Day 40: LEGACY

Well, here we are.  The final day of this Lenten Season in which we have been "counting our days."  Holy Saturday.  A quiet day.  No services today in our congregation.  It's a day in-between Good Friday and Easter Sunday...between death and resurrection. 

The truth is we live the entirety of our lives in "Holy Saturday time"....all too aware of the reality of death and demise, immersed in the truth that all good things come to a dead end...but, at the same time, there is a longing within us that will not die.  We are unable to dismiss the rumors of Resurrection.  And so, together, against all the odds, we remain open to an impossible possibility.  In faith, hope, and love, we await the Third Day.  And that makes all the difference.

Today's word is LEGACY--the final word in Sister Joan's list of words and reflections on "The Gift of Years" and what it means to grow older gracefully.  She writes, "What we are inclined to forget is that each of us leaves a legacy, whether we mean to, whether we want to or not.  Our legacies are the quality of the lives we leave behind.  What we have been will be stamped on the hearts of those who survive us for years to come...What are we leaving behind?  That is the question that marks the timbre of a lifetime."

What do our lives add up to?  How will we be spoken of when we are gone?  That's a sobering thought.  Honestly, I don't know. 

What I do know, and know well--having officiated at countless funerals and memorial services--are the legacies others have left.  Having been in a position to overhear many others reflect on how their lives have been indelibly formed by a loved one now gone, here is what I have learned about what counts: it's not one's professional achievements (as notable and worthy as they might be), it's not the amount of money that remains to be distributed (at least, no one EVER talks about that), and it's not even how few failings, mistakes, or derailments may have marked one's life course. 

It's always (in one way or another) about how well they loved those nearest to them, how often they showed kindness to strangers, how they stood by, what they stood for, their capacity for grace and forgiveness, their resistance to despair and their inclination to hope, their laughter as well as what brought them to tears, their compassion for the suffering of others, their way of paying attention to small things with great love.   These are among the things that most often get recounted by others when one's days are done.  

Such things are the legacy of a life awaiting the Third Day.

Day 39: FAITH

I was talking with someone the other day (not from around here) and in the course of our conversation he spoke of his boss who has faced serious illness and recovered.  The person I was speaking with is a Christian as is his boss.  He related to me the gist of a speech his boss (who actually owns the company) gave to all his employees upon his return to work.  It went something like this:  "I'm not afraid to die.  I know exactly where I'm going and who I am going to be with.  I hope you do too.  I'm ready to die any time."  Simple, as matter of fact, and all-knowing as that!

There was a time when I would have regarded such speech as faith talk.  Not any more.

Sister Joan strikes exactly the right cadence in her talk about faith.  She talks of how the reality of our death at some point comes home to us.  At that point, she writes, "I find myself facing a moment over which I have absolutely no control.  I will die."  She continues, "What's more, I do not really know what will be required of me then.  I have no idea what the moment will be like.  I only know that I will be alone.  I will travel this road unaccompanied, go through it by myself, face life's greatest venture without caretakers, without companions, without support.  There will be no one who can go with me down this tunnel into nowhere.  It is the moment of absolute surrender."  That sounds much more like faith talk to me.  Trust in the face of the unknown.  Trust is always hard won and not to be confused with a simple, matter of fact, all knowing claim that trivializes realities such as death.

In effect, I think she sees faith as the way we name the struggle to trust.  When speaking of the questions we have about our own capacity to trust in the God we do not see, she writes, "The irony of the struggle is that this unknowing is, in the end, what faith is about."  

As we age, the illusion of our invincibility to death fades.  Of course, we never escape it entirely no matter how young.  Death is too much a part of this life.  That being said, aging does strip away whatever vestige of denial we may have unknowingly retained.  If only because we find ourselves, increasingly, dealing directly with the demise and death of friends and loved ones.

Today is Good Friday--a day when death looms as large as it ever does in the Christian tradition.  Today, Christians the world over and right here at home will take the time to contemplate the death of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  There is nothing simple, matter of fact or all-knowing about that. 

The story begins with an anguished prayer in the middle of the night:  "Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet not my will but your will be done."  Then comes betrayal and abandonment, torture and unimaginable suffering.  It leads to the agonized cry (itself a prayer) from the cross that resounds across the ages, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" It concludes with a final breath and prayer, "Father, into  your hands I commend my spirit."  All talk of faith must remain true to that story. 

Easter morning does not trivialize the reality of our dying even as it declares that there is a love that finally overcomes the finality of death.  Easter declares that trust, of the kind we call faith, is never in vain...it always encompasses all that we know and more than we can know.  Faith is what keeps us open to the One who knows us in the midst of whatever darkness we may find ourselves, even our dying. 

All talk of faith and life and death, and everything in between, encompasses the whole story of this Holy Week.  No part is left untold.  A blessed Good Friday to you.

Day 38: APPRECIATION

"When there is little else in life to do but live well, life itself becomes all the more precious, all the more striking in its many layers of beauty," writes Sister Joan in our chapter for today.  She goes on, "The problem may simply be that we take so long to be shocked by the power of normalcy.  We see, but only lately.  We hear the world around us, but only partially.  We sense the symphony of life, but only weakly.  And then, suddenly, when there is nothing between us and the raw, tart, sweet center of life to obscure it, there it is, alive and glowing right before our eyes.  Appreciation comes to us, but too often comes late."

