Monday, August 18, 2014

Left Behind

This is the sermon preached on August 17, 2014 at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church -- Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, VA.  If you would like to hear it, click here.
The sermon this morning was supposed to be about the Christian Book of Revelation, specifically the concept of the "rapture."  Our jumping-off point was going to be the best-selling Christian book series of all time -- Tim LaHaye's  hexadecagology, "Left Behind."  (And yes, I just made up that word.  I figured that if three books is a "trilogy," then sixteen books would be a hexadecagology.)  Anyway, that's what Mike and I had been planning to explore this morning, but sometimes events make preachers change their plans.
There's an old joke.  A man goes to a doctor.  He's obviously on the verge of tears.  He says, "Doctor ... I am so depressed.  I don't see any way I can keep on going.  It's all just getting too hard.  The world seems so cold and lonely.  I don't know what to do."
The doctor says, "I have an idea.  The great clown Paggliachi is in town this week.  I happen to have a ticket to tonight's show.  Take it.  Go.  He'll cheer you up, I'm sure of it."
The man finally succumbs to his tears.  "But doctor," he says, "I am Paggliachi."
This generation's Paggliachi died of suicide this week, and suddenly "left behind" has a whole new connotation.  Robin Williams’ gifts touched so many lives so deeply that a lot of us felt his death personally, and felt as if we’d been left behind.  And his public death brought up for a lot of us – here in this room as well as around the country and around the world – a whole lot of memories and emotions for those who’ve experienced it in their own lives.   And it was only last month that the Rev. Jennifer Slade, who was serving our congregation in Norfolk, died of suicide.  (Some of us might remember her since she’d come here as a consultant on the church’s search process.)
But it was Robin Williams who seems to have gotten people everywhere talking about depression, and mental illness, and suicide.  In the past week people have shared their opinions, and counter opinions.  And I've been somewhat amazed at all the folks who’ve "come out of the closet," if you will; who have taken public their own struggles with depression.  (I guess I was somewhat ahead of the curve on that, having done so a while ago.)
Now I want to be clear about something before going on here.  It’s true that everyone knows what it's like to be depressed; everyone has been "down" and "blue" at some point in their lives.  But not everyone understands depression.  Maybe an analogy or two would help:
Everyone knows what it's like to feel run down, but some people actually have the flu -- a true medical condition; an illness.  And everyone knows what it's like to have body aches, but some people actually have fibromyalgia -- a true medical condition.  Again, a bonafide illness.  And everybody knows what it's like to be depressed, but some people actually have depression.  These things really are similar in that way.
On the cover of your Order of Service is a cartoon I first saw a couple of years ago with which I and a lot of other people with depression resonate.      "Why don't you just get over it?"  "If only you'd apply yourself ..."  "This lying around obviously isn't helping you any."  "You just need some thing to cheer you up."  ("Go see that clown, Paggliachi.")  We'd never think to say such things to someone with cancer, for instance, or ALS, but virtually everyone with depression has no doubt heard things like this countless times. 
And it's not just depression.  In our culture we seem to treat most mental illnesses as if they were not, you know, actually illnesses.  They are.  And they can be just as debilitating and just as much beyond a person's conscious control as any other.  Oh, sure, there are treatments that can help.  Sometimes.  For some people.  Yet just as with a whole host of other medical conditions not every treatment works 100% of the time for every patient. 
Talk therapy is good.  It can be helpful.  But for a lot of people it's nowhere near enough.  (And there are some therapists out there who themselves really don't understand the illness -- and bad therapy can be worse than no therapy at all.)
And there are medications -- most of which have some pretty awful side effects and none of which is guaranteed to work.  Often a variety of drugs have to be tried, and at a variety of different dosages, to find something that works.  And often what works only works for a while and then something else needs to be tried.
There's also ECT -- electro-convulsive therapy -- which has had really good outcomes for some people.  But not everyone.  And it, too, even when it works, isn't so much a cure as a combative.  (Think of it as helping someone to go into remission.)
So yes, there are things that we can do -- and that does include things like trying to eat well, and get enough exercise, and enough sleep; and keeping busy; and finding meaningful things to do.  (And, yes watching funny movies can be good, too.)  But the bottom line is that it's a disease, but a disease that often resists treatment and is rarely ever really cured.
And all of this has been raised in our public consciousness because of Robin William's suicide.
Something else that’s been raised is the effect death by suicide can have on those who are “left behind.”  I should say effects, because there’s no one reaction.  Survivors of suicide have what’s called “complicated grief.”  Studies have shown that survivors seem to struggle more than others with trying to make meaning of the death, asking questions like, “Why did they do it?”.  Survivors often try to figure out the motives and frame of mind of the deceased and look back over the days and weeks leading up to the suicide looking for clues, things they might have missed.  (That’s already started with Williams.)
This leads pretty directly to one of the other difference with bereavement following a suicide – survivors are more apt to feel guilt, blame, and responsibility for the death than other mourners, asking questions like, “Why couldn’t I prevent it?”  Some survivors feel that they may have directly caused the death through some kind of mistreatment or perceived abandonment.  More common, though, is to blame themselves for not anticipating and preventing it. 
