Mourning the Past

M

as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, October 17, 2021

More than a decade ago, the iconic New York dance band LCD Sound System released what might be described as the ultimate hipster nostalgia song. “I’m Losing My Edge” spoke specifically to my own somewhat obscure generation of house, techno, and disco heads. We had grown up in the eighties and nineties frequenting underground loft and warehouse parties across the Rust Belt and East Coast which we were confident embodied the avante garde.

At these events, DJs mixed together the latest electronic compositions–sometimes so fresh that they only existed on test pressings from the record factory–with nuggets of black gold vinyl that they had scrounged from obscure music stores, parents’ basements, and garage sales. Under the musical tutelage of a genius like Detroit’s Moodymann, Kenny Dixon, Jr., we might be treated to a performance that blended together sonic stylings that stretched the globe. The disco great Sylvester’s sweet celebration “You make me feel mighty real” could be interrupted by a selection of Tony Allen’s Afrobeat, Berlin’s Basic Channel, the Motor City’s Kevin Saunderson, or even fellow disco superstar Donna Summers. Over in the corner you could find dancers taking a break from the dancing while reflecting on what the composer John Cage or the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy might have to say about it all. If you were very lucky you might even hear a musician like Derrick May taking a pause in their mixing to offer up a discourse on how “We’re… educating you for the future.” Everybody thought that they were so cool.

LCD Sound System’s “I’m Losing My Edge” paid homage to, or perhaps made fun of, all of this. After a moment of almost discordant noise, it opens with a droning monotone monologue over a simple hypnotic beat:

Yeah, I’m losing my edge.
I’m losing my edge.
The kids are coming up from behind.
I’m losing my edge to the kids from France and from London.
But I was there.

At the phrase, “But I was there,” the song adds a layer, gets more complicated, and then James Murphy, LCD Soundsystem’s singer, proceeds with a list of events in the evolution of dance music and modern art that it would have been impossible for any single person to be at.

I used to work in the record store.
I had everything before anyone.
I was there in the Paradise Garage DJ booth with Larry Levan.
I was there in Jamaica during the great sound clashes.
I woke up naked on the beach in Ibiza in 1988.

He intones wistfully, before hesitantly admitting:

But I’m losing my edge to better-looking people with better ideas and more talent.
And they’re actually really, really nice.

The song then moves onto Murphy reflecting not on all the places where he could claim “I was there” but to a confused series of statements that begin “I hear.”

I hear that you and your band have sold your guitars and bought turntables.
I hear that you and your band have sold your turntables and bought guitars.

I hear everybody that you know is more relevant than everybody that I know.

“I’m Losing My Edge” is a brilliant composition. It captures some of the central dynamics of what it means to live in these times. Indeed, I suspect it captures something of what it means to be creatures who are aware of the past, living in the present, and aging into the future. To live in a society that places its highest premium on the new at the expense of the old–the new iPhone, the new Tesla, the new gadget, the new new new, the what have you done lately–I suspect is to live with the fear that either now or sometime in the future we will be, “all used up,” to quote the folksinger Utah Phillips. It is to live in a situation where, at some point, we will all, no matter our age, find ourselves in the situation of mourning the past, looking back to what has been, a time when we felt more comfortable or more relevant than we do today.

This is the third sermon in our series on re-imagining grief. At the beginning of the month, Scott got us started with reflections on how grieving is a healing process. It is learning to live with loss.

Last week, I continued the series with a meditation on grieving the future. We live in a time when we are grieving not only what we have lost but we anticipate losing in the years to come. Facing the catastrophe of the climate crisis, I suggested, we can give up hope or we can have faith that life and love have the power to continue.

This week we proceed with a sermon on mourning the past. Now, it might seem odd to offer you words on mourning the past after one on grieving the future. The past, we like to think, is whatever comes before the present. The future, in contrast, we imagine, is whatever comes after it.

