Scattered across Great Britain, you see these stone henges that were built about 4000 years ago. They consist of a ditch that is in a circle. Usually they have a single narrow bridge over the ditch. And inside this moat of sorts are a series of standing stones.
I’ve dragged my family to dozens of these sites. Most of the time, they have burial sites near by like this stone cairn tomb. It is in the shape of a bee’s nest, half underground, half above ground. There is a shaft entrance. You have to crawl in on your hands and knees and then there are alcoves inside where families would store the bones of their ancestors.
We don’t know for certain what the stone circles symbolize or how they were used, but I think I have a pretty good idea from what we know about what they believed. Druids drew a lot of circles, surely because the heavens are full of planets that circle around, like the seasons of the year, like the rolling of the tides.
They believed that there was a continuity between this world and ‘other world’, the spiritual realm that kept everything moving so that spring followed winter that followed fall that followed summer.
In particular, they viewed their extended families like that. They weren’t so much members of a nuclear family (Mom, Dad and the kids; Dad, Dad and the kids), they were part of a tribe. And in that tribe, people were always being born and people were always dying. In the cycle of life, it seemed to them that we were one unbroken circle, the living and the dead.
There is an old Celtic hymn that says “May the Circle, Be Unbroken, bye and bye Lord bye and bye. There’s a better home awaitin. In the sky Lord, in the sky.”
I’m pretty sure that the ancient Celts had a ritual like that when they buried their dead. They would cross over the ditch that separates ‘this world’ from ‘other world’, so this was one of the ‘thin places’ where you feel spiritual transcendence more fully. We can pass over between heaven and earth.
At any rate, the entire tribe gathered around the standing stones, holding hands in a circle. The priest was probably in the middle directing the movements and the chants. They went through a series of prayers honoring the dead.
But these rituals weren’t all warm and fuzzy. We know this because almost every culture from this period believed that the dead were more than capable of haunting you from the other side. If you let your relatives die and you were not reconciled… If you were still having a fight, people worried that their relatives would carry on the fight after they died and make their lives miserable.
It was a reasonable belief because they had so many difficulties that they had to endure that they didn’t understand, like why their village got a strain of the flu that killed 30% of the people that got it and people 5 villages over were spared.
They thought their relatives had cursed them, so they went through these elaborate rituals to be absolved of what harm they had done to the recently dead in the hopes of being spared the curse.
So, do we… They are submerged in our subconscious and bubble to the surface of our consciousness during the Holidays for some of us don’t they?
I did a funeral for someone that I didn’t know. Met with the family. I asked one of the sons how he felt now that his father was dead?
He was quiet for the longest time. “My father was an alcoholic for so many years, so mercurial, laughing, crying, raging. Everything was exaggerated, worse the last few years. And now… now it is over. I feel… quiet. Quiet is good.”
Like a lot of us, he had a complicated grief. He loved his father but he didn’t get what he needed either. I’m sure he shed tears at the funeral, but they were partly tears that he was only able to live with a shell of a man instead of the potential that his father could be, tears that his grandsons couldn’t look up to a role model that was not so compromised and inconsistent.
People almost never talk about these disappointments. But, they linger around for years and years sometimes.
I have a friend that is the most intentional “gift giver”, one of those people you want as a Godmother. She will spend serious time and serious money to get something for her godchildren that is so thoughtful and so endearing…
She does it for a lot of reasons and one of them is that her mother never did anything like that for her. Her mother had real limitations, real problems, couldn’t take care of her. That emotional ache haunted her… only until she done years of therapy and was in her mid-50’s.
Most of us don’t directly reflect on what we didn’t get- too personal, too painful. But, for a moment, sometimes in the middle of a holiday celebration when something evokes the previous generation in a surprising way, we may just reflect on how much we have changed, maybe how we have healed- more patient than we used to be, less angry than we used to be, less need to control things used to.
We may just mark how much we’ve grown around the places where we were broken, perhaps deprived, the places where we weren’t formed right by the previous generation.
I hope for you this year that you will have a window where you can think to yourself about what you have actually made of your life, given what you were given, and that you can reflect on how grace has taken root in your life and how you have grown. And be grateful enough… to let it go, at least a little bit more this year.
