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Message 15, Up, 3-21-10
By Pastor Doug Slagle, The Gathering UCC
©Doug Slagle, 2010; all rights reserved.

The film “UP”, which we will consider today, follows the life of Carl Fredrickson who finds himself at an advanced age, retired and alone after the passing of his wife.  He retreats into his home and, for all intents and purposes, waits to die.  Embittered, cynical and grouchy, Carl has lost any zest for life.  And that leads to what I believe is the important theme of the movie.  That is…. how getting older often saps us of our life energy, our joy and our excitement.  In that regard, I believe it is our fears and, ultimately, our fear of death that defines many of our thoughts and actions in life.  Indeed, I believe those fears are the foundations for most world religions and forms of spirituality.   We seek a promise that we will not die and that something else controls our destiny.  And, because of our fears and our supposed maturity, we lead cautious and unfulfilled lives where we die a slow death, day after day, year after year, decade after decade.  We embody Franklin Roosevelt’s famous pronouncement that the only thing we have to fear…… is fear itself.

And in the movie Up, that is exactly what happens to the main character Carl.  The one source of happiness in his life – his wife – is taken from him and so he, too, seems to simply decide to die.  The movie answers, however, Carl’s and our own fears with an adventure based solution.  The movie promotes what I advocate here – a new way of thinking which, for us, can be a new form of spirituality.  This new spirituality is focused NOT on finding answers to what happens when we die or how we might achieve eternal life, but on fulfilling the life that we have here and now.  This spirituality says that we have been given the means to create heaven right now – even in this very moment.  So, let’s build it!!!!   As I discussed last week with the message of finding meaning in life, each and every moment we exist has meaning and purpose.  There is no cumulative life purpose.  Every one of our actions and each moment we live can be life enriching for ourselves and for others – or they can be life depleting.

The answer, I believe, is in living life without fear, and living instead with bravado, energy, love, service for others, curiosity, humor, innocence, and wide-eyed awe.  Essentially, it is to lead life like a child.  It is to never get so mature or so wise that we lose the inner child in each and every one of us.  In the movie Up, that is the answer which Carl gradually discovers.

Watch with me now one of the most poignant four minutes of animated real life that I have ever seen.  What we will see is a quick encapsulation of fifty years of married life between Carl and his wife Ellie – a woman he married because of her spirit, her “joie de vivre”, and her passion for adventure…(play marriage video of Carl and Ellie).

And so Carl retreats into his home to mourn and to wait for his own death.  But life, as is so often the case, has other plans for Carl.  He meets a young boy who is a lot like himself when he was younger.

Watch now as Carl meets Russell…(play video of Carl meets Russell).

Eager and naïve, Russell reinvigorates Carl and causes him to finally embark on the dream he and his wife shared – to visit and explore Victoria Falls in Venezuela and search for a rare bird.  In a way that only takes place in fun-filled animated films, Carl inflates thousands of helium balloons and literally lifts himself and his house off the ground in order to float hundreds of miles away to Venezuela.  Along the way, he collects a rag-tag menagerie of wacky misfits  – a dog named “Dug” – spelled “d….u….g”, the rare bird he seeks and his faithful Wilderness Explorer companion Russell, all of whom serve to annoy the cantankerous Carl.  (Play video of Carl says ‘go away’)

Carl gets the adventure he seeks and eventually winds up at Victoria Falls.  He discovers that what he had found with his wife Ellie, the spirit of adventure and fun, was inside of him all along.  He did not necessarily need a literal journey to find that truth – he only needed to explore within himself – to seek and find his inner child.  And, I believe that is the message of the movie for each of us.  We must capture, hold onto and celebrate the boy or girl inside of us – the playful, innocent and carefree person who does not feel entitled to anything except life itself, who finds meaning in every moment and who banishes fear and grabs onto the bull horns of life and rides it for all its worth.

During the time that Jesus wandered from city to city teaching his ideals of compassion, justice and concern for others, his disciples – like all adults – took the tasks of organization and supervision seriously.  They were likely the ones who announced Jesus’ visits and they would manage the crowds that came to hear him.  One day a group of eager parents flocked to Jesus, each one holding an infant or young child.  They wanted Jesus – this wise and great itinerant rabbi  – to bless the young ones.  Immediately, the disciples tried to shoo away the parents and the children.  “Go away” they probably said.  “Jesus has serious and important things to say.  He doesn’t have time to kiss babies!”  But Jesus firmly rebukes his disciples.  The Biblical book of Luke says he told his disciples – and I quote from the translation version called “The Message”, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children.  I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.”

