Love and Death
Rev. Douglas Taylor
This past Wednesday was the beginning of Lent for our Christian brothers and sisters. Perhaps you noticed, as I did, people in the grocery store with ashes on their foreheads. “From dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.” (Genesis 3:19) I attended an Ash Wednesday service with my daughter many years ago, primarily just to see what it was all about. Having grown up Unitarian Universalist I am sometimes overtaken by a curiosity and longing to see and experience what many UUs experienced in childhood before finding this faith.
My daughter and I sat through the Ash Wednesday service, listened to the scripture lessons, the prayers, and the homily – which was quite remarkable. The minister used passages from a modern Buddhist meditation book, drawing comparisons to Lent. He also talked about his experiences as a young employee of a local grocery store, reflecting on how they had to close the store once a year to do a full inventory of their stock and how that is what Lent is like. We have to close the store and take stock.
Then we went up through the lines of worshipers to get a smudge of ash across our foreheads in the sign of the cross. “From dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.” You are mortal. You will die. Wear this mark on your face all day; you will likely forget it is there but you will see the reactions of people around you and suddenly you well remember. You are dust; you are mortal; you will die.
I know the major theme of Lent is around the discipline of abstaining, of giving something up, of sacrificing for Jesus. Through prayer, charity, and self-denial, the practicing Christian is preparing for holy week. Prayer, charity, and self-denial are what the 40 days are about; but the last one, self-denial, is what everyone talks about, what everyone sees.
But what I was struck by most in the Ash Wednesday service I attended was not the prayer, charity or even the self-denial. It was the experience of being asked to face my own mortality. I am dust. I am mortal. I will die. If I were in charge of all the rituals I would ease up on the renunciation and self-denial aspect of Lent and focus on the facing of mortality; but not in a lugubrious manner. I would set it up as a challenge, as a reminder to live life more fully. If I were in charge of Lent we would have no more of this giving up luxuries and vices temporarily. I mean, if you’re going to give up vices, just do it. And as for luxuries, well … I can see the deep value in that that, but that’s another sermon. Still, I would shift the Lenten focus. Instead of sacrifice and self-denial, we would celebrate life amidst the sharp contrast of death.
If I were in charge of the ritual, I would probably make us all listen to that song that was popular on the radio a few years back. It was a little bit country, but that is to be forgiven. The chorus said: “someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying.” The story in the song was of a man who learned he had a terminal disease and instead of moping or feeling bad he went sky-diving and bull-riding. When you are aware of your impending death, you treat each day as something precious.
There was an old bluegrass song I remember hearing on the radio one time that talked about a cemetery where the dates listed on people gravestones would span months, not years. The explanation given was not that these graves were for children, rather the dates represented the amount of time these people actually spent fully living – a very small percentage of their actual lives to be counted in months rather than in years. If I were in charge of Lent, we would listen to that song.
And if Bluegrass and Country music are not suited to your taste I suppose – for you – I would be willing instead to offer up the same message through lines from a Mary Oliver poem when she says “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.” Or I might share a Henry David Thoreau quote: “I wish to learn what life has to teach, and not, when I come to die, discover that I have not lived.” Or, I could simply acquaint you with the life’s work of Rev. Forrest Church.
Unitarian Universalist minister Forrest Church has famously said that death is central to religion. The exact quote is “Religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.” That has been the Forrest Church quote because he not only said it and it preached it for many years – he lived it. “Religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.” Church developed esophageal cancer in 2006. After a successful operation, the cancer returned in the spring of 2008 and he was given months to live. Church delivered his ‘final sermon’ in 2008. He was blessed to offer what he thought to be his final sermon a total of five times as his cancer went into remission. Prior to his death, which did finally arrive in September of 2009, he had arranged to have his final two books published just after his death. One book was on contemporary Universalist theology and the other was titled Love and Death.
“Religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.” This short sentence outlines the human search for meaning. This brief theological summery by Church opens up the whole conversation of why we long to have a life that matters, a life with love. “Knowing we must die, we question what life means,” Church wrote. “Death is not life’s goal, only life’s terminus. The goal is to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for. This is where love comes into the picture. Then one thing that can’t be taken from us, even by death, is the love we give away before we go.”
In Church’s theology, Love is the counterweight to Death. Love is what makes death and life meaningful. Love is also what gives death its sting, for if we did not love it would not hurt so much to lose people in our lives.
There is a Buddhist story I considered using for the children’s story this morning: the Mustard Seed. In the story, a child dies and the mother is greatly distraught. She carries her dead child to her neighbors and to physicians asking for their help. Finally she arrives at the feet of the Buddha and asks for his help. The Buddha says, “I can help you. I will mix a cure for the child. You must fetch me a handful of mustard seed.” The young mother joyfully starts to leave on this errand but the Buddha stops her saying, “The mustard seed most come from a house that has known no death, where no one was lost a child or spouse or parent or dear friend.”
She goes to the first house on the street and asks for mustard-seed. The people in that house, recognizing her, take pity and offer her many handfuls of mustard seed. “Here, take all you need.” But then she is forced to ask, “Has a child or parent or spouse or dear friend died in this family?” They sadly answer her, “Alas we have known death; please do not remind us of our deepest grief.” And so it was as she went through the whole town and through all the villages, she found no other answer. There was no house but that some beloved one has died therein. “How selfish I am in my grief!” the young mother finally cried out in understanding. “Death is common to us all.” She then returned to the Buddha to bury her dead child and find comfort in the Dharma.
