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Twenty one years ago this summer, I offered a sermon at one of our summer services entitled “Life is Not A Dress Rehearsal.” I was about to turn 40 years old. Some of you may have been here! I was contemplating the beginning of middle age, and trying to understand the death of a wonderful woman in the field of sexuality education – Mary Lee Tatum — who had been killed in a car accident two years earlier at the age of 49. Her death was stunning to me – up until that point, I had naively believed that if you were doing important enough work in the world, that if your calendar was booked well in to the future, that nothing bad could happen to you.
I told the congregation then that Mary Lee’s death had been a wake up call to me. I had driven to Calf Pasture after I had received the news, cried and asked myself what was important to me in life to do NOW. I decided on two things. I wanted a convertible – and I wanted a second child. I’m happy to say within a year, I had both!
Last week, I read this quote online by Rabbi Margot Stein who was writing about the death of her son. She wrote in the quote on the Order of Service, “Your second life begins when you realize this is the only one you have.”
“Your second life begins when you realize this is the only one you have.” Mary Lee’s tragic car accident was one of those moments before me.
Looking back now, I realize how little I could foresee about what the next twenty years would bring. I didn’t know that I would be a minister now. I couldn’t have imagined creating and building a new non-profit organization in the world that would soon be going on without me. I think I would have laughed if you had told me that at 61 I would be ending a 27-year career as a CEO and seeking my first full time parish ministry. I did not know that the best day and the worst day of my life were still to come. I know I couldn’t have imagined what life would be like with my children grown up, fully launched, and both living in California.
What I do think I knew at 40 was that it was up to me to create my own best possible life – and that THIS TIME was the only life I knew I had for sure.
I know many of us have different beliefs about the afterlife, about the life to come and surely we learned different beliefs about heaven and hell from our cradle religions.
(As a quick aside, do you know what I mean by cradle religions? They are the religions or religious teachings we grew up with as children and I believe they are hardwired into us. Let me give you a quick example. As many of you know I come from a Jewish background and Ralph comes from a Catholic family. I am quite certain if we were in a plane that was about to crash, I would say a Sh’ma and he would say a Hail Mary, and neither of us would say the Unitarian Principles and Practices!)
But getting back to the afterlife – some of us learned or believe in heaven, a wonderful place with angels and no pain and meeting up with our dearest ones who have died before us. Others of us may believe in reincarnation – or that we return to a larger consciousness – while others of us believe that this is all there is. Our beliefs about what happen after death may be one of the places where the tension between reason and faith most exists.
I’m not sure I knew growing up what Jews believed about the afterlife, although I have since learned that in the Talmud, the ancient Rabbi’s said that in heaven there would be Sunshine, Sabbath and Sex (quite different from St. Augustine who said that in heaven there would be procreation without sexual pleasure!) I did learn that Jews emphasize how we live in this world and that we are required to ritually memorialize every year those who have gone before us. A typical Jewish response of sympathy after a death is “May his/her memory be a blessing.”
As Unitarian Universalists we hold different beliefs in the afterlife. The UUA website says, “Unitarian Universalist views about life after death are informed by both science and spiritual traditions. Many of us live with the assumption that life does not continue after death, and many of us hold it as an open question, wondering if our minds will have any awareness when we are no longer living. Few of us believe in divine judgment after death. It’s in our religious DNA: the Universalist side of our tradition broke with mainstream Christianity by rejecting the idea of eternal damnation.”
This rejection of the idea of being condemned to hell, first advanced by Servetus in the 16th century, and refined by our forbearers like William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and James Freeman Clark, is known as “salvation by character”. These 19th century theologians preached, in contrast to Christianity, that we would not be saved by faith, not even by our actions. Rather “salvation by character” posits that it is the sum total of WHO we are and HOW we live that provide us with the opportunity for salvation — if not as, these earlier theologians believed in the next life, surely in the life that we have now. I often explain my own theology as incarnational – – there is nothing more important than how we treat others.
I am basically agnostic when it comes to the afterlife. In seminary in a class on death and dying, I remember having to fill out an 80-item questionnaire on what happens after death – did we believe one has a body? In heaven? In hell? In angels? In being reunited with loved ones? Etc. I answered a resounding NO to each of them.Today I might have hopefully answered, “Don’t know” to at least a few of them.
