“A Different Relationship to Death”

So much of the sorrow which the war inflicted on me still resulted from my incapacity to reconcile the perishing of so many talented and indeed extremely distinguished individuals with God! We all carry in our blood some kind of misunderstanding of God’s “protection,” which cheats us of the freedom that belongs to us and whose first consequence (if we knew how to use it) would be a different relationship to death.

The distance between birth and death above which we write “I” is not a measure for God; life & death constitute for him probably only a small degree of separation, and perhaps a continual series of lives and deaths is needed for God to have the impression: one. Perhaps only all of creation in its totality is permitted to call itself “I” before him, and all the fluctuations of appearing and vanishing inside it would then be its own concern.

It is a shame that God did not know little Lucie Ramé there is no way of letting him know that the bus crushed her to death–for even that bus, the “char d’assaut,” he never caught a glimpse of! We have to get used to the fact that we rest in the pause between two of God’s breaths: for that means: to be in time. It is conceivable that he was linked to creation only via the act through which he externalized it out of himself. In that case, only that which has not been created would have a right to think of itself as continually attached to God. The brief time of our existence is probably precisely the the period when we lose all connection to him and, drifting apart from him, become enmeshed in the creation which he leaves alone. We can rely only on memories and premonitions, for there is surely an even more urgent task of applying our senses to what is present here and to expand them so much that they converge into a single sense of awe and admiration.—

– Rainer Maria Rilke, letter to Nanny Wunderly-Volkart.

Love One Person

Poetry

WHEN DEATH COMES
by: Mary Oliver

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Love One Person

Poetry

I KNOW THE WAY YOU CAN GET
by: Hafiz

I know the way you can get
When you have not had a drink of Love:

Your face hardens,
Your sweet muscles cramp.
Children become concerned
About a strange look that appears in your eyes
Which even begins to worry your own mirror
And nose.

Squirrels and birds sense your sadness
And call an important conference in a tall tree.
They decide which secret code to chant
To help your mind and soul.

Even angels fear that brand of madness
That arrays itself against the world
And throws sharp stones and spears into
The innocent
And into one’s self.

O I know the way you can get
If you have not been drinking Love:

You might rip apart
Every sentence your friends and teachers say,
Looking for hidden clauses.

You might weigh every word on a scale
Like a dead fish.

You might pull out a ruler to measure
From every angle in your darkness
The beautiful dimensions of a heart you once
Trusted.

I know the way you can get
If you have not had a drink from Love’s
Hands.

That is why all the Great Ones speak of
The vital need
To keep remembering God,
So you will come to know and see Him
As being so Playful
And Wanting,
Just Wanting to help.

That is why Hafiz says:
Bring your cup near me.
For all I care about
Is quenching your thirst for freedom!

All a Sane man can ever care about
Is giving Love!”

Love One Person

“Right on Time”

I want this song played at my memorial gathering (along with “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” by J.S. Bach and “Let it Be” by The Beatles).

“Right on Time”
by Ellis Delaney

I wish for you to be free from doubt
When you feel left behind or left out
When the world seems brighter everywhere else
And your mind is lost inside a wishing well

Right on time
You are right on time
You’re right on time

Remember the heart is a tender thing
Restless and hopeful
It cries and sings
Sometimes you need shelter and a space to be
A little tough, not tough enough, a little lost at sea

And when everyone’s racing and you join in
If you can, try running with a smile
Because there is a danger in going too fast
Getting too far ahead can set you back

Right on time
You are right on time
You’re right on time

When you’re tired and on your own
Cried so many tears they’re all gone
When there’s nothing you haven’t tried
To fix this uncertain road.

When everywhere you look you see regret
Caught up in the past and what might have been
What we can never know can make our head spin
A little love, a little trust, a lot of forgiveness

Right on time
You are right on time
You’re right on time
What if we’re right on time

************

And here she is singing it.

ELLIS: “Right on Time”

Love One Person

Some Thoughts on Legacy Work

My initial thoughts about legacy are twofold. 1) In healthcare chaplaincy–and to some extent social work, “Legacy Work” usually involves making hand prints, taking photographs, hair clippings, or similar arts and crafts to create keepsakes to which a dying patient’s loved ones (especially children) may hold on after their loved one dies. It is not my place to judge the suitability of such exercises for those who may find them meaningful, but I do ask myself, “Is this the best we can do?” (In fairness, helping patient’s create an Ethical Will is also a regularly mentioned possibility as well.)

