in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You turn us back to dust,
and say, ‘Turn back, you mortals.’
For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night.
You sweep them away; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning;
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.
For we are consumed by your anger;
by your wrath we are overwhelmed.
You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your countenance.
For all our days pass away under your wrath;
our years come to an end like a sigh.
The days of our life are seventy years,
or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
even then their span is only toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.
Who considers the power of your anger?
Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due to you.
So teach us to count our days
that we may gain a wise heart.
Turn, O Lord! How long?
Have compassion on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
and for as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be manifest to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and prosper for us the work of our hands--
O prosper the work of our hands! – Psalm 90
A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook a transcript of a Skype conversation with her grandmother. It was her grandmother’s birthday, so my friend had connected with her by video chat to wish her well.
Once the conversation had wrapped up, my friend decided to say goodbye using some age-related humor that is common starting after you hit some age I apparently haven’t reached yet. “Have a great 21st birthday, Grandma!” she said.
Her grandmother leaned into the screen and whispered, “Oooh, I’m older than that. I’m 39.”
Not to call out my own grandmother’s age, but on her 80th birthday, my dad gave her a framed illumination of our Scripture for tonight, Psalm 90. Verse 10 was just too perfect: “The days of our life are but seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong.” Way to go, Mimi.
Age is a funny thing in our culture. We can be pretty weird about it. I have a laundry list of bizarre comments that have been made to me about my age by well-meaning church members. Some joke about whether I’m old enough to drive; one man once remarked that he has ties older than me. (No offense, but he might need to go shopping.)
We are so sensitive both to youth and to old age. As baby boomer get older, researchers anticipate that the U.S. market for anti-aging products will grow from $80 billion a year to $114 billion a year. In this country, we are obsessed with staying forever young, or at least young-looking.
But what if we actually got our wish? What if that joke about having a 29th birthday for the 5th or 10th or 20th year in a row became reality? The movie The Age of Adaline shows us the shadow side of this fantasy. In it, a young woman, Adaline, is in a freak accident that stops her from aging. At age 29, she gets the wish so many of us are chasing: she stays that age forever.
Yet over the course of the movie, we see the hidden cost of her youth. While she stays young and beautiful, her family grows old and dies; her husband ages without her; even her own daughter surpasses her in elderliness and infirmity. Adaline stays young and beautiful, but she becomes more and more isolated. She pulls back from those she loves and refuses to get close to anyone. Toward the end of the movie, after decades upon decades of being 29, another character says to Adaline, “All these years, you’ve lived, but you’ve never had a life.”
How much of our living is just that—living, but not truly having a life? How much of our self-preservation and efforts at staying youthful are attempts to hide our own fears of rejection and insecurities about our bodies, which, by the way, are reflections of the image of God? Certainly we should take care of our bodies—Scripture tells us that this matters deeply to God. But for what purpose, and at what cost?
I can’t help but notice that the jump from $80 billion to $114 billion a year on anti-aging products is an increase of $34 billion annually, more than the U.N.’s estimated $30 billion a year it would take to end world hunger. While we extend our lives or the life of our looks, people around the world are forever young because they are dying of hunger and preventable disease.
Our society’s obsession with youthfulness is so narcissistic. It encourages us to focus on ourselves and our looks instead of asking how the work of our hands that the Psalmist mentions might be for a better world and for God’s kingdom.
Last night, we had the last of 4 small group gatherings to talk about race and faith in the South. Using Tim Tyson’s book Blood Done Sign My Name, we talked about the history of racism in America and especially in the South, about the systemic racism that still exists today, and about our own complicity in and responsibility to do something about those systems.
For many, myself included, the problem of racism seems overwhelming in its scope. And our conversations took us beyond race to problems of class and poverty and immigration and politics. Many of the participants came longing to do something, to help make things better, to correct past and current wrongs and to seek restoration and healing.
And while last night’s conversation covered huge problems of history, government, education, housing, and more, we closed by bringing everything back to a much more basic level. Instead of asking, “How can I personally fix a centuries-old legacy of racism and oppression in this country?”, we asked, “How can we seek healing and reconciliation in our own church, in our families, and in our own selves?”
None of us alone has the power to ameliorate the great ills of our society or to bind the wounds of the human condition. But we can sow seeds of love and hope in our own little plot of land, in the time we have, here and now.
Reinhold Niebuhr says this: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.”
My favorite class in college was on Gothic cathedrals. I have always loved the beauty and history and symbolism of these incredible buildings. But I’ve also thought a lot about the people who built them. The Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris took 100 years to build. The workers who laid the foundation never saw its spires reach to heaven, and yet without them, the towers would never have risen.
Our mortality and our hope in the kingdom calls us to live our life to the fullest, here and now, and to trust that nothing worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime. We must remember that none of this is ultimately about us, that so many have come before and many more will come after, that the good work we do today will be carried on by others. Even if we don’t like the way the generation before or after us goes about things, we trust that for God, for the one to whom a thousand years are like a day, it all makes sense in a way we cannot grasp from our narrow perspective.
Wendell Berry’s poem “Mad Farmer Liberation Front” is one of my favorites, and part of it calls us to see ourselves and this world from the perspective of the God who is outside of time and yet who enters into and redeems it. He writes:
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
Psalm 90 reminds us that we are mortal and that that is no cause for fear—or it is, and yet we are made in the image of a God whose compassion, love, and power overturns the facts and gives us reason to hope and to dream, and then to work to make that dream a reality.
Some Christians are a little uncomfortable with the lyrics to our next focus song, John Lennon’s “Imagine.” No heaven, no hell, no religion? Where does that leave us?
Actually, it leaves us in the perfect place to live a life of faith that is pure in intention and content. Rabia Basra once prayed that God would help her imagine no heaven and no hell:
O God! If I worship You for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell, and if I worship You in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise. But if I worship You for Your Own sake, grudge me not Your everlasting Beauty.
We find everlasting beauty not when we ultimately reach heaven or avoid hell, but here and now, in religious forms and beyond the institutions of our faith. If we are waiting to meet God someday, somewhere, we are overlooking our best chance to encounter the divine, and that is right here, right now.
Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest, points to an ancient prayer practice among Catholic mystics that consists of just one word: “Today.” That is the entire prayer: “Today.”
Imagine all the people living for today. If we truly lived for today, just for today, we would have no reason not to love deeply, to give extravagantly, to seek justice boldly. Wendell Berry, in yet another lovely poem, put it this way, specifically reflecting on the process of growing old:
Now more than ever you can be
generous toward each day
that comes, young, to disappear
forever, and yet remain
unaging in the mind.
Every day you have less reason
not to give yourself away.
Every day, we have less reason not to give ourselves away, not to live in peace, not to share all the world. When we open our imagination to that possibility, we find that we are, indeed, forever young, held in youthful eternity by the divine love that surpasses and encompasses us all. Amen.