A few years after my Dad died, I was shooting skeet with my sons and my grandsons, everyone riding in the bed of the pickup truck the Friday after Thanksgiving. My grandsons were pointing out Hawks to me circling overhead, things my Dad never did with his children or grandchildren. One of my grandsons was standing in the truck, hugging my neck from behind, just so happy to be a boy and a boy’s world, doing manly things with Papa.
I said out loud, thinking of my father, ‘He did what he could do with the limitations that he had.’ It was a moment of letting it go. When I see my grandsons thriving and connected, it is a little salve of grace that heals the wounds leftover from the previous generation.
I hope you can see yourself for how much you have actually been able to change and become precisely because the combination of blessings and curses that you inherited, mostly stuff you didn’t deserve one way or the other.
You don’t forget. But with the grace of God, you can give it some context, fill it with grace, and see how you have bloomed. Little by little you grow. Little by little, you can let it go and get on with your life.
Because you have also been lucky in your life. You’ve also had some super people that shaped you and mentored you. You have added these people to your family. They are in your spiritual family now.
We have this wonderful story about young David. There is an enemy warrior in the land named Goliath. No one can beat him. So the Israeli military leaders ask the prophet Samuel to ask God to find them a warrior that can defeat their enemy so they can live.
The Holy man prays and asks Jesse to bring his sons. Presumably God has told him that one of Jesse’s sons is the one that can defeat the giant Goliath. So Jesse brings 6 of his sons, the one’s of fighting age, but each passes by the prophet and the prophet gets no inspiration from any of them. He asks Jesse if he has another son. The old man explains that his youngest is just 13 or so and is at home tending the family herd of sheep. He couldn’t possibly be the one.
And Samuel has this great insight, “God doesn’t look simply upon the outer appearance but upon the heart”. It is not all about strength or skill. It is not just about money and power. It is also about character. And that is where role models come in. At some point in our adult life, it is what is inside that really comes to shine.
Character counts. The spiritual point of our lives is to form our character well. You teach what you know, but you reproduce who you are. When you do that well, you receive honor.
Who is it that you look up to? When you have a difficult decision in a tough situation, who is it that you look to for guidance? It is not a long list is it? It is not nearly long enough.
I heard a man interviewed recently that had grown up poor, single mother. He had undifferentiated anger issues that crisscrossed his youth. In an out of trouble, he joined a gang when he was a young teenager.
Fell into trouble with the law, had difficulty graduating from school, eventually went to jail for petty crimes, got out, met girl, had family, started putting his life together- no doubt a lot of healing from his wife.
He is asked to join a mentor program. He finds himself in a meeting with 8 other boys in high school. He looks at them and it is like he sees himself. He’s never read the literature, never been to a therapist himself, but he tells them that when he was their age, he was mad as hell because he felt all alone. He didn’t have a Dad, didn’t have a male role model that had his back, didn’t have anyone he could count on. He turns to them and asks for a show of hand, how many of them are angry like that.
Slow start, but 7 out of the 8 boys raised their hands. Way led to way, he eventually started mentoring all of them. He took his own pain and developed a plan to transcend that pain becoming a mentor, a sponsor. And he was remarkably good at anticipating what those boys would actually need, not what they might want, but what they really needed to mature and develop and to start to develop their potential.
We remember these people in our lives. Some of the People that mentor us, some of the people that join our spiritual family as we grow and develop, actually become more important to us than people from our family of origin. We genuinely miss them when they are gone because they loved us. Jesus taught us that our love has an eternal quality to it. Our mentors hover around and inspire us at important moments in our lives, long after they have died. They continue to bless us. That kind of love transcends death.
Because they have it in here. God looks on the heart.
Honorable leadership brings us together like that.
And you can do that too. It becomes more and more important as you mature through the life cycle for honor is the point of our lives. For God looks not simply upon the outer appearance, but upon the heart. It is not about power, or status, or sexy. It is about spiritual character.
It is the divine way because that is the way you become a genuine blessing to the rising generation. It is the way we defeat Giants that are around us.
And may you so come to live that your people reflect respect upon you. And may you come to embody compassion and send out ripples of hope through your people, bringing them together, making them stronger. May you redeem the pain and difficulties of your life, so that they inspire you to live out of your higher self. Amen.