We often find inspiration and insight while facing significant challenges. Forrest Church was a prominent Unitarian Universalist minister who was given a terminal diagnosis in February 2008. He wrote a book called Love and Death, summarizing his life beliefs and sharing some insights on loss and love. It was a valuable contribution to those he left behind, and Dave will be sharing some of Forrest Church's thoughts.
The complete sermon can be read below:
This morning I am going to share with you many of the thoughts and beliefs of a man named Forrest Church, a good name for a minister I think. People sometimes have their greatest life insights when faced with their most significant adversity. On February 4th, 2008, Church sent a letter to his congregation’s members, informing them that he had terminal cancer. He soon had a plan to summarize his thoughts on love and death. His remarkable book, Love and Death – My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow, made its appearance before the end of 2008. Forrest Church died of esophageal cancer on September 24th, 2009 at the age of 61.
Wikipedia states that Church is best known as a leader of liberal religion. He was a prominent Unitarian Universalist minister, an author and a theologian. Among his 20 or so books, was a book on theologian Paul Tillich, an introduction to Unitarian Universalism, and A Father and Son: A Personal Biography of Senator Frank Church of Idaho. Forrest’s father was a Democratic Senator, serving Idaho from 1957 to 1981. He was an unsuccessful candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1976, losing to Jimmy Carter.
Many people gain their greatest insights when facing their greatest adversities. I will maintain this morning that Forrest Church’s death sentence inspired him to produce a collection of his thinking and writing that may not have happened except for these very difficult circumstances. I am not the only one inspired by this book. George McGovern said "This beautiful book by a matchless preacher, poet, and author is Forrest Church in his finest hour." - Tom Brokaw added "Forrest Church, a deeply spiritual but always practical visionary, is a minister to us all with this moving and instructive book on the lessons of life and death." President Bill Clinton exclaimed “I read Love and Death as soon as it came out. The greatest gift I could give every one of you is to just tell you to go read this book.”
You of course, can go out and buy the book, or borrow mine. But until those things happen, I will share with you what I consider some of the highlights of Love and Death as espoused by Forrest Church.
The more skeptical among you might not think that a lot of light can come from a book that is written in the shadow of death. There is poignancy and pain, yes. But there is much inspiration and light as well. One of the parts of the book that impacted me the most was the reaction of a long time parishioner, when she learned of the returning, now terminal cancer of her minister. “My heart has been broken again” Camille wrote, “and for that I am overwhelmingly thankful; without love this would not be possible.” What a wonderful reframe of such difficult news. Without love, I would not have a broken heart, and for this, I am thankful.
Church himself said that “It is love that requires courage, because the people we love may die before we do. Dare to love and we instantly become vulnerable. Love is grief’s advance party. When a loved one dies, the greater the pain. Such grief is a sacrament. Sacraments bring us together. The measure of our grief testifies to the power of our love. We cannot protect love from death. But by giving away our hearts, we can protect our lives from the death of love.”
Forrest’s father died at the age of 59. Forrest was in his mid-30s. He remembers his father’s funeral as being one of thanksgiving and celebration. In the program there were the words of Thornton Wilder. “All that we can know about those that we have loved and lost is that they would wish to remember them with a more intensified realization of their reality. What is essential does not die but clarifies. The highest tribute to the dead is not grief but gratitude.”
My father had a longer life. He lived to the age of 81. My great grandfather died when he was 57. My grandfather died when he was 64. We were pretty excited when my Dad made 70. There is a tree planted in his honour in Calais St. Park in Whitby. We had a heads up on my Dad’s death. We knew that he had an inoperable cancer and that it was a matter of weeks. I’ve told some of you how there was much light during those weeks, especially his last weeks in palliative care. Friends would visit with a funereal air, but my Dad would cheer them up. He seemed liberated by the act of people telling him what he meant to them, and they to him. There was often memories and laughter. Forrest Church summarizes this opportunity with these words. “Grief, failure, even death can thus be sacraments. Not that suffering is invaluable in and of itself. If one suffers alone, it is no elixir. A sacrament symbolizes communion, the act of bringing us together. Suffering brings us together when we discover the lifelines that connect our hearts.”
During the weeks that I was working on this talk, I had also borrowed a year one DVD of the TV series, Six Feet Under. It is a very well done show following the quirky family members who are involved in running a funeral home. Each show starts with a death in the first few moments, and it highlights the random nature of life, and death. In episode 1, the family patriarch is hit by a bus while driving the hearse. In other shows a man dies in an industrial mixer, a woman’s cat knocks her radio in the bathtub, and an old man wakes up to find his wife deceased beside him.
