Trap Doors”©

By The Rev. Jeanne Lloyd, Affiliate Minister

Pastoral Prayer

Let Us Awaken

As the seasons turn and we move into the New Year, the many transitions we each face become more apparent. Sometimes they are joyful transitions, sometimes heart-wrenching. Between birth and death, there is so much to be grateful for, if only we can grab hold of a life perspective that will buoy us through all the changes . . .

I share with you these words from the late Rev. Dr. Forrest Church:

“We have more for which to be grateful than we will ever know; more cause to bless and cherish and bend our knee in wonder; more call to life; . . . our hearts on wings of praise . . . [help] us . . . live in such a way that our lives, too, will prove worth dying for.

To enter the realm of enchantment, we must first shed our self-protective cover, not, as we too often and so sadly do, take this precious life for granted; but unwrap the present and receive the gift, mysterious and charged with saving grace.

So let us . . . set aside our shopping list of grievances, resist the nattering of our . . . egos, and crack our parched lives open like a seed . . .

Let us awaken from the soul-crushing allures of sophisticated resignation and cynical chic. To savor instead . . . the world of abundance and possibility that awaits just beyond the self-imposed limits of our imagination. Let us awake to the saving gift of forgiveness, where we can, in a single breath, free ourselves and free another. Let us awaken to the possibility of life, body, mind and spirit, all-saving and all-redeeming love.

Let us awaken to the blessing of acceptance, expressed in a simple, saving mantra:

Want what we have; do what we can; be who we are. Rather than let wishful thinking or regret displace the gratitude for all that is ours, here and now, to savor and save . . .

Let us want what we have – praying for health, if we are blessed with health;

for friendship, if we are blessed with friends;

for family, if we are blessed with family;

for work, if we are blessed with tasks that await our doing;

and, if our lives are dark, may we remember to want nothing more than the loving affection . . . of those whose hearts are broken by our pain.

Let us do what we can – not dream impossible dreams or climb every mountain, but dream one possible dream and climb one splendid mountain, that our life may be blessed with attainable meaning.

And, let us be who we are – embrace our [precious] nature and talents. Answer the call that is ours . . . not another’s, thereby [making holy] our [own] world and the greater world we share.”

May it be so.

Sermon: “Trap Doors”

“Call the Chaplain.” That’s what the nurses would say, when someone died at Hartford Hospital where I was serving in 2000. “Call the Chaplain.” And, I, being on call somewhere else in the hospital, would receive a page that nearly always startled me, and called me forth into a family’s misery and grief, to name and honor the loss of their loved one.

I remember my first night, when I was called to the hospice wing. A young woman in her 20s had died of brain cancer, and as I arrived, a room full of brothers and sisters, parents and children, greeted me. Oh yes, and there were balloons and gifts. They had come, en force, to celebrate her birthday, and instead found themselves mourning her death. Welcomed into their world as I was, this African-American family and I sang “Amazing Grace” and prayed together in a circle around their daughter, as she lay in her hospital bed. Much later, I would take my leave of them, richer by far for the precious love we had shared in those moments.

A variety of circumstances challenged my capacity to be present to each family and each person as they faced death, sometimes alone, and sometimes with others. I remember a man I first ministered to, in the morgue, who had died of a drug overdose, after only just meeting for the first time, his 13 year old daughter a few days earlier. He, in the days since meeting her, had had her name, “Jennifer” tattooed inside a heart, on his left arm. It fell to me to escort his “new” daughter to his side, to help her say for the last time, “hello” and “good-bye”.

As a chaplain, my role was to minister to these families regardless of my theology, using the language of their theology to draw upon to give them comfort in moments when a trapdoor suddenly opens, and their world as they knew it . . .only a moment before . . . disintegrates into something for which they are unprepared. In those moments after the trapdoor opens, it can feel as though you are falling in space while icicles break and shatter the air around you. All sense of comfort and safety is gone, as you desperately reach for anything that might help break your fall.

Unlike some of my colleagues of other faith traditions, as a Unitarian Universalist, I did not usually find it too difficult to shift gears between different family’s theologies, normally finding words that they would find familiar, and that might thereby give them some comfort (if they could hear me). It is, as a matter of practice, unethical to make any attempt to impose one’s own theology on a grieving family. Thus, Unitarian Universalism would reap no converts on my watch as chaplain. Nonetheless, our first principle and life experiences provided a reasonable theological foundation for me as I attempted to minister to families for whom the trapdoor had suddenly just opened.

Save one.

