[please note that sermons are primarily spoken works rather than written ones--what preaches well may not be read well. Forgive any grammatical or spelling errors--life is rather busy these days.]
You're either a poet
Or you're a lover
Or you're the famous
You take one road,
You try one door,
There isn't time for any more.
One's life consists of either/or.
So goes the opening stanza of “The Road You Didn’t Take” from the Sondheim musical, “Follies.” I’ve never seen it performed, had never even heard of it until a cover version jumped out at me from a Mandy Patinkin album. And I mean jumped out. The song spoke to something I had been struggling with.
I’m at an age, I guess middle-age, where I’m gradually watching the rapidly flowing hopes and intentions of the first half of my life slowly solidifying into firmer, clearer, less malleable patterns. I say this with a little sadness, but not much. I am lucky enough to be aware, most of the time, that whatever I've lost, the broad potential of who I might have been, has been replaced by a fullness of actual existence that is certainly not perfect, but satisfying.
And yet, I can’t help but feel some sense of loss as my life takes a more settled form. Although being a hospital chaplain rapidly destroys any sense of complacency about life's predictability, still, I have been experiencing an awareness of how some doors, once walked through, can't be opened again and the place you find yourself in on the other side becomes your whole world, never really having seen the one-way sign. Put more simply, roughly halfway through life’s journey, I’m increasingly aware of how my choices have shaped my life far more than any external force. Those choices have created the man I am: strengths, talents, failings and foibles. Whatever nature may have given me, I have nurtured through choice and habit into the shape I see in the mirror. 2300 years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle himself observed “we are what we repeatedly do; excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.” Our life is defined not only by the major turning points but also, perhaps even more so, by the tiny, gentle, near infinite swipes of daily action that over time wear away the indeterminate forms of childhood into the more fixed images of maturity.
This was one of the paradoxes of life that the Buddha pointed out 25 centuries ago. I am both the same person I was when I was 5, 15, 25, and 40 and yet completely different than I was at those ages. My mind is different, my body different. Tremendous changes and yet I am me. The Buddha used this little thought experiment to illustrate how little coherence the idea of a permanent self possessed. For me it just emphasizes the role of choice. One Nathan might have gone to medical school as he had intended when he was 19. A very different Nathan might have never spent a year in Japan, might have finished a PhD, might have married Trisha, Leslie, Leea, Cindi, or Jordana. Might not have married, might have joined the FBI, might have moved to Pittsburgh instead of Colorado Springs, might have said no to being a parent, might have said yes to the job offer he got from Penrose two days before Memorial made an offer, might have, might have, might have. Every no is a yes to some other life and vice verse of course. Every yes is a no to another potential path.
And this is true for every one of us here today. A billion small decisions, leading to a million slightly bigger ones, leading to a 100,000 more significant ones, leading to the hundreds of fairly important choices leading to a few dozen truly epic ones---all of which reinforcing the one decision we make each and every moment of every day—to be alive—and to be alive is to make choices.
And this is why my words this morning are hopefully more than just a peek into a fellow congregant’s midlife crisis. I wouldn’t preach about this if I didn’t feel that this was a shared experience. We may have diversity in age, belief, work background, family structure, place of origin, and so on, but regardless of any way we might distinguish ourselves from one another, I think relatively early on we start to get the sense that there is not a reset button for life. The inevitability of choice touches us all. A choice made today leads me on to another choice which leads to another choice and so on. Each particular tree of life that our decisions shape has a unique structure and is only one of thousands if not millions that we might have watered, fed, and pruned over the course of a lifetime. You might feel you’ve wandered off-course, made bad choices, and hopefully, ultimately, found your way back to the intended but no matter then final outcome or destination, the path you took is unique.
You may well still feel off-course, adrift in a sea of confusion. To some extent, many if not most people do. But the story only comes to an end when we come to an end, and no one gets to skip ahead to read the final chapter of their life. For better or worse, we never know what the next hour, day, or year hold. And yet you still have decisions to make. Even in the face of those events that are not choices—random accidents of fate or biology—as long as you have capacity for decision-making, you must make decisions. Whether that choice is to crawl into a closet or take on the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” the question is not ultimately, with all respect to Mr. Shakespeare, “to be or not to be” but rather what choices do you make here and now, how you choose to be in the face of “The heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” as Prince Hamlet observes.
