Montag, 24. Oktober 2011

UU Theology IV - Love and Death

When a loved one dies, the greater the pain, the greater love's proof. Such grief is a sacrament. Sacraments bring us together. The measuer of our grief testifies to the power of our love. We can be crippled by grief, of course. There is such a thing as pathological suffering, which is any suffering that closes us off from others rather than connecting us to them. You can drown a soul with tears. This is not what I am talking about. I am talking about emtying ourselves that we may be filled, losing ourselves that we may be found, giving away our hearts even though they surely will be broken. But remembering that pain is a sign of healing. We cannot protect love from death. But by giving away our hearts, we can protect our lives from the death of love! It is in our lives and not in our words that our religion must be read. The irony is, by refusing to love we will have nothing left that is really worth protecting.
Martin Luther King lived in such a way that his life proved to be worth dying for. Especially when it came to love, he knew that the only things which are truly ours are those things we are prepared to give away.
We share the same fate. We are mysteriously given life, and for a brief time blessed with opportunities to love and serve and forgive one another as best we can.
Not to settle for who we are, but to stretch and become who we might be.
Death awakens me to life's preciousness and also its fragility. Many of the same guides who teach us how to live teach us also how to die. To live as if we are dying gives us a chance to experience some real presence. "Ok, dying tomorrow, what should I do today?"
It's a mystery. Who knows what happens after we die?
A proportional relationship exists between the fear of death and the fear of life. Until we can embrace death as (along with birth) one of the two essential thinges on which life turns, we remain, at least to a degree, in hiding. Doors locked and windows shuttered, we are unable to let in joy and fully experience love.
"I Love You Forever." The wisdom that love, and only love, never dies.
Simply put, everyone suffers. That is a given. Life is anything but fair. Not only does the rain fall but the sun also shines on both the just and the unjust. Just try to make sense of it. Yet all is not hopeless. Despite our ignorance and suffering, hope emerges in the lifelines that connect us. We cannot avoid adversity, loss or failure, but we do have a choice of how we will respond.
It takes courage to laugh, especially when the things we are struggling with are no laughing matter. The most healing aspect about the courage to laugh is that it keeps us from attaching addional strings to our troubles, no matter how seriously they are. Laughter - the mother of courage.
Rather than wondering why we don't have what she has and can't do what he does and can't be who they are, we take the opposite tack. We do what we can, want what we have, and embrace who we are.
Attending our own funerals: Did we take what God gave us and make the most of it? Did we overcame adversity when hard times came? Did we love our neighbor as ourselves? And did we make the world a more loving and interesting place? Could we be the grace that placed itself where lives were torn apart?
God leads me by the heart. When God dwells in my heart, I abide in God's presence.
We are not human because we think. We are humans because we care. All true meaning is shared meaning. The only thing that can never be taken from us is the love we give away.
Choose your enemies carefully, for you will become like them. Terrorism is powered by hatered. If we answer the hatred of others with hatred of our own, we and our enemies will soon be indistinguishable.
The Chinese ideogram for crisis juxtaposes two word-pictures: danger and opportunity. In Greek the word crisis means decision. In the weake of this tragedy, it is the decisions we make that will shape our character and (to a degree) drive the plot our lives will follow. The purpose of life is to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for. Yet the same thing that makes us more attentive to death can also bring us to life. Love conquers fear because it cannot die. Eternity is not a length of time; it is depth in time. We enter and meet there through the sacrament of love. Ultimately, the courage to be requires the courage to let go. Fear accompanies us all the way to the grave, but we needn't hold its hand or accept its cold comfort. The word sacrifice literally means "to render sacred". Where does courage answer death? - God is love; and love casts out all fear.
For this dance of love and death, forgiveness provides the music.
Death is love's measure, not only because at a loved one's death our grief, however we express it, is equal to our love, but also because, when we ourselves die, the love we have given to others during our own brief span of days is the one thing death can't kill.
God is not God's name. God is our name for that which is greater than all and yet present in each. Call it what you will: spirit, ground of being, being itself; it remains what it always has, a mysterium tremens et fascinans, an awe-inspiring, mindbending mystery. Theology is poetry, not science. During our brief span, we interpret the greatest and most mysterious masterpiece of them all, the creation itself. The creation is our book of revelation. We rely on the oracle of our own experience, drawn from our reading of the book of nature and of human nature, including our reading of the Bible and our study of philosophy. The text of meaning is vast, its nuances many and various.
