“Judgment Day” by Mark W. Harris
January 3, 2016 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship – from Kalidasa
Look to this day:
For it is life, the very life of life.
In its brief course
Lie all the verities and realities of your existence.
The bliss of growth,
The glory of action,
The splendor of achievement
Are but experiences of time.
For yesterday is but a dream
And tomorrow is only a vision;
And today well-lived, makes
Yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well therefore to this day;
Such is the salutation to the ever-new dawn!
“Ithaka” by C.P. Cavafy
As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
I grew up in a church that recited the Apostle’s Creed every Sunday, glued in the front of our hymnal for easy access. I remember struggling with most of the theology, which seemed totally irrational to me, even as a ten year old. My scientifically oriented mind was already inclining me towards Unitarian Universalism. What especially intrigued me was when we got to the Jesus part where, in quick succession, he “rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and sat at the right hand of God.” How did he ever do that? And was there a big throne in the sky? It was from that right hand perch that the creed says, “he will come to judge the quick and the dead.” The quick? Now this was the best part for an aspiring athlete because it seemed like if I was fast enough I would be judged acceptable in Jesus’ sight. Fast or quick was good. I had to keep on running. Of course I soon learned that this kind of quick had nothing to do with being acceptable in God’s sight. Then I forgot about this term for years until Andrea and I were attending prenatal classes prior to Levi’s birth. My ears perked up when I heard the term, “quickening,” which is that moment in pregnancy when fetal movements are first felt. Quick means alive, and for the living as well as the dead, my childhood religion required me to give an accounting of my life to Jesus.
The idea of standing before Jesus to account for ourselves, and whether or not we have been righteous in our behavior probably seems absurd to most of us today. This personal judgment day plays little or no role in our theology because it is either this final test of personal aptitude for heaven, or more commonly the final judgment of God on all humankind at the end of the world, leading to the event popularly known as the Rapture. It is sometimes said that Jesus’ followers believed the end was about to occur, and that after his death, he would come again in the Parousia or second coming. So many possibilities for judgment, but they all focused on time. When will it occur? How much longer do we have? Many of Jesus’ followers thought his return was imminent, but when he failed to materialize, they realized they had much more time available. This is so true of us, too. We have more time available than we think we do, but we have all convinced ourselves that we have no time, and we make every day judgment day.
New Year’s seems like the ideal service to ponder our relationship to time. While the media always looks back on the previous year to review the best movies, music and books of the year, they also look forward wondering what will happen in the year ahead. Predicting the future is an age-old obsession of people. What will happen to me in the days to come? What will happen to the planet? For centuries writers have tried to create visions of utopian or futuristic societies, and more recently filmmakers have, too. In 1888 Edward Bellamy published Looking Backward, which predicted the advent of television, credit cards and pedestrian malls, and even in our lifetimes the movie “Back to the Future” gave us one of this year’s popular Christmas gifts, the hover board, which unfortunately seems to be self igniting at a store near you. The perfected future has not yet arrived. In 1928, John Maynard Keynes published an essay about economic possibilities for grandchildren. He predicted that those of us working now would work for about three hours each day, and even that would be more labor than was necessary. What happened to that?
There were certain things that seemed true to Keynes that have come true. His lifetime had seen an incredible number of technological advances, and he predicted those would continue to happen. True. He also predicted that the global economy would grow by certain factors, and that is true as well. Finally, he predicted that everyone would be able to enjoy the economic abundance with endless amounts of leisure time. Not true. In fact, when was the last time you were bored because you had so little to do? None of us has any time. We are overworked. Our children are overscheduled. Churches in America have declined partly because everyone works all the time, and so there is no volunteer time and kids are playing their sports on Sunday. We have to do our shopping on Sunday, too, because it is the only day we have off, and we are stressed out the rest of the week. Why are we so busy? An article called “No Time” by Elizabeth Kolbert appeared in the New Yorker last year suggesting some reasons. The first theory is that we compete to appear busy because the busier we are the more important we are. Think of those holiday letters everyone composes, including me. Do they say how blessed we are to have our children home, or even mention that they might be happy with their lives or partners or children? Instead, true family joy becomes a work like list of accomplishments. The letters include what we did and where we went, but not how we feel.
