“Nice Dead People” is a phrase first used by playwrite Herb Gardener in “A Thousand Clowns.” The character Murry Hill expresses concern for his foster son Nick. “If somebody doesn't watch out he'll start making lists of what he's gonna do next year and for the next ten years. He'll learn to know everything before it happens, ... he'll learn how to be one of the nice dead people.” Since then many others have used the phrase to articulate the potentially deadening results of social conditioning. Instead of acting in harmony with their souls, “nice dead people,” are governed by their habit of pleasing others, and conforming to some outward standard of what real men, good mothers, or competent professionals should be like. “Nice Dead People” do not experience life directly but through a filter of their predetermined beliefs.
The antidote to having become a nice dead person, is authenticity, curiosity and a hunger to rediscover the spirit of life within ourselves and the values that are deepest in our souls. Today I hope to challenge and encourage us to commit ourselves to a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, truths to be found largely within ourselves. I hope to put before us the challenge of awakening, to come into awareness of our being, of our being alive.
Alvy Singer, the main character in the movie “Annie Hall” says “ Well that's essentially how I feel about life: full of miserableness, unhappiness, loneliness and suffering and it’s all over much to soon.” In Woody Allen's consummate complaining we can see the folly if not the insanity of our condition.
Another title I considered using for this sermon was “Wearing armor while Sleepwalking.” Sleepwalking suggests that we are asleep, or anyways not awake as we could be. Armor is meant for battle, but we forget to take it off when its no longer needed. As we age we learn to avoid perceived threats and dangers, but the cost is a dimmed sense of what it is that makes life amazing and sacred.
Is it possible to live with eyes, mind, and heart wide open?” Can we reawaken a child-like amazement for living? Can we reclaim vitality for living each day? Can we cultivate a sense of appreciation and enjoyment in the midst of life’s chaos and injustice?
These questions are the hope and challenge of religious liberalism. Our faith tradition directs us to discover divinity by serving humanity. It asks us to participate in the task of expanding the reign of the holy as we embrace mortal existence.
When we find or make peace in this community, we reclaim awareness of our humanity. Is it our task to come together to grow in consciousness, individually & collectively? Could awakening serve as the holy task that unites us?
Without one established religious text, where do we find guidance for this journey. One answer comes in the often sung hymn. We sing “love will guide us.” I hope the word love isn’t dead to us. I hope we have kept alive our appreciation of the power and sanctity of love. I hope that we will continue to receive the treasures that love has to offer us.
Even though words come up short, love is worth talking about. Love is worth considering. It's worth discovering, studying and practicing. When love is present, living has the quality of reverence, gratitude and awe. When we choose love, we become aware of life and its beauty. It's my hope that you will choose to use this service as a stimulus for awakening in love.
I think that if we are honest we will admit that we don’t approach life with the enthusiasm we had as children. We have learned to function on auto-pilot. We traded some of the brilliant hues in our landscape so as to avoid experiencing the scenes that look troubling and painful. We have developed defense mechanisms, coping mechanisms, survival mechanisms. We gradually enter into a state of comfortable numbness. We sleepwalk with our armor on.
In 1997, I was teaching a spirituality class in a huge park in Santa Barbara, California. The park was one block wide and several blocks long. About a street length away was a playground filled with children. I think it was a field trip, as their was a bus parked there. From a distance, the great variety of random shrieks and screams seemed like a symphony of songbirds. It was an incredible sound.
It occurred to me then that adults don’t make those sounds. We don’t spontaneously shriek and scream with excitement. We don’t display the beautiful range of tone and color that poured out of these children so naturally. Why not?
From a block away, the shrieks and screams sounded symphonic. However, had they been twenty yards away, I might have found them distracting. Most of the time, how do we adults react when we hear children’s spontaneous outbursts? Maybe we want to teach them self control. Maybe we just want them to be quiet.
As children we learn what to think, and how to feel about life and about ourselves by the example of the adults around us. If the adults who were around us when we were growing were anxious, angry, and miserable, it was difficult and unlikely for them to teach us peace, faith and love. If we were subject to much criticism, we learned to criticize.
In school most of us experienced a system of domination. When authority figures say they want cooperation from a child, they generally want a child to “cooperate” with their will. In other words they really want obedience. Children generally learn two choices in relation to institutional power and authority; to submit or rebel. Few people learn how to negotiate assertively and respectfully with people in positions of power and authority.
We may still be holding on to beliefs that limit us. For example we may have a belief that says it's not safe to show ourselves; to show our feelings, our needs or what's important to us.
It's useful to remember that we didn't start out this way. We come into this world with wisdom beyond words. We once knew that we are all connected. We are born with the ability to give and receive with ease. Until we are “taught” differently, we know that females and males are equally precious. We would never dream that skin color would make someone less valuable. We are born with an inherent appreciation of life and living.
We weren't born measuring things in dollars and cents. We have to be trained to objectify the world; to see it as material with potential to benefit or harm us. It is only later that we resign to human relations that are inhumane.
Some things made no sense to us, and they were hard to accept. Events may have seemed to crush our spirit and our will in a single blow. We may feel as if the wind was taken from us, or that our sails were pierced. We may have slowly come to accept that the ability to rip our teeth into life and let its juice drip down our chin, is something that we could only do as children.
Personal wounds are compounded by social ones. The structure of society contradicts our inner wisdom. Rejection, violence, shaming discourage those aspects of our personality that do not fit with the dominant culture. We may come to believe that the terms of our life are being dictated to us. We may start feeling, thinking and acting as if life is an assignment we must complete or a test we must pass.
We grow accustomed to our conditioning. We submit to parents, teachers, school administrators. We obey school rules, then business rules. We submit to rules of society that we never actually hear spoken.