The Cathedral of the World: There are multiple windows, each telling its own story of who we are, where we came from, where we are going, each illuminating life's meaning. In this respect we are many. But we are also one, for the one Light shines through every window. No individual, however spiritually gifted, can see this Light - Truth or God, call it what you will - directly. We cannot look God in the eye any more than we can stare at the sun without going blind. This should counsel humility and mutual respect for those whose reflections on ultimate meaning differ form our own. Theologically speaking, we are certainly more alike in our ignorance than we differ in our knowledge.
The acknowledgment of essential unity of all religions is the central pillar of my faith. In contrast, religious fundamentalists, rightly perceiving the Light shining through their own window, conclude that theirs is the only window thourgh which it shines. They may even incite their followers to throw stones through other people's window. Secular materialists make precisely the opposite mistake. Preceiving the bewildering variety of windows and worshippers, they conclude there is no Light. Mutual respect is important. We do not and must not permit stone throwing in the cathedral.
Why then do we choose to join together rather than exercise our full freedom to believe what we will in the privacy of our homes? Simply because experience has taught us that we need one another. Whenever a trapdoor (of death) swings or the roof caves in, don't ask "Why?" Why will get you nowhere. The only question worth asking is "Where do we go from here?" And part of the answer must be "together". Together we walk, holding each another's hands, holding each another up. Together we do love's work and thereby we are saved.
To be at home with life we must make our peace with death. Theology's heartbeat is the miracle of our own existence. This miracle encompasses both birth and death. To this miracle, we must each do everything in our human power to awaken. We may not understand any better than before who we are or why we are here. But our life becomes a sacrament of praise. We will join the dance of life with more exuberance.
How people respond to their own death announcements: Shock. Disbelief. Anger. Bargaining. And then - finally, yet only perhaps - acceptance. We cannot embrace our life fully until we find a way to accept our death. Accepting things we cannot change frees the spirit to attend to matters within our control. Being an agnostic about the afterlife, I look for salvation here - not to be saved from life, but to be saved by life, in life, for life. Such salvation has three dimensions: integrity, or individual wholeness, comes when we make peace with ourselves; reconsiliation, 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. All our lives end in the middle of the story. There is ongoing business left unfinished. We leave the stage before discovering how the story will turn out ...
Life may not be immortal, but love is immortal. Its every gesture signs the air with honor. Its witness carries past the grave from heart to heart.
If you are stuck, open a new chapter. Turn the page. Answers lock us in place. Questions lead us on adventures. Until life ends, no destination is final. Looking for new quesitions, not old answers. Begin small. Dream possible dreams. Set out to climb a single hill, not every mountain.
"What did I do to deserve this?" we ask when things turn against us, forgetting that we did nothing to deserve being placed in the way of trouble and joy in the first place. Mathematically, our death is a simple inevitability, whereas our life hinges on an almost infinite sequence of perfect accidents. There is an unbroken line genetically and kinetically to the instant of creation. Think about it. The universe was pregnant with us when it was born. Dust to dust. And in between, erupting into consciousness - into pain and hope and trust and fear and grief and love - the miracle of life! We are never closer than when we ponder the great mystery that beats at the heart of our shared being.
Little hints of eternity in time: Albert Schweitzer spoke of this principle as reverence for life. We are part of, not apart from, a vast and mysterious living system. Mystics of every faith proclaim this sense of oneness. Thus the Brahman-Atman relationship of Hinduism, the sense of nirvana of the Buddhists, and the concept of Jesus that "I and the Father are One." - Mystical oneness! The great religious seers have all recognized that beyond the intellectual realm lies a numinious oneness that transcends all differences, call it the Holy, the divine Spirit, God - it doesn't matter. Divine kinship as children of one great mystery, children of God, the mother, creator, consoler, and comforter.
