This is a sermon I gave in church on September 13, 2009.
The first reading is by the ageless poet, Rumi:
I am not from the East
or the West, not out of the ocean or up
from the ground
My place is placeless,
a trace of the traceless.
I belong to the beloved,
have seen the two worlds as one
and that one call to and know,
first, last, outer, inner,
only that breath breathing human being.
The second reading is by Dawna Markova:
I will not die an unlived life,
I will not go in fear
Of failing or catching fire,
I choose to inhabit my days,
To allow my living to open to me,
To make me less afraid,
To loosen my heart
Until it becomes a wing,
A torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance:
So that which comes to me as a seed,
Goes to the next as blossom,
And that which comes to me as blossom,
Goes on as fruit.
I knelt on the 4x4 hard yellow tile squares with my blue and white nightgown pooled around me. The orange bottle with the childproof safety cap was difficult to remove with my badly shaking hands, but eventually I pried it off. Some pills tumbled to the floor. I picked them up. They stuck to my sweaty palms. Their medicinal smell tanged in my nose and I was acutely aware of the sound and feel of the air conditioning whirring and blowing around me, lightly moving my hair. Tears streamed down my face. Was I ready? Was I prepared for what would come next? I could feel the tiles pressing into my knees, the grout making grooves in the skin, the pain exquisite. My feet were growing numb. I was lightheaded. But I was determined to finish this one last task.
With a deep, unsteady breath, I took the pill bottle in my left hand and ever so slowly lifted my hand above the toilet bowl with its own distinct smell of disinfectant and bleach, and – one by one at first – let the pills fall into the water. Soon it became a cascade. When the bottle was empty I panicked… I tried in vain to fish some of the already-dissolving tablets and capsules out of the bowl, but to no avail… they were gone. Many years’ worth of collecting a multitude of medications meant to end my life were gone with a flush of the commode. I had done what I had set out to do. I had set myself along a tentative but determined new path looking toward hope and faith. And somehow, I had found salvation.
Hope and faith can be such nebulous concepts, and so hard to pin down sometimes. Hope can be as small as a breath, and faith as tiny as a sliver of light in the pitch. But these things are not to be underestimated. For a person who has looked into the shadow of death, faith and hope can be lifesaving and life affirming moments of salvation. We don’t speak much of salvation in the Unitarian Universalist tradition – at least not in the traditional sense of the word. It is frequently too full of baggage from other faith traditions many of us have left behind. But salvation comes in many forms, and, I would argue, that faith and hope are but many facets of that beautiful, transformatory word.
One of the definitions of salvation in the mother of all dictionaries, the Oxford English Dictionary – and the one I find most striking – is “to be independent or self-reliant in striving towards one’s goal.” Keeping in mind the more sacred overtones of the other meanings, I don’t think this definition says anything about self-service or crass ambition… but rather of faithfulness and service in the pursuit of a goal – and a worthy goal at that. With that in mind, salvation takes on a whole new meaning and a completely different basis for faith and hope. Let’s explore it…taste it… tuss it out.
Different faith traditions *do* look at salvation and the ideas of the transformative, the admission into bliss, quite differently. But when you boil many of them down to their essential elements you can begin to see a merging, a blending of similarities that overarch and transcend. In Sukhavati Buddhism, as I understand it, salvation is a state in which “each and every person stands peacefully… tranquilly, right here in the present, in the here and now” – the follower moves constantly toward of the goal of transcendence. In Judaism there is a belief that by doing right and good – by moving closer to the goal of perfect will with the right and good works of Creator – they are moving toward attaining salvation – any personal gain is a side effect of that work toward that goal. Sikhs believe that by pursuing the goal of an honest life and meditating on God you will attain salvation. Note that each has the elements of honesty and decency – and even purity – in pursuit of goals. And in our own tradition, I found three separate yet intertwining definitions. (how apt):
A. Karl M. Chworowsky says that "Unitarians believe in "salvation by character." They hold that as man develops a society where moral values and spiritual insights are treasured, man will find the road to peace, justice and brotherhood. God's help is not likely to come to those who cast all their burdens on the Lord. There is practical wisdom in the saying: "God helps those that help themselves." (Karl M. Chworowsky, What is a Unitarian?)
B. Jack Mendelsohn believes that "Unitarians speak warmly of salvation also, but in terms of character. We prefer to think of it as an achievement dependent on deeds rather than creeds" (Jack Mendelsohn, Why I am a Unitarian)
C. And George Marshall similarly says, "We are concerned with the ethical relations and understanding of life, not about the salvation of souls. For us, salvation is by character; religion is a matter of deeds, not creeds; and this natural world is the center of our lives." (George Marshall, Why I am a Unitarian)
All these faith traditions – Buddhist, Jewish, Sikh, Unitarian Universalist – are charitable and kind paths toward salvation. Loving paths. Hopeful paths.
