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Sunday, August 07, 2005

Dead or Alive? A sermon prepared for SUUSI by Rev. Alex L. Richardson

Uucgminister -at- bellsouth -dot- net
UU Church of Greensboro, NC
Delivered on July 22, 2005

A wise old one stood before us here in this space last year and started a theme talk with a tale borrowed from Soren Kierkegaard. It was a story about being heard. It went like this:

“One night there was a great mysterious production. Staged in town, everyone
was there. The audience was packed in anticipation of the wondrous entertainment that was coming.

Before the curtain was lifted, a clown in full costume ran out onto the stage, stood in front of the curtain, and shouted “Fire!”

Oh, thought the gathered throng, this is a marvelous thing! A clown shouting fire! Very good, very good. And they applauded.

“Fire!” shouted the clown again. And this time the applause got louder: a clown acting sincere about shouting fire! That’s much better!

Yet a third time, the clown shouted “Fire!” But alas, though the crowd applauded, they didn’t listen, until it was too late.”

The old wise one was my gifted colleauge, the Rev. Dr. Davidson Loehr, who, while not a Unitarian Universalist minister – he calls himself a “liberal religionist” , serves our First UU Church of Austin, TX, and also has the great honor of being a member of The Jesus Seminar.

Those of you who were here last year will remember Davidson. His class and theme talk were topics of conversation for all of us throughout the week. This year Davidson was to be with us again to teach a class entitled: Liberal Religion: The Next Phase. Davidson had to cancel this year’s class because of other commitments that ended up intruding on his summer plans. I know that many of you, like me, are dissapointed for his not being here. When I relay a copy of today’s theme talk to him I will be sure and pass along collective greetings from all of us at SUUSI.

This morning I want to remind you of more of what Davidson shared last summer than just a story. The story was meant to illustrate for all of us in the audience last summer just how difficult, perhaps even impossible, it may be to be part of a crowd, or an established faith movement for that matter, especially if you’re seen as “different energy” – Davidson describes him sometimes as “heretical” and “controversial”, a clown of sorts.

My sense of our SUUSI respone to his theme talk last summer was that he had our full attention – no laughter – no thinking him a clown – even if we disagreed with him. Nope, our fellow liberal religionist, the Rev. Dr. Davidson Loehr, had our full respect as he delivered him talk which was entitled: Why “Unitarian Universalism” is Dying.

What a title! We listened last sumer, caught like startled creatures in the headlights of a soon-to-be crushing vehicle as Davidson told us:

That we’ve been dying for 43 years, since the merger.
That we lost 12K adult members between 1970-2000; a 7% decline in adult membership while at the same time the US population increased by 37%. Davidson pointing out that if our membership had kept pace with the increase in the general population that we’d be a movement of over 225,000 people now.
Davidson shared much of his take on our history…pointing out that Unitarianism began as what he called a “style” rather than a theological position…reminding us all of how the new scientific understandings of the 19th century debunked much of the old theology and of how in its place we poured ourselves into social movements and political action. We remember Theodore Parker with enthusiasm, Davidson said for instance, because of his energetic involvement in political and social action: abolition, prison reform and women’s rights.

Davidson instructed us last year on how he understands our movement over the last century to have coupled that energy for social politics with what de called a “nominal theism”. Davidson delighted us in sharing of how Emerson had said of the Unitiarianism of his time that it was “corpse-cold”. Corpse-cold, Davidson said, because we lost a religious center as we moved to become a “political and social phenomenon of over-educated people who were becoming marginal in terms of political and financial power.” Davidson went on to say that by the mid-20th century we were a movement of thinkers who left theology for psychology, sociology, anthropology and politics.

And of Universalism - Davidson said that by the end of the 19th century few liberals cared what became of us after death – heaven was not a concern. He also pointed out that the late 19th century introduction of a new type of universalism – the coming together of Western and Eastern theological thought – was separate and apart from the Universalism of our movement’s Christian heritage: which became large irrelevant as most of the surrounding culture adopted our unversalism – even hell was no longer a concern.

And then Davidson said that by mid-20th century, both Unitarianism and Universalism had “mostly exhausted their spirits.” A list of evidence to support that comment followed:

By 1961 neither movement was “viable religion”.
What was significant about the merger was not theological. It was political. And both movements in their politics mirrored the general assumptions of America’s cultural liberals.

There were no beliefs in the new UU. There was no ontology, no distinctive understanding of the human condition, not story to help make our lives more fulfilling and useful to the larger world.

Davidson followed with an explanation of how our intense energies for the various social movements of the 60’s and 70’s distracted us from our lack of a religious core. And then he amused me greatly, poignantly so, by remindin us that we’ve spent a large part of the last several decades saying to one another: “our kids don’t know what to tell their classmates they believe.” Which was as he put it, “disingenious”, because the larger truth was that UU adults and ministers didn’t know what they believed, or what mattered, and so could themselves offer little, if anything, to our UU children.

From that point of bringing focus to the question of whether or not UU’s can articulate what they believe, Davidson spent a good chunk of time busting, as my son might say, on the Principles and Purposes before moving towards closure with the point that all of the world’s major and enduring religions share common ground in their understandings that they way of authentic religion is hard. This is common ground that we all know is not found in a majority of UU opinion. Nope, we have been, as Davidson implied, the church of me and the good times. Not the church of the hard and narrow way.

