(Last week’s “Why The Pastor Voted As He Did — Part 1 will be followed up with its Part 2. But for more reasons than are worth explaining, and because I think a Lenten E-pistle might be helpful for the day after Ash Wednesday, Part 2 won’t be published for a few weeks.)
After the Ash Wednesday service last night, someone said to me, “Last Sunday and again tonight, church coaxed me to look honestly and without fear at my own mortality. I too will die: death has its plans for me. But I can — with some surprise — actually say, ‘I’m glad for the help that somewhat harsh truth provides me in making better choices.’”
Isn’t that spot on? Humility is a more truthful way of seeing ourselves and our capacities and our lives. People, there is some real relief in acceptance that none of us can do it all. Ironically, there’s more freedom in realizing life is inevitably unfinished business, and therefore about deciding what you can do and letting go of what you cannot.
Our being limited isn’t an excuse for throwing up our hands in despair that nothing we do makes any difference or that all our accomplishments all come to nought. Rather it is a confession of faith:
We can make some difference.
Less than we usually wish for, but more than we often know.
But, clearly, ultimately, none of us can make all the difference in the world.
Beloved, your limitation, mortality, humility… it’s all the framework for discerning what you want to try and do. And it’s the dividing line for deciding what we are going to have give up. .
All throughout life, we have to choose what to do and what not to do… to make limiting choices. And that which you choose not — even if it enables us to do that which we see as the greater thing — will often be experienced as a loss… a bit of death in some sense.
So, to echo Deuteronomy, choose life. Make the choices that we believe and hope will be most life-giving. Forgive yourself for what you cannot do. And live.
Whether you are at the ‘slow-go’ end of your days, or in the heavy middle of all your life’s work, or even just starting out with too much confidence about what you can do, do you hear that assurance and condolences, solace and even absolution in the “promise of failure”? That letting go and giving up, loss and death… they are part of life itself which inevitably is experienced as unfinished. Incomplete.
I just heard the story of Matthew O’Reilly, an EMT from Long Island who learned humility from his work. When he began on an ambulance crew, if he’d come upon a patient for whom death was near and there was clearly nothing to be done, and the patient would uncannily ask, “Am I dying?”, he’d lie to them. He told himself he was reassuring — sparing people their last few moments full of emotional trauma and fear.
But once he actually told a man critically injured in a motorcycle accident the truth, he realized that the fear he was avoiding had been his own. And that often people who are imminently dying (seemingly regardless of cultural or religious backgrounds, he reported) want one of three things:
to be offered forgiveness,
to be promised remembrance, and
to know that what they did do wasn’t in vain.
Our faith attends to all three needs. I hope you count on God’s love and grace to forgive you. And eternal life is about being remembered by God even after there’s no one left on earth who can.
But because it’s Lent: I want to lift up and encourage you to the third of life’s most basic needs: You need to let go and give up on what you have not accomplished or gotten done. Because what you have gotten done, by grace, is sufficient. It is enough.
Lent calls us to give up something:
~ It could be something not so important, like ice cream, that you might begin to learn self-control, penitence and self-denial.
~ It could be giving up or taking on something very important — as a start to a new way of living. Pope Francis has suggested giving up “indifference to others.” (Amen!)
As we move into these six weeks of preparation before Easter, I offer another possibility for “giving up for Lent” — a practice that you can call on until your last breath:
Let go of and stop beating yourself up for everything you don’t get done. Instead, find a new freedom in grieving the loss and moving on, so you can concentrate on what you have decided to do.
You can expect not to get everything done. Then you will find greater thanksgiving in what you do accomplish, even if it’s just a little. It makes more difference than you imagine.
See you at church,