Caution: Perishable (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
I’ve been a gardener for as long as I can remember. It was a passion I picked up from my father, who, despite a busy career as a psychiatrist, always managed to be cultivating something. Digging in the dirt was a good antidote to the heady work of his day job, as it is for me. His gardens, though, would wax and wane depending on how much time and energy he had to devote to them, and I’ve found that’s true of me, too.


“Perishable, It Said” by Jane Hirshfield

SERMON – Part 1
I’ve been a gardener for as long as I can remember. It was a passion I picked up from my father, who, despite a busy career as a psychiatrist, always managed to be cultivating something. Digging in the dirt was a good antidote to the heady work of his day job, as it is for me. His gardens, though, would wax and wane depending on how much time and energy he had to devote to them, and I’ve found that’s true of me, too.

Usually by the end of the summer everything in my garden is growing pretty wild, but then the first frosts of autumn come and shut everything down. I actually enjoy the fall clean-up that follows: unraveling the withered tomato vines from their cages, pulling up the brown stalks of basil or zinnia, and cutting back the spent branches of perennials. All tossed in the compost heap to nourish next year’s crop.

It’s a spiritual discipline of sorts. I knew as I set out those tomato seedlings in May that some five months later I’d be ripping their withered remains out of the ground, hoping in the meantime to get a bounty of delicious fruit.  So, there they are, the wise words of Ecclesiastes, coming to life in my back yard – to everything there is a season, a time to sow and a time to reap; a time to live and a time to die.

Still, these philosophical reflections are often interrupted when I discover that in that frost last night that knocked down the tomatoes I inadvertently left some tender plant outside, a fern or something that in the spring we had brought out to the porch from inside, that I had meant to, but forgot to bring inside, and there it is, crumpled and grey.

Shoot! A stab of sadness and guilt. That wasn’t supposed to happen, and if I’d paid any attention to the weather it wouldn’t have happened.  I would have brought it inside and the plant would be ensconced happily in our heated home. Instead, it’s finished: more fodder for the compost heap.

It’s always a reminder to me that this business of perishability is serious and often unpredictable stuff. We watch the autumn leaves turn color and fall and wax about the circle of life, but we are less philosophical when the chill winds have our loved ones in their sights, or even ourselves.

Perishable, yes, but not him; perishable, OK, but not yet. There must be some warm, protected place we could go to, something I could do, we could do to stave off that catastrophe. None of us has a “use by” stamp on our foreheads, but with Jane Hirshfield we find ourselves examining the backs of our hands, the bags under our eyes from which our young self views in the mirror the improbable pouches and wrinkles that emerge on our faces.

As time marches on we see the signs of impermanence everywhere we look, and we feel something sinking in the pit of our stomachs, a vanishing we can’t see how to fathom. Some of us withdraw and separate ourselves from the stream around us, whose pace seems to be ever accelerating.

And yet, there is Jane Hirshfield suggesting that we might find in the “perishing perfumes and clashings” of the world around us, a “strange happiness” that comes to us not outside of but from within that world, indeed within ourselves. What might that be about?

WORLDLY WISDOM?            By J. Barrie Shepherd

SERMON – Part 2
Our theme groups this month have been wrestling with the notion of authenticity. What do we understand to be our authentic selves? How might we come to know them? And how might that contribute to living with a sense of integrity and peace?

It’s tricky work because really what we are seeking is not to discover what makes us each unique, special people, but to know and feel ourselves fully as we genuinely are. Let me tease out that distinction a little because it’s not obvious in the culture we live in today.

Garrison Keillor sizes the situation up with his description of Lake Woebegon as a place where “all the women are strong all the men are good looking and all the children are above average.” We grow up in a culture that teaches us to link our identity with excellence and achievement. We are celebrated for how we excel and what we achieve.

Growing up we give attention to the good student, the poised dancer, the nimble athlete. Childhood is full of awards and certificates. It is what makes us “special.” As adults, we stake our claim to some vocation or perhaps some characteristic or skill that helps set us apart in some way. She’s a hot-shot lawyer; he’s a terrific cook. It gives us standing.

But the old wisdom warns against this viewpoint.

Here’s the Tao Te Ching:

He who stands on tiptoe doesn’t stand firm.

She who rushes ahead doesn’t go far.

He who defines himself can’t know who he really is. 

Because, here’s the thing: few of us are so confident in our skills that we want them to define us. Instead, dwelling on what makes us “special” inevitably feeds a secret sense that we’re not good enough. Praised for being special we are haunted with the feeling of just how special we aren’t. A kind of quiet shame pervades our perceptions like a low-lying fog.

These feelings often lead us to a kind of antic behavior, either working to be super achievers or skipping from place to place from job to job from relationship to relationship looking for . . . something. As the poet J. Barrie Shepherd puts it, “scanning, skipping to the end at times, searching for the one, the word, the sentence that an tell me what it’s all about.”