I dreaded visiting the young woman who was dying of cancer in Room 432. I had a lot of trouble finding a common language that would support her in her struggle to find meaning in her diagnosis and pain. She reflected deeply on her short life, asking herself, “What did I do to deserve this from God?”

Though I didn’t do so, I wanted to scream, “You did nothing! You don’t deserve to die this way. No one does.”

The late Rev. Forrest Church, wrote in his book called, “Love & Death, My Journey into the Valley of the Shadow” about his reaction to the Tsunami in 2004:

 “Look for a loving God in the eye of a hurricane or riding the crest of a tsunami and, barring the most inhumane twists of logic imaginable, you will look in vain. In fact, if such a God exists, then God is a [fraud]. The traditional Western God – the Lord of heaven and earth, all-knowing and all-powerful, the deus ex machina driving human history, treating men and women as . . . flies – is either a [fraud] or a sturdy figment of our theological imaginations. I simply can’t believe in any God who, on the day after Christmas, would choose to rip the earth asunder, welling the tide to life-crushing heights, and then, with his all-seeing eye, watch it crash down on more than a thousand beaches to claim more than one hundred times that many souls. Tens of thousands of orphans. As many heart-shattered widows, widowers, and parents [searching and hoping] for [one] last look at their loved ones . . . . . . . . However, insurance companies may choose to define them, whatever acts of God may be for actuarial purposes, the one thing acts of God surely are not is [ . . .] acts of God. The logic of those who view God as the world’s puppet master is simple, if brutal. Whether in regard to natural or personal disasters (from tsunamis to terminal cancer), if God is pulling all the strings that entangle us, then God must be furious with us. If death seizes our loved ones from us, then we must have done something wrong or they must have done something wrong for God to punish us all so severely. We follow this logic almost instinctively when something terrible happens to us. To find higher meaning in that which has destroyed all the meaning we have come to know and trust, we ask the unanswerable question, “Why?” Why this, why me, why now? We struggle to make sense of God’s will. We attempt to comfort one another by drowning our ignorance in God’s knowledge: “God knows best” . . . Or, “God has his reasons.” Or, “It is all part of God’s divine plan.”[i]

It is a fascinating thing, what we do to the word “theology”. Though rooted in the word, “theo,” meaning G*d[ii], we turn it inside out, creating a G*d that fulfills our understanding of our own best and worst behaviors. How convenient it is, that the G*d we create to answer our human questions of purpose and meaning, so neatly reflects our human attributes. How odd that the G*d or G*ds so fiercely defended to the death in crusades and wars, is so often portrayed so humanly as a vengeful G*d who takes out “his” wrath on “his” children who never quite measure up. Did you know that according to a national survey conducted in 2007 by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 60% of Americans believe in a hell of eternal punishment? Only 12% described God as loving, caring and compassionate? And, no more than 30% use the word “love” to describe their understanding of G*d?[iii]

Humanity must take care, what it is that we ask for, for we surely reap what we sow. Think on all the lives dedicated to and lost in the name of finding an answer to why we must die, and what the afterlife will look like. It is an elaborate theological system, mirroring our own human imperfections, that relies on an afterlife to persuade people to be good in this life.

So what is the alternative?

As you may have heard me say before, “Ours is not an easy religion. At least not if you take it seriously. Though it doesn’t require compliance, it is not a religion for the faint of heart. It requires courage and fortitude for most of the days of our lives.”[iv]

These words, from The Rev. Stephen Kendrick, “[Ours] is a faith people make – not gods, or saviors, or divine messengers. People have made it, and make it still . . .” [v] “What we . . . believe is important, but it’s what we do, inspired by our beliefs, that counts.”[vi]

Rev. Church offers no easy answers to death and its purpose when he describes a different way of understanding our place in the galaxy of life. He says, “Take a moment to ponder life’s cosmic odds and how you’ve already beaten them. You, I, each one of us here this morning (or anywhere this morning) have miraculously run our courses from the instant of creation to the advent of life on earth and on through billions of generations to reckon the privilege of looking out upon this . . . [morning] . . . [Without] even trying you’ve already won the only race that really matters. Unconsciously, yet omnipresent, you ran the gauntlet of stars and genomes to assume your full, nothing less than miraculous, place in the creation. Being alive to love and hurt, to fail and recover, to prove your grit and show compassion, that is life’s true secret. Life’s abiding opportunity, bequeathed against all odds to each and every one of us, is much the same: it is to live, [(and also to die)], for the . . . privilege of running from gate to flag in life’s glorious race.”[vii]

