If you were blessed as a child, you grew up in an extended family that had a few people from the previous generation that you could look up to as models of what you would like to become. They were just substantive people that exhibited grace, character, soul strength, care, love, compassion. These people exuded the life force. In the Bible, they would say these people are filled with the Spirit of God.
And if you were not so blessed as a child. If you grew up in a family that had an inordinate number of dysfunctional people that what you generally remember from childhood was surrounded by stress. Perhaps your family was mostly ‘meh’, just not much going on there substantively one way or the other, it is very likely that you have been looking for mentors most of your adult life. It is very likely that you have actually become a more substantive person. You actually care about this more consciously because you know what you didn’t get.
We need people who are guiding lights in our lives. In the bible, these people are described as ‘saints’, not that they are perfect. Some of them were colorful and inconsistent. But they exhibited valuable character traits. They modeled morality when we are actually ‘on’. They embodied wisdom. Sometimes they were heroic in the way that they provided for other people or protected other people. And that part of them, was inspiring. It was transcendent.
This is how we reflect the Spirit of God. It is how we become Angels to each other. God speaks to us through their examples.
I think of so many examples from the Greatest Generation that is coming to a close. WW2 ended 74 years ago, so the vets from that War are at least 92 years old.
That generation lived through real trauma and some of them lived to tell about it. I think of the Director of our Nursery School from ten years ago, Marianne Breen.
She was 10 or 11 years old, when the Nazi’s were on the rise to power. Her parents got her out in a youth program in London. They sent her there to be safe and both of them were going to join her shortly.
They never made it. Marianne was 12 or 13. I think a distant relative somehow connected her with a family in New York. She came over here, by herself, and started working as a maid, an au pair for an American family.
She was grateful just to be alive, just to be free. But she was on her own as a child. She was a grateful refugee to our country, the same way you hear people from Syria speak about how deeply grateful they are that they got out of certain death and tyranny.
And the boys from our congregation.
Wilbur Nelson, 18 years old, sent to England in the Navy in the run up to D Day. His boat, carrying about 200 guys, had engine problems. Wilbur and a couple other sailors took that boat back to harbor. The rest of the guys piled onto another boat.
Later that evening a German U-boat would torpedo that boat and everyone on board would die. But everything was on radio silence that week, so Wilbur and the other three survivors couldn’t process that with anyone. He’s 18. A day and a half later, he is one of the medic’s pulling the dead and the wounded off Omaha beach in Normandy France.
The fear and trauma that we put those guys through. Too much.
Or incredible responsibility… Steve Fellows, stationed in the Philippines. 20 years old. Put in charge of an archipelago of islands that the Japanese had as strategic targets. Each of these islands had tribes of residents that had experienced very little contact with the modern world. Different dialects of a language that he didn’t speak.
And the tribes on these islands were perpetually at war with each other. Steve had to make the peace locally, so we could wage war globally. And he did it.
Pete Moran, 20 years old, shot down on his first flying mission near St. Lo in France. Half the guys on his plane were shot to death including the pilot. Pete had to take over and save the lives of the guys that weren’t killed. And he did it.
Neal Koppenol on a Navy LST right at the end of the war, bringing refugees from the islands just offshore from Japan back to Tokyo. The boat is overfilled and a night storm so intense and the waves so large that the bow of the boat bent. For hours the crew was just waiting for the boat to come apart in the freezing cold, raging seas.
Right at dawn, the storm subsided. Land was in sight. The boat was in one piece. Neal spoke for his generation, when he said, “Every day after that has been plus one”.
Incredible responsibility in the midst of fear, violence, trauma.
They came home. They developed families. They developed our community. They lived their lives and were intentional about simple things. They were Americans first and foremost, so they could squabble about politics, because what separated us politically was not nearly as important as what we shared in common. They had each others backs. They lived by a code of honor. Morals mattered to that generation. Character counted.
Ordinary people, but people you could guide your life by. These beacons will guide you back to a safe port. Spiritual gifts keep on giving like that.
We need examples that we can follow, people that are sturdy.
I was reading a story of a woman who is a scientist. That is rare. She is a woman of color, rarer still as Jeanette Brown could tell you.
She had a grandmother that was a lot like Jeanette Brown.
She was in the first generation that broke out of the box of segregation in her field. She spent most of her life as the only African-American in the room, trying to figure out how to blend in, trying to figure out how to be herself with no guide, no peer support.
She processed what she had learned with her granddaughter, her hopes, her fears, what she had learned through overcoming and believing in herself when there was no verbal support around you, how you develop grit, determination. Her granddaughter was shaped by her grandmother’s character, her values.
She grows up, studies science at college, gets a job at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum in New York. And she is the only woman in her group at work. Like her grandmother, she is the only black woman in her area. Like her grandmother, she has the big challenge of trying to figure out how to fit in, trying to figure out how to be herself with very little peer support.
What does she do? She volunteers to mentor 2 college kids and 2 high school kids, young women of color studying science. She decides to give back by passing on what she is learning. And she processes her anxiety and her stress and what she has learned through her failures and through her successes. And she passes that on to her mentee’s, not that different from her grandmother.
She goes on to become a successful scientist developing perfume. And now, as she reflects on her life, she thinks about how she has developed self-confidence, how she has found her voice, how she incorporated her femininity and her science into her identity. She feels genuine, difficult as it was to develop your career, pretty much on her own, feeling like she had no net below to shield her if she fell.
And she remains in relationship with the young women she mentored fifteen years ago. One of them went on to work at NASA. One of them went to MIT. I’m willing to bet that they are finding their own voice, developing their own self-confidence. I bet they are probably giving back today.
And you. You come here today after having been together with your extended family and probably with a few members of your spiritual family as well, people that are close to you. It is a time in our life when we reflect back to our childhood. We remember the people that shaped us.
Some of them are relatives. Some of them are people that went out of their way to lead us constructively. They believed in us. They told us that we could do it. They pointed out the skills that we have and gave us the confidence to get out there and fail.
My grandfather used to say to me, “Son if you aren’t failing, you aren’t reaching high enough.” They showed us how to persevere, to overcome. They had grit.
Most of all, you became you because of their lead. They inspired you, so that the best part of yourself rose to the occasion.
Who inspires you? Who makes you want to be a better person?
Bring them to mind. I’m going to ask Mark to play, so that we can meditate on the hero’s that have inspired us. At some point, I’m going to invite you to make your way to the altar down front and light a votive candle in their memory.
And take that candle to one of our stain glass windows, dedicated to different saints. And may the light of their honor shine forth and illuminate you.
St. Paul was literally speaking for our saints when he penned these words, the very last words of his life, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is pure, whatever is beautiful, those things that are worthy of praise- think about these things. And what you have learned or received from me, go and do in your life. And may the God of peace be with you.” Amen.