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Attention to Endings

November 10, 2019

Rev. Douglas Taylor

Snow arrived this week. Autumn is beginning to give way to the beginnings of winter. I noticed an empty bird’s next outside my kitchen window yesterday. The light coat of snow and a certain slant of the light accentuated it more. It had been there for months, but I’d missed it until the snow helped me see it. So begins winter in my yard.

We Unitarian Universalists like to say that every day is a new day. At Christmas time we remind ourselves of the now-traditional exhortation from Sophia Fahs: “Every night a child is born is a holy night.” Births, beginnings and ‘new days’ hold a special appeal for us. They hold a special appeal for everyone I should imagine, we’re not unique in that. People like beginnings. We like the first sip, opening a new book, starting a project, and that ‘new car’ smell.

Endings are important as well. Indeed, as the reading mentioned, “Endings and beginnings are happening all the time in our lives.” Today may be the first day of the rest of your life, but it is also the last. It is the culmination of all the preceding days, at least so far. In the grand scheme of your living, today may not be a dramatic beginning or ending, but there are smaller beginnings and endings threaded throughout today for you – for us all.

The continuing flow of time gives us the feeling we are in the middle of the story rather that the beginning or the ending. And that is one useful way to perceive it. But I will also note that the morning is almost over and the afternoon will soon begin. Endings are happening all over the place. And while most people are draw to beginnings, I contend that how we navigate endings is far more important. “Ending well’ is a too often neglected art.

How do you end things in your life? We tend to have a great deal of recognition around beginnings, but not much around endings. Graduation ceremonies are as close as we get. Retirement parties do happen. But there is very little done around ending a relationship or going through a divorce, around leaving home or a job, finishing off payments on a significant debt, or even just at the end of the day.

Does anyone still say a prayer before going to bed? There is probably a cultural element to that. I think it would be a valuable practice to pick up again.  The day has ended, what will you do to honor the day.

I met a UU professor in seminary who shared the following outline of his own end-of-the-day spiritual practice. He said that before he went to bed, he would pour himself a cognac, sit in his big easy chair with the lights low sipping his drink. He would think back on the day and try to see the ways in which the things he had said and done that day had hurt someone, or caused another pain. And he would also think on the things others had said or done which he had found hurtful. And then he would say a little prayer of forgiveness and go to bed, knowing that tomorrow would be a new day. 

Not exactly the same image as a young Christopher Robin in his PJs, hands clasped, kneeling at his bed saying “Bless this silly old bear.” But the ingredients are all there.

How would you honor your day there at the edge of night? Rather than simply crawling into bed, might you take a moment to reflect on the day, to give your attention to what the day has been and what it might have meant for you? Maybe you keep a journal or a daily blog?

Autumn is slipping by. Thanksgiving comes after the harvest that we may gather in and give thanks for our blessings. And it is a similar moment in time to evening. Rather than simply crawling into winter, we take a moment to reflect on the season, to give our attention to what the season has been and what it might mean for us. 

Some time back I was visiting a dying person who was moderately connected to the congregation. In their last week, when I visited, I noticed there was a hospice volunteer by the bedside all the time. I learned it wasn’t just for companionship, it was also because this person kept trying to get out of the bed and go do something. That’s what their life had been like – constantly on the move, always on their way somewhere. It must have been frustrating to be stuck in bed that last week, dying. But I would not expect the way this person died be any different from the way this person had lived – up to the end, ready to head out to do the next thing.

Last year while another congregant was winding her way through her last weeks, I remember visiting over at the Hospice House. Every time she would ask some question about me, something about what I thought or believed. That’s what she’d been like in life too. Even when she lost the capacity to host such conversations, she would still make the effort to ask about something all the same. That’s just how she was. I would not expect her to approach her last weeks so differently from the way she approached her whole life.

So, what will it be like for you? One of the hymns we sing each year at the passages service, “We Laugh, We Cry” (SLT #354) has the line, but as we live, so shall we die… There is an integrity to our lives that doesn’t disappear when we come to the ending. It can be stymied by diminishing capacity and control, but still it remains. As we live, so shall we die.

But this is not just about memorial services and the big final ending of our lives. It is about all the little endings along the way. How we end things is what opens us for the ongoing flow of life. It is how we continue to carry the light.

One suggestion is to create little rituals, add moments of intent and attention with the various endings we experience. In researching for this service, Dorothy found an article she passed along to me titled “The lost are of closing rituals.” The article suggests 4 steps to make a good closing ritual: Appreciation and Gratitude, Lessons Learned, Letting Go, and Moving Forward.

First, offer gratitude. At the end of the day, the end of a relationship, the end of a life: offer gratitude. Give thanks for the good things that have been. It is sad when something good ends, but the great thing is that while it has ended, it will never not be part of our experience. We can always carry with us the good things we received from the relationship, for the day, from the work that is now complete. Offer gratitude.

Second, review; what did you learn? When something ends, take stock of what has occurred, Is there a lesson? Often, we can learn something from our time. The day is done, the job is complete, the project is finished, the relationship is over. Are we better for it? Can we carry something forward that will help us be better? One way to give attention to an ending is to learn from it.

1, offer gratitude; 2, learn from it; and 3, let it go. Acknowledge what didn’t work, the hard stuff and the hurt. We can offer gratitude for the good stuff, but let us also acknowledge the hard stuff. Maybe it’s not something we can learn a lesson from – we can simply survive it. Sometimes when something ends, it is because it was too broken to keep going. Acknowledge that and then let it go. Release it.

And the step four, according to the suggestions in that article, step four is: Move on. So, it’s the end of the day and you’re saying your prayers. You’ve offered gratitude and acknowledged what didn’t go well. You’ve noticed a lesson or seen growth in yourself. Now, take a deep breath and do the next thing. In this bedtime example, that probably means: go to bed. In another example it might mean, move forward with your life into the beginning that often follows an ending.

There is more light still in the world. Giving attention to our endings is not a way to be maudlin or morose. We are not meant to dwell on our endings. Instead by attending to them, we can move on from them into the next beginning that awaits.

When push comes to shove, it is not a solid theology or a clever idea, but the caring presence of companions that is wanted in the end. Some attention to what is happening. It is good and right to help one another so, as witnesses. And sometimes we see more clearly at the end, with a light coat of snow and perhaps a certain slant of the light. By attending to our endings, we can move on from them into the next beginning that awaits. This is how we live. This is how we die. It is the light we offer. This is all we have to offer. It is enough and it is good.

In a world without end, may it be so.