But the author Brene Brown, in one of the TED talks you’ll find referenced among the resources for theme reflection on our Web site, argues that beneath all that activity is something else: a numbness that separates us from ourselves.

We don’t like the feelings of fear and shame that bubble up at the edge of our consciousness and so, in her words, we numb ourselves. When something difficult arises or some conflict emerges, we withdraw. The problem is that we can’t selectively numb our feelings. In her words, when we numb guilt or fear, we also numb happiness and gratitude.

And we do that numbing in different ways. We may pull away, or turn to some sort of addictive behavior. Another way, she says, is to adopt a rigidity that in our minds makes everything that’s uncertain certain. Religion, she says, can be part of that. We move from an inquisitive sense of faith to a dogmatic one. As Brown puts it, “I’m right, you’re wrong. Shut up. That’s it.”

We liberal religious folks like to make this observation about this kind of behavior among conservatives, but the fact is that we can be just as narrow and self-righteous in our own ways. But I think it can help to recognize that response as the voice not of confidence or authority but of shame and of fear, and it doesn’t have to be there.

For, what is authentic about us is not our academic degrees or lack thereof, our artistic gifts or lack thereof, our physical beauty or lack thereof: you get the point. What is authentic in us is that which engages and participates in the blooming, buzzing world around us.

And the way that we gain access to it is we allow ourselves to be seen, not as the reflections of icons or images, but as we truly are. It requires, as Brene Brown puts it, that we be vulnerable: hard to do, but that’s part of why we exist as a religious community, to hold each other in covenant as persons of inherent worth and dignity, offering safe space for healing and exploring, where in time we teach and learn from each other the disciplines of love.

That’s the key to our release from our fears and to coming to know our authentic selves. As Brene Brown puts it, we need to learn to love with our whole hearts and practice gratitude and joy, even when we’re worried and afraid.

It is a place, as poet J. Barrie Shepherd writes, “beyond the unrelenting streaming of words,” where we are attuned to a deeper strain of life, something “without any hope or need for explanation, (that is) moving on, while we stand wordless, gasping in its tumbling wake.”

DROPLETS                 by C.K. Williams

SERMON – Part 3

A few weeks ago in the middle of the morning while we were both at work Debbie and I each got a disturbing call from the woman who periodically does cleaning at our home. She noticed that some rooms in the house were turned upside down and some things seemed to be missing. We both drove home quickly and discovered that, such enough, we had been robbed: TV, computers, cameras and the like gone, and the backdoor, which likely I had inadvertently left ajar, was wide open.

We did what you do – called the police, inventoried our things and made plans to secure the house and replace what we could. Describing the incident to others, I turned to a bit of gallows humor, saying that I had been planning a service on impermanence and so was now given an object lesson. Philosophically, I would say, oh, it could have been worse, and, after all, it’s just stuff.

And still. Those of you who have been through something like this know that the loss – including in our case some irreplaceable family items – while significant doesn’t compare with the sense of violation that haunts you for some time afterward: The vision of someone ransacking your lovingly appointed space, tearing through drawers and closets, and unceremoniously hauling your stuff away.

It leaves you feeling spiritually damaged – suspicious, wary of others, more protective of your space and loved ones: Yeah, a lesson in impermanence, but at first an experience of grief.

I found it interesting that my personal response to the theft was to sort through my remaining things – clothes, books, household items I hadn’t used in some time – and look for things I could clear out. It fits with an urge I’ve been feeling lately to shed stuff. The less I have, after all, the less I have to worry about someone taking. But more, it echoes the kind of visceral sense I’ve experienced of my own impermanence and the folly of attaching myself to the stuff around me, since I won’t be taking it with me.

That passage I quoted earlier from the Tao ends this way:

He who clings to work will create nothing that endures.

If you want to accord with the Tao,

just do your job, then let go.

And perhaps letting go is the answer. I’m not happy having lost the things that we did, but most of them were mere conveniences.  They can be replaced or perhaps even done without.

But in the process of this mess I also got a window into a deeper bounty in my life that I don’t attend to often enough with the response of empathy and compassion from our friends and loved ones.

Even when the rain is hard, C.K. Williams observes, it only disturbs one leaf after another on the little tree planted by his friend or lover. Instead, of alarming him, the downpour mingles with his partner’s piano playing into an intensity of feeling so powerful it tames, at least for a moment, that most existential of dreads, the fear of one’s own death, until, transformed into a transient mist, it falters and fades as the music goes on.

What an improbable wonder this fleeting, heart-breaking, soul-stirring life can prove to be!

A RESCUE       by John Updike

Debbie and I started planning for our Thanksgiving celebration, coming up the week after next, some months ago. All of our three daughters had announced they would be unavailable for one reason or another, so we mulled over who we might ask join us for a simple meal. In the end, we invited Debbie’s sister, Suzanne, from New Jersey and envisioned a quiet day. Then we received an invitation from Stephen and Susie Jones here to join them and their son, Drew’s family. We loved the idea, and so, the gathering started to grow.

