In the greater Charlotte community there are many people for whom home, as defined by culture and place of origin, is a place reached, not by crossing a couple of state lines, but by crossing several time zones along with an ocean or two. And so, there is a wonderful resource up near Presbyterian Hospital called International House, whose mission is to enhance international understanding, provide support for Charlotte’s international community and offer opportunities for them to connect.
Perhaps you read the article in Thursday’s Observer about Collette Wright, who finds just such a connection there with her French language and culture group each Wednesday evening. Born and raised in Compiegne, a French city 45 miles north of Paris, Collette was a 19-year-old college student when she heard the hopeful news that the Allies had landed on the beaches of Normandy. She would later come to the U.S., the bride of an American Army Air Corp officer. The article highlighted the annual birthday call she makes to the daughter of her best friend in Paris who was born four days before the invasion. Collette had not been able to visit her goddaughter after her birth for obvious reasons.
Imagine the depth of Collette’s life experience, living in fear for 4 ½ years under Nazi occupation. We may have watched Saving Private Ryan, but she lived it. She remembers Jews and friends in the resistance who were arrested and never seen again. It all seems so surreal to us here and now. Imagine calling Katie, our Associate pastor and mother of a newborn, and telling her you can’t come over to see Josie because there’s a war going on outside.
Collette remembers lining the streets with the people of Compiegne to welcome their liberators after the Nazis had fled and as the Allies arrived. She says, “It was a joyous day she would never forget.”
Collette will never forget that day. How could she? However, with each passing year our memories of that time grow dimmer as the people of the greatest generation diminish in number. In the article Collette shares an observation that I found revealing. Through the years she has answered countless questions about life during the Nazi occupation and her experience of the war. However, Collette says, “Nobody asks those questions anymore; they’re all too young to remember. They don’t know about D-Day. I just have to accept that time is passing.” (David Perlmutt, The Charlotte Observer)
“I just have to accept that time is passing.” I wish I could have been there to hear the interview so I could have observed how she expressed that thought. For those words could be uttered with wistfulness, or bitterness, or a depth of understanding about the nature of life itself.
Surely, there is warrant for a measure of wistfulness in life: the memory of a friend from whom you are now separated by death, geography, or politics; the breakup of the Beatles; the thought of how you were once able to run and jump and throw with ease, and how now attempting any one of these will make it nearly impossible to get out of bed in the morning.
However, wistfulness easily evolves into bitterness, corrupting our capacity to experience or enjoy what life has to offer today. Certainly, you and I have heard and often expressed the common lament offered to that idol named Used To. How often do we visit that shrine? “People used to be courteous.” “I used to be a great athlete.” “Airline travel used to be so easy.” “The service in this restaurant used to be so much better.” “The sky used to be bluer.” “The water used to taste better.” “They don’t make them like they used to.” The next time you hear yourself say that, I want you to recite these four things and ask yourself if you really want to return to the good ol’ days: Power steering; air conditioning; dental care; and if that doesn’t change your answer, here’s the clincher - indoor plumbing. Now were the good ol’ days truly so good that you are ready to cast those things aside? Do you really want your dentist to attack that molar with a pair of pliers and nothing more than a shot of whiskey for anesthesia? Good ol’ days? Really?
In her interview Collette said, “Nobody asks those questions anymore; they’re all too young to remember. They don’t know about D-Day. I just have to accept that time is passing.” Certainly, this observation is lamentable evidence supporting the old cultural proverb, “Those who don’t learn the lessons of history are destined to repeat them.”
Yet, I wish I could have been there to hear how she expressed herself. Said with bitterness, such an attitude corrupts one’s capacity to experience or enjoy what life has to offer today. However, expressed in a different way those words could reveal a depth of understanding and gratitude about the nature of life itself. In fact, those words could reflect the wisdom of Ecclesiastes and the promises of Paul.
In Ecclesiastes it is written, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what 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 to dance . . . I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live . . . I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is.”
These are what I would call “big picture” words, offering us the opportunity to step back from the small sno-globe of concerns that encompass our lives, and, therefore, see life in broader terms of meaning, purpose, goal, and substance; allowing us to gain a fuller sense of our path of life in the grand scheme of creation.
Such an exercise enables us to understand that remembering and cherishing the past does not mean we have to resent the present or fear the future. There are seasons of life and each season brings with it joy and sorrow, opportunity and trial, pain and healing. And death itself is not the end of the story but a part of the story. The Apostle Paul tells us, “we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. 15 Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. 16 So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.”
“Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.”
Paul here assumes a continuity of the process between wasting away and being made new. Birth, life, death, resurrection are not separate isolated fragments but threads in the growing grand tapestry of God’s wondrous creation.