It feels like this has been an underlying theme as we counted our days together through this Lenten season. The challenge of living appreciatively, to live with one's heart and eyes wide open to whatever present one is in, to allow oneself to attend with gratitude to what is and not be pining for what was or anxious about what is yet to be.  "We take so long to be shocked by the power of normalcy."  It is my default to think the present, what is, is too mundane to be treasured. As Woody Allen said, "I don't want to be part of any club that wants me as a member."  The present always admits me which makes it less appealing.  

I walked outside early this morning to get the paper.  The birds were singing.  It was the first time in this Springtime I had noticed them.  It was not exactly a shock...more like a call.  Perhaps that's what I need to appreciate more--the openings that present themselves and catch me like when someone calls my name and I reflexively turn my head to see who's calling.  

Earth’s crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit around and pick blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware.
— Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh

Day 37: THE PRESENT

I don't know how many times I have committed myself to living each day to the fullest...to be to present to every moment.  I have broken that commitment as many times as I have made it.  I don't grasp the significance of the moment until it has passed.  I miss the moment I am in because i am preoccupied with what is around the corner. 

Sister Joan writes, "The present of old age, the age we bring to the present, unveils to us the invisibility of meaning.  Everything in life is meaningful--once we come to see it, to look for it.  Once we really come into the fullness of the present.  Then we cease to take life for granted."

It's a paradox that the times when the present is experienced in all its fullness is when time feels suspended--we lose track of time.  My friend Albert Borgmann, a philosopher of technology at the University of Montana, talked of the significance of what he called "focal experiences."  Focal experiences are, as he put it, "moments of grace where things are properly centered in a way we don't have to unsay them or surpass them at a later moment."  Albert speaks of four focal affirmations that are indicative of every focal experience:  1) There is no place I would rather be,  2) There is nothing I would rather be doing.  3) There is no one I would rather be with.  4) This I will remember well. 

Those are the moments when the present ceases to be a given and becomes a gift.  

There is a wonderful story in Genesis 28 when Jacob awakes from a night of sleep in the wilderness.  He is on the run from his brother.  Life is precarious.  He recalls the dream he had during the night:  there was a ladder reaching from the very place where he slept to heaven and beside him stood the Lord saying, "Know that I will be with you."  Jacob declares, "Surely the Lord is in this place--and I did not know it." 

Day 36: OUTREACH

Along with my blog, I know some of you are reading the daily selections from Sister Joan Chittister's book, The Gift of Years, (they provide the catalyst for daily reflections).  If so,  you may have been struck as I was by her thoughts on "Outreach."  The chapter was longer than usual and there was, more than any previous chapter, a critical edge in her tone. A sustained indictment of our society.

"Age, in a youth-oriented culture," she writes, "can become a very depressing thing....A culture built on creating needs in children and then catering to them bodes little good for the age to come.  It leaves an older generation at the mercy of a world whose agendas are now totally out of touch with their own....Silently but steadily, that kind of culture and environment isolates an older population on an island of its own."  Her depressing description goes on for a few more pages...she indicts the video-game culture, the overwhelming access to trivializing information, the inevitable drift to isolated living conditions, the anonymity and alienation of public life.  

I don't think she is overstating it.  If we acquiesce to these currents, we will drift into isolation.  More than ever, I feel these currents are strengthening.  It is impacting all of us.  Church life always pushes against these currents.  But it is getting more difficult to sustain that push.  I resonate with Sister Joan's indictment of our situation. It cuts across the generations.  The elderly feel more directly the consequences of our drift towards isolation.  But they are not alone.  

Finally, on the next to last page, Sister Joan makes a constructive turn: "Outreach is at the kernel of getting older.  We need to go out to meet the rest of the world, rather than wait for the world to come to us."  And she picks up another word:  "Generativity--the act of giving ourselves to the needs of the rest of the world--is the single most important function of old age."  

This past Sunday, Skip Coggin (a good friend who happens to be a couple of decades older than me)  gave me a wonderful image of what this looks like.  He led a group of 80 or so of his peers from The Mather (where he and Liz live) on the "March for Our Lives" this past Saturday.  They marched in Evanston in concert with thousands and thousands all across Chicago, the country, and the world.  It was a march organized by the youngest among us to call for an end to gun violence and laws that assure almost unlimited access to guns.  That's what generativity looks like....across the ages.

Resist the drift!  In all its forms.  Resist the drift!  We can become isolated in our families just as easily as we can as individuals.  Resist the drift!  

Day 35: FORGIVENESS

In today's reading, Sister Joan reflects on forgiveness through the lens of aging.  She writes, "By seventy, we not only know that no one is perfect, we know that no one can be.  Not we, not they, not anybody.  In fact, we learn as the years go by that life is nothing but a series of exceptions to be reckoned with, to be mediated, to be understood.  Our standards are only that--standards.  They are not absolutes, and those who seek to make them so soon fall in the face of their own rigidities."

