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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Children's Chapel:  10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

Is This All There Is?

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, January 27, 2002

 

The singer Peggy Lee (or, Miss Peggy Lee, as she always liked to be called) died recently, as most of you, no doubt, already know. Now, I will admit to not being a really big Peggy Lee fan (nothing against her, or her music; she just didn’t make it onto my “top 10” list of performers; it must be a generational thing). I will even admit to being somewhat surprised to read in the paper of her death, because, you see, I thought that she had already died, years ago. Guess I was wrong…

But there was one Peggy Lee song that did make its indelible mark on me. (You know, those kinds of incidents that just keep coming back to you; something you’ve read or something you’ve heard that will just “pop up” in your mind, out of nowhere, from time to time, who knows from where…) One of Peggy Lee’s songs did that for me, and it was called “Is That All There Is?”. Some of you may remember it. It starts with Peggy sort of speaking the words. I won’t do it justice, I know, but here goes:

I remember when I was a very little girl, our house caught on fire.
I’ll never forget the look on my father’s face as he gathered me up
In his arms and raced through the burning building out to the pavement.
I stood there shivering in my pajamas and watched the whole world going up in flames.
And when it was all over I said to myself, “Is that all there is to a fire?”

Then Miss Lee would sing the chorus:

Is that all there is, is that all there is?
If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing.
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball,
If that’s all there is.

Peggy then describes a circus—and falling in love—in the same blasé, somewhat disappointed terms: “Is that all there is?” she asks, over and over again. Like: we somehow thought there’d be something more to it than that…

That’s the kind of “final disappointment” we might feel toward life, if we have no sense of “something more”, no sense of there being something beyond this earthly realm. As one of our co-religionists described it:

“As a UU, what do I do with the feeling of futility that comes from not believing in a life after death? I am from time to time disillusioned at the prospect of working 8 to 5, Monday through Friday, and then you die. I have tried imagining my energy being absorbed into the universe at death, and that is the closest thing to comfort I can find. This still leaves me feeling like ‘Is this it?’ If I don’t think about and just go about my daily life trying to live in the ‘now’ it isn’t so bad, but it still haunts me that everything I do, that makes up my daily life and years, is really all for nothing… What kind of world is that?”

It somehow doesn’t seem fair, does it?

According to Mr. Gallup, most Americans would answer our question this morning—“Is this life all there is?”—with a resounding “No!”.

No, they’d say, there is something more: According to a study conducted some years ago, 71% of Americans thought that there was some form of life after death. Most of these believed that when they died, they would be in the presence of God or Jesus, but less than half assumed they would see their spouses, parents, or other loved ones. About a third thought they would grow spiritually in heaven, but only about 18% of those polled thought they would grow intellectually (most had had enough schooling in this life, I guess). Only 5% thought that eternity would be boring, in spite of the fact that only about one-fifth (about 19% actually) thought they would have any kind of responsibilities up in heaven after they died (all play and no work, I guess; heaven as a sort of “celestial Disneyland”). (The same poll tells us that 53% of Americans believe in the existence of a Hell; although, as I’ve said before, only about 8% think that they’re going there.) Interestingly, too, 23% of Americans polled said they believe in reincarnation, and 24% say that it’s possible to have continuing contact with the dead.

Now, we in this church probably cover a pretty wide waterfront when it comes to our own personal perspectives on life after death. But my guess is that most of us would fall into two more-or-less distinct, but ever-fluctuating and interrelated camps: “Who knows?” (on one hand) and “Who cares?”(on the other).

The focus of our faith, frankly, is not on what happens to our individual selves after we die. Our focus is not on life after death or immortality or the resurrection or past or future lives, or any variations on this theme that so occupy the time of other religious groups. Our focus is on this life, (more or less) period. The rest is commentary; or, more accurately, the rest is simply speculation, we say. John Lennon’s song “Imagine”—

Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try.
No hell below us, above us only sky—

could very well be a hymn in our hymnbook (and it might have been, except, perhaps, the cost of royalties was too high).

In our religious outlook, we concentrate on this life, which makes us rather unusual as far as religions are concerned, and means that, sometimes, people of other religious groups don’t know quite what to make of us. I was reading recently a sermon by a Presbyterian minister in Texas about this topic of life after death. He was speaking about the reaction his mother had to a funeral of a friend of hers, which had taken place at a local Unitarian church. The pastor asked his mother, “So, Mom, what kind of hope did they hold out [at the Unitarian church]?” And she replied, “All they could say was that [Martha] continues to live on in the trees and flowers and in our memories. Why, there was no hope at all!”

It’s always interesting and informative to see ourselves as others see us. On the one hand, one wants to say that these people just don’t get it, do they? To live on in the trees and flowers and memories of those we love—what greater hope is there than that?

