Sunday, January 9, 2011

"A child is born, the old must die"

(Note to Reader: This sermon is the sixth in the Rev. Jane Page's “Let it be a Dance” series based on phrases from that popular song from our Unitarian Universalist hymnal.)

Ric Masten’s popular UU hymn “Let it be a Dance” includes the words – “A child is born, the old must die.” A perfect illustration of that is seen in those metaphorical figures Father Time and Baby New Year. When one year ends, we represent that as an old bearded man with a cane – waving good-bye, making his exit – so that Baby New Year can take over. And we understand that this is the way it has been from the beginning of time. Stars are born ----and eventually – they will burn out and die and their star dust gives life to something new. Similarly, new cells emerge in our bodies as others die – so it is with all of life. But we’ve evolved with reproduction and survival as strong, primary needs. And that can sometimes present problems.

All of this leads me to what I suppose is a statement of the main message of this sermon – and it’s one that may be somewhat controversial. Some of you may agree with this message and others may not. And that’s okay – because we are Unitarian Universalists and as the Unitarian martyr Francis David said, “We do not have to think alike to love alike.”

So here it is:

Human beings must stop having so many babies and stop the insanity of prolonging life no matter what.

Fortunately, much of the world has caught on to the idea of limiting births. But we are not there yet. Here’s a quote from a December 2010 report published by the population institute.

“Currently some 6.8 billion people inhabit the Earth. Scientists estimate that by 2050 that number will rise to 9 billion before leveling out. Environmentalists say that overpopulation is leading to worsening climate change, unsustainable resource use, mass extinction, deforestation, pollution, and food and water shortages.”

Now of course, you can also find information on the internet which says that we don’t have to worry – that if we just use more nuclear energy, etc., everything will be all right and that our earth CAN support a population of up to 15 billion. But that’s just one retired scientist with a blog – and frankly, although he *could* be right, I don’t see us moving in that direction anyway, and I’d prefer to err on the side of those hoping for population limits – just in case.

One big problem we face is feeding people.
According to a recent International Food Policy Research Institute report:
The challenge of reaching sustainable food security and delivering on it through 2050 is daunting. Our starting point, in 2010, is a world with unacceptable levels of poverty and deprivation, as is clear from the 2010 report on the Millennium Development Goals. Progress will be made more difficult by two looming challenges: a growing world population and increasingly negative productivity effects from climate change.
(Food Security, Farming, and Climate Change:  Scenarios, Results, and Policy Options)
While food production kept pace with, and at times exceeded, population growth in the last century, satisfying the world’s demand for food is getting tougher and tougher. The report warns that higher food prices are here to stay and they provide some specific data to back this up. Now, of course, this analysis and these predictions by this research institute could be wrong. The experts have a lot of difficulty predicting things like this. This was noted by the Population Institute in their December 2010 report.
Ten years ago, many experts were confident that we could, by 2015, reduce the number of chronically hungry people in the world by half, but last year the number of hungry people in the world crossed the one billion mark for the first time in history.  Four years ago, virtually no one was predicting that the prices of corn and wheat would double in the next two years, and that rice prices would triple, but they did. In June of this year, with ample food reserves, no one was anticipating that wheat and corn prices would jump by 50 percent or more in the next four months, but they did.

Another huge problem with population growth is clean water and air. While some Green organizations like “Friends of the Earth” and “Greenpeace” steer away from the population factor because it is controversial, the Sierra Club makes no bones about their stance on this. They provide some pretty heavy data about this and then state:

"All of our environmental successes may be short-lived if they do not include efforts to address population growth."

So – what can we do?

The United Nations Population Fund estimates that it would cost just $3.6 billion a year more to provide family planning services to the estimated 215 million women in the world who want to avoid a pregnancy, but who are not using a modern method of birth control. So making more efforts to fund that (rather than wars) would be a start.

And of course, we ourselves need to continue, I believe, limiting births here in the United States. Then perhaps we wouldn’t be so concerned about folks immigrating here. Now you say – but we Americans are not the ones having way too many babies. Perhaps not – but our babies are the ones who grow up to use up way too many of the world’s resources leaving huge carbon footprints. And if we are not going to do a better job with pre-natal care, then our babies are going to be having lots of difficulties too.

