Rev. David Herndon
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
November 5, 2017
TO HAVE LIFE ABUNDANTLY
By David Herndon
All Souls Sunday
5 November 2017
First Unitarian Church
Naturalist and poet Wendell Berry wrote, in 1968:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light.For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
For me, Wendell Berry’s approach is like a gold standard for dealing with anxiety, particularly the anxiety associated with death. How wonderful to come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief! How wonderful to rest for a time in the grace of the world and be free!
Unfortunately, that gold standard has remained elusive for me. I rarely have an opportunity to come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. And I rarely have an opportunity to rest for a time in the grace of the world and thereby become free. Too often I wake in the night with some sort of fear or anxiety or concern.
In her well-known poem “This World is not conclusion,” composed in 1862, Emily Dickinson wrote:
Much Gesture, from the Pulpit –
Strong Hallelujahs roll –
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the Soul –
For me, the Tooth that nibbles at the Soul is more a part of my reality than constantly resting in the grace of the world and thereby becoming free.
Not having found my way into the blessed state of resting in the grace of the world, my own coping strategy might be described more in this way: Living well is the best revenge.
As part of our professional formation, all Unitarian Universalist ministers are required to complete a ten-week intensive training program in pastoral care. Typically this takes place in a hospital under the supervision of an experienced chaplain. My supervising chaplain was part of a somewhat theologically conservative church tradition, and one day he said something that seemed out of keeping with this theological orientation. He said: Death is the biggest insult that anyone can possibly receive.
You know, it is easy to sugarcoat our end:
When my supervising chaplain said, Death is the biggest insult that anyone can possibly receive, it was the opposite of sugarcoating. It felt almost indecent. Given his relatively conservative theology, I would have expected him to say that death is part of God’s plan, or that death is just a transition from our disappointing and difficult existence here to a more glorious existence there. Instead he said: Death is the biggest insult that anyone can possible received.
I suppose when your job is to sit with families day after day while they are going through some of the most difficult moments in their lives you become especially aware of the way death can tear big holes in the lives of families: the child who dies of cancer, the young adult who is killed in a car accident, the father of three small children who dies of a heart attack, the people whose lives are devastated and then ended by chronic degenerative diseases. You build up your life with diligent education, you work hard at your responsibilities, you build up good karma by being kind and generous toward other people, you dwell in a network of loving relationships, and then death comes and knocks apart what you have carefully built up. And never mind that you are the exquisite product of three-point-eight billion years of evolution. Down you go. Out you go. The biggest insult that anyone can possibly receive. Indeed.
If you can achieve Wendell Berry’s gold standard for dealing with despair that wakes you in the night, if you can come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief, if you can rest in the grace of the world and be free, then good for you.
As I said before, however, another approach is to say: Living well is the best revenge. In other words:I will live my days with as much purpose as I can. I will do things that are meaningful to me. I will make time for people who are important to me. I will not squander my time. I will get more serious about my bucket list. I will live in accord with my aspirational priorities. I will do the best I can with what I have. I will open myself to receive the gift of life as deeply as I can. I will have life abundantly.
Stephanie Byram was a remarkable woman who was a member of First Unitarian Church. She died from breast cancer in her mid-thirties. I had the honor of conducting both her wedding and her memorial service. While she was battling her illness, she wrote: “I now live with an emotional intensity full of spirit and hope. I don’t mess around with things that consume my time and energy pointlessly. I keep in mind that loving and laughing are my best healers.”
To me, Stephanie’s attitude was a perfect example of the wisdom that says, Living well is the best revenge. And to me, this was especially apparent when she said: I don’t mess around with things that consume my time and energy pointlessly.
How about you? Whether you think you have eighty years to live or eight weeks to live, there are boundaries to your life. Do you suppose that now might be a good time to say, I now live with an emotional intensity full of spirit and hope? Do you suppose that now might be a good time to say, I don’t mess around with things that consume my time and energy pointlessly? Do you suppose that now might be a good time to say, I keep in mind that loving and laughing are my best healers?
© 2017 by David Herndon