November 18, 2007
Today’s gospel is filled with signs of the end of the world: wars, and famines, and dreadful portents. Clearly the gospel writers are pointing to that great day when Jesus will return, bring this world to an end, and establish the Kingdom of God. But it would be a mistake for us to limit the meaning of today’s gospel to that great event at the end of time. For the truth is that in our lives we experience moments when our world comes to an end. There are moments of passage, moments of change, when one world ends and another begins. These moments can be joyful or frightening. Oftentimes they are both.
When you commit yourself to another person in marriage or when you give birth to a new son or daughter, your world changes. There are new opportunities and there are new responsibilities. Very soon you cannot even remember the way things used to be. When you are told that you no longer have a job, when you file for divorce, when you receive a negative medical diagnosis, when the person you love dies; one world ends and a new one begins. As much as you would like, you cannot go back again. When your youngest child leaves for college, when you hold your grandchild for the first time in your arms, when you enter retirement; your world changes and you must change with it.
In all of these rites of passage, in all of these changes—even when they are joyful—there is always some fear. Will I be able to be the parent that my child needs me to be? How will it be living without my children under my roof? How will I face the holidays without the person I love? How will I fair with chemotherapy? When we face a new reality, when we enter a new world, there is fear. How do we deal with it? How do we cope when our world changes?
Today’s gospel points us in a direction. Jesus says, “By your perseverance you will save your lives.” Jesus is saying that when we enter a new world we must be willing to persevere. But what do we mean by perseverance? You can define perseverance in a lot of different ways, but the understanding I am suggesting to you today is one which is most common and most practical. This is the understanding that I hear over and over again in ICU units and at wedding receptions, in funeral homes and at baptism parties. It’s the understanding of perseverance that most easily and commonly comes to our lips: perseverance is living one day at a time. Perseverance is refusing to be overwhelmed by all the things that we do not understand and cannot control in the new world in which we must live. Perseverance is choosing to take one step, the next step—choosing to take that step as best as we can and to keep taking the next step until we end up where we ought to be.
Now this understanding of perseverance can seem foolish to some people. They can ask, “How can you take one step and be sure that you’re going anywhere?” “How do you know that that one step will lead you to where you need to be?” “How can you live one day at a time?” “Who is planning for the months and years ahead?”
Now these questions are not pointless. In fact they make a certain amount of sense, if we presume that we are living our lives alone. But Christians have a different perspective. We believe that God is living our lives with us, that God is in fact guiding us. We believe that when we take that one step, that next step, God is guiding us in the right direction. We believe that when we live one day at a time, the day that we live is connected to future days which God is planning for our benefit.
With faith we have the freedom to take the next step, to live this day, and to leave the rest to God. Now, this understanding of perseverance as living one day at a time is beautifully captured in a prayer by John Henry Newman. This prayer would be appropriate to pray every time we leave one world behind and enter a new one. Newman’s prayer goes like this:
Lead kindly light, amid the encircling gloom.
Lead thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home.
Lead thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet, I do not ask to see
The distant scene—one step enough for me.
Let us then persevere in taking that next step. Let us believe that God is with us and God will lead us on.
Hope in Winter
November 14, 2010
Ted was having a very bad day. He was pushing seventy-five and his arthritis was kicking up. He was now having difficulty doing the simple things that he once took for granted. When he looked at the future, he was frightened. He sat on the window seat of his family room and looked out on a cold December day—barren trees, pelting rain, limited light. Ted was feeling sorry for himself. When he looked at the years to come, he saw little reason for hope. He took out a match to light his pipe and in doing so a flying ember fell on the corduroy cushion on which he was seated and burnt a hole into it.
“Darn it,” he said. His wife Helen, who was crocheting in the same room, lifted her head, “what’s wrong?” she asked. “I’m so sorry, honey,” he said, pointing to the hole in the cushion. Helen walked over and picked up the cushion. With a gentle teasing voice she said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with you.” She left the room. When she returned, she showed him the cushion. Helen had carefully stitched a happy little flower over the charred hole. “There,” she said, “it’s fixed. Better than ever.” She went back to her crocheting.
Ted looked at the repaired cushion. His eyes filled with tears because he saw in Helen’s carefully stitched repair a symbol of their life together. He had been married to this woman for over fifty years. He knew he was blest to have her because Helen was a repairer of broken dreams, a healer of wounds. By her quiet and caring presence, she was an antidote to fear. As Ted thought of this his spirits rose because he recognized in Helen’s love a sign of God’s love. If his wife could be for him such a sign of life and hope, could he not also trust that God’s love for him was even greater? And if God was a repairer of broken dreams and a healer of wounds, then Ted had nothing to fear.
Today’s gospel is a gospel of hope. But we might not recognize it. We can be distracted by thinking that the gospel is predicting the future, what will happen at the end of time. But actually by the time Luke was writing this passage, the things that he was describing had already taken place. The temple was already destroyed. Wars and earthquakes were occurring. False teachers were leading people astray. Persecutions had begun. So far from predicting future events, Luke was describing the crises and turmoil of his own time. It is in those contemporary challenges that Luke’s call to hope becomes clear. What Luke is telling his audience and us is that it is in the midst of our suffering and turmoil that we should cling to hope. In the midst of our present troubles Christ assures us not a hair of our head will be harmed and by perseverance we will secure our lives. This gospel tells us to persevere, to hold on, not to give up hope. Of course the basis of our hope is not our own cleverness or our confidence that we can resolve all of these crises. Our hope rests in our belief that God is a repairer of broken dreams, a healer of wounds, a God who will protect us and save us.
Therefore today’s gospel invites us to identify in our lives what is broken, who is wounded, and what circumstances lead us close to despair. Once we have identified these difficulties, the gospel advises us to hold on, not to give up hope. God is active and God has a plan that we cannot yet completely see. Therefore we are called to trust in God, believing that people can change, opportunities can emerge, obstacles can be removed, and that God is prepared to use all of these changes to save us. If we can see care and love in a spouse, in a co-worker, or in a close friend, then those gifts challenge us to see an even greater love and care in our God. Circumstances can surround us and frighten us but God is with us. Therefore do not give up hope. Hang on. By your perseverance you will secure your lives.