In copies of his talk, much longer in written form than was spoken, Davidson weaves in and out of these themes of UU not having an articulated belief statement, substituting instead political and social action for the “narrow way”, the hard way, of the world’s major religions.

He closed both in the spoken and paper versions of his talk with what he called “some rays of hope”, pointing out that Channing, Emerson and Paker, whom we remember(while at the same time pointing out that 99% of UU ministry went not remembered), each understood that being religious called them out to actions in their lives on behalf of others. Actions that ended up causing each of them great hardship. Davidson suggested that hope for our faith lives in each of us finding the courage to do likewise.

Davidson added that we can do likewise if we once again choose to become a place of exemplary moral code, so demanding that it would call each of us to what he called the “harder right”, as was the case for Channing, Emerson and Parker. The thought was that by so doing we would draw unto ourselves, through our religious practice, the best of all possible attention and energy from the communties that surround us.

But still Davidson concluded “I do not believe UU can be saved.”

If you were there, you felt it. And many of you, like me, wanted to respond.

I had uncanny opportunity to respond when shortly after Davidson’s talk, one of our SUUSI programming folk came up to me, all extra nice and solicitous, full of charm, and said, “could you possibly do us a big favor and do tomorrow morning’s theme talk? It looks like the person scheduled for tomorrow won’t be able to make it.”

I’d been wowed by Davidson’s talk.
I was even more wowed by this invitation to speak just 20 hours or so into the future but given that I walk around all the time in my own congregation suggesting to the folk there that each of us needs to be able to stand up at any given moment and preach our sermon, especially the one on why we’re UU, I felt I had to accept. And so I spent the rest of the day following Davidson’s talk last summer walking around, talking to myself, and furiously scribbling on the 3x5 cards I always have in pocket.(Show some of the cards from last summer.)

Here’s some of what I wrote down:

YES to Davidson’s take on our dismal membership numbers. God yes. I couldn’t agree with him more. I did my own study of our numbers prior to my mid-life decision to enter ministry and saw much of the same thing Davidson brings to our attention.

I also remember the most recent Pew Survey on Religious Attitudes that I studied. It reported approximately 1.3 million adult Americans identifying as UU – this while we have barely over 150,000 on our membership roles.

Of particular note at SUUSI is the question of who calls themselves a UU. I’m betting that some of the 1 million plus self-identifying UU’s who don’t belong to our congregations, per Pew, are here. Show of hands? Oh yes, look around this room and see just how many call themselves UU but don’t do our churches!

YES to all of Davidson’s sharing about membership numbers…and YES to looking harder at other numbers within our movement. Multiple sources, Mike Durall’s work being a notable example(hold up The Almost Church), show that our financial giving to our faith movement, another number, stays the same on average through all the 1990’s. We UU’s with one of the highest per capita incomes of any identified religious group in the country, giving on average one of the smallest amounts of any identified religious group and keeping our giving the same on average during a decade, the 90’s, in which the cost of doing church or business rose and the average American citizen had one of the highest jumps in personal income, on average, for any period of our lifetimes.

YES, I thought, to Davidson’s assertion that we’d “let go a religious core” mistakenly thinking that one of social or political activism could serve as substitute. Davidson is so right in calling us back to our desperate need to wrestle with the why’s of human existence and the potential of employing the practices of the hard and narrow way towards finding more meaning and purpose in our lives. I spent a good chunk of time that afternoon last summer scribbling on these 3x5’s about how easy it is for me and you in this culture of ours to fall into the cycles of addictive behaviors – work addiction, shopping addiction, amusement addiction, sex addiction, food and substance addiction towards not having to think or feel around the possibilities of giving of ourselves in some hard and narrow way, some way of authentic religion, towards realizing a greater good. YES, Davidson Loehr, we can be too much the he “happy face” people, we UU’s. We do need to learn more of the hard and narrow way. We need to practice the hard and narrow way.

And YES Davidson Loehr, YES, we will draw the admiration of many folk yearning for more meaning in their lives if only we can become communities of moral code demanding of us the harder right. YES, so, so many of us understand that and want to work for it.

YES, I agreed with so much of Davidson’s talk and yet, some of what he shared didn’t feel congruent with my experience of our current UU reality.

Most uncomfortable for me was the bashing, and I use that word with intention and with no implied disrespect for Davidson, the bashing of our Principles and Purposes. Those of you who were here will recall Davidson’s calling them the “Seven Banalities”. To me they’re akin to what our Presby brothers and sisters have going with their Apostle’s Creed - NO offense intended by using that “C” word. In my own mind, creeds and covenants are in some ways synonymous. When we pay them attention, oftentimes reading them in unison with little thought involved, we’re doing our own UU version of what they Presbys do with their Apostle’s Creed. They’re not the end all of what we are. What is much more important, and thus the need for us not to be distracted by any argument for or against the Principles and Purposes, is that we be able to articulate what we believe. Davidson wants that too. And many, many of us are with him AND can do just that.

I, for instance, can say with conviction that:

I believe we are each called to be of service in our lives.
I believe we each need, oh so desperately, authentic religious community to help us discern our call. And also to help support us as we respond to it….and are frightened but it at times.
I believe that in serving a greater good, a common good, I am benefited.
I believe that an authentic religious life is not easy. Using Davidson’s language, it WILL bring about hardness. Its way WILL be narrow. I will need to sacrifice.
I believe many, many, many more UU’s, like me, have belief statements of their own that they can also easily articulate.

