Sunday, March 17, 2019 Journey into Living & Dying Rev. Sara Hayman

I didn’t know what this month would hold

when I dreamt up the title and focus for today’s

worship service, “Journey Into Living and Dying.”

 

At the time, I didn’t know that the beautiful and struggling

15-year-old grandson of a member of our church

would die suddenly thirteen days ago, or that we,

as a community, would be invited to help hold space

for his family as they grieved such a senseless tragedy

while trying, too, to be brave and strong

and celebrate his life.

 

Hundreds of people came through this sanctuary Friday night

for public visiting hours. Dozens of teenagers among them who

otherwise might not have had a time or place to gather together

and remember their friend, or to be there for each other, or his family.

Some of you, I know, came to show your loving care for

this family that night, and several of you helped to make that

gathering possible at all—

you arranged flowers and volunteered with planning

and hosting the reception; a few of you were parking attendants

in the rain and damp and fog. Others greeted people at the door

and welcomed them into our building.

 

A handful of you showed up to help with cleaning up,

and some of you did it all over again the very next day

when a private memorial service and reception was held

here for that family. I love how so many people in our

church community make our commitment—

our mission—to be a “loving community” so real…

 

I didn’t know death would come so quickly,

or hit so close to home, in that devastating,

“take-your-breath-away” kind of way for people

we know and love, and today, this moment

with you, as we worship together, I remember

again that this is how life sometimes happens—

maybe too often happens: death can and does

come suddenly. It’s humbling, and startling,

and disorienting when it happens.

(I hold this awareness tenderly.)

 

Knowing that death can and does sometimes come suddenly,

and we’re better off living our lives, when and where we choose

more intentionally to be thankful, as the song we sang earlier

suggests, “thankful for this day, Spirit, thank you for this day.”

 

                                                      ******

Again, I didn’t know, as none of us knew, that just three days ago,

on the other side of the world, fifty people who were practicing

their Muslim faith at Friday prayers in two mosques in Christchurch,

New Zealand would be die—their lives ended, and at least

the same number of people seriously injured, too;

all of their lives forever changed. The whole terrifying event,

we know now was a deliberate and skillfully executed act

of violence fueled by a person (or people) poisoned

by hate and fear, zenophobia and Islamaphobia, too…

 

When I was thinking about our journey into living and dying,

I hadn’t known that horrific event would happen

because we don’t ever know, yet some part of me,

maybe like some part of you, isn’t as shocked as I once

was about these kinds of horrendous acts of violence,

hateful acts carried out to terrorize particular people,

and heighten fear and further division in us all.

After church today, in the Community Room where

there’s coffee, at least one member from our Peace & Social

Action Committee, PASA, will have his laptop computer on

and open to be able to give anyone who wants to, a chance

to write and send a message or prayer of love and support

to the families and survivors of the shooting. The non-profit group

“Revolutionary Love” is making sure these (and hopefully

thousands of other prayers and messages)

get to these people and families.

 

                                                      ******

I still remember the day, years ago now when I was a Chaplain

Intern doing my required unit of clinical pastoral education at

Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, Maine as part

of my seminary requirements for ministry.

 

That particular hot, blue-sky day in August, I’d traveled from

Lewiston to the Rumford Community Hospital to do my rounds

in that affiliated, small rural hospital. Shortly after I got there,

a nurse told me a patient on their Med. Surg. floor who’d been

doing well the day before had suddenly taken a turn for the worse.

His sister-in-law was in his room with him.

 

Would I please go and see him and sit with her

and do whatever I could to help?

 

After taking a deep breath and collecting my thoughts (and courage),

I went into the room and introduced myself. With permission,

I sat on one side of the bed and she, the patient’s sister-in-law,

sat on the other. Her brother-in-law’s eyes were closed and he

wasn’t responsive or much awake at all anymore.

This man’s sister-in-law wondered out loud with me what was going on?—he’d been fine the day before, and she was only there

to visit because his wife couldn’t make it in that day,

she’d had no idea to expect this…

 

Eventually, we both could tell that things were changing—

his breathing was becoming more halting and labored.

There were longer periods of time between each breath.

I remember holding his hand and noticing it was cooler

to touch than before. Within 20 minutes of having walked

into this room, this patient took his last breath and died.

 

I couldn’t think of much to say or do when it happened.

We both sat in there, in silence together a while.

This man’s sister-in-law shared tears of sadness

about his life being over, and about the heartbreak she

knew his death would cause her sister and his loved ones.

There was a sense of shock for her that that day

was the day the end of life came for him, after all.

