Showing My Work           

“We learned the whole of love,
The alphabet, the words,
A chapter, the mighty book -
Then revelation closed.

But in each others eyes
An ignorance beheld
Diviner than the childhood’s
And each to each a child

Attempted to expound
What neither understood.
Alas, that wisdom is so large
And truth so manifold.”

    - Emily Dickinson

“When we think of friends, and call their faces out of the shadows, and their voices out of the echoes that faint along the corridors of memory, and do it without knowing why save that we love to do it, we content ourselves that friendship is a Reality, and not a Fancy--that it is built upon a rock, and not upon the sands that dissolve away with the ebbing tides and carry their monuments with them.”

    - Samuel Clemens

“Blessed are those who mourn, 
For they shall be comforted.”

    - Jesus of Nazareth

We all remember the math teacher’s response when we turned in an assignment with just the answers on it. The answers are fine, she would say, but they don’t tell me anything. Show me your work. I want to know how you got to the answer. And we would be beside ourselves. Doesn’t that nitwit see that having the answer proves you know how to get there we would think? We could not believe anyone could be so dense.

But the teacher was no fool. She knew that how you get to the answer communicates how well you really understand it. It is so easy to have answers and opinions and beliefs. The world is filled with people with answers and opinions and beliefs. The trick is whether you come by them honestly and through experience. The conclusions I draw in today’s sermon are probably obvious to many of you. It is how I got their that makes them real. So if you will indulge me - I will show you my work.

I used to not go to visitations and funerals. I simply didn’t go. I had determined that they were a ritual artifact rooted in superstition, that lacked personal meaning, and quite obviously were meaningless to the guest of honor. Thus I missed both of my grandfather’s funerals, and an important childhood friend’s funeral, among many others. In retrospect, I’m puzzled by the fact that my dad did not make me go to these funerals given his force of will in virtually every other matter of this type. And so the first funeral I ever went to was his.

And guess what? I learned it wasn’t an intellectual choice that kept me away from funerals after all. I was guilty of perhaps the most common and foolish and destructive sin of all. I used my intellect to lie to myself. For it was fear and anxiety that kept me away. Fear of seeing a dead body again, for I had seen my brother’s best friend drown in front of us when I was ten years old. And the anxiety of being enveloped in the implosive grief that that the loss of a loved one entails.

So, having never been to a funeral, I had no practice for the cathartic experience my Dad’s funeral had to be. 

He was an unschooled but brilliant fellow. As a child during the depression he worked to help his family make ends meet, he was a gifted athlete, fought courageously in WWII and witnessed his entire unit save himself  be literally butchered by a kamikaze attack. He could build a house, repair an engine,  hunt any kind of animal that would put food on the table, trap fur bearing animals to earn money to buy us Christmas presents, and faithfully worked the swing shift in a factory for over 40 spirit crushing years to support his family. He taught me the most enabling passion of my life, the magic of reading, by  his example. Late in his life he was active in his church, selflessly helping others, and he could charm the pants off of casual acquaintances. He had a huge heart and loved his family passionately.  He was a man with so very much to offer. But the reality of our home life was that for reasons having to do with his upbringing and life’s experiences he was perpetually exasperated, cripplingly insecure, afraid of being alone, and by his actions and verbal rages, far too often made life miserable for the members of his family. When my brothers and I were young we couldn’t see the big picture of why Dad could be so difficult and so often verbally cruel. We carried a great burden and couldn’t wait to get away from his influence. And while we repressed these feelings as much as possible it was heartbreaking to know in our bones that we couldn’t figure out a way to fix what was broken in our home. The things he feared most became real due to a self fulfilling prophecy. And at the end of his life he was often isolated from his family and alone  because his insecurities and rages made him impossible to live with.

So when he unexpectedly passed away, you might say there was a lot of unfinished emotional business staring me in the face.

At the visitation I was terrified to look at his body, but of course I had to. And having done so I cried like a baby, sobs from the very center of my soul, great convulsive spasms of grief. What was broken could never be fixed. I figuratively stepped outside of my body and looked down in puzzlement at myself. “How out of character”, I thought, “for Dennis to be making a public spectacle of himself like that.”

In the first sermon I gave at this church I reflected on the illusory nature of existence, illustrating the deficiencies of a perceptually constructed view of reality. In the second sermon I reflected on the uncertainty that is central to existence, illustrating the folly of belief in absolute certainties. I believe these tenets are crucial to an honest, informed understanding of the miracle of life. 

