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[Chalice] Remembering Forrest Church [Chalice]

Presented January, 3, 2010, by Joe Conover

Listen to a recording of "Remembering Forrest Church"
25:42 minutes - 10.3 MB - Remembering Forrest Church .mp3 file.

In late November of 2008, Dr. Manning gave a sermon that dealt with the lives and deaths of Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch and the Algerian French philosopher Jacques Derrida and what was then the anticipated death from cancer of the Unitarian Universalist minister Forrest Church. It was something of a depressing lecture, as I recall it, and again in reading it on our church Web site, because it dealt with survival and mourning and how one lives knowing one is dying.

Forrest Church lived for three years knowing, and sometimes not knowing, that he was dying. The New York Times story about his death on September 24, 2009, is over there on the bulletin board if you haven't read it. These last years of Church's life are the subject of the talk this morning, not only because Rob thinks we should know more about a man who was called "the most important UU theologian of his generation" - but also, to my mind, because of what Forrest Church has now taught us about living what he called "a life worth dying for."

I suspect at least some of you have read one or more of Church's 24 books, or one of his essays in UU World, or perhaps saw the interview broadcast last February on PBS's Religion & Ethics Newsweekly. I also suspect some of you may wonder, as I did last fall, just who is Forrest Church?

To begin, he was the son of Frank Forrester Church the Third of Idaho, who served in the United States Senate for 24 years, from 1957 to 1981, the only Democrat ever to win re-election to the U.S. Senate from Idaho and the last Democrat to represent that state. Senator Church became nationally known through his chairmanship of the Church Committees, which conducted extensive hearings investigating extra-legal FBI and CIA intelligence-gathering and covert operations of the Vietnam War era. Senator Church died of pancreatic cancer in 1984 at the age of 59.

Sadly, like father, like son. The Reverend Forrest Church died last September at age 61 of esophageal cancer. If the Reverend Church had lived a more or less customarily remarkable life and death, giving sermons and writing books and essays, he probably would be remembered mostly as a famous senator's son, for a time estranged from the father over differing political views, who received divinity and doctoral degrees from Harvard University and then spent the next 30 years serving All Souls, a very liberal Unitarian congregation on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in New York City.

Forrest Church was diagnosed with cancer in 2006 and was given three to six months to live. In late 2006 his esophagus was removed and his cancer went into remission long enough for him to deliver in 2007 a sermon titled "Beating the Odds." Tumors were found again in his lungs and liver in February 2008 and Church was again given six months to live - six months that lasted nearly 18 as debilitating chemotherapy suppressed his tumors for a time but then ceased to work. "Time started ticking again," he said in his last sermon on May 31, 2009. During these three years of hovering somewhere between life and death, Church used the time to write three books and deliver five farewell sermons. It is out of this labor during his travail that Forrest Church left us a remarkable legacy of understanding just what the words "love" and "death" mean.

Forrest Church called himself both a Christian Universalist and a small "u" universalist theologian. He summed up this theology in his last book, published just after his death, in which he once again called God the "most famous liberal of all time" and constructed a metaphor for a universalist theology that he called the Cathedral of the World - a cathedral "as ancient as humankind." He described this cathedral, and gave his congregation a preview of his forthcoming book, in an April 2009 sermon:

The builders have worked from time immemorial, destroying and creating, confounding and perfecting, tearing down and raising up arches in this cathedral, buttresses and chapels, organs, theaters and chancels, gargoyles, idols and icons. Not a moment passes without work being begun that shall not be finished in the lifetime of the architects who planned it, the patrons who paid for it, the builders who constructed it, or the expectant worshipers. Throughout human history, one generation after another has labored lovingly, sometimes fearfully, crafting memorials and consecrating shrines.

Untold numbers of these collect dust in long undisturbed chambers; others (cast centuries or eons ago from their once respected places) lie shattered in chards or ground into powder on the Cathedral floor. Not a moment passes without the dreams of long-dead dreamers being outstripped, crushed, or abandoned, giving way to new visions, each immortal in reach, ephemeral in grasp.

