We lost our friend Red Bird last Friday. Red was an exceptional human being. He exuded the peace of a man who knew he had lived a full life and left this world a more decent place. Red approached death the same way he approached life; with great integrity, with a sense of curiosity and an ability to connect with people around him.
He lived with his impending death for some time, but in his last months was able to complete his anti war novel The Scorned Ally set in Cuba in 1898. He met intentionally over the last weeks to say goodbye to family and friends, and even started a blog to write about the dying experience to encourage and inform others. He used every ounce of waking energy he had to live well right up to the point of death. Among his many life achievements, the image that will linger in my mind is Red’s smile- radiant, full of joy.
It makes you think doesn’t it? If you knew you had only a small amount of time left to live, would you waste a minute of it? Here is the reality- you do only have a small amount of time left to live. You have a terminal condition called mortality, and you have only a matter of years left to live. So live now while you have time. Make the most of every waking moment. I’m like the doctor calling you to his office to deliver news of your certain death. The diagnosis? Mortality! An unexpected illness might take you sooner than later, but one way or another death will visit. Be prepared for death, not by fretting over the afterlife but by shining all the light you have to shine while you are alive.
It’s amazing what the news of death can do to a person. There’s an episode of the TV show House where Wilson wrongly diagnoses a man with terminal cancer. He later realizes his mistake and calls the man in to explain. He expects the man to be elated, but finds instead that he is devastated. When he found out he was going to die the man discovered an incredible zest for life. He now wants to sue the hospital for ruining the urgent enjoyment of life that can only come from knowing that your death is imminent.
One of the features of a new spiritual community is that there is no fear of hell and judgment, but there is the reality of preparing for death by living fully now, accepting change and the encouragement to manifest your genius while you have time.
We come into the world alone and we will leave the world alone. But the most fortunate among us will be surrounded by good company like bookends on our life. Clarissa Pinkola Estes tells the story of an old man who is dying in Women Who Run With the Wolves. The old man calls his people to his side. He gives a short, sturdy stick to each of his family members and friends. "Break the stick," he instructs them. With some effort, they all snap their sticks in half.
"This is how it is when a soul is alone without anyone. They can be easily broken."
The old man next gives each of his kin another stick, and says, "This is how I would like you to live after I pass. Put your sticks together in bundles of twos and threes. Now, break these bundles in half."
No one can break the sticks when there are two or more in a bundle. The old man smiles. "We are strong when we stand with another soul. When we are with another, we cannot be broken."
Alone you are strong. In community you are even stronger. You have incredible inner resources. In community, you become a force to be reckoned with. In community you ask questions and consider the big issues of life in good company. In community you celebrate and commiserate the significant moments in life together. Lily Tomlin said, “We’re all in this together, by ourselves.” What a brilliant saying. Both things are true. You have absolutely everything you need to take charge of your life, and you are also surrounded by loving, supportive community. That is called a win/win- personal autonomy and community support.
In 2004 a significant study was undertaken in the US. Two questions were asked of the sample group.
1. Looking back over the last six months - who are the people with whom you discussed matters important to you?
2. How many friends outside of your household do you have that you see or speak to at least once a week?
25% of the people surveyed said that they had not discussed important matters with a single person in six months. This percentage has gone up rapidly in the last decades. The average number of friends outside of the home that people spoke to at least once a week was 2. This number has gone down in the last decades. With the advent of social media networks like Facebook, we are connected to more people, and know more about them, but have less face to face contact.
This is a major social problem, but it’s also a personal tragedy. Community is the antidote to the despair of isolation. This is where you practice being human together, where you learn forgiveness and collaboration. This is where you draw the best out of others and others draw the best out of you.
Cycling offers an awesome analogy for this win/win- drafting. Each rider takes their turn to ride out in front creating a wind shield for the riders coming up behind. Each rider is till peddling and working hard, but the effect of the whole group adds impact and strength. We need community- as an encouragement, as a source of wisdom and advice, as a check and balance to sharpen us and challenge us.