Finally, several studies indicate that survivors experience heightened feelings of rejection or abandonment by the loved one, along with anger toward the deceased – “How could they do this to me?” This is, I think, one of the reasons we’ve heard people saying that the act of suicide is, ultimately, a “selfish” act, an “uncaring” one, and even “cowardly.”  I have heard this said by people who have survived a loved one’s suicide, and I have heard it said by people who have seen first-hand the devastation that can follow. There can be a lifetime of devastation.
Yet I want to return to the analogies we were using earlier.  Would you ever think to say to someone who died following a battle with cancer that they were “selfish,” or that they were a “coward” for giving up?  Taken the easy way out?  Of course not.  No one would ever say anything like that because cancer is a disease that is recognized as deadly.  Not every kind of cancer, of course, and even deadly forms of cancer can occasionally be beaten back, but we are not surprised when a person dies of cancer, or advanced heart disease, or ALS, or, for that matter, Ebola, because we know that these diseases kill.
Well … depression is a disease.  And it kills.  Not all the time, but that is its natural progression.  Don’t believe for a minute otherwise.  As was said this week, depression is, “merciless.  All it wants is to get you alone in a room and kill you.”  As the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention puts it in its guide for those who’ve survived a loved one’s suicide, “Just as people can die of heart disease or cancer, people can die as a consequence of mental illness.”
One of the first Worship Weavers I ever worked with would every so often listen to the ideas I had for a sermon and say, “Well that’s interesting, Erik, but so what?”  So here’s the “so what” of this morning:
If you’re depressed – and I don’t just mean “blue,” or “sad,” or “heavy” – if you’re struggling with depression … take it seriously.  This is one tough disease we’ve got, and left to its own devices it’s often fatal.  Try those treatments I mentioned earlier.  Keep trying them until you find something that works.  Fight against the urge to isolate, to slap a smile on and keep on keeping on as if nothing’s wrong, to think that the problem is you rather than something in you. 
And yes, we can argue about that particular phrasing, but I think you all know what I mean.  It’s not generally your fault when you get cancer.  It’s not generally your fault when you develop a neurological condition.  It’s not generally your fault when you have depression (or any other mental illness).  So try not to let shame, or guilt, or fear-of-others’-reactions stop you from getting the help you need.  Try.  There are a lot of us who know what it’s like.  We should talk to each other.
To those of you who know, live with, love someone who is battling depression – and this, too, goes for just about any mental illness, or any chronic physical illness, for that matter – I’m hoping that you’re hearing just how hard this is.  And by that I don’t mean just for the person who has depression, but for you.  It is hard to watch someone you love, someone you care about, struggling with a serious illness.  And the natural human inclination is to want to try to do something to help.  It’s important to know that sometimes you can’t help.  Sometimes you can, and you may be helping more than you could ever imagine just by being present.  But it’s unlikely that there’s anything you can do that will make everything okay.  If other people’s love, respect, admiration, desire-to-help could cure anyone, then Robin Williams would be alive today.  And last week Mary Rose talked about how the Rev. Jennifer Slade was really beloved by the congregation in Norfolk where she was serving.  As with any chronic, severe, life-threatening disease, there’s only so much anyone can do.
And that’s hard.  So you need to make sure you take care of yourself.  You need to make sure that you have support.  Because you need to know that it’s not about anything you did or didn’t do.  It’s not about any clues that you missed or saw but misunderstood (or ignored).  You and that person you love are staring down a disease – an insidious and too-often fatal disease.
There’s a third group I want to speak to this morning, those who’ve survived the struggle with depression when your friend, parent, sibling, child, co-worker, whoever didn’t.  I hope you’ve been hearing everything I’ve said this morning.  I conclude ever memorial service I lead with words from a Mary Oliver poem:  “To live in this world you must be able to do three things:  to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing that your own life depends upon it; and when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.”  That’s true no matter how your loved one died.
There is one thing more I want to say.  I know that not everyone will agree with me, but I believe it to be true.
This week I watched again the movie WhatDreams May Come.  It’s a Robin Williams movie.  A beautiful film – both visually and in its message, too.  If you’ve seen it, if you remember it, then you’ll know what I mean, but if you haven’t let me just warn you that it’s a little rough to watch right now.  In part because it’s about depression, death, grief, even suicide.  Ultimately it’s hopeful, but it’s a bit of a rough slog getting there.
Early on, though, there’s a scene I want to call to your attention.  Our attention.  A character has died and we see this person attending their own funeral.  Walking down the aisle to the front of the church.  Kneeling beside a loved one in the first pew.  And this person tries to reach out across that divide that separate life from death to say three little words.  Just three little words – “I still exist.”  I still exist.  A kind of angelic companion asks, “Are you losing your fear?”  “Fear?”  “That you disappeared?  You didn’t, you only died.”  They didn’t disappear, they only died. 