There is great common ground across individual UU belief statements. There is hope for us in exploring that great common ground and familiarizing ourselves with it. And becoming oh so comfortable in our articulation of our beliefs.

There is also much life still to be found within our movement around the salvation stories of personal testimony. Davidson says we are without the great myth, the salvation story. I understand us to have the story in thousands of forms…each of us with our own. Each of us with the responsibility for sharing our own…and doing if effectively and with enthusiasm.

Last summer as I was scribbling notes about what to say in response to Davidson, I knew I would have to share my own personal story of salvation. I was born just down the road in Radford, VA. To be at SUUSI is to have my faith draw my life story full circle. I remember thinking last summer that I would have to tell you about my father’s mother who lived in a small town at the base of Christiansburg Mountain, no more than 25 miles from where we now sit. This woman had little use for organized religion. Her’s was a practical life. Making ends meet as a widowed woman raising a son all by herself. My father thrived under her care and then as an adult became very religious. His call to study religion eventually sending him to seminary and prompting him to have many conversations with me and my brothers about all things religious. I remember well the game of hearts on a hot summer evening when I was 15 years old and he told me with great energy, “son you sound just like an agnostic Universalist.” That comment led me to the library and the encyclopedia and my first reading about this faith of ours. I read more in the years that followed before finding way into our church in Charlotte for my first UU worship experience. And then a year later, 1975, 22 years old, I had the good fortune to move to Charleston, SC, and fall into our congregation there. I took my first NEW UU Class in the minister’s apartment overlooking Meeting Street. I’d found the place whre my agnosticis religiosity was welcome. It felt GOOD.

Over twenty years that followed, my career took me from one end of this country to the other. I worshipped in UU churches all over America. My self-identity as a UU stayed constant although no congregation had my constant presence, as had Charleston, until in 1987 I moved to Lancaster, PA, and joined our congregation there. I was in my mid-30’s by then, wrestling with who and what I was called to be, going through mid-life crisis. That congregation in Lancaster welcomed me, gave me anonymity as I initially needed and wanted it, and then lovingly said to me, be a part of what we are. We want you to know us. We want to know you. Let us minister together. The potential of heartfelt religious community were so evident in the way the people of that congregation engaged me.

Just a couple of years after my becoming an active participant in the congregation in Lancaster, Kit Howell was called to be the minister. I need to mention him by name here because Kit was a big SUUSI fan. He told me after I’d come to know him that I had to go to SUUSI if I really wanted to understand this faith. Kit also told me and everyone else in that congregation in Lancaster that ours was the faith “with heart big enough to hold it all.”

But what really “saved” me in our congregation in Lancaster was that the people there pushed and prodded me and everyone else towards deepening our exploration of what it means to be a person of faith, and specifically of Unitarian Universalist faith. Ours was a shared commitment to explore all things religious. At times this work was joyful and easy. And at other times, many other times, this work was frightening.. Through it all, my fellow congregants in Lancaster were there with me, sharing of their encouragement and reassurance that the work we were doing together was valuable. We reassured one another that the risks we took to build a greater good and deeper understanding of the divine was what church was about. We grew in self-understanding and appreciation. We grew in love and appreciation of one another. We grew in our love for our community. We grew in heart.

When a fellow congregant asked me in 1992 if I’d considered ministry, I remember laughing while at the same time feeling a deep sense of congruency for me in the question. My fellow congregant showed me my way.

And in 2001, after two decades in the Northeast, I remember sitting in Baltimore pondering the choices of call to settled ministry and realizing that “Dixie was calling her child home…”, that my faith movement was bringing be back to be where I was raised…the South…to beautiful Greensboro.

And then in Greensboro, good old wonderful Wendell Putney walked up to me almost immediately upon arrival and said, “Are you going to SUUSI this year?” And I said, “No Wendell, I won’t have the time or energy this year.” A year later Wendell asked his question. I gave the same response. Wendell replied, “Rev…that job of yours may be in jeopardy!(Play out the humor…)

Davidson is not the only voice within our movement attempting to forewarn. Michael Durall, whom many of you know, just this past year published his latest book, The Almost Church. In it, Mike not only covers the ground of why our faith movement is showing signs of stagnancy but also explores the criteria for change. He begins by reminding us that we all know that some congregations can change while others cannot.

Change in a religious community, Mike says, is fostered by certain practices. Among them are:

Just showing up. Mike quotes a friend of his in ministry who says you come to church not primarily for the programming but for the thousands of small miracles that occur as we all interact with one another.

Tithing. Mike says we need to consider giving 10% of everything we earn to our churches. (AD LIB AROUND THE NUMBERS). Mike also says that if you’re offended by the Judeo-Christian connection with the concept of tithing then give 11% - there’s absolutely no historoical religious connection with that number!

Having high expectations about membership. Mike says these high expectations are needed for ourselves and our new members. We need to articulate how we understand the characteristics of authentic religious community. We need to exhibit reverence, study and ongoing practice in what we do together as religious communtiy.

And most importantly, Following! Mike says that if we’re going to be strong religious community then we must be highly capable of leadership which ALWAYS requires the ability to FOLLOW. We UU’s must grow our ability to practice what Mike calls “followership.”

