Service from April 14, 2019, by Rev. Jean M. Rowe. Unrecorded due to power outage.
These opening words were taken from a sermon Rev. Jean Rowe wrote in April of 2000 for the Neshoba Unitarian Universalist Church of Germantown/Cordova, TN.
The Easter story reminds us that we live in the valley of the shadow of death. Recently, as I was lamenting the rude state of the human condition and rising cancer rates, I realized, quite suddenly, that this is nothing new. Previous generations have always lived squarely in the valley of the shadow of death from war, brutality, plagues and epidemics like tuberculosis and flue, high infant and child mortality, slavery. Violence and death are part of the human condition. We live in the valley of the shadow of death. We always have. That is our address. That is the context for human life. There is no escaping the fact that we die, those we care about die, and often do it too young.
A wise old Unitarian minister, in a book of short meditations said it clearly:
In the presence of Life, we say NO to death. In the presence of Death, we say YES to life.
From Phillip Simmons, Learning to Fall
This is for everyone who has lived long enough to discover that life is both more and less than we hoped for. We’ve know Earth’s pleasures: sunlight on a freshly mowed lawn, leaves trembling with rain, a child’s laugh, the sight of a lover stepping from the bath. We’ve also seen marriages sour and careers crash, we’ve seen children lost to illness and accident. But beyond the dualities of feast and famine we’ve glimpsed something else: the blessings shaken out of an imperfect life like fruit from a blighted tree. We’ve known the dark woods, but also the moon. This is for those ready to embrace this third way, the way through loss to wholeness, richness, and depth we had never before envisioned.
We’re stubborn creatures, and it takes a shock to make us see our lives afresh. In my case the shock was the news, when I was just thirty-five years old, that I had the fatal condition known as ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, and would probably be dead within a few years. By now—more than seven years later—I’ve outlived those predictions and also the sense that my predicament is so unusual. Life, after all, is a terminal condition. At some point we all confront the fact that each of us, each individual soul is, as the poet William Butler Yeats says, “fastened to a dying animal.” We’re all engaged in the business of dying, whether consciously or not, slowly or not.
“Joy and woe are woven fine, clothing for the soul divine;
under every grief and pine runs a joy with silken twine.”
This is the line that ran through my head, over and over this week, as I tried to come to terms with the sad fact that Rev. Ilene is taking medical leave for almost 4 months. I am sad for her, for the illness that dictated that she take time to learn how to treat the various manifestations of this disease that affects collagen. I am sad for her having to leave us for awhile because serving this congregation is what she dreamed of and worked for for the past decade or more. I daresay we’re all feeling sad for her. We were her dream. She has been doing with us exactly what she hoped and worked for.
I am sad for us. I dare say we’re all sad for us, missing her gentle presence and daring sermons, her sense of humor and wisdom, her dedication to helping us grow our souls and be the beloved community.
But her body didn’t cooperate. Her body told her that she must pay attention, not to us, not to what she wants to do and is called to do, but simply do what the body needs. I get it. She gets it. But we don’t have to be glad. We simply have to accept it, because it is reality. Here’s the thing: We are all living in bodies, fallible, subject to injury and disease and challenges. Tragedies happen to people of any age.
So, you ask, where’s the joy in this? What part of this brings joy?
Not Ilene’s illness, certainly. Not her absence from us.
But look around. What also happened this week? The bursting forth of beauty, beauty so achingly fresh and bright, it was an exhaltation of nature’s alleluia! The joy of pure natural astonishing beauty. The other poem that came running around in my head all week is this one by Archibald MacLeish. It captures the astonishment of weeks like this.
Why, it was wonderful! Why, all at once there were leaves,
Leaves at the end of a dry stick, small, alive
Leaves out of wood. It was wonderful,
You can’t imagine. They came by the wood path
And the earth loosened, the earth relaxed, there were flowers
Out of the earth! Think of it! And oak trees
Oozing new green at the tips of them and flowers
Squeezed out of clay, soft flowers, limp
Stalks flowering. Well, it was like a dream,
It happened so quickly, all of a sudden it happened—
The beautiful body of earth sprang forth and bedazzled us. Yes, all this was interrupted on Tuesday by one of the hardest, heaviest lightning and hailstorms Brevard has ever seen. It was almost as if spring had betrayed us with fearful fury. Oh, woe!
