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Donald Curtis who many have called the founder of the American Unity Church, a liberal metaphysical religion with strong Christian leanings, was known throughout the world as a leader in the effort to bring the realms of science and religion closer together. I begin this morning not with a treatise on his thought but with a remarkable story that he told many times. While delivering a series of sermons in Dallas years ago, Dr. Curtis received a letter on a Monday following one of the services he had conducted. Neatly typed it read:
“Dear Dr. Curtis:
I have been thrilled by your talks during the last month. I get so much out of them. Your lessons should be published so that everyone can be as inspired by them as I am. Here is my offer: If you will send me the tape recording of your sermon each week, I will transcribe them for you to be published at a later date. I pray that you will allow me to be of service in this way. I want to help others share the good you have given me. Just call the number below and someone will pick up the tape each Monday. God is blessing you and your work.
Sincerely Yours, Mary Louise Zollars.” There was no signature.
This was long before computers and Dr. Curtis was thrilled by this offer. He never prepared a text for his talks preferring to just speak from a few notes. He picked up the phone right away. “Hello” came a soft voice on the line, “may I help you?” “Why yes, this is Dr. Curtis, is this Miss Zollars?” “No” came the reply, “I am her assistant but I will be happy to give her a message.” Curtis went on to explain that he had received this wonderful offer and he would be delighted to take her up on it. “Miss Zollars will be so pleased”. “May I bring the tapes over?” “No that won’t be necessary, I will be happy to come by your hotel and pick them up. And with that they agreed on a time and a place. Dr. Curtis met Miss Alco, Miss Zollars assistant at the appointed time and exchanged the tapes but every query by Dr. Curtis as to the circumstances of Miss Zollars was politely differed. The next Friday the tape and a neatly typed manuscript were returned. The arrangement proceeded like this for almost six months, every Sunday night, Miss Alco would pick up the tape and every Friday the tape and the manuscript were returned. Then one day Dr. Curtis received a phone call. “Dr. Curtis, this is Miss Alco. Miss Zollars would like to invite you to tea on Thursday, can you come?” Dr. Curtis jumped for joy at the offer. He arrived promptly and was met at the door by Miss Alco. “Please come this way” and he was ushered into a small but sunny room. The furnishings were plain; it was clear that Mary Louise Zollars, despite having an assistant, was not a wealthy woman. And there near the window, Donald Curtis saw his mysterious helper. Curled up in a wheel chair, almost unseen was an older woman constantly shaking. And at her feet was old tape recorder and one of the oldest Underwood manual typewriters Curtis had ever seen. Miss Zollars smiled but could not speak. Miss Alco read her typed statement. “Dr. Curtis, what a pleasure to meet you. As you can see I must rely on my assistant to speak for me as I am unable being spastic since birth. I waited so long to meet you because I did not want you to prejudge my abilities by my condition. I wanted to leave something of value in this world and your words seem to be the answer.”
It was then and there, that Dr. Donald Curtis realized he was in the presence of the immortal divine power of love, a fragile woman who wore a garment of light, because as he watched Miss Zollars he realized that she had transcribed every word with the only part of her body that she had any control over, her toes. Her toes had typed every word. (Adapted from Chicken Soup for the Soul, vol. 4, 1997)
Every religion on this planet, even ours, has something to say about immortality. The Hindus have long believed that our essence or Atman travels from one life to the next, working towards greater and greater enlightenment. The Buddha expanded this idea and taught that every person could be freed from their karma or life’s destiny based on the caste one was born into. Buddhism teaches the revolutionary idea that while our soul is immortal the aim of each life is to let go of attachment to the things of life and search for the spiritual understanding thus releasing the soul back into the eternal emptiness of all, nirvana, literally to blow out. The easiest way for Westerners to understand this Eastern immortality is to imagine us as waves upon the shore. It is our attraction to the world or the shore, which pulls us up and apart crashing on the rocks of suffering. Only after we have realized that we are only part of the whole do we recede into the ocean and thus lose all consciousness of being water after all. A drop ceases to be a drop once it falls into the ocean.