Meanwhile, about a month ago my mother, Cynthia, a member of this congregation living at Brooks Howell Home, fell while transferring to a wheelchair and broke her hip. The surgery to repair it was simple, but her frail health and lack of stamina have impeded her recovery to the point where we are unsure of her future.

In conversation with my sister and three brothers we decided that it made sense for them to visit soon, and, well, Thanksgiving was on the horizon. So, perhaps it made sense for them to come then. Three of them agreed, along with my mother’s youngest sister. We contacted Stephen and Suzie with the news, and they insisted on bringing everybody along. So, what started as plans for a quiet meal has grown to a gathering of 15.

It is an occasion I look forward to, but one also tinged with impermanence. Indeed, Thanksgiving for many of us is a kind of thermometer of change. Each year for various reasons different faces appear at and disappear from the table. So in the gathering before the sweet potatoes are passed there is always a moment to take stock of where we are. This year will be a special moment for many in our gathering.

I’ve long been a fan of the piece the choir sang for you today, Copland’s “The Promise of Living,” but for the past several weeks I’ve come to know it quite a bit better, thanks to Debbie. Diligent new choir member that she is, she has found myriad moments to practice her part – playing it through on our piano at home, or plugging in the MP3 recording Milt supplied so she could practice as we drove in her car. It has become a kind of sound track of our lives, and so it’s on my mind.

The song closes out the first act of Copland’s opera “The Tender Land,” and the lyrics, written by Copland’s one-time partner Horace Everett, constitute a hymn of praise centered on that cycle of change we began with this morning: sowing and planting, and the labor of harvest. But it adds another dimension.

Things vanish all around us. Circumstance brings us down. And still, as Jane Hirshfield puts it, there is a “strange happiness” that rises in our breasts, a happiness centered not in the things we surround ourselves with, things of “perishing perfumes and clashings,” but in something else, in the fragile fallible world we inhabit.

Late in the day that we discovered our robbery, having visited my mother in her declining health, I had a moment where I felt weighed down and exhausted. A church meeting was scheduled to start in a half hour, but I had no energy for it. Impulsively, I turned to the computer and Googled the only thing I could think of at that moment that might bring comfort. A pianist slowly began playing Copland’s distinctive open chords and then the tenors and basses entered, “The promise of living with hope and Thanksgiving is born of our loving, our friends and our labor.”

As in John Updike’s rescue, we have the opportunity to set free an agitated essence of air within us, to release it like a self-flung ball to the lovely, perishing outdoors. There is no avoiding the perishing of so much in our lives – the stuff we treasure, the people we love, even ourselves in the bargain. And yet, there is a promise to our lives that we realize in giving our authentic selves to them. It is, as Copland’s farm family sings, born of our loving, our friends and our labor. And it is enough.

Another View of Hope (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward
We have spent some time in worship and our small group reflection this month playing with this interesting notion introduced by the novelist David Foster Wallace. Speaking to the graduating class at Kenyon College in 2005, he argued that there are “default settings” that operate in our thinking. He described them as the kind of ideas about which we are absolutely certain, but that, all the same, are, in his words, “totally wrong and deluded.” And chief among these, he said, is the deep belief that “I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.” Of course, he said, we rarely think such things because, in his words, “it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down.”


We have spent some time in worship and our small group reflection this month playing with this interesting notion introduced by the novelist David Foster Wallace. Speaking to the graduating class at Kenyon College in 2005, he argued that there are “default settings” that operate in our thinking. He described them as the kind of ideas about which we are absolutely certain, but that, all the same, are, in his words, “totally wrong and deluded.” And chief among these, he said, is the deep belief that “I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.” Of course, he said, we rarely think such things because, in his words, “it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down.”

Wallace’s words echoed in my mind earlier this year as I read news reports about the South African leader Nelson Mandela lingering near death, as he still does. Now, two decades since his release after 27 years in prison, Mandela has been lionized on the world stage. He has been celebrated in films like “Invictus” and widely praised by world leaders, including our own President Obama.

It’s worth remembering, though, that at the time of his release there was much uncertainty about what Mandela’s new freedom would bring. The collapse of Apartheid in South Africa, the 40-year-old system that had codified racial oppression in every way that country’s white leadership could conceive, left a vacuum that no one knew what would fill. Mandela himself was in his 70s and long absent from the politics.

And so it was all the more amazing that from the moment he emerged Mandela took his place not only as a vigorous leader of an anxious and expectant nation but also as one of the world’s preeminent advocates for racial reconciliation. Despite a lifetime under the heel of virulent racist oppression, Mandela opened a path for healing and renewal for all people, one that adroitly took account of just the sort of default settings that Wallace pointed to.