If it is not the competition to be busier than our neighbor, then perhaps it is the obsession of thinking about how much we have to do. For instance have you seen my to do list? I just have to squeeze in my leisure time. Our New Year’s resolution may be to spend more time with our children, but what if we use our leisure or family time at the park looking at texts or email on our phones? Is it any wonder we may not feel we have any time off? Finally, Keynes assumed that there were a finite number of things that people need, and so he figured in time, they would make enough to fill those needs. Unfortunately he didn’t bargain on a culture that continuously finds new things for us to need. I was the last person on the block to get a Cell phone, and felt like a pariah for not having one. The problem is we are so good at consuming, we keep consuming, precisely because we are good at it. What we need to do is learn how to be good at leisure, and then we can really love it, and immerse ourselves in it. Studies show that those with the most wealth actually have the least amount of leisure time. Why? Those who stay at the office longer, learn that the more they work they more they earn, and so it becomes a vicious circle. The article ended by suggesting that perhaps we should reexamine the idea that more wealth is the answer. But who has time to even consider it?
I began by saying that we do not have a judgment day in our faith because we do not envision some kind of royal Lord Jesus on a throne with a check off list of what gets us into heaven and judging whether we have been sufficiently good, like some Santa test of naughty or nice. We also don’t expect a flying Jesus in a second coming on a glorious chariot with the saved awarded wings to fly into the sky while the damned fall into a giant sinkhole that consumes them all. These judgment days, whether personal or global are singular events of potentially catastrophic results. Those who believe, tend to worry or obsess over the results, even though it is not about to happen today or even tomorrow. Yet, we who don’t believe are no different. We have our daily judgment day that makes us feel ever so unworthy. We obsessively judge ourselves, especially at this time of year with our failings, which is why we have New Year’s resolutions. So we are not standing at the pearly gate nor raising up our arms waiting for the Rapture, but we are still judging ourselves for being too fat, or parental or personal failings, or eating the wrong things, or not recycling or composting enough, or taking the holiday letter that brags about all our activities, and mailing it, yes, using real paper and stamps and envelopes, rather than sending it by electronic mail, and feeling bad about it.
I notice I often do this daily judging the older I get. I think now that I am approaching retirement, how much time do I have left? Will I get a chance to visit all the places I want to visit, or read all the books I want to? Then we compose bucket lists of what we must do before we die. That too can become a kind of consumer list to check off as accomplished without regard of whether or not we enjoyed the experience. That’s done, we say. The latest for me is that I am aware that I don’t seem to be getting as much done as I did a few years ago. I look at working days in my office and what I give the church, and recall that I was teaching classes, writing books, and going to countless meetings with enough energy to get it all done. Now I feel as though I can’t get anything done. Preparing for class seems to require more effort, and I just requested yet another extension for when my dictionary will be completed. Then I judge myself again. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I get more done like I used to? Whether it is the style with which I live my life, or how much I am accomplishing, I bring out the judgments and condemn myself again for not being worthy enough.
The other problem I seem to be experiencing more as I age is that time seems to fly by. Is it New Year’s Day already? 2016? As Dr. Seuss once said, “How did it get so late so soon? It’s night before it’s afternoon. December is here before its June. My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?” Now no one would question that time is measured in exacting intervals – 60 seconds is 60 seconds. The perception is that if we are enjoying ourselves, time goes quickly, and if we are bored, then time seems to go slowly. Those sermons last forever, we might say, and that new Star Wars movie, went by in a flash. Of course it is all a matter of perception, or even attitude. We have adequate means for measuring time in days, months and years, and yet I find we start a church year, and then suddenly it is Christmas. Am I enjoying my job so much that the year flies by, or is it something else? Would time drag if there were a crisis like last year’s series of robberies? While it is true that a depressing experience makes time seem to move slowly, and a great time appears to evaporate quickly, there is also the degree of focus that determines our perception of time. We say a watched pot never boils, and I can personally testify that I have the slowest toaster in the world. When we are watching or focusing, it can seem to take forever. On days that I write sermons, an eight-hour work day, easily becomes 10. I know that my internal measures of time never match up with my clocks. But what about this feeling of time moving faster as we age?
