I have the morning off from my usual worship leading responsibilities. I'm grateful for the breather. I presided yesterday over a beautiful but draining memorial service for a 45 year old member of the church I pastor. It's put me in a bit of a reflective mood and in honor of her I want to offer some thoughts.
I do around 20 memorial services a year. I've done as many as three in one week. In 12 years of being a pastor I have grown accustomed to the awkward rhythms of walking through the days and weeks that follow someone's death. I've learned that when you die no one is going to talk about how successful you were or how much money you made. They will talk about your passions, and the volume of your laugh and the things thatbrought you joy. They will mostly talk about the generosity of your love, or struggle with the lack thereof. They will rejoice in the miracle of reconciled relationships and/or carry a wound of unresolved resentments.
This most recent memorial service stands out as unique in my experience. My friend was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor only to have the cancer inexplicably disappear. For almost a year she lived in the grace moment of a miracle and she lived it so well. She served and loved and seized life in the most wonderful ways. Her gift to me is the way she has got me thinking about how I would live my life if I only had one year to live. What would I do if I was given the miracle of another year? And I guess that's the way it is, isn't it. We've all been given the miracle of another year, probably more but then again, maybe not. We all live in that grace moment of a miracle every day, more often than not, unaware.
This is not altogether unrelated to our Year of Plenty experience. Part of the gift of our year of constraints is the way it led us to live with more passion and awareness of the miracle of everyday. Theologians call these constraints "askesis" from which we get the work asceticism. While this word has mostly negative connotations in our contemporary life it's a word worth recovering and redeeming. I like the way Eugene Peterson describes it in his book "Under the Unpredictable Plant."
“We are familiar with the frequently beneficial consequences of involuntary askesis. How many times have we heard as we have visited a parishioner in the days following a heart attack, “It’s the best thing that ever happened to me – I’ll never be the same again. It woke me up to the reality of my life, to God, to what is important.” Suddenly instead of mindlessly and compulsively pursuing an abstraction – success, or money, or happiness – the person is reduced to what is actually there, to the immediately personal – family, geography, body – and begins to live freshly in love and appreciation. The change is a direct consequence of a forced realization of human limits. Pulled out of the fantasy of a god condition and confined to the reality of the human condition, the person is surprised to be living not a diminished life but a deepened life, not a crippled life but a zestful life.”
These comments about unintentional askesis remind me of Andrew Sullivan’s interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates wherein he shares about how HIV has changed his life. He said of contracting the disease.
My own sense is that it’s the most important thing that’s ever happened to me in my life…It certainly helped me realize that careerism is idiotic. I had worked really hard and gotten to this place and then “Boom!” In one day I was told, ‘You’re going to die, you can’t stay in America and you’ll probably have to quit your job…’
Andrew then said with a little glisten of a tear in his eye and a wistful voice;
At that point you either go into denial and carry on as if it isn’t happening, or you absorb it and have a life changing moment. I mean who cares, I could be dead…And then also the knowledge that God can strip you of everything, and what do you have left -- it’s a very useful moment in one’s life to realize, what do I have if this is all taken away? What’s left? What am I really living for? What are my values?...It strips away a lot of stuff – if you let it. It’s a place I came to die that taught me in a strange kind of way how to live. And I think that means letting go of a lot of stuff most of us are afraid to let go of.”
Peterson goes from talking about this unintentional askesis to talk about intentional askesis. He says,
Askesis is voluntary disaster…Why wait? Why wait for an accident, an illness, a failure? Why not take deliberate steps now to rid myself of the illusions of being a god, study the limits of my mortality, and sink myself into the quite marvelous but sin-obscured realities of creation and salvation?
In many ways our Year of Plenty was a voluntary disaster. It was a year of wonderful constraints. "Why not?" is a question we grew very familiar with and it's a question my friend has reminded me to keep front and center. Why wait? Why not? What would you do if you had the miracle of another year to live? These are the questions I'm reflecting on today.
While I didn't get a chance to preach in the pulpit this morning I sort of stumbled into giving a sermon here on the blog. Oh well.
Grace and peace to you in the midst of these questions.