The work of forgiveness only comes into play when we care about something or, more likely, someone.  Only then can there be something that amounts to a sense of being offended, of being violated, of something being broken.  Forgiveness cannot be achieved by caring less about the things or people we care most about.  Forgiveness is not careless.  I think one of the reasons we resist the work that forgiveness requires is that we equate it with caring less.  That being said, caring less is part of forgiveness.  

Forgiveness is first and foremost choosing to care more about certain things which, in turn, frees us to care less about other things.  

Forgiveness involves the choice to care more for the person and care less about the offense.  The offense is not forgotten, but it is no longer the first thing that I remember about that person.  It moves from the foreground to the background which lays the ground for that offense to fade, to become, over time, inconsequential--even as it is still remembered.  All of this, of course, is dependent upon our choice to care more for what we have learned to care most about. 

There is no question that offense always alters a relationship.  The only question is how it will.  Forgiveness sets the conditions for that relationship to become more of what we care most about.

How forgiveness plays out does not depend wholly on us.  If there is a confessional moment, a meeting of hearts and minds, the work is much easier--the remembrance of what we care most about becomes more clear and compelling--the offense fades more readily into the background.  But even where there is not that confessional moment, the power to forgive remains in our hands...even as we bear the knowledge that the relationship may never be the best of what it once was.  

Learning forgiveness is a life-long learning.  There is no more important work.  There is no more difficult work,.   When Jesus appears to his disciples after the Resurrection, he commissions them with these words:  "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."  (John 20: 23). 

And so we pray, "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us."

 

 

Day 34: LONELINESS

As some of you know, these past few days I been visiting my father in Wichita, Kansas.  It is the place where he has lived most of his life since he and my mother brought us five kids to America from Australia in 1969.  For many of those years, he was an exceptionally successful  minister of a congregation that became, under his ministry, the largest church in Wichita.  To this day, it remains one of the largest congregations in that city. 

My mother passed away in 2004.  My father is now 87.  Several years ago, he had a stroke which left him with limited mobility.  A few weeks ago he wound up in the ICU due to respiratory distress. Up to that point he had been living alone in his own apartment with my sister, who lived close by, providing daily support.  Last week, upon his discharge from the hospital and rehab, he moved into my sister's home.  It was a move he and my sister (and her husband, along with the rest of us siblings) welcomed.  As I sat with him in his new living quarters, I was struck by how well suited he and all of his belongings were to the space that had been my sister's master bedroom.   

At the same time, I was reminded of how much his world had contracted.  Everything he owned now fit easily within the four walls of his bedroom--with space to spare.  Looking over the couple of shelves holding a handful or two of books among a scattering of knick knacks, I asked him, "What happened to all your books?"  He had accumulated a rather substantial library over the years.  "We gave them away, sold them," he said, "and we even threw some away."  He didn't say this with sorrow or dismay.  It was simply a matter of fact.

What is evident in the loss of possessions is no less evident in his loss of relationships.  His venturing forth in all kinds of ways is now limited to an outing here and there, powering around the house in his motorized wheelchair, and socializing mostly with family and one or two friends. This is the loneliness that comes naturally with aging.  The longer we live, the more true it becomes.  

Sister Joan put it this way: "There is a loneliness that seeps in as we age.  It is the loneliness that distances ourselves from where we've come from and to where we're going.  We begin to be less and less here and more and more . . . where?  It is the preoccupation with the where-ness that begins to take over."  

Here's the question that lingers for me:  How does one live in such a way that the reality of that loneliness does not devolve into a thoroughgoing isolation, if not despair?  I think part of the answer lies in my Day 26 post on "solitude."  However, I must confess, the question still lingers.  

For now, I am going to let that question linger for us.  It's definitely worth pondering.

Day 33: SPIRITUALITY

In today's reading, Sister Joan situates her reflections on "spirituality" in the following way:  "If we learn anything at all as time goes by and the changing seasons become fewer and fewer, it is that there are some things in life that cannot be fixed.  It is more than possible that we will go to our graves with a great deal of personal concerns, of life agendas, unresolved."  This is the crucible within which spirituality does its most important work in us...especially as we age.  Spirituality is not how we escape the inevitable "unfinished business" of this life, it is not how we tie up all the loose ends, smooth out all the rough edges and sail off in to the sunset to live happily ever after in the ever after.

Yesterday, I had the chance to talk with a woman in her 90's..  She is a bright, attractive, and energetic person.  Genuinely appealing from first sight.  She is almost completely blind, lost a 47 year old daughter to cancer, her husband of many years died of cancer in his late sixties, and her son and his family had to move in with her just a few years ago due to bankruptcy.  She is one of the most spiritual people I have met in a long time. 

I say that not because she has left all suffering behind her or somehow "spiritualized" away all her sorrows.  I say it because, as we talked and the recollections of those losses came up in conversation, she picked up the napkin from the table and held it to her eyes to absorb her tears.  We sat for a few minutes while she let the wave of emotion flow.  We talked on of how one bears such losses and goes on into life.  It was a sacred moment.