It is apparently true that people over the age of 60 report that the year goes faster, so the holidays come sooner. They also report that days seem to drag. I can report from my own perception that days can drag, not because they are filled with sermon writing, but because I can’t focus on things as much as I did before. Plain and simple I can’t see as well. I am slower. I can’t remember as well. I know I can try to do exercises for memory improvement and get new glasses, but day-to-day I can’t do as many tasks at once. I could make this a judgment thing that I am not what I once was, or I can let go of that daily judgment, and take the long view that this is my life right now, and I can appreciate the focus on the things I can do, and what I need to do I will get done in due time. The person who is usually rushing me is me. Life must be more than about what I can accomplish or how much work I can get done. This helps me understand how a day can seem slow, but what about a quick year?
The fast appearance of another New Year has much to do with memory. As we get older, the more memory we have. For one thing, we don’t have as much present time left, as we get older. I don’t mean we are on the edge of dying and our days are fewer, as true as that may be, but rather we have a shorter span of present time because our past is so much greater. When you are young you have fewer total memories, and so it makes them more intense, and they are more recent, too, so more vivid in memory. As we age, our lives are filled with many significant things that happened a long time ago, and so we develop a long view of life and life’s meaning. We are further away from those critical events – life with parents, school, college, marriage, birth of children, jobs. We are also less likely to have as many intense experiences as we age. Life becomes simpler. This is not to say we don’t have intense experiences, as dealing with physical ailments and decline are certainly trying and traumatic, but for many of us, most dramatic life experiences largely occurred a long time ago. This should also be a time when memories deepen, and the clarity with which we can remember things gives us personal meaning within the wider flow of time. Can we balance these slow days and fast years?
I think liberals no matter what their ages, while scoffing at theological judgment days, tend to embrace daily judgment days about their own lives, at times preventing themselves from enjoying life because they are so filled with guilt at what they have not done for others. We deprive ourselves of an ice cream or a dinner out at a nice restaurant because the equivalent costs might have paid for a bed or medicine for a victim of malaria. Do gooders sometimes do too much good, and are continually judging themselves. All of us are looking for connections and a sense of purpose, but because liberals can never be satisfied with what they do, they are continuously searching to do more. Perhaps there is a frustration that we can’t change the world no matter how much we do, which is why we would be better off doing some small things, what we can to help others, and balance that with enjoying the day, time with loved ones, or even a pleasant dinner at a restaurant, no matter what the cost. Once in a while we should buy some fine perfume, as Cavafy suggests. We are sucked in by the ever-quickening pace of life because we constantly feel we must do more. Chances are we would all feel more connected if we would accept some of those slow days of aging, where we get done what we can get done and accept life with a balance of effort and adequate results. Every day should not be judgment day, but acceptance day where we enjoy and appreciate the moment – our hours together when we can heighten our awareness of the here and now, and not obsess about how good we are or how much we are getting done. Judgment day comes when we focus on the goals we have to reach, but neglect to savor the depth of living we are experiencing along the path of the journey. It is being filled with too much about the end of the journey or reaching Ithaca as the reading suggests, while neglecting the islands of pleasure and challenge on the way. We can learn to appreciate a slower pace, less frantic, less consuming and being more gentle with ourselves, mindful of a river that is not rushing forward like spring run off, but is a slow meandering crawl of gentle stillness.
The balance of those slow days may be found in the fast years that rush by season to season, but again it is not the judgment that you did not do enough, or go far enough. I need the long view of memory, and that is what makes it go fast now. The long view gives perspective, and goes beyond today’s frustrations and disappointments. The long view also helps us see that many of today’s worries are pointless, and we can either alleviate them or more likely ignore them. Finally that long view of life reminds me of amazing moments, gifts of love and knowledge, coupled with learning moments of pain and betrayal, that have all accumulated, all grist for the mill, now moving faster towards the end, but nevertheless all spilling into a common bowl of wisdom that is powerful in sum, that I can impart to others. Slow days and fast life. It is holding moments of memory as they go fleeting into the abyss of time, not to be judged good or bad, but to be remembered as parts of a whole life, meaningful and meaning making because I knew love, I knew wonder, and now I hope as days go slower, and years go faster, that I know peace.
Closing Words – from Gabriel Garcia Marquez
. . . he allowed himself to be swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.