I believe Jesus was, in this passage, offering the kind of approach to life and the kind of spirituality of which I speak.  Child like spirituality does not take everything so seriously.  It does not worry about ultimate consequences or about the fear of death.  Heaven, to a child, is the big sandbox over in the playground where sand castles are built and where life is lived out in play with others.  Young kids get this.  They naturally believe in Santa.  They yearn for the Easter Bunny and happily dream about the tooth fairy.  Life is about spending the night in a tent in the back yard and imagining you are on a safari to capture a wild lion.  Kids tell silly jokes, they laugh, they don’t worry about appearances or religion, or race or ethnicity.  It is only when “wise” adults teach them to worry, to be careful, to slow down, to think about when they die, to notice differences…… that they begin to lose their innocence.  Jesus wanted none of that.  In order to find heaven – the Kingdom of God – he tells his disciples that one first must be like a child.  Indeed, Jesus might well have said that hell is acting too much like a cranky and wise adult!

Aldous Huxley, the late, great writer and humanist once said, “A child-like man is not a man whose development has been arrested; on the contrary, he is a man who has given himself a chance of continuing to develop long after most adults have muffled themselves in the cocoon of middle-aged habit and convention.”

More succinctly, the actor Christopher Meloni once said, You can be childlike without being childish. A child always wants to have fun.  Ask yourself, am I having fun?”

And it is not a worthless sentiment to say we should be more like children in our attitudes and thinking.  Beyond encouraging us to keep a celebratory view of life, childlike thinking has been shown to be better for us than adult type thinking.  In recent research by the Ohio State University, thinking like a child is shown to improve memory.  One group of children and one group of adults were shown pictures of animals in a particular order.  When asked to remember the animals and their order, the children scored better than the adults – and the younger the child, the better.  When the two groups were shown pictures of imaginary animals and then asked to remember them and their order, the adults surprisingly scored just as well as the children.  The researchers concluded that as adults, we think we already know many things and so we do not pay attention to minute details – like we do as children.  That explained the different results from the two tests.  Children paid attention to the real animal details and thus remembered them.  These were new creatures to them.  They did not think like the jaded and wise adults who likely said, “seen one frog, seen ‘em all!”  But, when shown imaginary animals, the adults paid attention and remembered the details.  They recaptured their childlike way of thinking.

That is a lesson for me.  Every time I am upset that I have forgotten something, I need to remind myself to essentially stop and smell the roses! – to look at things and the world with a sense of wonder; to take note of details; to think like a child!  By doing so, I will have a better memory!

And Carl Jung, one of the father’s of modern psychology and of whom I spoke in a message back in November, encourages people to have what he calls the “artist – scientist” attitude.  This approach to life is characterized by wonder, boundless curiosity, creativity, exploration and energy.  The ideal example of this type of person, according to Jung, was Benjamin Franklin who was a great inventor with a wide-ranging and inquisitive mind.  He was also known for being extremely playful, a lover of wine and something of a libertine – he was a ladies man who had many female, bedroom companions.  Jung says that while others try to change these types of people and force them to conform to cultural standards, that is an impossible task.  The “artist – scientists” are those who move the world forward and who are never afraid to try new things or new ways of thinking.  They are, essentially, adults with childlike attitudes.

Randy Paush, the late Carnegie-Mellon professor who became famous by delivering what he called his Last Lecture Series as he slowly died from pancreatic cancer, said that we must never lose our childlike wonder.  It is, he said, what drives us.  Paush encouraged others to carry a crayon around in their pockets to remind them to approach life like a child.  And, he urged his listeners to find joy in the little pleasures of life – like holding a lover’s hand, playing with children or simply relaxing and reading the newspaper.   We don’t beat the grim reaper by living longer,” he said, “but by living well, and living fully — for the reaper will come for all of us.”

Paush summed up his philosophy of life by comparing it to the attitudes of the animals in the stories of Winnie the Pooh.  We can either be a Tigger – and joyously bounce through life –or we can be an Eeyore, endlessly grumbling about the miseries of life.  I have to laugh at that insight as Ed, who loves Winne the Pooh stories, will often playfully tease me when I act like Eeyore, “Oh dear.  I messed up on that task.  Everything is terrible.  Oh dear!”

As always, if we know how we are supposed to act, the big question – and the most difficult – is how do we actually live out the intended ethic?  David Bohl, a therapist and writer of the online Blog entitled “Slow Down Fast”, writes that he follows threes steps in order to act childlike without acting childish.  First, he writes, if you find yourself acting childishly – like Eeyore perhaps, stop yourself and go back and think about how you wish you had handled or thought about a situation differently.  Second, he urges that each week we should experience at least one new thing or get to know one new person.  Third, we should take ten to fifteen minutes each day, reflecting on the wonder in our lives.  Finally, fourth, he asks us to practice his three A’s – Be Alive, Be Aware and Be in Awe.

