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The Form of Eternity – 11/3/2013

The story is told of three religious leaders, from different faiths, who met in the course of their work. Adam, a Rabbi, met Musa, an Imam, through an organization for Muslim-Jewish dialog. Musa introduce him to Father Matthew, a priest who had reached out to Imam Musa’s congregation to stand with them in solidarity after their mosque was vandalized. The three men found opportunities to work together, and bring their congregations into relationship. They grew close. They shared with each other about their lives, their hopes and fears. Confidentially, each confided in the others their private theological doubts. They admitted to some uncertainty about what, if anything, awaited after the great mystery of death. But each agreed that the other was a virtuous man, and deserved a share in whatever reward might await.
It happens, that all three men died on the same day, and so were able to face the great revelation at the same time. Standing together before the throne of glory, they fell to their knees before the Holy One. A voice, powerful but kind, rang out, asking who approached. They were awed into silence until one of them spoke – and who can say which one, “We are Rabbi Adam Schuler, Imam Musa Ibrahim, and Father Matthew Reilly.” At this answer, the heavens around them began to tremble, and the same voice replied, full of anger, “What is this, some kind of joke?”
What do Unitarian Universalists believe happens to us after we die? This is a question that I get asked from time to time. Many other religions have very specific ideas about what follows death, and those ideas are very important for them. We happen to be much clearer about what we don’t believe than what we do believe: we don’t believe in hell, or any other bad place where you go to be punished when your life is through. Some of us believe in a literal heaven, a future life of relief and ease for the spirit after the body has died. Some of us point out that there is no scientific basis that idea. Our tradition prefers to welcome such differences of belief, rather than forcing all to conform to the ideas of some. But when we think of those we love who have died, or when we face the prospect of dying ourselves, it is natural to wonder and to want some answer we can make peace with. ‘When my life has ended, what next? What will remain?’
Here are the two most certain things I know about being alive: lives begin, and they end. What comes in between is far less predictable. Some of us have brief lives, most of us live longer, and some of us live longer still. But none of us live forever. Our bodies grow and change – throughout our lives they do different things well and different things not so well. But no matter what, one day, they stop being able to live.
Yet the ending of our lives does not mean the ending of who we are. Many of the earliest novels written in English begin with the birth of the main character, and follow them through life, sometimes to death or a time just shortly before it. Dating back to that time and even before that, there is a common consensus in storytelling: when the main character has died, the story is most certainly over. But when the lives of real people end, our stories are only in their early chapters.
The people who have known and love us continue to do so, and that knowledge and love continues to shape who they are, and how they move in the world. The consequences of our having lived continue on. The cartoonish Zach Weiner writes and draws the story of a person who gets a package in the mail. The package is from a loved one who has died, and the note attached says, “If there were a way to reach beyond death, I would’ve stopped this package before you got it.” But it goes on to explain that the package is full of candy – the sender of the package wants the person receiving it to be happy and that desire, and limited ability to accomplish it, could not be stopped by death. “I am only gone from myself,” the note reads. “Not from you.”
We do not only endure in the lives of people who love us, of course. The grudges and resentments that connected us to others don’t go away either, on our deaths. We can be remembered with malice as well as kindness, and mistakes we make and the harm we do live on even when we do not. In such an interconnected world, we can’t know everything that will follow from every choice that we make. But while our tradition is varied on the topic of a spiritual afterlife it is crystal clear on the subject of love. The practice of a generous, compassionate, justice-seeking love is always our ideal. The possibility of acting with love makes the risk of our own mistakes and failures in life worthwhile. In a world where evil is all-too real, and sin too commonplace, the saving wonder is that love also persists, and calls us again and again to lives of greater wholeness and meaning.
Even the unknown and forgotten episodes of our lives continue to echo, so that the meaning and value of a life cannot be measured in the number of people who come to their funeral. What goes unknown and unseen by anyone else, still is, even after we are not. In one of the stories of the Buddha, the demon Mara challenged his many lifetimes of devotion and preparation for enlightenment. “I have an army of witnesses to my own practice and spiritual cultivation,” Mara said. “Where are yours?” The monk’s answer, sitting all alone with no other living being to rely on, was to touch the earth, and call the world itself as witness. A similar theme can be found in the book of Joshua, among other places in the Hebrew Bible. And something like it pops up again in the Gospel According to Luke, when Jesus is challenged to silence his followers and declares, “If they keep quiet, the stones themselves will shout.”
Baruch Spinoza, one of my favorite heretics, spoke of “the form of eternity.” This was his name for seeing everything in the larger context of things. So that a life had to be viewed as a whole. George Santayana continued this theme, and I’m going to paraphrase some of his words here:
When our life is over, it remains true that we have lived; it remains true that we have been one sort of person, and not another. In the infinite mosaic of history, that bit has its unfading colour and its perpetual function and effect. Those who understand themselves under the form of eternity know the quality that eternally belong to them, and know that they cannot wholly die, even if they would; for when the moment of our lives are over, the truth of our lives remain.
When I was child, my family included two cats. I loved them. They shed a lot and purred very loudly, which is why one of them was named Evinrude – which is a brand of outboard boat motor. They were the same age, and they died very close together. We buried them in our backyard, in a little spot where crocuses – that’s a type of flower – would pop up every spring. Their lives are finished, but the truth of their lives remains. What they did, what any of us does, matters whether or not anyone else knows it and even long after there is no one else who remembers it.

milder Warm to, comparing midnight American.

The facts of the lives we choose for ourselves are a part of the eternal record of everything that has ever been.
It is from this record, up to this very second, that every subsequent fact and detail of history emerges. Our lives and our world grow, moment to moment, from the rich soil of what has come before us. We may have many beliefs, or no belief at all, about what happens to us after we die. This suits our faith well, for ours is a religion of the here and now, focused on what is possible, what is necessary, and what is beautiful in this world we share. But this is true no matter what else: the fact of a person’s life is a part of the reason behind every life that comes after them in the course of history. The work of being alive is to make that history more full of mercy, justice, and love. When we die, that work ends for us. But the proceeds of our labor – the part of us which does not die – continues on.


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