Talk by Gloria Talcove-Woodward
Sunday, April 27, 2014
The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia
Columbia, South Carolina
Prelude Music: “Save Me,” by Amy Mann
From the soundtrack of the movie, “Magnolia”
Offering Music: “Hallelujah,” by Leonard Cohen
Postlude Music: “Santa Maria,” by Gotan Project
Poem from “El Curioso Impertinente”
From Don Quijote de la Mancha, by Cervantes
In death, I look for life,
In sickness, health,
In the prison, liberty,
In that which is closed, escape,
And in the traitor, loyalty.
But my luck, of whom I never expect anything good,
Together with the Heavens, have decreed that
Since it is the impossible for which I ask,
Even that which is possible shall be denied me.
This is a story about an old fisherman and his wife, who I assume was also old. They lived in a little hut near the sea. One day, he caught a Magic Fish and the Fish asked the man to please throw him back in the water. The Fisherman threw the fish back in and went home to his wife. When he got home, he told her about the Magic Fish. She said, “What???? You didn’t ask him for a wish? You should go back there right now and demand that he give you a nice cottage.” So the man, who was very humble, went back and called the Magic Fish, “Oh, Magic Fish!” (You see, he didn’t have an I-Phone). The Magic Fish, came up to the surface of the water, blub…blub…blub, and said “Yes?” The Old Man said, “I’m sorry to bother you, but my wife would like to ask you to change our hut into a nice cottage, like the kind they have in Shandon.” The Fish said, “Go home and you will find your wife sitting in front of the cottage, like the kind they have in Shandon.” When he got back, there was his beautiful little cottage, but his wife still wasn’t happy. She said, “You should go right back there and ask that Fish for a nice, big modern house, in a cul-de-sac like the kind they have behind the V.A.” So the Old Man went back, called the Fish, and said, “My wife wants a nice, big modern house, in a cul-de-sac like the kind they have behind the V.A.,” and the Fish said, “Go home and you will find your wife sitting in front of a big modern house in a cul-de-sac like the kind that they have behind the V.A.” And lo and behold, there she was and the house was just beautiful. But she still wasn’t happy. She said, “I can’t believe that you didn’t ask that Magic Fish for a big mansion, so I can be the Governor.” So the poor man when back, very ashamed, once again to the Fish. He told the Fish that his wife wanted a mansion so she could be the Governor. The Fish told the man to go back, that he would find his wife sitting in front of their home. When he did, he found his wife sitting in front of the little hut. He thought she would be mad, but she ran to meet, gave him a big kiss and a hug, and said, “Hiya, Handsome! Did you have a nice day today?” And they lived happily ever after.
Our Opening Words from El Curioso Impertinente, the curious impertinent one, never fail to hit me over the head with the origins of despair. “In death I look for life,” he admits, and because it is the impossible for which this poor guy keeps asking, he gets nothing. The remedy is simple: “When all else fails, lower your standards.” But this is an all-or-nothing kind of guy. He persists in dreaming this impossible dream, then blames his rotten luck and the whole Universe which, of course, are conspiring against him, and the only thing he has at the end of the day is despair and remorse. Why? Because he rejects reality. The only thing he accepts and doesn’t resist is own misery. And he’s learned nothing.
This is hell on earth and it’s real easy to get to—it’s just a short walk from wherever you last parked your grief.
Some religious persuasions would say that this poor guy is suffering so much that he will earn himself a place in Heaven, but the fly in the blazing ointment is that Despair is one of the seven deadly sins, and just one of those of Bad Boys will get you a nice, cozy corner in Hell for a very long time.
That’s when you need a talking fish, who will grant you magical favors, but the problem is that talking fish are only good for a few favors, especially if you get greedy and forget to be grateful for the many blessings you already have. It was Cervantes who also wrote that “The most odious sin in the eyes of God is that of ingratitude.” But let’s just say that gratitude is just one of those spiritual commodities you’re always out of…
That’s when you need a U.F.O., or a UFO as I like to call them. If you don’t know what a UFO is doing in a Sunday Sermon, then you’re probably in the wrong church.