This morning has been what one of my colleagues calls, “a rough one.”  I mean, I assume it has for some of you.  I know it has for me.  But life is oftentimes “rough,” and that roughness takes so many forms. In the end I believe that there’s really only one thing we can offer one another.  It may not be able to do everything, but to the bottom of my soul I believe it’s enough.  That thing is love.  Love someone today, my friends.  And know that you, too, are loved.
Pax tecum,

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Depression: It's Not What It Looks Like

A few weeks ago a colleague of mine in the professional ministry ended her life.  Yesterday morning Robin Williams apparently committed suicide.  Here are some things they have in common:

  • Both were relatively young;
  • Both were relatively healthy (physically speaking);
  • They both had careers that were meaningful;
  • They were both highly successful in their careers (meaning that others respected and appreciated their work and they knew this);
  • They each had families and friends who loved them;
  • They both presented themselves to the world as people who "had a lot to live for" and who genuinely appreciated life -- theirs in particular and "life" abstractly;
  • They both struggled with depression but had help;
  • They both committed suicide.

In the wake of William's death a lot of people are writing a lot of things about depression.  Some are very helpful; some are not.  The former are generally written by people who have (or have had) their own first-hand experience(s) with depression.  It's hard for anyone who hasn't to really understand it.  (It can be hard for those of us who have to understand it, too!)

One of the things I read today was this piece, "21 Things Nobody Tells You About Depression," by Alexis Nedd.  (And as with any good blog post there are links within that are worth following.)  I encourage people to read it, and anything else that attempts to tell it like it is.

It's funny, though.  If you do a Google image search on the word "depression" what comes up is a whole lot of pictures of people with their head in their hands, sitting in near darkness, alone, knees up, or literally up against a wall (like this one to the right). Lots of black and white.  Lots of use of shadow.

What you don't see too often is ... well ... someone like Robin Williams.  You don't see someone full of energy, full of life.  We don't depict depression with a picture of someone heartily laughing, or making others laugh.  We don't show it with images of people going about their lives, being successful, doing meaningful things and doing them well.