Community is important, but how involved do you have to be? Can you maybe just loiter at the edge of the community? What about membership? Do you have to go that far? Groucho Marx once sent a telegram to the exclusive Friar’s Club in Hollywood: “Please accept my resignation” he said, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.” Woody Allen then took up the same joke in the opening scene of Annie Hall. He relates the joke to relationships. I wouldn’t want to be in relationship with anyone who would be willing to be in relationship with me.
Maybe you don’t feel worthy of being a member, or don’t feel ready to make a commitment. Maybe you feel like you are not the member type. Consider changing your preconceptions about what a member is. Being a member is not a trap of any sort. It’s a way of publicly affirming that you belong, that you care, and that you value the community.
There are no heavy requirements on membership. It’s not like the church I heard about where people had to meet with the minister for an inquisition before being admitted as members. Three couples were at this particular meeting with the pastor. The pastor explained his rule that all new members must go three weeks without being intimate. Three weeks went by and the first couple came back. The pastor said, “So how did it go?” “It was pretty hard, but we made it,” said the first couple.
“Welcome to our church,” said the pastor.
The second couple came back and the pastor asked them the same question. Their reply was the same as the first couple’s and the pastor welcomed them into the church.
The third couple came back and the pastor asked them the same question, and the man replied, “We were doing pretty well until last night when my wife dropped her fork during dinner. When she bent over to pick up it up my passions ran riot and, well, I just couldn’t contain myself.”
The pastor interrupted him, “I’m sorry, but you’re not welcome in our church.”
“That’s okay,” said the couple, “We’re definitely moving. We’re not welcome at the local restaurant either.”
That’s one reputation that would be hard to live down.
You don’t lose any autonomy or freedom by becoming a member. You strengthen the community which in turn strengthens you- it’s a beautiful cycle. The more you give, the more commitment, the more of yourself, the more you gain. There are no theological hoops to jump through, no statements to sign, no magical claims on salvation. There is just the excitement of a shared vision for a healed world.
Maybe you resist membership because you have been hurt by organized religion before, and you don’t fully trust any spiritual community no matter how progressive. C3 is not perfect, but it is forgiving. The actor Victor Mature was once denied membership in an exclusive country club because he was an actor. He said, “I’m no actor, and I’ve got thirty movies to prove it.” We don’t claim to be anything special here other than human. We’re not following a script for how life unfolds. We experiment, learn from our mistakes, listen to each other and keep moving forward.
Something incredible happens when people come together with realistic expectations of human failings and a massive vision.
Something incredible happened to a group of first century Jews at the time that is known as Pentecost. It was first written about 50 years after the event so the details likely evolved creatively over time. But something happened that changed their whole perspective. The miracle was not a miracle of speaking in tongues. The miracle was that everyone present heard in a way that made sense to them. They “got it” simultaneously. They caught the vision that earlier Hebrew Prophets had spoken about. It was a vision of unity. The incredible thing is that men and women of many cultures heard and understood the vision in their own way, children caught the vision, slaves heard the vision. They were all one. They were all together, by themselves.
How do we test the reliability of an unlikely story like this? We look at the results or the fruits of their lives. Don’t get distracted by skepticism about the details. Just accept that the story of Pentecost was like the fish that grew with each telling. Its not history to go by. It’s a story to grow by. We are told that they responded to this vision by living in communities of respect and justice. They shared what they had with the poor and created mindful rituals that included Jew and non Jew. They created inclusive spiritual communities.
Today we gather in spiritual community. We are from a number of different backgrounds. We use different language to describe the mystery that sources our joy. Some of us take more of a left brain approach- linear and logical. Some of us take a more right brain approach, creative and open ended. The miracle won’t be conformity. The miracle will be a shared vision that finds strength in diversity.
Let me end with a poem written by Red Bird that captures the essence of human potential.
As one translucent slice of time
That plays across the shining sun
But once. Every breath
Depletes the finite gift.
Even at birth, as we swim
Towards first breath, we catapult
Into space as glorious rainbows,
And fade just short
Of bridging the abyss.
So plunge into the dance, and shine.
- Leonard Bird