If you were to pull back the curtain on my process of creating worship services, just a little bit, you would see that early each week I close the door to my office, open up several hymnals and songbooks, and spend a few minutes singing. The hymn that I sung more than any other hymn this week was actually one that I didn’t select for us to sing this morning. The hymn that I sung was the old Christian classic “Abide With Me.” The hymn was written by a Scottish minister named Henry Lyte, and this hymn was his only claim to fame. Lyte suffered from tuberculosis and his congregation frequently sent him to Italy for periods of rest and recuperation. He wrote “Abide With Me” while preparing to depart for his final trip to Italy. Along the way he composed several additional verses and made many substantial edits and mailed these back home right before he died. Aware of his own mortality and his own impending death, he composed these lines,
Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away;
change and decay in all around I see;
O thou who changes not, abide with me.
In the midst of great impermanence, what is it that abides and remains? I wound up not choosing this hymn for us to sing because it wasn’t quite the tone with which I wanted to begin or end, but this hymn’s consideration of permanence and impermanence is our central focus this morning. So, I had this song in my mind all week, right up until the Olympic opening ceremonies on Friday, which included a segment that wasn’t broadcast in the United States. That segment recalled victims of violence, particularly those who died in a terrorist bombing in London seven years ago, and included a choreographed dance while a soloist performed a moving rendition of “Abide With Me.” I share this just to say that I think there is something universal in the message this morning. I should point out that the interpretive dance at the Olympic opening ceremony concluded with an image of an encompassing embrace. I invite you to hold that image.
Three weeks ago, the last time I preached, the topic of my sermon was the transient and the permanent in religion. I recalled a famous sermon by the nineteenth century Unitarian minister Theodore Parker in which he argued that very few things in religion are eternal and unchanging. In fact, Parker argued that aside from a few central commandments and ethical lessons – love your God and your neighbor as yourself; do unto others as you would have them do unto you – everything else in religion is impermanent. The forms of religion, the creeds and doctrines, the denominations and liturgies, these are all transient. They change over time. And, Parker says, the fact that they change does not make them bad, or ugly, or foolish, or wrong. Rather, we ourselves can do wrong, act foolishly, and commit error when we insist that changing things not be allowed to change, that impermanent things must be made permanent.
This morning I want to shift the focus away from religion and onto our lives. It is one thing to accept that some of our favorite hymns may fall out of fashion or that the seven principles may one day be expanded to eight or contracted to six, but it is another thing to accept that many aspects, most aspects, of our own flesh-and-blood lives are not forever.
Forrest Church, the most well-known Unitarian Universalist minister of the 20th century, offered this definition of religion. “Religion,” he said, “is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and knowing we must die.” In offering us this definition, Forrest Church offers us a truth that is profound and down to earth. Our life, our existence, also happens to be finite in contrast to a universe that is pretty much infinite, and terribly small in contrast to a universe that is larger than we can ever understand.
“Death,” Church said, “is not life’s destination, 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. The one thing that can’t be taken from us, even by death, is the love we give away before we go.”
If Theodore Parker said that very, very little is permanent in religion, only a few core ethical commandments, Forrest Church is saying that the only thing that is permanent in life is the love we make. The fact of life’s impermanence does not make life bad or pointless or tragic. Rather, it can become these things if we hold on too tightly to what will not and cannot last. This is how we can get ourselves into trouble and invite in greater tragedy. Human beings can go to great extremes to deny that our lives do not last forever, and the price of this denial can be steep.
During the time for all ages, Rachel shared with us the famous legend of the Buddha’s awakening. The legend goes that the Buddha was born as a prince and that his father, the king, wanted him to live a life free of troubles and worries. We are told that Prince Siddhartha passed his life luxuriously inside the royal court, with every comfort, every pleasure, and every privilege afforded to him. In time, the prince grew restless and began to search for some deeper purpose for his life. He convinced his friend Channa to take him exploring beyond the walled gardens of the royal palace. According to the story, they take four chariot journeys, each journey teaching the prince an important lesson. On his first excursion he spots an elderly man. On the second excursion he sees a man whose body is ravaged by disease. On his third journey he sees a procession bearing a corpse to the funeral pyre. The lesson he learns is about the reality of suffering in the world. But, he also learns a lesson about impermanence and transience. There is no avoiding aging, sickness, and death. These are things over which even the most powerful rulers do not have control.