Another reason I’m bringing this up is my concern of our glorification on television of returning to large families. Reality shows like “Kate plus Eight” and “Nineteen and Counting” – make big stars out of large families. And shows like “16 and Pregnant” -- while showing some of the difficulties of young pregnancy – also tend to make it seem like others CAN make it and be happy – so, you don’t have to worry too much about abstaining or using birth control. (And yes, I’ve seen all of these shows once or twice – which is MORE than enough.)

Of course¸ I have lots of difficulties with the way China has implemented its limitation policy, But, I’m certainly understandable of the need to do something. Now I recently stated the idea to a family member that we ought to limit births – even in the United States. And she AGREED – but added – unless you can afford a large family. So – her idea (and probably many folks would agree) is that if you are poor – you should have these limits placed on you, but if you are rich – you can have all the children you want because you don’t have to have food stamps, etc. I politely disagreed with her – because the rich family still has all their kids – and then the multiplied grandkids, etc. using our highways, polluting our air, needing our public services, etc. They ARE a cost to our society. And, it would only be FAIR to limit everyone.

Now I know that this is an extreme position and will probably NOT happen. But, we could at least have INCENTIVES for limiting births or undergoing sterilization procedures after having the babies you want – hopefully just a couple. At the very least, sterilization should be FREE and easy to access.

I knew after I had two children that two was enough for me. And I would like to be able to tell you that it was because of all these concerns I’m lifting up today. But basically – it was because I knew of my own limitations. Well, I had a hard time finding a doctor who would do my tubal ligation – simply because I was in my twenties. And some of my family members gave me a hard time. My grandmamma told me that I might change my mind and want more – or that something might happen to one of mine – then I’d want another. I don’t think so!! And then there were those who asked, “But, don’t you want a little girl?” “Well, yeah – but I’m not going to keep having boys till I get one!” This was back in the70’s – but you hear the same kinds of things today.

SO --- While I love that we have these wonderful children here – and I love my grandsons – and enjoy rocking all your babies, I’m just sayin….. You know? Let’s begin to lift up the goodness and value of limiting childbirths – instead of heralding the family with 19 children.

So a Child is born – hallelujah! And what is that other part of Masten’s phrase? “The old must die.” Now I know I need to be careful with this. There are those here who may be dealing with terminal illnesses with family members or even yourself. And all end-of-life discussions can be painful. So, I need for you to know that it is not my intention to stimulate any frustration or anxiety for you related to this subject. But I sort of made a pact with the Divine within me – that I would follow through with these topics that I listed from Masten’s song this year – and see where they led me. And this particular phrase leads me… to lift up our need to let go of life – for our loved ones and ourselves. Now I know this may be easy for ME to say now – standing up here relatively healthy. And I may well change my mind when I feel death closing in on me. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if I didn’t feel differently since we are SO programmed to survive. But I surely hope that I can be like the Rev. Forrest Church who died in September 2009, – and be content with my death. If you were here in 2008, you may remember the sermon I did based on his book on “Love and Death.” It’s online if you missed it. Here are a couple of quotes from Forrest Church that I especially like.

"The one thing that can never be taken from us, even by death, is the love we give away before we die."
And 2nd,
"The purpose of life is to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for."

I believe it is necessary for us to start educating ourselves and others to think in these terms of accepting and embracing death– rather than grasping at the idea of finding any way possible to stay alive.

About a week ago, I saw part of a documentary on CNN called, “Cheating Death.” And it was about a special group of folks who had died with heart attacks -- -but who had been brought back to life. One of the folks they interviewed was in a situation where her heart had stopped for 56 minutes – with people continually trying to bring her back with the defibrillator at her work site and then with shocking her heart in the hospital emergency room. The emergency room doctor said, “We’ll try three more times.” Then the next one worked. And this woman seemed to be fine. But she was certainly the exception – in that MOST people doctors brought back after that length of time would have severe brain damage. Yet that doctor kept trying? Why? And another doctor said that even though he eventually quits, he thinks – “you know, ten years from now, I probably could have saved him.” What is this emphasis on keeping folks alive – even at the extreme risk of brain damage? Sange Gupta asked the woman what message she would give folks from her experience, and she said, “Never give up. Never, never give up.” Really?

