Cake or Death.
How many people have heard of Eddie Izzard? I'm a pretty big fan of the British stand-up comic and actor. I want to play a brief bit of one of his skits.
Eddie Izzard on Cake or Death
Cake or Death. It seems a pretty easy choice.
This sermon came to be after I was asked to preach on light in the midst of the dark, to preach about the role of laughter and joy in religion and spirituality.
It seemed a good topic then and seems a pretty good one today. Am I the only one who feels a need to take another look at the Book of Revelation? Health care is a mess, corporations are people when it comes to speech, but not when it comes to torture, Super-pacs have effectively put our democracy on ebay, our food supply chain is designed to make us fat and corporations rich, 97% of scientists believe in evolution compared with only 32% of the general population, some of our political class want to take women's rights back to the beginning of the last century--if not earlier.
Of course, all of the difficulties and dangers of the world are starting to take on a new meaning for me as I move into my third year of fatherhood. I'm having a great time, my almost 3-year-old Benjamin makes me smile and laugh all the time. I've even started having some confidence in my ability to be a parent. Most every day, however, some helpful person reminds me how overwhelming parenting can be or tells me to “just wait” until goes off to school, or starts puberty or goes to college—then we'll see who's having a good time. To which I want to say, thank you. Thank you very much. I had already been worried, now I can really settle into some prime, irrational anxiety. Thanks.
It is in these moments that I need to do three things. First, remember to breathe—greatest advice I've ever received or given—just breathe. Second, remember that I am blessed with community—not just you all, but others as well. We are only truly human and grounded when we in community. I am, as most of you know, a hospital chaplain and the one thing I see over and over again---the grease that eases life's sticky passages is connection—the more you have consciously sought connection, the easier life will generally be even in the face of tragedy. Third, I need to remember the healing power, the profound sacredness, of laughter.
For this morning let us think together on three elements of holy laughter—choice, community, and consciousness. All three are profoundly spiritual and important in our identity as Unitarian Universalists. And I do feel a need to connect this with spirituality and Unitarian Universalism. Making folks laugh is a noble enough goal, but I'm not sure its enough for worship. These sacred hours we spend together, when we share together our wisdom, our faith, our fears and our love. For them to mean something we have to, more often than not, touch on that which is beyond the mundane, to make a conscious choice to aim toward the sacred.
But we can still, indeed must still, laugh as we do this. Losing our ability to laugh at ourselves, is the first step toward forgetting that all religions are merely windows through which the light of the Divine pours through. Too much seriousness is like an accumulating layer of dirt on these windows—before you know it, the light gets blocked and you spend your days trying to decipher mystic patterns and perceiving apocalyptic visions in the patterns in the grime. Laughter cleanses our eyes, our souls, our faith---laughter, it turns out, does windows.
By the way, how do you describe a schizophrenic Buddhist...someone who is at two with the universe.
I didn't write all my own material this morning—I've tried to draw from several traditions. I'll share with you traditional wisdom stories from Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism---as well as a smattering of UU jokes that have been around the proverbial block a time or two. Regardless of the source, I've tried to tie everything together to offer some ideas about why a sense of humor is a critical part of spirituality.
Let's start with a story from the Islamic tradition.
One day the news went out that Mullah Nasrudin, the great Islamic Sufi mystic, had suffered a significant loss. His one and only, much loved donkey had gone missing What a loss, how terrible everyone said. When his neighbours heard the news they felt so bad for him they decided to go to Nasrudin's house and help him to find his donkey. So they came to the wise man's home and found him smiling and praising God in gratitude They couldn't understand it and asked the Mullah: " Mullah aren't you sad about loss of your donkey?" The Mullah laughed and said, "I am happy because God has been so good to me.” His friends were still confused. Nasrudin shook his head and smiled, “Don’t you get it? If I had been riding that donkey, I'd be lost right now too!”
For me the first message of sacred laughter is that of choice. We don't have a choice about much that happens to us. Life unfolds as it will, but we always have a choice about how we respond. Within the Buddhist tradition they sum this idea up by saying that “pain is mandatory, suffering is optional.” “Pain is mandatory, suffering is optional.” I see this over and over again, in the midst of tragedy so intense it sometimes literally takes my breath away. With precious few exceptions, events come to us all that cause pain, events that shatter our hopes, events that we wouldn't wish on anyone. These things simply happen, indeed it is one of the great tasks of religion to answer the question---why do bad things happen to good people? For the most part, the Unitarian Universalist answer is—I don't know. We don't spend much time trying to tease out the cause, we mostly focus on response. God's plan, karma, fate, or simple random chance—we don't, as a community share a single answer, nor does our history offer a clear systematic theology of evil. What we have now, and what is completely consistent with centuries of Unitarian and Universalist faith is that regardless of why it happened, we can use our freedom, innate wisdom, and goodness, and our community to get through.