We Unitarian Universalists have made a practice at this time of year at around when the United Nations was founded of widening our vision a bit and considering what the larger world has to teach us about the possibilities for peace and freedom. So, today, as we near the 68th anniversary of the UN’s founding, we turn to the story of Nelson Mandela and the hope his life offers humankind in its long walk to freedom.

Mandela writes in his autobiography that he began his life feeling that he was free, or at least, in his words, “free in every way that I could know.” He grew up in villages in the Transkei, a South African province bordering the Indian Ocean, many miles from the major cities of Pretoria, Cape Town, or Johannesburg, and was raised in relative privilege. His father was a local chief and advisor to the king of the Thembu tribe.

Seen as a boy with promise, he was sent to a Methodist boarding school, where he was given the name, Nelson. But shortly afterward, when he was 9, his father died, and he was sent to live with a family friend who was the area regent. He attended classes at a British boarding school – which helped make him a lifelong Anglophile – but he counted some of his most important education as witnessing the regent, his protector, as the leader of area assemblies.

These were occasions of great ceremony at which any man, rich or poor, was given the opportunity to speak – sad to say, woman weren’t given this privilege. Issues were discussed, and when a consensus was reached, the regent would sum up the results, a poet would deliver a song full of both praise and satire, and the evening would end with the regent leading the crowd in a roar of laughter.

Mandela headed off to college at 19, seeing a future for himself in the government’s Native Affairs office, and got involved in student government. On returning home, though, he found his protector had arranged a marriage for him to a woman who he knew was in love with a friend of his. He fled to Johannesburg, but later reconciled with his protector, completed college by correspondence course, apprenticed himself to a law office and later entered law school.

Friends counseled him against getting involved in politics, but he was drawn in all the same. As he wrote later, “it was only when I began to learn that my boyhood freedom was an illusion . . . that I began to hunger for it.”

The African National Congress had been organized in 1912, and as early as 1918, the year of Mandela’s birth, at the Versailles peace conference, it had voiced the grievances of African people. By the 1940s, when Europeans adopted an Atlantic Charter asserting the dignity of each person and arguing for democratic reform, the ANC responded with a similar charter calling for full citizenship of all Africans, the right to buy land, and the repeal of discriminatory legislation.

In 1944, Mandela and his allies, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu, helped organize a Youth League of the ANC, to advance its goals. But in 1948 Afrikaner Nationalists came to power and brought with them the policy of Apartheid. Blacks in South Africa were already essentially non-citizens in their own country, without the right to vote or hold property. But Apartheid codified that oppression as never before. It regulated who could live where and forced blacks to move from some areas. It restricted who could hold what jobs and who would receive what education and instituted a policy of police terror and political persecutions for those who opposed it.

Mandela and Tambo worked as lawyers to help people navigate the system and helped organize the ANC response – a Defiance Campaign that broadly challenged the Apartheid system. The results were thousands of arrests and ultimately an epic trial for treason against Mandela and 29 others that lasted from 1955 to 1960 that resulted in their acquittal. Later that year, though, police in Sharpeville fired on a massive protest demonstration, killing 69 and wounding at least 180 others.

Shortly afterward, to avoid being arrested, Mandela went underground. During that time he even went on an international tour as an ANC leader and was chosen to head an offshoot group called the Spear of the Nation. That group led a shift in the ANC’s tactics, for the first time organizing acts of sabotage in the hope of weakening the state’s resolve. After two years in hiding, Mandela was captured and put on trial for crimes against the state. In 1963 he was sentenced to life in prison. He was 45 years old.

Social scientists argue over the origin of racism, but I think a credible claim can be made that it originates in something like the default setting that David Foster Wallace identified: “I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.” Carried further, it’s easy to see how this way of thinking morphs into an attitude that sees my interest as trumping all others. So, I need not concern myself with others’ welfare, even their humanity.

It’s not something we’re likely to confess, as it is, as Wallace observed “so socially repulsive.” Ugh! I hate to confess it, but I think Wallace is right. It’s an impulse that each of us struggled with. I can certainly find it in myself. And Nelson Mandela could see it, too, not just in his oppressors but also in himself.

In an interview with Oprah Winfrey after his release, he said that it was certainly a tragedy that he spent most of his adulthood in prison. But, in his words, “if I had not been to prison, I would not have been able to achieve the most difficult task in life, and that is changing yourself.”

Yes, sitting in a narrow cell or breaking up stones in the prison yard on Robben Island, he thought deeply about the future of his nation and how he would like to change it. But he also gave attention to what he considered the flaws in himself: his impulsiveness and pride, the hunger for vengeance. To help temper that, as the grind of prison life went on, he began to get to know his jailers and study the Afrikans language and history as well as that of his own people. He came to appreciate the fear that underlay that racist state that oppressed him, and to see something else: another and very different default setting within us.

