Joe Black Came Calling

Rob Lieb

Delivered on July 26, 2015
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Harford County


Every thing that has ever enjoyed being alive must, at some point, die. There's the rub. It is not so bad for most life forms. Most just thrill in the time they are alive and die when it's over. Humans, however, have developed a self-consciousness, which presents a special problem when giving up the ghost. I invite you to look into the process of living and reflecting, and how they can be viewed so that the time we do have is not wasted worrying about what happens when we are no longer here.

Meditation: Gratefulness

Renowned astronomer/astrophysicist, Carl Sagan had many valuable quotes, and I will be using them liberally. The following is one from A Pale Blue Dot that sets the tone for today's service.

How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, 'This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant.'? A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.

If we develop completeness in our lives that brings together the realization of what we believe and what the Universe demands of us, gratefulness for being able to knowingly participate in this wonder will follow. The empty cavern some of us feel regarding life's meaning, once seen, we will long to fill. Think one grateful thought about being human, or being alive, and throw it into that cavern. (Pause) If that thought tumbles around and the cavern echoes, throw in another and another until the echoes fade. You will have begun the process of completion.

Reflection I: Who is Joe Black?

A while back I presented a sermon called On Being Human and it was based on the movie Meet Joe Black. The theme is that Death, who has been in business a long time, is puzzled by humans' reaction (resistance) to making the transition from life to death and is curious as to why humans react so strangely. So Death comes into this world not as the reaper, but as a human, just to get a taste of being human. The movie gives us a chance to view from a fresh point of view the process we all experienced long ago as we were growing up, learning how to be human. However, many aspects of our existence we now take for granted simply because we have grown used to our situation, and the way that the Earth and nature has molded us.

The sub-themes the movie deals with are timeless. Failure, betrayal, love, revenge, abandonment, trust, integrity, deceit, goodness, inadequacy, dedication, pride, and of course death. These and many other experiences are all encountered and dealt with, as we humans go about our business of living.

The human that Death becomes takes the name Joe Black. As he learns various lessons of life, he teaches some lessons of his own about whom we are. Tasting peanut butter becomes a major experience. Witnessing intimate deceit and betrayal surprises and annoys him. Falling in love confuses, thrills, conflicts, enrages, embarrasses, and surprises him. Ultimately, he reaches a resolution as a human and as Death, mostly through his experience with love. Joe Black came into our world from a perspective of raw justice honed by his previous experiences and proceeds to develop a modified sense of justice. Fairness is doled out, first with the impunity he has always fostered as a very powerful entity. He is used to having his own way and usually doles out fairness, in accordance with that reality. And then later, the fairness is practiced with compassion that develops as a concept of goodness is developed. (Notice that goodness is always absent in natural things and comes about only with development of human judgment.) As a consequence of this evolution, love is discovered. One of the best and culminating parts is Death's final acceptance of his appropriate role in the universe. Death, now with the living Joe Black has experienced, is unable to leave all of his acquired humanity behind.

The main purpose of the presentation is to appreciate the aspects of our human condition from a position outside of the everyday human perspective. That is the gift of this movie, as far as I am concerned. We humans grow so quickly used to just about any condition, whether it be extraordinary pleasure or abject pain, bright sunlit valleys or cave-dark dimness, ear splitting loudness or rustling leaves in a mellow breeze, bitter hops brewed into sharp tasting beer or bland mush pudding, aromas of exquisite perfumes on the nape of your love's neck or the residual odor of the neighboring paper mill, or the rush of excitement when defusing a high explosive or waiting for your number to be called at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Humans get used to anything, very, very quickly.

We need this outside perspective to shake us into the realization of what we have. We have self-realization beyond any other being on Earth, yet we routinely refuse to exercise our incorporated facilities to appreciate the wealth existing at our fingertips. The entity Death is limited to a window of time in which to experience the human condition before he must return to his reality. The beginning of the encounter is engaged with awe and wonder, then there is a period of discovery, and eventually as the window of time draws to a close, the anxiety of leaving this privileged place rises. Death faces a death, similar to what occurs with us and then he comes to grips with what Death's nature is and realigns his reality with the universe, as we all must do. The lesson should not be lost. We humans are offered the same choice. To experience life's fulfillment, we too must recognize our window of time. We must exploit our time and pack as much as we can to take full advantage of this passage.

Reflection II: The Calling

All of us have experienced situations in which we have expressed relief that we were somewhere else when something very bad happens: a fire, a bombing, a flood or tornado, a shark attack, or just passing an accident on the highway. Many of us have gone through events that could have turned out badly. We felt lucky that things turned out relatively good for us. Some of us have had very bad things happen to us: the loss of a loved one, the betrayal of trust that hurts and causes a huge detour in your path, an injury that changes the way you must face how you live and relate to people. A few of us have traveled to the edge of our existence and come back, faced with the task of continuing as before, or in a whole new reality. However, at some point there will be an end to our window of time. Joe Black will be calling. Everyone will answer the call. It is likely better to be ready for that call than not.

Ric Masten, a Unitarian Universalist poet I met at SUUSI wrote Let It Be a Dance We Do, which appears in our hymnal. After he was diagnosed with cancer and had undergone a lengthy treatment, he wrote a poem very germane to our service today. The poem is called Poor Devil. I'd like to read it.