And that can make it hard for folks to recognize -- even to believe -- that the people they know are "really" suffering.  It can make it hard for people to acknowledge the real struggle depressed people may be having even when they're looking like everything's fine.  This can also make it hard for people wrestling with depression to ask for help -- we don't want to disappoint people's positive perceptions of us, and we understand that it can be hard for people to believe.  It can also deepen our negative feelings about ourselves and our sense of hopelessness -- "My God," we might say, "everybody else thinks I have a great life, everybody else thinks I'm a great person, there must be something really wrong with me that I feel so awful!"

Depression can be, of course, mind and body numbing.  It can crush you deep into the couch with a blanket on top of you and a marathon of Law and Order: SVU in front of you.  But it can also be the constant companion who is just underneath the surface of an otherwise normal-looking life.

Pax tecum,


Monday, August 11, 2014

Farewell, Robin Williams

When I was young, I wanted to become a performer.  And I did, in more ways than not.  I've got a somewhat serious and steady gig these days -- every Sunday morning -- but in my day I was a juggler, a magician, an escape artist, a fire eater.  Truth is, though, each of those specialties was really an excuse to talk.  I have been for most of my life, and still am, a professional talker.

When I was a kid, one of my friends and I memorized every word of Woody Allen's Standup Comic album.  And, of course, I wore the grooves off my copy of Steve Martin's Let's Get Small.  And if you could watch videos of my earliest performances you'd be able to hear the rhythms and pacing of Bill Murray, something I consciously tried to copy.  But hands down, if I could have become a clone of anyone in those days, it'd have been Robin Williams.

I had never seen a comedic brain move more quickly.  (And never did, until I discovered Eddie Izzard.)  So fast.  So smart. A master, a true master. Thanks to my parents I was already familiar with Williams' hero Jonathan Winter, and I admired him tremendously.  But I loved Robin Williams.

This morning Robin Williams apparently committed suicide.  If someone as loved, as respected, as admired, as appreciated as this could give in to the suicidal urge, it is proof positive that that act has nothing to do with those things.  Looking in from the outside it can be so hard to see how someone who has "so much going for them" could find life unbearably painful or, perhaps worse, utterly meaningless. And yet, from this inside, those outside can seem to be speaking another language, or about someone else.

Williams' wife has said that she hopes people will not remember him for the way he died, but for the joy he gave others while he was alive.  I want to remember both.  Because the struggles he faced were real.  His suffering was real.  The depression, and the isolation, and the despair, and the meaningless, and the desperation, and the pain ... these were all real.

Yet so was the joy, and the wonder, and the child-like playfulness, and the intelligence, and the daring, and the compassion (and mischief) you could see in his eyes, and the appreciation of life that poured off of him ... these were real, too. 

And, I suppose, the most important thing to remember is that the were both true.  Those of us who know depression from the inside know it can be hard to see anything else about ourselves at times.  And yet many of us know that there are people who see us and can't believe we're depressed.  Both can be true in one and the same person, even at one in the same time.

So thank you, Robin Williams, for all the ways your life, your gifts, have impacted mine and the lives of millions of others.  You will be missed.  You will be remembered.

Pax tecum,


R.I.P Robin McLaurin Williams (July 21, 1951 ~ August 11, 2014)

Thursday, August 07, 2014

The 40th Anniversary of the Dance Between the Towers

Each year, on the anniversary of the day that the French wire-walker and street performer Phillipe Petit danced for forty-five minutes between the towers of the World Trade Center, I watch the wonderful documentary about le coup, Man on Wire.  And each year I am once again inspired.

I am inspired by the raw courage and sheer lunacy of this feat.  At one point in the film Petit says of his attitude on first actually seeing the towers, "It's impossible, that's sure.  So let's start working."  Petit's confidence in his own abilities is mindboggling -- that anyone could imagine that they could do such a thing!

But this was not a solitary venture.  Although Petit was the one on that wire a quarter of a mile above the streets of New York City, in truth he was only there because of his friends.  In the dedication of his own reminiscence of the event -- the book now also called Man on Wire but originally called To Reach The Clouds --  Petit names twenty-one individuals, and leaves at least a few unnamed.  He says that it is to these that "this story belongs."  It was not just Petit's faith in himself that's inspiring.  He also had a seemingly innate, unquestioned faith in those who were working on this project with him, and they in him.