Davidson Loehr and Micheal Durall are extraordinary forewarning clowns in our midst now! We’d be fools to ignore their shared wisdom.

I carried back to Greensboro last summer a copy of Davidson’s talk. I preached on it in Greensboro shortly afterwards. Over a 100 copies of that sermon were distributed to my congregation. I’ll preach on it again this fall.

Michael Durall’s book will be going to all leadership in our congregation in Greensboro this fall. I will be doing all I can to affect study of that book. My hope is that you will consider doing likewise.

On one of the 3x5’s last summer I wrote in big letters – LIZZIE. Lizzie, was my father’s mother, my grandmother, the woman who lived at the bottom of Christiansburg Mountain. A woman who I loved very much. Lizzie taught me some things that I want to share with you know that I think have some applicability for the challenges before this faith of ours.

Lizzie gave birth to my father at the age of 35 – very late in life for a woman in 1929. My father was her first child. Passed down through my family is the story of how upon delivering my father, Lizzie turned to her husband Billy and said, “I’ll be damned if I’ll do that again.” And she didn’t. My father is an only child.

Let us vow that we’ll be damned if we’ll not pay critical attention to the numbers of our faith again. Davidson has done us this great service by birthing within this movement a new awareness of just how precarious our existence is. Let us vow, to ourselves and to one another, just as Lizzie did, that we’ll be damned if we’ll ever put ourselves into a place of not paying attention to these vital signs of our movement’s health.

Lizzie also took me in for big chunks of many summers during the first ten years of my life. I’d go and stay at her house and play all day in the creek that ran across her property. She’d call me in to help her do things. And sometimes I’d screw up. I remember, in particular, dropping onto the floor one of her favorite things to cook, pineapple upside-down cake. And Lizzie turned to me in all my failure, the cake all splayed out on the floor at my feet, and said, “Sweetheart, there’s plenty more where that came from. Help Grandma make another one.” And so we did.

If we Unitarian Universalists are to save this faith of ours, to grow it and make it strong, we’re going to have to take some mighty big risks. And some of them will fail, just as surely as I dropped that cake down at the base of Christiansburg Mountain. When we fail, may we each turn to one another and say, “Sweet and wonderful person, there’s plenty more where that came from. Let me help you pick up the pieces and try again.”

Get yourself copies of Davidson’s talk from last year. Buy copies of Michael Durall’s book, The Almost Church. Study them. Talk to one another. Sacrifice. Take some risks. Enjoy your successes. Love one antother through your failures. Grow this faith of ours. Grow it big and strong and capable. AMEN.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Flying Beyond Fear: Stories from the End Zone

Rev. Maj-Britt Johnson
Theme Talk, Suusi 2005

As Martha told you in her introduction, I worked for a hospice in New Jersey as a Spiritual Care and Bereavement Coordinator until this past January. When you are employed in the business of death and dying it is not always a happy moment when someone asks you the question: “what do you do?” especially at, say, a party. People’s faces fall, their shoulders slump. It’s like I’ve pulled the proverbial elephant out from under the rug and dumped it on their shoulders. Unless I am talking to someone who has had a hospice experience with someone in their family. Then we have stories to share, and it is as if we are family.

I must admit I was a bit uncertain how I was going to connect the theme “Time to Fly” to the subject of death. Then recently I flew on Independence Air. Has anyone here ever used them? They’re one of these new little airlines that’s trying to be hip and casual in their appearance, yet sophisticated and even ironic in their public relations materials. The desk attendants wear t shirts, the flight attendants serve Ginseng Ice tea, and they have this comedian named Dave on a voiceover tape to tell you the flight safety regulations they figure we’re sick of hearing by now.

He goes: “Hi, I’m Dave and I’m a government certified expert on flying. Not really. Well, anywhoooo.”

And like that. But what I heard, while in the midst of thinking about this talk was the following: Hi, I’m Dave and I’m a government certified expert on dying. Well not really. No one is. But anywhoooo.

I’m afraid it goes on. Let me point out the emergency exits first. You have 4 options for fleeing this earthcraft. Here’s a hint: take the one closest to you. Be sure to share with your life-mates which one you have chosen. Go ahead and give them a hearty hug or a handshake while you’re at it.

If you happen to be seated in a row that says emergency exit you have a responsibility to lead the way out. If you don’t feel up to it, say so now.
On this flight we may encounter turbulence and if you’ve ever been through turbulence you know it’s not a funny sight. Okay maybe it is a little funny.

Oxygen masks next. If it falls down in front of your face, put it on. It’s our little way of saying: you need it. Right now! Put it over your face and breathe normally. Yeah, right.

Your seat cushion can double as a flotation device. If we make a water landing. I highly recommend using it. And then if you’re already in the water might as well have fun. Marco! Polo!

Okay time to die now, have a good flight!

I couldn’t resist: So many Hospice themes were in there …just a rhyme away:
How no one’s an expert on dying.

How we need to share with our mates our thoughts about how we plan to exit this plane.

How some of us have the odd job of being at the exit row leading others out, as I did, for two and a half years. And how we sometimes don’t feel up to the responsibility.

What I’m going to focus on is the turbulence in the dying process. As Dave says: if you’ve ever seen it you know isn’t funny. Well maybe just a little bit. And he’s right, if we’re going to go down, and we all are some day, we might as well have a good time.