But the truth is that they don’t offer much in the way of daily practical application.

So the question I want to address today is this: once you have acknowledged the abstract but inescapable nature of existence how does one live a life with meaning? What is it that gives meaning to life?

The text of today’s sermon is based on lessons learned. These epiphanies may not seem profound but lesson one is that simple, often obvious, but vital truths become real only through experience.

Funerals, I was taught through experience, aren’t so much about the deceased as they are about providing comfort and support to the survivors. 

I was further informed that funerals teach the profoundly important aspect of a loved ones friends and acquaintances offering their condolences. They provide the comfort of kind words, the comfort of the elixir of hugging. They allow you to see a loved one through another set of eyes, allowing you to see that you may not have known the person you lost as well as you thought. You become aware of another dimension to them and that maybe conflicts along the way had a bit more to do with your own deficiencies than you previously considered. In the telling of stories they allow you to have a laugh when you so desperately need one.

So seeing people who had known my dad for years or who had come into his life only recently helped me to see that, in spite of the great pain he felt for not being as close to his family as he would have preferred, he hadn’t been as alone as I feared in his daily life. 

Unexpectedly, three of my friends from college walked through the door of the funeral home. I wasn’t aware they knew of my dad’s passing and all three lived a great distance away. I can tell you that, given my state of mind at the time, this was perhaps the most overwhelming act of kindness and consideration that I had ever experienced. They had barely known my dad yet they took times out of their busy lives to drive great distances to offer their condolences. So I was reminded in a vivid fashion that friends support friends in times of need regardless of the inconvenience and circumstance. They offered welcome words of encouragement and comfort to my family. Later we went outside for a cigar and I learned for the first time about the sort of therapeutically hysterical dark humor that is common to funerals.

And the most important lesson of all: I received a burst of insight that evening, a primal, gut level epiphany, that everything, and I say with conviction, absolutely everything of real importance in life concerns relationships with others. Other things can give the illusion of substance, but in the end, they are merely passing distractions in the continuum of life. All that truly matters is relationships with our fellow travelers, and with the universe that we are a part of.

Armed with my new insights and convictions, no power on earth could have kept me from my second funeral, my grandmother’s, which sadly came soon after my father’s.

I have mentioned the uncertainty and unpredictability that is inherent in existence. In any situation we have a certain set of expectations, a certain feel for possibilities given the circumstances and one’s past experiences. When those expectations are confounded, as they so often are, we are faced with a sense of wonder at the implausibility of it all. 

And so came the day of my father’s mother, my grandmother’s, funeral. She had lived to a ripe old age, but her health had failed dramatically in recent years, so it was one of those funerals with an air of sadness, but an understanding that what had happened was for the best. It was a beautiful spring day, one of the first with promise of summer in the air. The family gathered around the gravesite, a few kind words were said by the minister, and, as planned, one of the grandchildren, my cousin, began to sing. My cousin, who has the voice of an angel, is one of those souls who is burdened by expectations. Our society has very strict rules on appearance and those who don’t meet expectations must suffer. She had a glandular problem as a child and is extraordinarily short, barely 4 feet tall. This has placed a set of burdens on her for the simple reason that she looks different. She has dealt with this burden with varying degrees of success over the years. The funeral was around the time of the popular but odd TV show Twin Peaks, and as she began to sing it occurred to me that the setting had the feel of that unique show. A tiny adult singing in a beautiful voice one of the most haunting songs ever created, Amazing Grace - the sound of the wind rustling through the many trees, the wistful chirps of the songbirds enjoying this sunny spring day - the family gathered in a circle around the grave somberly celebrating the passing of a life, the passing of an era - it was an absolutely wondrous and heart rending set of images and sounds and emotions.

As I took the scene in and allowed myself to be transported by it’s surreal magic, time seemed to stop and my thoughts drifted like the gorgeous clouds overhead. 

And then, “TURKEY!”

For a moment I was disoriented. Had I just heard the word turkey? Had the word turkey just been shouted out in a loud voice interrupting the spell of this beautiful ceremony?

My cousin continued to sing. But everyone else was looking around trying to figure out what had happened. The spell was broken, replaced by puzzlement. Turkey?!?

