of course even if you had a certificate you could hardly pin it to your chest – or your hat – and everyone who saw you would suspect you.

Bare bones genealogy is just the tracing of your ancestry – who your parents, grandparents, their parents, and so on were, as far back as the records take you – although some people go far beyond where there is any evidence at all. People do it for many reasons – to know what ancestors to venerate, to baptize their dead relatives into their faith, recently to trace genetic diseases, and for some, to bolster their pride in their illustrious ancestry. For me, and I think for most people, it started as curiosity and a puzzle to work. But solving the puzzles requires learning about past laws, customs, politics, migrations, ways of life and history in general to decipher the clues. And every generation is a story where you are finding out what happens next, who marries who, where they decide to live, how the children grow up, and what happens to everyone in the meantime.

It may seem odd to think of genealogy as a spiritual practice. But a definition of spiritual practice is “any regular and intentional activity that establishes, develops, and nourishes a personal relationship with the Divine in which we allow ourselves to be transformed.” For me, my practice of genealogy and family history has become a spiritual practice. I believe that each of us (and the rest of the interdependent web) are manifestations of the Divine, and what I have learned in almost 20 years of regular research has transformed how I relate to people and the world.

Doing family history well requires stepping into many different cultures to understand what your ancestors were doing and why, to unravel the threads of where people were, where they came from, who they married, how they lived, and what motivated them. As in science fiction, travel, and meditation, it gives you a different frame, and some clues as to what is eternal and what is an artifact of your immediate life and culture.

Because it is a practice, and the insights come from doing the practice, I can’t really explain what I have learned from it, but in general, some of the benefits of genealogy as a spiritual practice are

  1. Practice of critical thinking – A series of puzzles, requires considering data and applying reason
  2. that your own time and particular culture are not “what all sensible, thinking people would arrive at”
  3. that you are not individually entirely responsible for your successes and failures; your genetics and the culture, including ways of understanding the world, and the technology available for living in it, are the base on which you start. Some of us are, as it is said, standing on the shoulders of giants, and through no particular merit of our own
  4. and, so also, other people are not entirely individually responsible for their successes and failures – and not everyone is standing on the shoulders of giants
  5. That other people, regardless of their particular time, place, and culture, are as fully human as we are
  6. and, finally, it is reassuring to know the challenges that people faced – and that they met them, because otherwise we wouldn’t be here

I was reading an article about the benefits of Buddhists learning about the beliefs of other schools of Buddhism, and the author, a professor of comparative religion, said that “To know one religion is to know none”. Further, she said

To see what makes one’s own tradition uniquely itself is to be disabused of the notion that it is what all sensible, thinking people would arrive at if only they would get enlightened. The kind of thing I’m talking about can be likened to traveling to a different culture for the first time in one’s life. While one visit might not bring a great deal of knowledge about that other culture, it will surely teach one a lot about one’s own. There is no other way to learn so much about the uniqueness of one’s own lifeways—including the fact that what might work well in one context might not work at all in another—as serious study of how other people do things.

Buddhist to Buddhist: How learning about other Buddhist traditions will help you understand your own. By Rita M. Gross

Cricket and I were talking after the service last week, about the idea that so many people in our culture have that they are self-made, that all their accomplishments are because of their own effort, which leads to believing that people who don’t succeed are lazy, or stupid, or wicked. As UUs, we don’t believe that, but it is hard, nevertheless, not to fall into that mindset. As Todorov said in the reading

The human being, as we have seen, is born not only within nature but also, always and necessarily, within a culture. The first characteristic of one’s initial cultural identity is that it is imposed during childhood rather than being chosen. On coming into the world, the human child is plunged into the culture of its group, which precedes it.

Todorov also said

[T]wo stages have to be crossed before anyone can become civilized: in the first stage, you discover that others live in a way different from you; in the second, you agree to see them as bearers of the same humanity as yourself. The moral demand comes with an intellectual dimension: getting those with whom you live to understand a foreign identity, whether individual or collective, is an act of civilization, since in this way you are enlarging the circle of humanity. Thus scholars, philosophers and artists all contribute to driving back barbarity.

And genealogists. Perhaps it is easier for us to empathize with, and see as fully human, people in our own families, who are different and remote from us, in a different time, for most of us, from a different place and language, and for all of us, from a different culture. But nevertheless, they gave birth to and raised generations of people eventually leading to us, and our own culture and identities can be traced back to all those combinations and recombinations.

