Sunday, October 26, 2008

Life before and after the comma - A sermon preached at the memorial service for deceased members of the Harvard College Class of 1978 - Oct. 11, 2008

Once more the alumni office and its minions have worked their magic. “Fair Harvard, we join in thy jubilee throng, and with blessings surrender thee o’er,” although our blessings are not what they were before the Dow dropped below 9,000.  Harvard welcomes back its scattered sons and daughters to enjoy its hospitality; to see old friends; make new ones; to laugh or cry or blush as we remember how impossibly young we were when Derek Bok was president of Harvard; Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter occupied the White House and Peter Gomes had a mustache. 

Once again the Yard is thrown open to us, and we can enjoy the haute cuisine of the Houses, the evening at the Pops, the pomp of graduation. No, that’s not right, is it? What’s wrong with this picture? This reunion is in the fall, not the spring; there’s no evening at the Pops; and we’ve been banished from the Yard. Something is different this time. We seem to have been demoted. It appears that once our 25th reunion passes we are no longer the darlings of the Alumni and Development offices. We are past our prime; over the hill; or (in the famous words of Tom Lehrer) “sliding down the razor blade of life.”

 But isn’t that simply a fact of life that we must all accept? Not all the botox, skin peels, knee and hip replacements, Rogaine, scalp plugs, gym memberships nor any of the infinite number of products guaranteed to restore youth or slow aging will long hide or delay the fact that “earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away. Change and decay in all around I see…” Or to borrow a song from that OTHER university: “we will pass and be forgotten like the rest.” 

And if we HAD forgotten any of those things, today’s solemn task would have reminded us. Amid the laughter and nostalgia, before the symposia and the football game, we pause to remember a Superior Court judge who also wrote book reviews for his local newspaper; a Rhodes Scholar who took time from his career as a lawyer to serve on numerous community boards; a computer scientist whose love of flying led him to develop cutting edge software for the aviation industry; and each of the others – a husband, wife, or partner; father or mother; sister or brother; whose passing leaves an emptiness and grief that, in time, will become less painful but will never completely heal. 

This memorial service inserts a note of reality into our reunion festivities. It puts a comma between the visit to classmate Governor Deval Patrick at the Statehouse and the symposium featuring classmate Governor Deval Patrick following the service. Without this pause, this comma, if you will, we would rush through our reunion and not remember the classmates who have gone before us. More importantly, we might not stop to think that one day our names, too, will be read out at this service.

 Punctuation is as important in life as it is in the written word. We all enjoy the exclamation marks: weddings, the birth of a child, the achievement of partnership in the firm or tenure, making it to the top of the mountain (either literal or metaphorical). And we all endure the question marks: the death of  loved ones, the loss of a job, the end of a marriage or love not returned. But I’m inclined to believe that the comma is the most important punctuation mark in life’s story. It invites us to slow down, pay attention, look around, and perhaps re-orient ourselves.

 In the play Wit elderly English professor, Evelyn Ashford, underscores the importance of punctuation when she criticizes her student Vivian, the play’s central character, for having used a poorly edited version of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets as the basis for an essay. “The last line should read, ‘Death’ comma ‘thou shalt die.’ Only a comma separates life and life everlasting.”

 On this day and in this place we may all be wondering if Dr. Ashford was correct. Is death a comma or a period? And if it is a comma, what comes after? Surely religion has the answer, because, after all, isn’t religion mostly concerned with what happens after the comma, with “life everlasting” rather than life in this world? 

In my opinion, that is the most common mistake that people make about religion – to believe that it is more concerned with what happens after the comma than with what happens before it, with life in the next world than with life in this world. 

We do well to remember and honor our classmates who have gone before us, who await us at the final reunion of the Class of 1978. But we do better to honor them by living our lives fully and energetically, by being as engaged in this world as possible.

 The following words, read at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, seem especially apt to me:


If I should die and leave you here awhile, 
Be not like others, sore undone, who keep 
Long vigils by the silent dust, and weep. 
For my sake - turn again to life and smile, 
Nerving thy heart and trembling hand to do 
Something to comfort other hearts than thine. 
Complete those dear unfinished tasks of mine 
And I, perchance, may therein comfort you.

 Think of these reunions as great punctuation marks, commas in our own personal narratives. They give us a chance to pause, remember, and reflect about who we were thirty years ago, about who and what we hoped we might become and perhaps, even who we still might be.

 In reading our Thirtieth Class Report I was struck frequently by the number of you who have already experienced life after death. I mean, how many of you have found that life goes on after the death of a parent, a spouse, or even a child; how many of you have found new love after divorce; how many have found a new and more meaningful career after the loss of a job or after your old career had grown stale and had become dull and tedious, and how often the new career involves giving a significant amount of your time, energy, and financial resources to a cause greater than yourselves: to helping the hungry and homeless or seeking solutions to the global environmental crisis.

 My religion has a name for the new life that begins when the old one has died: we call it resurrection. Resurrection can happen any time. The only prerequisite is that first we must die. The death may be literal or it may be one of the thousand ways that we die throughout our lives.

 Perhaps we would fear death less if we made its acquaintance, if we realized that it visits us not once but many times, and that it is death that makes life infinitely precious. It is the very shortness and finitude of life that makes us cherish it and find it meaningful. Treasure every moment with the people you love because we are given such a small handful of them. Take full advantage of this reunion, this comma in life’s narrative. Laugh and perhaps even cry with old friends; make new ones; dive headlong into a pile of leaves in Harvard Yard.

 So, is death a comma rather than a period? Does only a comma separate life from life everlasting? I suspect that is a question we must each answer for ourselves. But I want to suggest that you will find the answer (or find that the question becomes irrelevant) if you follow poet Wendell Berry’s advice and begin right now to “practice resurrection:”

 every day do something

that won't compute. Love the Lord.

Love the world. Work for nothing.

Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.

Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.

 In one of his parables, Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard points out that a student is allotted only so much time to complete an exam and whether she uses every minute of the test period or just a small fraction of the time, it makes no difference as long as she is finished before the time expires. But what if life itself is the test? If that is the case, then it would be tragic indeed to be finished with life before life is finished with us.

 But life is not finished with any of us. Whether you believe that only a comma separates life from life everlasting or that death is (as the British say) a “full stop”, we have all the time we need to lead a full and meaningful life. And the forty-seven classmates who have gone before us would surely expect us to do no less than to take up their unfinished tasks, to complete our own unfinished business, to be joyful even though we have considered all the facts.