Last Sunday our church celebrated paying off our mortgage with a good, old-fashioned note burning ceremony to conclude our worship service. As we did so, we followed two very important pieces of advice from those who have seen these things go wrong in the past.
First, we held the ceremony outside. As we prepared, several people mentioned to me the story of the church whose note burning ceremony ended up burning down the church. Apocryphal or not, we weren’t going to take any chances!
And second, we burned a copy of our mortgage note. The original is safely stored for our records.
As part of the ceremony we expressed our gratitude by reading from Psalm 138. Eugene Peterson’s translation of the psalm begins and ends with these words as the psalmist looks toward the future.
“Thank you! Everything in me says, ‘Thank you.’
…Finish what you started in me, God.
Your love is eternal—don’t quit on me now.”
For some reason those words triggered in me a memory of some very different words about the future from Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
“To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Macbeth and the psalmist have decidedly different ideas of what the future looks like. One views the future through a lens of gratitude and possibility, the other through the lens of helplessness and indifference.
How we choose to interpret our pasts and understand our presents determines how we’re able to imagine our futures.
There are times for lament like the one expressed by Macbeth. It’s okay to find ourselves in moments of doubt and despair, self-pity even. And we can find plenty of “woe is me” laments from the psalmist, too. But we are not meant to live there.
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, just posted a reflection on the death of her husband that illustrates both the necessity of lament and the need to move beyond it, acknowledging both the "petty pace" and the grand hopefulness of tomorrows. It’s worth a read.
Macbeth’s lament, though, is not so much a lament born out of sadness or despair, grief and loss, as it is a lament born of indifference.
Indifference is its own kind of despair, and it comes from believing that we have no power to control the events of our lives—that we are alone and powerless, blown this way and that in life by forces beyond our control, that we are broken people in a broken system beyond help or healing.
Indifference is a real threat today. We’ve long since faded past W.H. Auden’s Age of Anxiety into an age of indifference. What we used to be anxious about we’re now resigned to. Anxiety implies some sense of agency to effect change, an agency we’ve somehow lost.
I’ll admit it. Sometimes I’m a “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” kind of guy. Indifference is easy when the problems and challenges we face seem so large. But we were not created to be indifferent--to believe that broken relationships and broken systems and broken people are broken forever.
So how do we combat indifference? Well, it has to do with identity--with how we see ourselves.
When we think about identity we have a choice. We can either see ourselves as broken people, or we can see ourselves as broken people being made whole again. We can let who we are—people who hurt and people who have been hurt—lead us to indifference, or we can revel in the promise of who we are becoming.
In the first 16 verses of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:1-16), Jesus describes who we were created to be in several ways: children of God, the salt of the earth, the light of the world, people whose good works are seen by others to the glory of God in heaven.
The good news to broken people is that we are not alone or powerless, and we were not created to be broken. We have a partner in Christ standing with us, ready to instruct and encourage, ready to pick up our broken pieces and heal our broken places.
So who are we? Broken people? Or broken people on the way to wholeness? How we see ourselves makes a big difference in how we view the future.
When we picture God standing with us and for us, our lives, far from signifying nothing, become something worth cherishing and seeing though to the end.
So we say with the psalmist, “Finish what you started in me, God/Your love is eternal—don’t quit on me now.”
See you Sunday.