 

I hugged her and waited for her to call family, and for

them to arrive. Driving home that late August afternoon,

I remember rolling down my car window and letting

the warmth of the sun in. I remember feeling like every

single thing I looked at outside my windows, the fields and trees

I was driving by, were in sharper focus somehow, more beautiful,

more alive than I’d noticed on any of the other days I drove those

same roads home from that hospital. Looking back, these many years,

on that day and that moment, it’s clear to me that witnessing that

patient’s death made my heart open up, my consciousness sharpen;

I was more acutely aware of the beauty and the sanctity

of life because the reality of death was so real.

That awareness, I’m afraid lessens over time.

                                                      ******

A week or so later, I remember reading this man’s obituary

in the paper, and smiling and laughing out loud when I

came across the sentence the family so thoughtfully

included about me. “Blank’s family wishes to thank,

hospital chaplain, Sara Hogman, for her kindness

and loving presence the day he died.”

 

It’s important (and appropriate) to be humble about these things…

Any one of us is capable of being present,

which is ministering with another, with our

loved ones when the end of life comes or is near.

If we prepare ourselves, the end of life can be a powerful,

life-shaping, life-giving experience; one that can remind us

to see and celebrate the very gift and privilege of being alive.

That heightened awareness of the sanctity and sacredness of life

can, and we hope will, compel and call us to live our lives

out of a more grateful and generous places…

with more caring and a greater felt-sense responsibility

at work in us, for the well-being of all others, and all of life as a whole.

 

                                                      ******

I love that Eileen Brennan, whose living a long life,

is willing to share her wisdom with us. She knows, she

told us this morning, that reflection is the name of the game

in her life at this time. With humility and courage, she dares

to look, as she says, “at the mountains she has not climbed

straight in the face, tempered by a sense of fullness

about the overall living she has carved.”

Eileen Brennan wants to “arrive in time,” as she says it,

to [able to] live open-eyed near the end. Her work now,

like all of our work, “is to pay attention.”

                                            

******

Last Saturday morning, I was invited by Lori Johnson

to lead a workshop organized for hospice volunteers

participating in an Enrichment Day program hosted for

them by Hospice Volunteers of Hancock County. My assignment

that day was to talk about spirituality and end of life care,

how each person who provides hospice care has the chance

to become a more confident and skillful spiritual care provider—

someone whose working at being more present

with another human being;

someone whose committed to practicing deep listening

and intentionally making room in their relationship

and time with another to listen to the life stories

that person would choose to share, as they wrestle

with making sense of what their life means now,

particularly as the reality of their death becomes more and more real…

 

I opened my talk by singing the second of the two songs

our choir sang today…I’ve been singing it to myself,

on and off again since then. It looks like it might be a hard road,

but I’m gonna walk it with you. And I know it might

have a heavy load, but I can carry some, too.

I will lift you up, when they push you down,

raise my voice and stand my ground, well

it looks like it’s might be a hard road,

but I’m gonna walk it with you…”

 

                                                      *****

A few weeks ago, in preparation for last week’s second

NEW TO UU class Amy facilitated about theology—

the how and why of our living and understanding and

relating to god, or the holy, as we define that—

Amy gave us an article to read by the now late Rev.

Forrest Church, a UU minister who served our

All Souls Church in New York City for more than two

decades, and wrote about his experience (and making sense)

of living and dying of cancer, which happened for him in 2008.

In this article, Church makes the claim that “religion

is our “human response” to the dual reality of being alive

and having to die…that because we know we are going to die,

we question what life means.” He goes on to say this: that “If religion

is our response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die,

the purpose of life is to live in such a way that our lives

will prove worthy of dying for.” Awe and humility

are what we are called to cultivate and live out of in

our lives, as the miracles of birth and death are the

sacraments that unite all of us in a shared mystery.”

 

                                                      ******

In others of her poems, and lines of poetry that will always

live with me, Mary Oliver asks us this question and invites

us into this awareness of what life and living calls us to:

Tell me, what do you plan to do with your

one wild and precious life?

 And,

To live in this world, you must be able to do three things:

To love what is mortal, to hold it against your chest knowing

your own life depends on it, and when the time comes,

To let it go, to let it go…

 

May we walk each to the other side,

with love and compassion as our guides.

May we turn toward, rather than turn away

from the sacred and life changing, love transforming

experience of being and feeling alive, while knowing, too,

that we will die. May we be gentle with those who are

grieving significant and still tender losses.

 

Let us be together now, a few moments, in silence,

with awe and humility at work in us as we ponder

all that love calls us to…