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A Sermon in Memory of Eleanor Waldrop

January 12, 2012

I have a poem for us to listen to. It’s an English translation of the German poem from Gustav Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, otherwise known as “The Resurrection Symphony.”

Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you My dust,
After a brief rest!
Immortal life! Immortal life
Will He who called you, give you.
To bloom again were you created!
The Lord of the harvest goes
And gathers in, like sheaves,
Us together, who die.
O believe, my heart, O believe:
Nothing to you is lost!
Yours is, yes yours, is what you desired
Yours, what you have loved
What you have fought for!
O believe,
You were not born for nothing!
Have not for nothing, lived, suffered!
What was created
Must perish,
What perished, rise again!
Cease from trembling!
Prepare yourself to live!
O Pain, You piercer of all things,
From you, I have been wrested!
O Death, You masterer of all things,
Now, are you conquered!
With wings which I have won for myself,
In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated!
Its wing that I won is expanded,
and I fly up.
Die shall I in order to live.
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
That for which you suffered,
To God will it lead you!

Our CCC choir used to sing this piece and that Eleanor identified as music she wanted at her memorial service. She must have performed it back in the days when Al Newman was the Music Director here. It is complicated and emotional composition. The finale of the symphony offers words of hopeful anticipation in the face of mourning. “You were not born for nothing…Die shall I in order to live. Rise again, yes, rise again, will you, my heart, in an instant! That for which you suffered, to God will it lead you!”

Isn’t that what we all want to believe? Especially faced with a situation such as Eleanor’s death! We thought we had more time with her, and now we face the mystery of life and resurrection. As we wonder at Mahler’s lyrics, I want to bring another voice into our conversation -- the teachings of Eckhart Tolle on the cross and resurrection. Tolle is a questioner and a curious listener to deep truths, much like Eleanor was, so I thought it would be appropriate to honor Eleanor with some different ways of thinking.

Tolle says our mind, or ego, has taken over so much of our lives that we have become unconscious of our true nature and live in a kind of insane world of ego battles. We fight wars, label people and carry with us personal problems; we think we ARE our personal problems. He says the lessons of the cross and resurrection are key to finding our way out of this focused world of ego. Tolle told a story to Oprah during a Book Club interview. He visited a 600-year old, European church and pondered both a crucifix and an empty golden cross. It was as if he was looking at the images for the very first time, as if he were an alien from another planet pondering what they could mean. He said, “Jesus on the cross stands for humanity. Jesus represents every human being that has ever lived or will ever live. Jesus represents something that is part of the human condition . . . I saw that what this represents is a human being who experiences an extreme form of limitation . . .  He went to the depths of suffering and then totally accepted suffering. And through this total acceptance of suffering, sudden [metamorphosis] happened, and the very torture instrument, the cross that had produced the suffering, was transformed and became a symbol for the divine . . . “

Every human life will experience some form of suffering. We all know people whose hearts have been broken and those who have suffered loss. Family members and friends have died or have been injured or have died in attacks and wars. We live through sadness. We live through hardship. We live through grief. People lose loved ones and ask, “Why? Why her? Why him? Why now?” Every time we feel such bitter loss, people react differently. Some become angry and withdrawn. Some shut their hearts down, retreating into fearful isolation or angrily lashing out. Brokenhearted and heavily armed, some people nourish their pain by making their world an even more dangerous place.

Others become more compassionate. They treat their despair with tenderness. They realize that suffering can lead to false perceptions, and false perceptions can lead to more suffering. I don’t know all the steps to how a shattered soul becomes whole again. But I do know this . . . It is possible to step back, and breathe deeply, and allow our anxiety to settle, and sense new possibilities in situations that once seemed unsolvable. When we face suffering of any kind, we can be released -- resurrected, if you will -- into a more intelligent way of living, one that is more in sync with the Universe.

