Please listen to this James Taylor song before reading the sermon, it was the meditation preceding the sermon and is woven into the sermon. It was sung live by the wonderful muscian Peter Mayer - http://www.petermayer.net/news/
Delivered October 19, 2014 - Rev. David A. Miller ©
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Dieguito
A Unitarian Universalist Association Congregation—Solana Beach, Ca
(Lightly edited version)
Yesterday we had an event here called the Death Café. Here is the description from the website, “At a Death Cafe people, often strangers, gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death. Our objective is 'to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives'.” And if you haven’t heard this news, I am sorry to be the one breaking to you, but yes, all of our lives are finite. All of us, no matter how rich or how poor, our body type, the color of our skin, whether we went to Harvard or the University of Utah, will at some time cease living in the world as we currently know it.
Will there be something else? Well, until there is some sort of scientific proof, or massive verifiable religious event, or even some sort of mass consciousness exploding experience, there will continue to be many debates and discussions about anything that may come after this life that we now are consciously sharing together. We each can and probably do have a little different opinion about all of this but since this is a UU congregation that’s ok. We also all have a bit of a difference of opinion about what living this life actually means and I find that to be true specifically with those I have had the amazing privilege to walk with as their journey on this earth reaches its end.
Although through my training and my personal experience with being with people as they journeyed through their final days was informative and meaningful, I learned so much more about this after entering the ministry. Frequently, as people are getting ready to die, they take stock in lives. They revisit moments and experiences, feelings and thoughts, which sometimes hold great meaning and others times are just trivial details or events. They remember songs or movies, books they’ve read or people they once knew, loves made and loves lost. These are the stories I hear when I sit in the room listening to those who know they are passing from this life, these are the stories I hear no matter where they think they are or aren’t going.
In fact, when I sit in the room and talk or sometimes just listen, I can tell you what I think has never come up. Not once did I ever have a discussion about anything political. Not once. Not once have I gotten into a debate about religion. Not once. Sure there has been expressions of regret, or “I wish I had done this or that” as many look back, take stock of their lives and think of the roads traveled and untraveled, but mostly what people seem to remember and want to talk about are the stories, the stories of their lives.
In preparing for memorial services, sometimes I know the story of the roads traveled and sometimes I don’t. Often when I think I know much of the story I discover that I know virtually nothing. I sit like the rest of us, listening to stories that come to us from the different angles and perspectives of those involved in these life stories. Sometimes at memorial services I talk about how impossible it is for any of us to know the complete story of a human life. Even if we are spouses, daughters, sons or parents, we can only really know a portion of each story, the portion that we know, have seen or heard about. Rarely is that the whole story of a human life. Human lives are amazingly varied and complex weaving through times, people and places that is hard to track and even harder to completely understand.
And these human lives are all so unique, everyone stands out for one reason or another, but there are some that stand out to me a little more. This story is about a memorial service I did for someone who lived a very long time. I sat and visited a lot with this person as they came to the end of their life, a life that was sad to me in many ways. We talked often about their regret of not having a bigger impact on the world. It was consuming to them no matter how much I tried to lift up all the wonderful things that they had done. At some point I understood that they had lived a very hard life with much tragedy and came from a home that valued work and a stiff upper lip more than anything else. It didn’t matter what I was lifting up because they just were going to review their life from a framework of a long life of stories in their own head of never being good enough and I found my role to be listening, comforting and trying to reassure them of their impact on, if nothing else, me. At the memorial service, there were many stories that reaffirmed the challenges experienced, the struggles and tragedies of this life, but there were also stories I hadn’t known of warmth and love, openness and vulnerability. These pieces all came together to create a storybook full of depth, complexity and wondrous tales. It was just confirmation that we can never really know the totality of one life including the totality of our own.
All of this is a long explanation why I asked the wonderful Peter Mayer, who is gracing us with his gifts and talents today, to sing a song he didn’t write. I know weird eh. I did that because as I was driving to work this summer, the song, The Secret of Life, came on the radio. I sort of remembering hearing the song before, but of course, my life travels brought this song to me at the right moment for me to hear it. Sometimes when I hear, see or read something I think to myself, maybe the congregation will be fine if this is the sermon for today. It is exactly what I want to say and if I use it, I can play golf or go see a movie on Friday instead of writing all day. Hearing this James Taylor song was kind of like that:
(Peter Mayer sings)
The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.
