Friday, January 23, 2015

Death Cafés


       "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes," goes the famous quote by Benjamin Franklin. I would add that death and taxes are two of the things that unite us all, except that some people don't pay their fair share of taxes, and some deaths are a lot easier than others.

       Facing death is something that every single person on earth has to do at one time or another, so you might say death helps to build bridges of oneness. In spite of the fact that we all face death, many avoid the topic at all costs. We avoid the words "death" and "died" by saying that someone has "passed" when they leave their earthly body. 

      If you've been to a cemetery burial recently you will have noticed the green covering over the open grave that's intended to shield families from the reality of the hole in the ground where their loved one's body will be laid. 

       Other ways that we avoid the reality of death include the embalmer's attempt to make a corpse appear to be alive, and the medical profession's attempts to keep patients alive long past their due dates.

       Because of the overwhelming reluctance of people to discuss death, in spite of the fact that we have to plan for its inevitability, life-cycle celebrants around the world have begun to host Death Cafés. A Death Café is a place where people gather to drink tea, eat cake, and talk about death. You can learn more about them at:

       I have yet to attend a Death Café, but the other night I participated in a teleconference where celebrants in widespread locations pretended to attend a Death Café together. Our leader, Charlotte Eulette, director of the Celebrant Foundation & Institute, asked us to imagine passing a "talking baseball" (instead of the traditional talking stick) as we took turns answering questions about death. This method worked well for a teleconference, but usually the facilitator of a Death Café does not present specific questions or topics. If you attend a Death Café participants will probably share whatever their thoughts and feelings may be. 

       I haven't decided whether or not I want to host a Death Café in Oneonta. It seems like a good idea, but one that will require a lot of planning and preparation. A Death Café might be a good way to promote a feeling of oneness among people in a community. And death is a topic of particular interest to life-cycle celebrants because we do create and perform personalized and meaningful celebrations of life in addition to the weddings and baby namings we are usually known for. 

       I believe that most people have unique beliefs and experiences about death and dying. This is why it's important that we have the opportunity to express our thoughts and feelings on the subject. And when it comes time to memorialize the life of a departed loved one, we should be able to do it with a ceremony that truly reflects who that person was and how they would wish to be remembered. Having a celebrant-led memorial service or celebration of life can be a good way to do this. 

For more on the conversation about death, see: Death with Cream and Sugar

Saturday, January 17, 2015

. . . And Sometimes Not


       As a certified Life-Cycle Celebrant® I enjoy creating and performing wedding ceremonies for couples from diverse backgrounds. I have personalized unique ceremonies for Christians, interfaith couples, atheists, Wiccans, "spiritual but not religious" couples, same-sex, and interracial couples. I enjoy meeting and getting to know all of my clients, and I feel that I'm helping to build bridges between different groups of people through my ceremonies.

       Recently I was given the opportunity to perform a double ceremony for two Sufi couples who live in a local Sufi community. They were married in a religious ceremony last November, but still needed a legal ceremony and license.

       I frequently perform small weddings in my home for couples who are eloping or for some reason are not having a big celebration. These ceremonies are not personalized, but they include a reading about the art of marriage and meaningful vows in which the bride and groom promise to trust and respect, honor, love, and cherish each other. 

       I was pleased that the Sufi wedding gave me the opportunity to use this poem by Sufi poet Rumi for the final blessing: 

May these vows and this marriage be blessed.
May it be sweet milk,

this marriage, like wine and halvah.
May this marriage offer fruit and shade
like the date palm.
May this marriage be full of laughter,
our every day a day in paradise.
May this marriage be a sign of compassion,
a seal of happiness here and hereafter.
May this marriage have a fair face and a good name,
an omen as welcome
as the moon in a clear blue sky.
I am out of words to describe
how spirit mingles in this marriage. 

       When I asked the brides to repeat their vows after me, the grooms surprised me by asking their wives to add "obey" to their promises. I thought about this afterward and wondered about the significance of this addition. One of the grooms and one of the brides had been married previously, and I had to wonder if these divorces were related to a lack of obedience in their relationships. Why would it be necessary to ask for obedience in a relationship of equal respect such as the vows I gave them asks for?

        The following week I received a call from another Sufi couple who had just received their license. They had been married in a religious ceremony last April and were just referred to me by one of the grooms from the double wedding. I met with this couple the day before they wished to be married. It concerned me that the divorced groom was 43 and the bride would turn 21 on her wedding day, but they were already married in spirit and I didn't feel it was my place to judge. However, I added more words about mutual respect to the vows I would give them, hoping to make it more difficult for the groom to add "obey" for his bride to repeat.

