Rev. Forrest Church, a Unitarian Universalist minister who died a few years ago often said, “religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die. Knowing we must die, we question what life means. Where did I come from? Who am I? Where am I going? What is life’s purpose?”
What is life’s purpose? Well, that’s obviously a huge and complex question, one we can spend a lifetime exploring. And trying to answer. Our awareness of death, that we will die, can be a powerful force pushing and motivating us to seek greater purpose or purposes. It can be the thing that urges us to a life of purpose.
Whether that means volunteering for literacy or homeless programs, finding a professional calling such as teaching or ministry, or being committed to the practice of kindness every day. There are lots of ways to have a purposeful life.
Death can remind us to live more intentionally, with more vigor, with more joy, with more compassion. The awareness of being alive and having to die invites us to appreciate more fully the gift and the mystery of life, the struggle and the power.
Sometimes death is approached in exactly the opposite way. As though it strips our lives of its meaning, as though it is purpose-less. Some families and religions teach us to fear death and to avoid talking about it. And this is understandable in part because it can be a little scary. When a loved one dies, we naturally feel sad and we struggle to find our way without them.
But as Unitarian Universalists, we do something else. We learn to celebrate. We celebrate those who have died as well as mourn them. We lift up their qualities, accomplishments and talents. To do otherwise would be to forget the tender and precious gift life is and the importance of each of us to the greater human family. Each of us has something unique to offer. And what we create and bring into the world continues on after us.
The altars we create in our homes and our sanctuary to loved ones who have died recall their commitments to us and each other.
I think about the people I love who have died. Their living and also their dying inspires me to create meaning of my life. I remember my parents, John and Ruth Fees. And members of this religious community who have died in recent years, Isabelle Keller, Doc Hawk, Jean Wesner, Muriel Brownstein, Winnie Alcorn.
I recall my mother’s creativity with quilting and sewing. There’s my father’s competitive spirit as an athlete. Isabelle’s love of nature. Doc’s commitment to teaching our children. Muriel’s passion for human rights. Jean’s inquisitive mind.
Our religion gives us permission to celebrate those who have died – rather than merely mourn. It actually encourages us to do this. As Unitarian Universalists, we have a lot of different ideas about what happens to us after we die. But we agree that nothing bad happens. We aren’t going to be punished and we aren’t going to be in pain. Our religious ancestors long ago gave up this idea.
Instead, our focus as a religion has been on learning how to live well – to be purposeful - and how to die well. What’s important to us is to embrace justice, compassion and love and to come to see death in hopeful and healing ways. To know that life was and is worth living and dying for.
Forrest Church said, “The purpose of life is to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for.” I want to know that the lives of those I have loved who have died were spent well. That they created beautiful experiences and made the world a little bit better than it would have been without them.
I also want to know that my life has been of value. When I come to die, I want to know that my presence mattered. I want to know that I loved someone and they loved me. I want to know that I created beauty and experienced it. I want to know that I forgave and was forgiven. I want to know that the Spirit of Life was with me through my whole life - in my playing, in my exploring, in my aging and in my dying.
Don’t we all want that for ourselves and each other? I hope so. I think so. This month, as we explore what it means to live a life of purpose, I invite each of you to consider how you might live so that your life proves worth dying for.
What will you do with this gift of a life you have been given? May we hold each other in love as we explore together the meaning of our lives.
Amen. Blessed be.