as preached for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston’s August 23, 2020 online worship service
Today, I want to talk with you about a difficult subject: death. Today, I want to talk with you about a glorious subject: life. In short, I want to talk with you about religion. The Unitarian Universalist theologian Forrest Church claimed, “religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.” These days of pandemic make death an almost unavoidable subject. Which is to say, today religion is something that hard to avoid. Sure, it is quite easy to avoid religious institutions. Right now, you could not even physically attend the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston if you wanted to. But we are daily confronted with dual reality of life and death. And so, we cannot avoid religion–at least in the sense that Forrest Church would have us understand it.
Death, when I was training for the ministry, I had to do a semester of rotation in a hospital as a chaplain intern. I know Scott has talked with you about these types of internships before. They are sometimes called bootcamp for ministers. And they are certainly intense experiences: the collision of theory and reality. This country is, for the most part, rather squeamish about death. We generally send our sick to die in the hospital. Few us are regularly around dead bodies. I certainly did not encounter very many of them prior to my internship as a chaplain. Sure, I read all about death and dying in my seminary classes. But to be confronted with death each and every day, week after week, during a long hot Chicago summer, serving in the South Side’s only Level 1 Pediatric Trauma hospital, well, that was something else.
I struggled a lot that summer–there was a lot to process and even more to learn. My supervisor was a longtime chaplain who had retired and then come back to work to cover for a friend who had some sort of family emergency. He was full of wisdom–most of which I have forgotten–and had all sorts of aphorisms to offer me and my fellow interns when we would get flustered. One in particular has stuck with me over the years. It was one of his mantras. “There are only two things that you have to do to be a good minister,” he would say. “You have to be ready to die and to pray at any time.”
You have to be ready to die and to pray at any time. It is advice that I have often pondered in the last fifteen years. How many of us ready to die? At any time? Death is the existential challenge of existence. That reality can be difficult to accept. We “fear death as children fear the dark,” observed the philosopher Francis Bacon. That is to say, our fear extends beyond reason, for both death and the setting of the sun are part of life. Yet, that fear can be consuming. Who really wants to contemplate that moment when the flame of life turns to smoke and then ash? And to be prepared for it at any time? Well, that seems a tall order. But then, it might strike at any time–a truth that all the more evident during this time of pandemic. Perhaps we best be ready to face it.
And what about prayer? The Christian New Testament advises us, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” But unceasing prayer is an impossible injunction to follow. J. D. Salinger’s famous book “Franny and Zoey” partially focuses on one of the title character’s attempts and failures to pray without ceasing. In the end, the character seems to conclude that it is impossible to actually pray all the time. We, can, however, Salinger suggests, in that story, cultivate an attitude where our movement through the world reveals all of the mundane aspects of it to be prayerful. Hearing a dial tone–how often do we now encounter those–the prayer seeking character “appeared to find it extraordinarily beautiful to listen to, rather as if it were the best possible substitute for the primordial silence itself.”
In Japan there’s somewhat of an analogous concept. It is called mingei–and it focuses not on praying unceasingly but in seeing the beauty in the day everyday objects which surround us. The charm of the teacup, with its smooth glaze offering a blue white pattern of interwoven flower. The grace of a well-loved kitchen knife, sharp, sleek, the silvery steel catching the light when you tilt it to the window.
The dial tone, the teacup, the kitchen knife, none of them are exactly prayer. And I cannot, and you cannot, engage with them endlessly. At some point, the phone call is made, the cup is put down, or it is time to chop the vegetables. But, of course, my supervisor’s advice was not to pray unceasingly. It was to be ready to pray at any time.
It was sound advice. We clergy are called upon at the most inopportune times! When I get invited to someone’s house for dinner, it is can you say a prayer before we eat? Asked to attend a meeting, would you say a prayer to get us started? I have even been asked to offer a word of prayer at cocktail parties! Now, I am not complaining at all. Truthfully, I appreciate my former supervisor’s counsel. It helped me prepare for the world of ministry. I now carry in my head a solid dozen or so prayers that work for almost any occasion.
