Ecclesiastes 3:1-8; Matthew 6:19-21
The Rev. Tom Herbek
July 29, 2018
I once had a poster in my apartment when I was a grad student that said: “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” Probably half of the church family had that poster at some time in life. We must each find ways to live each day of our life, in our own unique way. Robert Bolt once described Sir Thomas Morse as “a man for all seasons,” and a movie with that title was made about his life. It seems to me that each of us have the opportunity to be “people for all seasons.” The writer of Ecclesiastes said, a long time ago, that for everything there is a season. We all have times in our life when the seasons are tough, and sometimes we decide that it is just easier to live in the past during such times. It makes me sad when I hear someone say “my high school days were the best in my life,” or someone longs for “the good old days.” Obviously, we need to know and understand the past. If we don’t know some basics about the past, we might be like the little boy who was asked by his Sunday School teacher: “Who are the Philistines?” and replied: “I don’t know. I don’t keep up with all of the minor league teams.”
The biblical stories and the traditions of the past are important, but – just like living our life through the “good old days,” our faith must grow as we go through life. The world changes, and we change, as we go through the seasons of our life. If our faith is to have meaning, and to have a way to help us to understand ourselves and our world, our faith must grow, must evolve. We must not live in the past. But we must also not live solely for the future, either. I couldn’t really enjoy my high school days very much, because I was always looking toward college. My first question about everything in high school was: how will this help me get into college and help me do well there. And during college, it was a similar question: “How will this help me graduate and move on?” And when working my first job, the question was, “How will this help me get a better job, make more money, get ahead?” By living in the future alone, and using today simply as a stepping-stone to get there, we miss all of life along the way. By fearing tomorrow and the uncertainty of the future, we also are unable to become the person we can be. The hope in the future can motivate us to take steps today that enable the future. In that way, the future can become not an escape from today, but a hope that motivates us to take action in the present. Without hope in the future, life doesn’t have much meaning. We just exist, we don’t live. Living without much hope or much future is expressed very well on a plaque I once saw on an office wall: “We the willing
led by the unknowing
are doing the impossible
for the ungrateful
We have done so much
with so little
for so long,
we are now qualified
to do anything
So we must have hope for the future. But we can neither live in the past, not live solely in the future if we hope to become the unique person that god has created us to be.
C.S. Lewis once wrote a book called The Screwtape Letters, where Screwtape, a senior devil, writes to his young nephew, a novice devil, named Wormwood, instructing Wormwood how to capture a human heart:
“My dear Wormwood,
Our business is to get them (human beings) away from the eternal and the present. With this in view, we sometimes tempt a human to live in the past. Yet, it is far better to make them live in the future. It be sure, the enemy (God) wants people to think of the future too – just so much as is necessary got now planning the acts of justice or charity which will probably be their duty tomorrow. But we want a person hagridden by the future. We want a whole human race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, never kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel every real gift which is offered them in the present – fuel to heap on the altar of the future.
Your affectionate uncle,
God calls us, instead, to live every season of our life, to live in the present, with the lessons of the past remembered, hoping in the future, but living fully each day. In his new book, On the Brink of Everything, Parker Palmer looks at life from such a perspective. He says:
I’ll be nearly eighty when this book is published, so it shouldn’t surprise me that I can sometimes see the brink from here. But it does. I’m even more surprised by the fact that I like being old.
Age brings diminishments, but more than a few come with benefits. I’ve lost the capacity for multitasking, but I’ve rediscovered the joy of doing one thing at a time. My thinking has slowed a bit, but experience has made it deeper and richer. I’m done with big and complex projects, but more aware of the loveliness of simple things: a talk with a friend, a walk in the woods, sunsets and sunrises, a night of good sleep.
In 1974, when my family and I moved to the Quaker living-learning community called Pendle Hill, I knew only a little about Quaker faith and practice. Hoping to learn more, I attended a large annual gathering of Friends at the historic Arch Street Friends Meeting House in Philadelphia.
As I walked into the growing crowd, I noticed half a dozen elderly women chatting with each other. Every one of them had her white hair tied up in a bun, the way my grandmother wore hers. I smiled and thought to myself, “How sweet to have memories of Grandmas rekindled! I can even catch a faint scent of the apple pie that often filled the kitchen of her simple home … ”
In the midst of my reverie, one of the women looked my way, broke off from the group, and walked directly to me. Without any preliminaries, she grabbed my arm as if to keep me from fleeing, and said, “I’ve just returned from a meeting in Des Moines about Native American rights, and I want to tell you what I learned”- which she did, in considerable detail, as she tried to recruit me for her project.
When she left, having achieved her goal, I thought, “She’s not Grandma and apple pie! She’s the kind of person I want to be when I’m an old man!”
If we look around us, we can see people who are the kind of people we want to be when we get older. He goes on to say that what we need right now is an intergenerational effort:
It’s unfair to lay all responsibility for the future on the younger generation. After all, the problems they face are partly due to the fact that we, their elders, screwed up. Worse still, it’s not true that the young alone are in charge of what comes next. We-young and old together-hold the future in our hands. If our common life is to become more compassionate, creative, and just, it will take an intergenerational effort.
Let’s stop talking about “passing the baton” to the young as we elders finish running our laps. Since most us are more skilled at sitting than at running, let’s change metaphor and invite young adults to join the orchestra. As we sit together, we can help them learn to play their instruments – while they help us learn the music of the emerging world, which they hear more clearly than we do. Together we can compose something lovelier and more alive than the current cacophony, something in which dissonance has a place but does not dominate.
Many people, said Oliver Wendell Holmes, “die with all their music in them.” I was saved from that sad fate by a series of mentors who reached out to me when I was young to help me find my own music and learn how to play it. Now I have chance after chance to pass that gift along to the next generation, whose music is waiting to be heard. So does every elder who’s within reach of a younger person.
When I ask people to tell me about their great mentors, they almost always respond with words aldn to what I’ve said about my own:
My mentors saw more in me than I saw in myself. They evoked that “more” in many ways-challenging me, cheering for me, helping me understand that failure is part of the deal. Then my mentors opened doors for me, or at least pointed me toward them. When I was willing to walk through those doors, I found purpose and meaning. My mentors changed my life.
Age and experience have taught me that mentoring is not a one-way street. It’s a mutuality in which two people evoke the potentials in each other. To borrow a phrase from theologian Nelle Morton, mentoring is about “hearing one another to speech.” Equally important, mentoring gives us a chance to welcome one another into a relationship that honors our vulnerability and our need for each other. Mentoring is a gift exchange in which we elders receive at least as much as we give, often more.
As I begin to contemplate the next season of my life, I hope that I can find ways to still be a mentor. I hope that I will be able still to be a part of a gift exchange in which I continue to receive as least as much as I give. We each have so much music in us, the music of life. May be live today – each and every day we have, aware of the past, hopeful for the future, and enjoying the loveliness of the simple things that make life worth living. May we, each indeed, be a person for all seasons.