Perhaps the most important book I have read on living with the suffering that comes from profound loss is Lament for a Son by Nicholas Wolterstorff.  Upon the sudden, accidental death of his 27 year old son (from a climbing accident) he writes of his struggle to live with that loss.  It is a narrative of the crucible of spirituality.  At one point he writes about living with the flood of regrets he has about the things said and not said, done and left undone....he wonders what to do with his bundle of "God-forgiven regrets."

He concludes, "I shall live with them.  I shall accept my regrets as part of my life, to be numbered among my self-inflicted wounds.  But I will not endlessly gaze at them.  I shall allow the memories to prod me into doing better with those still living.  And I shall allow them to sharpen the vision and intensify the hope for that Great Day coming when we can all throw ourselves into each other's arms and say, 'I'm sorry.'   The God of love will surely grant us such a day.  Love needs that."

Indeed.  And that kind of love requires a spirituality.

Day 32: NOSTALGIA

"There is a thin line between memory and nostalgia," writes Sister Joan. 

"Memory," she explains, "is recollection.  Good memories make us laugh on gray days and bring us old warmth on cold nights.  They gather around us all the ghosts of yesterday we need to urge us on.  They enable us to have faith in the future because they remind us that the past has been so life-giving, so full of hope in all the tomorrows of life...memories do not so much immerse us in the past as they prod us toward the future."  

"Nostalgia is something different entirely."  More from Sister Joan:  "Nostalgia is not simply recollection of the past.  Nostalgia is immersion in the past.  Nostalgia traps us, one foot in the present, one foot in yesterday.  But the melancholy of nostalgia is not the geography of old age.  Possibility is."

Memory is a powerful thing.  It lives in us and, in many ways, we live by it.  HOW the past lives in us is of paramount importance.  Remembrance can drain the present of vitality and possibility just as easily as it can enliven us and engage us with what is and is yet to be.  What makes the difference?

I don't think it's age...although age presents us with greater temptation to nostalgia as the bank of memory grows and the timeline of the future shortens.  But age in itself is not the issue.  When I think of the times in my life that I have become pre-occupied with things past (whether good or bad) it was always accompanied with a loss of confidence and an overconfidence.  A loss of confidence in my ability to unearth the possibilities resident in the present...and an overconfidence that there were no possibilities worth unearthing.

Faith, hope, trust...these habits of the heart come to mind when I think of antidotes to nostalgia.  I love that description of Abraham we read this past Sunday in Worship.  "By faith, Abraham obeyed when he as called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out not knowing where he was going."  (Hebrews 11:8).  Resistance to the temptation to nostalgia is not achieved by simply trying to forget.  It always requires a deliberate, practical, concrete engagement with the present even when it's not at all clear what lies ahead.  Only then do we remember well.

P.S.  It's interesting to note that the word 'nostalgia' comes from two Greek words, 'nostos' which means "home" and 'algos' which means 'pain.'.  Nostalgia is a longing for the home that was rather than for the home that is yet to be.  

Day 31: IMMEDIACY

"What we fail too often to realize is that living fully depends a great deal more on our frame of mind, on our fundamental spirituality, than it does on our physical condition.  If we see God as good, we see life as good.   If we see God as a kind of sly and insidious Judge, tempting us with good things in order to see if we can be seduced into some sort of moral depravity by them, then life is a trap to be feared."  So writes Sister Joan in today's reading.

Today's reading brought to mind the quote that opened the movie, Tree of Life, directed by Terrence Malick:  “The nuns taught us there are two ways through life, the way of Nature and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow. Grace doesn't try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.  Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.”

I think it's the last sentence that was hooked and surfaced by my reading of Sister Joan:  "And love is smiling through all things."  There was a time when I would have brushed aside that sentiment as nothing but sentimentality.  The same with the quote above from Sister Joan.  I now regard such sentiments as descriptive of what it means to be fully alive.  To embody the kind of immediacy that Sister Joan is calling us to.

It is naming the mystery of being fully in the skin of the moment and at the same time feeling an unmistakable sense of transcendence.  That experience of losing oneself and being found all at the same time.  For too many years I lived with view of God that conditioned me to a sense of "life as a trap to be feared."  I have long felt it was Jennifer who sprung me from that trap.  Other moments come to mind.  Holding our firstborn, Julia, for the first time, her eyes opening to see me, her crying stilled.  Being overwhelmed by love that is friendship when sitting at the table of a dear, aged, friend knowing that it may be the last time in this life we will be at table together.  Moments when the immediacy of grace was revealed.

Where have those moments been for you?  When?  With whom?  When, whatever moment we may be in feels utterly opaque to the goodness of God...when the way of grace feels completely alien to the path we are on...it is those moments of grace beyond question we need to recall--they are not exceptions to reality.  They the touchstones of reality.  

 

Day 30: AGELESSNESS

Playfulness, curiosity, innocence, laughter...skipping, jumping, dancing, laying down on the ground and rolling down the hill, doing somersaults...there is a kind of un-self-conscious abandon to life and experience resident in children that is wonderful to behold.  While aging does make somersaults a thing of the past, there is much of the childlike embrace of life that is ageless.