It requires courage to come to terms with death, without a “human-centric” theology that places us as the center-focus of an afterlife which we can neither prove nor disprove. More importantly, it requires courage to live well enough that we find our “lives are worth dying for . . .”[viii]

We think that there will always be a tomorrow to do that which needs doing. But, trapdoors gain their power because they almost always happen “in the middle of our story.”[ix] They usually do not come at some more convenient time, sometime when we are “ready” to yield control of our lives to a specter we have very likely been running away from, in fear, all our lives. Church says, “However, to help ensure a good exit, one thing is fully within our power. We can take care of unfinished business. We can make peace with ourselves, reconcile where possible, with our loved ones, and free ourselves to say yes to the cosmos, to embrace our lives and deaths . . . To be free to accept death is to be free, period. The courage we need comes before, when we face our own demons or reach out across a great divide to touch hands. It is life work not death work, but it pays great dividends down the line [as we approach our own death]. So, if you need to . . . put down that drink. Or pick up the phone. Or take that long postponed trip. You know what your unfinished business is. Don’t wait until it’s too late to begin taking care of it. [Don’t wait until the trapdoor opens unexpectedly.] Death may come as a thief in the night, but it cannot steal from you the love you have given away, the strength you have shown in facing life’s hardships, or the courage you have proved in quelling your inner demons. In taking care of your own unfinished business, and in helping your loved ones take care of theirs, you can liberate yourself and them from suffering that, if you wait too long, may one day become intractable [&] written in indelible ink . . . Above all, by taking care of business you will improve the story you are in. Today’s works of love and acts of conscience weave themselves into a plot that will continue long after you are gone . . . Life may not be immortal, but love is immortal. Its every gesture signs the air with honor. Its witness carries past the grave from heart to heart.”[x]

How does that sound to you? Life may not be immortal, but love is immortal? Life is not immortal . . . OK . . . I’d rather deny that fact until my last living day . . . but I am compelled to answer, “Yes, I know this is true.” What about “love is immortal”? Some of you may say, “that’s overly sentimental” or “prove it.” And, thus, I ask you. “Do you have someone you still love, even though they no longer live in this temporal world? Church says, “. . . Not only is our grief [a] testimony to our love, but when we ourselves die, the love we have given to others is the one thing death can’t kill.”[xi] Just because it cannot be seen by the naked eye, does not mean it is not real. Millions of people, each year, enter into sanctified relationships because they each believe in a love that cannot be seen by the naked eye, but can be felt and witnessed in our actions.

The opposite is also true, Church says, “Only our unspent love dies when we die, love unspent because of fear. It is fear that locks love in the prison of our hearts, there to be buried with us.”[xii]

“It’s what we do . . . that counts . . .” [xiii] He says, “When we die, however, we may have lived, the ultimate [purpose in death] is not [to serve as a reward or punishment for our behavior. It is not about] sin or squalor. The [purpose of death] was life. Life draws death in its glorious train.”[xiv]

I think perhaps most people pick up Church’s book to gather courage and answers about how to come to terms with death and the pain of leaving our lives behind. But, as I reflected on his story and theology, it seemed to me that there was a more subtle lesson in his story, that he, himself, did not point to with flashing neon lights. And, like many good lessons, it is a paradox that forces us to look at death from an entirely different point of view. Namely, not our own.

Let’s try this on for size: Approaching death with no regrets is not about us. Coming to terms with our own mortality is not about following a formula of giving life and love to others so that we earn our peace at the moment of, or perhaps following, death. That formula sounds a little too familiar, doesn’t it? Perhaps a bit too simple? And, perhaps a tad too human-centric?

Church writes, “About life after death, no one knows. But about this we surely know: there is love after death. Not only do our finest actions invest life with meaning & purpose, but they also live on after us. Two centuries from now, the last tracings of our being will yet express themselves in little works of love that follow bead by bead in a luminous [chain] extending from our dear ones out into their world and then on into the next [world] strung [in part] by our own loving hands.”[xv]

Love, and its legacy, does not move forward through the generations by our hoarding it onto ourselves, to make for ourselves a good death, a peaceful demise. Perhaps, the most difficult thing for us (as humans) to consider, is that in the end, the question is not, “what’s in it for me?” but, instead, “what have I done with my life that makes it worth dying for?”[xvi] If love is to be our legacy to our family and friends, and strangers we do not yet know, then it is something that must be spent, used, used up, in this life time. We have a responsibility to prepare the way for those we leave behind. Our purpose in this life is to salt our actions to others with a lasting love that will comfort them in our absence, that will guide them in the sharing of their lives with others, and that will model to them how they can best prepare for their own death. This is the enduring charge of life and love throughout the ages. Not necessarily to find peace in our death, but to prepare the way for those we leave behind, and to, as they say, pay it forward[xvii], pay love forward in ways that sow our love in generations yet to come.

