My husband's mom has lived with cancer for around 20 years. We've acknowledged this "borrowed" time with much gratitude, but as her health began to fail a few months ago, we knew time was most likely beginning to run short. When Todd's dad called a few weeks ago to say she was in the hospital, we decided to drop everything and head north to their home in Regina, Saskatchewan. What followed was a very special, very productive, very poignant week. It was a blessing to be able to spend quality time with each other. We laughed, we prepared meals and ate together, we talked through future plans. But being around Todd's mom was sobering... bittersweet. She has changed a lot in the last few months and even since we left over a week ago, her decline has been rapid. She was able to return home while we were there, but could only walk a few steps before her breathing became labored. Talking made her cough. She slept only fitfully and so always looked terribly weary. Her legs were swollen. There are all physical observations, but there was a significant emotional shift as well. She had drawn into herself and become pensive. More than anything she wanted her entire family gathered around her for a few days, one more time. And when we were finally all there together, she couldn't keep the smile off her face. But interaction was not what she craved, rather our presence was all she needed. She resisted attempts to draw her out, preferring to be left alone with her thoughts. This quiet "turning in" made several of us more reflective as well.
I think with impending death comes an aching and all too keen awareness of how short life is. Even if we live to the ripe old age of 100, it goes by so very fast. Death's uninvited presence makes you greedy for life. You want to hoard each moment and thus you mourn each moment's passage, aware that in the blink of an eye it will be tomorrow, or next week.....or a lifetime later.
Last week I celebrated the big 4-0. I haven't been looking forward to 40. Unlike 30, when it felt like you became an official adult while still somehow maintaining a grip on youthfulness, 40 is far more grim. I'm not feeling very youthful anymore and it makes me grumpy. It's an arbitrary number, for sure, but it really does feel like the doorway to middle age. Time is slipping away from me. And while those older may be tempted to snigger a little at my angst, I wonder how you face each new decade? Will each age milestone from here on out prompt a similar sensitivity to the passage of time? I still feel like high school was only a few years ago, until my kids wonder aloud in my presence if I had telephones or indoor plumbing when I was a kid (sigh).
The passage of time is kind of like one of those moving walkways you find in large airports. When you are young, you have a completely unobstructed view and the belt is moving terribly slooooow. Impatience alone tempts you to jump off and forge your own way. At some point in your 20's, you notice a few obstacles that may in time impede your view, in the far, far off future - commitments and possessions that weren't there a moment ago. And some days you wonder if the walkway belt may be moving just a little faster before dismissing the notion as absurd. In your 30's, life's baggage continues to pile up making mobility more difficult. And no longer can you pretend the scenery isn't passing by at a smarter clip. In your 40's, every once in awhile you look over to another moving walkway, still just visible from your position and wonder if maybe that's the track you should have been on instead. By the time you reach your 70's and 80's the belt is moving so fast the momentum itself sends some of your baggage flying. Your view improves, but looking makes you a little dizzy.
Two of the lectionary passages yesterday seem to suggest we need to keep an eye on our different options, and even leap if need be, to a neighboring track.....or a distant one for that matter....running in the opposite direction. In the gospel passage from Mark we find Simon, Andrew, James and John dropping everything at a word from Jesus to "follow". The call stories of Matthew, Philip and Nathanael are equally dramatic. Talk about leaping off life's moving walkway in order to hop onto something completely different. These men, most of whom would have had families of their own to support and care for, drop their vocations, their responsibilities and commitments at the mere request of Jesus to follow him.
Just an aside, scholars believe a rather large community formed around Jesus, following him wherever he went. I believe the disciples' families made up at least part of that throng. Maybe it's wishful thinking, but I have a hard time believing Jesus would call a parent and spouse away from his or her family. With that said, it's still a pretty amazing phenomenon. And because this scenario is repeated with seven of the twelve disciples, we really can't call it an isolated incident.
Yet the disciples' willingness to change tracks pales in comparison to the Ninevites. Paul Keim, Bible professor at Goshen College, writes, "In the midst of the great city the recalcitrant prophet of the Lord unleashes a five-word oracle whose brevity is matched only by its banality: Forty days and you're toast! And yet in this exquisite farce, the response far exceeds that of modern, urban, evangelistic crusades among the well churched. The people of the Most Evil Empire believe in God and exhibit a repentance so robust that a fast is proclaimed and all are clothed in sackcloth from king to cattle."