To carry the airport analogy just a teeny bit further, I’d have to say flying and dying have something else in common. The hardest part is the boredom, the waiting to go. That sitting around in the terminal area. Men especially don’t like to wait though women aren’t any better at it, we just find more things to worry about as we do it, and we call that worry: processing, or connecting…or something.

Men, I’ve noticed just want to get on with it. In death as in life. If they can’t do the things they’ve always done whether for a living or as a hobby, then it’s time to go. He might be depressed about it, sad, or angry but he just doesn’t see the point in lingering on, much less talking about his feelings.

Women, sorry to say it but my little pocket of statistical research on 1500 patients bears out a stereotype: we worry an awful lot about how we look while we wait. In death as in life. On my hospice inpatient unit we had a woman who actually wrote a note before she slipped into a coma telling us that she absolutely, at all costs, wanted us to keep her teeth in her mouth at all times! Including, and she was specific about this, on the ride down to the morgue, and, lest we think she was done with us, from there to the funeral home where she knew they’d have the good sense to make her really look good. She’d seen these other dying people in their rooms on our inpatient unit lying there with their cheeks sucked in and she didn’t want her visitors, or the morgue attendants to see her looking like that.

Lest you think these stereotypes I am admittedly perpetuating are confined to, say, the World War Two generation think about today’s botox users and manic gym rats when it comes to the issue of vanity. And as for the difficulty of having feelings? They’re not easy for anyone to deal with male or female, no matter how much therapy we’ve had. Especially when asked to unload them with a stranger.

In other word, on a hospice inpatient unit it’s not necessarily: It’s Tuesday it must be Morrie. Not everyone wants to have deep philosophical conversations. The problem for me was that it was my job to try to get them to talk, even just a bit.
Think of our inpatient unit as an international airport, or maybe Central Casting to mix my metaphors. In it were people of all religions, though most were Catholic, all races, though most were either Hispanic or Italian. They were of all classes though most were blue collar. There were electricians and plumbers and truckers and a doctor or two, there were housewives and beauticians and teachers and waitresses. There were addicts and alcoholics and street people. There were a couple of low level Mafiosi, and one famous actor whose name I can’t of course reveal. We even guided the King of the Gypsies, well, one of the kings, of one of the clans anyway, to the Other Side.

The dying were of all ages above 18, thank God we didn’t serve children. Most were over 70. The wonderful grace of working with hospice nurses is they think 75 is young. To be 50 is practically adolescent. That is because none of us is supposed to die until we’re 90 at which point we finally earn the title old and are expected to slip politely slip off in our sleep. In other words the 50 and 75 years olds just didn’t belong there; it wasn’t supposed to be their time.

Let me describe the physical surroundings to you for a second. There were eleven rooms. All ranged down the hall on one side like this. Each room was nicely wallpapered, with Manet and Monet prints on the walls, and rocking chairs next to the bed. The eleven doors were kept open so the nurses could eyeball people as they walked past, and see if they were still breathing.

Each morning I’d come in and walk the long gauntlet. I would surreptitiously peek out of my left eye and mentally note: still there, still there, empty, still there, gone, new one, still there, still there, and so on.

Family members who visited their loved ones did the same thing of course after visiting for some days, though we instructed them not to look in other people’s rooms. You can’t help but do it, take the count, make a mental tally, ask how many are under your own age, how many above it, as if keeping statistics will somehow give us some sense of how much time we have left ourselves, or how lucky we are so far, or whether something is statistically happening to the average age of death in this country that we should know about.

One man, a son in his fifties, liked to stand out in the hallway and watch all the comings and goings and one day he stopped me and said: “no one gets out of here alive do they?” It’s the kind of obvious statement that when you hang out on an inpatient Hospice Unit takes on a much deeper Zen quality than it would if delivered only from the intellect. He was staring down what Ganga Stone in her book “Start the Conversation” calls The Contract that we’re given at birth.

The contract is just that. First clause: no one gets out of this life alive. Clause #2, the one that’s hardest to accept: death can come any time and at any place.
And yet we will “never be sufficiently surprised that everyone acts as if no one knew.”

The inpatient unit was a daily reminder of both clauses of the contract. And my role, as defined by my superiors, seemed to be to get the dying and their families to deal with the contract. In this, my job was a little different than some of the other staff jobs. The nurses dispensed medication and kind attention, did mountains of paperwork, and dealt with doctors’ orders. The nurses aides dealt out kind attention, dealt with nurses’ orders, and cleaned up the messes as if it was no big deal which made the patients feel grateful and intimate with them.

What they did was actually enough, most of the time. They, we, and the pleasant physical space, created a gentle womb around people as they grieved because of course dying people are grieving people. Rev. Jim Forbes speaking to Bill Moyers the day after 9-11, when Moyers asked him how people should handle the enormity of their grief and shock, said: “the body knows how to sort out the multiple impulses of grief”.

What we tried to do on The Unit was create a place for people’s bodies to sort out the multiple impulses of grief. Hospice is the dying person’s equivalent of natural childbirth. Rather than lots of machines around to help them in their labor there are people available to simply breathe with the patients through the struggle of dying which is just as natural as, and somehow very similar to, being born or giving birth.

At the same time, and this is where some of the stress comes in, hospice, now that it is largely funded by Medicaid and Medicare is a lot like an airport since 9-11. In other words there’s a lot of government surveillance. Into this amazingly diverse setting I would come each day like a customs and baggage inspector. I was the baggage inspector.

