This I Believe: Don Lifto (2023)

I remember sitting in the congregation here at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Mahtomedi many times listening to parishioners as they shared their “This I Believe” testimonials – bravely opening a window into their hearts and minds and shining a light on the essence of their faith journeys. Like artists at their easels – one brush stroke at a time – they painted soul landscapes to share with us. While I always found these “This I Believe” messages to be thoughtful, inspirational, and moving, they also left me anxious hoping that I would never be asked to share my faith story. And if I were asked, that I could dream up a reliable excuse and say “no.” I would be surprised if this admission on my part is not shared by some of you here today. So why the anxiety?

For me, the answer lies to a great extent in what I share with many Unitarian Universalists – a well-intentioned but seemingly meandering spiritual path. My wife Lori and I marked our 12th anniversary as members of the White Bear Lake UU congregation on January 2 of 2023. In my prior life I was baptized, confirmed, and an altar boy in an Episcopalian parish, became a Roman Catholic after our marriage, and later joined an Evangelical Lutheran church. Ironically, while I have never been happier and content with where I finally landed at WBUUC, I admit to sometimes feel a nagging need to justify leaving traditional Christian churches – symbolically on a journey from the cross to the chalice. When I venture down that path I often reflect on the fundamental difference between a religious creed – defined as an authoritative formula of religious belief (emphasis on authoritative) – as compared to a religious principle – defined as a general belief guiding how we live and the decisions we make. In this mindset, I strive for the wisdom to accept the complexities and nuances of our spiritual journeys and to resist the temptation to assume that what I believe must be right, and that if you believe something differently, it must be wrong.

The Eight Principles are a great foundation from which to share my “This I Believe” testimonial. Guided by these affirmations places the mantel of responsibility on me to pursue the “…free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” I’ll begin by sharing some thoughts about two existential mysteries framing our shared bookends of life: “Where did I come from?” and “Where do I go when I die?” While it is tempting to say, “I honestly don’t know the answers to these questions, thank you for your attention,” and then end this little homily, I will try to go a little deeper in reflecting on my beliefs about these fundamental questions of birth and death.

So, where did I come from?

While the words of the English language are woefully inadequate to describe my thoughts about birth and creation, I do believe that there is a universal, creative force presence in our world – call it a God, soul, spirit, life force, providence, or something else. While I acknowledge my inadequacy to both understand and explain this belief, it is nonetheless deep within me. When I think about what undergirds my conviction in this regard, I can offer two bookends – seemingly quite different on the surface.

One bookend of my faith emanates from the stunning view of the earth from space – a round magical tapestry of mostly blues and whites floating in a black infinity – the earth spinning but too slowly to see with the human eye. Seeing our living earth in the vastness of an infinite space is utterly amazing. I imagine the astronauts viewing this astonishing reality from space. If any doubt creeps into my mind about the miracle of infinity, I am reminded to ask myself two questions. First, is it plausible that an infinite universe came into being totally by chance and in the absence of any creative force of any kind? And second, if the universe is not infinite, what is on the other side if one actually would arrive at its theoretical finite limit?

A second insight supporting the belief in some form of providence is stamped on my consciousness every time I hold and look into the eyes of a newborn baby. In this context, I am not thinking so much about the miracle of conception, development in the womb, or a baby’s safe entrance into the world through the birth canal – all extraordinary in their own respects – but rather I reflect on the miracle of the baby held in my hands. A new life with a beating heart, breathing lungs, eyes that can see, and ears that can hear – a unique being unlike any person ever born or any baby yet to be born. A newborn who can sense being touched, held, fed, and loved. For me, this question is paramount: How could this creation, this miracle of life, simply have occurred by chance – the random good luck of nature? For me, our infinite universe and the miracle of new life reinforce my belief in some form of providence present in the universe. The second bookend represents an equally prominent and universal existential mystery: What happens when I die? While not a practicing Buddhist, in recent years I have taken classes, gone to retreats, and have done a lot of reading, all of which strongly reinforced my beliefs about different forms of eternal life. For the scientists among us, I learned that humans shed between 30,000 and 40,000 skin cells every hour. During a 24-hour period my body releases almost a million skin cells into the universe. In physicist Paul Aebersold’s words, “We swap out half of our carbon atoms every one to two months…. Although we may die, our atoms don’t. They revolve through life, soil, oceans, and sky in a chemical merry-go-round.”

That is one way to leave a DNA legacy when my earthly body dies. This spiritual reality is also reflected in Buddhist teaching helping me better appreciate how life continues in the minds and hearts of others. In his book, no Death, no Fear, Thich Nhat Hanh reflects on the death of his mother. On the day of her earthly passing, he painfully lamented in his journal, “A serious misfortune of my life has arrived.” After suffering from abiding grief for more than a year, something happened – Hanh experienced a deeper and different realization of life to death to life one night after a peaceful dream about his mother.

In his words, When I woke up it was about two in the morning, and I felt very strongly that I had never lost my mother. The impression that my mother was still with me was very clear. I understood then that the idea of having lost my mother was just an idea. It was obvious in that moment that my mother is always alive in me…. I knew this body was not mine but a living continuation of my mother and my father and my grandparents and great-grandparents…. Those feet that I saw as ‘my’ feet were actually ‘our’ feet. Together my mother and I were leaving footprints in the damp soil.”

In the Foreword to Hanh’s book, the Buddhist’s belief about life and death is foreshadowed: “Thich Nhat Hahn proposes a stunning alternative to the opposing philosophies of an eternal soul and [religious] nihilism…. Birth and death are only doors through which we pass, sacred thresholds on our journey. Birth and death are a game of hide-and-seek. You have never been born and you can never die…. Our greatest pain is caused by our [incorrect] notions of coming and going.”

Consistent with this philosophy, I believe that the DNA from my atoms is not only recycled in
the universe on a daily basis but also will march on through eternity in the veins of my children
– Zach, Morgan, and Adam, and my grandchildren – Kaia, Shea, Cree, Neve, Hadley, Sutton, and
Edie. And perhaps more grandchildren to come and generations thereafter – an alternative
form of eternal life but just as meaningful and extraordinary. I tried to enshrine my core belief
in a haiku, titled in honor of Hanh’s teaching:

no death, no fear

DNA marches
Life to death to life

I also embrace the Buddhist teaching to always strive to live in the present moment. Not exclusive to Buddhism, Quaker Parker Palmer teaches me to strive daily to be fully present in the here and now, and so begin my eternal life. Palmer expresses gratitude that old age has made him “…more aware of the simple things: a talk with a friend, a walk in the woods, sunsets and sunrises, a night of good sleep.” Or as Unitarian Pastor Taryn said in a recent sermon, “What requires more faith: believing in an afterlife or believing in the sanctity of this life in this moment?”

So, as they say on the PBS Newshour, that is my “Brief but Spectacular Take” on “This I Believe” circa 2023. I look forward to continuing to unravel life’s mysteries in partnership with all of you, my fellow travelers. May it be so and Amen!