Once again, I am turning to the topic of life itself. I know I tend to go on about it but the question, "What is life itself?" has been the great question of my life and I keep trying to answer it. The fact that I am never satisfied completely with my answer tells me that it is a really important question. See my last entry on the subject and especially an earlier one, Jesus and the gospel of life itself.
It’s funny how some memories never leave, stick in your mind. As an undergraduate I attended church in a big, prospering church in Austin, TX. The senior minister was eloquent, successful, and powerful in the pulpit. He dominated Sunday mornings.
I was a sophomore at the University, back from three years in the Army.
The young associate minister was relegated to Sunday evenings, which I occasionally attended. This was back when Methodist churches had Sunday evening services.
On one Sunday, I also went to the Sunday evening service with a friend, and the young pastor got up and began speaking in a kind of impromptu, off-hand way, expressing his gratitude for each day's dawning, the morning paper, the milkman, the garbage trucks, the school bus, the weekly street sweepers, and so forth.
The entire sermon consisted of little more than a litany of the daily familiars which most rarely notice, most take for granted, and for which he was expressing delight and a kind of quiet joy.
The casual, unorganized style of the sermon embarrassed me. I expected more. I had expected something special. Maybe he could have added a little Paul Tillich, the famous theologian, to dress the sermon up, with his sermon, "You Are Accepted."
I felt at first the young minister was simply unprepared and was making it up as he went along. I said as much to my friend and he laughed about it and shrugged it off, but he never went back. I don't think I did either, not to the Sunday night service.
Now here’s the weird part. I can't remember a single one of the senior minister's sermons. I can remember the young minister’s sermon like it was yesterday. I can remember where we sat, the feel of the dark oak pews, and the scattered, mostly older members sitting throughout the big, almost empty sanctuary.
Yet, I could never put my finger on precisely what the sermon meant. It was like a puzzling but unforgettable dream.
All I can say is that this particular sermon stuck in my mind for decades, lodged with its vital clue, its bit of truth in my already hardening heart, waiting for me to wake up. I had gone to church looking for a moral point and something of a show. Instead, though I didn’t know it, I got a recipe for the spiritual life.
I suppose if I had tried to say back then what the sermon was about, putting the best face on it, I would have said something like "gratitude to God for even the simple things."
But then I would have missed its even deeper truth: the everyday world, if we open our eyes and our hearts, already carries its own grace for life renewing life. Life in the spirit, life itself, is the undefended life, life as the struggle to see the ordinary in its luminous, revelatory surprise.
Life itself is the struggle to come alive, to wake up, escaping the dream worlds of the past and its resentments and the future and its endless planning and desiring. Life itself is turning away from life gone into a deadening familiarity by our measuring eyes.
We live in a culture that celebrates something very different than life itself. This is the culture of endless, mindless consumption, a gospel of the good news found in a new car, a new television, a promotion, or a better tennis game.
The constant battle of the media and the corporations to get us to buy the next new thing is in reality a kind of religious war, a war to convince us to despise ordinary life itself as a kind of death. This is the gospel proclaimed from every television set, from every newspaper, the gospel of the streets, the gospel of You Tube.
When the rich young man asked Jesus how he could achieve a more abundant life, he said, “Sell all you have and give it to the poor.” The gospel reports that the young man went away with a despondent heart, for he had many possessions.
Maybe Jesus was talking about more than giving to the poor; he may have been talking about life itself as lost to those who do not pay attention to the gifts of life together, life that is open to the gifts and needs of life with others as well as a life lived only for ourselves.
It is now over 50 years since that Sunday evening in Austin. That minister’s quiet sermon still echoes in my life. I am still struggling to live out the gospel of life itself. I am finding, in retirement, beyond career and jobs, life itself is running on empty and it is good, really good.
Likely a big part of that acceptance of 'running on empty' is because we are living in Bisbee. Altogether, we have spent 10 years living in this small town in Arizona, the place on earth I have found where the gospel of life itself comes more alive than anywhere else I have lived.
In Bisbee I can talk about life itself and nearly everyone has a pretty good idea about what I mean (even if they think, ‘There he goes again, the 'Village Explainer'.”)
In a novel about Vietnam by James Webb, then our junior senator from Virginia, a fresh young West Point lieutenant lands by helicopter in a battle zone and strides over to a battle-weary corporal, resting near the edge of the clearing.
The lieutenant demanded, "Corporal, where is the enemy?" Grinning, and without getting up, the corporal responds by pointing to the small clearing they find themselves in: "We are here. They are everywhere else."
If we turn this image inside out, we have a pretty good definition of what life itself is about. Life itself is here, in front of us, and we are way too often everywhere else, fighting for status, recognition, notice, distinctiveness, warriors everywhere in the world but home.
I once had a weird, recurring fantasy, in the early days of my career: what if my career went belly-up and I was reduced to working, say, in a Woolworth’s or, today, a Dollar General? What would become of me? Or, more close to home, what if I, as I grow old and retired, find myself facing each day without enjoying life itself as ultimate gift?
Here’s the strange part. My memories of that evening left me with a strangely comforting and reassuring feeling. I somehow felt that everything would be well. In fact I saw this ‘fall from a high place’ as a fall into grace. I suppose my fantasy was to remind me of my mother’s and father’s life together, with its simplicities and its decencies, and my mother’s life long struggle with a debilitating disease.
At the end of her life, weeks before her death and in a nursing home, our mother told me the story of the time in Oklahoma when they were poor, living in a small town in Oklahoma, Bokchito, during the Dust Bowl and the opening years of the Great Depression.
There had been fire in a store in the neighboring town of Durant, Oklahoma, and her father, Walter Parish, drove his horse and wagon over to Durant to buy a wagonload of cans of food left from a burnt out store. Because the labels were gone, he got the canned goods for next to nothing.
And then our mother said, “We had such a wonderful winter that year, waiting to be surprised each night with what we would be eating for dinner.”
Somehow, I think my mother was talking about life itself, was giving me the secret. She was confessing the gospel of life itself as gift that never stops giving.
Now you have got to remember that when she met our father, our mother was working in a Woolworth’s in Tyler, Texas, and my father, a bread salesman, courted my mother in a Mrs. Baird's bread truck.
So if all this seems like dime store philosophizing, it is meant to be. Life itself even as nothing special is the gift beyond compare. Life itself is when, in the midst of the everyday or the extraordinary, in joy or in pain and sorrow, somehow you want to reach up and put your arms around it, all of it, and say "Thank you." To God, or to the universe, or to whatever.
Thanks be to life itself.