“I always knew,” Mandela wrote, “that deep down in every human heart, there is mercy and generosity. No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. Even in the grimmest times in prison when my comrades and I were pushed to our limits, I would see a glimmer of humanity in one of the guards, perhaps just for a second, but it was enough to reassure me and keep me going. (Human) goodness is a flame that can be hidden, but never extinguished.”

Two decades after its demise, it’s hard to fathom how oppressive the Apartheid state was, how hard it worked to demean, even to deny the humanity of every non-white resident, but mostly blacks. Leaders who emerged were intimidated or assassinated, and reform groups, both black and white, were infiltrated with spies and troublemakers who worked actively to undermine them.

And still by the late 1980s the state itself, one of the most poisonous purveyors of racist oppression ever to have arisen, recognized that its days were numbered. So, in a remarkable turn of events it turned to the man it had demonized as the chief agent of its woes to negotiate a way forward. And he, despite enduring a prison term that snatched away a third of his life, agreed.

The iconic event of Mandela’s release in February 1990 was just a start. It took another four years to negotiate a new constitution and arrange new elections, which resulted in Mandela’s election as president. Soon afterward Mandela appointed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to investigate many decades of human rights abuses. The years since have seen the disbanding of the National Party, which had created Apartheid, and the continued success of the ANC, but political turmoil, grinding poverty, corruption, and the country’s many intransigent divisions make South Africa still a work in progress.

As Mandela put it in his autobiography, “when I walked out of prison, my mission was to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both. Some say that has now been achieved. But I know that that is not the case.

“The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficulty road. For, to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

It may have been because Mandela’s words were ringing in my ears, but I thought I heard them again just this past week in a very different context. The occasion was the Campaign for Southern Equality’s latest action at the Buncombe County Register of Deeds to end the state’s discrimination against same-sex couples seeking to be married. It was shortly before 10 same-sex couples accompanied by about 80 of us supporters were to walk over to request a license to be married and, for the first time ever, not be denied.

Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, the campaign’s executive director, was talking to the group gathered in the sanctuary of First Congregational United Church of Christ. “I look around this room,” she said, “and I see people who are willing to go a step farther, to say this law is wrong and I know it, and I’m willing to believe that something I do in my life can help change it.

“I see people who believe that if we stand up against these laws again and again and again and return to the counter again and again and again to say I am equal, I am human, this is who I am, this is who I love, that it will change things.”

“We dare to believe what we know in our hearts, that those truths are more powerful and transcend the brokenness of laws that treat any people as inferior to other people.”

The circumstances may be different, but the end is not. It is simply the language of liberation that calls to us across cultures, across decades, across the world, language echoed in religious teachings from the parables of Jesus to the dharma talks of the Buddha.

We cannot be free, we cannot be whole if we would countenance the oppression of others. It may be, as Nelson Mandela observed on his inauguration as president that, “there is no easy road to freedom,” but in the end it is also the only path to peace. Nelson Mandela’s life and work embodied that, the combination of steely resolve and undying hope in what is possible among us, hope that the fear within us can be quelled and the love within us can be stoked: that the world’s liberation can be our own.

Entering Another Story – Native American People’s Day (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister


So, today we return to this month’s worship theme of “default settings,” an opportunity for us to examine some of those untested assumptions and routine ways of thinking in our religious lives that get in the way living fully with integrity and peace.

In that context, many of us grew up learning a narrative of history that told of plucky European explorers who came to this continent in the 15th and 16th centuries on voyages of discovery, finding a new world, which they then settled and civilized. Of these figures, Christopher Columbus was singled out for special status as early as 1792, the 300th anniversary of his arrival. Columbus was not the first European to arrive, but his travels established the first lasting European contact with North America. Celebrations of his arrival culminated with President Franklin Roosevelt’s decision in 1937 to grant the request of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal group, to create a federal holiday in his name on the second Monday of October, tomorrow.

Left out of that narrative, of course, were the stories of the peoples who occupied the land that the Europeans claimed to have “discovered,” people who lived in rich and complex cultures that were thousands of years older than those of the European settlers. Also left out of the lesson plans was the depravity of those early settlers, men like Columbus who murdered, raped and enslaved native peoples for the sake, not of discovery, but of enriching themselves.

In recent decades as the stories of indigenous people have finally begun to surface in our Western culture and the true history of those early days is being told, a window has opened on a different way of marking those days. It began with events in October 1992 – the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival – that was celebrated in some places as Indigenous or Native American People’s Day, and has been honored since. Today, we ally ourselves with that movement, recognizing the old Columbus Day narrative as a default setting in our culture that we need to abandon for the sake of our own ethical integrity.

As a religious movement with its roots in Europe, we recognize that we are part of the culture that has benefited from this narrative at the expense of others. So, we have some catching up to do. We need to learn the larger history that embraces the full story of those indigenous peoples as well as our European ancestors. But to make ourselves available for that story we also have to open ourselves to different ways of seeing and being.

