The Dance of the Hours

Ministering at the time of death is never, of course, a routine,
simple task. There are those deaths that are called "good
deaths." The "good death" comes at the end of a long
and productive life, comes as an anticipated visitor, comes quietly,
bringing peace and release. In such situations, the minister is truly,
in liturgical terms, a Celebrant – one who leads us in singing praises
for the life lived well and to the fullest. But when the life of
someone young and vibrant ends, perhaps the life of a child, the task
of ministering is heavy, onerous, burdened with issues that transcend
mere dying.

Following the death of children and young people, struggling to find
words in a wordless emptiness, bracing myself to confront in others
the stunning grief that invariably opens some misery in my own soul, I
know that, in these events, in each event, I am struggling to
minister, not only to others, but to myself. I am struggling to
defend, maintain, perhaps recreate, my own faith.

There are those who say that Unitarian Universalist faith – the
theology of liberal religion – fails us utterly at the time of tragic
death. One of the functions of religion, after all, has always been to
explain, to respond to the question "Why?" Most people have
grown up with a concept of a God who is "in charge," who
created and maintained the universe, who moves every event from the
fall of a sparrow to the exploding of a planet. The ground of this
ages-old and enduring theology is that there is a Plan, a Divine
Purpose, and that every event is part of that Divine Plan and Purpose.
Throughout human history, millions have been comforted by that concept
of Divine, Ultimate, Plan and Purpose, the cycle of death and
reincarnation; the promise of heaven and resurrection; the faith that
each personal tragedy is part of some hidden Greater Good.

For the most part, liberal theology rejects that supernaturally
grounded view of Divine Purpose and Plan. It tends, rather, to elevate
Nature to divine proportions and to assume that, like the ancient God,
whatever Nature does needs no justification. Basically, our liberal
religious view is that, in terms of the nature of the universe, things
are as they should be, or things simply are as they are. The human
task, then, is to discover and celebrate the wonder and the beauty of
Life Itself and creatively adapt to its gifts and its harsh realities.

For most of us most of the time, that's a faith, a way of viewing
existence, that works for us reasonably well. We keep the works and
wonders of nature separate from God and accept the vicissitudes of
"fate" or circumstance without looking for hidden meanings
and divine plans. Faith, of course, remains faith – a perspective, a
point of view. Faith is a proposition, not a fact. Any faith is easily
held, therefore, for as long as its explanations are satisfactory, for
as long as it supports our personal intentions, under girds
conveniently our theories and biases, and doesn't toss the ark we
have built for ourselves. The faith is tested when the bottom falls
out of all of that; when the young woman, wife and mother, terminally
ill, asks, "Why me?" A twenty-year old is killed in a
fleeting moment of history, and those shivering around the scene ask,
"Why her?" Then the nerve – the nerve to be without God,
which is the ground of humanist faith – begins to waver, threatens to
fail. Then I find myself wandering in a metaphysical fog, calling out,
and looking for old answers long since lost to me. The stricken and
torn soul cries, "Why?" and, really, the only response I
have for some time now is a brushed-off, prettified "Why
not?"

It is little wonder that some are convinced that the liberal faith is
inadequate to respond to the tragic in human existence. Confronted
with the tragic, the senseless, the meaningless, there is the
temptation – more than temptation there is the longing – to kneel
before some dim candlelit altar to beg forgiveness for making an idol
of Reason and plead there for the restoration of belief. I have no
argument against those who turn and follow that longing. And if I did,
I would not be so cruel as to utter it in their presence.

At the time in my ministry of one child's death, I happened to be
reading a book by Peter Devries I had discovered on a discount book
table. What I usually see on discount tables are books about urban
renewal in central Uzbekistan. But this was a book by one of my
favorite authors at the time, in hardcover, and for two dollars. It
was titled, "The Blood of the Lamb." The blurb on the book
jacket said that the theme of the book is religion and human meaning.
Show me the perennial sermon writer who could have passed that up.