Welcome to the Cathedral of the World.

Above all else, contemplate the windows. In the Cathedral of the World there are windows beyond number, some long forgotten, covered with many patinas of grime, others revered by millions, the most sacred of shrines. Each in its own way is beautiful. Some are abstract, others representational; some dark and meditative, others bright and dazzling. Each window tells a story about the creation of the world, the meaning of history, the purpose of life, the nature of humankind, the mystery of death. The windows of the Cathedral are where the Light shines through. . .

The Light of God (Truth or Being Itself, call it what you will) shines not only in upon us, but also out from within us. Together with the windows, we are part of the Cathedral, not apart from it. We comprise an interdependent web of being. The Cathedral is constructed out of star stuff, and so are we. We are that part (that known part) of the creation that contemplates itself. Because the Cathedral is so vast, our life so short and our vision so dim, we are able to contemplate only a bit of the Cathedral, explore a few apses, reflect on the play of light and darkness through a few of its myriad windows. Yet, since the whole is contained in each of the parts, as we ponder and act on the insight from our ruminations, we may discover insights that will invest our days with meaning.

A twenty-first century theology based on the concept of one Light and many windows offers to its adherents both breadth and focus. Honoring multiple religious approaches, it only excludes the truth-claims of absolutists. That is because fundamentalists claim that the Light shines through their window only. Some, as we know from painful recent experience, go so far as to beseech their followers to throw stones through other people's windows.

Skeptics draw the opposite conclusion. Seeing the bewildering variety of windows and observing the folly of the worshipers, they conclude that there is no Light. But the windows are not the Light. They are where the Light shines through. . . In the Cathedral of the World, we can discover or invent meanings that invest both the creation and our lives with greater purpose." Thus, Forrest Church said, "the purpose of life is to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for. . . "We are each on a journey," he said, "a quest for life's meaning and purpose." Church found both in universalism and so he could say, "To save yourself without damning another is a wonderful thing.

In June of last year, just a few months before he died, Forrest Church wrote a piece for Business Week, urging calm in the wake of the then ongoing financial crisis and urging us to outwit our fears. "To keep fear from establishing permanent residency in the habitation of your heart," Church wrote, "three practical ideals commend themselves. And each lies fully within our power.

First, want what you have. Wanting what we have mutes the pangs of desire, which visits from the future to cast a shadow on the present. Instead of praying for what you lack, think to pray for all those things you take for granted: your loved ones, your health, the gift of life itself. Think of this as thoughtful wishing, thinking to wish for what is ours right now to savor. Unlike wishful thinking, thoughtful wishes always come true.

Second, do what you can. Doing what we can occupies our minds on that which is possible, no more and no less, thereby filling the present with conscious, practical endeavor.

Finally, be who you are. Being who we are means refusing the fool's gold of self-illusion . . It requires, and therefore fosters, integrity, which above all other qualities, makes us good company for others and ourselves." "In trying unsuccessfully to be who we aren't we fail to become who we are.

Honesty obliges me to say that I have not read Forrest Church's books except for "Love and Death," the second of the three books written during his final three years. This book is in our church library, in the other room there. This book was supposed to be his last, an expansion of a sermon of the same title, delivered in February of 2008, in which he informed his All Souls congregation that his cancer had returned, that he would begin experimental chemotherapy but didn't know how much longer he had to live.

There are many other sources from which I could quote, to amplify Church's Christian universalist theology. But it is text of that 2008 farewell sermon on love and death that is most compelling and I conclude this talk with much of that text. It is a wonderful expression of Church's deeply loving sense of humanity:

Adversity doesn't always bring out the best in people. But the reason it so often does is because adversity forces us to work within tightly drawn limits. Everything within those limits is heightened. We receive as gifts things we tend to take for granted. For a brief, blessed time, what matters to us most really does matter.

