08/14/2011

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The Big Five 0 July 27, 2011 When I turned 20, I thought I was invincible--but I wasn't. When I turned 30, I thought people would start taking me seriously--but they didn't. When I turned 40, I was sure they never would--but they did. I alway thought that when I turned 50, I wouldn't care what others thought. I always thought that I wouldn't care about getting older. I turn 50 this week--and I care. I shouldn't care. I don't feel 50. I train for and run at least one marathon a year. I completed an Ironman triathlon just a few years ago. Fifty is the new 40, after all. Right? So, I was taken completely by surprise in recent weeks when I started feeling old-- and not liking it. It didn't make any sense. I had long looked forward to my 50s. I'd already had my midlife crisis, albeit early, which led me both to ministry and a more active lifestyle of long distance running, biking, and swimming. Most of my high school classmates have made the transition with grace and good health. So, why has this become more of a burden than a blessing? What am I so worried about? Even Jesus said, "do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble." (Matthew 6:34 ESV) Perhaps, it's because I'm entering the decade in which my father died (he was 59)? Or because neither my siblings, nor my cousin, nor my best friend ever made it this far? Maybe it's because my body, which still serves me very well, nonetheless needs several daily medications to stay balanced? Is it because I've accomplished so much in my first half-century, with three successful careers and raising a family, that I wonder whether I can do as well in the second half? Each of these certainly plays a role, but aren't the primary object of my concern... Very simply, this mental milestone has put me face-to-face with my own mortality. It's not the first time. It won't be the last. Too many others find themselves on the other side of this life without warning or without fairness. We, who are still on this side of life, are blessed to have this mirror of our mortal selves held up for us, however clearly or dimly we may see. This self awareness, the ability to contemplate our mortality, is what makes us human. It is a key to our survival and success. Indeed, here can be found our likeness to God. In Genesis, God created all that exists, not all at once, but in steps over time. And at each step, God reflected and recognized the good in each creative process. We follow humbly in God's cosmic footsteps as tiny co-creators on this small, wet, warm, ball of dirt on the fringes of our 14 billion year old, perhaps middle-aged universe. We have the seeming miraculous ability to look out into the abyss, simultaneously into the past and the future, and see that it is good. We are literally the universe being aware of its mortal self. We can see that our days are numbered, either by the hundreds of billions or by a few tens of thousands at best, depending on how one counts the days in a life. And so, I care. My days are numbered. As a middle-aged marathon man, I have another 10 or 15 thousand (but not 20) sunrises left in me--if I'm lucky. My task is to live each day as if it were my last, because one of them will be. In the meantime, I will ride this blue boat home for all it's worth, making each day matter, letting tomorrow be anxious for itself. I will be 50 this week--and it is good.
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Ten years later September, 8, 2011 On September 9, 2001, I led a small Sunday worship discussion with several young adults at the University of Illinois. We were talking about the watershed events in our lives and world. My generation remembers the moon landing, Elvis’ death, the Challenger explosion, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union. The generation before me remembers the assassinations of Dr. King and the Kennedys. The generation before that remembers the attacks on Pearl Harbor and the dropping of the A-Bomb a few years later. The young adults in that worship service on September 9 said they didn’t have any such events in their lives. That would change just 48 hours later… Some say that the world changed on September 11, 2001. But violence and evil have always existed. Human beings have always been capable of and too often willing to engage in the unimaginable. We can read about the most horrific human terror in even the most ancient manuscripts written across the millennia. The world didn’t change ten years ago. It simply continued in the reality explained to us in Ecclesiastes–that there is a time for everything, and there is nothing new under the sun. Even the U.S. didn’t really change ten years ago. Our ancestors have repeatedly seen tragedy of epic proportions in poverty, war, slavery, and genocide in just the past few hundred years. What happened that day was that we once again lost our innocence. The unimaginable happened to us. All of us. As with natural disasters, few people never feel safe (and are always fearful) in the aftermath of terror. This is because we lose our sense of control, and so our natural instinct is to regain that control. The problem is that none of us can control the hate of another. We can only control our own feelings of love and hate. “There is a season for everything under the sun…” Vengeance, as natural as that response is to our human sensibilities, doesn’t work. As Dr. King said: Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. And so, ten years later, as prophets and sages have been calling us to do since the beginning of time, we are again called to love one another–to live our lives to the fullest despite the uncontrollable realities of the world. We are called also to remember that good and evil happen to both saint and sinner. We needn’t respond with cynicism or hopelessness to life’s unavoidable tragedies. Quite the contrary, our fragile existence, and the certainty that one day each of us will meet death, are the very things that call us not to take life for granted–to “eat, drink, and be merry,” as Ecclesiastes also encourages–to live with faith, hope, and love in the face of evil. On this anniversary, our grief remains strong. For some of us, vengeance is still a temptation. But all of us are called to the difficult and painful process of healing–of letting go–letting go of all hope for a different yesterday–letting go of some of our memories of tomorrow–letting go of our anger and hate so that we can make room for joy and love. Looking forward to the life that awaits us rather than reliving the one that has formed us. As Maya Angelou said, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived. But if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” There is a time for everything under the sun. Blessings, Rev. Matt

Rev. Dr. Matt Tittle

Rev. Matt is a Unitarian Universalist minister and author.

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