The Gift of Years by Joan Chittister.
We are at a
crossroads now. We are at the point in life where we must make the kind of
decisions that will determine the quality of our remaining years. When we count
age as nothing but a series of losses, fear invades our soul. It warns of the
time when we will not be as lithe, as steady, as we have always known ourselves
to be. It tells me that the self I was is changing, deteriorating. The
questions never end: How much longer will I be able to take care of myself? Who
will take care of me when I can’t do it anymore? And the major one: Is my life
over now? Is there nothing left of the ‘me’ I have always been? Is life now
only to be endured rather than lived? Instead of seeing a long life as a
gateway to the flowering of the spirit and the growing of the soul, we are far
more likely to see it as the coming of a wasteland.
Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8
To everything there is a season, and a time for every
purpose under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time
to pluck up that which is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a
time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to
a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a
time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of
I want to thank my friend Ruth for suggesting the topic of today’s sermon, Transitions, as we are currently in the thralls of so many. It was the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, known for his paradoxical expressions, who said, “The only constant in life is change.” which is so true, but can be so hard on us. In the book of Exodus, the Israelites faced the greatest transition of their lives, when they were liberated from slavery in Egypt and began journeying away from there to what they had been told was a better place. While they were grateful to be free, life in Egypt was all they had ever known. They left everything behind, including their identity. They had no idea where they were going or how long it would take to get there, or how they would survive in the meantime. They were gripped by anxiety and fear, and many times, they wanted to turn back to what they knew. Almost immediately after the journey began, they started to panic, shouting to Moses, “Why didn’t God let us die in comfort in Egypt where we had lamb stew and all the bread we could eat? You’ve brought us out into this wilderness to starve us to death! Later, when Moses appeared to have abandoned them to climb a mountain to get instructions about how to worship a God that they knew nothing about, they reverted to what they did know, to what brought them comfort. They built an altar to their Egyptian God, El, and started worshipping him. Even when they finally got to their destination, the land of Canaan, they were afraid to go in. There were already people living there. Would they become slaves again? Would they have to fight for this land they were told was promised to them? It was too much.
They couldn’t do it. Almost all change is fraught with anxiety and fear, especially if we feel like it was forced on us too quickly, that we weren’t given enough time to process it. The older we get, the more change we experience. divorce; the death of someone we love; a cancer diagnosis; dementia; moving to assisted living or a nursing home; becoming disabled. It’s hard, as we heard in our reading from Sister Joan Chittister, about the transition to old age, where we can’t help but ask, How much longer will I be able to take care of myself? Then what? Is life now only to be endured rather than lived? Our most recent unexpected transition, courtesy of Covid, has been difficult to bear. So much of what we knew changed in an instant.
People lost their jobs, their businesses, their childcare,
their homes. The most vulnerable among us live in isolation and die alone. There
is almost no human contact, and we humans need contact. We are overwrought,
wondering if our lives will ever be what they were before.
We’ve lost the sense of where we fit. What our role is.
What the future holds. For some people, it was too much. They wanted so
desperately to get back to the lives they had, to something that was familiar, that
they risked their lives and other people’s lives and made the whole situation
worse. Change is inevitable. Most of it we have no control over. But we can
control how we respond. That is our choice. We can grieve for what we have lost
until the day we die.
Or stomp through life filled with anger and resentment. Or we can choose to continue to live our lives. We can use our imagination and our creativity to make our days meaningful and joyous. We can explore interests we haven’t had time for before, figure out how to do things differently, rediscover what is most important to us. We can cultivate gratitude, which is easy to have when things are going as planned, but not so easy when they aren’t. But being grateful is a choice we can make. I don’t mean putting on a happy face and pretending that we aren’t suffering. But finding a way to see our experience through a lens of gratitude, to remind ourselves of al that we have been through, all that we have survived, and that we can survive this. The actor Michael J. Fox, who was stricken with Parkinson at age 29, has a new book coming out about the difficulty, physically and emotionally, of living with the disease for almost 30 years. Two years ago, he had surgery for a benign tumor on his spinal cord and had to learn to walk all over again. Four months later he fell, and fractured his arm so badly that it had to be stabilized with 19 pins and a plate. This book came out of those two grueling back to back recoveries. He doesn’t pretend that he is not suffering. At one point he writes, “Absent a chemical intervention, Parkinsons will render me frozen, immobile, stonefaced, and mute.” Yet he still expresses gratitude, for his life, his career, his wife and children and friends, saying that, no matter what happens to him, “with gratitude, his optimism becomes sustainable.” We are suffering, but we are alive. We have food and shelter and people who love us. There is kindness and goodness and Godness all around. As we heard in the verses from Ecclesiastes, change will come. The earth will turn. Day will be followed by night and then by day again. Everything happens in its own time. May we face it with as much strength, and as much grace and as much gratitude as we can.