The writer of Ecclesiastes knows this. There is a time for everything  and all hardship is balanced with sublimity. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven . . .” Many of our travails are little annoyances; the seemingly mundane, irritating situations we experience each day (think of telemarketers at dinner or the ice-cream truck that drives by at 3 AM with its jingly music playing outside your bedroom window). These are all crosses we must die to. Facing these tough times become our opportunity for “salvation.” Every time we encounter an obstacle, we have an opportunity to let any false perceptions go. Each obstacle is an opportunity for us to become more intentional about who we are and who we want to become.

Tolle states that every situation we encounter on Earth is the practice. Driving, walking, washing hands, relationships, everything is the practice. At each moment, then, we have the opportunity to practice and catch glimpses of what it means to be awake and alive.

Today we have a chance to practice – to practice the art of remembering a wife, mother, grandmother, sister, and friend. Eleanor was a great lover of nature and enjoyed hikes on wooded trails to mountaintops with beautiful vistas.  She knew the proper name of every tree, flower, and shrub. So, when you go to the beach or walk along a forest path, either in person or in your mind, practice the art of remembering what it means to be alive.

Eleanor was a lover of good music and theater and made sure to share that enthusiasm with her children. When you hear something enchanting or heartbreaking, or see a breathtaking performance, practice the art of remembering what it means to love beauty .

Eleanor was always great with words.  She read a huge number of books – novels, poetry, history, philosophy.  And she enjoyed word-play.  In recent years she discovered cryptic crosswords with their puns, anagrams, and reversals, and quickly became an expert. So when you hear a good pun, or wonder about the etymology of a certain word, it is a chance to practice the art of remembering what it means to seek wisdom.

As Eleanor got older, she watched her diet and worked hard at keeping herself physically fit.  Until recently she worked out at the Y and attended aerobics classes there.  She loved to dance – that’ why we have so many dancing hymns and songs today.  Two years ago she bought a treadmill so she could keep up her walking regimen during bad weather. So, next time you go to Friendly’s and wonder whether you should get the ice cream sundae after lunch, it’s a time to practice the art of remembering what it means to love and care for one’s self. As I recall, Eleanor would only allow post-church ice cream sundaes only once a month or so as a special treat.

As member of CCC for over 60 years, the church and her friends here remained a big part of Eleanor’s life.  She included a generous bequest to CCC in her will, and shortly before she died she added a second bequest to help the church’s Capital Campaign. When you come to worship, it is a chance to practice the art of remembering what it means to balance faith and intellect as Eleanor did.

My point is this. As we face the suffering and sadness of this moment, we can use it as an opportunity to practice some sort of resurrection. Tell stories. Laugh, cry, and think about Eleanor’s life. But don’t let your commitment stop there. How are your remaining relationships doing? If there’s any reset buttons to be pushed, any new chances that you need to take advantage of, let it start today. Tomorrow may be too late. Don’t let anyone you love go to bed tonight without knowing you love him or her. Don’t let another day pass without practicing the life lessons Eleanor taught. Give others the gift of love and inspiration that she gave you. We are glad Eleanor lived. We are glad we knew her love. We cherish the memory of her words, her deeds and her character.

There’s an interesting footnote to Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. It turns out that as an Austrian Jew in the late 1800s, the composer faced significant anti-Semitism. He was not allowed to conduct the symphony in Vienna unless he converted to Catholicism. He did convert as a formality, and out of a horrible situation came something quite beautiful that carries so much meaning to people of all faiths. When Mahler was asked why he never composed a Mass, he answered bluntly that he could never, with any degree of artistic or spiritual integrity, voice the Credo. He was a confirmed agnostic, a doubter and seeker, a spiritual wanderer who practiced the art of remembering beauty in the face of suffering.

“Bereite dich zu leben!” Mahler wrote. “Prepare yourself to live!” We don’t have to wait to die to be resurrected; rather, we can experience resurrection today, now, at this very moment. So, in honor of Eleanor’s wishes, practicing and preparing for signs of abundant life and wholeness hear and now, I invite us to listen to the last few minutes of the Resurrection Symphony. We will listen to a live performance of Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuala.

In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated!
Its wing that I won is expanded,
and I fly up.
Die shall I in order to live.
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
That for which you suffered,
To God will it lead you!


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