And as the song wound down and we puzzled at an explanation, it became apparent. While most of the family was being transported by the magic of the singing, the magic of the setting, the emotions of the moment - while my cousin who so rarely got to be the focus of positive attention was reveling in her special role in this ritual, a distant, older cousin who, as it turns out had been aggressively hitting the bottle that morning, not only was not being transported by the moment’s theater, but was instead unable to contain himself when he saw along the cemetery’s fence rows, for the first time in his life, a wild turkey. Wild turkeys, which essentially disappeared from west central Illinois over a century ago, were apparently making a comeback

My newfound confidence in the nature of funerals had not prepared me for this. I was reminded again of the folly of expectations - though the moment was not without a certain element of skewed entertainment.

After the insights I received at my dads funeral and the poignancy of my grandmothers funeral I became like Paul after his episode on the road to Damascus, a changed man. I began to go to funerals with the conviction of a true believer. I come from a family with ten blood aunts and uncles on each side and heaven knows how many cousins. This was enlarged by matrimony. I’ve been blessed with a large circle of friends from my hometown, more from college, still more from the workplace, and a fine group of people from church. You may have noticed that I am not getting any younger. The probabilities of actuarial science have caught up with me. I have a lot of funerals to go to. 

After my fathers funeral I began scanning obituary pages, going to the funerals of the loved ones of even the most casual acquaintances. I left work early to drive great distances for these events. I sent cards and flowers willy nilly, undoubtedly causing some head scratching - Dennis who? During my weekly phone conversations with my mom I harangued her for not telling me of the passing of people I hadn’t thought of in 30 years. She began forgoing the mention of death and disease in our conversations. Given that these conversations for years had chiefly consisted of her gleeful sharing of the progress of death, decay, and the incidences of spectacular tumors in our tiny hometown this was quite a development. I considered attending the back yard funeral of a neighbor child’s hamster. 

I was, of course, guiltily trying to resolve the karmic imbalance created by being a self-deluding twit in my funeral avoiding days. Getting such badly needed and perhaps undeserved comfort in my own case had made me a changed man. 

And then I had to attend the most heartbreaking visitation and funeral I ever hope to experience, the services for my best friends beautiful young daughter, who died in a tragic car wreck. It continues to break my heart just to think about it. During the services I again found myself bent over in convulsive and hysterical grief. Again I stepped outside myself, although not to marvel at my behavior, for this time I was beyond caring who saw me. This time I looked down at myself and I thought that this sort of life altering experience, and this sort of spontaneous uncontrollable physical reaction of grief, is what makes some people find God - and what makes others reject God, all in a frantic attempt to make sense of the inexplicable. But it occurred to me on a gut level that God is essentially irrelevant in these matters. It seemed to me that this communal outpouring of overwhelming grief was confirming evidence of the infinite importance of relationships, the infinite importance of people in our lives, the infinite importance of people and relationships when faced with the inevitability of calamity and heartache. This terrible tragedy and it’s aftermath were greatly responsible for my family seeking out and joining this church, a church where community and humanity are emphasized more than an overly optimistic belief in an interventionist God.

But let’s take a brief diversion away from death, which seems to have a certain somber ambiance wouldn’t you agree?

Other of life’s sign posts offer us evidence of the importance of relationships in the miracle of life. I speak of birth and marriage.

Examine your emotional response the next time you visit a hospital nursery to greet a new member of the human family. I defy you to not feel the glow that emanates from the people holding and viewing newborns. The positive vibrations are almost a physical presence in the room. I further defy you to not feel the sense of possibility, the sense of hope, the sense of goodness that permeates the environment. Acknowledge the wonder of people experiencing the purest form of unconditional love humans are blessed with. I have often commented that if the world’s leaders were forced to visit a hospital nursery once a week they would be much less likely to indulge in war and conflict.  

And isn’t hope and possibility what weddings are all about? Those of you in long term relationships know how absurdly optimistic it is for humans to pledge to spend a week in cohabitation much less a lifetime. Isn’t this evidence of the dominant sense of optimism we as humans embrace? Examining your emotional response at weddings will illuminate that warm and fulfilling glow we experience in archetypical moments. At weddings we again bask in the glow of possibilities as we witness a formal ritual dedicated entirely to the importance of relationships. We feel that indefinable, giddy emotional state that is associated with the big moments of life. I would venture that, if our leaders went with great regularity to weddings the world would again be a better place. In fact if they spent more time going to weddings and births they might spend less time creating funerals.