But, if we’re honest, it can be kind of humbling, too. Because, at times, such an answer to our question— Is this all there is?— just is not enough. We’re like Peggy Lee, back at the fire, or the circus, there. We were kind of hoping there might be something more to all of this than Macbeth’s lament:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

There is, deep inside of us, a “tooth that nibbles at the soul”, as Emily Dickinson put it. There’s a deep hunger, a deep longing that:

Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact.
Maybe everything that dies some day comes back

Even as we affirm this life, we yearn for that sense of something more. Thomas Wolfe wrote:

Something has spoken to me in the night,
Burning the tapers of the waning year,
Something has spoken in the night,
And told me I shall die, I know not where.
Saying:
     ‘To lose earth you know for greater knowing,
     To lose the life you have for greater life,
     To leave the friends you loved, for greater loving,
     To find a land more kind than home, more large than earth—
          Whereon the pillars of the earth are founded,
          Toward which the conscience of the world is tending—
          A wind is rising, and the rivers flow.”

My colleague Judy Meyer tells about being asked to visit a dying man, whom she didn’t know. He wasn’t a member of her church; he wasn’t even a Unitarian Universalist; but some of his friends remembered that he had visited on occasion a Unitarian church when he had lived in New York City, so she seemed the right person to call at a time like this. She writes:

“…I was invited to sit in a room with a stranger. I knew little about him… We talked about some of his unfinished life work, and the status of his relationships. And then we sat together for the longest time. A few more halting attempts to open up possible areas of concern led us to talk about what happens to us when we die.

“We Unitarian Universalists don’t talk about such things much, and when we do, we don’t agree. But I wasn’t there to give him a survey of UU attitudes toward life after death… All I had to offer him were my own tentative thoughts, the only ones I could speak with any authenticity. 

“I said to him, ‘Well, I’ve always thought, ever since I was a young child, that there is some part of us that belongs to God. And I think that part of us existed before we were born and goes on after we die. And I imagine that when we die, we don’t go on consciously as the person we were in life--… I imagine that something does survive, and that we follow it, or become it, and it takes us home.

Then Judy Meyer asks:

“Can any one of us be in the presence of death and not reach for the greater knowing, the greater life, the greater loving, that some part of us insists is real and will sustain us, come what may? I can’t.” 

A wind is rising, and the rivers flow…

It has been said that “Life is the valley between the sunlit peaks of two eternities.” And the poet Mary Oliver wrote:

To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it;
And, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.

And letting go is the hardest.

“We’re always saying farewell in this world of ours,” said Adlai Stevenson on the death of Eleanor Roosevelt. “We are always standing at the edge of a loss attempting to retrieve some memory, some human meaning, from the silence-- something that was precious and is now gone.”

It’s always harder to be the one left behind on the platform, waving good-bye, then to be the one going off on a journey, an adventure.

So, as though to protect ourselves and give us succor and comfort, we have, from time immemorial, woven the most lovely myths and legends and explanations to describe what’s there on the other side of sleep’s dark and silent gate—the other side of the veil:

To the Plains people, at death, people rise up into the sky and become clouds. As their last gift of love, they send down the life-sustaining rain. What a beautiful myth. What a beautiful metaphor… to see one’s lost loved one in the rain…

“All life is one, even as the river and the sea are one,” wrote Kahlil Gibran.

“Immortality is a word which love has whispered to us throughout the ages,” wrote Robert Ingersoll.

And Suzelle Lynch has written:

“When I served as a hospital chaplain, I knew an elderly man, a very sick man, who told his daughters of a dream he’d had one night as he lay in his hospital bed. He dreamed of a serene blue lake, ringed with trees and lush grasses. As he stood on the shore of this lake, he saw his wife- who had died some years before—standing on the farther side calling to him wordlessly and beckoning to him. The next morning when he awoke, he said it was the most beautiful dream he’d ever had. And he died the following day.”

What a precious gift that dream was! The picture he received of the wife he loved so much, waiting for him. The picture he gave his daughters of the both of them united in peace and beauty for all time… Such a gift of grace, a gift of God…

Does it matter, then, whether there really are-- or aren’t-- crystal blue lakes in heaven? That the dead do not, physically, laugh and wave and smile and talk the way we do, here on earth?

That we have known such blessed souls along the way of our sojourns in this life is miracle enough. It is the greatest miracle, the greatest gift, of all.

As Forest Church writes:

“I don’t have the faintest idea what will happen when we die. None of us knows for sure. But if someone were to ask you before you emerged from your mother’s womb if there was life after birth, how would you have replied? Would you have mentioned birds and rivers, the sun and moon, children, faith, and hope? Would you have foreseen love and grief, guilt and fear, humility, compassion, shared joy and shared pain? Life is far more amazing than we could ever have predicted… So, who is to say what will follow? All I know is this. Before death we are witnesses to at least one miracle, the miracle of life.”

I can believe there is a heaven;
I have seen it here; sung its tune;
felt it in my bones, and in my love.
Even here, amidst the toil and the tears,
the missed opportunities and disappointed hopes,
I have known the kiss of angels
and the strains of celestial harmony.

So, if this is all that there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing—dancing together in that great, mad, loving, confused, glorious, tragic, joyful swirl of life. Let’s keep dancing, and keep drinking deeply the cup of life, the cup of hope, the cup of love.

 


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