Any fool can do it, there ain't nothing to it.
Nobody knows how we got to the top of the hill.
But since we're on our way down, we might as well enjoy the ride.
I didn’t enjoy the passage of time much this summer. I have talked about this a little, but one of those memorial services I attended was one of my best childhood friends. I have suffered a good deal of loss in my life, but I am guessing not that much more than people my age and of course, dealing with loss is a part of my profession, but personal loss that weaves its way past my training, my defenses and deep into my heart is hard.
It was after I returned from attending his service that I heard this song and when I reflected back past his death, through the good and challenging times of our relationship, I found I really could really enjoy and appreciate the passage of time. My memories are filled with bits and pieces of our lives together starting from our first meeting in 6th grade through our final meetings during the final years of his illness walking slowly together through the streets of my hometown. I Remember sitting by the fireplace in his house on a cold winters night listening to James Taylor, for the first time. I remember being introduced to fluffernutters a concoction of marshmallow fluff and peanut butter on wonder-ish type bread, in his kitchen followed by copious amounts of milk. I remember endless games of ping pong, bicycle rides and us being together at the little neighborhood park meeting the girl from whom I received my first kiss.
These are memories that stick out in a lifetime of remembrances for it was a long a full relationship, that lasted over 40 years. I think about him often and I am grateful that I have the memories I do, for they are precious and I wouldn’t want this journey that we shared together to have been any other way.
I remember these as they are close to my heart and also I think of these with an open heart for as James tells us that the secret of life isn’t only enjoying the passage of time:
(Peter Mayer sings)
The secret of love is in opening up your heart.
It's okay to feel afraid, but don't let that stand in your way.
Cause anyone knows that love is the only road.
And since we're only here for a while, might as well show some style.
Maybe James, Peter and I can’t help sounding like a self-help book today, but I really do believe that a secret of life is in opening up your heart and lord knows, it is ok to feel afraid for opening up your heart and being vulnerable is risky. No matter what the risk however, opening up your heart is something I believe is essential to all of our life stories and actually to the ultimate connection we will have to each other in this world. M. Scott Peck, the author of the book The Road Less Traveled say it like this, ““There can be no vulnerability without risk; there can be no community without vulnerability; there can be no peace, and ultimately no life, without community.” Enjoying the passage of time, love and community, all important things in life and realizing that the sand is meant to keep flowing through the hourglass. The sand doesn’t stand still.
(Peter Mayer sings)
Now the thing about time is that time isn't really real.
It's all on your point of view, how does it feel for you?
Einstein said he could never understand it all.
Planets spinning through space, the smile upon your face, welcome to the human race.
Time is really a relative thing. Whether you think that this planet was created 5000 or so years ago or millions of years ago, our lives are really just one little piece of the puzzle, one grain of sand if you will. In talking about this I need to walk a very fine line because even though we are here for a relatively very short time, each and every life is important and we especially think that if it is the life we are living. It is however a part of the larger story of us all and all of these planets spinning through space, so many stories interdependent, intermingling, interconnected.
Something else I frequently say at memorial services is, “We never have any way of knowing how the joys or sorrows of the lives of others can touch our own, but they will. We never have any way of knowing how what we do in this world can affect others, but it does. Life is precious and all that comes with it changes and evolves, is wonderful and painful and with every experience that touches us we grow. As we leave here, this day, this week, this year becomes part of who we are and we will endeavor to soften to love and to hold these memories in our hearts as we walk together on this mysterious journey.”
Life is so very precious. I mean that. I know I am not the only one here today who knows this, but part of the experience of ministry is to see that we as humans are capable of sinking to the depths of pettiness or rising to heights of possibilities. For the short time that we are on this planet we struggle with the delicate balance between mystery and understanding, self-importance and self-giving, taking ourselves too seriously and taking things seriously enough. We have a choice about how we go through this world, of how precious we treat this gift. We have the opportunity to make it so when our time comes to look back we can tell beautiful stories of love lost and love found, of books read and movies seen, of how we opened of hearts, of how we were effected by others, of people we have helped and contributions we have made, and of how we have enjoyed the passage of time.
(Peter Mayer sings)
Some kind of lovely ride. I'll be sliding down, I'll be gliding down.
Try not to try too hard, it's just a lovely ride.
Isn't it a lovely ride? Sliding down, gliding down,
try not to try too hard, it's just a lovely ride.
The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.