That's something that comes through if you watch the film closely enough, or read the book for the story within the story -- each of these people believed in this crazy idea as much as Petit did.  Each of them thought it was worth doing.  Each of them thought it was possible.  Each of them thought that she or he was just the person to make it happen.  They were not merely his assistants; they were his collaborators, his co-conspirators.  It was not Petit's coup; the walk belonged to all of them.

Storytellers love a hero.  Audiences want to see one woman or one man with the courage and the skills to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles and do what no one else can.  (This is true, at least, of American storytellers and audiences brought up in the dominant culture of the United States.)  We want there to be a pinnacle -- to inspire us, to give us something to aspire to.  And so the images of Petit on that 3/4" wire, alone, touches something in our souls.  It's nearly impossible for us to imagine anyone else out there with him.

But there were.  Yes, only he had put his life on the line, but they had put the life of a dear friend on the line knowing that if something were to happen he would die a poet's death whereas they would have to live with if for the rest of their lives.  It was the skill of his feet and that insane concentration that kept him aloft on that early Tuesday morning, but it was the skill of his friends and their insane dedication that got him there in the first place.  There is another story -- a less mythic, perhaps, yet deeper and more true story -- about le coup.

It is also, I think, an ultimately more inspiring one.  When I was younger it is quite possible that I aspired to be that solitary hero.  (I don't know for sure, I'm old enough now not to really remember!)  Now, though, I aspire to be part of a community that's doing daring things; to be one of a group that believes that, together, nothing can stop them.

I used to call this day "International Phillipe Petit Danced Between the Towers Day."  I will call it now, the Anniversary of the Dance Between the Towers because those who were on those roofs with him, and those who'd been with him in the planning and were now down on the street, and even those of us who merely watched and wondered ... we all were dancing too.

Pax tecum,


UPDATE:  When I first wrote this post I was able to find photos of three of the team that were involved that day -- Jean-Louis Blondeau (who planed and organized the whole adventure), Annie Allix, and Jean-François Heckel.  I wrote to Jean-Louis, with whom I've previously been in touch, and he told me that there were three other people who really needed to be mentioned -- Jean-Pierre Dousseau (who is never even mentioned in the film yet who drove the van into the Towers' delivery area and who was an integral part of the feat), and both Jim Moore and Barry Greenhouse (who do feature in the film).  He also sent me photos of these three so that I might honor them and their role as well.

So this year -- the 40th anniversary -- I salute them.

Jean-Louis Blondeau
Annie Allix

Jean-François Heckel
Jean-Pierre Dousseau
Jim Moore

Barry Greenhouse

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Revelation 8:16 8-6-45

Today is the 69th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.  As my first sermon back after a month away from the pulpit of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist, this is what I had to say on the subject.  (As always, if you want to listen to the sermon, just click here.)

Opening Reading:  from Ray Bradbury's short story, "There Will Come Soft Rains"
“Ten-fifteen. The garden sprinklers whirled up in golden founts, filling the soft morning air with scatterings of brightness. The water pelted windowpanes, running down the charred west side where the house had been burned evenly free of its white paint. The entire west face of the house was black, save for five places. Here the silhouette in paint of a man mowing a lawn. Here, as in a photograph, a woman bent to pick flowers. Still farther over, their images burned on wood in one titanic instant, a small boy, hands flung into the air; higher up, the image of a thrown ball, and opposite him a girl, hand raised to catch a ball which never came down. The five spots of paint- the man, the woman, the children, the ball- remained. The rest was a thin charcoaled layer.”

