What Matters Most

(Video) Following the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, Rev. Peter reflects on what matters most in our lives. 



Some days I can enter
the holy of holies
by snapping my fingers:
the door swings open. 

Other days I ransack
every pocket to find the key
and when I get inside
the room is darkened. 

There's mud on the floor,
the intricate altar
is grimy, askew,
its heartbeat silenced. 

I sweep the ashes away
open my thermos of tea
re-hang the tapestries,
great branches arching. 

At last I light the lamp:
the glint, the glow
regenerating, the homefire
eternally burning. 

Learn to trust again
that this oil is enough
to open my eyes
to God, already here. 

                 --Rachel Barenblat


I was going to start today’s sermon with a light-hearted talk about all the predictions about the end of the world.  You know, the Mayan calendar and all that.  In fact, I wrote that sermon over a week ago.  Then Friday happened.  I was in New York City with friends, just 40 miles or so from Newtown, Connecticut.  It was a cool, crisp, clear day.  Why is that?  Why is it always a beautiful day when things like this happen?  I remember 9/11 was a beautiful, clear day, too.  So was December 7, 1941 in Pearl Harbor, I’m told.  

It always starts out like any other day, doesn’t it?  We drink our coffee, kiss our kids goodbye and head off to work.  Ordinary.  The long string of days that preceded Friday were all like the others.  No hint of what’s to come.  Why would we expect Friday to be any different than Thursday, or Wednesday or the day before or the day before?  Sometimes they’re so ordinary, this march of days, that we get bored.  It’s monotonous.  We even complain about how ordinary our lives are.  And then something like this happens and we would give anything for just an ordinary day.

We cannot fathom the grief of the parents who lost children in Friday’s tragedy.  How an ordinary day turned into a nightmare they’ll relive for the rest of their lives.  I woke up Saturday morning thinking about how many mornings those parents will wake up and, for the briefest moment, in that instant between sleeping and being fully awake, believe that it was all some horrible dream.  And then, an instant later, realize it wasn’t.  I think the human brain is hard-wired to prevent us from being able to imagine what they’re going through and what their lives will be like.  What their gut-wrenching grief is like.  It’s a defense mechanism that allows us to walk out the door, kiss our kids goodbye and put them on the bus every morning.  Unless we’ve lost a child ourselves, we can’t imagine it, and that’s as it should be.

In a very real way, for 27 families, the world came to an end on Friday.  Yes, they will go on living, living a new reality, with broken hearts and empty chairs at the dining room table.  But life as they knew it ended Friday morning.  We don’t need a Mayan calendar or the leader of some apocalyptic sect to tell us that. Dire predictions of the end of the world do little to arouse us.  We don’t change our habits or act like they’re real.  But what the Sandy Hook shootings show us is that our world – the world as we know and love it – can come to an end in an instant.  Out of the blue – out of the clear blue sky of a beautiful day – everything we know and love can be lost without warning.  And so today I don’t want to talk to you about gun control or the Second Amendment.  I don’t want to start the debate about programs for mental health or the break-down of the family and the fabric of society.  What I want to talk to you about is how we live our lives knowing that it all can change in an instant.  Because, my friends, as much as we might like to deny it, it can.  The end is always near.

It doesn’t come as news to us that our lives, and the lives of our loved ones, are precarious.  And I don’t think it’s possible or even positive to live each day like it’s our last.  That would put too much strain on us and our spirits.  To “live like we’re dying” isn’t realistic nor would it, in all likelihood, make us particularly productive members of society.  There are a good number of us who would probably lock the doors and pull down the shades, trying to keep the tiger at bay.  Live a “no-risk” life in a desperate attempt to prolong it. Then there are others who would take the narcissistic approach.  Do all the things we’ve wanted to do. Empty our bank accounts and take a trip around the world.  Check as many things off our “bucket list” as we could, trying to keep one step ahead of the Grim Reaper.  

