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Presented December 22, 2002, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning
On dying daily? Why am I talking about dying, about dying daily. Don't I know it's Christmas time and winter solstice time? Don't I know I should be talking about birth and light and renewal? Dying daily? Sounds depressing! As a matter of fact, that's exactly the reaction of one of our members upon hearing the title: "sounds depressing."
But I need to talk about exactly this, about this phrase and this spiritual concept, dying daily, because in the last month or so I have two encounters with the concept, and I want to work through them and talk about them with you, in hopes of understanding better a few little things, like myself, you, us, our Unitarian spirituality, Christian spirituality, the meaning of Christmas this year, the possible war with Iraq, American foreign policy, love as the spirit of this church, and who knows maybe a few other things too.
So I will be talking about this concept of dying daily in two specific and different ways relating to the two different experiences I have had recently. The first meaning of the phrase dying daily relates specifically to Jesus and to Christianity and to the concept of Jesus dying every day, and the second meaning of the phrase begins with the line from St. Paul, "I die daily", and concerns the spiritual practice of dying daily. So the first is specifically Christological and Christian, though I want to bring this first and specifically Christian meaning of dying daily into conversation with Unitarian spirituality, and the second meaning of the phrase has to do with the spiritual practice of dying daily that is probably more central to Buddhism than to any of the other religious traditions we honor here in this place.
The first and specifically Christian meaning of the phrase dying daily I experienced when I went to Springfield recently for a teach-in on peace and war with Iraq sponsored by the Catholic Dominican sisters of Springfield and by the Abraham Lincoln UU Church in Springfield. I had hoped to learn a great deal about the history of Iraq and America's various dealings with this country over the years, but the program was really very disappointing and didn't give you any information you didn't know already. The simplicity of the program really irritated me to be honest with you, but I was still glad that I went because I met a few of the Dominican sisters from Springfield. One of the things one of the Dominican sisters said really stuck in my head. She was talking about the effect of US/UN sanctions on the people of Iraq, the starvation, the deaths by diseases, the infant mortality rate, all of which she expressed quite succinctly in her own Dominican way by saying: "Christ dies every day in Iraq."
Christ dies every day in Iraq. A simple statement, but there's so much theology compressed in it. I know you are familiar with the old story of Christian theology. Humans sinned, and God needed to help us out so he sent His Son, born on Christmas day, but his real significance is later when he died for our sins. But how does this old Christian theology equate to: Christ dies every day in Iraq? Well, with that one statement the Dominican nun was drawing upon wider theological resources than you get in an American Sunday School or in your ordinary Protestant or Catholic church. She might have been expressing a theology much closer to Eastern Orthodox theology, which is really very different from western Christian theology largely because it is without the influence of St. Augustine. Eastern Othodoxy puts much more emphasis than western Christianity on Christmas Day, on the birth of Jesus rather than the death of Jesus. Eastern Orthodoxy tends to interpret the significance of Jesus more in terms of a theology of incarnation (God becoming humanity) than a theology of atonement (God demanding a sacrifice for sin). Thus, in Eastern Orthodoxy, in the baby Jesus, God was taking on all human experiences, making human experiences His own experiences, marrying human experiences with divine experiences. In Eastern Orthodoxy, the significance of Christmas Day is that humans and God are now knitted together. Not just Jesus but all humanity is elevated in the incarnation. Christmas Day means that humanity itself is made holy; there are no human experiences that are separated and outside of God's experiences. The happiness of humans is God's happiness and the misery of humans is God's misery because in the incarnation God takes humanity itself into the Godhead. There is no one, no human being, outside the Godhead, no human being, even the least, even the most forgotten, who is not holy. Because of the incarnation, Christ is every human and every human is Christ, and no one is outside of holiness. Now if that doesn't sound like what you were taught in Sunday School or catechism, if you have a Christian background, that's because this incarnational theology is dominant in Eastern Christianity but not in western Christianity, which is dominated by the concepts of sin, the fall, atonement, blood sacrifice, etc. That Dominican Sister expressed all of this beyond Augustinian and beyond the dominant western Christianity theology when she said: Christ dies every day in Iraq. And she did speak, after all, as a Dominican, and from the depths of one of those great Christian spiritual traditions of the west that is not Augustinian and much closer in its theology to Eastern Orthodoxy. Dominicans and Franciscans have always stressed poverty and simplicity not to prove themselves better than other human beings but because they believe the significance of the incarnation means that simple, elemental humanity is holy. When that Dominican nun said "Christ dies every day in Iraq," I knew she was speaking along with the great mystics of the Christian traditions-so many of them women-and with that greatest of all Dominican mystics, Meister Eckhart, who once told his community of early women Dominicans: "humanity is as holy in the poorest and most wretched person as it is in the Pope."