On his fourth journey from the walls of the palace, Prince Siddhartha encounters a different type of character. He encounters a sadhu, a Hindu holy man who has taken on the grueling life of an ascetic monk. The sadhus have taken on a path of renunciation, renouncing family, community, sex, and ownership of property. One of the goals of this extreme devotion is to overcome, to gain power over, and to transcend the inevitability of suffering. In the story of the Buddha, we learn that Prince Siddhartha begins his spiritual journey by becoming an ascetic and practicing self-denial. In fact, we are told that he fasted almost to point of death. It is at this point that the prince rejects this extreme asceticism, departs from the Sadhus, and goes to meditate under the Bo tree where he reaches Enlightenment, becomes the Buddha, and begins to teach the Middle Way, which is a profound religious concept. But for us this morning we can accept that the Middle Way tells us that the truth is not found at the extremes. The proper response to suffering is not to deny the troubles of the world by secluding ourselves within the walls of the palace, nor is it to renounce our lives in a futile attempt to gain some measure of control of our affliction. Rather, there is a middle way of living through life in spite of its transience.
Listen to these words by Forrest Church. Church says that our lives are like stain glassed windows, rich and multi-hued, in which “each [individual] pane looks out on some aspect of life: our vocation, avocations, our spouse or companion if we have one, our parents, our children, our health. We often take a pane for granted when it is unproblematic, but when one starts to go dark the natural human tendency is to press our nose up against that one frame, desperately trying to see through it. When we do this, we lose all sense of proportion; our entire world goes dark.” Forrest Church wrote these words after being diagnosed with terminal esophageal cancer. “How easily this tendency kicks in when we're dying…. With our nose pressed up against the one pane we can see nothing through, all our other lights go out. We then invest our life's remaining meaning in that which may be impossible, namely, beating our sickness. Nothing else matters. ... We may so obsess on our sickness that we lose appreciation for all those things in our life that we would dearly pray be returned to us if someone suddenly snatched them away."
This morning’s reading was the beautiful poem “The Promise” from Jane Hirshfield’s newest collection of poetry, entitled Come, Thief. The thief in the title is none other than time. One reviewer writes that time is "that perpetual pickpocket who nimbly makes off with everything from a few unguarded moments to entire years of our lives… What’s most interesting, though, is Hirshfield’s response to this possibility of loss: the cultivation of a prophetic voice that combines both equanimity and a quiet passion.” Or, as another reviewer puts it, “Compassion, as [the poet] seems to imply in this book, is infinite.” I find all of this interesting because her poem, “The Promise” basically says the same thing about the transient and permanent in life and in love that Forrest Church says. Flowers bow their heads. Leaves turn red. Animals come and go. Our bodies deteriorate. Even the stones up on the mountain gradually erode. But, love remains.
Several years ago, the NPR program This American Life had a program dealing with the subject of transience. In one of the segments, we visit a woman in Houston who is a compulsive scrapbooker. Her daughter, her only child, is four and her mother has already created some seventeen scrapbooks documenting every single day of the child’s life. These scrapbooks are artistic feats; it can take ten hours to create a single page. And, she can’t keep up. Though her daughter is only four, she’s already fallen so far behind that it would take her one thousand hours of doing nothing but scrapbooking to catch up.
I went back and searched and dug up this episode and listened to it again. I should point out that the people at the radio program took this story in a direction that didn’t make fun of her scrapbooking. Their story humanized her. We learn that her childhood included a series of losses – the death of her grandmother, moving away from her childhood home – that made her sensitive to transience. Her husband offers this explanation for her obsession. “Her way to hold on to things is to create something that she can physically look at to recapture the feeling.”