Poor Devil

in my early twenties
I went along with Dylan Thomas
boasting that I wanted to go out
not gently but raging
shaking my fist
staring death down

however this daring statement
was somewhat revised
when in my forties I realized
that death does the staring
I do the down

so I began hoping
it would happen to me
like it happened to the sentry
in all those
John Wayne Fort Apache movies
found dead in the morning
face down—an arrow in the back
Poor devil.
the Sergeant always said
Never knew what hit him.

at the time I liked that—
the end taking me
completely by surprise
the bravado left in the hands
of a hard drinking Welshman
still wet behind the ears

older and wiser now
over seventy
and with a terminal disease
the only thing right about
what the Sergeant said
was the Poor devil part

Poor devil
never used an opening
to tell loved ones he loved them
never seized the opportunity
to give praise for the sunrise
or drink in a sunset
moment after moment
passing him by
while he marched through his life
staring straight ahead
believing in tomorrow
Poor devil!,

how much fuller
richer and pleasing life becomes
when you are lucky enough
to see the arrow coming

So, I knew the arrow was in the air, but I never saw it coming. I was living my life to what I thought was the fullest. Learning what I thought I needed to know, doing all the things that I had programmed and incorporating changes to wring all the meaning possible out of this existence, with just a few holes. Last October 20th, I came up the stairs to go to bed and Marlene noticed I was acting a bit funny. I thought I was facing her when I was not. I was totally fascinated by the four ceiling corners in our bedroom. I could not understand how I missed all these years why I never noticed how wonderful those corners were. Then, half my face drooped, and I lost consciousness. Marlene called 911, the medics arrived quickly, they worked on me in the driveway, took me to Upper Chesapeake, the doctors scanned my brain, saw the two bleeds, I was loaded onto a helicopter, flew to UM shock trauma, stabilized, and the decision was made not to cut, and then everyone waited. I woke a day later tied to the bed in a windowless room and thought, God Damn it, my parents were right! I'm dead and it seems like I made it to purgatory.

In the days that followed, I found out many things. How difficult it is to fix brain cells, how many things had to go exactly right for me to be in the place I found myself, how wonderful the people I knew actually were, how much people cared about me, how much I was loved, how much people I did not know cared about me, and how much I still had to learn. (Lucky Devil!) These things did not come in this order and none came all at once. In fact, a very large realization is that things such as those mentioned may come at any time. My window, which could have closed abruptly had the arrow followed a slightly different path, was extended. It was extended and I have a chance to fix some things. I had a shift in perspective. Then, the biggest understanding dawned. I am not that special. We all have that same chance every second we push into the next moment. As long as we are alive we have the chance to thrill in the now.

So, how do we gain the perspective needed to keep the window open and keep filling the cavern we sometimes feel inside us? There is always a cavern available for each of us to fill. We just need to see it. We could have weekly showings of Meet Joe Black, but as humans do, we would easily tire of that.

Today, I turn to Carl Sagan for a possible jump-start on perspective. You may have a better one of your own. This was presented at the end of the recent COSMOS series. It's from his book, A Pale Blue Dot. When the Voyager spacecraft was leaving the last large planet in our system (Neptune), Carl Sagan convinced the NASA team to turn the craft around toward Earth and photograph the pale blue dot that Earth appears to be from that distance. That is what I hope will provide perspective today. I will provide that for you now. The perspective of us, holding each other on this mote of dust bathed in sunshine.

The Earth as viewed from just beyond Neptune

Pale Blue Dot Speech

Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, whoever lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

So, life has been on Earth for about 4 billion years. We and maybe a few other species evolved into a state of self-awareness certainly within the last million years, and we have gained consciousness within the last 40,000 years. These events caused our window to be thrown wide open. We should relish in the flow through that window. Now is the time to open any throttle as wide as possible. The Arrow is on the way. Know it is coming and appreciate the ride of your life. When Joe Black calls, greet him with a knowing and confident smile.

Closing Hymn and Postlude: Let It Be a Dance by Ric Masten

Let it be a dance we do.
May I have this dance with you?
Through the good times
And the bad times, too,
Let it be a dance.

Let a dancing song be heard.
Play the music say the words,
Fill the sky with sailing birds.
Let it be a dance.
Let it be a dance.
Let it be a dance

Learn to follow, learn to lead.
Feel the rhythm, fill the need.
To reap the harvest, plant the seed.
And let it be a dance....Chorus.

Everybody turn and spin
Let your body learn to bend,
And, like a willow with the wind,
Let it be a dance.
Let it be a dance.
Let it be a dance
A child is born, the old must die,
A time for joy, a time to cry.
Take it as it passes by.
And let it be a dance....Chorus.

Morning star comes out at night,
Without the dark there is no light.
If nothing's wrong, then nothing's right.
Let it be a dance.
Let it be a dance.
Let it be a dance.

Let the sun shine, let it rain,
Share the laughter, bare the pain,
And round and round we go again.
Let it be a dance....Chorus.


Remember to turn and spin.
Let it be a dance you do.
Go out dancing.

Copyright © 2015 Rob Lieb. All Rights Reserved.

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