2) I’m sitting with what Stephen Jenkinson identifies as most people’s real “fear of death”: Not the actual dying, or whether there is an afterlife or not, but, how we will be remembered? This seems to be a motivating observation in much of his work (and Native American piety) around honoring our connection to our ancestors and what they have taught us.

Three potential legacy paths (having kids, planting trees, and writing books) are worth pointing to with intentionality. They are natural human legacy paths, i.e., the kinds of things humans do anyway, each of which will survive our own deaths. The shadow side is they are so imminently practical as to be possibly taken for granted, and to trigger grief expressions as well. What if one’s kids are not “turning out” as one had hoped? What if the relationship is estranged? What if the oak tree you planted in the front yard intending it to outlast you and your children got a disease and died before you did? And what if the blog/book you’ve poured so much of yourself into reads like the contradictory ravings of a confused soul?

Of what value is a life lived in obscurity? How is the world still made better by those who cannot reproduce, plant, or create lasting art? Stephen Hawking is a magnificent example of one who–through technology–overcame debilitating and terminal physical limitations to contribute to our understanding of the cosmos. But how many Hawking minds lay trapped without access to such technology? What is their legacy? I suspect loving and being loved is always enough.

It seems that any intentional way of life and death must be large enough to transcend and include such failures. After all, the spiritual journey of death is the great letting go of everything. Including, sometimes, legacy.

Love One Person

Poetry

“The Veil”

by: Mary Oliver

There are moments when the veil seems
almost to lift, and we understand what
the earth is meant to mean to us — the
trees in their docility, the hills in
their patience, the flowers and the
vines in their wild, sweet vitality.
Then the Word is within us, and the
Book is put away.

Love One Person

Do the Next Human Thing

I am writing this article in an attempt to get at a phenomenon I encountered over and over again in my nearly thirteen years as a Lutheran parish pastor. Retrospectively, I realize I have encountered this phenomenon throughout both my upbringing and adult life as a Christian, finding myself on different sides of it at different times and in various situations. The gradual solidifying of my own human response to this phenomenon has been a significant impulse over the past decade in my journey out of the religion of Christianity and into the universal, human-centered Spiritual Naturalism I have come to embrace.

What is the phenomenon? Let me try and articulate it: “I don’t have to behave humanely toward you—or treat you with the dignity due a fellow human being—because there is something disqualifying about you in relation to my understanding of reality.” Stated more simply, “Allegiance to my ideology is more important than you are in all your uniqueness.” 

In the history of religion, this perspective has been called “taking a god’s eye view” (i.e., if the deity disapproves of something or someone then its adherents disapprove as well). Sociologists call this phenomenon Othering. Othering arises from human tribal survival instincts. Othering establishes Us vs. Them relationships where people like us are In, and people different than us are Out. Professor Darren J. N. Middleton identifies Them as people “outside the official range of sympathy”—at least according to the Us group.

Another layer of Othering emerges when tension arises within the Us/In group who lays blame for that tension on a particular person or persons within the group (a Them who are here with Us causing problems!). Group survival instincts drive the group to expel Them out from among Us. The historically scriptural term for this version of the Othering phenomenon is called Scapegoating.

What if one’s god commands, or the tenets of one’s religion require that certain people be excluded on the basis of differing beliefs, unacceptable behavior, or discriminated against for any number of other reasons? Or what if, somewhat more charitably, the god/religion requires that others convert and become like Us before they can be included in the In group? 

Adding the divine mandate overlaying the Othering/Scapegoating phenomenon can result in a literal death sentence. Consider the tribal motivations behind stoning, stake-burning, exiling, witch-hunting, Crusade-fighting, and even proselytism. Cloaking those motivations with a divine commandment and a compulsion for religious institutional survival, results in people dying. People have killed and people have died. This is not okay even when supposedly commanded by a god.

Unfortunately, however satisfying getting rid of the identified scapegoat may feel at the moment, it is never a long-term remedy for a group’s dysfunction. (Incidentally, the Scapegoating phenomenon has been at play in the rhetoric surrounding the congressional impeachment of the 45th President, and the subsequent trial in the U.S. Senate.)

In Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel, Silence (marvellously represented by Martin Scorsese in his 2016 film of the same title), Portugese Jesuit priests secretly enter Japan attempting to bring the Catholic Church’s sacramental ministry to the Kakure Kirishitan, the Hidden Christians of Japan’s Edo period in the early 17th century.

Filled with religious idealism and missionary zeal, Father Sebastian Rodrigues and his companion are also trying to find another priest, Father Ferriera who is rumored to have apostatized from the faith and to be living as a Japanese. 

As the story progresses, Father Rodrigues (endowed with a robust messiah complex) is betrayed by an important character named Kichijiro who embodies both Judas (from the Gospels) and Gollum (The Lord of the Rings). While in prison, Rodrigues is repeatedly questioned by the Samurai governor of the region. Curiously, the official Japanese agenda presented in Endo’s story is one of nationalistic Othering that is bent on Scapegoating the Christian religion and its adherents out of Japan. The personal impact of the various forces brought to bear on Father Rodrigues is what makes the story so compelling.

The dilemma to which Father Rodrigues is brought by the governor, and by the now-apostatized Ferreira is this: Japanese Christians will continue to be tortured and killed unless you, as a priest, apostatize by stepping on an image of Jesus. Do that, and the torture of these people will stop—they will be set free. Rodrigues’ frustration is compounded in the realization that his fervent prayers on behalf of the suffering Japanese Christians are met not with divine intervention, but rather with silence. Henry van Dyke, in his timeless classic The Story of the Other Wise Man, casts such dilemmas in terms of: “the conflict between the expectation of faith and the impulse of love.” 

Potentially infuriating to a devout Christian believer, Rodrigues’ dilemma takes on a beautiful hue when viewed from the perspective of a Zen Koan. The priest is presented with a double bind calling forth a spontaneous response. He is “damned if he do, and damned if he don’t.” 

How can an act of betrayal also be an act of faith? Is faithfulness found in clinging to stories, ideas, and even the content of faith within oneself, or is it found in taking whatever action lies within one’s power to alleviate the suffering of other living beings? Can one renounce Christianity and still follow Jesus? Is it worth losing one’s religion if it means helping others? These are the questions with which Endo invites our engagement in Silence. Like a skillful Zen Master, he does not give us any answers.

The Othering and Scapegoating phenomenon are common to groups of every kind. Othering is behind systemic racism, sexism, ableism, and gender discrimination. Secular Humanists “other” Christian Nationalists and vice versa. Hindus “other” Muslims. Capitalists “other” Socialists. Chevy drivers “other” Ford people. All of us “other” people we don’t like or who make us feel uncomfortable. None of us are immune from this tribal instinct. How can we find a more adaptive way forward together both individually and collectively? 

In 12 Step spirituality there is a practice some people find useful: “Do the next right thing.” My own practice is to try and “Do the next human thing.” Jesus, the Buddha, and one of the Hadith’s in Islam all speak of discovering the divine in the faces of ordinary people. This is the invitation of compassion. The religious impulse finding its ultimate fulfillment in service to humanity. We are all connected, and we are in this together. Our ultimate concerns are met in loving service to one another.

“But what if I don’t like my ‘neighbor’?” The Othering/Scapegoating phenomenon arises out of fear of difference and of the unknown. The antidote to Othering is not a forced sameness, but rather recognition of oneness and honoring its manifestation in diversity. 

I am offering us a practice of embracing. Interiorly, and when possible, literally. To embrace what makes us uncomfortable in others and in ourselves. To bring the unknown in close and just be with it. I have found that it is difficult to keep Othering or Scapegoating a person while I am embracing them. And it is difficult to engage in Othering or Scapegoating the parts of myself I find uncomfortable when I embrace them instead of rejecting them. 

Now, I can hear the objections brewing: “What about Hitler and axe murderers? Isn’t Othering/Scapegoating okay in relation to ‘bad’ people like that?” Compassion invites us to embrace all living beings, even people considered “outside the official range of sympathy.” For many religious people that group also includes those of weak faith, apostates, and non-believers.