It may sound a bit magical, but who among us cannot say that we are still touched by love from someone now deceased? Who among us have absolutely no awareness of ancestors who, though they never knew us, nonetheless shaped and touched our lives? It is by our actions that we plant seeds of love for tomorrow. It is only by our actions today, that we plant seeds of love for tomorrow.

One last story.

Last Friday, I was waiting with my father at the hospital’s cancer center, to see one of his doctors. While skimming through a magazine, I heard the faint strains of a man lovingly singing “Happy Birthday” evidently to his wife, seated next to him. As he sang, her eyes were downcast and she looked tired . . . discouraged. They looked to be in their 80s. “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday, happy birthday, happy birthday to you.”

He continued, speaking softly, “Sweetheart, look at all you have to be grateful for: you’re alive, you’re not bedridden, you have our children and grandchildren who love you so . . . as do I . . .” He took her hand gently, lovingly, and then released it.

Standing, he slowly walked down the hall to begin his own cancer treatment.

May the legacy of love passed down through the generations to us, and among us now, be fulfilled in our lives, and planted in those we leave behind, long before our last living breath.



For this place of peace, and silence that heals our spirits, we give thanks.

For this place of memory and history that warms our souls, we rejoice.

For this place of prophecy and its vision that changes our hearts,

We offer our life’s treasure so that others, too, may know these gifts. [xviii]

*Extinguishing the Chalice

We share the same home, this beautiful, fragile planet earth. We share the same fate. We are mysteriously given life, and for a brief time blessed with opportunities to love and serve and forgive one another as best we can. We are gifted with special powers for good, each of us is. [Ours is the task] to realize and act upon these powers, not to settle for who we are, but to stretch and become who we might be.”                  

~ Forrest Church (Love & Death, 28)

©2011. All notes, research, sermons and other products are the sole intellectual property of Rev. Lloyd, unless otherwise noted as the intellectual property of another. Sermons may be copied for individual use, only. If quoted, appropriate attribution to Rev. Lloyd is expected.

[i]Church, Forrest. Love & Death, My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow. (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2008) 119 – 120.

[ii] Rev. Lloyd does not spell out the word, “G*d,” because the term is loaded with many misconceptions and preconceptions. That which is the spirit of life and community, the spirit of love and death, the spirit of humanity, cannot be relegated to one three letter word. Rev. Lloyd invites others to reconsider the meanings of this word, and, to even contemplate whether it is a noun or verb. Is G*d Love? The reader is invited to explore new meanings and understandings of the word G*d.

[iii] Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, US Religious Leadership Survey, 2007.

[iv] Lloyd, Jeanne. “A Faith that People Make,” A sermon delivered to All Souls Church, UU, Greenfield, October 17, 2010.

[v] Kendrick, Stephen. A Faith People Make, Illustrated Unitarian Universalist Lives. (Hartford, CT: Universalist Church of West Hartford, CT, 1988) face page.

[vi] Kendrick, Stephen. A Faith People Make, Illustrated Unitarian Universalist Lives. (Hartford, CT: Universalist Church of West Hartford, CT, 1988) 5.

[vii] Church, Forrest. Love & Death, My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow. (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2008) 106.

[viii] Church, Forrest. Love & Death, My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow. (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2008) 141.

[ix] Church, Forrest. Love & Death, My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow. (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2008) 96.

[x] Church, Forrest. Love & Death, My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow. (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2008) 96-97.

Church, Forrest. Love & Death, My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow. (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2008) 136.

[xii] Church, Forrest. Love & Death, My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow. (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2008) 136.

[xiii] Kendrick, Stephen. A Faith People Make, Illustrated Unitarian Universalist Lives. (Hartford, CT: Universalist Church of West Hartford, CT, 1988) 5.

[xiv] Church, Forrest. Love & Death, My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow. (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2008) 43.

[xv] Church, Forrest. Love & Death, My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow. (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2008) 136.

[xvi] Church, Forrest. Love & Death, My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow. (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2008) 111.

[xvii] Movie Guide, Pay it Forward (2000), October 30, 2010

[xviii] Adapted from Reading 429 (SLT) by William Schultz.