This is the Hindu and Buddhist doctrine of Karma. Like so many other religious ideas, karma gets oversimplified, turning into some cosmic tit for tat—I step on an ant so I get crushed by a falling piano as if life and the universe were only slightly more subtle than a roadrunner cartoon. Karma,at its most basic, tries to remind us that we are ultimately responsible for our own lives. Not that we are in control, for control is a profound illusion. No, not control but responsible, we are the ones who are able to respond to the circumstances in front of us, and the way we respond today creates the choices we face tomorrow and so forward through this lifetime. Few things are truly in our control, but how we choose to respond is. It may seem something of a paradox. I am not in control of my life, and yet I am responsible for it. I believe that single sentence represents an important spiritual truth. To be responsible but not in control points to the fine balance between clutching at circumstances too possessively and being a mere passenger on your life’s journey.
There are, of course, events and conditions that no one consciously chooses. Though this depends on how far you are willing to take the concept of karma and reincarnation. Some would argue that even those circumstances that seem outside of one’s control—being born into profound poverty or illness are choices that some part of you made in a former lifetime. Not punishment, but setting your soul up for a classroom you know you need even as you forget signing up for the course. I don’t know if I believe that. I’m not so sure my childhood friend Doug somehow chose to be hit by a drunk driver or my uncle Jerry chose to contract a deadly lymphoma cancer. To be honest, I’m not sure it matters. Whether this life is set up by a previous one or not, regardless of the profound unfairness or tragedy that you find in front of you, you still make choices about how you will respond. Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and founder of the Logotherapy school of psychology, taught this. One may well not be in control of one’s circumstances, but one is in control of how one reacts to them and ultimately what meaning you then draw from that experience.
But life’s journey, no matter how long, comes to an end—at least in this form. Last week Roger spoke to us about German minister Dietrich Bonhoeffer. American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was an influence on the Bonhoeffer. Let’s take a moment and join together in a responsive reading based on Niebuhr.
"Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own; therefore, we are saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness."
“Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime, therefore, we are saved by hope.” Our choices create ripples that potentially far beyond the boundaries of our own lives. Few of us will lead lives that ensure our memory in history books, but the challenge of time has always meant investing our offspring with the hopeful mandate to carry some part of ourselves into the future with them.
For better or worse, some part of me sees in my Benjamin an hourglass counting down my own days. Nothing in my life to this point has caused me to throw myself so forcefully into the future as the birth of my child. When he is 10, I’ll be 50, when he is graduating from college, I’ll be around 60. If he waits as long as we did to have children, I’ll be 80 before I see a grandchild. Will I make it to all those events? Will I be in good health? Who will I be then? Will Julia be with me? Will Ben? Surely I will not be who I am now, but not someone else either. And so even as I see in Benjamin a reflection of my own mortality, I also see the future as naturally belonging to him in a very real sense. The last line of the song I mentioned before is “the Ben I’ll never be, who remembers him.” For me that echoes both the slow solidification of my life—all the Nathan’s I’ll never be—as well as the beauty and challenge of the unknown future that my child will see, and a powerful reminder of the separateness of his life from mine. He has his own choices to make. I don’t get to live his life.
Later today it will be my honor to participate in installing the Reverend Roger Butts as the minister of this church. I don't want to force a connection from this sermon to the celebration this afternoon, but I do see a natural correspondence between the two. Because, here, in this church, in this faith, we make choices. We are not at the whim of supernatural forces, corrupt by some long ago sin, unable to act on our own. Ours is an empowering faith that believes we can act in our own lives and in the world. Indeed, the current issue of UU World magazine asks us if can make choices to be more inclusive.
