Reaching Across the Generations

I have been enormously tardy posting lately as life has been intervening. Between searching for an internship site, preparing for classes, leading two worship services this week, and actually working at my University job, things have been hectic. I’ve also spent a good deal of time lately talking with my 21-year-old son. Probably the hardest part about parenting is watching your children struggle to find their way in the world. I just want to swoop down and solve every problem and provide every answer. But, I know those are the worst things to do if you want your children to become mature and responsible adults, fully equipped to explore the joy, the angst, and the fulfillment of life.

Like many young adults his age, he is searching for a life path and a career that matches his talents and desires with at least the ability to keep himself reasonably fed and sheltered. One thing he enjoys is poetry. Now, this is one area that I am particularly inept at providing much assistance. I have never been much of a poetry fan – “The Cremation of Sam Magee” is a personal favorite – so I feel relatively useless providing him with much in the way of support. Like me, though, he thinks big and likes to envision art in large scope. His ideas for novels start out as trilogies and his film ideas are 24-hour marathons.

But, I had an idea that combined my love of sermon writing with his poetic muse. I though it would be interesting if we exchanged pieces of our work and then wrote accompanying pieces – he would give me a poem and I would write a homily, and I would give him a sermon and he would write a poem. If we could put together enough examples, I even imagined that this might be something that Skinner House might consider publishing.

So, here is our first crack at this project. We would love to hear any feedback. What did it make you think? Do you like the format? Would you read more?
My Brother’s Dreams
Tyler and Jeff Liebmann

The smooth penetrating glow of your radiant smile
A toothy grin of ambivalence and naivety
I dreamt of you abbreviated brother, pervading my eyes,
shining through the cloudy maze of my thoughts
You hadn’t aged, brown slivery locks danced above your
lids, constantly peering, laughing
Visits have slowed over the years, with each rustling
autumn I wonder, have you forgotten me?
How do you pass the days, slumbering in dark corners
of my mind, tucked away from the harsh reality that
stains the memories
Words spill from your rounded lips, half-phrases of
inequity and longing, muted words of love and
abandonment, long forgotten, dust in a desert wind.

Growing up, I never heard of Unitarian Universalism. And yet, my parents possessed a streak of religious nonconformity we often brandish with great pride. My parents were Christian, but they each assumed that label on their own terms.

For instance, my mother was raised Methodist in Moundsville, West Virginia – named for a large Adina Indian burial mound in the middle of the town. As a young girl, she once told her minister how she looked forward to going to Heaven so that she could be reunited with her deceased pet dog. The minister informed her (I always imagined in a rather patronizing tone) that her dog would not be waiting for her because there are no animals in Heaven. Without missing a beat, my mother told her minister that if her dog was not in Heaven, then she had no interest in going herself.

When I knew her as an adult, my mother was no shrinking violet. Many was the time she left some store clerk, teacher, or anonymous bureaucrat quaking in their officious shoes. But, I have to really admire the courage of a little girl to challenge the senior ecclesiastical authority in her life on an important point of theology. I take some measure of delight in her raw chutzpah, risking her minister’s vision of eternal hell fire over her love for the family pet. With genes like hers, I suppose it is little wonder that I eventually took the path toward Unitarian Universalist ministry.

This relatively harmless, amusing anecdote lived in our family’s history for decades and, obviously, made an impression on me as well. My mother has been gone for many years now, but her telling of that story lives clearly in my memory. An interesting question, however, is that of all the memories of childhood she could have retained, why would my mother, who lived into her 70’s, remember that brief exchange? Of all the folksy wisdom she could pass on to her children, why would that conversation rate consideration?

I believe my mother clung to that story because it represented her most primary belief in the nature of the human soul. My mother clearly felt that Heaven was not merely a Shangri-La of limitless joy and boundless serenity. No, she obviously felt that Heaven is a very personalized paradise populated by all of the dearly departed in a sort of mirror of our Earthly world. To her, Heaven would not be heavenly without her beloved pet, because her dog was an essential component of her life – a life that had earned selection into the Kingdom of God.