Choice is not just individual though, it belongs to us as a community and as part of our spiritual inheritance. Because our religious forebears lived and died for tolerance and the use of reason in religion and the right of the individual to follow their own innate wisdom—because of these precious beliefs we are for the most part freed from the idolatries of the mind and spirit that afflict so many other faiths. We don't suppress questions, indeed we encourage them.
Some time ago now, Julia and I were at a friend's home for dinner. Conversation eventually turned to a Air Force Academy Cadet who happened to visit High Plains on a morning I was preaching. After the service he was, apparently, rather upset with some of the “heresies” I proclaimed. I can easily imagine an exchange he might have had with one of our members, the young man sputtering “I couldn't believe the sermon this morning, I didn't agree with practically anything that was said.” To which any self-respecting UU might have happily replied, “Oh well, then you'll fit right in.” We all know the joke about a busload of UU's who die in a crash. They find themselves at a fork in a road with a sign saying “Heaven to the left” “Discussion about heaven to the right” and the whole troupe heading right.
When you join this open-source spirtuality, when you begin to identify yourselves as Unitarian Universalist, you affirm more than perhaps anything else the value of freedom. You leave behind what seems to be the increasingly narrow dogmatism of many faiths. There are tremendous rewards for this choice but also a cost. The cost, as many of us have found and occasionally lament, is the sense of surety and security that comes from letting clerics and texts dictate your reality in this world and the one to come. The reward, well, the reward is a sense of humor. Laughter only comes out of freedom for to laugh is to see difference, to recognize contradictions and paradoxes, to be aware of irony. To see the profound gap between what we hope for and what is reality is to be aware of the tension inherent in existence—and in that space between what we dearly hoped for and what we feared might happen, in that space we have a choice of how we respond. I see this in my work as a chaplain and in my own life. Do we choose “cake” or do we choose “or death”?
An angel appears at a meeting of religious leaders and tells their leader that in return for his unselfish and exemplary behaviour, God will reward him with his choice of infinite wealth, wisdom, or beauty.
Without hesitating, the leader selects infinite wisdom.
'Done!' says the angel, and disappears in a cloud of smoke and fire.
Now, all heads turn toward the leader, who sits surrounded by a faint halo of light.
One of the others whispers, 'Say something.'
The leader sighs and says, 'I should have taken the money.'
Now, obviously, I’m not suggesting anyone should laugh when given a diagnosis of Leukemia or smile when someone you love dies. Nor should we laugh off every insult and injury. We have to cry sometimes, to struggle sometimes, to scream and rage against reality sometimes—else how do we know when life is sweet? I doubt there’s a person in this room who has not at some time enjoyed an unexpected reprieve—the truck just misses hitting you, the diagnosis is benign, the lost child found playing at a friend’s house, the slide on the ice that comes to a gentle stop. Sometimes the laughter bursts forth at these times in sheer giddiness as the tension leaves so suddenly it does literally feel like a weight lifted from our shoulders.
The fact is, religion is often absurd. For a long time I expressed that sentiment out of a highly critical analysis of religion in general. Church father Tertulian famously once said, "I believe because it is absurd." That kind of attitude drove me nuts, still does a lot of the time, but more and more I feel that the absurdity of religion is only exceeded by the absurdity of real life. Cake or Death, laugh or die—the choice is ours.
Humor and laughter are not just individual responses, but are an integral part of what binds us together as humans—they are part of what creates community. To laugh together is to create bonds, and community is the second aspect of laughter I want to talk about.