Western religions believe in a more lasting personal understanding of immortality. The Jewish faith in its early form did not specify a lasting spirit or soul but in later centuries, especially after the great sufferings under occupation by the Babylonians and the Romans, Jewish theology made a place for the “righteous spirit” at the feet of God. The wicked will be punished in a dark, cold and lonely place known as Sheol. Christians, of course, firmly believe in the immortality of the soul, those being saved by a belief in the resurrection of Christ who will be raised up to heaven for eternity and those who have not being consigned to everlasting hell. What happens to your soul depends a great deal on whether we accept Jesus Christ as our lord and savior (or as one church billboard put it, “Warning: Exposure to the Son can prevent burning”). Muslims also believe in the immortality of the spirit looking to a heaven of milk and honey for those who submit to God and follow the Koran. Suicide bombers not withstanding, Muslims believe that they achieve this heaven by living the principles of their faith through devotion and charity.
In my own life, I have come to believe in the immortality of life in two ways. The first is more celestial and mystical; for I have no way to prove this to anyone. I can’t prove to you my faith that my soul lives on after I die and returns to live many more lives but I believe this to be true with all my heart. As a Unitarian I come by this belief based on experience. I have known people that after having been clinically dead return to life and confirm an existence after death. Whether or not this is immortal for all time I cannot tell, except to say that I have had the ability in my own life to know what a place will look like, as in one instance to you in a palace of mirrors in Jaipur India. I am certain that I have lived before and in all likelihood will live again. In the practice of my faith I am a Buddhist. I am certain that I am born and reborn to live through destinies which through choice I will achieve. A spirit or soul is that deepest part of me that carries on and will eventually open me up to greater and greater connection and ultimately consummation with the divine. For me this fits with what I know scientifically of the universe; that time and space are circular and that there are greater and greater levels of existence the deeper we look.
But as your minister I realize that my faith is not yours and that many of you are searching yourself. Some of you share these understandings, many of you do not. My task this morning is to suggest, as I alluded to earlier that as religious liberals we really can all believe in some form of immortality. The same kind of immortality that Miss Zollars displayed.
What does such an immortality look like? Well, not like my personal conception of the afterlife to be sure. In physics there is a law which states that matter and energy are never destroyed, but only transformed. Nothing disappears. Things change, life ends but what we did with our life- with our energy – is not destroyed but only transformed. This is what I mean when I say the good never dies. Words of comfort, gestures of caring, do not disappear into thin air. They transform the lives around us and are then transforming of those who lives we touch. They continue to reverberate, good or bad, like ripples in a pond. Take the example of lying. At some point we must decide to either tell the truth or lie. The moment the decision has been made and we have done it, that action is consigned to the past. I believe that the law of conservation works as relentlessly in the spiritual realm as it does in the physical. Our choice does not disappear; somewhere someone is hurt by our lie, if only in a blow to our already wounded self-image. The lie lives on. Our children and those closest to us know we are lying, so they think they can lie and it passes to the next generation. The immortality of ourselves lies in the actions we take and the words we speak. The hell of our own actions rests firmly from what has been passed down to us by generations before. Children learn to hate. The sins of the fathers and the mothers live on. We are immortal by what we do, leaving aside whatever celestial ideas we might have.
