CLICK HERE for video of this sermon
I knew Bob, Dr. Bob as he like to be called for eight years. As an active member of my last congregation, Bob had just retired from a Family Medicine practice of over six decades at the age of 86. He was Chinese American, tall and elegant. His manners were impeccable and his mind ever sharp. He was also forever curious. Every so often someone comes along who you feel a deep soul connection to; Dr. Bob was one such person. He was a staunch agonistic, but always fascinated by my belief in reincarnation. We would have long conversations about death and the afterlife. Bob had been at the bedsides of many of his patients as they died. Some went well, others were terrified, most though were calm. He would often joke with me about his upcoming tour of the universe. “I am looking forward to my tour of the universe” he would joke. “I will let you know if I find anything.” “How you are going to do that?” I asked. “I will figure out a way” he told me. “There is always a way.”
There is always a way. His faith in the possibilities of science and life itself would often lift me from my darker days. This isn’t to say that Bob didn’t have his own darker days in life. He had survived cancer twice, had two heart attacks (smoking he admitted, I quit but it was hell) and a family that was often in difficulty. His life had not been easy, from being smuggled into the US by his Chinese parents on a steamer during the Depression, to the death of a child, and the racism he experienced in medical school and life, Dr. Bob was a survivor who had learned the value of life.
As I was visiting him during his dying days, he was more and more curious about the afterlife. He always wanted to hear about my faith in life after life. I asked him if he was afraid to die. “Oh no” he said, “this is long enough, time to make room for the next generation. I did my best and if this is the end then so be it, if there is more I will be pleasantly surprised.” We sat for a long time in silence. “You know what I think John,” he said, “I think the life well lived is our greatest immortality.” I laughed. “Well then, your life left us quite a monument”. We talked about his family and how he had done his best to take care of them after he died. We talked about what he wanted said at his Memorial Service.
I told him that it is living that makes a life and the life after life we live is a reflection of that living. Bob recalled the Tibetan Book of the Dead that taught that any bliss or fears we have as we pass from this life is the result of our mind’s interpretation of the life we live. Fear we agreed was the greatest of our demons. Laughter was our invitation to live on.
Bob died quietly with his family by his side when the doctors turned off his pacemaker. We wept. A Mahatma had passed from this world.
More than a few of you have questioned why I wanted to talk about life and death on the first Sunday of our New Year. Especially after the horrific year we had in 2020. Especially in the face of so much death, including loved ones of our own. Why talk about death? Shouldn’t we talk about life and new hope and new possibilities?
Yes, we should. I am as happy as I can be that we have turned the calendar. But I am also mindful, as are you, that we are still in the midst of this plague, this injustice, this trouble. Today I want to hold up life in the face of death, not as a struggle but as a piece of a whole. Dr. Bob’s line about the life well lived is the point of our being together. Celebrating a New Year and new hope is all the more meaningful when we hold it up, like a light to the unknown darkness of death.
We generally fear death don’t we? We see it has an enemy, something to be defeated. Indeed, most of Christianity is a response to the fact that we have to die, and that through faith in the risen Jesus we will live again, eternally. Actually the eternal part bothers me quite a bit, even in paradise, forever is a long time. After all, what makes life worth living is that we have small triumphs over defeat and bad days that yield to good. Life needs an end to make it worth living.
Why is it that we see the end of life as the end of meaning? Isn’t what we have done as important as what others who follow us will do? My days will come to an end, but I go into the dark night buoyed by the prospect that my living made other lives possible, the good we did together made others’ lives better, and the passing of generations moves heaven and earth. All of you, my dear ones, every single one you and all those you have loved and known have moved the world forward, mostly for the good.
Stephen and Onerida Levine in their classic work Who Dies? Offer this:
“….in the American Indian culture one’s life is not seen linearly but rather as a circle which becomes complete at about puberty with the rites of passage. From that time on one is seen as a wholeness that continues to expand outward. But once “the hoop” has formed, any time one dies, one dies in wholeness. As the American Indian sage Crazy Horse commented, “Today is a good day to die for all the things of my life are present.” In the American Indian wisdom wholeness is not seen as the duration one has lived but rather the fullness with which one enters each complete moment.” (From Who Dies?: An Investigation of Conscious Living and Conscious Dying by Stephen Levine, Ondrea Levine)
The circle of one year has closed and the circle of a new year has opened. How shall we fill it with this precious life we have yet to live? How will you fill out this circle?