My talk this morning, “Rethinking Salvation,” is a timely topic, since we just celebrated Easter last Sunday, which generally promises resurrection from the dead and eternal life. This is a very seductive offer until you remember, once again, that the down payment is death. So, rather than waste time waiting around for something we’d all rather avoid, let’s see if we can save what’s left of this life.
I believe that if we can manage to live our lives with integrity, in good faith, and relatively free from despair, then one life so lived would contain enough love, peace, joy, happiness and satisfaction, so that a second life would not be necessary. This is not to say that eternal life doesn’t exist, but just in case it doesn’t, you’ll be glad you didn’t put all your Easter eggs in one basket.
I call my own philosophy of such matters, “Salvation Plan B”—not to be confused with “Medicare Part B,” which I just signed up for. Strangely enough, while my eligibility for Medicare has put me even more in touch with my own mortality, I feel a huge sense of relief just believing that I won’t die broke.
I’ve had a problem with salvation ever since the good nuns at my Catholic school told me that my very sweet Jewish father (affectionately called “Lou the Jew” by my Catholic Uncle Red) wouldn’t be allowed into Heaven—that the best he could hope for would be Purgatory. Purgatory is the place where only Catholics go to burn off their venial sins in order to be pure enough to enter Heaven. Lacking a coherent vision of Purgatory, I can only picture a waiting room at Jiffy Lube–not that there’s anything wrong with JiffyLube.
Let’s face it–If we lived forever, most people would probably not believe in God, not go to church, not get married and not worry about heaven, hell, and/or salvation. Come to think of it, a lot of Unitarians are already not doing that! Why is that?
Well, for starters, we Unitarians already don’t believe in hell (which is why the only Unitarian miracle I’m aware of is meeting our pledge goal). We really don’t talk much about life after death, since nobody (around here, at least) really seems to know anything about it. So we just stick to what we really do believe in: life before death. Most of us believe it is more likely that we will see a flying saucer than an angel. (Whoops! There’s that UFO again!) I agree, although I’ve never seen a flying saucer. But I have experienced the presence of angels everywhere—not the kind with wings, but ordinary people like you and me.
Whether or not we have Salvation or Salvation Plan B, we still have to deal with our own mortality. Tragically, we can’t change that. We can only change how we think about it. And how we think about it will predispose us towards despair or a sense of peace. As far as I know, Salvation is state of mind, and it is negotiable. Death, however, is not.
Contemporary philosopher, Thomas Nagel, says that he wouldn’t object to dying if it were not followed by death. Me, I wouldn’t object to death if it weren’t preceded by dying.
Personally, I find the verb much more frightening than the noun. But that’s because I’m a cowardly grammarian. In fact, I’m such a coward that I no longer call myself an atheist—just in case there is a God, I’m thinking that She may be more kindly disposed towards agnostics. While I can’t exactly envision myself agreeing to a deathbed conversion, I absolutely don’t see myself channeling “Christopher Hitchens,” thumbing his nose at the heavens with righteous indignation, incorrigible and unrepentant even in the clutches of death.
In spite of my fears, I have always believed that there are worse things than dying. The promise or threat of an afterlife has never been a comfort to me. Don’t get me wrong–Heaven would be a great bonus! I would love nothing more than to be reunited with my parents, Nelson Mandela, John Lennon, and, why not The Three Stooges, but I’m not really counting on it. If it seems too good to be true, it’s probably is too good to be true. I hope that’s not true about Medicare.
But the thought of dying AND going to Hell? Oh-oh! Just because I don’t think there is a Hell, doesn’t mean I can’t wind up there. Whatever you have to do to avoid Hell is probably worth looking into, but the thought of Hell is so repugnant to me that I never get around to doing it. Which is why Salvation is probably the default setting on most people’s belief system.