And we must make choices, Unitarian Universalism is far too this-worldly to be able to afford adherents who are passive observers. I want echo Rev. Roger’s sermon from last week when I say that our faith must be an active one. In the Internet age, many, if not most of us, are inconsequentially immortal, being consigned to the archives of google and facebook forever. Let that not be your only legacy to the world. Here your decisions matter. Just like individuals, congregations make choices. Who will we be collectively? Will we choose to meet our growth and decide to welcome it even as it calls us to even greater changes. Can we bid good-bye to the churches we might have been and embrace the one we are now and might become? What will our impact be in the lives gathered here? What will our choices mean for the Colorado Springs community? How will we teach our children? For this is the role of RE, to pass on our spiritual genetic material, knowing and accepting the inevitable changes, but hoping to see our reflection looking back at us. I, as do many Unitarian Universalist ministers, believe our religious education programs must not only educate broadly about other traditions and life skills, but increasingly teach children why they should choose to be life-long Unitarian Universalists. We don’t have to be too shy about believing our tradition is right and noble and good. If you thought that someplace else was better, why wouldn’t you be there. I believe this is the best place, best tradition for my family and me. And while I accept his freedom of choice, I want my son to be a Unitarian Universalist. Some choices are better than others. He will hopefully learn to choose good foods and a healthy, sustainable lifestyle over eating and producing primarily garbage; and he will hopefully learn that it is better to be open-minded, tolerant, and engaged—and part of a long tradition of women and men who have lived and died for those ideals.
Because ultimately, we need to be living for something beyond the material, choosing something bigger, broader. For me this is the point of transcendental spirituality. Not to point us to a heavenly realm beyond this one, not to suffuse this plane of existence with invisible angels and demons, but to call us to an existence that transcends the physical by redirecting us to a deeper relationship with ourselves and others—and choices we make.
And that is what I forget when I get caught up in seeing only the end points marked by Ben's rapid growth. I see myself at 60 when he is 20, but what I forget to see is me at his college graduation, I see myself at 80, but I forget to see being at his wedding to some strong, bright woman or man—I forget all the joys and difficulties we will hopefully live through together. The relationship that I will nurture with intention and love over those years. Perhaps this is part of what Niebuhr means, “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope.”
To cast myself too far into the future is to leapfrog the life lived between here and there. And many of us do that to ourselves constantly. I can't wait for next weekend, I can't wait for summer, I can't wait for school to end or start, I can't wait, I can't wait. And we sometimes forget that looking forward can sometimes turn into a looking past this moment, these choices. Worrying about the Nathan or Ben I'll never be, the doors that have closed, the roads not taken, can shut my eyes and stop my ears and close my heart to the Nathan or Kelly, or Joe, or Roger, or Diane we are right now.
It doesn't matter what occasions the crisis—teen-age, middle-age, old-age. The cause is far less important than the spiritual reality that we increase our pain and difficulty when we remove ourselves from ourselves through regret, desire, hate or any emotion based in emotional and spiritual dislocation. If I only had done this...if I only had that, if he, she, it, they would only go away, change, or die. Regret turns us to the doors that are closed, the decisions over and done with and robs us of the true power we have, to choose how we meet our circumstance here and now.
In recent years, I've become increasingly impatient with abstract theologies and philosophies. Which, if you've known me long enough, is an astounding change. Ten years ago I was at Boston University working on a doctorate in Philosophy of Religion. All I wanted to study was abstracts, I had even written a master's thesis on philosophy of mysticism that was incomprehensible enough to be considered pretty good. But I think my preference then for abstracts primarily served to insulate me from realities and choices that were harder to deal with. Now I want all spirituality to accord with the old African proverb, “when you pray, move your feet.” Your life, your faith, your church, your city and country are made up of actual choices. I don't care how many angels can dance on the head of a pin—doing the jitterbug or dancing cheek to cheek notwithstanding—all I want to know is how they chose to dance.
I hope this day and all your days to come you make healthy, compassionate, and brave choices for your church and your world, for those you love and who will have their own futures, and most of all, I hope you make bright and beautiful choices for yourself.