Here's a contrast worth considering:  children on a playground and adults in a fitness center.  Lots of people in close proximity to one another and lots of activity and physical exertion in both places.  But the big difference, one that would be utterly mystifying to a young child observing a room full of adults at the local LA Fitness for the first time, is that none of the adults are playing with each other.  And nobody is laughing.  Such are the playgrounds of us adults..."working" out, as we say.

I do miss the call to play my children sounded on a regular basis.  What often felt like a distraction from important tasks now appears as a life-line.  I remember going into my study in our home one afternoon.  No doubt to take up some important work like preparing a sermon for adults!  I must have been in there for 20 minutes or so, when all of a sudden I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, five year old James, as still as he could be, curled up and tucked away under a desk to my left.  Just waiting to surprise me.  I remember that moment because I think I was more perturbed that my train of brilliant thought had been derailed than that my little boy was calling me to play.  A higher calling indeed.  

Sister Joan writes, "Intergenerational friendships between an older generation and a younger one are as important to the elder as they are to the child."  Indeed.  "Children release the child in us before it completely withers up and blows away."  Indeed, again.

The life of a congregation is one of the few places these days where all ages mingle together.  In coffee hour I will often feel a tug at my sleeve, I turn, and there is one of the Halliday twins, Andrew or Olivia, saying, "Hi" or another even younger little one, just standing there looking up with a look that says, "I just wanted to say hello."  I bend down and feel lifted up.  The room dances with life.  

It is remarkable how many stories we have of Jesus attending to the children in his midst...and how he didn't condescend to them but called us all to be like them if we were to have any chance of gaining entrance to the Kingdom of God.  "The disciples came to Jesus and asked, 'Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?'  Jesus called a child, whom he put among them, and said, 'Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.'"  (Matthew 18:1-5)

There will always be time for somersaults and rolling down hillsides in the Kingdom of God!

Day 29: FUTURE

I think I have always lived with a strong consciousness of the future.  Perhaps too much so.  Too often I chose to reside there rather than dwell in the present.  Sometimes my consciousness took the form of playing out futures that I imagined might have come to pass if I had made different choices.  What if, back in 1998 (some of you have heard me play this one out), I had chosen not to leave Paris, France, to take a position in Louisville, Kentucky?  Of course, that's enough trigger anyone's imagination! ("You did what?!" people exclaim, unable to hide their incredulity.) 

Playing out the "What ifs?" of life are one way to opt for the future that never will exist over facing the present and all its resident possibilities.  What a waste.

I think it was Plato who said, "The unexamined life is not worth living."  It is David Wood who has learned, "The un-lived life is not worth examining."

My consciousness of the future these days is less focused on the futures that will never be and more on the possibilities of the future that remain.  As Sister Joan writes, "Those who have come roaring into their sixties, full of life, relatively secure, brimming with ideas and finally full of self-confidence, come face-to-face with the meaning of mortality as they have never before.  There is, they discover with a jolt, an end to time."  I'm not sure I came roaring into my sixties...more, like I backed into them!  But here I am and it does feel, as she names it, like a turning point--time to turn towards the future and the fact that, chronologically speaking,  I have less of it than I used to.

I was struck by a short sentence on the last page of today's reading: "Tomorrow is sacred."  The Bible talks a lot about the sacredness "today" of our lives, the holiness of dailiness, than it does about "tomorrow."  (A quick word search of the Old & New Testaments turns up 69 instances of "tomorrow" and 244 instance of "today.")  On one occasion Jesus said, "So, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.  Today's trouble is enough for today."  (Matthew 6:34)  On Day 21 in his blog, I wrote about the Genesis account of the consecration of the 7th day.  Jesus taught us to pray, "Give us THIS DAY our daily bread." 

My ability to face the future and to live into its possibilities seems to be bound up with my willingness to face each day as a gift to be discovered.  The sacredness of tomorrow resides in today.  

Day 28: MEMORIES

Besides the ever present, albeit incremental, experience of physical decline, it is the loss of memory that my aging peers fear most.  My guess is, if given the choice, most of us would choose loss of physical ability over loss of memory.  Memory is how we hold ourselves together.  Or perhaps more accurately, memory is the self we hold on to.

Remember, remind, recollect, recall, review....all of these words say something about the power of memory to situate us, to orient us not just to the past but to the present as well.  Losing my memory feels like I am losing myself, my world.

Few things are more precious than when someone says to us, in love, "I will never forget you."  A promise that is at the heart of faith is found in the word of God to us, "I will never forget you.  I will remember you."  It is finally what holds us even when we can no longer hold ourselves.  We are held by others...and, ultimately, by the Other.  

Memories can undo us as well.  They can bind us to the past in ways that are detrimental to the flourishing of our lives.  When our powers of memory are in full form, forgetfulness can be a liberating thing--an experience of grace.  This is especially so In relation to trauma of some kind--and trauma comes in many forms.  It is unlikely that we ever truly "forget" a traumatic experience.  However, how we remember makes all the difference for how that memory lives in us.  

Sister Joan writes, "The task, of course, is to refuse to make our memories a burden. Instead, the goal is to give them the kind of meaning that makes them precious rather than painful.  What we often fail to realize is that memory is a mental function, yes; but it is also a choice.  We do get to decide which of our memories of a particular time, or person, or place, or moment may shape our life in the present moment."