Let me carry the Gospel According to Helen one step further. My mother believed that her soul, once shed of its mortal body, would live for eternity in Heaven. Now, animals are not baptized, nor do they make any conscious choice to accept Jesus into their lives. I doubt that she believed animals have souls, per se, so one might ask how her dog would earn entry into the hereafter. Certainly not all animals would be there. If there is a Heaven at all, then surely it is devoid of rats and roaches and rattlesnakes, since they would evoke memories of fear and danger. So, for a particular animal to earn ascension, they must do so by displaying a humanlike devotion, living on even after death as part of the loving memory of the soul of a human being. I imagine that my mother would have agreed that as long as that dog lived on in her memory, even subconsciously, then her Heaven must include that dog.

My mother was no theologian. I am not sure that she could have given you much of an answer if asked to define the human soul. But, she knew what the concept meant to her and that was sufficient. To her, the soul was the immortal essence of each human being. The mind is the seat of thought and reason, but the soul is the seat of understanding and compassion. The mind may be the end result of neural synapses and biochemical reactions. To my mother, the soul was the vessel of the spirit, that divine spark, that piece of God within us. And, upon death, that piece of spirit reunites with God in Heaven.

But, not all of us are so fortunate, as my mother was, to have an unambiguous faith. Very few Unitarian Universalists believe in a continuing, individualized existence after physical death. Even fewer believe in the material existence of places called heaven or hell where one goes after dying. If we believe in the concept at all, we believe that immortality manifests itself in the lives of those we affect during our lifetime and in the legacy we leave when we die.

So what do Unitarian Universalists believe about the human soul? I somehow doubt that you can find any two Unitarian Universalists who will answer that question in quite the same way. To even begin would require a month of Sundays to simply lay the philosophical groundwork. Thinkers of distinguished pedigree have considered the nature of the soul to be one of the most fundamental notions of human existence, worthy of entire careers of contemplation and learned writing.

My mother lives on in my memory. I do not remember her as she would be today, in her mid-80’s. I do not remember her as she was when she died, after fighting liver cancer for a year. I remember her mostly as she was during my adolescence, when we talked for hours after school, over the dinner table, or during summer vacations. Ageless. Divorced of static from the distractions of life. She lives in a corner of my mind, tucked away from the harsh reality that stains the memories.

Does some measurable aspect of her actually live on in some tangible way? I doubt it. But, until science determines the nature of memory, how do we define the ripples left in the universal pool by the skipping of our mortal lives? Until science unlocks the mysteries of time and space, who is to say that some flicker of our life light does not continue on in the cloudy maze of thought, perhaps even retaining some mote of consciousness?

I do not believe in heaven or hell, but do take comfort in knowing that my life matters and will matter, even in a small way, after I die. I do not believe that a god imbued me with any special essence. I do think, however, that there exists something more to us than the sum of our molecular composition and collected energies. For now, I am willing to accept the uncertainty of soul and embrace the undetectable influence of others’ souls on my life.

One thought on “Reaching Across the Generations

  1. This post was beautiful…the whole thing. Your mother’s story of her conversation with the minister about her dog and heaven really resonated with me. I had a similar conversation with my own mother as a child. She told me that animals have no souls and so couldn’t go to heaven. I know it was at that moment that I first began to form my own ideas about religion. There was a scene in a movie called “What Dreams May Come” where a man dreams of going to heaven and finding his beloved pet Dalmatian there, bounding towards him through a field of flowers. It was one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen in a film.If the soul exists, then animals most certainly have them, and in a purer, more true sense than humans ever will. Rats and rattlesnakes too, as they are true to their natures as we humans can never be, as muddled in confusion and complexity as even the simplest of our lives are.I’m with your mother. If heaven exists and does not allow animals, then it is not a place I would wish to spend eternity. I would rather walk the fields of Limbo with the cats and dogs who loved me, and all the other creatures that lived as they were meant to upon the earth.


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