* * *
At 8:14 there was a clear blue sky.  Birds flew in the morning sunshine.  Children laughed as they made their way to school.  People were doing tai chi and calisthenics in a city park.  There’d been a scare earlier in the morning but now it looked like everything was okay.  Even when the world around you seems to be going crazy, days like this can make you feel alive and grateful.  The air is clean; the sun, warm.  You can forget the insanity.  On a day like this.  For a moment everything makes sense.
And in that moment—31,000 feet above the birds, and the children, and the men doing tai chi—the bomb doors on the Enola Gay opened and let loose a metal cylinder.  Ten feet long and two-and-a-half feet in diameter, it would change the world.  Not just for the people below or the people in the plane, but for every man, every woman, and every child who lived or ever would.
Forty-three seconds after it was flung loose that metal cylinder was 1,900 feet above the ground and it exploded with the force of 15,000 tons of TNT.  15,000 tons.  The birds burst into flame in mid-air.  So did combustible things like paper—as far as a mile away.  Instantly.
The people in the park right below turned to ash.  Instantly.  42-year old Mitsuno Ochi was sitting on the steps of her bank, waiting for it to open, when the bomb exploded.  She was reduced to nothing but a shadow.  You can see it today in the Hiroshima Peace Museum where they moved those steps so that she might not be forgotten.
Next came the blast wave.  Moving at a rate of two miles a second, people were blown from their feet, buildings were blown to the ground, trolleys and cars were blown from the roads.  Glass shattered twelve miles away.  A boy was blown through the windows of his house and across the street; his house collapsing behind him.  Within minutes, nine out of ten people half a mile or less from ground zero were dead.
And then the numerous fires that erupted around Hiroshima soon joined together creating a monstrous firestorm that engulfed nearly four and half square miles of the city.  In its heart it is estimated that this beast reached temperatures of over seven thousand degrees.  (For comparison, the surface of the sun is just under ten thousand degrees.)  An interesting fact:  a postwar study showed that less than 4.5 percent of survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima suffered leg fractures.  That’s not, of course, because those injuries didn’t occur but because those who couldn’t walk died.
It’s estimated that somewhere around 100,000 people died as a direct result of the blast and the fires.  100,000 people. 
Yet these are just numbers:  15,000 tons of TNT.  Seven thousand degrees.  100,000 people dead.  60 million dead if you add in all those—military and civilians—who died during World War II.  The war after “the war to end all wars.”
When I was in my twenties I got to spend a couple of months in Tokyo working with a Japanese mime troupe.  One of the few regrets I have of that time is that I never made it to the Hiroshima Peace Museum.  Like so many I have been haunted by what happened at 8:16 on August 6th, 1945.  The suddenness of it.  The enormity of it.  The … I don’t know … the comprehensiveness of it.  Everything changed in that moment.  Everything.  And the shock waves continue to reverberate in our world and in our psyches. 
Who are we – as a people, as a species – if we’re capable of this?   And not just once, but again two days later?
In 1903 the incomparable George Benard Shaw wrote a play called Man and Superman.  It’s a four act play, but most often only Acts I, II, and IV are performed together.  The 3rd Act is almost always performed as a stand-alone piece and even has its own title: Don Juan in Hell.  I grew up listening to a recording of Don Juan in Hell that was one of my parents’ prized possessions and one of my greatest pleasures – a recording of a 1952 readers’ theater production staring Charles Boyer, Charles Laughton, Cedric Hardwicke, and Agnes Moorehead.  Oh but those four could have been reading the phone book, their voices are so marvelous to listen to.  I recently found this recording on iTunes and have been listening to it, enraptured, since.
The play is a philosophical dialog about the meaning of love and marriage, men and women, life and death – pretty heady stuff, really.  It takes the literary figures of Don Juan, Doña Anna, and her father the Commander, and sets them in Hell having a conversation with the Devil.  It’s full of wonderful Shaw-isms.  An example?  “An Englishman thinks he is being moral when he is merely uncomfortable.”  There are also some tremendous monologues, one of which I’d like to quote at some length here, germane as I believe it to be.  This is the Devil, countering Don Juan’s assertion that man’s (this was written in 1903) that man’s brain is the pièce de résistance of creation.  And so the Devil says:

