Sunday, November 24, 2019

A Place to Honor Life and Death


A Place to Honor Life and Death
Rev. Jane Page
October 27, 2019


What are we here for? – Here at this place – the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro.  So far in this sermon series, we’ve examined the following purposes for our presence:

This is:

A Place for Community

A Place to respond to the injustices of the world

A place to share our time, talents, and treasure

A place to celebrate who we are – with a special focus on gender and sexuality.

And today we are examining how this should be a place to honor life and death.


Every Unitarian Universalist congregation has its own ways of celebrating life and marking life transitions. We share our joys and sorrows, supporting one another through difficulty and success. From birth to death, UU congregations help us live with deeper gratitude, greater connection, and more reverence for life.

We honor and celebrate rites of passage ceremonies, including our baby and child blessing ceremony, and bridging ceremony from youth to adult, wedding ceremonies and of course, memorial services.  Unitarian Universalists have great memorial ceremonies, don’t we?  Now that’s not an encouragement that we have any in the near future – but when our time comes, we all know it will be well-done.  


So, we come here to honor and celebrate life and all of it’s ups and downs and transitions.  But today, as we approach that time of year when many religions and cultures honor the dead, I want to focus more on how we all deal with the subject of death – because that’s a little harder – since none of us have personally been there.  We may have been close – and I know some of you have been on the verge.  And we may have been death – adjacent, in that our very close loved ones have died.  But none of us have been pronounced as dead, I don’t believe.  So, who are we to talk about it?  More specifically – who am I to talk about it?  Well, I’m your minister.  And I think it’s important to explore and think about that one transition that every single one of us will share.  No one is exempt.  We all will die.  


Now it’s not something we necessarily focus on unless we are required to do it.  That occurred to me when I was in seminary at Meadville Lombard.

In one of the first classes I took, I received the assignment to write my obituary.  I considered the alternatives of possible deaths for me.



Jane Page dies in motorcycle accident attempting jump over Beautiful Eagle Creek.  (Actually, I had a motorcycle at that time in my life.) 

 OR

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 a fascinating 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 gently under hospice care, without all those invasive procedures that tend to keep one alive for no good reason – and with DRUGS please – rather than , perhaps, 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



And, indeed, UU minister and poet Ric Masten did see that arrow with his terminal disease – and he did take those marvelous opportunities.  Well – we don’t have to be pronounced with a terminal disease folks – because the arrow is coming – maybe today – or maybe in 2056 – but it’s coming.  


Rev. Forrest Church, was another UU minister who thought he didn’t have long for this world when he began working on his book – “Love and Death.”  


Now I’ve quoted him and drawn information and inspiration from his writings before in this pulpit.  But I had to struggle a bit before I shared today.  You see, since the “Me Too” phenomenon, many UU women ministers have declared that they will no longer use his materials.  You see, after misconducting in 1990 by having an affair with a member and breaking up two families while a minister at All Souls in New York, his congregation did vote to keep him and he received only a slap on the wrist from UUA and UUMA.  His prestige, charisma, and privilege carried him through.  I don’t believe that would happen today.  But it did and Forrest continued his work and his writing.  He did quit his drinking and his philandering,  and seemed – perhaps – to be a little more humble about it all in the end.  His words continue to inspire me.  Perhaps I see this differently from my fellow women ministers, because I’ve been the wife of a charismatic man who had that same philandering problem and in the 90’s fell in love with his graduate assistant -- ending not only our own marriage, but that of a family with two young children.  Yet, when I run into his former students and they share with me what a difference he made in their lives, I honor that good work with them.  I have forgiven him and I do lift up all those good things that he has done in his life.  We all are flawed.  And Forrest Church was as well.  But he had some good stuff to share and I’m going to use it today. 


The year was 2006 when Forrest began thinking more seriously about his own Death.   

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.



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 dad’s.  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.”  Forrest Church was also one that wanted his bills paid – but he was not referring to just finances. Although HE had accepted his death, he realized there were others to think about.



 He writes:

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 Alzheimer’s.  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. 

Now Forrest was lucky in a way – that he had a diagnosis which prompted him to have the conversations that are so important to have with our loved ones.  We all need to do this – to have some healing – and also to let them know what our wishes are regarding our dying.  Even if we’ve done those Advanced Directives or Living Wills.  By the way – put them so that they can easily be found.  A copy of mine is in an envelope on our refrigerator. 

 

During the days after his initial diagnosis, Forrest says that his theological mantras kept looping through his brain.  I’m going to share those mantras with you – and I’m not using a PowerPoint – so listen carefully.  I’ll also post this sermon so you can read them later.  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 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.



And that’s the primary mantra that I’ve adopted for my life as well. 

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. 



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.  This Psalm is attributed to King David – another flawed and complex man, who faced death many times.  Now in his Psalm – David refers to what I might call “Divine Love” as Lord – because that was his perspective of it – and he uses the metaphor of a shepherd – because that’s an activity that he knew well.  The Psalm is often used to help folks relax within that Divine Love (called by many names) and let go.  In my work attending those UUs who have been close to death, I’ve had no requests for this psalm.  But, 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.  In the traditional King James language:



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; thy rod and thy 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 in 2008.  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.”



We will all enter that valley.  Indeed, 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.



May it be so for us all! 

Amen

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