When I was doing my chaplaincy training at Norwalk Hospital, I had a fellow chaplain named Sheryl who just couldn’t believe that I didn’t believe in a physical heaven or hell. I told her, somewhat quoting Rev. Frank Hall, that I only knew that we experience both heaven and hell during THIS lifetime. She once said to me, “You are going to get the biggest surprise party then when you die!” I told her I hoped so. I now tend to say that I have NO idea what happens after this life. I mostly believe that nothing happens – that we live on in the memories of others – but I’m also willing to say I don’t know, to leave open the door that there might be something more.
What I do know though is that THIS is the only life we know we have – and that we must live it as well as we can…. We do not know WHEN or HOW our lives will end, but we do know they will.
The brevity of life – whether we live the Biblical promise of three score and ten or past a hundred or have our lives cut short by disease or accident at younger ages – has always been the subject of theological seeking. Qohelet, the teacher or prophet, wrote in the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes 1, verses 4-5, and 11:
“A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises…the people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come.”
Qohelet is struggling in Ecclesiastes to come to grips with the certainty of death and the fleeting nature of life. Throughout this book, he counsels that people should enjoy life and be happy. He writes, “I know that there is nothing better for them to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil. “This is not simple hedonism but rather a call to pay attention and create a full life.
Pay attention. The Jewish prayer the Sh’ma opens with the words, Pay attention. Hear. Listen. In this weekend’s NYT there is an article about the amazing filmmaker Jonas Meckas, age 93, still healthy and fully engaged in life. It quotes Meckas, looking at a plate of grapes: “This plate is my paradise. I don’t want anything else – no country house, no car, no life insurance, no riches. It’s this plate of grapes that I want. It’s this plate of grapes that makes me happy. To eat my grapes and enjoy them and want nothing else – that is happiness, that’s what makes me happy.”
Perhaps some of you have read Joseph Campbell’s work, The Hero’s Journey”. Campbell talks about how sacred text stories, mythologies, and drama often follow a similar pattern for their main characters. The journey begins with a call – something external that happens or an internal deep developing understanding – that shakes the person up, calling as “Adventure” like the character in Mary’s story this morning. The hero tries to avoid the unknown and turns away, afraid of what may happen. Something then happens or a wise person or mentor appears the Hero accepts the call and enters into this new time in life, has all sorts of adventures and challenges, and finally brings the new treasures or understandings back home.
It is a story that occurs over and over again in the Bible and in our lives. Sarai and Abram are called to leave all that they know in midlife– their land, their kin, and the house of their father — and begin the journey to Canaan. The promise is that they will bring forth a great nation. The centerpiece of the Gospel story is Jesus and his disciples’ journey from Palestine to Jerusalem. The Iliad, The Odyssey, Hamlet — to today’s Star Wars, Shrek, and Harry Potter all follow the arc of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.
But we need not be mythical heroes to create a life that as Rev. Forrest Church used to write, “Is worth dying for.”
In mid-August this year, my friend from high school Ledell Mulvaney and her 31-year-old daughter Kat were killed instantly when a BMW SUV flipped over the median and crushed their car on the Taconic Parkway. Ledell’s husband Don died from his injuries several weeks after the accident. They were returning from their 38th year volunteering as the directors of a summer Bible musical camp for high school age youth. Ledell, Don, and Kat were all musicians, teachers, and activists. When I asked at one of the vigils how many people had either directly studied with one of them or had a child who had studied with them, almost every hand went up. Both of my children attended their summer camp Musical Theater of Connecticut. Two churches – one UCC, one Methodist — became welcoming and affirming congregations under their leadership. They directed or sang in the church choirs in every congregation they attended. The Mulvaney’s lives touched thousands if not tens of thousands of young people. They died tragically and far too young, leaving a huge hole – yet there can be no question that they lived lives worth dying for.
Like Mary Lee’s death twenty-three years ago, I experienced their tragic car accident as an enormous reminder of the fragility of life and a wakeup call to examine how I live. It made me approach a friend from who I had become disconnected it made me think hard about how I spend my time it reminded me that we have to make each day and each relationship count. We shouldn’t need such reminders to live life well, but most of us do.