The main character of Devries' book has his faith shattered as a
child by the death of his older brother, who he idolized. As a young
man, shorn of faith, sophisticated in reason, he writes a kind of
humanist manifesto: "We live this life," he wrote,

by a kind of conspiracy of grace: the common assumption, or
pretense, that human existence is "good" or
"Matters" or has meaning, a glaze of charm or humor by
which we conceal from one another and perhaps even from ourselves
the suspicion that it does not, and our conviction in times of
trouble that [human existence] is overpriced – something to be
endured rather than enjoyed.

"A conspiracy of grace…" It's an intriguing phrase.
The traditional theology of grace is that it is a gift of God, a
revelation of truth, meaning, and purpose – salvation – given to us
unearned by us, even undeserved by us. Devries suggests something
wholly other – a human conspiracy, a collusion by which we support
each other in the conviction that life has meaning, when we suspect
that it does not. It is, perhaps, a variation on the old story of the
king's new suit of clothes. Nothing there but unadorned
unattractive reality. What you see is what you get. But we dare not
have it that way. "Mankind," T.S. Eliot wrote, "cannot
bear too much reality." And so we ooh and ah together over the
fine raiment of Meaning we agree we discern in it all.

What happens when the tragic occurs is that the conspiracy is
momentarily broken. Someone shouts, wails, that there is nothing
there. A void. Nakedness. Life and the end of it. Warts and all. The
tragic event threatens to bring about a crisis of faith, a shattering
of the conviction that life has meaning. God might, after all, let us
fall.

The crisis of faith can also be brought about by a slower, more
rational, less emotionally laden process. I went to a liberal
theological school as a young man filled with the traditional faith in
a creator-sustainer God who is "in charge" of the universe.
Gradually, as I listened, talked, and studied, that faith wavered,
crumbled, and eventually collapsed. There's nothing like a good
seminary to ruin your religion. One evening, greatly troubled, I went
to the room of a young visiting professor, sat on the floor with him
(not inhaling, I swear) talking of cabbages and kings and, finally,
blurting out that I no longer believed in God.

I assumed, I guess, that he would be caring and supportive, and
sensibly suggest that I go into some other line of work. But, no.
Instead, he said, "You've lost your faith? Good! Now you can
become a theologian!" I learned that good theology begins, not
with conviction, but with doubt – that the process of thinking through
what life is all about, begins with the suspicion that it isn't
about anything. When the crisis of faith occurs through the tragic
event or through the slower process of rational doubt, we have a few
options. Recognizing that the truth in the matter of ultimate meaning
is logically unknowable, we can take the position that life, the
universe and everything probably has meaning or probably does not.

Which of these probabilities we choose to live by will depend somewhat
on whether we are the kind of person who speaks of the half-empty
glass or the kind of person who speaks of the half-full glass. There
are problems with either of these options. If we choose to live by the
probability that life has meaning, we are still going to be confronted
with the tragic, with those events which suggest to us that, if there
is meaning, it's a "bad" meaning. And the problem with
the assumption that life probably does not have meaning is that we
must then find some reason to carry on in a meaningless universe.

There is another possible response in the crisis of faith and it comes
out of the consideration that, in all of this, we may have been asking
the wrong question. Dealing with a tragic loss, for example, we can
ask, not "What does this mean in the great scheme of
things?" But, "What does this mean in my own life?"

The British psychologist, Peter Marris, in his work on grieving,
suggests, in fact, that grief is far more than an emotional response.
It is a task. Grieving, Marris says, is the work of rebuilding meaning
for one's personal existence in the absence of someone or
something that has given significant meaning to our existence. Marris
points out that the people we love form part of the structure of
meaning in our lives. He uses the image of a stone arch to represent
that structure of meaning which supports our lives. When we lose
someone (or lose something, like a job, or our health) one of the
critical stones in that arch of meaning is taken out. The arch, the
meaning, collapses.

The grieving task, then, is to rebuild a new structure of meaning
using what remains and is of value from the lost relationship and
adding new material to the building. No time or energy is spent in
this process on what the loss means ultimately, cosmically, why it
happened to me, or to her, or to them. Those who are stuck in those
issues will grieve far longer than those who are soon able to start
rebuilding the meaning of their own lives.