The stick in the mud with Salvation, though, is that we’re not exactly sure what it is and what it includes. The skeptic in me gets the distinct impression that it overpromises and under delivers.
I’m so afraid that if Salvation is even possible, it might just be a dispensation from Hell (which would be really great) but it might not include Heaven. This could be a very big problem, especially when you consider that you have now been granted eternal life with no place to spend it! If that turns out to be the case, we might all get stuck in Purgatory with my poor Jewish father, drinking coffee-flavored battery acid out of Styrofoam cups watching the shopping channel for all of eternity. And that would be the good news. The bad news would be that you wouldn’t be able to hear the shopping channel, since the volume control will be hooked up to a high powered leaf blower. But I don’t know that for sure.
Every once in a while, I hear someone say that they’ve been saved and have I accepted Jesus as my personal savior. I am always intrigued by their sense of joy and peace, and that’s the element that is so important for Salvation Plan B. Maybe you don’t really have to be saved, you just have to think you are. The joy and peace, from wherever it comes, can help you right now.
On the other hand, it seems selfish to worry about one’s “personal salvation,” and seems to dilute the grace of being saved. Plus, as we get older, our sense of personal integrity should motivate us to become increasingly selfless, increasingly concerned with the welfare of others, so that our love and generosity transcend the boundaries that hobbled our best intentions when we were younger and more distracted by all the demands and wonder of life. If we are fortunate, our love grows up and we become universal. We have knowledge, experience, and hopefully, goodness. These are the roots of wisdom. Are we really waiting to be saved? It occurs to me that we are the ones who must do the saving. By that I mean doing what we can to make this life better—not just for ourselves and our own families, but by promoting peace, justice, and compassion for all people, animals, and nature, in every aspect of our lives, be it professional, environmental or political.
I tend to short-shrift the Universalist side of our denomination. Remember, we merged with them in 1961, and they’re probably still wondering if they did the right thing. Although the Universalists may be a lot more religious than what I’ve become accustomed to, they at least had the unique decency to profess universal salvation. What an incredible idea! It’s so communitarian! There’s a generosity of spirit there that deserves salvation, regardless of whether or not it exists! I so very much respect our Universalist spirit. Kind of like the Affordable Care Act—it might not be your cup of tea but no one’s excluded, (except if you live in South Carolina—which I think has more stringent rules for Salvation of any kind).
May God, if He or She exists, bless the Universalists! It’s that kind of spirit that we need to work towards our own salvation, but on this side of life, the only side we can possibly get a handle on.
What I learned from the Dalai Lama, I first learned from tight-rope walkers.
Years ago, I went to a Shriner Circus with a friend who was visiting his tightrope walker friends. When they told me that they had to tie their own ropes. I said the circus should make someone else tie their ropes, and they looked at me as if I had rocks in my head. They said you have to tie your own ropes because when your own life is on the line (no pun intended), you make good and sure that those knots are really tight!
Taking serious responsibility for yourself and your own happiness and welfare is a good way to avoid accidents, disappointments, and a host of other problems, and not establish conditions that demand remorse. The net result is peace. Peace is salvation for however long the peace prevails. The Dalai Lama says that “When you think everything is someone else’s fault, you will suffer a lot. When you realize that everything springs only from yourself, you will learn both peace and joy.”
Peace, like compassion, is always an option. Even when things get out of control, it’s always there, waiting patiently. I once went to an evangelical church and heard a rant on Luke 10. The minister paced furiously up and down the stage, shouting the story of Mary and Martha, who had opened up their home to Jesus and his disciples. Mary sat at Jesus’s feet and listened to his preaching, abandoning Martha to take care of the whole group by herself. She railed against Mary to Jesus, saying, “Lord! Here I am! Working my sorry self to the BONE! Now don’t you LET her get aWAY with that!” And the Lord turned to Martha, and he said, “Woman! LAY your burden down! Lay your BURDEN down! Lay your burden DOWN!” The theatrical performance bordered on the ridiculous, and I found myself laughing. I realized that, of course, you could just lay your burden down! All this angst, pain, bitterness, resentment and fear. It’s not gone, you just put it down. If you really get lonely for it, you can always go back to it, pick it back up and carry it around, just to remind yourself that you don’t deserve to be happy, that you should be miserable. Or you could choose peace. Go ahead—Stop resisting! Just go on and forgive whatever and whomever you have to forgive if you really want to save yourself. Lay your burden down. Let it go.
