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Wednesday, July 27, 2005

TIME TO FLY THEME TALK, by Dr. Steve J. Crump


You Don't Have to Live Forever to Learn to Love

A theme talk address delivered on July 21, 2005, by The Reverend Dr. Steve J. Crump of the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

And so the elders and students --women and men-- gathered at the death bed of the Wise One to comfort and console but also to catch the last utterances from the lips of this one who had guided and taught and admonished and cajoled and, of course, loved the people for almost a century. Those gathered ‘round noticed that the breathing of Wise One was shallow. And now the spaces between breaths were long enough for the people to catch a kind of “breathing rhythm” themselves. A disinterested on-looker, had there been one, for there was not one disinterested observer in the village, would have seen the chests of the people expand and retract almost as if they had all agreed to breathe in synchronization with Wise One.

But the time had come. And the people gathered in lines so that one line could be seen on each side of the bed. And that observer I mentioned to you, had there been one, would have described it just as I’m describing it to you this morning. The line trailed out the bedroom door, down the hall, through the courtyard and through the open gates making a circle, winding around the plaza fountain in the brilliant sunlight of mid-morning where the children now could be seen, but all serene, because the children had been told that today might be the day. Curiously and beautifully, the other end of that great chain of humanity wound it’s way back through the courtyard and into the hall and right up to the other side of the bed. Thus, if you can imagine it, the last person in line became the first person on the opposite side of the bed. All the people of community stood in awe, in reverential vigil.

There would be last words. Wise One had lived a life of consciousness as fully as anyone could expect a human being to live, and so there would no doubt be a final testament this morning, an instruction, perhaps a profundity that would both satisfy and perplex those who would live in the ages to come because that was the way of Wise One, perplexing and satisfying, comforting and disturbing, in all the right circumstances.

Single-file they stood, eyes fixed upon a bed for signs of a final twitching. Ears were attuned for a last testament. Last words. And because several around the bed noticed Wise One had just inhaled so deeply, the room grew quieter than it had ever been all morning. Listen. Precious words were about to be spoken.

"Love is like . . . a bird . . . ."

"Oh, Wise One said, 'Love is like a bird'." And so down the line, the utterance was whispered and repeated. The words, too, like a bird, fluttered down the line. That sentence flew quickly outdoors, but then those nearest Wise One heard yet two more additional words:

". . . that flies."

"That flies? Of course, 'Love is like a bird that flies'. Hey, tell them there's more. Tell them, 'Love is like a bird that flies'." And so, with each person hearing the addendum, and with a bit of confusion, repeated the whole phrase and dutifully passed the sentence down the line.

Let me explain what was happening as only an observer could explain, had there been one. The phrase got passed down both sides of the bed so the utterance met in the middle, outdoors in the courtyard around the fountain where most of the children were standing in sullenness.

And let us be clear. This was not one of those situations about which we’ve all heard where story gets all jumbled and changed in oral tradition and becomes something other than the original utterance. No. The people had all been instructed about transmutations and interpolations. That was not about to happen this morning. No. The words were transmitted right on down the lines, each line going down each side of the bed until it stopped around the fountain where the children were patiently waiting for the whole ordeal to end so they could get on with their play.

"Love is like a bird that flies."

"Did Wise One die?' whispered a child. "We can't see from here, but we think so," a poet standing nearby replied. Another child said, “I’m very sad. But what does ‘Love is like a bird that flies’ mean?” One adult looked at another and then several rolled their eyes at the poet. “Well, let’s ask,” said the poet. “And we’ll send a message back, with just the right inflection, ‘Love is like a bird that flies?’ so as not to convey consternation, just humble inquiry on such a morning as this.” Indeed the poet was gifted in words and diplomacy. And wouldn’t you know, the question got sent all the way back to the inner sanctum, flying down the two lines where it was repeated on the left and the right side of the pillow upon which rested the head of Wise One. “Love is like a bird that flies?”

(Coughing and hacking) Wise One seemed to be coming back to life for a moment. And then Wise One uttered these confounding words: “Love is like a bird that flies? OK, so maybe love is not like a bird that flies.” And with that, Wise One died.

And that day the community was given a final instruction about the mystery of love and relationships. The people learned about “maybe so” and “maybe not.”

