Sunday Gathering Readings and Message 14th June, 2015
The afterlife, by Billy Collins
They're moving off in all imaginable directions,
each according to his own private belief,
and this is the secret that silent Lazarus would not reveal:
that everyone is right, as it turns out.
you go to the place you always thought you would go,
the place you kept lit in an alcove in your head.
Some are being shot into a funnel of flashing colors
into a zone of light, white as a January sun.
Others are standing naked before a forbidding judge who sits
with a golden ladder on one side, a coal chute on the other.
Some have already joined the celestial choir
and are singing as if they have been doing this forever,
while the less inventive find themselves stuck
in a big air conditioned room full of food and chorus girls.
Some are approaching the apartment of the female God,
a woman in her forties with short wiry hair
and glasses hanging from her neck by a string.
With one eye she regards the dead through a hole in her door.
There are those who are squeezing into the bodies
of animals--eagles and leopards--and one trying on
the skin of a monkey like a tight suit,
ready to begin another life in a more simple key,
while others float off into some benign vagueness,
little units of energy heading for the ultimate elsewhere.
There are even a few classicists being led to an underworld
by a mythological creature with a beard and hooves.
He will bring them to the mouth of the furious cave
guarded over by Edith Hamilton and her three-headed dog.
The rest just lie on their backs in their coffins
wishing they could return so they could learn Italian
or see the pyramids, or play some golf in a light rain.
They wish they could wake in the morning like you
and stand at a window examining the winter trees,
every branch traced with the ghost writing of snow.
All will come again into its strength, by Rainer Maria Rilke
All will come again into its strength
the fields undivided, the waters undammed,
the trees towering and the walls built low.
And in the valleys, people as strong and varied as the land.
And no churches where God
is imprisoned and lamented
like a trapped and wounded animal.
The houses welcoming all who knock
and a sense of boundless offering
in all relations, and in you and me.
No yearning for an afterlife, no looking beyond,
no belittling of death,
but only longing for what belongs to us
and serving earth, lest we remain unused.
Message by Andy Pakula
Sam and Samantha were pet turtles. They wiggled about about and swam slowly. To be honest, they had about as much personality as a stone but, as a young child, I became quite attached to them.
I have no idea why one got a boy’s name and the other a girl’s. I certainly had no ability to determine the sex of turtles. And the choice of names? I can only guess that Samantha came from one of my favourite television shows at the time - Bewitched.
Sam and Samantha were an important first for me. They introduced me to being responsible for another life, and they introduced me to death.
Not surprisingly, Sam and Samantha did not live long. I buried them in the garden - my first funeral.
I don’t remember what I thought happened after something or someone died. I’m pretty certain that Sam and Samantha did not have eternal souls or any kind of life that continued after their deaths.
As I grew older though and death came and took away people - people I loved - my attitude changed. In the face of my grandfather’s death, I longed to believe that something of him continued of him after he was physically gone. He had suffered long before he died. He had lost his memory and his very personality. In many ways, it was a terrible, lingering, living death. When he finally died for real, I longed to know that he was somewhere he could be himself again - reunited with long-dead relatives - happy and no longer fearful. And I also longed for him to be accessible to me in some way.
This past week, I conducted two funerals - two very difficult and tragic funerals.
Curiously, the same reading was chosen by both families and included in both services. In one case, it was recited in English - in the other it was in French. It’s a very popular reading credited to Mary Frye was used in both services - but I had no idea it was popular enough to be translated and used in other languages. The poem and its author have an interesting history.
Frye was born in the US in the early 1900s. Tragedy came into her life early. She was orphaned at the age of three. Her poem - the only poem for which she is known - was never published or copyrighted. Frye originally wrote the poem on a brown paper shopping bag. She wrote it in response to a young Jewish girl, who had been staying with the Frye family and had been unable to see her dying mother in Germany because of anti-Jewish action there.
The poem took on a life of its own, passed from person to person and then - more recently - distributed through the web.
I think the popularity of this poem is important. I think it tells us a lot about how people respond to the death of a loved one.
Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glint on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you wake in the morning hush,
I am the swift, uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft starlight at night.
Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there, I do not sleep.
Do not stand at my grave and cry.
I am not there, I did not die!
The dead are not altogether gone, says the poem. They remain with the living in some way. Death is not final and it may not be real at all. Death - these words hint - may simply be a transition to another state of being.
What is the truth? What really happens after death? I certainly don’t know. I have my opinions, but there are many other opinions too - and not just from religious doctrine. There are many people - including several amongst us - who are certain they have interacted with the spirits or essences of those whose bodies have died.
