This past week, leading up to today, I wouldn’t be human if I wasn’t doing a little bit of reflecting. There’s no reason to make any big deal about it, but I turn forty years old today.
Now, a lot of people, especially friends that like to give people a little ribbing, like to see this as the “over the hill” birthday. Since forty marks a little over halfway through what is commonly agreed to be the average life expectancy, they say someone turning forty us up and over that hill. But a lot of people would be wrong.
See all of us here deserve a little congratulations today. In addition to this day being my birthday, every person here deserves to be recognized for making their own very wise decision. See, we have all won a kind of lottery. Not the kind of lottery that makes you financially wealthy, and here in Hawaii, not the kind of lottery that funds our public schools either, but that’s a different sermon…stay tuned. No, no, those who choose to live here, here on these magical, life-giving islands, have another kind of win to celebrate. See, Hawai’i has the longest life expectancy of any of the other states and territories that make up the United States. The life expectancy in Hawai’i is 81.3 years. Since the national average is somewhere around 76, by living here, you’ve extended your life by more than five years! Right? Isn’t that how statistics work? No?
Okay, fine, but this news was important to me. Because I’ve been spending the last few years, living in other states, states with life expectancies somewhere in the high seventies, and thinking to myself: Well you’re in to middle age now…you’re more than halfway there. You’re over the hill. But see, by moving here I have another six months and roughly ten days left before I can start feeling that way again, all because of where I am in the world. It’s a birthday miracle. I was old, but now I feel new again.
Of course, I’m being a little silly about this. Not only about my age, but also about math. See, an average life expectancy is not a predictor of any individual’s experience. In fact, people who know about math would tell you that an average, by its very definition, does not represent any one person’s individual experience. An average is meant to be impersonal. But limits or averages like this provide something else. They allow individuals to look at points in their own lives and consider those lives in light of what is average—an individual experience, set against a culture’s or a society’s shared experience. So then, why do we pay attention to much to these milestones? Why are we so concerned with certain anniversaries? Aren’t these only arbitrary dates or limits of years that someone surpasses, just like every other date or limit? Perhaps. But we know, we feel, we sense, that there is a little more going on around these round-number events in our lives than around some of the other dates, right?
See, Time…is a bit of a funny thing. Not funny “ha, ha.” Funny, like illusive, complex, hard to really get a hold on. But it’s not for lack of trying. There are all kinds of theories about the way Time itself works. And it seems voices about how Time works come from all corners of our lives. There are neurobiologists who point to the parts of our brains they theorize are responsible for time keeping. There are science fiction writers and film writers, who do their best to negotiate theories about time and travel through it. There are even jazz musicians who opine about the experience of slipping out of the usual time continuum when improvising or being part of a transcendent musical experience. And from these voices and so, so many more, we each, maybe without even knowing it, develop our own theories about Time and how it works or matters in our lives.
If you’ve never really given much thought to your own perspective on Time…well…congratulations. You clearly have more important things to do. But if you’re curious to learn more about what others think about Time and it’s nature, there are ways to find out that out. What I am about to say is not pastoral care advice. But, if you’re ever curious about what people who really think about time and what it means are saying or theorizing about time—again, not pastoral care advice—you can simply check out the Wikipedia article entitled simply “Time.” And don’t say I didn’t warn you. I will set aside some office hours for those of you who make it all the way through. It’s a mind bender.
But however an individual views time in their own life, every so often, maybe every year, maybe every 10 years, or maybe ever 100 years, a milestone or special anniversary comes around, maybe in our own lives, or in the lives of others. And somehow, what we think about time in our own lives, if we think about it at all, gets challenged a little bit. And there is a reason for that.
Because as we hit milestones in our lives, we are met with agreements that other people have made. See, psychologists tell us milestones and anniversaries are actually social contracts or agreements that society makes. And those social contracts have all the things that go with them. Cards in the Walgreen’s aisle for birthdays that start 1, 2, 3…usually all the way up to 12 or so, then 16, then 18 maybe, then 21…then sort of a skip to 30, and then it happens…40, 50…. There are special parties or going a little more out of the way to remember those milestones, with surprises maybe, or even trips for some. There are even common phrases or sentiments that someone turning…say…forty years old…might hear more times than he cares to. Like, “I thought my thirties were going to great, but my forties were the best.” That’s kind of nice. But then there’s also ones like this. “Forty was actually pretty great, it was fifty that was really hard.” Yikes. These are voices that are attaching to the idea that these milestones are measuring sticks of lives.
But then there are other voices one hears. There’s the good old: “Age is just a number.” Or “You’re only as young as you feel.” These are phrases we hear all the time around these special occasions. Sure, they might make us feel a little old. But they are part of a much bigger, much longer conversation that’s been going on a long, long, time.
You might now know it, but by choosing how to view your birthday or any other celebration, you are actually entering a seething, centuries-long debate: a debate about Time itself. See, not to ruin any of your assigned reading, but, Time is one of those weird things that attracts a few different kinds of opinions. You have opinions about time ranging from the schools of theology to the schools of astrophysics. From philosophy to quantum mechanics. And there are really two basic camps, two sides of a debate about time and its basic structure. One school believes that time is something the universe itself is defined by. These are called the Naturalists. They think that time is a constant element of the universe, really a dimension of objective reality. In this camp resides closet Unitarian Sir Isaac Newton, who bestowed his own name on this view of time: Newtonian Time. Many in this camp rely on “time” as something you can measure and place in…say…an equation. This concept of time is also central to some of the best science fiction writing. Start Trek: Next Generation bases about a quarter of its episodes on some feature of this theory on time, along with any other work with plot points about the space-time continuum. We can think of this as the “milestones matter” camp. Where at least one factor in the equation of your life is the distance you’ve traveled from your life’s starting point. I call it the Star Trek camp.