We embrace the other with compassion and with boundaries. Social Worker and researcher, Brené Brown has said that the most compassionate people in the world are able to be so because they have ironclad boundaries. Compassion and boundaries go together like fronts go with backs. It is also true—axiomatic even—that love changes people. Compassion invites us to trust that and to act accordingly. 

The invitation to embrace the other is not only extended to us in group contexts; it is also an invitation toward personal integration. From beginning to end in Silence, Endo gives us a window into Father Rodrigues interior journey. In one encounter, Rodrigues is confronted with how he is clinging to his illusions and calling it faith. To what illusions am I clinging? What about myself am I Othering? What parts of my own shadow side have I Scapegoated into exile? What we Other/Scapegoat outside of us is a clue to what we are Othering/Scapegoating about ourselves. Some have suggested that the silence referred to in Endo’s title includes Rodrigues’ struggle to silence his own ego.

I used to say, “Jesus is proof that God is more human than most humans are.” Now I say, “Whatever we call our gods are as human or inhuman as we are.” It is not okay to blame a god, religion, ideology, or whatever group we belong to with our instinctive tendency toward Othering/Scapegoating. We are each responsible for how we treat each other, and for how we treat ourselves. 

Compassion is the guiding light on the path away from Othering/Scapegoating and toward the loving embrace of ourselves, each other, and even our enemies. In the practice of embrace, we keep on asking, “What is the next human thing?” And even if it means letting go of gods and religions; egos and illusions; ideologies and the stories we tell in our heads, keep on trying to do the next human thing.

Love One Person

Poetry

TERNS

Don’t think just now of the trudging forward of thought,
but of the wing-drive of unquestioning affirmation.

It’s summer, you never saw such a blue sky,
and here they are, those white birds with quick wings,

sweeping over the waves,
chattering and plunging,

their thin beaks snapping, their hard eyes
happy as little nails.

The years to come—this is a promise—
will grant you ample time

to try the difficult steps in the empire of thought
where you seek for the shining proofs you think you must have.

But nothing you ever understand will be sweeter, or more binding,
than this deepest affinity between your eyes an the world.

The flock thickens
over the roiling, salt brightness. Listen,

maybe such devotion, in which one holds the world
in the clasp of attention, isn’t the perfect prayer,

but it must be close, for the sorrow, whose name is doubt,
is thus subdued, and not through the weaponry of reason,

but of pure submission. Tell me, what else
could beauty be for? And now the tide

is at its very crown,
the white birds sprinkle down,

gathering up the loose silver, rising
as if weightless. It isn’t instruction, or a parable.

It isn’t for any vanity or ambition
except for the one allowed, to stay alive.

It’s only a nimble frolic
over the waves. And you find, for hours,

you cannot even remember the questions
that weigh so in your mind.

— Mary Oliver (1935-2019)

Love One Person

Poetry

OXYGEN
Everything needs it: bone, muscles, and even,
while it calls the earth its home, the soul.
So the merciful, noisy machine

stands in our house working away in its
lung-like voice. I hear it as I kneel
before the fire, stirring with a

stick of iron, letting the logs
lie more loosely. You, in the upstairs room,
are in your usual position, leaning on your

right shoulder which aches
all day. You are breathing
patiently; it is a

beautiful sound. It is
your life, which is so close
to my own that I would not know

where to drop the knife of
separation. And what does this have to do
with love, except

everything? Now the fire rises
and offers a dozen, singing, deep-red
roses of flame. Then it settles

to quietude, or maybe gratitude, as it feeds
as we all do, as we must, upon the invisible gift:
our purest, sweet necessity: the air.

— Mary Oliver (1935-2019)

Love One Person

A Thanksgiving Blessing

One Heart Grace
As we make ready to eat this food
we remember with gratitude
the many people, tools, animals, and plants,
air and water, sky and earth,
turned in the wheel of living and dying,
whose joyful exertion
provide our sustenance this day.
May we with the blessing of this food
join our hearts
to the one heart of the world
in awareness and love,
and may we together with everyone
realize the path of awakening,
and never stop making effort,
for the benefit of others.

by Zoketsu Norman Fischer as shared by Frank Ostaseski in the Metta Institute greeting for Thanksgiving 2020.

Love One Person