(c) Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved
Click here to listen to the message or see below to read it.
Just after the end of World War Two, a young soldier and his commanding officer get on a train together. The only available seats were in a small compartment across from a beautiful young woman and her grandmother.
As the train began its journey, the young soldier and young woman exchanged sly glances. They smiled shyly at one another and then would look away. It soon became clear, however, that they found each other very attractive.
After a while, the train entered a long and dark tunnel. The compartment was plunged into pitch blackness. Almost immediately came the sound of a loud kiss – a “smack” – followed quickly by the even louder sound of a slap – “whack”.
The grandmother was horrified and thought to herself, “I can’t believe the young soldier kissed my granddaughter and I’m glad she gave him the slap he deserved!”
The young girl was inwardly happy. She thought to herself, “I’m glad he kissed me but I wish my grandmother had not slapped him.”
The commanding officer had a bemused but startled look. He thought, “I don’t blame the boy for kissing the girl, but I wish she hadn’t missed his face and hit me instead.”
As the train emerged from the tunnel into bright sunlight, the young soldier could barely suppress a broad grin. He had just seized the opportunity to kiss a beautiful girl, slap his commanding officer and get away with both!
Such a story captures the kind of “seize the moment” attitude many of us wish we had. How many of us have been presented with a golden opportunity to revel in the delights of life but have been too timid or fearful to act? Indeed, we are often envious of those who find the thrill in life and who seize countless opportunities to find and then experience happiness.
What holds some of us back from living life with such an attitude? Why do we allow worry, fear, anger or doubt to creep into how we think and thus how we experience life? If our goal is to be fulfilled in this one journey of years we’ve been given – to find contentment in who we are and to build a legacy of helping others – can we say “yes” to joy, laughter and compassion, and “no” to the things that defeat and hold us back?
For me, summer is the symbolic season that reminds one to grab a hold of all that life offers. Summer is the fulfillment of a hopeful spring. It is the so-called salad days of warmth, expansive opportunity, and joie-de-vivre. To make the most of summer is, for me, to make the most of all that is good in life. Gone are thoughts of winter despair or a chilling fall. Everything around me is alive and vibrant and in full maturity. If I seize a summer day, I believe I seize life itself and find in it all that gives pleasure and meaning. And that is an attitude I want to have each and every day I live…
Let’s read two short Japanese shinto poems that speak to a spirituality of finding joy, living in the moment and saying “yes” to life.
The Ink Dark Moon The Song
by Izumi Shikibu, ca. 1000 CE by Issa, 1763-1827
Although the wind On a branch
blows terribly here, floating downriver
the moonlight also leaks a cricket, singing
between the roof planks
of this ruined house.
These spare poems highlight Japanese style and culture. Much like Japanese art and architecture, they draw the mind into introspection such that ideas and interpretations are subtle and nuanced. In their seeming simplicity, Japanese poems are highly complex in structure and symbolism. They paradoxically speak volumes while using the fewest words possible. Typically, Japanese poems employ images from nature to address universal human themes of life and death while emphasizing the inherent beauty and joy of life.
We need not be reminded that our lives are difficult and that struggle defines many of our years. The human condition is certainly not one of perpetual paradise and that fact daily confronts us with how we might live and react. We struggle in our minds and in our souls to open our difficult lives to moonbeams of contentment – or to songs of joy in the midst of river streams that threaten to overwhelm and drown.
What Issa and Shikibu eloquently convey is our human yearning to overcome the struggles of life, to transcend them not by mere force of will but by recognizing, embracing and saying “yes” to life itself. Indeed, it might be said that all we really possess in this world is our own life – the experience of living – and how we choose to care for this one fragile possession – that defines who we are and what we might become.
What this boils down to is the great question we are asked to answer in life: do we figuratively seize the day, carpe diem, or do we say “no” – refusing to bask in moonbeams because of doubt, fear, worry and timidity?
Spiritually speaking, saying “yes” to peace and joy in the moment is the goal of almost any world religion. It is, in essence, to find the peace that passes all understanding – peace in who we are, peace in our circumstances, peace in how we live. It is the Buddhist effort to find nirvana and rest in perfect balance, it is the Christian desire to find solace in the promise of a better existence, it is the Jewish and Muslim life of duty, obligation and purpose to a higher God, it is the humanist’s design to dwell in unity with all creation. Such are all the common “yeses” of world religions.
In that regard, Issa’s cricket might be a symbolic figure found in any faith – singing joyfully that this life is not all there is, singing peacefully content despite what life brings, living obediently to a god controlling its destiny or drifting in union with water, air and nature.
Jesus implored his followers not to worry about tomorrow and to live in the present – tomorrow will take care of its own troubles, he said. He also employed images from nature to encourage a contented human mindset. The lilies of the field bloom in glory and abundance just for a day, he pointed out, knowing that tomorrow they will wither and die. They have seized their day. The birds of the air do not store and save but live in the abundance of the here and now. “Can all of your worries,” he said, “add one moment to your life?”
King David, in Jewish mythology, is described as returning from victorious battle and exulting in the moment by literally stripping down to his tunic – his underwear – and dancing through the streets. This decidedly non-royal behavior was ridiculed by a few but implicitly sanctioned by his God of celebration. Like the young soldier in my opening story, David chose to revel in the sheer joy of his moment – a Biblical story used for approval of the exultant life.