         When the couple arrived for their wedding the next day the bride, all smiles, gave me a box of chocolates and told me how happy she was to be getting married on her birthday. I had lit candles in my living room and created for them a keepsake ceremony script, tied with gold ribbons. I began with a prayer, and it felt like a sacred occasion.

     The bride repeated her vows first, and of her own accord, she added the word "obedience" to her promises. The groom added "I promise to protect you." The first two couples had ended their ceremony with hugs as Muslims do not kiss in public. However, this time the bride touched her forehead to the groom's hand and kissed it. He did not reciprocate.

       When the happy couple left my home with their witness (a groom from the first wedding) they told me there will probably be more Sufi weddings in the summer. After some consideration I realized that I cannot in good conscience perform any more weddings where the bride will vow obedience to her husband. I feel bad about this decision because my refusal will not help my goal of creating bridges of oneness wherever possible. But just as it is my ideal to build bridges between all people, I realize there must be equality and mutual respect between those creating this bridge - or it cannot stand.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Let's Include the ETs!


       This month the Unitarian-Universalist Church I attend is exploring the Cosmos. Last week we took the Cosmic Walk and this week we considered the question: Are We Alone in the Universe? The pastor referred to David Weintraub's book: Religions and Extraterrestrial Life: How Will We Deal With It? - a question that has never bothered me since I have never clung to any specific creed or doctrine. However, it is interesting to learn that Mormons include intelligent life on other planets as part of their theology, since most religions are much more earth-centered. 

       On the other end of the spectrum, one fundamentalist comments on Weintraub's book by saying that aliens are actually demons sent by Satan to deceive people and attract followers away from God. I also found on the internet one Christian's explanation for why there can't be any intelligent life on other planets. This person points out the prophecy of Revelation 6:14 in which "the heaven was removed as a scroll when it is rolled up; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places." If we interpret this verse literally, and if we believe that the heaven or sky referred to (depending on the translation) includes the entire universe, then every planet and star would be rolled up with the earth. Which, the writer, concludes, would not be fair to beings on other planets who didn't have any part in humanity's sinfulness. 

       While it is impossible to accurately calculate the number of stars in the known universe, astronomers estimate the stellar population to be about 70 billion trillion. Given the gargantuan size of this number, I find it mind-boggling to think there would NOT be other intelligent species scattered throughout the cosmos. Add to that the fact that I have encountered quite a few people who claim to have met aliens or have seen UFO's, and I don't think it's fair to label them as crazy just because they've had an unusual experience and had the courage to talk about it. 

       On Sunday the UU pastor made the point that any aliens who have the ability to contact us would have no desire to do so as long as we have not proven ourselves to be hospitable to strangers. We earthlings can't get along with one another, so why would advanced beings from another planet want to communicate with us? 

       After Sunday's service, my husband and I visited my 90-year-old parents in the nursing home. I told them about the sermon, and when my mother heard the title: "Are We Alone?" she said, "No, we aren't." 

       Coming from a woman who has never had the slightest interest in science fiction, fantasy, or the supernatural, her response surprised me. "Why do you say that?" I asked.

       Mom went on to describe a UFO that she saw when she lived on Long Island, many years ago. She was hanging up the clothes in our backyard in Sayville when she saw a silver, cigar-shaped ship rise up noiselessly from the next town and fly toward her . T
here was a swamp behind our yard and she saw the swamp grass flatten as the ship flew overhead and disappeared in the sky. She never told anyone about it because she didn't think they'd believe her. I said, "But Mom, you know I would have believed you!" She just smiled, but I'm guessing she didn't tell me because she knows I would have told other people (like I'm doing now!).

       My mother's secret makes me wonder how many people are keeping secrets about amazing experiences just because they're afraid they'll be scoffed at. Perhaps when people from different backgrounds share their common experiences, whether of extraterrestrials, angels, or other "extra-human" beings, we will start to feel more of a connection with one another. And when we do meet the extraterrestrials, let's make sure to include them as we build bridges of oneness, not just on earth, but throughout the cosmos. 



Wednesday, January 7, 2015

A New Creation Story


       Almost every culture and faith has a creation story (and often more than one) to explain how the world began. A good place to find the various creation myths is The most widely known creation story in the western world is the one from the Book of Genesis - well actually, even Genesis relates two creation stories. In the first story God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness . . . .  So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them" (Gen. 1:26-27).

       In the second creation story "the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being." Eve was created from Adam's rib a little later, unlike the first story in which man and woman are created at the same time.

       I don't know how Bible literalists explain the difference between these two stories, but metaphysical interpreters say the first story symbolizes the creation of our spirituality - the part of humanity that is godlike. The second story deals with the creation of our physical bodies and brains which came later and still don't remember our connection to Spirit.

       Most ancient creation myths concern only the world that was known to the storyteller, and so these myths do not address the creation of the entire universe - or even the entire globe.The Genesis story describes the sky as a dome in which God placed lights to separate the day from the night. Obviously the storyteller could not imagine a world or heavens larger than what he could see. Today we need a new story, based on our expanding knowledge of the universe.

       This past Sunday the minister of the Unitarian-Universalist Society of Oneonta took The Cosmic Walk that's been all the rage among UU churches in recent years. The Walk follows a series of markers around the perimeter of the sanctuary which note the highlights of the universe and earth's evolution according to modern science. It starts with “the Great Flaring Forth of the Emerging Universe” some 15 billion years ago, and demonstrates the great expanse of time that elapsed before humanity emerged on this planet a mere seven million years ago. 

       I thought this sermon was an interesting coincidence since I am currently reading a book I received for Christmas: Journey of the Universe by Brian Thomas Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker, which presents this same cosmic story in greater detail. The story boggles the mind with its vast stretches of time and the inconceivable sizes of supernovas and single-cell lifeforms. 

       When I read that two billion years passed before the more complex cells with nuclei appeared, I realized that I should try to be more forgiving of the human race, considering how very young it is. If it took two billion years for one cell to grow a nuclei, why do I expect the human race to recognize its oneness and be peaceful and loving after only seven million years? 

       An interesting spiritual twist on The Cosmic Walk can be found at: Diarmuid O'Murchu weaves the creation of the seven chakras into the scientific creation story, reminding us that, if we believe in a Divine Spirit, it must be a part of the the cosmic journey. O'Murchu's concluding reflection is worth repeating here. The following is a quote from The Universe Story by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry: 
       "What is particularly striking is the lack of repetition in the developing universe. The fireball that begins the universe gives way to the galactic emergence and the first generation of stars. The later generations of stars bring into being the living planets with their own sequence of epochs, each differentiating itself from the rest. Biological and human history, with the ever fresh expressions of creativity, continue the differentiation of time from its beginning. 

       Indeed all 15 billion years form an epic that must be viewed as a whole to understand its full meaning. This meaning is the extravagance of the creative outpouring, where each being is given its unique existence. At the heart of the universe is an outrageous bias for the novel, for the unfurling of surprise in prodigious dimensions throughout the vast range of existence."

       The story of the universe and the cosmic walk demonstrate for us our commonality as children of the stars, and the desire of our cosmos to birth an infinite variety of creations within itself. The scientific discoveries that have led to this modern version of the creation story demonstrate our oneness, not only with one another, but with every particle of the cosmos. Now that we are aware of this I hope we can evolve a bit faster toward peaceful co-existence. 

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Mothers and Daughters


       Mothers everywhere wish they could be closer to their daughters as they grow up, move away, and start families of their own. Some mothers are fortunate to have their daughters live nearby so they can see each other often, but sometimes the geographical proximity cannot make up for the emotional distance between mother and daughter. Sometimes mothers and daughters share common interests and values and sometimes they must make a conscious effort to construct bridges between each other because their lifestyles are so different.  

       My daughter and I are closer emotionally than my mother and I were, even though we are different in more ways than I would like. Vera lives in Wisconsin, hundreds of miles from my home in New York. I was a stay-at-home mother while she is a busy school psychologist. We enjoy different kinds of music, movies, and books. I maintain this blog on the spiritual meaning of Oneness, while she creates make-up tutorials under her name, Vera Lynn.

       My husband and I have always supported Vera's creative endeavors which were mainly musical ones when she lived at home. She took piano lessons for many years, played in a bell choir, sang in various choirs, and earned a music scholarship before deciding to switch her major to psychology. 

       Vera has discovered that school psychology is a lot more stressful than she had anticipated, especially when she has a baby to take care of. Vera copes with this stress by creating new make-up looks for herself and her tutorial audience. While I don't think of make-up as an appropriate topic for a spiritual blog, I will say that women all over the globe like to enhance their beauty with cosmetics, so a passion for make-up IS something that connects women who come from different backgrounds. AND, because I, like mothers all over the world, love my daughter and wish to support her passion, I am posting a link to Vera's most recent tutorial. I hope some of you will enjoy it and subscribe to her You Tube channel. 

Here she is: Vera Lynn!  (Also: Everyday Fall Make-up and Thanksgiving Make-up)