There is a somewhat enigmatic statement Jesus makes in the Gospel of Matthew:  "Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." (Matt. 18:18).  This comes in the context of his instruction on the practice of forgiveness.  In the Gospel of John, when Jesus appears to his disciples after his resurrection, he says, "Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." (John 20: 22-23).  I think scholars are right to see the connection between these two passages.  Forgiveness is a choice to unbind ourselves and others from a certain kind of remembrance.  We can't do this on our own.  We need a community that embodies the living memory of the One who says to us, "I will remember you."  

 

 

Day 27: PRODUCTIVITY

What it means to be productive is constantly shifting throughout the course of our lives.  Very early on, it becomes related to doing a job and having one. 

The challenge is to not let our notions of productivity, what it means to be productive, to become over-identified with any one phase of our lives.  At the heart of genuine productivity is a personal sense of accomplishment, creativity, and meaningful engagement.  When a job ceases to be productive we are motivated to change the doing that job entails or go in search of another job altogether.  When our experience of work alienates us from ourselves, that work has ceased to be productive.  Mr. Marx had a lot to say about that.

We must remain attentive to our need to be productive even as the meaning of productivity is always in flux throughout the course of our lives.  When visiting my 96 year old friend a few weeks back, I noticed a guitar in his living room propped up next to a music stand.  When I inquired, he told me that he picked it up just a few years ago and has been taking lessons ever since.  As we age, it seems, increasingly, that we have the opportunity to connect the meaning of productivity to a kind of doing that is more internal to ourselves and less a response to external demands. It becomes more an expression of our freedom and less of necessity.  

As Sister reminds us aging types, "Retirement has nothing to do with whether we work or whether we don't.  It has something to do only with the kind of work we do and the reason we do it."  Keeping alive--whatever our age--the vital connection between productivity and what it means for us to be meaningfully engaged is crucial if we are to remain productive to the end of our days.

How's that connection working for you these days?

At the end of a chapter on the meaning of the Resurrection, the Apostle Paul writes, "Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain." (I Corinthians 15:58).  That notion of work and the productivity it implies is worthy of our lives.

Day 26: SOLITUDE

How do you experience aloneness?  How we answer this question, according to the philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, is of paramount importance.  "Religion," wrote Whitehead, "is what the individual does with his own solitariness." That's worth pondering sometime when we're alone.

As important as it is to face others, to be in the company of others, there is something no less important than facing ourselves, being alone.  Without friends, aloneness devolves into isolation--aloneness does not create isolation, it simply exposes it as a chronic condition.  Solitude names the experience of aloneness that is centering and live-giving.  It is, in my view, the best way to name the experience of aloneness that is renewing, rejuvenating, and restorative.

Recently, I came across the term, "hikikomori."  It is the term used by the Japanese Health, Labor, and Welfare Ministry to define those who have not left their homes (often their bedrooms) or interacted with others for at least 6 months.  Often this condition persists for years.  In a recent study (Sept. 2016), it was reported that, in Japan, there are 541,000 people between the ages of 15 & 39 who suffer from this condition.  That's isolation on steroids.

"Isolation," Sister Joan writes, "is either separation or alienation form the world around us.  Solitude is something quite different.  Solitude is chosen.  It is the act of being alone in order to be with ourselves.  We seek solitude for the sake of the soul.  Even with easy access to other people, we take time to be by ourselves, to close out the rest of the world, to concentrate on the inside of us rather than wrestle with everything going on around us."  She says further on, "In solitude we wait for all the noise to quiet in order to find out what we are really thinking about, what we are really saying to ourselves underneath all the layers of other people's messages that threaten to smother the words of our own heart."  

Among those reading this post, there are some who, at about this point, are thinking, "I need to make more space in my life for aloneness, for the experience of solitude."  Among you who are thinking that way, it probably means creating zones of silence--unplugging from technology, as well as intentionally withdrawing from the ever-present company of others.  For others reading this post, your experience of aloneness is more the norm than the exception.  You go to bed alone, you wake up alone, you eat breakfast alone...etc..etc.  Solitude, in the way I am naming it here is hard to come by--not because of too much company, but of too little.  

For ALL of us reading this post, solitude is a challenge worthy of our best efforts--whether that means intentionally unplugging and withdrawing...or whether it means becoming more intentional about being in the company of others to counter the conditions that generate isolation.

In terms of our knowledge of God, there is a Presence that comes to the foreground in the absence of others which is no less important than the knowledge of God we learn through the presence of others.  Prayer is the practice of the Presence of God.  For all the time Jesus spent with others, there are several occasions where we read of him withdrawing in order to pray:  "Now during those days he went out  to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God."  (Luke 6:12) 

Praying with others as we do each Sunday is preparation for us to pray when we are alone...in our solitariness.

Day 25: LIMITATIONS

Limitations are a manifold thing.  Some we impose by choice.  Some are temporary and circumstantial, others permanent and fixed.  Some are built into our nature (I will not be dunking a basketball anytime soon).  Others are imposed upon us by others and need to be resisted.  Some demand to be overcome if we are to flourish in this life, others require our recognition and respect if we are to become our true selves.  Denial of limitations is a denial of our humanity.  Living well in relation to limitations, discerning the difference between them, is at the heart of experiencing the fullness of this life.

