The month of November always reminds me of endings. According to the church calendar, yet another year comes to a close, and we begin a new church year with the season of Advent – I know this is quite counter-cultural and not how the world at large looks at the calendar. But even our ‘secular’ year will come to an end soon.
As church, we are very purposeful about observing certain Holy Days during November during which we are mindful that endings are inevitable as we remember those we lost: All Saints and All Souls Days at the beginning of the month; in the German Protestant tradition, we have ‘Ewigkeitssonntag’, Eternity Sunday, also called the Sunday of the Dead, on the last Sunday of the month – and that’s what we commemorate today. On these days, we grieve the loss of loved ones – but are also reminded of our own mortality and finality.
Here in the Northern hemisphere, even nature displays the signs of endings, as leaves first turn colorful and then tumble to the ground, and many trees stand bare and are seemingly devoid of life.
Beyond that, we as a faith community are coming to an end in our journey together as I will be leaving St. Matthew’s at the end of December – and the Bay Area a few weeks after that. More than during other years, for me this November has ‘endings’ written all over it.
And I don’t know about you, but thinking about endings makes me melancholy. To think that things – good things, precious relationships – come to an end, to say goodbye: it’s hard.
Now we live in a society that doesn’t really want to deal with things that are hard that are difficult. How to deal with the (ongoing) pandemic, how to tackle climate change issues, how to respond to issues of injustice in our society – from racism to voter rights to immigration to healthcare and education that is truly available and affordable for everyone – most of the people in this country don’t really want to deal with all these things, because they are so darn hard to tackle, and rather find refuge in one-dimensional opinions which have very little or nothing to do with reality. People in general have a hard time letting go of things that are familiar and make them feel comfortable. Most people have a hard time with endings – because they lack the vision of what a new thing could be. Consequently, a lot of people live as if there was an unlimited amount of resources, an unlimited number of days, as if there was no death.
The psalm we prayed today provides us with a reality check. “Lord, you turn us back to the dust and say, ‘Turn back, O children of earth.’” These words remind us of our finality – and the finality of all things created, for that matter.
The words that follow make this quite clear. “For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past and like a watch in the night; you sweep them away like a dream, they fade away suddenly like the grass; in the morning it is green and flourishes; in the evening it is dried up and withered.”
Isn’t the language used here hauntingly beautiful? Even though the person who originally prayed these words meditates on the reality that our days are limited, there is no sense of despair. The grass may flourish in the morning when the dew falls on it and wither when the day is done – but we know that the grass will spring up again. And don’t we experience this right now in our drought-stricken corner of the world, as the rains make plants sprout once more?
We hear hope and trust in the words of the psalm. “Lord, you have been our refuge from one generation to another. Before the mountains were brought forth, or the land and the earth were born, from age to age you are God.” We can trust that, even though time runs out for all of us, and things inevitably come to an end, God, the creator of everything, our creator, enfolds everyone and everything – from age to age. And isn’t that an interesting expression, ‘from age to age’? Even here, we sense that time, that eternity has its seasons, its eras, which come to an end – but that there are many more ages yet to come.
We are destined to come to an end at some point. Yes, our days are numbered. Our time here and now is limited. Once we come to grips with this reality, once we are honest with ourselves about our mortality, and the ever-presence of death (which we have felt more than ever during the time of COVID), the question for us should be: what does God, who created me, want be to do with this precious bit of time here on earth? What is the purpose God wants me to fulfill? What is the legacy I want to leave behind?
Finding an answer to all these questions takes discernment. It takes prayer. And praying is exactly what that person who uttered the words of Psalm 90 about 2,500 years ago did, ‘Lord, teach us to number our days so that we may apply our hearts to wisdom’.
Lord, give me some pointers here. Open my heart for your wisdom.
Now wisdom is wider and deeper than just the accumulation of knowledge. Wisdom has little to do with I. Q., but has a lot to do with E.Q., or the emotional quotient. Wisdom sees things that happen, wisdom sees the world in the largest context possible and tries to connect the dots on all kinds of levels, guided by love and mercy. Wisdom means to apply, not only our knowledge, but also our various experiences as we live in community with others. In the tradition of the Old Testament, wisdom is there at the beginning of creation, and all things are made through her – and, yes, the original Hebrew word we have here speaks of wisdom as a ‘she’. Wisdom is the force through which life is created, fostered, and sustained – and so it makes sense that this force is feminine. In other words: no wisdom, no life.
And a word about the heart: in our modern and postmodern context, the heart is often understood as the seat of emotions (which can be irrational). However, the heart in the tradition of the Old Testament is mostly the seat of willpower, courage, understanding, and action. So we can be faint of heart – or have a brave heart, even the heart of a lion.
So the combination of God’s life-giving wisdom and our hearts becomes quite a powerful combination. God’s wisdom and our courage have the power to change the world for the better as we seek to honor everyone and all God created and foster the life God has breathed into all there is. That is our purpose during our limited days here on earth. And isn’t that something we want to be remembered for? Don’t we want this to be our legacy?
The prayer of Psalm 90 is not so much concerned about dying. What he or she is concerned about is to have led a meaningless life, to be forgotten. What he or she is concerned about is to have regrets at the end of life here on earth: what could I have done? What should I have left undone? Why did I part with this or that person in anger and didn’t reconcile? Hence the fervent plea, ‘Lord, teach us to number our days so that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.’ Endings are inevitable. Let’s make sure they are good endings – or as good as they get.
And this leads us to the remembrance of our siblings whose lives here on earth came to an end. In their own and very special ways, they opened their hearts to God’s wisdom and made the world around them a better place. They gave of themselves, they shared their love, they enriched our life and made it better. Those whom we will remember in a moment truly left a legacy. Their lives were not in vain. And that’s why we mourn them today. We miss them and will continue to miss them. Nobody will ever be able to replace them and what they were to us.
And so we carry their legacy in our hearts. Their days here on earth may have come to an end, but their love, what they shared with us, the wisdom they imparted on us, the seeds they have sown spring forth to a new life, in us and through us – and generations to come, from age to age, as long as we open our hearts to God’s wisdom through which life was created and is being created and will be created forevermore.
This post is also available in: German