Thursday, March 5, 2015

Love and Death (9-28-08)

Love and Death
Rev. Jane Page
September 28, 2008
 
 
 
In one of the first classes I took in seminary, I received the assignment to write my obituary.  I considered the alternatives of possible deaths for me.
 
Jane Page dies in motorcycle race attempting jump over Beautiful Eagle Creek.
 
Jane Page dies of rare tropical disease after valiant efforts to help save the rainforests.
 
Or perhaps:
 
Jane Page shot by angry homophobic white supremacist.
 
In the end, since I could just “make this up” – I decided to have a long, full life, ministering and serving others in southeast Georgia, enjoying travel, music, and theater – and even teaching dancing late in life at the local Unitarian Universalist church.  I optimistically dated my death in the year 2056 and indicated that I died under hospice care surrounded by friends, family, and my faithful canine companion.   It was an interesting assignment to think about the conditions of one’s own death.  And I find it interesting that – given a choice – I would choose what some might consider a run of the mill death – rather than something more glamorous and exciting.  And it’s interesting that I would choose to die under hospice care – Yes DRUGS please – rather than go out without knowing what hit me.  Which brings me to one of Ric Masten’s poems.
 
It’s entitled:
“Poor Devil!” 

in my early twenties 
I went along with Dylan Thomas 
boasting that I wanted to go out 
not gently but raging 
shaking my fist 
staring death down 

however this daring statement 
was somewhat revised 
when in my forties I realized 
that death does the staring 
I do the down 

so I began hoping 
it would happen to me 
like it happened to the sentry 
in all those 
John Wayne Fort Apache movies 
found dead in the morning 
face down — an arrow in the back 
"Poor devil." 
the Sergeant always said 
"Never knew what hit him." 

at the time I liked that... 
the end taking me 
completely by surprise 
the bravado left in the hands 
of a hard drinking Welshman 
still wet behind the ears 

older and wiser now 
over seventy 
and with a terminal disease 
the only thing right about 
what the Sergeant said 
was the “Poor devil” part 

“Poor devil” 
never used an opening 
to tell loved ones he loved them 
never seized the opportunity 
to give praise for the sun rise 
or drink in a sunset 
moment after moment 
passing him by 
while he marched through his life 
staring straight ahead 
believing in tomorrow 
“Poor devil!” 

how much fuller 
richer and pleasing life becomes 
when you are lucky enough 
to see the arrow coming
Rev. Forrest Church would agree with Ric Masten on the great fortune of seeing the arrow coming.  Rev. Church shares many of his views on the theme of “Love and Death” in his recently published book by that same name.  And my reading of his book – is what prompted this sermon by that same name.  Now Greg reminded me that “Love and Death is also a Woody Allen movie – and I seem to recollect that delightful bit of satire.  But that exploration must be saved for another time.  Today I want to focus on Church – not this church – but the man Church and some of his ideas expressed as he contemplates this familiar theme during what is probably his last year of life. 
 
In case you’ve never heard of Forrest Church – let me first share a little about this man. 
His whole name is Frank Forrester Church, IV.  Yes, this is the son of Frank Church who served as senator of Iowa from 1957 to 1981..  Forrest Church says that one thing that has kept him grounded – even among some success as a preacher and author – is that he will never be as famous as his father.  He is certainly well-known, though, in Unitarian Universalist circles.  And although none of his books were international best sellers, they WERE best sellers among Unitarian Universalists and others who admire his thinking and writing.  These books include:
 
Father and Son:  A Personal Biography of Senator Frank Church of Idaho
The Devil and Dr. Church:  A Guide to Hell for Atheists and True Believers
Entertaining Angels:  A Guide to Heaven for Atheists and True Believers
The Seven Deadly Virtues:  A Guide to Purgatory for Atheists and True Believers
Everyday Miracles:  Stories from Life
A Chosen Faith:  An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism (with John A. Buehrens)
God and other Famous Liberals:  Recapturing Bible, Flag, and Family from the Far Right.
Life Lines:  Holding On (and Letting Go)
Lifecraft:  The Art of Meaning in the Everyday
The American Creed:  A Biography of the Declaration of Independence
Bringing God Home:  A Spiritual Guidebook for the Journey of Your Life
So Help Me God:  The Founding Fathers and the First Great Battle of Church and State
Love and Death:  My Journey through the Valley of the Shadow
 