The deeper default settings that challenge us here are bits of the cultural patrimony that we carry unknowingly, settings that, for example, depict humankind as the crown of creation, given the natural world to exploit as we choose, or as rootless creatures whose destiny is not of this Earth.

Today to assist in that opening we will center our service on some of the stories of our neighbors, the Cherokee, people who have occupied these hills longer than white people have occupied Europe.

We’ll invite you to enter those stories, not as quaint myths of another time but as living testimony to a way of being present to the world while remaining in relationship with it, with a sense of place and deep time that our hyperactive culture works against. There are surely lessons in that testimony for people like us who seek to live fully and responsibly, who hope to know this world we occupy as sacred and our lives together as blessed.


Long, long ago people lived in the world with animals. They could talk to one another and everybody got along. But one day, as people will do, they started to fight. One thing led to another, and this person wasn’t talking to that person. Somebody wasn’t very nice to someone else, or stole from someone else.

They got so angry that the Creator was afraid they were going to kill one another. So, he divided them up into four groups and sent then off in different directions – the north, the south, the east, the west – to the four corners of the world. When they got there they were confused because they didn’t know how to live there. They didn’t know the plants, didn’t know where the water was and didn’t know what the seasons would be like.

The Creator felt sorry for them, so he sent them dreams that told them about each of the animals, what to eat, what to do, what the plants were for, and so on. They began to learn and grow, and then he sent them another gift so they wouldn’t forget. He sent them legends about all these plants and animals, and the world, so that each time they told the legends they would know how to be with the plants and the animals, and how to be with each other.


It’s hard for us to know what to make of Cherokee stories. To our ears they have the sound of children’s fables, and yet they are likely older than our European fairy tales, with roots perhaps older, even, than Genesis.

Last week I joined our adult education class on “Discovering a Sense of Place” on a trip to Cherokee, where we were hosted in a visit to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian by its education director, Barbara Duncan. In seeking to learn more about the Cherokee, she told us, it is good to begin with stories, since historically among the Cherokee stories served as both school and religion.

Stories held lessons for how people got along with each other and the larger world. So, the message behind them often boiled down to simple advice like don’t be greedy, don’t steal, don’t brag: lessons for getting along.

Years ago Joseph Campbell argued that the motif for legends in the west was the hero’s journey, the individual prevailing over daunting odds. For the Cherokee, the motif is different. As Barbara Duncan put it, the typical end of a Cherokee story is not the triumph of an individual, but an achievement for the community. Individuals may be sacrificed along the way, but the community prevails.

Stories also communicated a world view. There is no corresponding Cherokee word to the western word “wild,” referring to things outside of our control, in a natural state. Instead, the Cherokee see themselves as part of the world’s natural state, living in community with plants and animals, and responsible to them.

Nor is there any a separation between the sacred and the profane. Some places are considered especially holy, such as village mounds or places where community fires are kept, because of how they are used or what legend or history says has happened there, but every part of land is to be cared for.

In foraging, for example, when looking for a particular kind of plant, one would pick only every fourth one, assuring that more remained for future foragers. A river was called a “long man,” with his head in the mountains and his feet in the sea; people were prohibited from soiling them, assuring that the water would be clean.

The ethos underlying Cherokee stories is finding balance, implied in the Cherokee word Duyukta translated roughly as “the right path.” But the feeling in the community was that no instruction, no preaching was needed to learn this. It was something that everyone knew if he or she just paid attention.


The earth was a great island floating in a sea of water, and suspended at each of the four cardinal points by a cord hanging down from the sky vault. All of the animals were in the sky place, Galunlati, but it was very crowded, and they needed more room. They wondered if there might be something on or under the water. So, the Beaver’s grandchild, Dayunisi, the little Water-beetle, offered to go and see what it could learn. It darted in every direction over the surface of the water, but could find no firm place to rest. Then, it dived into the water, swimming down and down and down, until it came to the bottom and found some soft mud, which it brought to the surface. Immediately, the mud began to grow and spread on every side until it became the island which we call the earth.

This earth was still fastened to the sky with four cords in the cardinal directions. At first the earth was flat and very soft and wet. The animals were anxious to come down, but they didn’t want to sink in the mud. They sent out different birds to see if it was dry, but they found no place to land and came back again to Galunlati. Then the buzzard had an idea. He flew down close to the land and flapped his great wings, which started to dry out the mud. When he reached the Cherokee country, he was very tired, and flew still lower. His wings began to flap and strike the ground, and wherever they struck the earth there was a valley, and where they turned up again there was a mountain. When the animals above saw this, they were afraid that the whole world would be mountains, so they called him back, but the Cherokee country remains full of mountains to this day.


