Sermon: Going On All The Rides
When I’m trying to get my kids to taste a new food, I often give them the following speech: “Life is like Coney Island. There are all different kinds of rides. Big rides, small rides, fast rides, slow rides. Some of them go up and some go down and some go round and round. Some are scary, some are fun. Some of them go really high up in the air and give you a view of the wide, wide ocean. Some take you down into a dark tunnel. So many kinds of rides. And when you reach the end of your life – when it’s your turn to die – you are going to look back on your life and wish that you had gone on every ride that you had a chance to go on. You are going to want to have tasted everything that life had to offer… like this Ethiopian pickled beet, for example.”
It doesn’t work. Ever. They ignore me. They roll their eyes like little mini teenagers. They start talking about something else. And to be fair, it’s probably a lot to ask of 5-year-olds to imagine how they’re going to feel at the end of their life. It’s probably a lot to ask of anyone. And yet, in a sense, that’s what we’re here to do. This is the thought and heart experiment that religion calls us to do. Here at First U, we think about the past and the future, we talk about God and not God and ethics; we pray; we sing; we listen to inspiring music; we read sacred texts and poetry… all to nudge us to step outside of our day-to-day lives and take the broadest possible view – the one from the top of the Ferris wheel; the one we will have at the end of our lives. We ask ourselves – how can we live now in a way that we’ll be happy about having lived as we near death? What will we want our lives to have been about? How will we want to be remembered? How will we want to have touched the world? What will we be proud of and what will we regret?
We can’t know for sure, of course. Humans are notoriously bad at what’s called “affective forecasting” – predicting how we’re going to feel in the future. But it’s kind of a truism among ministers who compare notes on these things that the deep regrets that people talk about at the end of their lives are rarely the mistakes they made – they are usually the opportunities they missed; the risks they didn’t take; the times when they played safe and lived small; the times when they could have swung at a pitch, but they let it go by. Those are the regrets. I don’t want you to have those regrets. So I’ll try on you the speech that doesn’t work on my five-year-olds: “Life is like Coney Island. There are all different kinds of rides. And when you reach the end of your life, when it’s your turn to die, you are going to look back and wish that you had gone on all the rides that you had a chance to go on.”
Now let me tell you what I’m not talking about here. I’m not talking about actual rides. I’m not talking about the kind of adult play that’s expensive, has a huge carbon footprint, sucks up natural resources, and requires a battalion of minimum-wage workers to make it happen. I’m not talking about spending the weekend at Mar-a-Lago. I’m not talking about hiring a crew of sherpas to haul you up Mt. Everest. I’m not talking about buying anything. I’m also not talking about trying things that are truly self-destructive – taking dangerous drugs like crack or crystal meth, having unsafe sex, engaging in self-harm. Those are not the rides that I mean. I hope you are able to pass those by.
The rides I’m thinking of are the rides that connect us more deeply to the sacred earth and life of which we are a part. There are rides of the body – jump into that lake on your hike. You just don’t know; you can’t see the future: this might be the last chance you ever have to swim in a lake. You don’t know. Taste those Ethiopian pickled beets. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like the beets or if the lake water is cold – it’s an experience and your soul is hungry for it. There are rides of the mind, which Unitarian Universalists tend to be pretty good at already – reading, studying, debating. But learn a new language. You might understand the world so differently if you learned a Native American language. Or Gujarati. Or Chinese. And then there are rides of the heart. Take the ultimate risk of loving someone – a romantic partner, a child, a friend. Start that difficult conversation; get real with another human being. Look into the eyes of your beloved and tell them that you love them. Let yourself believe that you are loved. The rides of the heart can be wild rides.
For all of us, if we go on all these rides, there will be ups and downs. We will get hurt, we will fail, and we will have moments of bliss. There will be times when, just like when we’re rounding the top of a roller coaster and looking down 20 stories to the ground, we will wish we hadn’t climbed aboard for this one. We’ll wish we could get off and we won’t be able to. This was probably what that guy was feeling on Friday morning – the guy who climbed onto a piece of plywood in the New Jersey marina to watch the sunrise. He got swept downstream in the current for two miles, floating on this piece of wood, until he was rescued by the Coast Guard somewhere near Governor’s island. Even though he was cold and scared, that is a ride he will remember forever and I believe he will treasure it at the end of his life. He isn’t exactly my poster child for this message, though, because it was a pretty stupid thing to do and he relied on public resources to save him. And apparently the only reason he didn’t swim to shore was that he didn’t want his phone to get wet.
I’ll tell you who is a poster child for this message, though, and he’s actually a child: a fifteen-year-old named Xiuhtezcatl Tonatiuh. He describes himself as an “indigenous environmental eco-hip hop artist, activist, change agent, and spokesperson for his generation.” He has been speaking out publicly since the time he was literally six. You can watch videos of him on YouTube speaking and rapping before large crowds with his long hair, saying prayers for Mother Earth in his Native American language, and calling on the adults of the world to take bold steps to protect her. Today, he and twenty other youth from Eugene, Oregon, ages 9-19, are taking an amazing ride together: they are suing the U.S. government in a landmark climate change lawsuit. They’re suing the government for violating their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property and their right to essential public trust resources, by encouraging the continued burning of fossil fuels. They are fighting for their whole generation and speaking about it in those terms. As CNN put it, it’s the future suing the present.
Tonatiuh said, “The reason we are fighting for this is because of the world we want to grow up in, and the world we want our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren to grow up in,” he said. “This is not a selfish cause. We’re not politically invested, we’re not financially invested. … We are in this because of the way it affects the state of the planet we want to be left with. That is the most noble cause I’d say: Leaving our children a better planet than the one we are living in today. We are doing our part. We need political leaders to step up and do theirs.”
The ride that Tonatiuh and the other youth are taking is what I would call a ride of the spirit. This is a special kind of ride where nothing picks us up and buckles us in and carries us along and powers our engine except hope and faith – faith in our higher power and our deepest self. Like any ride, a ride of the spirit has rollercoasters of ups and downs. There are bitter disappointments and failures as well as wonderful successes and joys. But a ride of the spirit gives, not just experiences, but meaning to a life. It’s when we live for something larger than ourselves. It’s when we have such a power of conviction that we journey wherever that conviction takes us.
Life is like Coney Island. There are lots and lots of rides. The rides that we take make up the lives that we lead. Rides of the body, mind, heart, and spirit. And the fact is we can’t go on all of them. There are too many and our time in this life is too short. Some rides are thrust upon us and we have no option to get off – poverty or an illness. Others we can’t get a ticket for even if we desperately want to. But for all the other rides – the ones that we can choose – let’s agree that when we turn one down, let it be for a damn good reason. Let it be because it’s immoral or would hurt someone or would be truly dangerous. But don’t let it be because we might not like it. Don’t let it be because we’re scared. Don’t let it be because we’re clinging to the past. Don’t let it be because we don’t want our ideas about life challenged. For God’s sake, don’t let it be because we might get our heart broken. And don’t let it be because we think the little bit of good we can do on that ride won’t make a difference. Because it will.
At the end of our life – when it’s our turn to die – we are going to look back at our lives and wish that we had gone on every ride we could. The author Hunter S. Thompson put it perfectly, “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming ‘Wow! What a Ride!’”