I will fill it with service in joy and self-care. I will find my way to better health, not because I want to stave off dying but because I have service still to give. In the new movie Soul by Disney, a middle aged middle school teacher is given the chance of his career to live into his real love, playing live jazz. On the way to his new job he dies accidently and through a long and involved journey of many other worldly realms (the number of religious ideas of death that are woven into this movies is staggering, something to offend everybody) he concludes that the point of living is not your destiny, but your joy. What death’s shadow teaches us is that it is never too late, and I mean never too late, to bring some joy into this tired world. Whether that joy is a smile or music or a kind word, the point is this life, living itself, is to share joyfully. In fact, the point for me is that spreading some joy is the point of it all.
Look, life is impermanent. We can all agree with that. We could be gone tomorrow. But living life in service and joy is what keeps life, beyond our lives, worth living, despite the politics, the hate, the strife, the warming planet, despite the very fact that humanity will one day cease to exist, offering joy is the reason for living and ultimately dying for. Can you hear me on this? Living and offering joy is a resolution we can all get behind.
None of this is to dismiss the suffering and despair we are going through. I get that. All of us suffer from despair, some more than others and at different times. As Mary Oliver reminds us:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Beyond despair, the world continues to offer itself up to us in imagination. What can you imagine still?
The Buddha taught that all living is impermance, dukkha, not having life go the way we imagined it. But if we can accept the fact that we are here to help others and bring some joy, then the impermanence of life is not so bad. You need not fear death, only that you may have not lived as joyfully in service as you could have. I know someone who reads the obituaries every day, not so much to mourn the passing but to recognize what their lives have meant for those of us who are left behind. As Stephen Levine wrote:
“Seldom do we use the news of another’s death as a recognition of the impermanence of all things that all changes as it will. And yet the acknowledgment of impermanence holds within it the key to life itself. …. We imagine we will die only because we believe we were born. We don’t trust that sense of endlessness, of edgelessness within. Our suffering is caused by holding to how things might have been, should have been, could have been. Grief is part of our daily existence…. To be whole we must deny nothing. We think we have something to lose, and the reinforcement of that feeling that there is something to protect cuts us off from life, leaves us a fractured reality through which we attempt to express our naturalness….we wonder, how do I live my life or die my death with room for the whole being” (Ibid Levine)
I have seen this in those who have come close to death. Suddenly, there is great clarity as to what we need to do with our lives. What the spiritual teacher Craig Hamilton calls the “Deathbed perspective”. (In Integral Enlightenment, 2012). But why do we have to wait until we are so close to death? Why not now? Why not this year?
Don’t you see this? It’s not that death is the enemy, death is the reminder that all is impermanent, and only our having lived and made a difference is what matters.
Do we live another life beyond death? This is a question for your own faith. Near Death Experiences are almost universal: you go into a peaceful and welcoming light, beyond anxiety and fear. Numerous studies of children have been conducted wherein the child will recall details of their previous lives that they would have absolutely no way of knowing and yet are found to be close to 100 per cent accurate. How is that possible? At least one scientist posits that by the time we are eight years old we lost the ability to recall past lives possibly due to changes in our brains:
“By the time a child is eight years old s/ he has lost nearly 50% of the brains initial neurons, possibly including some containing previous life memories, and others are over-written with new short-term data for the prefrontal cortex to process. This may be the reason for previous life memory loss occurring at the same time as the completion of brain myelination. (Could it be that) the prefrontal cortex acts as a link connection with the dimension of your essence, that your essence is stored in that dimension, and that this means you’ll have eternal life” ( Biology and Physics of Eternal Life by Dr. Howard Jeffrey Bender)
Our theme for this month is imagination. I can think of no better place to explore this than with the imagination as to why we are here and where we are going. My imagination of the afterlife has taken me from absolute non-existence, to a Christian everlasting heaven and now a faith in reincarnation, after I die I believe that I will be in a transitional realm before being rejoined with another body in this expression we call life. What happens after we die is a mystery, but what we do with the life we have is ours to decide.
Dr. Bob had been gone for over a year. Three months after he died his wife died. They had been married for over 6o years. I missed him terribly. The small support group for seniors struggled on without his guiding hand. One day in that late California summer that passes for fall, I was hiking along the ridge above the coast Bob so loved. The sun hit the shrub oak in just that magical way that made it come alive with the warmth of suns long ago. For some reason I remembered Bob and I a favorite quote of his from Aaron Freeman on NPR in 2005:
“You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every Btu of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.
“And at one point you’d hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell her that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her eyes, that those photons created within her constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.” (From All Things Considered: https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4675953 )
Life after death or life after life. It is still good to be alive. Let us go on. Especially now. Shall we?