Here’s a sampling of what I had to document on my “Spiritual Assessment Form 700-POC-6”. I had to determine if a dying individual suffered from or was dealing with:

loss of self esteem
fear of death
preparation for death
excessive guilt
unresolved grief
confusion re beliefs
difficulty expressing feelings
loss of meaning and values
family conflict re beliefs

Then I had to outline a plan for treating said afflictions. And all this had to fit on a one page triplicate form. The reason I’m complaining about this isn’t only to get your sympathy. It’s to share you with you an odd little insight, which probably most of you have had already. That when people are dying, their bags are packed. That’s why they were on the inpatient unit for heaven’s sake. They were entrusting us to fly them safely over to the other side, with their baggage in one piece. They didn’t want to have to unpack them and watch us mess up their stuff, after which they’d have to pack it up all over again.

Many of us think, especially those of us trained in a helping profession, that dying people are just dying to unburden themselves before they go. Not so. Some certainly, but most not. So in a way when we go into a room and prod it’s like we’ve picked them out of the line of travelers to have their bags tossed. And then everyone can see those private contents their mother told them to hide on the bottom.

Because of my training as a minister (to “be with the person where they are”) I most often had to choose a stealthier method than the outright search and seizure of personal effects (and affects) We just had a conversation and when we were finished I charted, and made some semi-educated guesses about whether they were prepared to die, whatever that means.

I hope they didn’t feel like I did when I got home from my trip to my family reunion on Dave’s Airline to find a little slip of paper in my luggage saying I was one of the lucky ones chosen to have my bag searched behind the scenes. Kind of irritated. A little bit invaded.

Some dying people make it all very easy of course. They pull the elephant right out from under the rug and say: I know I’m dying, but whaddya gonna do?

“I mean really”, said one older gentleman staring at me with a very direct and penetrating stare, “what are ya gonna do?” I had to surrender, had to admit there wasn’t a darn thing I could do for him except listen to him tell his stories until he was sick of even that. These men (and they were mostly men) came to be known on our Team as the Whaddya Gonna Do school of thought.

Others wanted only to talk about their grandchildren, said they were ready to go that leaving them was the only reason for sadness. “I’ve had a good life, it’s not like I didn’t know this was going to happen!” they might say. At which point an eyebrow might arch and he or she (usually a she) would look at me like, you don’t take me for a fool do you?

No one wants to look like a fool when they’re dying. For some people that means looking good on the outside as we’ve already discussed: you know, the teeth, the lipstick. For others it means looking good mentally or spiritually. For them it meant letting me know that questions like: why me, or how could this happen were foolish and they knew it. They knew there had always been a contract out on them.
But now and then I’d encounter someone who was able to let go of the need to look good spiritually, and could let him or herself be a fool. I remember one 87 year old woman who was always lying in bed looking very thoughtful and alert, yet staring in the distance at one particular thought, or so it looked to me. A lot of patients seemed to stare at that one spot. This 87 year old woman was caught up in one particular Zen koan which she was studying deeply over a period of days and weeks.

The koan was this:

“I never thought this would happen to me.”

Did I tell you she was 87?

I was having a bad day the first time she said it. So please forgive me when I tell you that I said to myself of course: you what? You never thought this would happen to you? Where have you been all your life?

I made my face pastorally bland and waited. She kept shaking her head, “never, ever thought it possible. Amazing isn’t it?” Maybe it was her tone of wonder. I breathed a little more easily and shook my head to clear it of my denseness. Of course! This woman is simply speaking from a place I have not yet been and absolutely will not be able to feel until I get there. So what if she is more than forty years farther down the road than me. That doesn’t mean she is any more ready than I would be if it happened to me today.

Inside her rice paper body barely holding its shape through the shifting sands of its disintegrating bones was a young person who still believed she had plenty of time. Even though her body had been backfiring like an engine low on oil, for about ten years, it would be impossible to fully comprehend that she was really at the end of the road until she got to the end of the road. Impossible to fully comprehend that she was really just days away from that funeral service she’d already planned with her kids, and from the grave stone she herself picked out.

So, as if in a dream, as if hypnotized by that spot in the air, I agreed with her: “And you probably won’t be able to completely believe it until it’s actually happening, and maybe not until it actually has”.

She looked at me really sharply then, just a little bit of fear in her eyes. She hadn’t been quite ready to go that far yet, that was still a few days and many meditative hours away in her sorting process. I’d moved her along too quickly. What is it about us mortals that we feel we need to be able to put a check by that item: prepared for death? I suspect it’s the fact that we’re all control freaks when it comes right down to it. So much of our living when we really study our lives (our anxiety, our worry, our hurry, our proving of ourselves, our ambitions) and so much of the writing about death from Michel Montaigne in his essay “Philosophy as the Study of the Preparation for Death”, to all the pop culture books about death and dying is about trying to find a way to not be caught with our pants down. Or our hair out of place. Or our business unfinished. Or alone, or looking stupid.
Montaigne for instance argues convincingly that the aging process prepares us for dying, that by the time we get there we’re so tired we’re ready to go and we couldn’t care less anymore. Which is true, in some cases. But what interests me is the underlying need to convince us that we can get ready.