Preparing for death, however, is something of another matter. Many of us would follow the famous–or is it infamous–injunction of Dylan Thomas:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Of course, Thomas died a young man–younger than I am now–and his last years were a drunken tortuous affair. So, perhaps, he is not the one to follow.
I have actually learned the most about death from those who have gone gentle into that good night. Rather than raging against it, they accepted what was to come and prepared themselves for the inevitable. Early in my ministry, two people in particular taught me a great deal about death. I know that they would not have minded me sharing their stories because, well, they wanted me to share them.
The first was the poet, artist, and anarchist Carlos Cortez. Carlos had been a draft dodger during World War II. In his words, he refused to “shoot at fellow draftees.” He spent sometime in prison rather than going to fight in Germany. Later, he fell in with the Beats, he appears as a minor character in a couple of Jack Kerouac’s novels, and, inspired by the Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada, took up woodblock printing. If you have been to my apartment you have probably seen a few of his prints. They are big prints that measure more than three feet by five feet when framed. Many of them depict working class heroes, like Mother Jones, the wandering union organizer who said, “My address is like my shoes: it travels with me. I abide where there is a fight against tyranny.”
Sometime in the seventies, Carlos and his wife Mariana–I do not mention Mariana because she died long before I ever met Carlos–bought a small grocery store that had gone out of business. They converted it into a house. They fixed up the back–where the storerooms had been–into bedrooms and put Carlos’s giant woodblock printing press in the basement. The big front room, where the groceries had been, became a combined kitchen, sitting area, art gallery, and library. There, Carlos had a huge wooden table there where he would sit, wearing a big cowboy hat, and share stories, and sometimes recite his poems:
On a cloudy night
A string of blinking
Frank’s Gas and Oil
Substitutes for the Stars.
When it came time for Carlos to die, he had a chronic illness and knew the end was coming, he invited people to come sit vigil. He would talk to us if he felt up to it. Mostly, though, we talked to each other. During that week, or so, a remarkable group of people passed through his house. I was not there for all that much of it, but I met the younger brother of a man Carlos had been in prison with and a couple of his neighborhood friends. At other times, several well-known artists, writers, and gallery owners, and many of the folks who belonged to all of the movements he supported came by to offer their respects. Someone even told me that Studs Terkel stopped by, they had known each other for many years and Carlos was interviewed for one of Terkel’s books.
Carlos’s consciousness left the world early one morning during the vigil. Over the years, I have reflected on his death. It was an extension of his life. All of those people came to offer their respects because he had spent his life building relationships, seeking justice, and working to bring more beauty into the world. He taught me, in those last days of his, that really, in the end, in the final moments, we are our relationships. And we prepare for death by living our lives. Carlos did not fear death or try to avoid it. He simply accepted that it would come and when it came made it into one last opportunity to gather together all of those he cared about.
The second person who taught me a great deal about death was a congregant of mine. Like Carlos, he died when he was an older man. Unlike Carlos, he did not die at home. He died while under hospice care in the hospital. I visited him there a couple of times. Usually, when I visit people under such circumstances they want to reflect on their lives, their family, their friendships, the meaning of death, and whatever existential fear they have of what might come after our final breath.
This congregant and I talked about all of that. And we had one of those conversations that has really stuck with me–do you know what I mean? The sort of conversation that you can playback in your memory. He had been a therapist of some kind and worked with a lot of people over the years as they faced their ultimate hours. He had counseled people who experienced abuse as children or been in awful relationships. He wanted to share with me his theory of a good death. A good death, he told me, is one in which you can exhale your terminal breath knowing that you feel good about your relationships. You have called the sibling with whom you have been feuding and told them you love them. You have spoken to someone you hurt and apologized for the harm you have done. You have connected with old friends and said your goodbyes. And, he felt, that this was an important point, you have recognized that there might be some relationships which are beyond repair. Rather than let them haunt you, he advised, you should give yourself permission to simply let them go. This, he told me, was a gift you could give yourself. Celebrate the good, heal what can be healed, and recognize that our human imperfection will probably leave us with some business that cannot, and probably should not, be finished.
