“Being agnostic about the afterlife, I look for salvation here—not to be saved from life, but to be saved by life, in life, for life.”
-Rev. Forrest Church
I was reminded of this while looking for some old documents, and found my response to attending General Assembly in 2008:
This was my first General Assembly and I had the reaction I imagine for most folks in my situation—a surprised awe that there were 2,000-plus Unitarian Universalists of all stripes gathered in one place—especially a place as hot and humid as Fort Lauderdale. As I’m sure Gabi has shared, GA is a great collage of UU people, interest and thought. If a group of UUs are working on it or thinking it, it surfaces somehow at GA.
For me, the highlights were around several inspirational, insightful speeches.
First. The Rev. Forrest Church is one of our faith’s greatest gifts, a minister at All Souls Church in New York. If you’ve read Our Chosen Faith, as close to a primer on UUism as exists, then you know his good sense and sharp intelligence. Sadly, he is dying of esophogeal cancer and, as he explained, is counting his time remaining in months, not years. This GA was his farewell, and it made for two unbelievably moving public appearances.
In the first, he spoke about fear and especially about our national fear since Sept. 11, 2001. The idea that caught my mind was when he explained that the opposite of love is not hate; it is fear. And it is fear that keeps us from living fully. As an answer to our national leadership since 9-11, he hearkened Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inaugural speech – the “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” speech – and the idea of a president calling us to face our fears rather than exploiting them.
Powerful stuff. But the following day brought an hour’s meditation on his own life and death, much of it lifted from his recent book, Love and Death: My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow.
The room was packed, and what was amazing was Church’s absolutely un-self-pitying examination of his final days.
Church said that rather than obsess on his illness, he focuses instead on a mantra:
“Do what you can.
Want what you have.
Be who you are.”
And he spoke to the idea of salvation, with a decidedly UU twist: “Being agnostic about the afterlife, I look for salvation here—not to be saved from life, but to be saved by life, in life, for life.”
He saw three dimensions of such salvation, each of which lead to a different kind of peace:
integrity, which brings peace with ourselves;
reconciliation, bringing peace with others;
and redemption, which “comes when we make peace with life and death, with Being itself, with God.”
Church asked all of us to commence now on this “lifework, not deathwork” because its benefits and challenges are not restricted to the moment of death: “The courage we need comes … when we face our own demons, or reach out across a great divide to touch hands. … You know what your unfinished business is. Don’t wait until it’s too late to begin taking care of it.”
As the hour ended, several people stood to thank Forrest for his impact on their lives – as minister, as mentor, as teacher. There were quite a few sniffles in the room.
Finally, Saturday night’s highlight is the Ware Lecture, given by an outsider to the movement with an eye to what we as UUs should be looking at and toward. Our lecturer was Van Jones. If you’ve never heard the name, consider yourself in good company; none of us had.
Well, we know him now. Van is a community organizer from Oakland, Calif., whose passion is to marry the environment and economic justice – to bring good-paying “green jobs” to the inner city. His 70-minute speech, which he delivered without notes and with great energy and humor, challenged religious liberals to prepare now to govern – and, more importantly, to inspire. As he pointed out, we have become comfortable as the opposition. Now is the time to set the agenda and proclaim it.
As Van said, “Martin Luther King’s speech was not ‘I Have a Complaint,’ or ‘I Have a Critique,’ or ‘I Have a Long List of Issues.’ We need beautiful dreams; the country isn’t looking for a critique but for inspiration to be our best self.”
After he finished, Van took a victory lap, ending in a spasm of hugs and high-fives with the youth delegation (an inspirational story for another time). At that point, UUA president Rev. William Sinkford returned to the mike. “Van, you may have struck a chord here. The 2008 General Assembly has received its charge.”
Indeed we had.