Last Lecture (or Sermon)
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Part One: Exposition of the Theme
About a year and a half ago, Computer Science Professor and Unitarian Universalist Randy Pausch delivered his “Last Lecture” as part of the Carnegie Mellon “Last Lecture Series.” Respected academics are asked to reflect on their lives, to consider what matters most to them, and then to deliver a ‘final discourse,’ a Last Lecture. The concept was: If you had one last lecture to give before you died, what wisdom would you offer your students and colleagues? They re-titled the series “Journeys” but Randy brought the old name back and poignantly brought back that original concept. Randy had been diagnosed with cancer earlier that year and had months left to live. It really was his ‘last’ lecture.
Unitarian Universalist minister Forrest Church had developed esophageal cancer in 2006 and was given months to live. Church delivered his ‘Last Sermon’ and was blessed to offer reprise and encore sermons as his cancer went into remission. He retired from the position of Senior Minister at All Souls in New York City, and became their Minister of Public Theology. Now every time he enters the pulpit, which has been only a handful of times over the past year, every time is his ‘Last Sermon.’ For decades Forrest Church has been saying. “Religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.” That has been the Forrest Church quote, and now, now he not only says it – he lives it.
From time to time ministers and professors take up this hypothetical topic, occasionally it really is the last time. Country songs, bluegrass and old-timey music will venture into this realm as well. There has been a song on the radio “Someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying.” The song tells of skydiving and bull riding, offering forgiveness and watching an eagle soar. There is a movie called “The Bucket List” that was quite good. The concept was based on the college assignment: make a list of things you want to do before you die, before you kick the bucket. What would you do? What advice would you impart to others? And if you were offered a chance to tell others about living and dying, what would you say?
I will answer the question myself, but I will also open our time up for any of you to offer your answer.
Part Two: My Last Sermon
If I were really facing one last chance to say something wise and important for you (and anyone who might find this talk later), I suppose it would center on this: Life is too serious to be taken so seriously. I once quipped at a minister’s meeting, “If we’re not having fun, why are we doing it?” In response, one of my colleagues suggested that this was surely my motto for ministry and for life. I’ve considered that. I’d meant it only as a joke, a flip response to whatever was under discussion at that moment; but in a way, Yes, that is my motto. If we’re not having fun, why are we doing it? Well, there could be many very good and important reasons to do something that is not fun. I’m not suggesting we stop doing things that are not fun, there are important things to do which we do because they must get done – not because they are fun. But then, couldn’t we add a little fun into it? I’m not recommending a personal hedonism to trump all else – simply the question: can we add some joy to the task? Can we have some light?
The light we can bring to the difficulties that surround is so valuable a contribution. My call for enjoyment amidst the travails of life is not simply caviler banter. Joy is a powerful agent for spiritual growth; and our capacity for joy is a sign of faith and maturity – both to find joy for ourselves and to offer joy to others. The rotten things in life do threaten to overwhelm; the news is filled with violence and fear, our lives are beset with loss and struggle. And yet there is beauty, and yet there is love. There is laughter and friendship and hope. We are more powerful and resilient then we usually give ourselves credit. And, interestingly, I suspect the root of this sort of strength and power lies not in having something or holding on to something. Instead this strength comes from learning to let go, from learning to open up and be vulnerable. This power and joy is borne of a certain form of forgiveness.
Recently during a conversation, someone commented that I was a forgiving person. I brushed the compliment off saying it came with the territory of being a minister. But in fairness, several people over the years have pointed out to me that I have a non-judgmental and forgiving character. I prefer to see it as being realistic. I feel it is important to have reasonable expectations of myself and others, and to balance those expectations with an appreciation that we are all bound to fail and make mistakes. Another friend once said, to make the point that I was the most non-judgmental person he knew, that if he ever ended up in prison he knew he could call me and I would not think less of him. And to flesh out the story, this friend is about the last person I would ever expect to end up in prison. I suppose I think of it theologically. As a Universalist I believe we are all loved and the power of that love is stronger than any mistakes we can make. This is a really good thing because we all make mistakes: big ones, little ones. We do it all the time.
This past week as we were beginning the Spirit of Life class I was trying to light the chalice. I was having trouble getting the candle to stay lit. After fumbling a few times, a good flame finally took. The next activity was to go around the circle and each say our name and identify a source of joy. Well, the first thought that came to my mind as I began this (my mind still on the fumbled candle lighting) was to say ‘I find joy in my mistakes.’ But that is not what I said out loud. For the group I named my children as a source of joy. This is certainly true (no mistake!); yet my first answer, though flip, holds a creative truth as well.
The mistakes you make count far less than the way you handle them. Do you wallow in them, do you let yourself be defeated by them, do you use them as an excuse to give up? Or you do get back up and begin again? Can you learn from your mistakes? If not, why bother having any! I think mistakes are valuable experiences. They remind us that we are not perfect.
The point of life is not to be perfect, it is not to be whole; the point is to shine your light through your brokenness. I offered a whole sermon on this point at the beginning of the year, but it bears repeating. Ease up, be more forgiving. And start with yourself. That part of the Great Commandment when it says to love your neighbor as yourself implies that must start with yourself. Your own mistakes, your own faults, sins, and failings, these are the cracks through which your compassion can shine. Be forgiving of yourself and begin to see a joy in your mistakes. They happen, you might as well enjoy them, learn from them, grow because of them. Be forgiving of yourself and begin to see how you can be forgiving of others. Begin to see the joy in other’s mistakes because you can take joy in your own. Some people take a perverse joy in the mistakes of others because it helps them to deny and disguise their own mistakes. I counsel the opposite: learn to laugh at your own broken self that you may help others learn to see and enjoy the same in themselves.
Now, the flip side of this is to not spend a lot of your time and energy on the negative things in life. What you pay attention to shapes your outlook of life. Pay attention to the good stuff, not dwelling on your mistakes. I’m not suggesting you spend a lot of time thinking about your mistakes. Instead, when you are faced with your faults and failures, find a way to learn from them, to forgive yourself of them, or to grow beyond them. Don’t dwell on them. Pay more attention to the good things in your life, seek out the good in yourself and in others. Pay more attention to the joy and the light.
So, there you go, that is my message: joy and forgiveness. Oh, also: tell your loved ones that you love them, use your life to bless others, and everyone should wear more purple.
In a world without end, may it be so