Although Forrest Church was interested in theology and religion, he had no interest in the ministry.  His intention was to teach and write after receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard.  He was to be a religious scholar.  But All Souls Church in New York City issued an invitation for him to candidate with them.  According to Bill Sinkford:
 
The reluctant young man's first candidating sermon was a bomb. He had very little pulpit experience. He had been ordained but hadn't even begun to explore fellowship. He was not yet thirty. But during candidating week, he heard a call to the pulpit for the first time, loud and clear, and his second sermon won him the job.
 
The All Souls that Forrest joined thirty years ago, in the fall of 1978, was a midsized church. It was not uncommon for fewer than a hundred persons to attend Sunday worship. The professional staff consisted of Forrest and part-time directors of religious education and of music
.
Right from the start of Forrest's ministry, the growth was volcanic. For years now, it's not been uncommon for more than a thousand people to attend Sunday worship at All Souls.   In Forrest's hands, a sleepy congregation with a distinguished history became not only a very large church but also our nation's most visible exponent of liberal religion. And Forrest became the most widely heard Unitarian Universalist voice of his generation, in books, newspaper columns, on television, on radio, and in lectures from coast to coast and abroad.
 
Forrest is no longer the senior minister at All Souls Church.  He is now listed as the Minister of Public Theology and most of his work is done from his writing couch at home.  And, indeed, that is where he completed this book earlier this year.  And Forrest is doing well in his dying.  One reason perhaps, is that he had a trial run in 2006.  That’s when he was told that he had what appeared to be inoperable esophageal cancer.  “How long do I have?” he asked the doctor.  The doctor’s guess was simply, “months.”  He decided to wait to tell his congregation until he had clearer news – and that clearer news came ten days later when a CT scan indicated that the tumor was operable and appeared to be contained in the esophagus.  During that ten days, though, Forrest welcomed the opportunity to absorb this sudden news and ascertain his own reaction to a subject he’d been preaching about since the beginning of his ministry.  Here are his own words:
 
Having spent my entire working life preparing for death’s exam, I was curiously eager to sharpen my pencils and prepare for the coming test with a little attendant commotion as possible.  In retrospect, the most staggering thing about my reaction is that I cut straight to acceptance.  I embraced the diagnosis at its grimmest and began girding myself to die.  No disbelief.  No anger. No bargaining.  In fact, if anything, for a day or two I walked about in a pink cloud, feeling my death, getting used to it, finding my sea legs in what turned out to be remarkable gentle waters.  Was my theology working?
 
Although Forrest was accepting his death sentence, that didn’t mean that he was happy about dying, because he had LOTS of ongoing business that he had wanted to take care of – a book to be completed and plans with his loved ones. He realized that he may not be able to complete those plans.  But his acceptance abided in a deeper place.  He said that he realized that although he had much ongoing business – he felt he had no unfinished business.  He felt that he had made peace with himself, his fellows, and his God.
 
Many years ago, an older gentleman that I knew when I was active in First Baptist Church had come back to church after a life threatening illness.  I greeted him and shared how good it was to see him doing well and back at church.  His response was, “I can’t die yet.  I still owe money and I have to pay it back.”  This man was a friend of my dads.  And they had the same philosophy when it came to money.  How many times have I heard my dad say:  “I don’t want to owe ANYbody ANYthing.    Both of these guys would have been appalled to see what’s happened to our country now.  In any case, Forrest Church is also one that wants his bills paid – but he’s not referring to just finances. 
 
