That this Sunday is Mother’s Day here in the states and that we have chosen today to celebrate those graduating with their various accomplishments make me keenly aware both of my motherhood and of my firstborn graduating from high school. It probably doesn’t take much to imagine the vulnerability I feel in this place and time as a mother generally and as parent of a child who–at 18–is (we hope above all hopes!) prepared for the next stage of her adult life. This is a vulnerable place because it feels like being at the precipice of knowledge, on the edge of what is known and unknown, and like setting out on a journey with no idea what the traveling conditions or the final destination will be.
Marie Howe, former poet laureate of New York, said in an interview in 2013 that we often turn to metaphor when describing something that’s real because “to actually endure the thing itself, … hurts us for some reason.” We want to compare whatever “it” is to something else more readily known rather than take time to really see something as it is, endure it for all its worth until we realize that there is nothing more valuable or comparable than the thing itself. It’s easier to look away. She speaks with the authority of a writer/poet and professor who has her students start class by writing ten observations of the actual world. She said the students have such a hard time with this. If they can recall something–say toast, for example, they would rather say the toast is like sandpaper rather than describing it as dry, brown, and crumbly.
Howe theorizes our inability to make honest, aware observations comes from our constant distractions in the speed and chaos of life in the digital age. We spend more time gazing into the screen of our phones, computers, and televisions than into the eyes of one another. One could say we get accustomed to our hectic, over-filled, preoccupied lives, especially if we’re in the child-raising or career phase of life, and it easily just becomes the way it is, how life works. So even when we’re out of the “busy” phase, we perpetuate busy-ness in other stages of life. What we know is the perpetual busy-ness; we rely on our phones, calendars, and reminders. We get stuck in the roundabout of daily chaos. But if we keep doing the same thing, we’re relatively certain we’re going to get similar results. It’s called predictability, and most of us like the security of predictability. I’ll keep doing a good job, pay my bills on time, tuck the kids into bed with love, and wake to repeat the same things the next day. I know what to expect, and it gives me a sense of security. The same is true even if what I’m doing isn’t good by any standard. Perpetuating cycles of poverty, abuse, addiction, dysfunction–you name it–bring with it the same comfort of familiarity, even if it’s “the devil you know.” Our “roundabout” life doesn’t ever really take us anywhere, though . . . and certainly not to everlasting life.
After about four weeks of making concrete observations, Professor Howe says she has to put a cap on the amount of writing time the students have. She hears the scritch-scratching of their writing as they rush to get it all down, knowing their time is almost up. And when she changes the assignment, telling them to switch to using metaphors for their observations, they ask, “Why?”
What brings about this switch? How do we move from not noticing our surroundings in all their value and sensuality to being at a place where we can’t imagine not noticing them and giving them full account?
Something happens to get us out of the roundabout: we can choose to set a different pace or to evaluate life more closely. We can retreat, quite literally backing away from the regular program. We can take the scenic route instead, maybe even bike or walk. One of my many fond Sewanee memories is riding my bike to school with the kids (even if Casey told me I looked like the Wicked Witch of the West in my black clothes and a basket on the back of my bike). Riding a bike lets us set the pace, especially if we’re with kids. We feel the wind in our face, note the smell of spring or rain. We notice even the slightest incline and rejoice in the euphoria of speeding downhill. We can also listen to and follow new directions, like when Professor Howe tells us to notice the smell of the air or the face of a stranger and then holds us accountable to recount the experience. We can pause or stop in illness or pain and listen anew to the demands of our body.
But what if I get a roadblock in my little roundabout life that I don’t choose or see coming, like a pink slip, a collect call from jail, or a diagnosis from the doctor? The flow stops abruptly. The unexpected has suddenly arrived, and my discomfort is off the charts. Rather than doing something destructive, at the end of the stressful day, I might think, “It’s been a while since I’ve prayed before going to sleep. Compline’s usually comforting (and predictable), so…I’ll give it a go.” When I get to page 129 in our Book of Common Prayer, I read the words of Psalm 31, the same words we said today, and I pray for our Lord to “be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe.” In this time of uncertainty, the prayers for God to see me through this night illuminate the unknown not only of the night to come but of my uncertain future and my eventual death. I realize that in the rush of my daily round, prayers have fallen to the wayside, church is just another thing to do, and only if it’s a good day do I have some sense that God is in the midst of it all. But how striking are the words “Into your hands I commend my spirit” when I stand at the edge of life as I know it and the unknown of life to come, whether it’s tomorrow or the hereafter.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says in John 14, which also happens to be one of the gospel readings often used in our burial rite. How meaningful to read this before our death. Jesus assures us that we are provided for, that he is the way, the truth, and the life, that through him, we know God the Father and everlasting life. In these simple words, there’s such peace and clarity. Jesus is the way, the path we follow. Jesus is the truth, everlasting and certain. Jesus is the life, vibrant and radiant. When I’m standing on the edge and feeling the world as I know it falling apart, Jesus reminds me that he has prepared a way and even has a place for me, for everyone. I honestly don’t imagine heaven as a bunch of houses, but I know that wherever Jesus is, there I will be also. When I question the validity of Jesus’ truth, he reminds me that my doubts are within the bounds of normal but are not necessary. Thank God for clueless apostles! Not only Thomas but Philip also needed a bit more proof for the outlandish claims Jesus made, and Jesus understood, knowing our hearts as he does. Jesus didn’t need signs or miracles to prove his divinity; those works were provided for you and me. And, when I fear change or death itself, Jesus reminds me of the triumph of life, the light overcoming the darkness, even if we have to go through the darkness first.
So often what is unknown is portrayed as darkness–shadowy, cloudy, or obscured. Jesus, let alone God, seem so far away. And yet, so often we say one’s future looks bright. We don’t know anything more, but looking into the faces of our graduates, it seems so easy to see the light and be sure of the presence of Christ with them, to see the Holy Spirit at work through their gifts and talents. Looking forward with faith brings a bit of light, which fuels our hope, making it even brighter. Add to that the joy of love, and we look into the face of uncertainty with a spirit of adventure. This is how we break open our hearts to love with all that we have. This is how we Christians walk the way of Christ, the way of love, to see our neighbors not as a statistic but as people doing their best with what they have. This is how we continue to learn and grow emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually, even though that knowledge will inevitably open us to more pain, responsibility, and greater awareness of the unknown.
It’s what we do know of goodness and love that bolsters our faith and strengthens our belief, even when it’s hard and hurts our hearts. When we’ve stopped to notice the smell of a newly bathed infant; when we’ve lost ourselves in uncontrollable laughter; when we’ve opened our arms as wide as we can to give and receive a hug from a beloved; when we’ve clenched our throats against a sob as we smiled and assured a love it was okay to go . . . at these times and so many more, we have, indeed, tasted that the Lord is good. And we know that the only way we have the strength to endure anything at all is because of God’s mercy and grace. With that blessed assurance, found mostly in those moments when time stands still as we stand on the edge, we love fiercely, lean into the unknown, and step toward eternal life through Christ.