For each of us as we experience the frustrations of the aging process, we must also learn ways to cope.  Yes, let us seek and find our inner child.  Yes, let us banish the angry Carl in us who finds all of the joy sucked out of life.  In a book published by Duke University and entitled Pressure Points, all adults and especially those experiencing the frustrations of aging, should first of all turn their anger and frustration into action.  Instead of suppressing frustration at the ravages of age, we should turn that energy into making changes in our lives to deal with the particular problem.  If I am forgetful, what action can I take to help solve it?  Second, the book urges that we defuse anger with laughter.  A sense of humor will diminish any attitude of frustration or anger.  Indeed, being able to laugh at oneself is a primary attitude of children.  As Ed raced me in his car to church last week after I had forgotten about the time change, I railed against my forgetfulness.  Fortunately, I caught myself and realized that being angry with myself would solve nothing.  I could either enter here all upset and befuddled or I could try and make a few jokes out of the situation.  That was so unlike me to have that attitude but I’m glad I did.  Laughing at myself helped me to relax.

Third, the Duke authors propose setting priorities in our lives as we age.  Do only the important things and let go of the unnecessary.  We should not demand that we do things that are non-essential.  Fourth, as we age, we must be willing to ask for help.  Finding support groups, therapists or the assistance of loved ones and friends are important.  We should not isolate ourselves as we get older.  Finally, and fifth, we should take time for ourselves and our own relaxation.  There is nothing wrong with doing something we like to do – we should pamper ourselves.

As I watched the movie Up and as I prepared this message, I could not help but think of a good and dear friend of mine – a man I have known and spent regular time with for the past nine years.  He is the anti-Carl.  He epitomizes the ideal of living life with gusto and acting childlike without acting childishly.  He is 86 years old, he is someone I want to be like and I invited him to church today to meet all of you and to hear this message.  His name is Carroll White.

I first got to know Carroll at my previous church when I reached out to assist him as he cared for his wife who had then been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.  Carroll was the kind of life partner everyone wishes they could be or could know.  He was always at his wife, Alice’s, side.  He cherished her and cared for non-stop through the progression of her disease.  Never angry, never frustrated and never acting like Eeyore, Carroll savored every moment with Alice.  He loved it when she would smile, or, in the midst of her disease, offer some piece of advice that wives are wont to do, or even once, late into her loss of mind, sit up in bed and tell everyone in the room to be quiet – she was trying to sleep!  Carroll laughed and laughed at that – not at Alice but at the spunk he still saw in her.  When Alice moved to a nursing home, Carroll was still with her every day.  But he was far from depressed at that situation.  He joked with the nurses, put out bowls of candy for them so they would visit more often and began taking photographic portraits of them.

Carroll has been childlike – and not too childish! – as long as I have known him.  He loves to workout and lift weights and he is stronger than I am on some of the machines.  We regularly meet, often three times a week, to work-out together.  Since Alice’s passing four years ago, Carroll finds himself in great demand by women.  He enjoys their company and often jokes or playfully teases them at the gym.  He’s even found a younger girlfriend – twenty years younger – with whom he finds companionship, friendship and love.  He was in the hospital several weeks ago but, after being treated and feeling much better, he was released and three days later set off alone on a four hour drive to see his girlfriend.  I remember thinking that might not be a good idea.  But for Carroll that was life at its best and he was not going to worry if he was still a bit weak.   He lives his life with joy, with a great sense of humor, with a love for people and a zest for trying new things.  Indeed, when I invited him to come to church here – Carroll lives in Montgomery and I feared the drive might be a bit much – he did not hesitate.  He jumped at the chance and even remarked that he wanted to see and experience something new.  Indeed, there are not too many people who attend my previous church whom I think would be willing to venture down to Over-the-Rhine to our small, gay-friendly congregation.

I know so many here who are just like my friend Carroll White.  You live your lives engaged in the world around you and I marvel at that.  There is a youthful spirit here which causes us to look at the world not with a fear of change but with a desire to progressively move it forward.  I believe life is too short to allow ourselves or this church to be concerned with being saved for heaven or with fears of an angry God.  I believe we seek the form of spirituality and belief that cherishes the life potential here on earth.  That is why we champion social justice issues, why we advocate for those who are marginalized or denied their human rights, and why we are compassionate in our thinking towards people who are poor, homeless or sick.  The Divine moral imagination at work calls us to fulfill Jesus’ words that the Kingdom of God is at hand – it is here and now.

This is, as I stated at the beginning, a new form of spirituality.  It is not based in fear of what happens after our lives, it instead celebrates and works to improve what happens in our present lives.  I believe this is childlike faith.  Trusting in the goodness of others, concerned for the welfare of all and forgetting the dictates of man-made religions, this spirituality is life affirming……instead of death fearing.

And childlike spirituality leads us to a similar mindset.  Let us be exuberant in living.  Let us wildly give, freely love and unashamedly champion the rights of all people.  May we look out into our world with wide-eyed wonder and see the beauty in every person and everything.  May we be ever curious and ever seeking – never afraid to learn new things and never reluctant to be different.  Let me – let us, set free our inner child to revel in the goodness of life as we continue our calling to bring such joy to each and every person.