The Cherokee origin story is set here in the mountains because as far as they are concerned they have always been here. Kanati and Selu, first man and first woman, were said to have made their home in the Shining Rock Wilderness near where we gather blueberries these days, as the Cherokee did before us, at Graveyard Fields along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Archaeological records date human occupation in this area back at least 10- to 12,000 years ago. When Cherokees emerged as a separate tribal identity is unclear, but the Cherokee language appears to have appeared distinct from other tribes around 3,500 years ago and permanent, well-built villages date back at least 1,000 years or so.

Historical records say that the Cherokee nation once encompassed a population of some 36,000 over more than 140,000 square miles – covering much of what today is Kentucky and Tennessee as well as western Virginia and North Carolina and northern South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. This nation, though, had no central government, but instead consisted of a federation of towns.

One of the nation’s “mother towns” was at Kituhwa, near present day Bryson City, the site of a prominent mound. Unlike in the burial mounds of some cultures, there are no bodies buried in these places. Instead, they are said to be places where members of the community brought soil in baskets or even turtle shells to a common location in the center of a village as a symbol of their coming together, and because of that they are held to be holy. The mound was also the site of a sacred fire that was always kept burning, symbolizing the presence of the Creator among them.

Another important location was what the Cherokee called Kuwahi, or Mulberry Place, which we call Clingman’s Dome, the highest peak in the Great Smokey Mountain National Park. As John mentioned earlier, this was also the location of the Gall Place, the magic lake that to human eyes looked merely like clouds filling a valley, but was where sick and wounded bears, and other animals, could go for healing.

During the forced removal of Cherokees in the mid 19th Century, it was also said to be a place where people hid away from the soldiers, seeking healing of a different kind.


At the dawn of time, the first man and the first woman set up their home together by the side of a great broad river. They had everything they needed for a blissful life: fruit, meat and fish, plenty of wood and fresh water, and, of course, each other. They lived as happily as any man and woman have ever lived together, until they began to quarrel. First it was the small things, like “Why didn’t you cook this?” and “Why didn’t you tidy that?” But then the insults, and a few wooden plates and bowls, began to fly.

The first woman was so upset that she decided to leave the first man. At the break of day, while he was still asleep, she set off down the valley, heading towards the rising sun. She walked and walked, always looking straight ahead of her, and not once turning back. When the first man woke up and saw that she was gone, he waited for her to come back. She did not come back. He found her tracks along the valley, but she had a long head-start on him, and she did not stop or look round.

The sun was now high in the great blue sky. It looked down upon the first man, as he followed after the first woman, and it saw that there was sadness on the face of the world. The sun asked the man what had happened, and when the man told him, the sun asked if he would like to have her back. He said that he would. So, the sun took pity on the first man and decided to help him. His gentle rays touched the ground along the woman’s path, and a huckleberry bush sprang up. Its fruit was shiny and enticing, but as she passed her eyes remained fixed on the distance, and she did not see the berries.

And so the sun shone again on the ground up ahead of the woman. And he caused a clump of blackberries to grow up beside her path. She refused to even glance at them.

And then the sun thought that he must create something entirely new: something so vivid, fragrant, and delicious, that even the first woman would not fail to take notice of them in her resolute and unhappy mood. And so he shone his rays, and the first patch of strawberries spread over the ground.

Their sweet scent filled the woman’s senses, and her mood became lighter. She began to look around her, and she saw the bright red fruit hiding beneath he leaves. She picked one and ate it, and as she tasted the strawberry on her tongue, she began to remember the happiness she knew when she first set up home with her husband. She found she no longer felt the pressing desire to leave him. She sat down on the ground and wondered what she must do. At last she gathered a bunchy of the finest berries and started back along the path to give them to him. He met her kindly, and they went home together.


It is said that one of the greatest shocks that westerners faced when they came to negotiate treaties with the Cherokee was that women would be among the leaders of the negotiating parties. From the Cherokee perspective, though, this would be expected. In the matrilineal culture of the Cherokee, women had control of the houses and fields. Men traditionally were away hunting and fishing, which left the women to tend the gardens and run the family. They were the ones who passed their clan affiliation to their children. Unlike the nuclear families of the Europeans, Cherokee families were often large, embracing many layers of relations.

This shifted in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when, after recovering from their defeat at the hands of Europeans, they set about to make themselves a “civilized tribe” of farmers and businessmen. With European “civilization” came a patriarchal social structure of disparate households with male breadwinners and women tending the home fires.

With all those transitions, though, what didn’t change was the Cherokee sense of connection to the land. Having been rooted here so long, one Cherokee is said to observed, “even the dust of this place is from our ancestors.”


They say that if you go out in the woods and hear some music or some people talking but don’t see anyone around you might have caught a glimpse of the gentle people, the Nunnehi. One time the Nunnehi came to the Cherokee people and told them, “you’re going to have to come with us now. All of you pack up your belongings, and in seven days you will have to come and live with us.”

“But why?” the people asked. “Where are we going? Why do we have to go?”

“Because,” they said, “Something terrible is going to happen: worse than any flood, or any famine that you have ever known before. You have to leave to save yourselves.”