Forrest was feeling a little smug about having taken care of unfinished business when his wife, Carolyn, reminded him that there were others to think about as he prepared for death – especially their children.  Here are his words about that:
 
Mere acceptance, you see, was too easy, too selfish.  The network of relationships, which binds us, and sometimes enables us, with each other, has its own moral demands that we cannot meet on our own, only together.  So I was confronted with a new batch of unfinished business to take care or.  Much – not all, I’m sure, but much – of that business we, together, were able to attend to.  It was difficult, bracing, humbling, yes, and sobering, but finally healing, a healing that touched from soul to soul.
 
 
Oh, like many of you – I’ve witnessed that healing. As many of you know, my dad had Alzheimers.  Occasionally in his last days he would worry that he had not done something he needed to do, or paid someone he owed, or taken care of some business.  And sometimes he would even get up and say he needed to go to work to take care of something.  And Mama would assure him that he had already taken care of it…   That everything was done.  That he had taken care of everyone.  And he would relax.  I think my dad was able to let go on September 25, 2006 because he knew everything was okay.  He had done his best.  And my wonderful son Fred spent that last night with him telling him how much he had done for him and how he appreciated all he had taught him –and how he would do his best to live the kind of life my dad would want him to live.  And I smile when I think of my brother making sure that daddy knew that he would take care of mama and me and feed the dog and cut the grass.  And Mama and that last good kiss – you would have thought they were new lovers.  And me singing “Amazing Grace” as he moved his lips to the song.   
 
Forrest Church connects these activities with salvation.  He says:
 
Such salvation has three dimensions:  integrity, or individual wholeness, comes when we make peace with ourselves; reconciliation, or shared wholeness, comes when we make peace with our neighbors, especially with our loved ones; redemption, in the largest sense, comes when we make peace with life and death, with being itself, with God.
  Now when Forrest Church refers to God, he is not referring to “some puppet master pulling every string above this tiny globe as if the universe turned on how we behave here.”  Instead, his God is the very ground of our being – that which is greater than all and yet present in each. 
. 
During the days after his initial diagnosis, Forrest says that his theological mantras kept looping through his brain.  Here are those concepts that Forrest Church developed through the years.
 
Religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.
 
We are the religious animal; knowing that we must die, we cannot help but question what life means.
 
We are more alike in our ignorance than we differ in our knowledge.
 
God is not God’s name.  God is our name for that which is greater than all and yet present in each.
 
Whether or not there is life after death, surely there is love after death.
 
The one thing that can never be taken from us, even by death, is the love we give away before we die.
 
The purpose of life is to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for. 
 
Forrest states that even now – these propositions stand unchallenged at the heart of his faith. Yet – he says – the consolation they offered was intellectual, not emotional.  He said his soul needed something more bracing.  So he turned to a mantra that has guided his life since shortly after 9/11. 
 
Want what you have.
Do what you can.
Be who you are.
 
Of course, Forrest unpacks and explains and shares about all of these mantras in his writings.  And perhaps this sermon is more like the trailer for a film – to stimulate you to read his works.  In any case, I do not have time to unpack these in this sermon. 
 
Instead, I’ll move on to “the rest of the story.”
 
As it turns out, the surgery in 2006 was a success.  It took about three months of recuperation and some time for Forrest to get his voice back, but he was indeed back – having passed the test and gleaned valuable information in his own passage through the “valley of the shadow of death.” 
 
He returned to his preaching, his research and his writing – including some exciting books on the early history of our country.    He had been given a new lease on life and a new appreciation for every day that he had
 
I’m aware that there are those in our congregation who have had similar bouts with cancer or other illnesses and gained that same new lease and appreciation for each day of life.  Although I’ve had no close calls in my adult life – I’m truly blessed that I have been granted the amazing grace to recognize the gift that each day brings.  Perhaps it was because I grew up with whispers of folks marveling that the doctors and good Lord had saved me from what most thought would be a life-ending head injury when I was 3 ½.  In any case, I do not take this gift of life for granted. 
 
And that’s where the other part of this sermon comes in.  This sermon and Church’s book are about LOVE and Death. 
 