But as it is with harmful actions so too with good. Those actions also make us immortal. Take the example of Miss Zollars; it was not that she was venerating and preserving Dr. Curtis’ words that was so powerful but rather that she did this despite incredible odds and so inspired Curtis and many others, including you here today. The immortal soul is that which our actions and words leave behind. Rabbi Harold Kushner in his wonderful book Who Needs God? talks about this kind of immortality. “In the physical world every time I wave my arm I set the air in motion, the reverberations never stop. It will have consequences that I will never know. Would we live differently if we understood that the consequences of what we do last forever? Would we push ourselves to be more generous, kinder, caring, and hopeful if we could understand that our action, our energy, only continues to transform the world around us? I would like to think we would. Immortality isn’t angels with harps and devils with pitchforks; it is in what we are doing with this life right now” (adapted pp 172-173) . This is the same message I deliver at every Memorial service I do, such as the one for two pillars of our church who recently died, Ruth and Roy Fine. In fact, their lives live in the annual “Very Fine Award” we give to that most outstanding volunteer. Death reminds us the living to live more generously than before. This is the same message that those who have had near death experiences return to life with, anxious to do good before they die again. For us as religious liberals then, immortality at the very least lives in the actions we perform and the gifts we leave behind. This is why I asked us to commission this Legacy Society today; asking us to consider leaving a portion of our estate to the church, as Jan Park did for our social justice ministry, gives those who are able a certain kind of immortality where it counts the most, permitting our work and our energy to continue into the future. It also provides a certain kind of immortality to our church, beyond those who have passed before us, beyond those who are here now, this church will stand for seven more generations in the work and the money we share now. Consider leaving a bequest as another invitation to immortality. I know I will, will you?
The great of the world seek immortality in monuments and words and books and history. But every single one of us in this room is immortal whether you believe in the afterlife or not. What makes you immortal begins in this life. The opportunities abound. One of the readings I often share at memorials is the 23rd Psalm “yeah though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me, thy staff and rod they comfort me.” It’s a very powerful piece. But as I reflected on it, I realized that we all might be missing the point of what the psalmist was trying to say. Its not about the faith in God outside of us that keeps us through life and death, it’s the faith in the God within us that convinces us to live even though we are always in the shadow of death. The psalm is as much about life as it is about death. We are given an opportunity to live a life full of promise even though we might die tomorrow. Today is the first day of the rest of your life. Our immortality, indeed our soul, depends on doing something about that fact.
The death of someone close to us has power because their life had meaning. A life has meaning because we choose to give it meaning through our actions. Our immortality depends on what you are going to do with the rest of your life. Are you going to follow your bliss, your inspiration, your calling or worry about survival alone? At the end of your life it won’t matter how much money is in your checking account or whether you drove the right kind of car. What will matter is how you touched the people you knew with your lessons and love. Your heart sings your immortality with every action we take. Only our fears hold us back. Not enough money? Probably not but so what, what the worse that happen, you go bankrupt? People survive. This is America, no more poor houses. Not enough time? Oh really? Check again. Not enough talent or strength? Do you think that Mary Louise Zollars was just born with that kind of resolve? She had her dark nights of doubt, her self-loathing. We all do. But she felt the divine spark of immortality that is life, that which never ends, and it changed the world.
Preparing for death is not about sitting around waiting to die. It’s about creating your immortality by giving all we have to life. While waiting in a hospital for someone to get out of surgery I met an older woman, a volunteer who staffed the surgery waiting area. She did the usual things like helping people find the cafeteria and relaying message from the recovery room. But she did something else which I haven’t seen since. When her shift was done, she went around to every family and person in the waiting room and expressed her hope that everything would turn out all right. It was a walking prayer. Perhaps I will forget that incident a year from now but the fact that she did this changed people’s lives in ways I will never know.
If you want to be immortal, give more money to that which matters to you. Smile more often. Ask and listen to how people are doing. Hug. Laugh even when life is raining tears down on you. Sign petitions, buy lemonade from kids, hold the door, be encouraging, give people the courage to live another day. This is what really lasts from one generation to the next. “God lives in the spaces of our lives” wrote Rabbi Kushner. How very true.
Whether your soul apart from your body lives on is about your faith not mine, but I know this: Our actions endure. Beyond these times of trial and war, what we do, however small, leaves a mark on the world. We live on, my people, we live on. Blessed be.