And Sophia Lyon Fahs, one of the great Unitarians of the 20th century, says to us and we as Unitarians affirm together at Christmas: "each night a child is born is a holy night." And we say it, it seems to me, as something like a corrective to our Christian culture. It's as if we are saying to Christian culture: You put all the significance on this one night, on Christmas Eve, and on this one child, born to save us from sin, but no, no no. Each night a child is born is a holy night. Don't we Unitarians want to make this spiritual affirmation at this time of year, this spiritual affirmation Sophia Lyon Fahs has expressed so well when she says and has us say: Each night a child is born is a holy night? And as we make this spiritual affirmation and proclaim the holiness of every human life, we do have a spiritual tie with those who do believe that humanity is as holy in the poorest person as it is in the pope and who tell us from the depths of their own spiritual tradition that Christ dies every day in Iraq. We Unitarians do have spiritual ties and spiritual connections with the spiritual depths of other religious traditions.
But that world, that mindset, that spirituality which declares the holiness of every human being, the holiness of every night when any human being is born, that still seems so far away and unreal and ideal, something only to be awaited or worked toward. I know if I told my Catholic and Protestant students at my Catholic university that Christ dies every day in Iraq, most would not know what I was talking about, and I don't think there are very many Christian churches where the people really think of people dying of starvation in Iraq as Christ dying or think that every night an Iraqi baby is born is a holy night. And the discourse about the war, about whether we should have another war with Iraq, seems to be all about what we feel Iraq can do to us, how many weapons Sadam Hussein has, what kinds, what might he do to us, to Americans. There seems to be very little discussion about the Iraqi people themselves, about our responsibilities to them, about how they have suffered under both Sadam Hussein and the sanctions, about the best way to end their long and devastating misery. We cannot get very far into this conversation because if we do we will have to discuss how many Iraqi civilians died in the first Persian Gulf War and how many have died as a result of our destruction of the infrastructure of the country through the economic sanctions imposed since 1990. There seems to be, even as we contemplate attacking them, very little spiritual awareness declaring that the Iraqi people are just as holy and just as valuable as every American. There seems to be in our public discussion of this possible war very little spiritual insistence that "every night a child is born is a holy night." I don't know if we should attack Iraq or not, but I do know that if we are truly spiritual people we need to think about this beyond simply what the dangers are for us. We definitely need to do something to stop the suffering of the Iraqi people, caused both by their brutal dictator and by the inhumane way we have tried to counter him through the economic sanctions. As the Dominican sister said, "Christ dies every day in Iraq" which means of course that an Iraqi child is just as much Christ as an American child. Ironically, just this morning the First Lady said that the message of September 11th that she hopes all Americans understood clearly "is how important our children are to us and our country is to us."
The second meaning of dying daily I have encountered recently comes from the quotation by St. Paul in the New Testament. I've never been a big fan of Paul. He's one of those writers who says very wrong things and some very brilliant things as well. Earlier in First Corinthians he says women should keep quiet in church, but then having said that he throws in a gem, one of my favorite lines in the Bible. He says: "I die daily."
I die daily. Now what could Paul mean by that? I found myself remembering this line, or reminding myself to live by it and practice it, a few weeks ago. I was dealing with a student whom I had dealt with before. Because I had dealt with him before, I knew how to interpret his actions in the present. I felt I had a good understanding of who he was and why he was doing what he was doing. But when I actually talked to him about the situation, I came to understand things very differently. He was different than what I thought and his actions were different from what I thought. I was a bit ashamed of myself for being too narrow, for thinking I understood and could interpret accurately out of what I already had experienced and known, and when I realized that was when I remembered those words from Paul: I die daily.
I die daily. This is so contrary to how we usually live and think. We anticipate and often do experience such continuity and consistency in people. When I decided to speak about this, I had no idea Senator Trent Lott was going to step forward at Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party to illustrate this continuity and consistency so perfectly. Even after all these years, more than 50 years, he still believes the country would be better off if Strom Thurmond would have been elected president! What amazing continuity and consistency!
We often do assume continuity and consistency in people and think we have them pretty much figured out, just like the neighbor in Robert Frost's poem Mending Wall. The neighbor knows that good fences make good neighbors. His father told him that and he likes having remembered it. And, the poem tells us, the neighbor refuses to go behind his father's saying and simply repeats it again: "Good fences make good neighbors."
But Paul says in First Corinthians, to the contrary: "I die daily." Every day I die to what I know about people, to what I have figured out about them. All that I have figured out about people I let go of every day. I empty myself of it so that I can start anew every day. This constant dying and renewal of our thinking is really very Buddhist and is what Buddhism teaches. To let go of what you know, to not hold onto it and expect it to continue and be constant but to let it go and continually re-begin, this is one thing the Buddha meant by right thinking. For the Buddha and for the Buddhist traditions, this spiritual practice is essential for open and ethical relations with other human beings. Paul gave this spiritual practice to the Christian tradition when he expressed it in his own dramatic way by saying: I die daily.
This spiritual practice of letting go and of dying daily is not easy. It might not come naturally to minds and personalities who think in terms of constancy and consistency and figuring things out. But it is essential for spirituality and spiritual development. Even though I have to say this to you out of this experience where I myself failed to do this, where I forgot the spiritual lesson of letting go and dying daily, it also taught me again how important it is to live this out if you are going to have full and satisfying and free and ethical relationships with other human beings. This spiritual practice of dying daily is especially important not just for individuals, but for the spiritual lives of communities, and most especially for communities like ours which dare to declare every week something really very rare and often difficult: "Love is the spirit of this church."
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.
More Sermons from the Rev. Dr. Rob Manning.