Some reflections on reimagining God: Responding to life-and death questions, we have reinvented and thereby rediscovered the Holy throughout the centuries. Consider our ancestors, the searchers who came before us. Being with cave dwellers - hunters and gatherers - for whom the greatest imaginable powers were forces of nature. When agriculture replaced hunting and gathering, these deities became female. "God" became "Goddess"; pro-creation, creation; birth, life. Later, with the city-state, power came wrapped in the robes of authority. "God" was now Lord or King, protector, enforcer, and judge. A breakthrough in this view of the divine nature arrived with the Hebrews, who blieved that their God and King was the only God and King. Less an imperialistic than an ethical development, this lead them to attribute their failures not to another stronger God, but to their own shortcomings. With Jesus, God became Father (in fact, Daddy, or "Abba"), a far more intimate authority figure. When Copernicus displaced us from the center of the universe, in reimagining God one group of scientists and theologians seized upon a metaphor better suited to their new worldview. God became the Watchmaker, who created the world, set it ticking, and then withdrew to another corner of the cosmos. This is the God of the deists, a God icy and remote, still transcendent but no longer personal. And it seams that to our postmodern time a reflexive God might be an option worth thinking of. We become cocreators with God in an unfolding, intricate drama of hitherto unimaginable complexity. No longer merely actors on God's stage, by this reading of creation history, we are participants in the scripting of God's drama.
I've never needed biblical miricales to confirm my faith. It's not the supernatural, but the super in the natural, that I celebrate. Following the spirit, not the letter, of the Scriptures, my abiding touchstones are awe and humility.
The surest path to God (the Sacred or the Holy) is to follow not the logic of our minds but the logic of our hearts! We discover the Holy - its healing and saving power - by acting in harmony. Remember, God is simply our name for the highest power we know. If we define god as love, we discover God's nature in our personal experience of love. We are born into a great mystery. We die into a great mystery. In between, what we know of God we learn from love's lessons. Love teaches us the difference between what is holy and what is diabolical. When we act in concert with our higher selves and embrace our neighbors, we act in the presence of all that is divine. Conversely, the demonic divides us against our higher selves and from our neighbor. God is not all-knowing or all-powerful, but all-loving and all-merciful. When love dwells in our hearts, we dwell in God's presence. Does this answer the question "Why?". No. Final answers to ultimate questions lie far beyond the ken of human understanding. We keep asking, of course. It's the nature of our being, the nature of our quest. (Der Mensch, das rätselnde Wesen.)
No one knows whether heaven actually exists. All we can say with any confidence about the afterlife is that it cannot be any stranger or more unexpected than life before death! Plato speaks of "jewels of the soul" that we perceive "through a glass dimly" as the most valuable prizes on our human treasure hung. Saint Paul wrote, "Now we see through a glass darkly, then face to face." "Surely unto God all things come home," affirms the Koran. "God will be there and wait till we come." (Walt Whitman). "Be the lamps unto yourselves. Hold to the truth within yourselves as the only lamp." Buddha preached in his farewell sermon. And Socrates: "The difficulty, my friends, is not to avoid death, but to avoid evil; for it runs faster than death ..."
I certainly don't believe in hell. I am a Universalist. I am confident that when we die, we will all experience peace. The peace of extinction is different from the peace of fulfillment, of course. Yet, whether to fullfillment or extinction, when God carries us home it will be to a place of eternal rest. We come from God and return to God. "Having passed through the valley of the shadow of death, we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."
Born sunny-side up, I wanted all my endings to be happy ones. That may, in part, explain my lifelong attempt to reclaim death as the most natural thing imaginable, a well-planted period or, in some rare instants, an exclamation mark placed at the end of our life story.
However sourrounded we may be by love, we each die alone. And who knows, part of the process of dying may encourage us to release oursleves form all our earthly bonds so that we may leave in greater peace. 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.
That said, will my love live on forever? I believe so. And your love, too. It will certainly live on after your death, continuing to touch from heart to heart long after you have gone...

We are the religious animal; knowing that we must die, we cannot help but question what life means. - The wonder that lies between the sacred moments of our birth and death.
Forrest Church. 2008. Love & Death - My Journey through the Valley of the Shadow. Beacon Press, Boston. Forrest Church was senior minister at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in New York City. He was educated at Standford and Harvard University. He wrote this book while knowing that he will soon die of terminal cancer.

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