It is one of my hopes, however, that in our work of reimagining grief, we will discard such tidy linearity. In doing so, I want to offer you a path around what I think is the false dichotomy offered by the narrator of “I’m Losing My Edge.” The viewpoint that we are relevant and then become irrelevant is both a decidedly secular and consumeristic one. This secular and consumeristic viewpoint can cause us as we age to harken back to the glory days when “I was there” and fear someday someone will replace us.

Being part of a religious community like this one offers us the radical opportunity to reject such a dichotomy. It is to transcend that fear, spoken of by Walter Lippmann, of always being discontented and harkening for what was while fearing what is to come. For it provides us the chance to be part of a communion that stretches across time and is greater than any one of us. It gifts us with the ability to re-imagine grief and life for in a religious community we can come to understand that the gifts and love we give the world endure beyond ourselves. Let me explain.

Grief is not a linear process. It does not begin at one point and then end at another. As Scott told us, when we reimagine grief we embrace the emotional truth, “there is no right way to grieve, except the way that is right for you.” Sometimes that means we find ourselves looking towards the future and other times it means wistfully looking back on times gone by. This dynamic can be sharply felt at memorial services. At such ceremonies, we often reflect on the times we might have had with the person we have lost while simultaneously thinking back wistfully on times gone by.

At memorial services, it is not uncommon for mourners to come to the realization that relationships do not end with death. They are transformed by death. The writer William Faulkner tidily summarized this reality when he wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The dead are often ever present in our lives. Has this been your experience? Are there people–friends, family members, possibly even pets–who you continue to have important relationships with even though they are dead?

It certainly has been mine. My grandparents, great aunts, and several deceased mentors and friends are all regularly present in my life. I feel my Grandma Dolores in the kitchen with me just about every time I host a dinner party or cook dinner for my family.

She farmed with my grandfather in Iowa. She embodied the food critic M. F. K. Fischer’s maxim, “Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act.” One of the ways she expressed her love was through the gigantic buffet meals she prepared. There was never just one dish when we ate my grandparents house. In my memory, there were always at least a half dozen and all of them homemade. Fresh rolls, homemade pies, mashed potatoes, as well as pickles, chutneys, and jams from her garden each took their turn gracing the table.

She taught my Mom to cook. My mother taught me to cook. It is because of my grandmother, I am certain, that I both love to make food and to host dinner parties. It is also because of her, I am quite aware, that I can never make a dinner with just one dish and can make something that resembles a passably decent pie crust. Whenever a holiday comes around I hear her telling me that a good crust is just the right combination of flaky and tender. Do you have any relationships that are similar? Grandparents, parents, friends, whose presence you feel whenever you do a particular activity or who inspire you to do a particular thing?

Re-imagining mourning the past means recognizing that our relationship to the past never ends. The dead continue to influence us in all we do. “Those who have died have never never left,” runs one of Ysaye Barnwell’s hymns.

This is something I am acutely aware of as a scholar and religious leader. Some of my most significant relationships have been and continue to be with dead people who I never even met. “Rarely do the political careers of important individuals end in death,” the anthropologist David Graeber, who is, himself deceased, wrote. “…political figures, as ancestors, martyrs, founders of institutions, can be far more important after their death then when they were alive,” he continued.

Jesus was an obscure revolutionary Jewish peasant. He likely only had a few dozen followers during his lifetime. Yet the largest religion in the world has been built around the phrase, attributed to him, in the Christian New Testament, “do this in memory of me.”

Do this in memory of me… much of what Christianity is can be understood as an effort to reimagine grief. Grief at the loss of Jesus, for certain, but also the grief that would have filled the lives of early Christians.

Christianity came into being at a time when the average human lifespan was about forty years. Infant mortality was shockingly high. Almost a quarter of children died before their first birthday. The political order was brutal, public executions and torture common.