Such a perspective frees us to live more fully in the present moment. The past does not have to shackle us and the future does not have to paralyze us. We are able to live in this moment because don’t feel so compelled to find someone to blame for our lives. We are able to live in this moment because we trust God’s future. We don’t know it. We may not comprehend it. But we can trust that the One who brought creation into being and who offered himself on the cross holds the future in his hands. It is Paul who also said; “Nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God through Christ Jesus our Lord.” Therefore, we can fully live in this moment without being consumed by the limits of this life, knowing that the limits of this life are just that: the limits of this life.
The limits we encounter in life, limits that start to multiply with age, are not necessarily a bad thing according to William Sloane Coffin who said, “Until a river finds its banks it hasn’t a prayer of being anything but shallow.”
Coffin offers this insight, “The one true freedom in life is to come to terms with death, and as early as possible, for death is an event that embraces all our lives. And the only way to have a good death is to lead a good life. Lead a good one, full of curiosity, generosity, and compassion, and there’s no need at the close of the day to rage against the dying of the light.” (William Sloane Coffin, Credo)
The only way to have a good death is to lead a good life. Our particular faith tradition holds that our chief end/purpose/task in life is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. To achieve that purpose, your purpose, you need to do nothing more than this: Greet each day with gratitude for the grace of God; Seek each day to reflect the grace of God.
Within this congregation we represent all the seasons of life. We have little children who are overflowing with so much energy that they just have to run around in circles. Remember what a thrill that was? Step into a gym or a fellowship hall or step out onto a wide spot in the driveway or a large lawn and you take off sprinting around in circles – you can’t help yourself. What a thrill!
We have graduating seniors who can’t wait to take off either. Freedom! Independence! (Well, except for that tuition thing; that insurance thing; and any number of other things. Just remember who’s still writing the checks). You’re too excited to be nervous. College. Careers. A wide-open world.
We have young parents who find themselves running around in circles yet again, who don’t have time to get a tan because they are spending their lives in a minivan.
We have fortysomethings who’d like to think they are still twenty and are confused by the frequency and duration of all these aches and pains; and who may be discovering that all those things they worked so hard to possess don’t bring the happiness they had hoped for.
We have a different group of seniors who are trying to figure out how to be retired without being retiring, and though they face increasing limitations, can still find joy in friendships, in grandchildren, and even in new adventures. I have an eighty-year-old friend who this year traveled with her daughter to Central America and went on a zip line tour high above the trees. That is so cool! However, these seniors can also fully appreciate a quote I read this week. “There is always a lot to be thankful for, if you take the time to look. For example, I'm sitting here thinking how nice it is that wrinkles don't hurt.”
Each of these seasons of life contains within it the potential for meaning, for love, for joy, for service, for learning, for adaptation, for witness, for worship.
Today in our midst are a group of proud, but anxious parents. Their children are graduating. Some would like to turn back the clock, returning to that day when they were holding the hands of their children, walking with them into school for their first day of kindergarten. Some greet this day with fear, not knowing what tomorrow will hold for their children, worried about what the house will feel like with one less person beneath its roof. Some parents may be thinking, “Whew! Didn’t think we’d get through that!”
However, if we can allow the author of Ecclesiastes and the Apostle Paul to help us to step back and look at the big picture, we too, can see that each season of life is to be celebrated. I performed a wedding yesterday and at Friday’s rehearsal dinner they played a video filled with photos of the couple from the time they were in Pampers all the way through to the day they committed their lives to each other in the presence of God. It reminded me that within each season of life there is space for joy, for love, for experiencing something new, for facing trials with grace, for glorifying God, and finding reasons for gratitude.
A couple of times a year we sing the following words often without thinking about them. “Time like an ever rolling stream, bears all its sons away. They fly forgotten as a dream, dies at the opening day.” The classic hymn text at first glance seems rather morbid, but in the larger perspective of God’s good plan for God’s good creation we can revel in the wonder of it all.
When I was a small child, there was a little family owned children’s store on the main street of town. Near the cash register there was a display case featuring Boy and Girl Scout badges along with a few jewelry items. I remember that they had necklaces with these numbered pendants – 69, 70, 71, etc.. These necklaces would be bought by high school students, taking pride in the year of their graduation. I remember looking for the year of my graduation, but the numbers didn’t go nearly high enough. 1979 seemed so far off, and now 33 years after graduation, it seems so long ago. And yes, I, too, am growing thankful that wrinkles don’t hurt.
French philosopher Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, during the Second World War, wrote, “A [person's] age is something impressive, it sums up his life: maturity reached slowly and against many obstacles, illnesses cured, griefs and despairs overcome, and unconscious risks taken; maturity formed through so many desires, hopes, regrets, forgotten things, loves. A [person's] age represents a fine cargo of experiences and memories. (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wartime Writings 1939-1944)
Collette said, “I just have to accept that time is passing.” Yes we do. For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. There is a time to be born and a time to die. But, in the grand scheme of God’s good creation, that’s not a reason for lament. Rather, that’s a reason to live. Amen.