These? These I understand and draw from now. But back then?
For years I despaired. This was the mean, cold reality of hard tiles and bottles – what seems like eons of clandestine rendezvous late at night in the fluorescent, flickering light of badly wall-papered bathrooms in a long string of apartments with nubby beige carpets. I was an atheist without faith, a secular humanist without creed. And a human being with too much to bear. The ideas of peace, tranquility, and hope… those similar, convergent, optimistic paths of the many faiths… they were not my reality. All I could see were black and white possibilities, none of them promising. This was not the quiet peace of a person who has lived a full life and is ready to let go in gentleness. This was an agitated, angry place – a lonely, bitter, yawing abyss.
Yet through it, oddly enough, I held to a version the Prayer of St. Francis, changed to fit my circumstances and beliefs, adapted from Alcoholics Anonymous. It is printed in your order of service. I often hummed the hymn under my breath as I went about my day… a hymn I didn’t actually hear again for many, many years. Not until the death of Princess Diana, to be honest. But again, another story for another time.
Make me a channel of peace;
that where there is hatred, I may bring love;
that where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness;
that where there is discord, I may bring harmony;
that where there is error, I may bring truth;
that where there is doubt, I may bring faith;
that where there is despair, I may bring hope;
that where there are shadows, I may bring light;
that where there is sadness, I may bring joy.
Grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted;
to understand, than to be understood;
to love, than to be loved.
For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.
It is by forgiving that one is forgiven.
It is by dying that one awakens to life.
I wanted so dearly to understand where this anger, this agitation – the discord, despair, shadows, sadness, doubt – where it all came from. I wanted all these things. I also wanted to be a gentle, giving, loving person… a peaceful person. Instead I felt pierced by knives, stung by wasps, unlovely and unworthy. And I grabbed hold of that ending. It is by dying that one awakens to life. People say that for as many people as there are in the room, your words will be interpreted in at least as many different ways. So it was for me with the words of St. Francis. Whether as adapted here or in the Anglican or Catholic hymn – in which he is attributed to say “awakens to eternal life,” he talks about transformation through dying. Through those gentle – even high church Christian – words, I found hope – strange and bent as I interpreted them in some ways. But I came to find – much, much later – that I had utterly misunderstood that last line.
Here’s where it gets difficult for me – and for you. The threat and reality of suicide and suicidal ideation is not an easy thing to face. Most of us have faced it in friends, family, acquaintances, no matter how close or distant. I am not talking about assisted suicide – that is an issue for entirely another time, and another conversation. What I am talking about is something that is born out of intense despair and, usually, depression. It is also most of the time a very silent, very personal, and very hidden thing; in most states even attempting suicide is a crime. Further, in many faiths the act is an unforgivable sin which severs all ties to the Church and the community, even in the churchyard and in their concept of eternity. In my opinion this creates so much stigma around the ideation and the possibility that many people will never seek the help they need – or find recourse with friends, family or therapists who may be able to help them. Yes, some people cry out for help – but many never do.
I honestly don’t know if I did or not until I sought help by myself one day, kind of as a bolt out of the blue. I made a wager or a promise with myself: 30 days with the psychiatrist with some noticeable improvement … or else. I know I was depressed – but, as most of you know, I tend to be very sunny, too. Which face to believe? (and no, I am not depressed now… don’t fear for that).
But, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say,
“Everyone feels sad, depressed, angry or guilty sometimes — especially when the pressures of jobs, school, family, and friends build up. But for most people these feelings pass with time. Other times, though, feelings of sadness or hopelessness do not go away. These feelings may begin to affect many areas of a person's life and outlook. Someone who experiences these very intense feelings of sadness, depression or irritability may begin to think about suicide.”
What can we, as compassionate human beings and partners in faith and love do? According to the CDC and the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network, DO talk with a suicidal person seeking help – don’t isolate them further; talk with them about their stress and feelings and problems they are facing. But, NEVER bear the burden of helping this person alone. Ever. It cannot be up to you alone to assess and help someone in this situation – and people who have done this say that the intense guilt they have experienced if their loved one or friend does commit suicide is a grief almost too hard to bear. Tell someone – whether another friend, loved one, doctor or minister – what is going on. Third, CALL on a local first responder or the National Suicide Hotline (1.800.273.TALK). And, ENCOURAGE the person to get help – no matter what.