Some in this congregation have understandably expressed that the word LOVE is so overused that it’s lost any kind of sacred meaning for them.  Yet it’s still the word that many of us lift up when we share in that sacred and divine connection.  And it’s a word that many of us find acceptable regardless of our own differing theologies.  Indeed—for most of us – whether we lift up a divine creator, the natural world, spirits, gods, goddesses, sacred texts, this community, or the sacred within each of us – we lift up the better side, the compassionate side, the loving side. 
 
And when we face death – our own or the death of our loved ones, we are comforted by that Divine Love. 
 
The entire title of Church’s book is:  Love and Death:  My Journey through the Valley of the Shadow.  Of course Forrest is referring to a famous passage from Psalm 23.  Now like many of you – I read the Bible not for facts – but for poetry and metaphors and deep inspiration.  And the great thing about the Psalms is that they were WRITTEN to be read as poetry, metaphors and deep inspiration.  In the 23rd Psalm, the writer speaks of facing death and being comforted by that divine love – who he names simply – Lord.  And the metaphor he chooses is that of a Shepherd – one who guides, who nourishes, who provides safekeeping, comfort, and sweet, still, restful peace.  As I did my chaplaincy fieldwork at Northside Hospital in Altanta, this was the passage that I was called upon to read most often by family members or those lying in the hospital beds.
 
The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul.
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil:  for thou art with me; they rod and they staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.
Thou annointest my head with oil.
My cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
 
Forrest returned to that valley early this year.  And on February 4, 2008 he sent a letter to the members and friends of his church that his cancer had returned with a vengeance and that his time remaining was likely to be numbered in months, not years. 
 
On receiving the letter, a longtime parishioner, who had known her full share of death, wrote to Forrest of her heartache.  “My heart has been broken again,” Camille wrote, “and for that I am overwhelmingly thankful; without love this would not be possible.”
 
I’m sure that Camille must be happy today.  For, although the particular form of cancer that Forrest has is not curable, his chemo regimen is working and he has renewed his lease on life for the time being.  In fact today – at this very moment – he stands in the pulpit of the All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City as he preaches for the first time since April and celebrates his 60th birthday with that congregation.
 
Yet, he knows he has a death sentence.  We ALL have a death sentence.  We’re born with one. And then what?
 
Here’s how Forrest Church responds to that question:
 
After death our bodies may be resurrected.  Our souls may transmigrate or become part of the heavenly pleroma.  We may join our loved ones in heaven.  Or we may return the constituent parts of our being to the earth from which it came and rest in eternal peace.  About life after death, no one knows.  But about this we surely know:  there is LOVE after death.  Not only do our finest actions invest life with meaning and purpose, but they also live on after us….  The love that we have given to others is the one thing death can’t kill.
 
Forrest tells his readers goodbye at the end of his last chapter.  He writes:
 
I bid you farewell.
Go forth into this fragile, blessed world we share with laughter and tears at the ready.
Love, work, and serve to a fare-thee-well. 
And then, when your own time comes, let go.
Let go for dear life.
 
Amen
 
Introduction to Offertory
Bobby McFerrin translated the 23rd Psalm into more feminine language and dedicated his adaptation to his mother. 
 
As we share our gifts and offerings this morning, we provide his rendition of Psalm 23 as an offering of love in song.
 
The Lord is my shepherd, I have all I need. 
She makes me lie down in green meadows.  Beside the still waters, She will lead.
She restores my soul, She rights my wrongs,
She leads me in the path of good things, She fills my heart with songs.
 
Even though I walk, through a dark and dreary land,
There is nothing that can shake me, She has said She won’t forsake me, I’m in her hand.
She sets a table before me in the presence of my foes,
She anoints my head with oil, and my cup overflows.
 
Surely, surely goodness and kindness will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will live in Her house, forever, forever and ever.
Glory be to our Mother and Daughter and to the Holy of Holies,
As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be world without end. Amen.
 
 

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