~ ~ ~
I hope to underscore what Wise One taught. For starters, let’s say that flight is a gift of human imagination. “Birds fly over the rainbow. Why, oh, why can’t I?” And let’s affirm that dreaming of flight is zest, joy, and drive for living --a reaching out to be in connection with the world. Somewhere in human biology is the bird gene, or flying insect gene. I’m convinced it’s present in us. We need not be eagles. The easy flight of a sparrow flight will suffice. Or, buzzard or hummingbird. Yes, mastering any of these is an art form. This flying business is human and it’s business of the soul.

How many of you in your dreams after waking recall dreams of flying without aid of anything but your own will? I delight in the experience of having a flight dream. I contemplate its meaning and try to figure it out. I try an inner dialogue with my analyst, Carl Jung.

“Is there something from which you want to flee and fly away?”
[Oh, Doctor, I knew I could count on you to make me uncomfortable.]

“Do you get pleasure from this –how did you say—‘leaping tall buildings from a single bound’?”
[What a mind reader your are. How did you know I watched all the Superman TV shows when I was a kid: “Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Look! Up in the sky. It's a bird. It's a plane. It's Superman! Yes, it's Superman - strange visitor from another planet who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Superman - who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in his bare hands, and who disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never ending battle for Truth, Justice, and the American Way.”]
[Yes, Dr., I’m listening. No, I don’t think I heard what you said about the possibility of my having a messiah complex or perhaps wanting to be taken up to heaven, raptured, guided by angels. Well, I don’t think I have that complex. Maybe I used to but I’ve given up on it. I guess I discovered along life’s flight plan that if you can’t save people or change people then better work on changing oneself.]
Stay with the image from your unconscious side. Maybe there is residual liberator operating as an archetype. The flight in your dream --it gives you satisfaction and joy? Liberation, you say? Is there, perhaps, a transformation operating in your dream that you’d like in your life, in actuality?
[Oh, I see something there. In my flight dreams and in actuality, I have experiences of clarity, insight, and creativity, but I admit I’d like them to last into longer chapters. Come to think of it, even in my dreams, I find those flights into the sky end too soon. There is a return to terra firma, but much too soon. I’m wondering if that flying business has something to do with relationships and love. Doc, what do you think? What do you think?]

The imaginary session ends with more work for me to do, I know. But I think I’ve made some progress. Not only is flying an expression of the imagination, flying is an extension to another world, or more concretely, flying is making connection with a fuller self that returns to others. The Wise One said, “Love may be like a bird that flies.” Or, maybe not. Love is contemplation of landing. Love is contemplation of flight.

Flying is a metaphor for relationship. Symbolically, flying is a highly dynamic and life-changing adventure. I’m a runner but I don’t have running dreams. I have flying ones and they are exhilarating. And if I recollect correctly, each flying dream occurred in the presence of others. Apparently, there is some purpose to flying other than exhilaration or self-gratification. That humans accomplish what they imagine they can do is by itself, astonishing and strange. But that the accomplishments might be for something beyond themselves, for others, for example, is noble, good, natural, and mysterious.

Relationship is not for ourselves alone. We are not here for soloing. That observation probably resonates with most of us, but in our culture, where young people are assailed with images of the sexiest, and the wealthiest and the best looking, where is there equal time for elevating wisdom, compassion and generosity as countervailing character traits? Our Fellowships and Churches must openly struggle and campaign against harmful images in America.

I hold up this keepsake copy of Worth Magazine, dated May 2001. The cover features three of the top 50 CEOs in America. The one right in the middle is Jeff Skilling of the now non-existent Enron Corporation. Mr. Skilling faces a trial with 35 indictments against him involving fraud and SEC violations. Listed # 10 is Dennis Kozlowski, the former CEO of Tyco International. Several of the men featured in this article of four years ago have lost flight –of their senses and of the sense of common good. Relationship is not for ourselves alone.

Just as we might be patriots helping to secure the Bill of Rights in our respective communities, so we might also become more counter-culture enthusiasts with respect to the consumerist images that undermine the psyche, the soul --that undermine human relationships.