What being with my patients taught me is: just as nothing we do to keep ourselves alive, not jogging, not taking our vitamins, not a spiritual program, nor being kind and good, can guarantee us the full 90 years on this earth we believe we are entitled to, neither can anything we read, think, study, or plan fully prepare us for the emotional reality of death.

And as many of you already know there is no way to prepare ourselves completely for what it will feel like when someone we love dies. People will prepare themselves when they have to. Or they won’t. Some people have unfinished business, some don’t. Some people go peacefully, some go out fighting. That’s okay. I learned that it’s not the business of the living to tell the dying how to play the last act before the curtain goes down on their show.

However, sometimes in dying, as in living, other people’s drama is not fun to be around, and then we have to get out of the way of the abuse. I had one dying man, a former doctor, say menacingly to me, in a sick mean voice, as he did to the nurses, to get out of the room saying: “you’re a stupid b----, what do you know, the littlest bone in my body is smarter than what you’ve got in that pea brain of yours”.

I wrote “declined spiritual care” on his assessment form in big capital letters.
Then his family came to visit and they asked me to come in and talk to them and my supervisor made me write: accepts spiritual care on an interdisciplinary update form, HNJ 700-N12, in triplicate. The doctor was sweet as could be in front of his daughters, fawningly, sickly sweet. They would lean on him and cry loudly about how they would miss him and he would raise his head above them and look at me with a cunning malevolent grin. If he wasn’t so terrifyingly convincing in his role as the devil, or King Lear, I think I would have laughed out loud.

For those who would accept spiritual care my job was to offer the presence of complete acceptance as they did whatever kind of mind/body sorting they needed to do and to offer prayer. Prayer does lessen emotional pain. Especially prayers which people have known all their lives and are so deeply grooved into their psyches that they are like healing water, they tap into ancient springs. The 23rd psalm especially: yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for thou art with me. I can’t tell you how many bodies I’ve seen relax their pain and let go as I said that prayer.

It took me awhile to learn the different kinds of pain. To distinguish emotional from physical pain and also to learn how connected they are. One day I was sitting with a man who was about my age so I became instantly overwhelmed and exhausted by the evidence of part two of the contract: Anytime, anyplace. This man’s face was contorted with pain, agonized. Hospice is really good at keeping physical pain at bay, and the nurses said they’d done all they could for his pain, that there was no reason for it.

But who could look like that if he wasn’t in pain? We kept asking him: What can we do for you, where does it hurt? He was so busy with whatever he was sorting out that he could only shake his head. So finally I just sat there with him, stunned, I’d not yet seen anything quite like it. I asked him if he minded me staying. He shook his head no. He seemed truly to want a witness. So I just witnessed.

Witnessing is one of the ways, for some people, those who want it, of creating that warm protective womb/room for them to do their sorting. Being watched in silence, while the watcher reads, or knits, or just rocks in the rocking chair, gives the dying person the chance to relax their own guard. The watcher is now the guard. They can fully focus on their dying.

I did learn this much, and would pass that on to family members who felt like they needed to DO something for the dying person, those who hated the feeling of helplessness, of powerlessness. And who doesn’t?

There are times when we can do something for a dying person even if it’s only to wet their dry lips, but sometimes that’s about it, nothing else can be done. So I’d tell them: Just sit with him, or her, maybe hold her hand for a few minutes. Maybe tell her you love her, say what you need to say. That too is doing something. This seemed to help some family members, though they didn’t believe it was really enough.

Once or twice that line backfired on me. That’s the problem with the various “one size fits all” approaches to dying which hospice sometimes seems to promote. There was a woman walking down the hall with me to her husbands room, he was a quiet nice guy, very polite with me, he’d filled me in on his religious background and told me a few things about himself. An easy case we all figured. He would slip gently into that dark night. The wife on the other hand was tense. She said I don’t know what to say to him. I don’t know how to be with him. I missed something unusual in her tone.
So I did my little line about just being with him and telling him she loved him. She stopped dead in her tracks and looked at me penetratingly. “I don’t love him!” She said. It came out later in a two hour session with her that he had sexually abused her children and she’d stayed with him anyway, and she was angry at herself for not having left him long ago, and now he was the one doing the leaving.

She wasn’t able to be a quiet witness for him, which was fine. I still had to be. Miraculously it is difficult to place judgments one might ordinarily have onto someone who is dying. Like all the other dying he was simply powerless. He was slipping out of his earthly story as if it was a skin, even as the people around him were left to deal with it.

Being a witness to the dying of hundreds of sinners changes you, but I’m not sure how, just yet.

For some people having a witness is an interference. People who are dying necessarily withdraw, just like Meercats in the Kalahari Desert. They might want the other cats to make a caring circle around them but at the very end they go off a few feet away, to be alone and stare at something we can’t see. Some people withdraw months ahead of time, some weeks, some only hours or minutes.

I had this very common belief that no one should be alone when they die. It is very hard for us humans to just let people alone. In dying as in life: To mind our own business. So I would often sit with people who had no one, including the comatose. I liked to watch the comatose because I thought such a meditation would make me spiritually wise. The Buddhists say one should stare at a corpse to learn about impermanence which teaches one both loving detachment and compassion. Well, many of our dying looked like corpses, mouth gaping open, skin and bones, eyes half closed and unfocused, pulse barely discernible, not eating or drinking for weeks.