Yet, how do we respond, when we get a terminal sentence? Far too often with, "What did I do to deserve this?"

"Nothing." The answer is, "Nothing." Against unimaginable odds, we have been given something that we didn't deserve at all, the gift of life, with death as our birthright.

Unless we armor our hearts, we cannot protect ourselves from loss. We can only protect ourselves from the death of love. Yet without love, nothing matters. Break your life into a million pieces and ask yourself what of any real value might endure after you are gone. The pieces that remain will each carry love's signature. Without love, we are left only with the aching hollow of regret, that haunting emptiness where love might have been. . .

In face of a terminal diagnosis, the question to ask is not "Why?" by the way. "Why?" will get us nowhere. The only question worth asking is 'Where do we go from here?" And part of its answer must include the word "together." Everyone suffers. Yet not everyone despairs. Despair is a consequence of suffering only when affliction cuts us off from others. It need not. The same suffering that leads one person to lose all sense of meaning can as easily promote empathy, the felt experience of another's pain. Hope is woven into the lifelines that connect us. . .

The realm of the heart is not only where we touch each other most sacredly; it is also the place where we encounter the cosmic source for our sense of awe. Let me close by inviting you to enter that realm.

For us to be here in the first place, for us to earn the privilege of dying, more than a billion billion accidents took place. All our ancestors lived to puberty, coupled, and gave birth. Not just our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Take it all the way back to the beginning, beyond the first Homo sapiens back to the ur-paramecium. Even the one in a million sperm's connection with the equally unique egg is nothing compared to everything else that happened from the beginning of time until now to make it possible for us to be here.

What does this mean? Astoundingly, unbelievably, it means that we have been in utero from the beginning of the creation. We can trace ourselves back, genetically, to the very beginning of time. The universe was pregnant with us when it was born. What a luxury we enjoy, wondering what will happen after we die, even what will happen before we die. Having spent billions of years in gestation, present in all that preceded us-fully admitting the pain and difficulty involved in actually being alive, able to feel and suffer, grieve and die-we can only respond in one way: with awe and gratitude.

And how does this affect the way we treat others? I hope it means we will treat others as being as unpredictable, unexpectable and amazing as we are. In the womb of the universe when God first gave birth, they too have run a billion billion gauntlets, emerging against almost impossible odds to walk here beside us on this planet. They are more than neighbors. They are kin, honest to God and hope to die kin.

Religion does its best (and worst) work here. Not in the creation chapter or the Armageddon chapter, but in the middle of the story, when all the actors are thrown together, struggling for meaning, none knowing as much as we pretend, think, or wish we knew. The wisest of all teachers tells us, "Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself." Even, "Love your enemy." He instructs us to love our brother, even if he doesn't know that he is our brother. Love our sister, even if she doesn't know that she is our sister. Exchange pride for humility. Forgive without ceasing. And judge actions but not people, remembering-I would add-that somewhere they and we share at least one common ancestor who, with twenty-twenty hindsight, would do the same for us if she were here.

In fact, she is here. Those who have come before us must now use our hands to touch, our eyes to see. We carry them in our hearts and bones, we and our blood brothers and sisters, survivors of the miracle, of the ongoing miracle, never ceasing to amaze, pouring itself into new vessels, recreating itself, over and over again.

We see little of the road ahead or the sky above. And the dust we raise clouds our eyes, leaving only brief interludes to contemplate the stars. All we can do, every now and again, is to stop for a moment and look.

Look. Morning has broken and we are here, . . . breathing the air, admiring the slant sun as it refracts through these magnificent, pellucid windows and dances in motes of dust above the pews, calling us to attention, calling us homeward.

Dust to dust.
Heart to heart.

©2010 Joe Conover

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Conover, Joe 2010. Remembering Forrest Church, /talks/20100103.shtml (accessed July 4, 2020).

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