Most of you know that in late January my dear husband Lackey was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. We are both being cared for by a wonderful organization called Memorycare of Asheville. He gets a wise doctor and I get training and support for caregivers. I’ve been attending what they call “Caregiver College.” It’s six three-hour sessions. A doctor and a social worker share huge amounts of information about the nature of the various forms of dementia, and how we as caregivers can help the situation instead of making it worse. There are lists of do’s and don’ts and ways to change our behavior and expectations so that the process of the disease is as smooth and loving as possible. Each week during the 45 or 50 minute drive home from class, I’m processing what I learned. Usually, I’m overwhelmed at the volume of information and the stark reality of the progression of the disease.
On Thursday of this week, I went to session 5, which focused on the needs of us, the caregivers, and how to maintain our own health despite the stress we may be under. And there’s a lot of stress. One of my classmates, a little (I mean really short) woman piped up and said: “Well, I didn’t expect to be dealing with this at age 80!”
We learned 7 ways to relieve the stress. A lot of it has to do with changing expectations and attitudes. Our teacher reminded us we’re dealing with brain failure. Other folks are dealing with heart failure, or other sick organs, but this is brain failure, and you have to change your expectations. Even the 80 year old woman who expressed her frustration at being thrust into a role she didn’t choose and was ill-prepared for has to change her expectations. The class helped us but it is overwhelming.
And then there was the drive home. I felt rather numb from thinking about all these things, but reality sunk in. The fabulous alleluia reality of a mountain spring. There were purple redbuds and white dogwoods and bright yellow ragwort on the roadside. There were red tulips and white and yellow daffodils greeting me as the miles passed. I looked up into the mountains and saw the greening of everything. It was good; it was very, very good, and by the time I was home I was restored.
Our theme for worship this month at UUTC is rebirth. Nature’s glory is certainly one form of rebirth. You can get lost in it. You can be restored by it. I’ve been watching and waiting for the hummingbirds to return. And they did! I imagine Rev. Ilene finding rebirth in the planting of her garden, and bird-watching.
Another form of rebirth is in change of attitude. Lackey has decided to greet life with gratitude. He’s been writing thank you’s to friends and to his doctors. He wrote one this week to Dr. Das, the orthopedic surgeon who did knee replacement surgery twelve years ago. Dr. Das replied most kindly. His friends have been showering him with good wishes. Gratitude takes out bitterness and resentment. Gratitude trumps grief.
Lackey was writing to his friends early in March. He even gave his letter a title: “Living in the fog of Alzheimer’s Disease.”
I have spent most of my waking hours in the last couple of weeks coming to grips with the idea that I have Alzheimer’s disease.
Should I be a “brave soldier” and just shut the fuck up?" Or should I share what I know about this mysterious disease with others and bore the bejeezus out of them. Complicating the matter is the fact that I have a raving case of allergy, to trees, pollen, or something that is making me sneeze, my nose to run, and I’m farting like crazy? Do you tell people you know but can’t remember their name that you have Alzheimer’s disease?
Well, my friend, this is a problem I have been facing!
Do you put on a “brave face” that begs sympathy and understanding and listen to their “blather” about their friends and relatives who suffer from the same condition?
I’m at a loss, do I disclose what’s really happening in my life or do I not disclose and just have them believe
he’s really losing it now.”
You see my problem? You’re either a “brave soldier” or you’re just “boring as hell'“ — not a good choice.
So my friend, I have spent these last several weeks counting my blessings, appreciating a patient and loving wife and going through piles and piles of snotty handkerchiefs and sneezing my head off!
And still life goes on. You wonder what is funny and what is sad? You begin to understand what real friendship is like and how very lucky you are to be able to afford all the doctors and drugs you will need to stay alive. And no matter ow nutty and confused you are, how much memory you are losing and/or have done lost. Life is good.
As I type this out, Jean is on the bed taking a nap, to prepare herself to help me find lost socks and pills, and keys I can’t seem to find. And you realize how very fortunate you are to have made the right choice for a “life mate” and how “selfless” real angels are!
And thank you for making this adventure one we will share together,
You see, he ended his letter with gratitude: for his friends’ role in his life, and thank goodness, for me, and my skills in finding lost socks and keys. I think I could write a whole talk about the escapades we’ve had in finding lost keys. Well, I can’t resist telling a little about the ongoing saga of the lost keys.
One time we found the keys in the pocket of gym shorts that had been pitched down the laundry chute, there to hang up on a nail halfway down the chute. Once, we found them in gym shorts at the bottom of the laundry pile under the chute. This week, there they were on a fleece jacket of mine lying on a dining room chair. When we find them, we laugh. We laugh.