One day I was witnessing the death of another 80 something year old woman who was doing her spiritual work with her eyes closed, semi-comatose. I sat there at this comatose woman’s bedside, because no one should be alone when they’re dying! I was righteous about this. Where was her family! I was busily over-identifying and weighing judgments against the living, when suddenly she opened her eyes, looked at me sharply and said: “I really can’t think with you sitting there”.

I hate to think how long it took her to muster up the energy to rise up from her tomb and say that.

Meanwhile, back to the man who was my age, whose face was contorted with pain, but whom the nurses said couldn’t possibly have any pain, and who nodded yes that he wanted a witness. I sat there and stared, and I think there must have been something familiar about his pain. It looked like the pain of loss, and it looked like the pain of confronting demons, and of confronting the harms one has done to others and so I knew he would be delivered because he was letting it rock him and yet he had no fear.

I realized that we had been bothering him with our own need to relieve his physical pain which he kept telling us didn’t exist. I saw now that he had no physical pain except that which came about as a byproduct of the emotional pain. So I finally said to him after a half hour or so: “I see that you are in emotional pain. We can take away the physical pain but we can’t take away the emotional pain. I wish we could take this pain away. I am sorry that we can’t. But it looks like the only way out of this is to go through it.”

He looked right at me and managed to mouth two words: “Thank you”. I went and wrote up the whole story and a recommendation not to bother him with more questions about physical pain. It was one of the few times I felt like I managed to accomplish an actual concrete task in hospice.

There are lots more tales to tell but we’re nearing the end …so I’m going to have to choose an exit door. I choose…..Barbara.

I figure if in life I keep looking at what Barbara was looking at in the very end…well, I’ll be… who am I kidding I don’t know what I’ll be. Anyway, Barbara was about five years older than me. She had beautiful kids, college age, whom she was angry at for not caring enough about her to visit often. She had a divorced husband whom she was still bitter at for leaving her, and rampant metastases from breast cancer which she had ignored because as she was, as she bitterly described herself, a martyr who worked too hard to put her kids through school when she should have been taking care of herself.

Some days Barbara was open to talking, some days closed. Some days she was sweet and I could see her former warm charismatic self, and other days she was hard and angry. She tried hard not to be rude, and when I told her to say whatever she needed to say, that I wouldn’t take it personally, she’d get even nicer because she liked being the one in control.

Barbara was on an emotional roller coaster. She also refused all medications. She wanted to tough it out. She wanted to feel every last thing, she said. I wondered if she was punishing herself somehow. She said no, she just wanted to be alert and in control.

One day, the day she died, we heard her screeeeeaaaaaming the words: Oh my God! in terrible pain and shock. We went running. We stood in a tense, painful circle around her as she continued to scream, Oh my God.

One nurse said angrily “I’m out of here, I can’t watch this”. I stayed.
Barbara kept on yelling only those three words, but over a period of time the tone of it changed. The pain clearly was lessening or becoming less important. For awhile her tone was angry, accusing, then something shifted.

It was as if she was giving birth.

I remember a not muggy NC night decades ago when I was sleeping with the windows open in my house and a woman next door was giving birth, at home, with a midwife. I didn’t know that was what she was doing. They hadn’t warned the neighbors. To be honest, at first I thought she was having sex. Oh My God! Oh My God!

But no one goes on as long as she did. All night long I laid there and listened to her, mystified. Barbara also went on. Now she began to focus on that something the dying stare at. Some of them for weeks, some for hours, some only at the last second, and some from behind closed eyelids.

Oh My God! Oh My God! It was somehow transforming into a tone of wonder, Oh My God!


Her face cleared, and she slipped into a coma. No drugs, nothing. Four hours later she died.

I believe the place in us which is the clear unsullied nonverbal witness is the same place the dying stare at.

The witness consciousness in us, that place that can achieve moments of Oneness with other people, with nature, flies out to meet the vast eternal Witness Consciousness out there. Everything unreal, the personality which is after all only a product of the ego anyway, melts away. We finally slip out of our story which we think IS who we are, and merge again with that larger something that really is us.

I know there is nothing to fear about death but there is much to fear about dying. As in death so in life: That struggle to be who we think we are, right up to the end. And the hard work we put into the attempt to make everyone else see us as that someone we think we are. It is a fearful struggle. Sometimes a funny one. How will I look? Will I leave them with good memories of me? Will I be mean? Will people be mean to me? Will people want to be around me? Will it hurt?

There is anticipatory fear about the narrow door. What will happen at the exact moment, people would ask me, though not always in so many words, when I pass over? What did I know? I’ve never died. But they knew I’d seen enough of death to have seen something. All I could tell them was the truth: that what I have noticed is there doesn’t seem to be a thing to be afraid of, especially if we can relax into it. And I would say: You won’t be alone. You have people all around you. We’ll be breathing with you and holding your hand.

You won’t be alone in that moment. I think they knew better. The words felt hollow even to me. My 16 year old nephew Sam knows better. At our family reunion which was held in Tennessee a couple of weeks ago he was walking with his mom past an elderly man sitting on the porch of his house where he lives alone. His mom turned to him and whispered: That’s kind of sad, to be all alone like that. Sam turned to her and said: Mom, we’re all …really …alone.

To which I would say to Sam: True, and never more so than in that split second when we let go and cross over. But ultimately, and we can get a taste of this in life when we practice slipping out of our favorite stories about ourselves (victim, hero, lost soul, good guy, bad guy), ultimately, not alone.