Death & Happiness


Chalice lighting

Each day, we are all pulled in many directions.
Distractions draw our attention away from what really matters.
Let this flame burn for happiness.
May we each find the loving warmth of relationships,
And the guiding light of purpose.
May this bring us lives of deep joy.

Reading: Eagle Poem by Joy Harjo

To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you.
And know there is more
That you can't see, can't hear
Can't know except in moments
Steadily growing, and in languages
That aren't always sound but other
Circles of motion.
Like eagle that Sunday morning
Over Salt River. Circles in blue sky
In wind, swept our hearts clean
With sacred wings.
We see you, see ourselves and know
That we must take the utmost care
And kindness in all things.
Breathe in, knowing we are made of
All this, and breathe, knowing
We are truly blessed because we
Were born, and die soon, within a
True circle of motion,
Like eagle rounding out the morning Inside us.
We pray that it will be done In beauty.
In beauty.

Message (part 1) by Rev Andy Pakula

I am often asked ‘how do you come up with the topics?’ It’s a reasonable question especially because we have relatively little to go on, compared to traditional religious groups. Christians, for example, have a lectionary where there is a certain bible passage allocated for each week. That’s what you talk about. Easy peasy. Instead, I do my best to talk about what you need to hear - to the extent I can discern that. Note that I said ‘need’ rather than want. One must remember that a minister is meant to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

I also take advantage of the fact that we are free to celebrate or ignore any number of secular and religious holidays. That often gives me some kind of anchor. Today is a good example. You can’t have missed that it’s Easter Sunday. And then, our practice of following three-month long themes also provides guidance. Today is the first Sunday of our new theme - happiness.

Today brings a holiday and a theme together in an interesting way. Easter is the holiday. The theme is happiness. In some ways, this combination is an easy one - easier for example than Valentines Day and labels, or The Battle of the Boyne and science. Easter is a joyous holiday for Christians - less so for Jews as Christians have historically taken Easter as a prompt to commit anti-Semitic harassment and violence. For Christians, Easter is the day where their saviour - Jesus - executed on Friday, reappeared to some of his followers. They concluded that Jesus had been resurrected - that his sacrifice brought freedom from sin to anyone who believed in him.

But, while this is a day of triumph and joy for Christians, for the majority who do not believe the Christian story it is more notable as a holiday weekend with chocolate and family gatherings and as a celebration of the nature’s rebirth from the death of winter. For the majority, Easter’s connection to joy is more tenuous. Today, we’ll avoid the easy road. Inspired by the central role of death in the Easter story, we will explore the relationship between death and happiness.

Reading: Notice, by Steve Kowit

This evening, the sturdy Levi's
I wore every day for over a year
& which seemed to the end in perfect condition,
suddenly tore.
How or why I don't know,
but there it was: a big rip at the crotch.
A month ago my friend Nick
walked off a racquetball court, showered,
got into his street clothes,
& halfway home collapsed & died.
Take heed, you who read this,
& drop to your knees now & again
like the poet Christopher Smart,
& kiss the earth & be joyful,
& make much of your time,
& be kindly to everyone,
even to those who do not deserve it.
For although you may not believe it will happen,
you too will one day be gone,
I, whose Levi's ripped at the crotch for no reason,
assure you that such is the case.
Pass it on.

Message (part 2) by Rev Andy Pakula

On the face of it, death and happiness seem like a very poor fit. When Jesus was executed, it was by imperial Rome’s cruellest method. Nailed to a wooden cross, a victim of crucifixion slowly suffocated. The followers of Jesus were devastated. Not only was their inspiring and beloved leader put to death in a painful and degrading way; their dreams and hopes died with him. Jesus was meant to be the saviour king of an oppressed people - to liberate them from Rome’s tyrannical rule. With his death, that bright future was lost.

In our own lives, we know the anguish that comes upon us at the death of a loved one. It may seem as though we cannot continue living - that there is no longer any joy to found in the world at all. And, for many of us, our own death is a horrifying prospect. Although some of us feel comfortable acknowledging our mortality, many fight it with anything we think will make us healthier or at least appear younger. Most of us avoid thinking about death in any form.

And so, death and happiness…

Unlike most people, my role puts me close to death. I have been with people close to their own death and after the death of a loved one. What I have learned from the dying is, as Anais Nin put it, ‘People living deeply have no fear of death.’ Those who feel they have lived full lives with deep connection and purpose tend to go toward death calmly and peacefully. And from the bereaved I have learned that death deals us a painful blow - a gut-wrenching injury. But, I have seen and known from my own experience, when that acute pain lessens, a re-commitment to life remains. There is a new perspective that shows in stark relief what is worthwhile and what is a waste of our precious time. Would it sound terribly morbid to reflect on your own death? Studies have shown that doing so reduces depression. 

The tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan has been called the happiest nation on earth. They are not wealthy. Their education and health systems are not great. Their wifi reception is probably lousy. One practice in Bhutan is to contemplate your own death five times each day. Does this make the Bhutanese happier? It’s hard to say but we do know from scientific studies that contemplation of your own death causes you to focus more on what are called intrinsic motivations such as relationships, self-growth, and helping others and makes you focus less on extrinsic motivations like fame, wealth, and physical appearance.

Contemplating death causes us to focus on those aspects of life that are now well-known to be associated with greater happiness - our connection to others, our potential to develop as human beings, finding purpose in our lives. Death - whether actual or simply contemplated - has a profound way of refocusing our priorities. It turns us toward the aspects of life that bring happiness.

I would like to invite you, if you wish, to consider how a greater consciousness of mortality might change how you live your life. The contemplation of death is one way to do this. As is common in some parts of the Buddhist tradition, it is something you can do regularly. Another exercise - one that helped to push me to change my own life dramatically about 15 years ago - is to think about your own funeral. If you could hear what was being said about your life at your funeral, what would you want that to include? I recognised that I wanted people to say I was loving, a good friend, and that I helped people. I did not want them to say I was smart, a successful businessman, or - as I feared would happen if I didn’t change my ways - I went to a lot of meetings and made some rich investors richer.

So, please take a few minutes to think about this question. What is the nature of the life you would want reflected at your funeral? What would you want said about you and what would you not want said about you?

I hope that this time was useful to you. This may be one of those times where the promise of something a bit uncomfortable is realised. We are all pulled by so many influences - drawn toward a cultural ideal of beauty of success, of youth…  We are also pushed by fears - fear of failure, fear of being hurt, fear of pain… And each of these influences can move us away from the connected, purposeful, loving life we truly want to live. For each of us - no matter what age - we can alter the way we live. We can let the reality of our mortality guide us to a happier way of living.

May it be so

Closing words

Today is here and real.
Tomorrow is uncertain.
Every life is a finite container we cannot fill beyond its capacity.
Choose what you will back for the journey.
Bring no more and no less.
May this bring you happiness.