When I retired two years ago, it was like I was laying my burden down. I realized that the Universe was reminding me that Heaven and Hell are right here on earth. We Unitarians, in our disdain for Hell, just might be right: A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Eat your dessert first. Enjoy every sandwich.
The real reason, though, that I’m talking about this today is that the older I get, the more I am confronted with death. I, personally, have a hard time trying to comfort a person who is dying with promises of going on to a better place or to comfort their families who are clutching at straws, frantically trying to save their loved one. At the end of the day, all our words ring hollow as we wring our hands and stand by helplessly. The dying beg God to save them from death and family members beg the dying to not abandon them. There is peace for no one and hellish torment for all until the resistance is replaced by acceptance. It is not our place to advise people to just accept something they can’t or won’t accept. I’m learning that I can’t fix everything, and for me, it’s part of letting go of my own resistance. There comes a time when all we can do is to tell people we love them.
So what about faith? Are we just kidding ourselves? Is this the cheap way out? For a long time, I puzzled over the difference between hope and faith. One night, I had a dream that resolved this problem. I dreamt that I had a brain tumor that was fatal. I would be having an operation that I knew would not save my life, but we were going to do it anyway. (In my dream, I must have already met my deductible.) I was so scared. Then the doctor put his hands on my head, and I understood that it was Jesus or Buddha or Allah or my Jewish Father. I had no hope that I would get better, but I was flooded with a sense of relief because I had an unshakeable faith that everything would be fine. Usually, reality is never as bad as our fears.
The Roman philosopher, Seneca the Younger, said that the first step in a person’s salvation is knowledge of their sin.
The whole crucifixion story about Jesus dying for our sins to open up the gates of heaven only works for me as a metaphor, not as literal truth. To me it means that you realize that you made a mistake, you admit it to yourself and stop making excuses, you make honest restitution as best as you can by making things right again, asking for forgiveness and forgiving yourself, and actively changing your life for the better. Your salvation is that you saved yourself from wasting your precious life on things that can only end in regret. In changing our hateful, selfish or destructive behavior, or just our negativity, we resurrect our better, more loving and compassionate selves, letting that rotten part of ourselves die, as it should.
This is peace and joy, and it’s as close to Salvation and as far from despair as I can get in this lifetime.
There is nothing inherently wrong with believing in traditional salvation, except that believing that things will be better in the “next life,” gives us an unwarranted sense of complacency. And unless we really do have an eternal life coming to us, we’re just washing the dishes in a burning house. That faith can be put to better use right now. Faith should never ask us to believe in the supernatural but if it does nothing more than lead us to peace, that’s good enough for me.
Life has no remote—We’re just gonna have to get up and change it.
Can I get an amen?
Thank you to The Worship Committee, Judy Turnipseed, Andrea Dudick, Donald Griggs, David Roof, Karl McCollester, Janet Swigler, Linda Brennison, Bill Moody, Lisa Eason, Sandy Chubon, Jerry Moore, Jean Capalbo, and my husband, Doug Woodward, for their help in getting this service together.
Closing Words are from p159 of Jim Crace’s Being Dead:
“The world’s small, breathing denizens, its quaking congregations and its star gazers, were fools to sacrifice the flaring briefness of their lives in hopes of paradise or fears of hell. No one transcends. There is no future and no past. There is no remedy for death—or birth—except to hug the spaces in between. Live loud. Live wide. Live tall.”
Illustration Credit: http://www.snoron.com/aliens_ship_abduction-wallpapers.html