There’s a third thing that can help a rebirth of attitude: humor. My own insight during this week’s session of Caregiver College was this: to take things like lost keys lightly. I was reminded of the old adage: Why can angels dance on the head of a pin? Because they take themselves lightly.
If it’s not a matter of health, safety or true importance, lighten up.
Or as one of the slogans of Al Anon says “Take it easy.” Don’t sweat the small stuff.
There’s a fourth thing that helps: learning to fall. Phillip Simmons, the young man with ALS who wrote a series of essays collected under the title “Learning to Fall,” retells the Buddhist story of the man chased by a tiger to the edge of a cliff, who had no choice but to leap, then discovered another tiger on the ground below. He’s holding onto a branch on the cliffside when he sees a ripe strawberry growing beside him. He plucks the berry, eats it and declares, “How delicious.”
Later Simmons alludes to the story. He writes: “We perceive problems and set about solving them, laying out our solutions in ordered sequences like the instructions for assembling a child’s bicycle. We have gotten so good at this method we apply it to everything.. six ways to find a mate, eight ways to bring greater joy into your life…And here is where we go wrong. For at its deepest levels life is not a problem but a mystery… problems are to be solved, true mysteries are not… each of us finds our own way to mystery. At one time or another, each of us confronts an experience so powerful, bewildering, joyous or terrifying that all our efforts to see it as a “problem” are futile. Each of us is brought to the cliff’s edge. At such moments we can either back away in bitterness or confusion, or leap forward into mystery. And what does mystery ask of us? Only that we be in its presence, that we fully, consciously, hand ourselves over. That is all, and that is everything. We can participate in mystery only by letting go of solutions. This letting go is the first lesson of falling, and hardest. …
If spiritual growth is what you seek, don’t ask for more strawberries, ask for more tigers.
The threat of the tigers, the leap from the cliff, are what give the strawberry its savor. They cannot be avoided, and the strawberry can’t be enjoyed without them. No tigers, no sweetness.
In falling we somehow gain what means most. In falling we are given back our lives even as we lose them.
Phillip Simmons continues…”Think again of falling as a figure of speech. We fall on our faces, we fall for a joke, we fall for someone, we fall in love. In each of these falls, what do we fall away from? We fall from ego, we fall from our carefully constructed identities, our reputations, our precious selves. We fall from ambition, we fall from grasping, we fall, at least temporarily, from reason. And what do we fall into? We fall into passion, into terror, into unreasoning joy. We fall into humility, into compassion, into emptiness, into oneness with forces larger than ourselves, into oneness with others whom we realize are likewise falling. We fall, at last, into the presence of the sacred, into godliness, into mystery, into our better, diviner natures.”
Allowing yourself to fall is a fourth kind of rebirth. A rebirth into spiritual wisdom.
I don’t know what Rev. Ilene is going through right now. I imagine there’s grief, terror, longing, disappointment, and various kinds of worry. She’s going to be even spiritually wiser and richer than ever, and she’s already deep and wise. It takes some falling down.
I don’t know how Lackey and I are going to be as we live into the reality of brain failure and caregiver. Hopefully we’ll be deeper and wiser too. I expect we’ll find joy along the way. I expect we’ll be less ego-driven and more soulful. More able to see everyday beauty and divine mystery in simple things.
I don’t know how we’ll be as a congregation as we go through the next four months without our settled minister. But here’s what Ilene said in her letter last Tuesday to every one of us: ”Each and every day of my ministry, I have wondered at the love and care you have for each other—supporting each other through thick and thin though easy times and challenging ones. As a lifelong UU, l have been involved intimately in many congregations, and I have never encountered a community as caring and committed as UUTC. I want to be very clear that, yes—you all have everything you need to weather this.’
We will, you know. We will be fine. Four years ago I stood in this pulpit the Sunday after Ernie retired and we were grieving and wondering how we would get through the next four months. Paula, our interim, didn’t arrive until August. We did fine.
Three years ago I stood in this pulpit after Paula left, the interim minister we expected to come had died, and our new interim didn’t arrive for another 3 months. We didn’t even know who it would be until late July when we learned that Ian White Maher would be coming. And we did fine.
That’s the fifth thing that saves us and gives rebirth in difficult times: We are in this together. We help one another get though the good and bad times.
These five things can lead to a rebirth of the spirit: Appreciate beauty, especially in nature. Cultivate an attitude of gratitude. Use humor and take yourselves lightly. Know that falling leads to spiritual growth. And finally, hang together. We can do this because we are all in this together.
Here’s the thing: We are all living in bodies, fallible, subject to injury and disease and challenges. Tragedies happen to people of any age. But we will do fine. We will.