When we are young, we can become paralyzed by the limitless possibilities before us.  To put it another way, we can be frozen by the knowledge that to choose one path over another is to close ourselves off from countless other possibilities....and we can be daunted by the knowledge that if we fail to choose, we will be lost wandering in the wilderness of indecision.  

Sitting here in my early 60's the field of choice is considerably narrowed by all the choices I have made heretofore.  And yet, I live with a knowledge I did not have, could not have had, when I was young.  Namely, the knowledge of how making choices would concentrate my life, my existence in particular ways that would open up a whole new field of possibilities for discovery and experience that were impossible to comprehend had I not chosen as I did.  Limitations have a way of concentrating our lives which is what makes life interesting.

Perhaps there is a greater challenge than overcoming our fear of limitations.  It is the challenge of discerning between those limitations that concentrate our lives in purposeful ways and those limitations that are barriers that must be overcome if our lives are to flourish.  

Today, celebrate the limitations that have set you free in this life for life.  Recognize those limitations that are closing you in.

Lord, grant us the wisdom to know the difference and the courage to chose the freedom you make possible in this life.

A POST POST NOTE:  Physicist, Stephen Hawking died last night at the age of 76.  At the age of 21 he was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) and was given two years to live.  The limitations of life and limb must have been overwhelming.  A fellow scientist I heard interviewed this morning on NPR said, "It was as if his physical limitations concentrated his mind so that he thought bigger things than he otherwise would have, he was able to wrap his mind around things like no one else ever has." 

His life and work give a whole new meaning to the phrase:  "The sky's the limit."

Day 24: DREAMS

Is there anything more mysterious than our dreams?  So many mornings I wake up and think, "What was that?" or "That was weird!"  The images, characters, scenes, and dialogue that so often take place in my dreams are utterly beyond my comprehension.  Things, people, circumstances that are familiar in themselves get thrown together in ways that are completely unfamiliar.  It's like while the body sleeps the brain plays.  Aging does not seem to lessen this playfulness--actually, I think it probably accelerates it because the brain has so much more material to work with.

There are dreams and then there are dreams.  The dreams that Sister Joan is writing about are the kind that are aspirational.  They reside in our imagination and they call to us.  They are crucial to our capacity to hope.  These dreams draw upon the past--which keeps them from simply being fantasy.  But they are not bound to or by the past.  They may begin there but they don't end there.  They play with the past in redemptive ways...they can awaken us to the possibility that what has been does not finally have to determine what will be.

Sister Joan writes, "The very act of reviewing one's own values, then and now, stands as a marker for us all.  It reminds us that it is possible to learn as we go through life.  It is even more important to be open to doing it and willing to report it.  Life grows us.  Life shapes us.  Life converts us.  Life opens us as we age to think differently about ourselves." 

This way of thinking cuts against the grain of assumptions that we ossify with age--that we are diestined to become, simply, the sum total of the choices we have made.  Any dreaming that we (or things) could truly be other is simply wishful thinking.  We stop dreaming.  Or perhaps more accurately, we stop attending to dreams.  Resignation sets in.  A kind of rigor mortis of the soul.  "Aspire" comes from two Latin words:  "To breathe."  

As I was contemplating dreams as a breathing of the soul, I was reminded of the words of the Apostle Paul, "For godly grief produced a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death." (II Corinthians 7:10)  We are never too old (or young for that matter) to awaken to the possibility that things can become new.

Soul-play.  Perhaps that's what dreams are a sign of.  The soul at play.  The breath of life.  How's your aspiration these days?

Day 23: SADNESS

There is something about sadness that is life-giving, or perhaps I mean, "life-affirming."  I don't mean the sadness that is non-specific or the kind that lingers for long periods of time without an identifiable cause.  That's what we call depression.  That kind of sadness drains and depletes us, eroding away life's worth. 

But there is another kind of sadness that comes over us that reveals what we have come to love, a sadness that would not exist if we had not learned to love.  Grief is another word for this kind of sadness.  It is painful.  But it is the kind of pain that comes with being human, fully alive.  To not know that kind of pain is the saddest thing of all.

Love is not sudden.  Attraction, infatuation, being smitten--such emotions come suddenly.  But love is slow and deep.  So much so that it's hard to measure.  It has a way of working its way into our lives and shaping our way of being in fundamental ways.  It's only when we experience loss that the degree to which our lives have been implicated in love is exposed.  This, of course, is what we experience when someone we love is lost--by death or distance of some kind (geographical or relational).  That experience and the sadness it brings over us, the tears that come unbidden, reveal something profound about who we are and have become.  We learn what matters to us.  It's impossible to fake sadness--at least the kind I am trying to name here.

Regret is a sadness that wishes what was had not been.  The sadness I am naming here is the recognition of what was (and remains) so valuable about what was...of how what has been has made it possible for us to understand what is valuable in this life.

We were having dinner.  The four of us.  Two couples who had become close friends.  The conversation turned to the loss of John's mother when he was a young boy.  It was not a particularly intense conversation.  John was not one to be tagged as "emotional."  All of a sudden, he literally burst into tears.  Life, Love, loss, and sadness overflowed in that moment. 