It’s why I wanted to do this sermon and think again about how to assure that we not live as if this life is a dress rehearsal for the next. I want to share with you, with his permission, some of the word’s Devan Mulvaney spoke at the memorial for his mother, father, and sister:
“Love is what my family is all about. To spread love, to share love, to not be afraid of receiving or giving love, but most of all to express love…
They were always expressing love. Love goes hand in hand with faith. My family always kept their faith. Through the hard times and the bad. I urge you all to keep the faith like they did in their hardest of times. In my family, God means love. We cannot and should not lose faith in love even when we’ve lost so much. When you love, you need to Love fiercely. My family was not afraid of expressing our emotions with one another. This is because we loved each other fiercely. I urge you all to do the same with your family and your friends. Don’t wait. Life is too short. This tragedy has proven that. But because my family loved each other so intensely, none of us has any regrets. There is nothing more I wish I could say to my sister, or my father or my mother that I haven’t said to them every time I saw them. That I loved them so much. …. ….
When you find what you believe in you’ve found what you love. Please love fiercely. Please be yourself. Please, be a good person. Please, ask questions. Please, fight for what you believe in. Please, build community. Please, express your emotions. Please, create. Please, practice, practice, practice. Please, support artists. Please, sing loudly. It’s not about sounding good, just sing. Please, go after your dreams. Please, help others go after their dreams. Every time you do these things you honor my family.”
As you may have read in the September Soundings, I have made the decision to begin a new part of my life’s journey. After 15 years as creator and head of the Religious Institute, it is time for the organization to move from its founder to new leadership. For those of you who don’t know us, the Religious Institute has grown to be the premier multifaith national organization working at the intersection of sexuality and religion to advance sexual and reproductive health, sexuality education, and sexual and reproductive justice in America’s faith communities and society at large. Almost 8,000 religious leaders from more than 50 different faith traditions are now part of the Religious Institute’s growing network.
I have once again accepted an inner calling to a new journey, one that you have prepared me for – to search for a position to be a full time minister in a congregation. Some of you know this has been coming for a while. I am so grateful to all of you. The Unitarian Church in Westport has played a crucial role in supporting my community ministry, including standing with me in our terrible crisis of 2012. Many of you are donors to our organization even more of you have lent moral support and encouragement. As I travel across the United States, I take TUCW with me.
Even more, this community has helped me become a minster. You ordained and endorsed me more than 12 years ago. You have allowed me to preach to you, to provide counseling to you, to be with you during times of crisis, to offer adult education, and to even pilot test national programs in our congregation. I have learned how to serve a congregation during my time here. I am so grateful for your trust, your encouragement, and your sharing your lives with me. I feel ready to serve a congregation full time because you have welcomed me to serve you.
This decision is not without trepidation or anxiety. It is quite something at our ages for Ralph and me not to know where we may be living in 10 months. I will be changing jobs, we will be changing homes and community. I am trusting that the right congregation will appear – I am hoping that there is a congregation looking for a minister like me.
There is a level of what Wayne Muller in his book Sabbath calls a “level of inevitable unknowing” in life. We can plan but we do not know what will actually happen. I have learned in the last twenty years that the worst things in life can rarely be predicted – the diagnosis, the car across the median, the sudden illness, the bad news phone call. It is especially in those days we may remember Thomas Merton’s prayer: “My dear God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end.” I’m praying that a lot these days.
I have recently returned from a week teaching at one of my favorite places on earth. While I was there as I meditated, walked the labyrinth, and journaled. I kept feeling the message, “All will be well.” Julian of Norwich in the 14th century wrote, “All will be well, all matters of things will be well.” It’s a faith statement.
One day I did a meditation in nature that I learned from a colleague of mine. You pick out something in nature that grabs your attention and sit with it for 10 minutes, asking it is lessons – it could be a tree, a mountain, a stream, and so on. It is an exercise worth trying. So that day, I focused on a small rock that was three quarters of the way down a hill. This was its message to me:
“I have been on a journey. I didn’t begin in this spot. It was a bumpy, scraping journey and it wasn’t always in my control. I have landed in this spot now. I am solid, grounded, but a bit bruised around the edges. I am not what I was. I am not what I will be. But I am solid. Safe. Still. Sitting here in the sun surrounded by plants. One day I will be moved farther down the hill by forces outside of my control. I will be battered and bruised again, and yet, I will remain whole, solid, newly planted. All will be well.”
I thought about the Rilke quote, that I think I might have used in that first sermon 21 years ago:
Be patient with all that is unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
We are all on a journey – and together, we are creating each other’s lives.For today, have faith. Be patient. Be kind. Be compassionate – with yourselves and each other. Listen for your call. Let the answers emerge. Trust in your future with hope. Live your best life now – it is the only one we have sure.