Forrest Church calls these trapdoors. Church says that we can spend our life worrying about these trapdoors, or we can use them to heighten our connection with life. Fragility and impermanence can serve to highlight the precious nature of life. Church says “The trapdoors we traipse over in our daily wanderings are invisible until they spring. All the more reason to seize joy whenever and however we can.”
It reminds me of much of the thinking in Buddhism, mindfulness and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy that has grabbed my attention over the years. There is great power in our intentionality. Where we decide to put our focus greatly influences our days. Do we find the negative in every situation, or do we seek out the positive. Church tells the story in his book of the time when he was the speaker on a cruise ship. He left his room early in the morning and walked up to the deck. The weather was brisk and grey clouds filled the sky. “Lousy day” another passenger muttered while looking out over the sea. Just then a deckhand caring a bucket and mop walked by singing joyously. “What do you sing on a good day, a dirge?” “On a good day” the deckhand replied. “Sir, this is a good day!” “You’ve got to be kidding. I paid a lot of money for this trip and look out there. I might as well have stayed home.” With a twinkle in his eye the deckhand replied “Sir, there’s many a blind man who would give his eyeteeth to look out on a day like this.”
Playwright Robert Anderson asserts that Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship. We may have had to face the death of someone close to us, but as we go through life, we may still imagine their reactions to certain things that we are dealing with. I know that for me, I often think of what my parents reactions and words might be when I am going through the good and bad of life today.
I vividly remember driving to work at Ontario Shores, Centre for Mental Health Sciences at a point when I was going through some significant work stresses. I found it very helpful to wonder what my father might do in a similar situation. I told my sister that story and on the next Christmas she gave me a sign for my desk….WWHD or What Would Homer Do?
Forrest Church also felt that love and connection were the things that transcend death. He told that to his parishioners on Sunday September 12th, 2001. “We are not human because we think. We are human because we care. All true meaning is shared meaning The only thing that can never be taken from us is the love we give away. …..Eternity is not a length in time, it is a depth in time. We enter and meet there through the sacrament of love. We need to celebrate “the courage of people answering death’s no with love’s yes.”
Forrest Church’s dire diagnosis gave him incentive to reflect on his personal beliefs and to document them. His focus contained a lot more Jesus content than most Unitarian Universalists. He didn’t believe in the literal teachings that Jesus was born of a virgin, or that he literally rose three days after his death. Nor is he like many liberal Christians who focus primarily on the teachings of Jesus. Church finds merit there, but also sees them being human teachings, flawed, and limited by cultural and personal experience.
Church saw the Jesus “miracle” in how the people who knew him, continued to be transformed well after his death. A person died, but love and connection lived. “In his disciples hearts he reigned as never before. Everything that mattered about him was theirs now. The way he cast out fear with faith. His love of God and neighbor. His astonishing humility. His disdain for pretense and cant. His courage and his passion. Each was more present now than ever before because Jesus lived within them, not simply among them. That is the essence of the Easter experience. A transformation occurred. Jesus was reborn in the hearts of his followers.”
Life according to Church is an awe inspiring, mind bending mystery. He feels that humans are extremely limited in their ability to describe or understand this mystery. “In what I call the Cathedral of the World, there are scores of windows, each telling it’s own story of who we are, where we came from, where we are going, illuminating life’s meaning. In this respect we are many. But we are also one, because the one light shines through every window. No individual, however spiritually gifted, can see this light – Truth or God, call it what you will – directly. We cannot look God in the eye any more than we can stare at the sun without going blind. This should counsel humility and mutual respect for those whose reflections on ultimate meaning differ from our own.”Church feels that we are more alike in our ignorance, than we differ in our knowledge. The wisest amongst us will have only the faintest notion of what life was all about.
Being a good minister, Chuch saw the advantages of being part of a community. When life happens, and trapdoors fall open, a question worth asking is where do I go from here. Church thinks we do better when part of that answer includes the word together. “Together we kneel. Together we walk, holding each another’s hands, holding each other up. Together we do love’s work and and thereby we are saved.