Birth and Wedding rituals have existed throughout human history, the rituals of relationships, the rituals that offer evidence of relationships preeminence in the thoughts and minds and spirits of mankind.

After that brief diversion let us return in earnest to death. Here is a test for you - a test of substance if you will.

Let’s assume there is no afterlife. Let’s assume that  your entire conscience existence consists of your brief time in this life. Let us further assume you will have some moments to reflect upon your life when your spark begins to flicker.

Imagine for a moment what will pass through your mind in those defining moments before you enter the void. I don’t think it will be your materialistic or professional successes. It won’t be a car or house you owned or a triumph at school or business. 

I believe your thoughts will be drawn to the nature and specifics of your relationships with family and friends and acquaintances, for there is nothing more absorbing than the people in your life. I think you will consider the kindness you received and hopefully the kindness you gave. In my case it will be the unconditional love and lifelong nurturing of my mother, the back breaking sacrifices my dad made to support us. I will recall the nurturing of my aunts and uncles and the skits my aunts and my cousins performed in our living room when I was a child, and playing wiffle ball with my childhood pals around the clock on beautiful summer days. I will recall one of the most decent people I have ever known, my grandpa Heberling and how he made me and all his many grandchildren feel like special, unique people. I will remember how my big brother looked out for me and how I tried to look out for my younger brother. I will remember my childhood friends and the universal kindness shown to me by their parents. I will reflect on girlfriends I had in high school and college whose parents were always so accepting of me. I will reflect on the college friends I made who helped me cope with the foolishness of young adulthood and who continue to provide me with an extended family almost 40 years later. I will recall my friends in this congregation who have provided me with another extended family, allowing me to once again be a part of something bigger than myself. And foremost I will recall the birth of my sons and how they have made my life whole and meaningful.

Upon honest reflection one notes that what is important almost universally has to do with an experience of sharing life’s moments with a friend or loved one. In it’s purest state this is what the human experience is about. Most human activities and interests are momentary flings, blips on the radar screen of life. What is real and lasting, is always people, and the acts of sharing and kindness that reflects the interconnectiveness of all people and all things. 

We’ve all had a wonderful solitary experience, say viewing a sunset, or seeing a great performance, and the dominant emotion is wistfulness because the experience would have been so much richer with a companion. I think this is a universal experience, another indicator of our innate need to be connected to someone else, to be a relative part of something bigger than ourselves.  You might ask about the great solo adventurers and seekers of solitude and their apparent disdain for companionship. I would ask you to consider how many of them wrote books, and how many conclude their contemplative exercises in this day and age on tour giving slide shows of their experiences. This would seem to be evidence of their need to make it real by sharing with others. Regardless of his protestations, Thoreau wasn’t content with just the solitude of Walden. He had to write a book, he had to share.

In spite of the ample evidence that human relationships define our existence, many, if not most people, believe that their relationship with God, communing via prayer or otherwise, is the most satisfying and real element of their existence. This gives their life meaning, it gives them strength, it gives them a frame of reference in this confusing world. Among my many curses is this – I believe that this delightful phenomena  of communing with God is merely a manifestation of the structure and functions of the brain. My curse derives from studying psychology in earnest at the Harvard of the Midwest, Eastern Illinois University. I learned that the two hemispheres of the brain communicate via thin connective tissues and since one hemisphere of the brain is more fluent in language and the other more fluent at feeling, their conversations are often as lucid as a mute speaking to a blind man with sign language. The brilliant Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes, in his ground breaking book The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, took note  of this phenomena. He combined his knowledge of brain research with his interest in clues he found in ancient literature and theorized that until a few thousand years ago, people interpreted the interaction of the two brain hemispheres as being the voice of God speaking to them. He believed that at some point in the evolution of the brain this was transformed into what we now call consciousness and free will rather than commandments from God. Thus the many accounts in literature and holy books of God speaking to a individual quite possibly were merely misguided interpretations of the internal dialogue created by the ongoing evolution of the brain. This suggests that the major religions, so informed by the voices of God speaking to the prophets, may be based on a misinterpretation of the source of the voices in the prophets heads. Even today, when the brain’s biochemistry becomes unbalanced, such illnesses as schizophrenia can occur, and the hemispheres can develop well defined and troubled personalities, personalities that are tricked into believing they hear the voice of God. So when insights emerge in quiet moments of reflection and prayer it probably isn’t God speaking but rather your own brain rewarding you for providing the quiet environment that is it’s best working condition. 