I’ve heard plenty of strange and mysterious stories that make me wonder about reincarnation, and plenty of coincidences that are hard to explain. There are also many accounts of near-death experiences whose similarities may be explainable medically and scientifically, but maybe not.
Religions have, of course, offered very specific teachings about the hereafter. What happens after death is quite important to the belief systems of many religions.
Christianity and Islam have a great deal to say about the afterlife, although Judaism - the common root of both of them - is mostly silent on the subject. In Christianity and Islam, the afterlife is a reward or punishment for how we have lived in this life. It is a comfort for the bereaved. It is an encouragement to obedience and a threat of punishment for violating religious rules.
Eastern religions turn to cycles of reincarnation - where some life essence is reborn in a new form. Consciousness is not, according to Buddhism and Hinduism, carried forward from life to life. You will not know if you were royalty or a snake in a previous life, but how you act now can affect what happens next.
The notion of reincarnation has become popular in the west too, although with a somewhat different flavour from the traditional view.
Personally, I find the fact that everything that makes me up was once not me and will become not me again deeply reassuring. I am made up of many others and will become many others again when I am gone.
We can not know for certain whether or not consciousness can persist in some form after we die or whether or not spirits or souls or some other essence is recycled into other beings after one being is physically dead.
I certainly will not attempt to answer those questions.
It is important though that whether or not there is any continued existence after bodily death, we do long to believe that there is.
When life has been unfair and those who do good seem to suffer more than those who are cruel, we long to know there is a future life in which there will be a just outcome.
When a loved one has suffered, we long to know that they are, at last, happy once again.
When we have made mistakes, we long to know that - in some other way or place - there will be another chance.
When we can't bear the loss of someone who mattered dearly to us, we long to feel that they can still be close to us.
When we consider our own mortality, we long to know that death is not the end - that our consciousness does not simply cease.
We long for immortality - for ourselves and for others.
This longing though, and beliefs in an afterlife of various kinds, has not only been comforting and hopeful. It has been a source of injustice and neglect.
When the poor are told by the rich and powerful to stop complaining about injustice because everything will be sorted out in an existence after death, belief in an afterlife is an excuse for continued injustice.
When visions of a glorious and happy afterlife are used to persuade the disenfranchised to sacrifice their lives for a political cause, then belief in an afterlife is a tool of murder.
When the Indian caste system is maintained by a belief that we get what we have earned through our behaviour in previous lives, then belief in an afterlife support injustice.
When we ourselves give up on this life and place all our hopes on a happier afterlife, then belief in an afterlife prevents growth, change, and hope in this world.
Although none of us can say for certain whether there is any continued consciousness, I want to tell you today that immortality is real and available to all of us. And it is not an immortality that causes us to neglect what happens in the here and now.
Immortality comes of how we live our lives. We gain immortality by living this life as fully and as meaningfully as we can. Paradoxically, we gain immortality by living this life as though we are certain it is the only life there is.
When my grandmother died, she was very old - she died on her 103rd birthday. She had been an inspiration to me - and not just me but all of her children and grandchildren and nieces and nephews and grandnieces and grandnephews and many others she met in her 10 decades of life.
She was strong and resolute and imperturbable. She confronted antisemitism and overcame it in her own life. Her husband’s health troubles meant he could not work past his thirties. She overcame. Illness, deaths of loved ones, supporting her daughters through marital break-downs, and more. She was a pillar of gentle strength. Everything in life could be taken with a smile, with humour, with lightness.
And her way of being changed people around her. Many people continue to live lives that are different because of her direct influence. But that influence flows on. If I have influenced the people around me for the better, it is partly because of how my grandmother influenced me. My son and his generation may not even know that her influence continues within them, but they do, and it will be passed further to everyone they influence.
Sometimes we think that only a prophet, a genius, or a great leader can change the world and their presence continue on. My grandmother - a simple woman raised by poor Jewish refugees - changed the world and continues to affect it after she is gone. Even when her name is forgotten, her influence will live on. She has joined the ranks of the immortal.
In your lives too, you have known people whose positive influences have made them immortal. Their beings continue in cascades of effects - from person to person and from generation to generation.
Poor little Sam and Samantha are most likely not frolicking in some turtle heaven where the water is always warm and the mealworms plump and plentiful.
But their deaths changed me into someone who cared more about other beings and recognised the fragility of life. In that sense, two tiny turtles joined the ranks of the immortals.
Imagine what you can do. Imagine how your actions today can create waves and cascades of change into the future to come.
Your immortality may come with how you speak to someone today. It may result from the way you raise a child or help a friend - the causes you support or the kindness you offer.
The surest way to live forever is to act as though this is the only life there is or will be. Act as though everything you do matters - now and into eternity.