And is Man any the less destroying himself for all this boasted brain of his? Have you walked up and down upon the earth lately? I have; and I have examined Man's wonderful inventions. And I tell you that in the arts of life man invents nothing; but in the arts of death he outdoes Nature herself, and produces by chemistry and machinery all the slaughter of plague, pestilence, and famine. The peasant I tempt today eats and drinks what was eaten and drunk by the peasants of ten thousand years ago; and the house he lives in has not altered as much in a thousand centuries as the fashion of a lady's bonnet in a score of weeks. But when he goes out to slay, he carries a marvel of mechanism that lets loose at the touch of his finger all the hidden molecular energies, and leaves the javelin, the arrow, the blowpipe of his fathers far behind. In the arts of peace Man is a bungler. I have seen his cotton factories and the like, with machinery that a greedy dog could have invented if it had wanted money instead of food. I know his clumsy typewriters and bungling locomotives and tedious bicycles: they are toys compared to the Maxim gun, the submarine torpedo boat. There is nothing in Man's industrial machinery but his greed and sloth: his heart is in his weapons. This marvelous force of Life of which you boast is a force of Death: Man measures his strength by his destructiveness. […]

The plague, the famine, the earthquake, the tempest were too spasmodic in their action; the tiger and crocodile were too easily satiated and not cruel enough: something more constantly, more ruthlessly, more ingeniously destructive was needed; and that something was Man, the inventor of the rack, the stake, the gallows, the electric chair; of sword and gun and poison gas: above all, of justice, duty, patriotism, and all the other isms by which even those who are clever enough to be humanely disposed are persuaded to become the most destructive of all the destroyers.

It is said that Robert Oppenheimer, known as “the Father of the Atomic Bomb,” responded to seeing the first test of the device he helped birth by quoting the Hindu holy book the Bahagavad Gita:  I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.  We, we human beings, had become death, the destroyers of worlds.
How is it possible that we haven’t stopped fighting yet?  After Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden, Pearl Harbor, the Congo, Korea, Rwanda, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Sarajevo, Somalia, Northern Ireland, New York City, Bagdad, Fallujah, Allepo, Israel, Gaza—how can we still be slaughtering one another?  It’s been nearly forty years since Edwin Starr shouted out, “War.  What is it good for?”  and answered himself, “Absolutely nothin’.”  How is it that we’re still doing it?
Maybe it’s because we keep talking about numbers.  Joseph Stalin said that the death of one person is a tragedy, while the death of millions is a statistic. But there are no statistics.  There is no such thing as “collateral damage.”  There are only people—mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, grandparents, grandchildren, neighbors, friends.  Strangers, even.  Enemies, even.  But no numbers.  Numbers don’t exist; only people do.  Until they don’t anymore.  Until they become shadows in a museum.
Or maybe it’s because we keep thinking that we can fight our way to peace, that the problem is some bad people over there and if we can just beat them into submission peace will prevail.  We believe that it’s in talking tough, acting tough, that we protect the peace.  We’re told—and many believe—that the best defense is a good offense and that while might might not always make right, might in the hands of the good guys is there to be used.

The revelation of that lovely Monday morning when the birds burned and the world shuddered was just how incredible is humanity’s power to create death.  We demonstrated, irrefutably, just how masterful we are when it comes to being “ingeniously destructive,” as Shaw’s Devil put it.  I think that it was Einstein who said, after seeing the devastation of the atomic bomb, that humankind had progressed so far technologically that we now needed an evolution of consciousness if we hoped to survive. 

Yet I don’t believe that that’s all that was revealed in that blinding flash –  we also saw clearly, and still can see when we look back at it, how important is the imperative for us to work against our inclination towards death and work for life – tirelessly, unceasingly, incessantly. 

We say in our Mission Statement here at TJMC that we, “seek to have a lasting influence on local, national and global programs that promote equity and end oppression.”  Surely work for peace fits that criteria.  So while some of us engage with the struggle for full equal rights for LGBT folks; and others continue the seemingly endless work of striving for racial justice, and economic justice; and some are working tirelessly to end the suffering, the oppression of the earth herself; we need some to be standing up for peace, too.  Peace among nations.  Peace within communities.  We need people to attend protests and vigils, write letters, host community forums, work on legislation, run for office, keep the rest of us informed . . . there so many things we can do.  And we should do those things.  Our own Peace Action/United Nations group is a good place to start.  And there is much to be done.