So, how do I do genealogy as a spiritual practice? These days, almost everything you need to start is online, including some good free software to keep track, because you will quickly get so many people and so much information that it is hard to keep track of. Just 6 generations back, we have 64 great-grandparents, 32 families, and they may well have been living in 32 different places. Three-quarters of mine from that generation were living just south of here, along Hacker’s Creek, by then, but most of their parents hadn’t been born there – they had come from the Eastern Panhandle, from old Virginia, from North Carolina, New Jersey, DC, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Germany. Their grandparents had come from Germany, France, Switzerland, Scotland, Ireland, England, Wales. My deGruyter great-grandfather was Dutch. They were also members of many different Protestant religions, including a German Baptist sect that started a religious commune in the 1730s which published the first Bible in America. All kinds of records, from the censuses to deeds to tax lists, court records, and journals and letters from individuals are available. There are also many surviving documents about the churches and religious thought, including hymns and sermons, and journals of missionary travel on the frontier. I usually pick a particular person or family and work on solving some problem, for weeks at a time, trying to find everything about them and their neighbors – the land they bought, the marriages of their brothers and sisters, any stories that have survived in old histories – and look at maps of the areas they lived. Their names often live on in the names on the map, and you can see from the names of the creeks in the deeds how the families lived along a hollow, or over the hill from each other. From the 17th century in Holland, where I spent a lot of time researching this spring, there are maps of the town, and lists of who lived where. We also go on pilgrimages, to graveyards, or just driving in the areas – in West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia.

Something that I have found important is to read the words of the people themselves, in the wills, deeds, petitions, letters, journals, and whatever else survives. This is a petition in 1728 in eastern Pennsylvania, signed by many people, mostly German, including an ancestor of mine

This Petition of the Frontier Inhabitants of ye County of Philadelphia humbly Sheweth Whereas Your Petitionors are at Present So Alarmed by a Noise of ye Indians That Several Families have Left their Plantations with what Effects they Could Possibly Carry away Women In Child bed being forced to Expose themselves To ye Coldness of ye Air whereby Their Lives are In Danger

We Your Petitioners therefore humbly Pray That Your Hon. would Be Pleased To Take or Use Such Measures with ye Indians That Your Petitioners may be Freed From Those Alarms. for Yet we are Inform’d That Tho. Indians are Consulting Measures Against us. We hope Your Hon. will Comply With our Humble Request To prevent as well our Fears as Danger.

This particular ancestor had come from a town in Germany which had been almost completely wiped out, down to 6 families in the 1670s, by the plague and the 100 years war, and then again during the 30 years War. I came across a note in the church book, where there were no christenings for almost two years “All the children were baptized elsewhere”, and for years after there were occasional notes that a child had been born and baptized “in the woods”.

There is something about reading these matter-of-fact bits of the everyday lives of individuals that is more meaningful to me than just reading history, especially when it is from the people that made it possible for me to be here today. Immersing myself in all the details of their lives I can find, and trying to understand what they were thinking in order to understand what they did broadens my perspective as well as helping me appreciate my own, better in many ways, circumstances. Like concentrating on the breath or a mantra in meditation, finding who I am descended from is only a thread that organizes my learning. It is a finger pointing at the moon, not the moon itself.

Poem: From “Song of Myself” – Walt Whitman

I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.
There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.
Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.
Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and increase, always sex,
Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life.
To elaborate is no avail, learn’d and unlearn’d feel that it is so.
Sure as the most certain sure, plumb in the uprights, well entretied, braced in the beams,
Stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical,
I and this mystery here we stand.
Clear and sweet is my soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul.
Lack one lacks both, and the unseen is proved by the seen,
Till that becomes unseen and receives proof in its turn.

Song for Our Ancestors – Steve Miller Band

Joys and Sorrows

If you woke this morning with a sorrow so heavy that you need the help of this community to carry it;

or if you woke with a joy so great that it simply must be shared, now is the time for you to speak.

For the joys and sorrows that haven’t been spoken, but which remain in the silent sanctuaries of our hearts.

These joys and griefs, spoken and unspoken, weave us together in the fabric of community.

Silent Meditation

Song: Go Now In Peace (3 times)

Go now in peace, go now in peace
May our love and care surround you
Everywhere, everywhere, you may go


Because of those who came before, we are;
in spite of their failings, we believe;
because of, and in spite of, the horizons of their vision,
we, too, dream.

Let us go remembering to praise,
to live in the moment,
to love mightily,
to bow to the mystery.

(No.680, Singing the Living Tradition)

The chalice flame is extinguished
Until once again ignited by the strength of our communion.

Go now in peace.