In Devries' novel, the man who wrote that manifesto of doubt is
now confronted with the inevitable and imminent death of his own
child. He enters a church and prays. His prayer, however, is not for
an answer to the question of the ultimate or cosmic meaning of
suffering. It is a prayer of conviction that meaning lies all about
him in every moment.

"I do not ask that she be spared to me but that her life be
spared to her – or give us a year. We will spend it as we have the
last, missing nothing. We will mark the dance of every hour between
the snowdrop and the snow: crocus to tulip to violet to iris to
rose. We will note not only the azalea's crimson flowers but
the red halo that encircles for awhile the azalea's root when
her petals are shed, also the white halo that rings for a week the
foot of the old catalpa tree. When winter comes, we will let no
snow fall ignored. We will again watch the first blizzard from her
window like figures locked snug in a glass paperweight. "Pick
one out and follow it to the ground" she will say again.

After conducting my first Memorial Service for a child in my previous
congregation, I found myself for several days just looking at my
daughter in sheer wonder. Just looking. Absorbing. Admiring. Noticing.
Her eyes. Her face. Shadows passing over her. Moments of delight
surging from within her. Digging a hole in the snow for the sheer joy
of it. Life, the universe, and everything. The dance of every hour. We
miss most of the dance. Come too late. Leave too early.

The question of ultimate meaning or the absence of it, the mystery of
God's intent, is not, after all, anything that nags our waking
hours or disturbs our sleep. Most of us have to be hit in the head –
or in the heart – for the question to come up at all. I suspect that
most of us, after the wondering years of our childhood, spend the rest
of our lives quietly, unconsciously, emptying our lives of profound
meaning until, eventually, when the blow comes, there is little or
nothing there with which to meet it. Then it is that we ask why and
what it's all about and what in God's name could God be
thinking of.

We often bring things we consider to be of beauty into our homes
where, in time, they become part of a context, a gestalt. The objects
melt into the whole, lose their distinctiveness, and lose the beauty
and the meaning of their particularity. In time, we may do the same
with people. So I spent some time this past week staring at
photographs, gazing at my children at various precarious ages, staring
as if they had suddenly arrived, as if I'd never seen them before,
recovering the particular meaning in my life of a separate and special
person. I also spent some time with particular things. Standing before
a painting, receiving it again in itself, as if it were suspended in
emptiness with nothing to detract from its own being. I picked up a
few objects, studied them, felt their weight, the roughness and
smoothness, and recovered where they came from, recovered what they
meant to me. Re-sanctified the commonplace.

In doing these things, in paying attention, recovering the meaning in
the personal experience, I realized that a discipline is required. We
pay attention when something happens. Familiarity breeds, if not
contempt, then at least a kind of benign disregard. After the loss
comes the "if only." And so I have been paying attention to
the people, the things, and the events – like snowfalls, winter-light,
bird feather – that make up the meaning of my personal existence.

But I know that, unless I determine to exercise what some call a
"spiritual discipline," I will soon forget to notice, to
mark the "dance of the hours." The particular will fade into
the whole again, the painting becomes part of a wall, and the people
will become objectified, to be dealt with, get by with, and get along
with.

The theological/spiritual quest, on the grandest level, may be a quest
for the ultimate meaning of it all, to discover the place and meaning
of the particular in the grand design. I do not surrender to that
quest or to such quests as that. The question of ultimate meaning has,
for me, lost all sense of urgency. I have come to believe that the
theological/spiritual quest must take place on another level, the
level of the immediate and the personal in the intricate dance of the
few fleeting hours, in the wonder of that person, in the unique beauty
of that snowflake, followed to the ground; in the worship of the
commonplace by which the common place reveals holiness. I have lost
all interest in immortality. Why would I want to join my ancestors –
those drunken Vikings and hairy Saxons? And why would I want to be a
spirit – never touching, being touched; an eternal, ineffective
bystander. It is not immortality we want, really; certainly not
heaven. What we want is to never leave our lives. That ought to give
us a clue about where the ultimate meaning of it all lies.