“God?” – Sermon by Jeff Stone
August 25, 2019
I have an acquaintance who, a couple of years ago, wrote and published a book about coming to terms with the end of life. She told me that when she has presented this book at public readings, it is not uncommon for one or two people to get up in the middle and leave feeling quite upset. In one case a medical doctor, a specialist, stood up and yelled out something about not planning to have to face the end of life. I’m not sure what he meant, but I was surprised at how difficult it is for some people, even, in this case a medical doctor, to acknowledge what is fairly obvious, that we all die. Why do some people come to terms with the idea of death more easily than others?
When my son was around seven years old, I found him walking around the house chanting, “we’re all going to die, we’re all going to die” over and over. After initial puzzlement and even a little alarm, I realized that he was trying to come to terms with this momentous fact in his own way. I wonder if some folks never really got to assimilate this information as a child. Perhaps adults get in the way by, with good intentions, urging their kids to not worry about something so far off or trying to make it alright by telling the child that the deceased is in a better place now, like heaven, and that you will see her again, and so forth, which may help to soothe the feelings of the child, but will also shield the child from having to come to terms with the absence of a loved one.
I had a very close friend, Jerry, who thought life was a big mistake. He resented his parents for bringing him into the world and would not speak to them. Paradoxically, the worst part of life for him was that it ended. I remember how for awhile he volunteered to lovingly hold Aids babies, babies who at the time were doomed from the moment they were born. He found it fulfilling work, though he ultimately quit in disgust because of politics in the volunteer organization. Jerry’s personal bible was a book titled “The Denial of Death” by Ernest Becker, an interesting and influential thinker who believed the fear of death and the denial of that fear was the hidden motivator behind most of our beliefs and much of our behavior. I got into many arguments with Jerry about whether life is worth living. I learned how hopeless it is to try to talk someone out of suicide that way. He ultimately settled the question by taking his own life, a very great personal loss for me and other folks who appreciated and loved Jerry more than he did himself.
For myself, I am not eager to die, but I don’t feel particularly cross at the universe about the reality of death. Perhaps it is my disposition, but I also think that it has to do with my sense of gratefulness for being alive and faith that there is something good in myself and life in general which makes it all worthwhile.
My son used to ask me if I believe in God. I said, in effect, I’ll get back to you on that. I never gave him a definitive answer. Rationally I couldn’t believe in God, but I wasn’t willing to commit to that view because it was evident to me that I would be giving up too much.
So I have this faith in something that can be called God, or a higher power, or something divine that I feel in myself. The name “God” is so loaded that it isn’t always helpful and doesn’t suit everybody. But for me, partly because of it’s ambiguity, and therefore it’s spaciousness, I like to use it. So if I say I believe in God, it doesn’t necessarily mean to me what it may mean to someone else, and it doesn’t necessarily even mean the same thing to me at all times. But it feels right and it feels natural. It is that naturalness that makes me wonder if believing in God isn’t somehow in my genes.
I find that it helps me to believe in God, and so I do, most of the time. It is not a matter of ultimate truth, or something that requires proof. It’s a useful act, to choose to believe. I’m not talking about philosophy or science. I’m not talking about making something up as a game. I am deliberately choosing to believe in something that may or may not actually exist in an objective sense, but by taking that leap, I am setting up a dialogue between me and something greater than me that seems real, that embodies wisdom and compassion.
Now wait, you may say. How can you choose to believe something? Isn’t a belief just there? You either believe or you don’t. Well, if people can’t choose their beliefs, then why do some churches work so hard at impressing upon their members what they should believe. I’d say most of the time we choose our beliefs, but we choose them unconsciously. If you can do it unconsciously, why not do it consciously?