A counter-culture attitude might lead us to better physical health. In the Baton Rouge religious education program this year, we’re going to find a healthful substitute for cookies after Sunday School. Consider other examples of being counter culture. Being less reactive to the theological and political positions of others within our congregation would be offering something different from the cultural wars that swarm around outside our churches. The village poet in the story was the diplomat and with rising inflection asked a question that was on the minds of others, “Love is like a bird that flies?” We’re used to our culture saying: “What kind of claptrap is that? You have twenty seconds to respond and then we have to go to commercial.”

“Watch your thoughts, they become words. Watch your words, they become actions. Watch your actions, they become habits. Watch your habits, they become character. Watch your character, your character becomes your destiny.” (Author unknown.)
One hundred twenty-seven years ago, William Ellery Channing appealed to character. For Channing, the goal of character was a fully, participating member of society for the good of the self and the world. Here is Channing writing about love as a trait of noble character.

He said, “We are to be animated [like a bird that flies, Mr. Channing?] with this new love . . . a love which embraces all, of every rank and character, --which forgets divisions and outward distinctions, --breaks down the old partition walls, --sees a divine spark in every intelligence, --longs to redress the existing inequalities of society, to elevate all conditions of [humanity] . . . to true dignity, to use wealth only as a means of extensive union, not of separation . . . which sees nothing degrading in labor, but honors all useful occupations, --which everywhere is conscious of the just claims and rights of all, resisting the idolatry of the few, ceasing to worship the great, calling upon the mighty to save, not crush, the weak . . . and which, in a word, recognizes the infinite worth of every spirit.” (William Ellery Channing, Life of William Ellery Channing, p. 376.) That’s a vision that both takes flight and has an elegant landing.

Flying is a metaphor for relationship. Like the sparrow or the buzzard, or humming bird, flying is a launch from terra firma into the sky and back again. And if flying is a metaphor for relationship, then it’s but one landing strip away to say: flying is a metaphor for love.

Activist, scholar, and philosopher, Martin Buber, expressed relationship theologically in I- Thou language, an expression of interrelatedness. In “in the beginning was the relationship.” Notice, how similar are the ontologies and cosmologies of religionists and astrophysicists. Not in the beginning was I. Not in the beginning was you. But in the beginning was the relationship. When did relationship begin? A speculative and very interesting answer to the question is “Never.” Relationship existed a long time ago. Some would say before time. I would say the answer is found in mystery.

Enter American writer Eudora Welty who spoke of the mystery of relationship --the yes, the no, the maybe not, the maybe so. She said, “relationship is a pervading and changing mystery, --brutal or lovely, the mystery waits for people wherever they go, whatever extreme they run to.” [Her words are an inspiration to me and are found inside the jacket of a jazz CD I produced of original music entitled Relationship Jazz.]

Relationship can be brutal. Where would some nations be without mutual enemies? Were would some people be without mutual enemies? Some nations and people seem to have enemies as the basis of their existence. I did not bring lyrics on hatred. I write about relationship and love and mystery. For example, in my lyric entitled, “The Leaves That Fall,” the “I” pronoun is the personal. The reference to “leaves” represents the universal.

“I never thought I'd have to carry this heartache in the wintertime.
I never thought I'd have to carry this load at all.
I never thought I'd be melancholy when spring or summer came along.
Back then I never thought I'd love again, the leaves that fall.

I never thought the summer birds that flew away would come and sing again.
I never thought that taking care and taking time would restore, my soul.
I never thought, that someone's kindness would change my life and mean so much.
Back then I never thought I'd be in touch, with the leaves that fall.

What a surprise. I now believe with my eyes.
Well, one year ago, I look back, and I have to say, ‘No.
That guy isn't I. He dares not to try.
His heart may never learn to love again, the leaves that fall.

I never thought that I would be seriously thinking about love again.
I never thought I would be telling you this story at all.
I never thought I’d see connections, between sun and rain, joy and woe.
But now I know, and love again, the leaves that fall.
Now I know, and love again, the leaves that fall.”
(“The Leaves That Fall,” from Relationship Jazz, Steve Crump, 2004.)

Back home in Baton Rouge, I quote another writer often. Edith Wharton said, “In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy, sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways.”