I’ll end with four quotations that, I think, taken together are a fitting response to the horrors we remembered today and, I hope, are an inspiration for the work to be done:
If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.
~ Mother Teresa
There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.  ~ A.J. Muste
Peace is not merely the absence of war. It is also a state of mind. Lasting peace can come only to peaceful people.  ~ Jawaharlal Nehru
Peace is more important than all justice; and peace was not made for the sake of justice, but justice for the sake of peace.  ~ Martin Luther

Closing Words:  "Every Day" by Ingeborg Bachmann (an Austrian poet)
War is no longer declared, only continued. The monstrous has become everyday. The hero stays away from battle. The weak
have gone to the front. The uniform of the day is patience, its medal the pitiful star of hope above the heart.The medal is awarded when nothing more happens, when the artillery falls silent, when the enemy has grown invisible
and the shadow of eternal armament covers the sky.It is awarded for desertion of the flag, for bravery in the face of friends,
for the betrayal of unworthy secrets
and the disregard of every command.

Pax tecum,


PS -- As the prelude to the service, and to provide an alternative to the grim nature of the sermon, the incomparable Scott DeVeaux performed a rendition of this classic Randy Newman song:

Sunday, August 03, 2014

The Last Few Moments

When I used to practice zazen fairly regularly there was a phenomenon that I experienced many, many times.  A moment would come when I would become convinced that the timer -- whether a human time keeper or an electronic aid -- had lost track, had fallen asleep, had stopped working for some reason.  I became convinced that the session had actually ended a while back but that I was going to be stuck sitting there endlessly because there'd be no final bell to announce the session's end.  I'd panic ... real, heavy-duty panic.

This happened a lot.

But it's what came next that was important to me.  Most often when this panic would set upon me I would then find arising in me, unbidden, the thought, "Okay.  So there will be no end bell.  I guess I'll just sit here then."  And I would settle into the most profound stillness.

And then the bell would ring.

But Oh than moment of stillness ....

There is something of an analogous phenomenon with which counselors and therapists are familiar.  Just as the client is walking to the door at the end of a session they will turn and say, "You know ..." and out will come the real issue they'd been dancing around before.  This is so common that some counselors actually call and end to their sessions a few minutes early so as to have room for these "doorway revelations."

What is it about the last moment?

During the month of July I was privileged to have the opportunity to take both vacation and study leave.  I was out of the office, out of the pulpit, out of the church for an entire month.  I return tomorrow morning to preach about, of all things, the bombing of Hiroshima and our need to work for peace.  (Quite a way to ease back into preaching, let me tell you!)  So this is the "last moment" of my time away.

July was spent not in quiet contemplation but in my car driving one kid to camp and turning around to take the other to a a job mowing somebody in the neighborhood's lawn.  (I did get to read a bit while he worked.)  Then I'd go home to take care of the dog, and then drive the now finished landscaping boy to his half-day summer class at the local community college.  A few moments of breathing time and I'd begin picking up the boys from their various and scattered locations.  Once a week I'd also take our dog to the dog park during that breathing time, and once a week he went to "doggy day care" so transporting him had to be worked into the mix.

A pretty busy month.  And because my wife started a new job during this time, the cleaning, the shopping, the cooking was all mine to do, too.  At times I thought that I must be pretty darned wicked because it certainly felt like there way no rest for me.

But now it's the last moment.

And a calm has washed over me.  And from this vantage point I can see all the gifts, all the blessings, all the wonder I had the opportunity to experience over the past several weeks.  I can see the challenges, and how I rose up to meet them.  I can see the unexpected delights and the surprise discoveries.  I feel the sense of rest and rejuvenation that the change in routine elicited.  (I once read somewhere the thought that a change of pace is as good as a holiday.)  I can feel that I am renewed and recharged.

Is there a "last moment" coming up for you?  Can you create one if there's not?

Pax tecum,