Now the other camp, populated, not surprisingly, a bit more by philosophers and poets than astronomers, is the camp that says time is truly just in our head. Some of the folks in this camp, as they puff their long skinny cigarettes at café tables, simply say that time doesn’t matter, it’s all in your head. Others, literally mean it’s in your head, because it is only our human brains that create a continuity of time in order to make sense of the universe around us. Their view is that time is a construction of the mind to make sense of the events of our lives and their sequence.
From biologists who look at the brain parts themselves as the genesis of the concept of time, to the Buddhists who believe that time is an illusion, to the beatniks who wear black, this is the “age is just a number” camp. It’s the French impressionist novelist camp, the Proust camp. And I’m liking them more and more, the older I get…how ‘bout you?
Age is just a number!
Age is just a number!
We have an agreement as a society!
I reject your agreement!
We have an agreement!
I reject it!
Take away the equations and the long skinny cigarettes, and we have a debate about time that’s nothing new: the individual’s view versus society’s view.
Now, as Unitarian Universalists, we are on record for taking a pretty hard line on this debate. This church had an entire clothing and bumper sticker campaign saying, “WE>I,” no doubt in response to the popular branding by a local group for HE>I. [NB: “church” rather than “group” is what was spoken in the original sermon, but I was mistaken] And it’s a wonderful, a very community oriented notion shared among Unitarian Universalists. The community we establish and the community we support is, for many, one of the holy, sacred things in our spiritual or shared lives together. And the importance of this church, this community, in the lives of its members, as the only one of its kind that does not require an aircraft to reach for people on this island, cannot be overstated. But for Unitarian Universalism and for individual Unitarian Universalists, or for people who do not care for labels or brands and consider themselves simply humans who attend a Unitarian Universalist church, the WE>I, the social agreement, this expression, not equation, for those math geeks out there paying attention, this expression that places the needs of the many over the needs of the few, the Star Trek II, Wrath of Kahn expression, if you are a fan of those movies, is only an aspiration. Because, there are times when the needs of the individual or a smaller group in our community become central to our community. And that’s Okay! In fact, it’s what is supposed to happen.
Some of you might have heard that your leaders here in this church stand now at the center of a national movement for moral revival. Over the past weeks, through organizational meetings, deep discussions, and conversations about what really matters in the lives of others, leaders of this church met closely with other community allies to plan an event to lift up the voices and the experiences and the wisdom of those who are made to struggle in our wider community. The coalition coming together sought to take part in the national movement for moral revival called the Poor People’s Campaign and Moral Mondays. And this week, the national organizing group of the Poor People’s Campaign and Moral Mondays, a coalition and movement founded by Martin Luther King fifty years ago, a movement that sought a wholesale change to the moral center of this nation, placed the action planned in this very sanctuary where you are sitting, on the national map for the Poor People’s Campaign. They sent out press releases nationwide explaining the good work born here in this place.
Yes, on its fiftieth anniversary, this campaign is coming back to the forefront of many on the cutting edge of understanding the root of the problems forcing so many members of our human family into struggles that seem insurmountable. What is old is new again.
Racism, ecological devastation, economic oppression, and Militarism: these are the moral evils the campaign demands be overcome in our culture. And even if an individual thinks they are not being impacted by these moral evils, the teachings of Dr. King and of the campaign say clearly, boldly, that what is impacting the least of us, impacts all of us. See Martin Luther King saw a lot, but what separated him from so many who see so much asn’t that he wasn’t afraid to speak out. He was afraid. It wasn’t that he was a charismatic preacher who had moral authority. He was that, too. What separated him from others of his time, maybe of any time since, is that he organized a way he saw for tearing down the structures built upon these four evils. And part of his plan to topple these structures started with the Poor People’s Campaign.
And many of the white protestant clergy he counseled, he demanded, he dared to join him in his struggle to end these evils, would not. But in 1968, 50 years ago, the Unitarian Universalist Association did. What is old, is new again.
Because it was that group of white protestant clergy, those who would not join Dr. King in his lifetime, who responded with words of “now is not the time” or “all in good time.” It is that same group that made Dr. King a martyr as quickly as they could. They made of him an image, an almost sainted presence. And that had a very real, very damaging effect. Because the persona they created that seemed to honor, to hold up this remarkable human being, separated him from the movement he began 50 years ago. It took him out of his time, out of his context. And so we say to those clergy all those years ago, as we did 50 years ago, now is the time. Now is the best time.
Following the service today we will we working on some of the ways we will present and lift up the voices on this island of the people who struggle against the four moral evils of racism, economic oppression, ecological devastation, and militarism. And tomorrow, from 11:30 to 1:30 in Ala Moana Beach Park, with the wide blue ocean on one side, and the single most expensive and unoccupied apartment on the island on the other, we will welcome, we will witness, and we will hold holy those stories of those who struggle under the weight of moral evils.
And it will be in this time, when the camp of history marked with milestones, when the camp of time free of all that seeks to control it, will come together. For what is old is new again.
It will be in this time, when the 50 years when Unitarian Universalists have been part of this campaign, when the new life this year, this church, has brought to this campaign, will come together. For what is old is new again.
It will be in this time, when the needs of the many, when the needs of the few, will come together as one. So that words of Lilla Watson, the indigenous activist, artist, and academic from Australia will be true, will be new again: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come here because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
For what is old is new again.
Let us work together, let us not waste time, let it be now.
Because after all, we are in Hawai’i, the place with the longest life expectancy in this nation…and we’ll outlast ‘em all!
And may it ever be so.