It’s like the way elephants are trained for the circus. They are tied to a post from an early age, and they learn to go round in circles. Later the post and rope can be removed and the elephant continues to walk in little circles. She doesn’t realize how much more is possible.
We learn to walk in little circles too. We are indoctrinated by commercials and commercial culture. A flood of sounds, images and messages are aimed at making us into GOOD CONSUMERS. “Buy, buy buy - consume, consume, compete get ahead.” Television indoctrinates us to view life as if it is all about competition for resources.
The culture of the market place is mesmerizing and unless we are surrounding ourselves in a counter culture or creating a culture of our own choosing, we are likely to get swept up into the dominant culture. We become pawns and mouthpieces of forces that do not care about us or value life at all.
As children we play. As adults, we become focused on doing it right. We armor ourselves and forget our inner knowing. We forget that what is most true in us is eternal. Our egos feel threatened, and we fight as if life depended on it. We lose touch with the abundance of possibilities at our disposal.
Despite our apparent failings, I believe in humanity. I believe that all people do their best to stay in touch with their inner wisdom. Ultimately people desire mutuality not dominance. Each of us reaches for life, reaches for love. It is only fear that causes us to forget how really mind-blowing, how sweet and how essentially fun life can be.
My faith restores me. It tells me that our spirit is eternal and indestructible. We may feel as if we have lost our spirit and our inner wisdom, but underneath layers of armor, our essence is completely in tact. We need only come home to our heart, to our center or soul. We are prodigal children, and our homecoming awaits us.
Jesus said that to enter the kingdom of heaven we must be as children. Children know the value of play. To become fully alive again, we need to remember to play. Despite all the rules and strategies we may live by, it is often the things that we do for no apparent gain that allow us to feel alive. It is the things we do as an expression of our heart- that give our lives meaning.
Goals can be wonderful things, but sometimes we need to let go of linear thinking in order to remember that life is unfolding miraculously. It is an odd paradox that sometimes when we let go of the compulsion to be in control, the result is an awareness of being part of something larger than ourselves, along with an increased sense of freedom and ability to respond to whatever life offers us. We may feel a peaceful harmony and connection to the vast web of life.
For many years now I have made a study of people who seem to me to sparkle with life. When I've met such people I become curious as to what they have done to maintain their vitality. I've paid attention to any differences that might explain why they didn’t seem to be worn down by life.
It has seemed to me that these people have tended to retain a variety of vocal tones and qualities. I've noticed that despite signs of physical aging, that there remains a sparkle in their eyes and face. These people have often demonstrated their ability to laugh and cry. I believe that such people are able to take off their armor. They are people who can dance and play and move gracefully. They have often had a smile that caused me to breath deeply, pause and take stock of my attitude.
There was a time when I met a whole community of such elders. The year was 1988, and I was on an interfaith peace pilgrimage. On our journey, we visited an intentional community in Tennessee founded by and for retired UCC Missionaries. I have never experienced such a community before or since then. In some ways, these elders seemed more alive, happy and energetic than a bunch of young adults. They emphasized joyful service, and I imagine it contributed to their vitality.
Among the people whose vitality has impressed me have been many artists and lovers of art. I’ve also met some wonderful activists whose passion for their ideals was invigorating. Other exceptional people impressed me with their love of family or community. I’ve known people who attribute their vitality to their love of dance, drama literature, sailing, music, mountains, wilderness, and more. The commonality in all these interests and activities is the love that shined in them.
I have observed something that has been expressed by writers for generations; those that have love inside them thrive. Those who succumb to fear, despair, resentment and cynicism become rigid, and stagnant and bitter.
How do we reverse the trend of armoring, of becoming numb to life? How to reclaim our ability to enter life, to live with gusto, passion and peace?
Some people have suggested that my romanticism is idealistic, that it is natural and inevitable that amazement fades with time and experience. I accept that the fading of our bodies is inevitable. I celebrate that there are seasons, cycles and patterns to life. I do not wish to participate in our cultural antagonism of death and aging. However, when it comes to emotion and spirituality, I reject the notion that we must grow ever dimmer until our flame goes out. I see no reason why we can’t find our way back to an inner knowing that we have what it takes to live in peace and abundance. We can decide to embrace life.
I believe that if we really decide to do this, and we stick with it, then we will figure how to do it as we go. Today I've attempted to set the compass toward vitality. I've emphasized love and attitude. I believe these to be key. Another is faith. And it follows that if we can embrace life we will be less likely to be worn down by it.
Many people have accepted a very limited view of what is possible in terms of relationship with life and its source which I choose to refer to as God. However you name the source of your inspiration and vitality, I challenge you to turn up your thermostat. If you are sitting on the fence about life, I encourage you to make a commitment. If you can't imagine doing this, I would only ask you to be willing to question what might be possible. To question how much your life could change if you had a change of heart. If you decided to become a person of faith, if you set out to be a bold lover of life and all things living.
Or if this kind of passion seems to you to be out of reach I would ask you to make a commitment to awakening, to accept the challenge to discover what is, to experience life as fully as you can. To do so we may need to stop pretending that we already know, to acknowledge life as a great mystery, a dynamic story that we are telling together, an amazing journey whose destination is unknown.
May your journeys be blessed. May your hearts be open, your sails fed by strong but gentle winds.
Holy and Compassionate source of inspiration, help us to find our way back to our hearts. Help us to remember our Inner Wisdom
We give thanks for this gathering, and the encouragement to choose love and life
We give thanks for the blessings that lead us on. We open our hearts to receive divine guidance. We welcome the strong and gentle winds that carry us on.