Perhaps the most telling evidence we can find about this question of “How do we live life in the face of death?”  is to look at what those who know that they are close to the end of their lives have said.  Bronnie Ware, who is a palliative care nurse who has walked with hundreds of people through their last days on earth, has compiled what she’s been told by her patients in a book titled “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.”  And not surprisingly, never having gone bungee jumping or sky diving are not among them. Using poignant and touching stories of her patients, Ware has collated her patients’ longings into five broad categories.  They are:  

  • I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  • I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  • I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings
  • I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends
  • I wish I had let myself be happier

These five responses don’t have the immediacy that our question demands, but they do point us toward a deeper response to that question.  They say that we might live more authentically, with more integrity.  To search and discover, and then live out who we were born to be.  Knowing that that may disappoint our parents, our partners, our friends.  They tell us that we’d work to reinforce the relationships we have and try to restore those we’ve lost.  That our relationships are what truly matter and that we wouldn’t treat them casually or take them for granted.  That we’d really work at them instead of letting them drift away. They also show that we would try to establish a healthier balance between meeting our obligations and enjoying our lives.  That pleasure isn’t purposeless and the Puritan work ethic and our desire for more – more money, more stuff – isn’t the ultimate goal.  Perhaps we might even simplify our lives and learn the meaning of “enough.”  And finally, these conversations reveal that we would give ourselves permission, or even make the conscious choice, to be happier.  To approach life in a way that’s lighter and less burdened. To claim the contentment we’re entitled to instead of beating ourselves up about our shortcomings.

Dr. Ira Byock is a specialist in end of life care.  In his years of work with terminally ill patients and their families he has arrived at the conclusion that there are four things that, as he says, “matter most.”  These four things serve as guideposts for the journey, even if we’re not near the end of it.  They inform how we are, or can be, with each other in our relationships, how we can be they with family or friends.  As Dr. Byock says in the introduction to his book, “Comprising just eleven words, these four short sentences carry the core wisdom of what people who are dying have taught me about what matters most in life.”   Those four short sentences are:

  • Please forgive me
  • I forgive you
  • Thank you
  • I love you

“The specter of death,” Dr. Byock tells us, “reveals our relationships to be our most precious possessions.” We all know this to be true, when we stop and think about it.  But sometimes we lose sight of it in all our busy-ness, our drive to get ahead and get things done. Or in the “ordinariness” of our everyday lives.   Asking for and offering forgiveness, and expressing both our love and our gratitude helps to reconcile relationships that are broken and to reinforce those that are not.  These four statements open the doors to experiencing those relationships in new and deeply profound ways.  Ways that are anything but ordinary.  

A third sage I turn to when thinking about how to live a life that, as he said, is “worth dying for,” is Rev. Forrest Church.  He put it in terms of just three simple sentences:  Be who you are.  Want what you have. Do what you can.  I don’t think I can put it any more succinctly than that, and I’ve preached a separate sermon on each of those statements, so I don’t feel the need to elaborate on them here.

Be yourself.  Allow yourself to be happy.  Treasure the precious people in your lives and let them know you do.  Seek and grant forgiveness, early and often.  Allow your love to gain full expression in the words you say and the way you live.  Be grateful for what you have, and don’t keep reaching so far for that brass ring.  It’s not rocket science.  It’s both  profoundly simple and simply profound.

My favorite cartoon about the Mayan calendar and its ending on December 21, 2012 shows two men standing before a large carved stone, one holding a chisel and hammer.  The one with the tools says “I only had enough room on the stone to get to 2012.”  And the other man tells him, “Ha!  That’ll freak somebody out someday.”  As the days of 2012 come to an end, and we turn the page to a new year, let us resolve to live in the ways we aspire.  With authenticity, with balance, with courage.  Let us ask for and offer forgiveness early and often.  May we share with each other the love that we hold in our hearts, and may we be deeply grateful for this one wild and precious life, and all the blessings it has to offer.

This day, and every day, I wish you peace.  Amen.