Laughter, scientists and sociologists tell us, predates speech by tens of thousands of years, maybe even millions of years. Infants laugh way before they talk. Those born blind and deaf laugh. The ability and instinct to laugh is not learned, it is part of what it means to be human at the deepest level. We are wired for laughter. Groups laugh far more than individuals. Laughter is profoundly social—and that perhaps is the key. Laughter reminds us that we are social beings, that we are connected. When we laugh together, I feel happy, I feel love. Nothing else feels that way. I think of some of the most exciting things I've ever done. Racing against a thunderstorm while climbing a mountain in the Cascades. Driving a motorcycle at 130 mph. That's all adrenaline. That all makes me aware that I am alive. But to be surrounded by my community sharing laughter tells me why it's good to be alive. G.K. Chesterton, an English journalist said, “It is the test of a good religion if you can joke about it.” We are bound together as a community not because of shared dogma, but because of shared ideals. Of course, sometimes it's hard to know just what those ideals are—a trait we make fun of ourselves about:
“How many Unitarian Universalists does it take to change a light bulb?” “We choose not to make a statement either in favor of or against the need for a light bulb. However, if in your own journey you have found that a light bulb works for you, that is fine. You are invited to write a poem or compose an interpretive dance about your personal relationship to your light bulb and present it next month at our annual light bulb Sunday service. We will explore a number of light bulb traditions including incandescent, fluorescent, three-way, long-life and tinted; all of which are equally valid paths to spiritual luminescence.”
The third aspect of laughter I want to speak about this morning is consciousness. Now the truth is that what I'm actually talking about here is awareness of ego as a component of spirituality, but I was trying to find something that worked with choice and community and consciousness has more alliterative value than ego. There are two modes of awareness or consciousness that are important here. First is how a sense of humor is a natural outgrowth of spiritual development. May I be saved from those who are excessively earnest—I don't trust people who are too sober. I like people who can laugh at themselves, their beliefs, and me for that matter. I'd rather hang out with Trickster Coyote from the Native American tradition than with Yahweh any day. Yahweh seems entirely too serious to me. There are some signs of he has a sense of humor—the giraffe, the platypus, my baldness.
I've had the pleasure of meeting a number of people I'd consider holy or advanced souls or on their way to enlightenment. I've also met a number of people who thought they were in this category. Perhaps the most significant difference is how easily the truly wise laugh—at themselves, at their foibles and failings and even at their faith.
One day a rabbi is overwhelmed with the spiritual realization of how small he is in the grand scheme. He falls to his knees in the synagogue and shouts out over and over again, “I am nothing, I am nothing.” The president of the congregation sees this act of piety and falls to his knees, beating his chest, also exclaiming, “I am nothing, I am nothing.” The janitor for the shul sees the two men and rushes to their side, “ I am nothing, I am nothing.” The second man nudges the first and says, “Hey, look who thinks he's nothing.”
The second aspect of consciousness is how it can be happily derailed by humor. Humor can often lance through the tangles of intellectualism to show us wisdom that isn't linear and remind us of truths that aren't logical.
Mara, sort of the Buddhist equivalent of Satan, is walking the earth one day with one of his demons. The demon observes a man stopping suddenly to pick up a shining item. The demon looks to Mara and says, “Did you see that? That human just found a piece of the Truth.” Mara nods and walks on. The demon sputters and exclaims, “Aren't you worried that he discovered a Truth?” Mara smiles and says, “Don't worry, he'll just make a belief out of it.”
Cake or death. It seems like such an easy choice. What are you going to choose today, tomorrow, and the day after? It seems like such an easy choice. And yet, how often do we choose “or death”? How often do we avoid the risks inherent in genuine community for the safety of solitude, the safety of the expected. Perhaps the most basic platitude about life is that each of us ends in death. We all go there eventually---but we don't have to go there in tiny increments every day. If we are wise enough to bring holy laughter instead of mundane practicality or fateful resignation, if we bring a sacred smile or subversive giggle to more of our situations, we can develop the skill of choosing “cake.” Laughter is often our response to the unexpected. It can be so hard to look for the “cake” choice in the midst of the difficulty, but there almost always is one—people with cancer can laugh, those locked in concentration camps found things to smile about, indeed I'm sure they had to---for the alternative to “cake” is “death.” We find ways to cope, adapt, and eventually laugh or we most assuredly perish. We can learn, as a spiritual practice, to be aware of the choices in front of us and to consciously reach out for the laughter, for the healing it brings, for the community it builds, and for the awareness we all come here to find.
I want to close with one more story from the Islamic tradition starring the wise fool Mullah Nasrudin who, in this final tableau, is sitting with some friends drinking coffee, discussing their eventual deaths:
"When you are in your casket,” one of the friends asks,”and friends and family are mourning, what would you like to hear them say about you?"
The first man says, "I would like to hear them say that I was a great doctor of my time, and a great family man."
The second says, " I would like to hear that I was a wonderful school teacher who made a huge difference in our children of tomorrow."
Nasrudin says, " I would like to hear them say... LOOK!! HE'S MOVING!!!"
Cake or death. Blessed be, amen, and namaste.
- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad