As If It Will Matter

By Rev. Dr. Edward Frost

Delivered on 2009 March 29 at Mountain Light UUC.

My good friend of many years, a retired English Professor, living the good life up in Maine, has inexplicably moved ahead of me into his mid-seventies. Coincidentally or not, his attitude toward humankind has become – well, some would call it cynical.

Though perhaps that's not the word. Among the synonyms for "cynical" are "contemptuous", "pessimistic", "derisive". Hmn. Well: maybe "cynical" is the word – though I've always thought that the cynic embraced all those attitudes not necessarily with good and adequate reason: but just to be curmudgeonly, being above it all, showing he's not as dumb as the rest of us. That's not my friend at all. If he holds humankind in contempt, it's with what he considers good reason. Not cynical at all, he would say. Look at the record he would say – and has said: said long before seventy.

Aging really has nothing to do with a cool assessment of what hope there might be for us and our kind. Harsh judgment of what we have come to as culture and nation can not be shrugged off as merely the disillusioned grumbling of the old.

My friend sent me this poem, by his friend, the poet Jody Aliesan. It's called "as if it will matter" and it's from her book of the same title.

in spite of the coming destruction of everything I compost my garbage and separate the metal from the glass. I turn off the gas close the doors and shades to the hearth-room and burn wood, slowly
in spite of the abyss and the fireball I wrap the water heater, buy second-hand clothes as if it will matter, as if it makes sense to save, conserve, protect, reuse the vegetable water for the next soup.
any day now the end, bomb or leak or the aftermath for those unlucky enough to survive. no civil defense drills anymore, they might alarm the populace – better we should be digging potatoes when the thunder comes, than bolt around now glassy and numb like fear-crazed rabbits. Someone's in control, I trust, what a waste to go in an accident but whoever's in control I can't control or even persuade. So I eat well and healthily, run to keep in shape as if strength mattered, as if I could run away.

I say my friend comes by his cynicism with due consideration – and after decades of experience. He has paid his dues, as they say. It's not as if he did not join in when they were out there demanding peace, demanding equality, demanding justice.

I have not forgotten the 1960's Sunday afternoon, leaning on his garden fence after one of my more innocuous sermons, being berated as only he can berate for still, still sitting on that metaphorical fence while the unjust war veered far out of control.

As if it would matter: as if it would matter what I thought, or said, or did. As if it would matter to LBJ or the others. But it mattered to my friend. The pointless deaths enraged him. And he thought we could keep them from dying – he on his campus, me in my pulpit.

Those were the days.

But, as the song goes we sang back then, long-haired, bell-bottomed, throats burning in the gray haze, "When will they ever learn, when will they ever learn?" Apparently, it seems – some say – apparently never.

My friend writes in an essay he sent me not long ago:

"If I were now hopeful and idealistic, it would be because the fire that burned fifty years ago had somehow stayed alive in the ashes, something I regard as only barely possible, a ghost heat. "Rather, I consider myself virtually hopeless with respect to those old dreams, a deeply skeptical person imbued with contempt for my species, its motives and much of what it celebrates as progress.

"I am attracted to nothing," he writes, "the species gets what it deserves."

Oh, my. That's hard. That is so hard to hear. The "I am attracted to nothing" part is hard to hear.

I know, of course, that it is not an entirely true statement. He is attracted to a great deal.

He is deeply attracted to his wife of many years (I married the two of them), she who is the consummate activist.

I know he is attracted to his 80 acres in Fairfield, Maine and his garlic plants and the fox lair across the field that sweeps far behind his house with not a mini-mansion in sight.

It's the species he's talking about and its futile attempts to save itself. None of it attracts him anymore – the way John Lennon did, and Jack and Bobby Kennedy, and the marches, and draft-card burning, and the dream the man spun over the Washington mall.

We did all the right things back then, my friend says, because they were the right things for a good person to do.

They were what a good person did and we aspired to be good.

I've been preaching from the fiction of Walker Percy this summer. Percy portrays us all as self-conscious actors. "All the world's a stage." We strut about, playing out our roles.

It's like "Here I am being kind and thoughtful." "Here I am acting for justice." "Here I am engaged in an act of courage."

As if it will matter – if the reality is that humankind dooms itself to hell in a handbasket. And the species gets what it deserves.

But "You gotta love 'em." Don't you?

I watched the movie Harold and Maude again recently (ranked #4 among the 50 greatest cult movies). Old Maude loves the world and everything in it. Young Harold says, "You sure have a way with people." Maude replies (all together now) "They're my species."

And of course they are. They are all we've got. Say what some will about dogs being more decent than people it's the people we are dependent upon more so now than ever.

One of the most moving passages in the Christian scriptures: Jesus, days before his crucifixion, much against all advice travels to Jerusalem. Outside the city, he stops on a hillside and gazes over the rooftops.

The passage in the Gospel of Luke says, "As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept."

The city is the symbol of power. The seat of authority – in all its dismal and pervasive corruption. The seething mass of beggars, thieves, murderers maybe here and there a compassionate Roman soldier and an honest and generous merchant.

Jesus wept for the city. If only they knew what could save them, he said. But of course, mindless as ants in the scurrying about, they didn't even know they were damned.

Jesus wept: because they were ultimately doomed and these, these are our species.

And among them are the impalers, crucifiers, Tsars, Hitlers, Husseins, makers of holocausts, destroyers of worlds and of high towers, bombers of school buses, abusers of children, prisons, and houses on quiet streets filled with perpetrators of unspeakable horrors.

To say nothing of the lies and the lying liars who tell them: and the young, dead soldiers.

They're my species.

But on the other hand and however:

I read recently of a young, blind German woman who, with her husband, devotes her life to ignored and all-but-abandoned blind children in Tibet (where blindness is considered loathsome).

She treks into isolated villages, on horseback, and teaches children to read and write Braille. Her name is Sabriye Tenberken.

In the Times, I read the review of Tracy Kidder's book, Mountains Beyond Mountains.

It's about the work of Dr. Paul Farmer, an anthropologist and physician who devotes himself to the care of village people of Haiti.

Anecdotal "evidence" at best, my friend would probably respond (or, at best, such an offering on my part would be met with a polite silence). I could add to the anecdotes, of course – I could bring up Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, King, and O a cloud of witnesses to the kind and good who do so love their fellow man.

As if it will matter.

This is not a numbers game, of course. A discourse on the nature of humankind and the hope for its eventual salvation will not be carried by any game which raises you two Mother Teresa's for an Adolf Hitler.

As if it will matter The phrase assumes – I would think – that evil will prevail (evil being that which destroys). The assumption is that Jerusalem will implode, destroy itself, that humankind is infected with a disease that, in spite of all the saints and blessed deeds totted up, it will not matter because being human is, eventually and inevitably, fatal.

As if it will matter assumes that power is on the side of evil and will prevail.

Any day now the end, the poet writes. If those the gods made mad with power don't do it to us this time no doubt they will end it for us next time or, at the very least, the time after that.

How, then, do we live in such a world among such a species as this – a belonging from which there is no escape save by the death of the body or the mind? Essentially, how do we live if there is no hope?

As if it will matter

There are two ways of hearing the phrase. I can hear it in terms of "O.K. I'll conserve energy – as if it will matter.

I'll recycle begrudgingly, perhaps because I wish to be good or at least appear to be good; perhaps because I live and work in a circle in which I would be frowned upon if I did not recycle.

The yellow bins on either side of me would be judgments on my empty curbside.

On the other hand, I could recycle as if it will matter. I can act as if – that is, in the faith, in the hope, that, in the long run, my recycling, my energy-saving, my letter-writing, demonstrating, helping others will matter, will, that is, make a difference.

And why not? Why not live as if our way of living makes or will make a difference? After all, while history makes faith difficult (to say the least) a bitter end is not an absolute given.

Faith and love are what we have. To choose to have neither (and I believe it is a choice) is the death of the spirit, the withering of the soul.

I live in part by the words of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr:

"Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; Therefore we are saved by hope. "Nothing good or true or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; Therefore we are saved by faith.

"Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; Therefore we are saved by love."

"They are my species."

In the movie Harold and Maude, Harold gets through the motions of living by half-living in death, by practicing suicide, turning his sport scar into a hearse – as if to affirm for himself, day by day, that death will not be so bad.

Maude on the other hand lives by love. Not love in the banal abstract but love for the species because we are her species and her love affirms her own humanness.

In the face of all that is and of all that might be, we have the choice to affirm and assert our humanness. Whether or not our choices will ultimately save us or even make an appreciable difference, we are called to conserve and preserve, we are called to protest and cajole, to boycott, teach, and preach – because we are human beings and we define our humanness by creating values and living by them and acting on them – whether or not they will save us.

If you refuse the unrecycled paper bag, if you carry your vegetable scraps to a compost pile, if you lug your cans and bottles to a recycling center, and bundle up your newspapers You do it, not because you are saving the earth, but because you wish to affirm and re-affirm, that this is who you are and perhaps because, in fact, this is a ritual of your religion.

The mission of religious community is nothing so ambitious as saving the earth. Frankly, if a group were to ask me to join them in their mission to save the earth, I would politely decline. Such a reach is too grandiose for me.

The more reasonable mission is to make the choice that saves the moment, to make the choices that salvage the day. The mission is to promote respect because respect of the web – of which we are a part – is the respect, the valuing, of ourselves.

When it comes right down to it we act as if it will matter because by our actions we declare our humanness and define our humanness by the values by which we live – whether or not such living will ultimately save us and our kind.

And it occurs to me now that that is perhaps one of the major differences between our liberal faith and that of some more traditional religions.

It seems that the function of some religions is, in fact, to convince us, absolutely, of that which we wish to be convinced, that, whatever humankind may have wrought in all its evildoing, the good will prevail, we will be among the saved good if we do good, and our life will be everlasting.

The liberal faith is not built on any such premise, which is no doubt why it attracts relatively few.

The absolutes elude us – and therefore we must live as if it will matter.

For us, the purpose of religious community is not to be among those who know they are saved but to be among those who courageously seek a way to live purposefully, creatively, and joyfully with "As if".

In the last paragraph of his book To Seek A Newer World, Robert Kennedy wrote:

"Our future may lie beyond our vision, but it is not completely beyond our control.

"It is the shaping impulse of America that neither fate nor nature nor the irresistible tides of history but the work of our own hands, matched to reason and principle, that will determine destiny.

"There is pride in that," Kennedy continued, "even arrogance, but there is also experience and truth. In any event, It is the only way we can live."