Legend has it that this was the fate of Paul. Like Jesus, Paul continued to be incredibly important after his death. So much so that much of the Christian New Testament was either written by him or attributed to him. The Letter to the Hebrews was probably written not by Paul but by someone, in their own act of mourning, who sought to continue to the Pauline tradition after his death. It contains a description of the experience of grief and grieving that political and religious dissidents would have found themselves immersed in during the Roman Empire. It reports of those who “had to face jeers and flogging, even fetters and prison bars. … were stoned to death… put to the sword… deprived, oppressed, ill-treated.”

The text does not enjoin that its readers are to give themselves over to grief. Instead, it encourages them to embrace “this great cloud of witnesses around us.” The words are likely familiar to you. They inspire our own invitation to prayer in the service when we invite you to name those you wish to be held in the loving embrace of this community. They are a reminder that to participate or join in a religious community is not just to join in fellowship with those who are present. It is to join hands and hearts with those who have gone before and those who will come after.

To reimagine grief is to be grateful for those who have gone before us. It is to live into the words of Elizabeth Alexander’s poem, written for Barack Obama’s first inauguration, where she tells us to celebrate and continue the struggle for justice:

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here.

Sing the names of the dead who brought us here… “The long memory is the most radical idea in America,” Clara Sparks said. If you want to understand why critical race theory is so detested in the state of Texas that the governor has made it illegal for teachers to teach it in the public schools, I suggest you begin with this quote. Critical race theory is nothing more than the assessment that many institutions in the United States, and the country itself, were originally created by and for Whites. It is the admission that Rice University was founded by William Rice as school for “whites only.” It is the confession that the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston may have been the one the first religious communities in the city to desegregate, but it only did so in 1954 after Brown vs. Board of Education and not before. It is the acknowledgment that Jim Crow and racial segregation were not regimes that arose spontaneously. They were created through a combination of legislation and violence. It is the profession that race itself is something that only exists because it has been produced to benefit men who believe themselves to be White. It is the declaration that this process has not come to a historical end but rather continues on as what Michelle Alexander has named the New Jim Crow. It is the analysis that, in her words, “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”

Sing the names of the dead who brought us here… To reimagine mourning the dead is to, to again, invoke the Letter to the Hebrews, embrace the “great cloud of witnesses around us” and then commit to “run with resolution the race which lies ahead us.” It is to accept “What they dreamed be ours to do,” to quote another favorite Unitarian Universalist hymn. And celebrate who we are, “We are our grandmothers’ prayers and we are our grandfathers’ dreamings,” to cite a third.

Sing the names of the dead who brought us here… the furor over critical race theory is closely connected to the question of whose names should be remembered and how those names should be mourned. Should the founders of the Confederacy be held up as heroes of the Lost Cause? Or should they be understood to be devotees of white supremacy? Should the country celebrate the heroic Harriet Tubman who led dozens of people to freedom on its currency? Or should it lionize Andrew Jackson, who enslaved hundreds?

To reimagine mourning the past, is to understand that these questions are not historical curiosities. It is, instead, to recognize that the work that people do, and our relationships with them, continue after death. Salute Jackson and we lift up brutality and white supremacy as the nation’s cardinal virtues. Honor Tubman and create, in Elizabeth Alexander’s words, “a praise song for walking forward in that light” where the creation of a multiracial democracy, and economic justice are understood to be the order of the day.

Sing the names of the dead who brought us here… To reimagine mourning the past is to recognize what we have done throughout this sermon. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” as Faulkner told us. To reimagine mourning the past is admit that we are always surrounded by a cloud of witnesses. It matters a great deal who we populate it with, whom we celebrate, and how we understand those who have gone before. To reimagine mourning the past is to come to understand that there is never one moment we are relevant and one moment when we are not. It is, instead, to understand that we are all part of the same great communion, struggling onwards, each influencing, and continuing to influence, what is to come: whether it is through the baking of pies or the struggling for freedom.

That it might be so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.

Blessed Be.

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