Life Essay: Memorial Service for Sara Lee Wolff

January 8, 1983, written by the Rev Askew Crumbly, First United Methodist Church, Portland, Oregon

There is a story about a newspaper reporter who, as Mahatma Gandhi was leaving a train station, rushes up to him and asks, “Give me a message to take back to my people.” And Gandhi replies, “My life is my message.”

So is for all of us and so it was for Sara Lee. And she has left many messages for her family and friends; but the most relevant message for this time, this place, and for those of us gathered here is this letter written by Sara Lee in response to a sermon she had heard:

“When we try to serve God, we are sometimes used in ways we never expected, and some of those purposes involve our remolding so that we may be made more fit to do that work. I certainly never expected to contract cancer, either, but in my struggles to understand what was happening to me and how I could use this seemingly devastating event, I have chosen to work with several points which I thought you might like to hear and share. They are not earth-shaking discoveries, and they are all borrowed from various sources, but put together, they express for me the way I must deal with my present problem – and any future ones.

1.       Everything is perfect. God created the world and it is all good. I believe that evil arises only from human free choice and the devil is a mythical expression of the Jungian concept of the “shadow” which universal humanity has conceived to personify the dark and inexpressible side of human nature. In fact, I believe that I must ultimately come to the point – and sometimes I can – where good and evil are irrelevant. God is, everything is as it should be, and that is all that is necessary.

2.       Of course the foregoing would be incomplete without its corollary: we must do everything we can. Because we live in a human world where human affairs are imperfect, it is our responsibility to work as hard as we can to remedy everything that appears wrong. Ram Dass is the teacher from whom I gained the concept of these two points as interdependent. He expresses these two points as a paradox, “Everything is perfect and there is nothing we can do so we must do everything we can.” We have to do everything we can for world peace, for political justice, for the disadvantaged, and for our own growth and healing. 

These two points taken together point up a great truth: everything that has happened to us in our life is exactly perfect in bringing us to this now moment, which is the only moment there is, and this moment holds the potential for our enlightenment. Everything that seems evil as well as good in our past has its place in creating the unique individual that we are and making us God’s unique tool to serve his purpose. It’s all perfect, and yet we must do everything we can to build on this foundation for our personal growth and service to others. 

There are theories that imperfect reactions to stress are contributory causes of cancer, and I have to accept that perhaps there were processes in my experience which I could have handled better so that I would not now be having to deal with the results of those errors. But at the same time, I can say the imperfect thought it is, my life still has the capability for growth and useful work, and part of that usefulness may come through the experiences of suffering from those imperfect responses. So I can say, it is all perfect to bring me here – but I have to work as hard as I can to grow on the foundation which is laid.

3.       The third point, which arises out of the paradox of the first two, is abandonment. Jean-Pierre de Caussade, an eighteenth century French priest, first expressed this concept, and his work is published by Image Books as “Abandonment to Divine Providence.” By abandonment he does not mean a shrug of the shoulders, folding of the hands, and quietly giving up. Rather he means a cooperative effort between our work and God’s plan, but accomplished in total faith that the best will prevail. A typical line for de Caussade is, “We must put all speculation aside, and with childlike willingness accept all that God presents to us. What God arranges for us to experience at each moment is the best and holiest thing that could happen to us.” John Chapman, a 20th century apologist for de Caussade, in “The Spiritual Letters of John Chapman,” says that abandonment is like a swimmer who abandons himself to the buoyancy of the water but nevertheless must work hard to reach the shore. Soren Kierkegaard expresses faith as “swimming over 40,000 fathoms of water.”

4.       The fourth point is one day at a time. Alcoholics Anonymous has a precept that one only has to refuse to drink for one day – today.  We can handle almost everything for one day – it is the fear of the future which weakens us. I have a tape in which an incident is told of a man who had a huge malignancy, was on a life support machine, and was only given two weeks to live. The friend who was telling the story went to see him. “You are projecting your thoughts into the future. You are looking at two weeks from last Wednesday and saying that is all there is.” The patient admitted he was. The friend told him to stop doing that and to convince himself that he only had to live today. Two years later he met the man again at a business conference. His tumor had shrunk to (an) insignificant size, his bodily systems were working normally and he had returned to work. Whatever we fear most is always in the future – the little piece of it we undergo today can always be dealt with.

“I close with this”: There is a parable out of ancient Zen literature about a fishing village where a holy Zen monk lived in a hermitage on the hill above the village. One day a girl in the village was found to be pregnant with an illegitimate child. She knew the father was one of the fishermen, but she didn’t want to accuse him so she said it was the monk. When the child was born, the villagers took the baby up to the monk and said it was his child so he would have to raise it. Being a hermit, this was not something which was part of his personal plan, but he simply said “Ah, so” and accepted the child. He raised it and loved it as his own for nine years. When the village girl was dying and she feared to die with the guilty secret, she admitted the child’s father was the fisherman. The villagers returned to the monk’s hermitage, said they had made a terrible mistake and would take the child to its rightful father. As the monk gave up the child he had grown to love, he simply said, “Ah, so.”

A sign of God is that we are led in ways we did not choose to go. Everything that happens to us is perfectly suited to help us gain enlightenment in accordance with God’s purposes, but we are responsible for a corresponding effort through our human powers to accomplish our share of God’s work in the world. We only need to face these problems one day at a time, and we deal with all things equally, not judging them as good or evil, but abandoning all our results to God. And this is all expressed in the watchword, “Ah, so.”

Ah, so, friends, may you go on to larger service and further growth, enfolded in the love of God.”

Sara Lee