I would add a few things. Be kind. Listen. Be compassionate. Be unafraid to sit on the floor and cry with them. Listen. Touch. Smile. Don’t contribute your own stories unless they are short, relevant and to the point – and perhaps not even then. Listen. Hold hands. Listen, listen, listen. Walk outside with them – sometimes fresh air and a change of scenery helps change a perspective – though that is not a panacea and will not last for long – you should always follow the four steps the CDC outlines. Listen. And listen. There is a reason good ministers do so well in pastoral care; one of the best things they do is that they listen exquisitely well. We are blessed with a minister of that ilk.
I was three months into therapy when I so tentatively and timidly opened that bottle and poured the contents away. It took me quite a while to let go of the concept – the tether – that had in some ways given me a form of twisted hope for so long. Up to even my waking moment on that sunny morning, I had been sure and secure in the knowledge that I had power over my life and death in the form of that bottle, and that comforted me. *I* could decide. *I* could move forward – or not. But that morning, I woke up and something had changed. Maybe it was in that moment that I finally started to understand the last line of St. Francis’ prayer. It is by dying that one awakes to life. My maternal grandmother had died the previous September. My much loved Great Aunt Lila had died a few days before. And my Great Aunt Audrey, born in 1903 and the great family Teller of Stories and Keeper of History was in hospice. I had been overwhelmed by so much grief. But I started to see that this was all part of a cycle – birth, growing, decline and death – and somehow, that morning, I realized I was in a growing cycle, just starting to assume the full responsibilities of adulthood. Life. It didn’t require *my* death to awaken to life… it just required that the cycle come, well, full circle as a right and just part of the universe.
I am still in that growing cycle. And while it has its full measure of grief and sorrow, I embrace it fully and joyfully.
So… what does this have to do with faith, hope and salvation? That day, that morning, that moment… with the drop of each capsule and tablet, with each splash, with each slow slide into the cool water, each rainbow dissolve, I began to hope. Fear was there in great measure, too. But hope… that tiny little piece of unquantifiable magnificence began to find a home, nestle in, and very, very tentatively reach out. Hope is a very shy thing in moments like that… so very tentative… but by the time I pressed the silver lever and the surprising roar of the commode finished the job, hope burst forth. I shook. I could hardly breathe. But I had done something worthy of hope.
Faith? That was a lot longer in coming. Cynicism is a hard habit to break, so I did what any geek would have done and took a Belief-O-Meter test online (great test for cynics, let me tell you!) and came up as a Secular Humanist first and an Atheist a tight second. I had expected the atheism, but the Secular Humanism surprised me, so I went exploring… and after a great bout of stubbornness and insistence that atheists simply don’t have creeds and job titles, I found that I could add a full-fledged creed to my hope… and faith was born. And that creed that came out of the joyous practice and honest life of secular humanism? I’ll be doggone if secular humanism as I practice it isn’t awfully close to the Prayer of St. Francis in its fundamentals. Funny how that worked out.
Today I have come to a place of deep inner peace I could never have imagined at thirty. The sun – barely peeking through then, now shines from within, and it is a glorious thing to experience. Even in times of deep sadness, there is something tempering it – something I could never have imagined, and something I cannot fully describe. As Khalil Gibran wrote, “Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the self-same well from which your laughter rises was often-times filled with your tears.” Gibran spoke truly, for I find those same words expressed in faith and hope – through good times and bad. I see faith and hope in Alex. In a rose. In the dying wishes of both my grandmothers. In the smile of the homeless man who got lunch and a chance to chat yesterday instead of chump change and a derisive word. In the changing weather. In the attempts – and sometime successes – of my students to write essays. In the absolute wonder of the universe. In this very room.
I strive now from that dark place toward good and just goals, and in the understanding of faith, hope and love. Does that meet the Oxford English Dictionary definition of salvation? Somehow, I think it does. Through kindness and love, there was a path out of intense sadness and into a beautiful world I only thought I had seen through the lens of St. Francis’ eyes. But the eyes through which I see it now are my own, and the world around me is truly a wondrous thing.
It took me a long time to get up from those hard yellow tiles that bright, blue-skied afternoon in Memphis so many years ago. I wore the painful creases from the intersections of the grout the rest of the day, choosing simple shorts and a comfy t-shirt instead of long, covering pants. As I contemplated the deep grooves in my knees I marveled at what had brought me there, to that decision, and that moment. I saw new life and new hope. My faith was tiny – but doesn’t it always start with just a glimmer? Those small, precious, intangible things were my breath and my life. And they were my salvation.
Salvation. What a great Unitarian Universalist word.