Sadness is a gift when it awakens us to the goodness we have known in this life, to the ways we have become implicated in love, and to the possibilities for love and goodness that are yet to be known and discovered in what is and is yet to be.

"O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.  But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me."  (Psalm 131)

Day 22: WISDOM

In today's reading, Sister Joan writes, "Older people have what this world needs most: the kind of experience that can save the next generation from the errors of the one before them...The older generation knows that the only thing that is good for any of us in the long run is what is good for all of us right now.  That's wisdom.  Wisdom is not insisting on the old ways of doing things.  It is the ability to make ancient truth the living memory of today."  Further on she writes of our elders, "They are meant to be the prophets of a society, its compass, its truthtellers...It is the older generation that must turn the spotlight back on our best ideals when the lights of the soul go dim.  Before it is too late."

To be honest (as one who likes to think of himself as too young to be "old" and yet has to face the fact that he is too old to be called "young" anymore) the equation of wisdom with the passing of years is not a given.  Actually, I think it is rare...

Aristotle thought that it is the lived experience of the elderly that more often than not makes them into people who are "small of soul."  He writes of the aged, "And they are small of soul because they have been humbled by life:  for they desire nothing great or excellent, but only what is commensurate with life.  And they are ungenerous.  For property is one of the necessary things; and in, and through, their experience they know how hard it is to get it and how easy it is to lose it."  The old, he claims, are prone to fear, cowardice, excessive self love, inappropriate self pity, and are "given to grieving, and are neither charming nor fond of laughter."  Yikes.  That's a grim view of what happens as get "old."  So much for the identification of wisdom with aging.

Let me hasten to add that I am not convinced by Aristotle nor am I dismissive of Sister Joan.  What I am convinced of (and I think Sister Joan would agree) is that the cumulative experience of life can narrow, harden, and shrink one's soul just as it can deepen, enlarge, and ripen one's soul.  The question I have is: what makes the difference? 

It's not life experience.  It is how we experience our lives. 

How do we gain wisdom through the experience of our lives?  How do we integrate what happens in the course of our days into a way of being that is hopeful (not cynical), generous (not miserly), forgiving (not resentful), engaged (not withdrawn), courageous (not cowardly), trusting (not instinctively suspicious)?  This question, of course, is not simply for the old...it is relevant to ALL of us who are aging.  That's a question worth living with.  Ask someone you consider "wise" how they have answered it.

Wisdom must be pursued if it is to be gained.  "Finally, beloved,"  the Apostle Paul writes, "whatever is true, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things."  (Philippians 4:8).

Day 21: TIME

When did you wake up to time?  For me, it was in 1996 when I was on sabbatical, in residence as a Fellow at Harvard Divinity School.  It was in the course of my reading and coursework, that I awoke to the profound significance of time--that thing we are all in, often talk about, but rarely reflect upon.  It was a passage in a small book by Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man,  that served as my wake up call.  It was this passage:

One of the most distinguished words in the Bible is the word qadosh, holy; a word which more than any other is representative of the mystery and majesty of the divine.  Now what was the first holy object in the history of the world?  Was it a mountain?  Was it an altar?  It is, indeed, a unique occasion at which the distinguished word qadosh is used for the first time: in the Book of Genesis at the end of the story of creation.  How extremely significant is the fact that it is applied to time: "And God blessed the seventh day, and made it holy."  There is no reference in the record of creation to any object in space [not even human beings] that would be endowed with the quality of holiness.

Not a thing, Not a place.  Not any created creature.  But time is the first dimension of creation to be consecrated.  All things, all places, all creatures are in time.  Holiness exists as an ever present possibility for the rest of creation because time is holy.  In the course of our lives, certain things and places and people convey holiness to us...but it's always because they connect us to holy moments.

We waste it, keep it, charge for it, pay for it, lose it, find it, run out of it, save it, and if all else fails, we kill it.  Rarely do we think of it as holy.  The Jewish tradition of sabbath keeping, of honoring the 7th day, was first and foremost the practice of recognizing time as holy.  They said, "We don't keep the sabbath.  The sabbath keeps us."  

As we age, time does not just pass, it accumulates.  We know it differently because we have lived more of it.  We become increasingly aware of how precious it is--that it's not just a given but a gift.  Sister Joan writes, "Time is a wondrous thing, if only I fill it well.  If I do not allow the passing of time to diminish my spirit but, instead, see it as a call to live life to the dregs--being...my best and developing and life-loving self to the end.  Then time is my friend, not my enemy.  It gives me a heightened sense of life.  It urges me on to discover it all.  It marks the fullness of life, its mellowing, and it releases in me the self that has been coming into existence from the beginning."

Awake to THIS day.  "Give us THIS day, our DAILY bread..."  Help us, Lord, to taste again the bread of dailiness.  To know you here, in THIS moment of time.  It's a paradox that it is only when we pause, when we stop, that we experience the passage of time--otherwise it passes away unnoticed as do our lives.  Where is that pause for you?  It's never too late or too early to wake up to time.