Like Carlos, my congregant had quite a few people come visit him while he lay in hospice. And I know he followed his own advice. He had prepared for his death. Which, I learned from him and from Carlos, meant that he had lived his life.
One of the great horrors of the pandemic is that it is now very difficult, and in many cases impossible, to have the exact kind of deaths that Carlos and my congregant had. So many people are now spending their final moments in hospitals where they must remain separated from friends and family for fear of spreading the virus. We hear frequently of goodbyes taking place over Zoom calls rather than in person. And I have spoken with several of you about how you regret, and mourn, your inability to be with your grandmother or your aunt or your friend or your sibling because of the pandemic.
Our readings for today offer us something as we struggle with this dynamic. Our first reading comes from the French Iranian author Negar Djavadi’s wonderful novel “Disoriental.” It draws heavily on Djavadi’s family experiences as Iranian political dissidents living in exile in Paris. Living in exile means recognizing that there are some people and some places that you will never see again. It means coming to terms with all that has been lost, being caught forever between the distant homeland and present place. “People die, and time does its work. But the regret remains,” Djavadi writes of her exilic experience.
Living in exile, that is what the pandemic has many of us doing. We cannot go back to the place we came from, the proverbial time before the virus, and so we are stuck here–many of us unable to travel, to see friends, fearful of leaving the house for other than the most basic errands. It feels like it was a lifetime ago that I last went to a theater, heard live music, or ate at a restaurant.
Like an exile living in a land whose language they do not speak, our worlds have become circumscribed. In such a situation, it is easy to feel, “People die, and time does its work. But the regret remains.” But if there is anything, I am trying to say this morning it is this, it is now or never to address whatever regrets we might have, to heal whatever relationships need to be healed and let go of whatever relationships we need to let go of. For, in this world of pandemic, we can still communicate–pick up the phone and call, or write an old-fashioned letter.
Marilyn Hacker’s fine poem “Rondeau After a Transatlantic Telephone Call” is suggestive of the release that might come from reaching out.
I want: crisp toast, cold wine prickling my gums,
love. It was good
imagining around your voice, you, late-
awake there. (It isn’t midnight yet
here.) This last glass washes down the crumbs.
Is it enough to bridge our exile from the before times to here, in this world of pandemic? Perhaps not, but it is something that might help as we prepare for the inevitable. Rather than regret, we can seek connection. Which might mean we can be ready to pray. The scripture enjoins us, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.”
I understand prayer, like I understand life and death, in a very humanistic way. For me, it is a simple reaching out for connection with something other than ourselves. It is an acknowledgement of that lesson I learned from Carlos, in the end we are our relationships. Not just our relationships with our human fellows, but our relationships with the all that is–the pattern on the teacup, the drone of the dial tone, the wooden handle of the knife, the clouds, the stars, and the gas station lights. When we prepare ourselves to connect to them and to each other, when we ready ourselves to pray, we live our lives more fully, which is to say we ready ourselves for death.
In this time of pandemic, when we are weathering our exile from the before times, I offer you this mixture of words and wisdom. They are imperfect–the ragged edges of my thought, like the ragged edges of my heart, stick out. But I offer them to you as an inspiration to seek connection in the midst of all of this, which is to say, to prepare yourself for prayer and to live, as Forrest Church would have us do, religiously, so that we are ready to die–not today, not tomorrow, not next year, I hope, but when our time comes–a good death. Which is to say, that we can find ways, even in these difficult hours, to celebrate something about life and connect with others beyond ourselves. And here is my concluding prayer for you:
Oh spirit of life,
that some of us name God,
and others call the spark
that leaps from each to each,
or know as the flickering lights of the sky,
inspire us today,
to seek connection,
to repair what can be repaired,
to let go what must be let go,
and always remember
that the greatest truth:
we are never really alone.
Amen and Blessed Be.