Maybe part of the problem is with our vocabulary around death and the end of life. We don’t like to “give up.” We’re Americans. We’re in a battle with death and we have to WIN. And I do understand the need to have a positive view of outcomes when you are treating disease. But, if we are viewing death as an enemy – then yes, of course we are not supposed to give up. But death is not my enemy. Hopefully she will be my last good friend. My bff.

I am so glad that many folks are now completing advanced directives and living wills and accepting hospice care – where health care professionals provide services that address the symptoms of end of life issues and provide comfort – rather than trying to cure you. My dad was under hospice care when he died, and I’m very grateful. But he should have been under their care a whole lot earlier. I mean – the doctors were still going to some pretty unusual lengths to keep his heart working as well as possible -- even after he had advanced Alzheimer’s. I think my mom would have opted for hospice for my dad earlier – but it wasn’t brought up as an option by the doctors. And my mom basically followed the direction of the doctor. Finally, after they had to switch doctors because my dad’s primary physician moved, the new doctor asked my mom, “What are your goals for your husband? What are you hoping for? “She responded – “I’d just like him to be as comfortable as he can.” And the doctor said, “Then you need to consider hospice care,” – and explained it to her. Now my mom KNEW something about hospice – but I think she would have felt guilty bringing it up herself. She NEEDED for a doctor to initiate these end of life issues with her. And that is why I was so glad to hear that the “end-of life counseling” part of Obama’s original health care plan (referred to by Sarah Palin as “death panels”) had been re-established by the administration’s new ground rules for annual Medicare check-ups. WAIT --- HOLD THE PRESSES! While I was working on this sermon Wednesday night – that changed. I went on the web to check my facts – and low and behold I read the following that had just been posted to the Washington Times page:

“Reversing a politically delicate decision, the Obama administration will drop references to so-called "end-of-life" counseling from the ground rules for Medicare’s new annual checkup, the White House said Wednesday.”

I’ve decided not to share the words that actually came out of my mouth at that time.

Now please know – I have no problem with the idea that people are trying to be healthy – and that coupled with good medical practices means that people ARE living longer. I delight in being around folks like my 91 year old friend, Roxie Remley – who still drives herself to plays and art exhibits, and enjoys traveling and producing new art work. How wonderful! And thankfully Roxie retired under Georgia’s Teachers Retirement System – so she’s going to get her check each month. But a new problem we are facing with living longer now – and this is a special concern with all of those in my generation – is that you will outlive the money you may have been planning on using for your retirement years. And that the current entitlements that older folks depend on – may not be there for you. So – if we are going to continue to encourage this idea that medical science find ways to help folks live on and on and on, we are going to need to address the question of where those supportive resources are going to come from. I don’t have answers to this – I’m just saying, we can’t have our cake and eat it too.

But living long, healthy, lives is not my primary concern – it’s living long lives with lots of pain and struggle and great sorrow for both you and your family members.

Now while, I’m sticking my neck out, I’ll go ahead and put it right on the chopping block for some of you and say: I am totally supportive of not only of assisted suicide, but also of euthanasia when the individual is not capable of carrying this out themselves, but has expressed this possibility in a legal document or to their power of attorney, if they even have those capabilities. Oregon now has legal assisted suicide using prescribed medication for that purpose. But my understanding from reading up on this is that it sometimes takes as long as 11 hours to die after you take this prescribed medication. What’s up with that? I KNOW it can be done quickly in the right way. I’ve witnessed that – and so have some of you. I had the experience of being with my son John and his dog, Welcome, at her last visit to the veterinarian. And some of you may have read my October newsletter article or blog about this. It included these recollections:

John and I shared our love with Welcome as the doctor administered the sacred, wondrous medication that would take her so gently and quickly away. And I sang one of our favorite UU songs: “Go now in peace, go now in peace. May the spirit of love surround you, everywhere, everywhere, you may go.” And she was gone.

And my last statement in that article was this:

I am so very grateful that we were able to allow Welcome to have this welcome relief and not suffer anymore. Oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could be as humane with our human family members? May it one day be so!

Ric Masten said: “A child is born, the old must die.” Similarly, in days of old, the teacher from Ecclesiastes reminded his students of these inevitabilities. He wrote: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven! “ -- Then listed the possibilities, and the first thing listed was ….

“A time to be born, and a time to die.”

And what about between those two sacred moments?
Let it be a dance we do, May I have this dance with you,
In the good times and the bad times too,
Let it be a dance!


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