I have a voice, not just the one coming out of my mouth, but the one I hear as it jabbers to me in my head. I have other voices in my head. Mostly they come from places in me that have agendas of one sort or another, like the voice that worries about my health, or the one that gets angry at me for being too quiet when I’m feeling shy. But there is a voice I’ve come to recognize as being different, being wiser than my everyday thoughts. It’s not necessarily a voice that comes to me unbidden. Usually I need to seek it out when I wish to hear it. I think of it as the voice of God. It is there for me when I need it, whether for re-assurance, or to impart some needed wisdom. Sometimes I dialogue with that voice on paper. Sometimes I pray to it. Sometimes it answers me.
I have faith in that voice I call God. It’s a voice that I instinctively learned to trust before I gave it a name. You may have something similar, but you may not think of it as a voice. It sometimes just seems to be a feeling or a notion or a sense of something. Maybe it tells you whether you are in danger, like whether you can trust someone you meet on the street. Perhaps you have that something in you which seems to be wise and on which you can rely in a pinch. Perhaps you put faith in this secret sense that you have because it has been there for you before and because it is so personal. I call this voice God, but other people might have different names for such a voice, like higher self, soul, or maybe just street smarts.
Of course, you do have to be careful with voices in your head. This is a matter of discernment, learning to discern one voice from another. If you have a voice you call God, you need to be wary of imposters. They happen. It takes practice to learn the quality of a voice, the mood of the voice, the kind of things you’d expect that voice to say.
I don’t need God to explain the world, nor do I think that life without God is uninteresting. There is plenty of wonder in beauty, art, science. I don’t need God in order to feel awe of the universe as I look up at the stars, or contemplate the amazing mechanisms at work in genetics and evolution. I don’t need God to explain how life could exist or how complex it is. But I love the feeling of devotion and prayer, the thrill of feeling energy through my body that seems to come from a divine source. For me it does come from that source and I’m OK with the possibility of being wrong. In fact I am probably wrong no matter my point of view. Existence and everything in it may be beyond my ability to explain it all. It is fun to try to explain, at least for some of us, and useful too. So I don’t disparage any of that. But the point, for me, is that it isn’t about getting it right. It’s about embracing the process. For me, it’s about being human. And this process can live alongside other ways of seeing the world without interference, such as through the lens of science, which, obviously, has tremendous utility and teaches us so much about the world, and really is about getting it right.
I like the term “higher self” to refer to that wise and mysterious voice I sometimes call God. But then, what is my lower or small self? I think of that as what I usually refer to when I say “I”. It is my everyday self that handles the mundane stuff in my life. This lower self is sometimes referred to by the Freudian term “ego”. One might also call it our personality. I think this is the part of us that fears death. I don’t detect fear in my higher self, especially about my own death. But my ego, or personality, lives in fear of all kinds. It is insecure, unsure of itself. It is competitive, it is concerned about how it looks. This is the part of me that is afraid of dying, but it doesn’t feel real, rather like a construct made up of traits and memories. I think when I am afraid of death I am strongly identified with my personality.
I propose that spirituality, in any form that is palatable to you, can be an antidote to the fear of death. That doesn’t mean you have to believe in God. That is personal to you. When I say spirituality I’m referring to a way of getting beyond the ego, beyond the personality. It is acknowledging that perhaps our brain doesn’t only work through rational thought, but also through intuition, through unconscious processes. The more we trust in these processes, the more they can enrich our lives. And here may be one key to accepting death. Fear or anxiety around death is not an intellectual position, it is more of an irrational emotion, that seems to come from the ego. When we get beyond the ego we can find that what we are may be more than what is contained in our skin. That what we love or can love is not just ourselves but is also all around us. Like an ocean wave we eventually just sink back into the ocean. Do we really need to know with certainty what happens after that?
I took an acting class once, and one exercise we did in this class was to close our eyes and let ourselves fall back, where behind us was another student waiting to catch us. It was an exercise in trust. If we can trust enough in our inner resources, as well as the resources in our loving community, we can let go. Let go of the fierce grip on trying to understand and control the world around us. Let go and fall back into the arms of whatever it is we have faith in, whether it is God, or love, or whomever or whatever we’ve learned to trust. If we have that trust, if we’ve found a way to foster that trust, we are ready for whatever does or does not await.