Because of my belief that the voices in our head are not God talking to us but rather our cerebral hemispheres communing with their beloved but foreign twin, I need to look elsewhere for life’s meaning. I reflect upon where the points of view come from that your hemispheres rely upon for their muddled conversations. And I conclude that they are the sum total of your mental time from the first moment your brain can store information to this moment. You are the sum of all  your experiences and all of your relationships – it is all recorded in the brain’s stunning capacity for storage. This is the enduring source for the continuum of your existence. And voices that are particularly strong within you are from the experiences and people you were most influenced by. In my case every time I do something foolish I hear my dad’s voice reflecting on the wisdom of that action. “Dennis,” the voice says, “that was a silly thing to do.” “Duly noted” I will think. And when I do something of worth I hear my dad saying “I’m proud of you”. So my dad lives on through me. How about that for an afterlife?

Just a few months before my dad passed away we spent a day exploring old rural cemeteries in my birthplace of Greene County Illinois, where my ancestors first settled over 180 years ago. It was a memorable day in many ways, blessedly unmarked by one of his verbal explosions. It was a chilly and bright fall day and I recall wondering why old rural cemeteries were all planted with cedar trees, trees that are aged and gnarled and now dying just like the souls they stand guard over. We  were able to find the faded tombstones of ancestors who had interacted with the Native Americans who were still living along the lower Illinois River Valley in the 1820s. We visited the graves of our Civil War era ancestors who risked their lives to fight for the abolition of slavery, and the graves of the farmers and laborers from whom we were more recently descended. It was one of the best days I ever spent with my dad, rewarding on any number of levels, not the least of which was sharing in the exploration of our common history. It was humbling to stand at the weathered graves of the hardy souls to whom I was connected through time and flesh, and to realize that our destiny was the same as theirs, not knowing that my dad would soon join them. I only hope someday that my great-great grandchildren and their children will visit my grave and wonder at the interconnectiveness and mystery of life.

I told the story of my dad’s funeral because of the evidence it contained about the fundamental and absolute influence relationships have on life’s meaning. My visceral response to his death startled me. I learned that relationships that are forever unfixable contain the most heartache that a human can experience. It seemed to follow organically, it seemed obvious then, that positive relationships must offer that which is most necessary in our lives. I repeat - my experience taught me that human relationships must offer that which is most necessary and of greatest value in our lives. The sort of emotional responses I felt at my dad’s and my friends’ daughter’s funeral don’t occur for the elements of life like work, possessions, hobbies, entertainment; things that we spend so much of our precious time on that involve an entertaining but shallow sort of willful distraction. I learned the hard way, the only way, through experience, where meaning existed for me.

I have often referred to a Buddhist parable in which a wise man, upon being asked by a novice about the meaning to life, told the novice to go and wash his bowl. The point of course is that it is the process of life that contains this elusive meaning. The more lucid passages of the Bible and Koran and other holy writings feature this same theme. This mirrors modern scientific systems theory, which embraces the premise that relationships between elements are just as important as the substance of elements. In other words, the value lies in the journey rather than the destination. And the most important part of the journey is the nature of the relationships you share during your journey.

You ask what is the source of life’s meaning? Don’t look to religion, don’t look to science, don’t look to philosophy, don’t look to measures of success. They are parlor games, examples of mankind’s need for distraction. 

Instead consider strangers who unexpectedly come into your life and whose acts of kindness and consideration lift you.

And recall all the members of your family, blood and otherwise, and consider the possibilities, both potential and realized, due to their presence in your life. 

And remember the friends that fate and choice have blessed you with, and consider how rich your life is because of them and how much poorer it would be without them. 

Consider your parents, whose most precious moment was when you came into their life.

 Think of your mate and consider how having someone to share life with makes it more meaningful in immeasurable ways . 

If you are blessed to have children, recall the day they came into your life and the purest form of joy and unconditional love you have ever felt, like a laser beam illuminating the very center of your soul.

This is what is real. This is the miracle of Life. This is the Meaning to Life. All else is conjecture or illusion. 

Thank you so much for allowing me to show you my work.

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