In contrast, it's easy to see how one person could get it into her head to change tracks - but a whole city! And simultaneously! How is this possible?!
I think of other instant conversions. One of my friends speaks about a day in his dorm room when he decided stuff was cluttering up his life. He stuffed all his clothes into bags and sent them off to Good Will. That was over 10 years ago and he's never looked back. Today, he and his wife live quite contentedly in a house the size of my living room! Another and recently departed friend left behind his home and his dream job in pursuit of a simpler and more Biblical life. He became a mentor and guide for many throughout his too short life as he lived his beliefs and together with his wife raised their family with a gentle but unwavering commitment to peace, justice and simple living. Both of these individuls experienced conversions earlier in life when it's a little easier to leap off your walkway. It gets a lot trickier as we age, which is why it was so staggering when last fall friends nearing retirement decided to leave everything behind and head to China as missionaries.
I suspect none of these responses, Biblical and otherwise, are quite so dramatic as they seem on first blush. Most of the time major change, whether societal or individual, is set in motion by an unforeseen spark. Rosa Parks serves as a good example. Parks was an intentional spark. She knew what she was doing when she refused to stand up and offer her bus seat to a standing white person. Within that previous year, two other black women had exercised civil disobedience in the exact same way as Parks. For whatever reason, Parks' action provided the spark that led to the Montgomery bus boycott.
However, plans were already laid. Many people had already devoted an awful lot of time and energy in an effort to lay down societal tinder so that one of these sparks would indeed take hold and set our class system on fire. If the groundwork hadn't been in place, no one reading this would have ever heard of Rosa Parks.
Clearly the city of Ninevah was in trouble long before Jonah showed up. There must have been a lot of unrest, a lot of demonstrations and a widespread desire for a different and more ethical kind of life. If there wasn't palpable tension on the streets of Ninevah, Jonah's warning would almost certainly have fallen upon a city of deaf ears.
Likewise, Jesus came onto the scene when a longing for revolution and change hung thick in the air. People yearned for social upheaval, but lacked the ability, in so many ways, to instigate meaningful reform. Still, it was on the front burner of thought for many. Surely those seven disciples had been searching their souls leading up to Jesus' call. Some were probably eager to be a part of some upstart group, others maybe felt a disconcerting incompleteness. But they were all longing for something more. They were all ripe for the picking and so all Jesus had to do was pluck.
These passages from Jonah and Mark stand as a stark reminder for us to pay attention to our inner voice. Sometimes that voice rages in our head and gives us no peace. Often our inner voice is quiet, so quiet its easy to disregard that nagging sense of disquiet and discontent. Is there a leap we are being readied for? Maybe it's a vaulting jump to China. More likely it's a tiny hop into a new way of understanding or doing.
But the preparation is essentially important. Here's why. In each of the gospels, the calling and gathering of the disciples lasts for several chapters. In the book of Matthew, right in the middle of this ongoing call, we find this little passage. Matthew 8:18-22 in my Bible is entitled, "Would-Be Followers of Jesus". Here's how it reads, "Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. A scribe then approached and said, 'Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.' And Jesus said to him, 'Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.' Another of his disciples said to him, 'Lord, first let me go and bury my father.' But Jesus said to him, 'Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.'"
Jesus so often provides the spark. I don't know how often we recognize Jesus in this form, but I believe it to be true. Jesus sparks change all over our world, from personal conversions to societal protest and reform. But a spark will only take hold if the necessary tinder is there for it to seize onto. We provide that tinder when we take the time to be self-aware and tuned into our own inner workings. When the spark takes hold, there's no looking back. Fire is all consuming. Yet unless we have given our places of unrest the time they need to ripen and dry then all we'll have to offer when Jesus sends a spark in our direction, is a still green commitment that can't yet be set ablaze. When that spark comes knocking, the time for looking is over. We have to be ready to leap. There, I believe I've sufficiently mixed my metaphors!
Time runs by at a ridiculously fast pace. We are here for a moment and then gone. How do we make use of the time we are given? Can our impulse for good out last our physical life in this realm? Can leaps we make today reverberate through the lives of generations to come in ways that enrich and enflame? Can our time in this moment reveal an aspect of God's Kingdom for those who will follow in our wake? If we believe in God and all the promises of God, the answer is a resounding, "YES!"