So, they packed up their belongings and followed Nunnehi for miles until they came to a big stone way deep in the mountains. As they watched, the stone rolled away, and they rushed to see what was inside. It was such a beautiful place. The air seemed to dance with joy.

So without even thinking, many families rushed in. As the turned to close the door forever, they saw a group standing away in the back. The chief asked them, “Why aren’t you coming in? We’re ready to close the door.”

But the people said, “We were born here, and no matter what happens we want to stay.” The chief was torn. He wanted to go in, but he also wanted to be with his people. He decided he needed to stay and help lead his people.

The stone rolled back, and the people who stayed were the descendants of today’s tribe. Those other people have never been heard from again, though they say if you’re out in the woods, you might hear some music or some people talking. It’s the Nunnehi, and they’re reminding us that they’re always with us.


The greatest irony in Europeans celebrating Columbus Day is that for the native peoples of North America the colonization of their land was a catastrophe. This is so not merely because within the space of three and a half centuries Indians were tortured and abased, militarily defeated and driven off their home lands, but also because the diseases the Europeans brought with them cut like a scythe through their numbers. By one estimate, 95 percent of Native Americans were killed by disease epidemics like small pox within a little more than a century after the arrival of Columbus.

The first contact the Cherokee had with these people was an expedition by Herman DeSoto in 1540 in search of gold and slaves. But full blown trade with Europeans didn’t start until the beginning of the 18th Century. There were benefits to the Cherokee from this trade – introduction to new crops like apples and sweet potatoes as well as livestock, and goods like pots, weapons, plows and cloth. But by the end of that century, the Indians also experienced several killing epidemics, warfare with European settlers that included multiple atrocities on each side and in the end wiped out dozens of villages. The Cherokee also saw the loss of 75% of their former territories through treaties with their conquerors.

It was George Washington and his secretary of war, John Knox, who in 1789 proposed a solution to the continuing tit for tat of warfare between Indians and settlers, a policy of what he called “civilization.” Indians would be taught to live like white people, even encouraged to intermarry with them. The Cherokee ultimately agreed and succeeded grandly, developing schools, churches, and businesses, creating a written language, a constitution and a representative assembly.

But the settlers weren’t satisfied. They wanted the Cherokee land and pushed to remove them. The now “civilized” Cherokees responded with the tools they’d learned. They lobbied, petitioned and even filed a lawsuit that eventually won them a Supreme Court ruling allowing them to stay.

It didn’t matter. President Andrew Jackson ignored the ruling and called out federal soldiers and state militias in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and North Carolina to drive the Cherokee out. Troops rousted people from their homes, gathered them in rough stockades and drove them west to Oklahoma on what has become known as the “trail of tears.” Some 15,000 Cherokees were driven from their land; between 4,000 and 8,000 died on the journey.

Here in the mountains of North Carolina, though, a small group living along the Oconaluftee River maintained a toehold on their land by persuading state legislators to accept their petition to stay. In time the federal government recognized them as the Eastern Band of the Cherokee. Another several hundred hid out in the mountains and eventually joined them.

Having the right to stay, though, didn’t prevent rapacious logging in the next 60 years or so that clear cut their land twice and left a nucleus of about 1,500 people living in poverty. The 20th Century also saw the arrival of federally-funded boarding schools that punished children for speaking the Cherokee language. In time, the schools closed and the tribe began its own schools that teach Cherokee language and culture.

A shift in the Cherokee’s fortunes came with the Indian Gaming Act in 1988. It gave the Cherokee a source of income, first with bingo and in 1997 with casino gambling, as well as jobs from the attendant tourist industry that has raised the standard of living of tribe members and funded health, education and other support services.

Meanwhile, the stories are still being told. Barbara Duncan from the museum has collected many of them from current day story tellers, people who learned them from relatives and tell them to school and civic groups.

She quotes a story that one those tellers, Freeman Owle, told to a group surrounding the trail of tears. Owle notes that, despite all the brutality the Cherokee experienced, the survival of the Eastern Band was due at least in part to the kindness and support of some of their white neighbors.

He concludes by saying, “You know, I came here tonight to tell you that the Cherokee people don’t really hold any hatred or animosity in their hearts for the things that happened in our past. We can take our hats off to the past, but as one great gentleman said, ‘We should take our shirts off to the future.’ The reason the Cherokee people survived is because they loved their neighbors and were good neighbors.”

It is a remarkable conclusion, an act of grace, really, that offers us an opportunity to enter these stories, to see in them links to our common humanity, a glimmer of hope for us all. Even today, the Cherokee are composing stories that end with something good for the people, for all people. And it is cause for us to be grateful.

Two important sources for this presentation were:

Living Stories of the Cherokee, collected and edited by Barbara R. Duncan, University of North Carolina Press, 1998

Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook, Barbara R. Duncan & Brett H. Riggs, North Carolina Folklife Institute, 2003

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