And we find in the Islamic tradition the quest for salam – for peace through submission to Allah. He will prosper his followers with paradise and usher in a realm of eternal contentment. Most importantly, life is to be one of devotion and obedience thus experiencing the elusive salam – and thus allowing Allah’s moonbeams to leak through the cracks of troubled lives.
Like the Japanese poets and world religions, other writers, philosophers and comics have all pointed to the carpe diem ideal. Mother Theresa said, “Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.” Erma Bombek wryly noted, “Seize the moment. Remember all those women on the Titanic who waved off the dessert cart.” And in his haunting novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway wrote, “Oh, now, now, now, the only now, and above all now, and there is no other now but thou now and now is thy prophet. Now and forever now. Yes now. Always now. And not why, not ever why, only this now and always, please always, now.” What Hemingway beautifully conveyed was his own fictional soldier seizing life in the moment – refusing to consider that life is oh so fragile and could be snuffed out in the horrors of World War One carnage. For that soldier, to live in peace, it must only be “now.” So it must be for us.
What we note is an encouragement to adopt a mindset of Presence – which is the title of a book many of us read as a part of our Book Club several years ago. Such a philosophy captures much of what we believe to be spiritual ethics – like empathy, forgiveness, trust and love.
If we live life with a desire to “BE” – to seek being rather than doing – we find empathy with and for others comes easily. Listening and understanding another person in the moment of now is our goal. Indeed, such empathy is not merely for people or creatures – it is an identification and presence with all that happens in the lifetime of a moment. Sights, sounds, smells, tastes and emotions felt in the eternal “right now” are acknowledged and experienced deeply. The young soldier in our original story felt the excitement of his attraction to a beautiful young woman and fully lived in one glorious kiss; the cricket sings joyfully at the bliss it feels drifting down a stream; the religious worshipper finds lasting peace in a moment of prayer; each person seeks the eternal now in contemplation of an eternal death. The one who says “yes” to life, he or she forgets the past, its shame or heartache, and refuses to consider an unknown future. We yearn to live forever in the recurring now, the now of ALL nows.
So too comes the spiritual ethic and process of forgiveness. We choose to let go of the past. We do not condemn ourselves to an unhappy future. We choose steps and ways to refuse to live in anger and find, instead, a present peace with enemy and friend alike.
Love also exists, for me, only in the present. What I felt about another person yesterday or last year is gone. I have only its memory which may have been love at the time, but is now a distant emotion. Who and what I dream to love in the future is just that – a longing for something I may or may not experience. For me, love is REAL only in the moment – the devotion, loyalty and rapturous affection I feel and experience RIGHT NOW.
Such ideals constitute the philosophy of existentialism described by the French writer Jean Paul Sartre. We exist, we know, we love and we act only in the moment. All else is either the past, which might be interpreted a thousand different ways, or the future which is unknown mystery. My being is HERE and my existence is only now. Such is the only reality and truth.
What all of this means for us in life is as complex and simple as the Japanese poems I read earlier. In our ruined homes of life, how do we let moonlight leak into our minds and souls? When drifting down uncharted rivers – heading for rapids, whirlpools and certain death – how can we sing like a cricket, a Japanese symbol of happiness?
The answers we offer for the how of that process are many, and none are conclusive. Indeed, as much as life itself is a struggle, so too is the effort to be at peace and live in happiness. As simplistic as it is to carpe diem – to seize the day – or as it easy as it is to note that we should sing like crickets – the means we take to do so are more complex. We must listen more than we speak. We must observe and watch more than comment or judge. We must choose to unshackle our minds to thoughts of worry, sadness or fear. We must determine to simply BE – to rest in the breathing and heart beating and exist alongside all else that happens in a moment – the traffic outdoors, the stirrings of people around us, the sound of my voice, the light through windows. This is reality. This is truth. This is finding pleasure only in that. Nothing else exists. No worries. No anger. No fears. Now. Now. Now…
I find myself so often living contrary to such truth. I too often live in my past – in my pain and hurt and doubt of all that I have experienced. As much as I have worked to be real – to be the Doug that I am in this moment – I too often retreat to the son who feels the slights of his father, to the fearfully closeted gay man I was for so many years, to the people pleaser who only wants others to like me. Just as I sometimes dwell with ghosts of my past, I fear the prophets of my future – the unknown forces waiting to bring me down through illness, loneliness, or failure.
In such thoughts of my past and my future are the seeds of present unease or discomfort. I don’t want to die alone. I don’t want to feel the pain of a failing body. I don’t want to reap the displeasure of others. I yearn to be at peace, grateful, joyous and really alive. I hope to matter and make a difference so that I am not soon forgotten. As much as I mourn my unorthodox schedule and life patterns, in doing so I miss the beauty of friends in my midst, of my daughters reaching out to me, my work that is enjoyable and fulfilling, my very existence that is a privilege if I ponder the alternative. Failing to live in the reality and celebration of now, I miss out on really living.
This summer day can be one of capturing the warm sun on my skin, a humid breeze that cools me, the smile of a person I know, the sound of music in my ear. In my ruined house, in my small branch drifting in the river of life, I’m alone and scared and saddened. In that reality, in that recognition of the pain of my life, I must answer the eternal question all of us are asked. Will I right now kiss the young girl or guy, will I dance in the street in my underwear, will I bask in the moonlight, will I sing strong and loud? Will I say “yes” to this reality, this life, this moment in time and embrace it all, or will I say “no”, and forever let slip that one moment’s chance to find peace? Let me, I pray, choose this day – and only this day – to truly live.
I wish each of you, in this moment and on this day, much peace and joy.