It seems to me there are two things here, the task of facing my own death and the task of facing the death of those whom I love. The task of facing my own mortality is a challenge. That task, I think, is to come to a sense of peace within myself about my own death. But as this mustard seed story highlights, the task of facing the mortality of others whom I love is quite a different challenge. That task, I think, is to still seek a sense of peace but only after wrestling with the grief, the loss, and the love.
I stand here in a particular position: I have never lost a close member of my family. Grandparents, yes; all my grandparents have died, a few of them while I have been an adult. But I have not lost a parent or a sibling, a spouse, best friend, or child. So take what I say with that grain of salt. Still I tell you that the task of facing the mortality of those whom we love is not a greater challenge, just a very different one from that of facing our own mortality.
I did have the opportunity as a teenager to face the possibility. My mother has serious scoliosis which required a full spinal fusion in the mid-80’s. As a minister, my mother was perhaps not exactly comfortable with the topic of death but at least willing to be open about the real possibility. She drew up her will, she had power-of-attorney papers ready, her doctors and family all were aware of her “no-extrodinary measures” wishes in case something went wrong during the surgeries. Nothing went wrong. But it was an uncertain and anxious process.
That I had this opportunity to consider the death of a loved one without a loved one actually dying is not so remarkable alone. More remarkable is it that I took the opportunity. Rather than deny the real potential of her death, I considered it – allowed myself to feel what it might feel like. Years later I still remember that I seriously entertained the possibility. And to this day I am aware of how privileged I am and continue to be that this was an intellectual and emotional exercise for me rather than a lived reality.
When we are young it is thankfully uncommon to experience the death of a loved one. With the addition of years, the chances of this particular form of suffer increases steadily. With the addition of years, you are less likely to be able to give your mustard seed away to a bereaved seeker. But then, that really is not the point. The point is not to give mustard seed but to offer comfort and consolation.
All life is suffering and our suffering is due to attachment, says Buddhism. As the story of the mustard seed teaches, there is a way out of suffering. The word “Dukkha” is easily translated as suffering, but it may perhaps be better translated as ‘impermanence.’ It is because of the impermanence that living is precious. It is precisely because living is finite that we value it. Learning to love in the face of impermanence, knowing that in the end there will be suffering is the heart of this small story.
A memorial reading I often think of when preparing a service is titled, “The Cost” by Dorothy Monroe.
Death is not too high a price to pay
for having lived. Mountains never die,
nor do the seas or rocks or endless sky.
Through countless centuries of time, they stay
eternal, deathless. Yet they never live!
If choice there were, I would not hesitate
to choose mortality. Whatever Fate
demanded in return for life I’d give,
for, never to have seen the fertile plains
nor heard the winds nor felt the warm sun on sands
beside the salty sea, nor touched the hands
of those I love – without these, all the gains
of timelessness would not be worth one day
of living and of loving; come what may.
Death is a natural part of life, a part that is filled with sorrow for the loss and anxiety for the unknown of what is next. Sorrow and anxiety are Death’s companions. There is a way to grow less anxious and it is worth pursuing. I can become less anxious about my own death by living the best possible life I can live, by coming to terms with the reality that everything alive in the universe dies eventually.
Death is also filled with sorrow. And there is a way to take the sorrow out of death, but it is not worth pursuing – because the way to remove sorrow from death is to not care. May we never grow insensitive to the pain of another person. May we never consider indifference to be an option over suffering. Every memorial service I have done is concluded with this benediction,
Blessed are those who cherish the sacred memory of those who walk with us no more, having achieved serenity in the knowledge that bereavement comes only where love abides. Out of sorrow shall come understanding; through sorrow you are joined with all that live.
Death is a natural part of life. But until death’s time, life is full of beauty and love and courage. Love is the counterweight to death.
I remember an older lady from the previous congregation I served before coming here. Ilse was dying, she insisted on being home not in a hospital. She had many friends around her, many members of the congregation. She had taught Sunday School for 39 consecutive years and was upset she could not teach during her last year to make it a round 40! During her last weeks she would call and ask me to come visit her, to pray with her and to sing to her.
One of her daughters told me that she roused them all in the middle of the night, waited for those who lived a few minutes away to arrive, and gathered them around her bed. She looked each one in the eye and told them she loved them and said goodbye. She closed her eyes and took a few breaths. Then she opened her eyes again and said, “Damn! I botched it again.” She lived a few more weeks past that. When she did die it was quietly and without fanfare.
Like Forrest Church’s “farewell sermon,” Ilse’s bedside farewell was repeated a few times before it really took. The point for Ilse and for Forrest was to express the inexpressible: something about love and death, perhaps that love is stronger than death. Certainly love is what gives death its sting, but in the end love wins.
You are dust; you are mortal; you will die. But you are now alive and there is courage enough and love enough to make life sweet. Love is the counterweight to death. Dwell on death only long enough to let it go. Then release yourself to lifetime and do your part to fill it with love.
In a world without end,
May it be so.