On Being a Good Ancestor

Good Ancestor

By Bruce Epperly

These days, many retired pastors are exploring what it means to be a good ancestor. After a lifetime of service, we still feel an obligation to make a positive difference in the world. We still have the energy for mission and want to focus on ways to support the generations to come. We realize that we have responsibilities to our loved ones, and for some of us, this means making a moral and spiritual difference to our children and grandchildren. But, more than that, many of us are pondering how we can intentionally live and act to promote the wellbeing of other peoples’ children and children we will never meet. We want to be good ancestors whose impact lives on for generations to come.

A good life involves looking beyond merely ourselves and our loved ones. Peace and well-being come from transcending self-interest to make a commitment to world loyalty and planetary healing. Sadly, many of us, despite living in a democracy and having access to the levers of power, feel hopeless about effecting any change, whether change involves reasonable gun laws, economic and social justice, or environmental destruction.

We can’t ensure that we will be successful, but we need to try. As Harry Emerson Fosdick prays, “Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.” There are no “how to” books for being a good ancestor. But there are many personal paths, dependent on our health, mobility, context, and life-experiences. These paths join the theological and spiritual with the practical. If Teresa of Avila is correct in asserting that we are the hands and feet of God, then theologically speaking, we have an obligation to be God’s companions in healing the world. Spiritually speaking, we need to discern what our unique gifts are in response to the world’s pressing needs.

In the wake of the most recent mass school shootings in Uvalde, Texas, I felt initially powerless, despite my grief and anger, to effect any change, given the lack of political will to pass necessary legislation. Deep down, however, I realized that I could make a difference. I needed to focus on what I could do, right now, and begin in the here and now. Being a contemplative by nature, I decided to take sessions of twenty-two and ten minutes, over a week’s period, to meditate, pray, and feel, to explore my feelings about the gun violence in Uvalde and Buffalo, and then pray for guidance in terms of my calling.

While I haven’t yet received any definitive answers, I did receive guidance to use my gifts as a writer, and that was the inspiration for this piece. I can be the hands and feet of God as I type on my computer as I am doing now or as I walked 3.6 miles on Memorial Day weekend to raise money for research for DIPG, a rare children’s brain tumor, with a less than 10% two-year survival rate. I became aware of this cancer though one of my grandson’s classmates, whose brother died of DIPG, and knew I had to respond. A small walk, but even small steps can transform the world.

Jewish mystics remind us that the world is saved one person at a time. I believe it its saved one act and one moment at a time, and that I have a responsibility to do something beautiful for God, as Mother (Saint) Teresa counsels, in every interaction individually and as a citizen.

It is all about being a good ancestor, whether reading with a child, your own grandchild or another; advocating for gun safety in a group such as Grandmothers Against Gun Violence; building a home with Habitat for Humanity; supporting marginalized communities by showing up at town meetings; or working for constructive environmental policies with Third Act.

We can be good ancestors, living in this wonderful moment of our lives, rejoicing in the day that God has made, and acting to ensure that the future is beautiful for generations to come. I conclude with the words of Reinhold Niebuhr.

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.

Bruce Epperly is a "retired" UCC and Disciples of Christ pastor, seminary professor and administrator, and author of over sixty books in theology, spirituality, health and healing, scripture, and ministerial spirituality and wellbeing, including The Jubilee Years: Embracing Clergy Retirement, 101 Soul Seeds for Grandparents Working for a Better World, and 101 Soul Seeds for a Joyful Retirement. His most recent book is The Elephant is Running: Process and Relational Theologies and Religious Pluralism. Recently retired as Senior Pastor of South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Centerville, MA, he lives in Potomac, MD, and spends his days writing, teaching, walking, and taking care of his elementary school grandchildren. He may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..