We meet disappointments in life, --the coming down to earth, no longer up in the air—with the recognition that it is on this earth that we live. I take delight in what Edith Wharton said and I find inspiration in the wise ones in my life and ministry who have done exactly what she says is possible: a meaningful life is possible no matter what befalls us.

The blending of a pervasive and changing mystery, sometimes expected, sometimes ordinary, sometimes lonely, sometimes not, is relationship. And if we are fortunate to notice, many of our flight patterns include connecting points of love. But we don’t always notice. My own mistakes are my curricula for study just as all of our difficult lessons --our mishaps or crash landings from which we were able to hobble away-- can be our tuitions paid in full.

For those who have had recent crash landings or can remember a few crash landings of the past, Boris Pasternak has some strong, philosophical words: “I don’t like people who have never fallen or stumbled. Their virtue is lifeless and it isn’t of much value. Life has not revealed its beauty to them.”

You and I have known folk who have had one hardship after another who keep on going as if to say, “It’s one damn thing after another, but I am really interested in seeing how it’s all gonna work out!” Can you picture such folk in your mind’s eye this morning? They are an inspiration. They are improvisational, not unlike some of the jazz musicians I’ve worked with who get inspired when they are thrown something challenging and thoroughly unexpected --by me or by something that happens spontaneously in the ensemble. Hey, that’s life!

Who said relationships are easy? Here’s a lyric from “Unfolding Story,” which attempts to tell the story of the dance in which two people are engaged. If they can but hang in there and not lose sight of the fact that they are in process. There’s mystery here –maybe yes, maybe no.

“Oh, my. I wonder if we could let this thing go by?
Oh-oh. I think you're about to tell me, "No."
I really don't think it's wise, to ruminate and agonize.
I really want to leave the past alone.
Call it ‘denial’ if you want to, but there is a limit as we go through,
All of these issues, reviews, miscues of life.

I really don't think it's smart, to carry 'round a broken heart,
for everyone to see whether yours or mine.
Call it ‘controlling’ if you want to, send somebody else into the rescue.
This Unfolding Story, about two people in love.

Here we are, in a couple collusion, Hoping one another, will acquiesce.
Time to search for a better solution, otherwise, we're separated, between every ‘no’ and ‘yes.’

I wouldn't say, ‘Forget the past.’ ‘Starting over,’ not so fast?
Every couple has to blend or bend, to mend.
Call it, ‘naïve’ if you want to. We could with ease undervalue,
This Unfolding Story about two people in love.”
(“Unfolding Story,” from Relationship Jazz, Steve Crump, 2004.)

Will they hang in there? What do you think? Relationship is that blending of a pervasive mystery, sometimes unexpected, sometimes ordinary, sometimes lonely, sometimes not. “Love is like bird that flies.” Or, maybe not. Dare I add that love is not for the perfect? Only the imperfect may apply. And love is not exclusively for those with much life experience just as love is not only for the very young.

My theme talk title is “You Don’t Have to Live Forever to Learn to Love.” And wouldn’t you know, I just happened to have brought a lyric along with me.

“How long do you have to live to learn the meaning of love?
How long do you have to live to learn the meaning of love?
How long do you have to live to learn the meaning of love?
You don't have to live forever, to learn to love.

What color do you have to be, to earn a little respect? Tell me.
What color do you have to be? To keep your dignity? Tell me the color now.
What color do you have to be? If I may interject.
You don't have to change your color to get respect.

How good do you have to be to be somebody's friend?
How true do you have to be? And how cool do you have to be?
How kind do you have to be to be somebody's friend?
You don't have be perfection to be my friend.

What kind of money, do you have to have, to be a member of the band?
How about you? Did you pay your dues? Money, money, cash or credit?
What kind of money do you have to have, to be a member of the band?
You don't have to have any money to be in this band . . .

Don't have to have any money to sing along with the band.
Don't have to change your color to earn a little respect.
Don't have to be perfection to be somebody's friend.
And you don't have to live forever,
Don't have to live forever,
Don't have to live forever to learn to love.
(“How Long?” from Relationship Jazz, Steve Crump, 2004.)

Look, up in the air. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. Keep an open eye and an open heart to the pervasive and changing mystery that is relationship.


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