Every Tomb Is A Womb


I prefer people who smile. Maybe it says something about me, or maybe it’s universal, but I’ve always found it easier to deal with people whose face lights up when they talk, people who make me feel supported, people who respond to what I have to say with more than a grump or a grimace.

Give me a smile, and I’ll come to see you again; I’ll reciprocate with smiles of my own, perhaps even with gifts or favors.

Give me a frown or ignore me, and I’ll be intimidated. I’ll think four times before making another contact; even then, I may have to force myself to say hello or visit. I may even turn the other way when I see you coming.

And what a shame that is, because smiles can be so superficial. Because people with frowns, or just plain expressionless faces, usually are as sincere or as friendly as those whose demeanor exudes warmth. They clearly have as much to teach me.

Thinking back across life’s many years, it occurs to me that in almost every instance the dour ones have helped me grow at least as much as the warm ones have, often more.

I recall Bernie, a professor who drove me up many walls with his cynical, sometimes nasty (always smile-less) attacks on my views. To this day, I argue with him often, even though we’ve not communicated for years. His mind was powerful; his words were sharp, his ideas even sharper. And how he intimidated me! I still think he was wrong about many things. And I wish he had been less sarcastic. But there is no question that all of my arguing with him–internally more often than outwardly–has made me a better thinker. I’d never recommend him for a favorite teacher list, but that says bad things about me, because his challenges have made me grow more than the plaudits of those I’d be more likely to nominate.

A colleague named Glen comes to mind next. If Bernie sent me up walls, Glen drove me to wit’s end. I didn’t simply disagree with his views; I felt oppressed by him–threatened and put down. And I avoided talking to him, even though he chaired my department. If truth be told, however, I owe him many of the things that have landed me where I am today. He too made me think deeply, painfully, about what I thought and believed. He made me defend my views. He gave me examples of how to be an effective teacher, for many students loved him. And he pushed me, unknowingly, into larger worlds where I could grow in unanticipated ways.

Then there was Ed, a journalist I initially found it hard to talk to. With Ed, there were no ideological disagreements, no nastiness or arrogance. He was just inexpressive and quiet–smile-less!–the kind of person to whom I found it difficult to reach out. But how glad I am that got to know him. Beneath that quiet surface lay one of the most interesting men I have known: a man driven by a passion for justice, a man brimming with unexpected interests, a man skilled with the pen, a man more loyal than a brother. My life has been enriched by his friendship in ways beyond counting, but I’d not have gotten to know him if I’d followed my instincts.

Bob Thompson said in a recent Lake Street Church sermon: “God is in those who force us to stretch.” For me, the non-smilers fit that description.

I’m insecure enough as a human being that I’ll continue to gravitate toward those who smile a lot and talk easily. But I’ll do that at my peril, as Bernie, Glen, Ed, and a hundred more have taught me.

Several years ago I was having a conversation about end of life issues with an older member of my congregation named Jeanette. She interrupted me mid sentence, reached out and grabbed my arm. “Bob, you know what I’ve been thinking lately. I think there may be something to this reincarnation stuff. And you know what? When I come back I want to come back as a cat. I think it would be great to be a cat!” 

I said, “well Jeanette, would that be an alley cat or a house cat?” “Oh Bob, I’d like to be a cat in a really wealthy household!”

I never would have suspected that Jeanette believed in reincarnation. It’s true that for some of us one life is clearly enough, for others, one life is more than enough. Some believe there is life after death, others hope to live before they die. We all have our guesses and our imaginations. Who knows what the real deal is? Somewhere I read of one skeptic who said, “I didn’t believe in reincarnation my last life either.”

In Eastern religions, belief in reincarnation is a given. Until the last 30 or 40 years most in the West have rejected it.

My first serious exposure to the concept of reincarnation occurred while a seminary student in Berkeley in the early 70’s. Some of my hippie friends were dabbling in Eastern spirituality and to me they believed beyond a doubt that reincarnation was true. I always smiled politely and privately thought that was a bunch of hogwash. It’s funny how we can change our minds. Now, 35 years later I believe in it myself. It’s funny that what seems like nonsense one day, can make perfect sense the next.

If you believe in reincarnation it’s seductive to speculate about past lives. Once in a great while somebody will tell me they know who they were in a previous life—and of course it’s always somebody who was really important. But what good is it if you were the Queen of Sheeba 20 life times ago. Maybe you were a warthog between that life and this one! What are you doing now?

People say, “we only go ‘round once”. But conventional wisdom often runs counter to actual experience.The conventional wisdom in Chicago this past March was that Spring would never come! But it’s Spring again. Regardless of what we think, the seasons keep appearing, disappearing and reappearing.

Going around only once can create a lot of pressure. Get it right, go to heaven. Get it wrong, go to hell. It’s not much of an improvement to believe there’s no life after death.

To believe we only go round once is to believe that if we screw up this one chance—we are screwed forever.

In my experience, life is bigger than legalisms. Intuitively, reincarnation just makes sense to me. Whatever happens to us in this life is not the end of the story but merely one chapter in the epic of the life of a soul. In living through the body over many lifetimes, the soul receives many opportunities to wake up and see its own light—the light which comes from God and is God. I know I need more than one lifetime to fully wake up to the Divine Presence in this world. 

There’s no evidence that Jesus believed in reincarnation. Jesus did not say “I am the reincarnation and the life”. But there is evidence Jesus did believe in karma, though he didn’t use that word explicitly. Literally, the ancient Sanskrit word “karma” means actions. Karma is about the law of cause and effect.

If you plant an apple seed, you don’t get a mango tree. If you start a war in Iraq, don’t expect the middle east to be more peaceful. Karma requires understanding that every deed carries a spiritual seed. If you give hatred to the world, the world you should expect the world to hate you back. If you live your life around material rewards, then don’t expect spiritual rewards. 

Karma says sooner or later, what we get out of life is what we give to life. What tempts us is to make judgments about the karma of others—we make a big deal out of the actions of others perhaps saying, “look at the bad karma he’s making—look at the bad karma she’s creating. To judge the karma of others misses the point. We are each responsible for our actions. In this life and the next, no one pays the cost for our actions—but us. All of which implies it is not God who judges us. We judge ourselves through the actions we take.

Jesus believed in karma he just didn’t use that word. The Golden rule as we know it is a perfect example.”Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” “You will reap what you sow”.

It’s true that sometimes we hold out our hand, and get it slapped. There are times when we reach out in compassion and are greeted with a closed fist.  But karma is not like instant rice. It takes time to cook. 

Karma is simply one thing leading to another, day after day, month after month, year after year. Wherever we find ourselves today it is because one thing, leading to another, has brought us to being who we are, where we are. Bad things happen to us that apparently we have not brought on ourselves. Good things happen to us, and sometimes we can’t imagine why. But asking why can only take us so far.

I know many people who lives their lives stuck in “why”. The way to move beyond why is to ask what. This is a spiritual practice readily available to all—turn the why into what. Ask not why you are where you are, but what you can do here and now. 

Karma as the law of cause and effect and reincarnation offer the promise that embedded in life is not one chance, but many opportunities to live a happier, fuller and more complete life. Taken literally or metaphorically karma and reincarnation remind us that the last thing that happened to us is just the last thing—it’s never the final thing.

Today in Chicago, it is sunny and 65 degrees.

Hope Springs eternal.