He also echoes the sentiments of many others that being stared in the face by mortality, can make life feel much richer. You tend not to take days for granted and find good in each one. “This is the day we are given. Rejoice and be glad in it.” I like how Church looks for meaning and richness in this life. As an agnostic about the afterlife, he looked for salvation in this life. Not to be saved from life, but to be saved by life, in life for life.
There are a couple of pages in his book that shine for a numbers nerd like me. He looks at some of the numbers surrounding the miracle of life and I think it gives us an awe inspiring perspective.
“Consider the odds more intimately. Your parents had to couple at precisely the right moment for the one possible sperm to fertilize the one possible egg that would result in your conception. Right then, the odds were still a million to 1 against your being the answer to the question your biological parents were consciously or unconsciously posing. And that's just the beginning of the miracle. The same unlikely happenstance must repeat itself throughout the generations. Going back 10 generations, this miracle must repeat itself 1,000 times—1¼ million times going back only 20 generations. That's right. From the turn of the 12th century until today, we each have, mathematically speaking, approximately 2½ million direct ancestors. This remarkable pyramid turns in upon itself, of course, with individual ancestors participating in multiple lines of generation, until we trace ourselves back to when our ur-ancestors, the founding couple, whom each one of us carries in our bones, began the inexorable process that finally gave birth to us all, kith and kin, blood brothers and sisters of the same mighty mystery.
And that's only the egg and sperm part of the miracle. Remember, each of these ancestors had to live to puberty. For those whose bloodline twines through Europe—and there were like tragedies around the globe—not one of your millions of direct forebears died as children during the great plague, for instance, which mowed down half of Europe with its mighty scythe.
Mathematically, our death is a simple inevitability, whereas our life hinges on an almost infinite sequence of perfect accidents. First a visible and then an invisible thread connects every one of us in an unbroken line genetically and kinetically to the instant of creation. Think about it. The universe was pregnant with us when it was born.
If you find yourself this morning out of the race, so far behind the pack that you can hardly see its dust—if the odds weigh against you, the odds against happiness returning to fill your days with joy, the seemingly overwhelming odds that you will never recover from whatever is bearing or beating you down—take a moment to ponder life's cosmic odds and how you've already beaten them. You, I, each one of us have miraculously run our courses from the instant of creation to the advent of life on Earth and on through billions of generations to reckon the privilege of looking out upon this magnificent morn.”
Unitarian Universalism is a journey where we sort things out for ourselves, but we do it best in community, sharing information and insights. Facing mortality can raise more questions or it can solidify what is there. Forrest Church found himself in a loop, going through his theolotical mantras. His seven mantras go as follows.
“Religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.
We are the religious animal; knowing that we must die, we cannot help but question what life means.
We are more alike in our ignorance than we differ in our knowledge.
God is not God’s name. God is our name for that which is greater than all and yet present in each.
Whether or not there is life after death, surely there is love after death.
The one thing that can never be taken from us, even by death, is the love we give away before we die.
The purpose of life is to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for.”
I did most of the preparation for this talk before seeing the UUCD lineup for October. When I saw that I was on the October bill with Rev. Fiona Heath, Rev. Cheryl Jack, Rev Lori Kyle and Rev. Michelle Singh, I was both humbled and excited. Facing adversity with gratitude is a perhaps one the life’s greatest lessons, and getting five variations on this theme should prove stimulating and beneficial.
Forrest Church was facing the ultimate challenge – mortality. He leaves a legacy of eloquently finding rich veins of love and meaning to appreciate. Connection becomes ever more important when mortality threatens to sever it. I close with the words of Forrest Church.
“In each of our lives not only will some rain fall, but fires will burn, the ground will shake, and one day, life itself will be exacted in payment for the gift of life bestowed. By wanting what we have, doing what we can, and being who we are, our cup will forever be half full, not half empty. Do these same things with reverence, humbled by awe, and our cup runneth over.
To long for what we lack - for things we have lost or shall likely never find - offers little save the sour pleasures of victimhood and regret. Fantasy is no better. Wishful thinking is both sloppy and sentimental. We should think to wish instead for things a little closer at hand.
o The courage to bear up under pain
o The grace to take our successes lightly
o The liberation that comes with forgiveness
o The energy to address tasks that await our doing
o The meaning to be found in giving ourselves to others
o The patience to surmount things that are dragging us down
o The joy to be gained in even the smallest endeavor
o The wonder that lies between the sacred moments of our birth and death.
I call this thoughtful wishing-wishing for what is ours, here and now, to have, do and be.”
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