March 20, 2022
Psalm 107, Isaiah 64:4-9
So, I’ve got what is a significant birthday to me: I’m turning 75 – which I used to think was old age.
Plus, I’m retiring in a few months, we’re selling the home I’d expected to stay in until the end of my life, we’re moving to a state I never in a million years thought I’d live in –and we’re building in a community I’ve never even seen.
So, I’m feeling some anxiety and uncertainty which makes it easy for me to slip into a negative place.
I was looking for perspective on this changing life when I came across a news story I shared in a sermon seven years ago that speaks to these emotions.
But first, imagine you are living in Jerusalem in about 500 BC.
As a child, you would have heard your parents talk about their early life as second or third generation exiles in Babylon.
Their parents had been torn from their homes and herded across the desert by Nebuchadnezzar’s army to a strange land and uncertain future.
Once re-settled in Babylon, they were outcasts in society, and they longed for home.
Many became sick, and some died in despair.
Psalm 137:1, 4 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
For decades, the exiles resigned themselves to being abandoned by God.
Then came the seemingly miraculous turn of events when the new king, Cyrus, suddenly freed them to return home to Jerusalem.
Maybe God hadn’t forgotten after all.
But as soon as they got their first glimpse of Jerusalem which had been reduced to a pile of rubble many of them completely lost hope.
I’m sure many parents had told and retold stories of their back-breaking work rebuilding their crumbled lives in Jerusalem, all the while under threat of attack by neighboring warlords.
Now they have passed away and their children were left with the partially rebuilt temple.
When worshiping in that temple, they would respond in unison to the priest’s reading of Psalm 107.
The priest would recite the chaos and hardships their ancestors endured, and after recounting of these troubles everyone joined in affirming how God stepped in by saying, His love endures forever.
When we face hardship, we may think that God is not here with us, or even that we are being punished.
Then maybe we can remember the promise
Isaiah 64:8-9 Still, God, you are our Father.
We’re the clay and you’re our potter:
All of us are what you made us.
Don’t be too angry with us, O God.
Don’t keep a permanent account of wrongdoing.
Keep in mind, please, we are your people—all of us
No matter where we find ourselves, or even how much we’ve screwed up, God will meet us there and mold us.
When we are in the midst of it all, we may not see God’s hand at work – but looking back we do.
As the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard explained, “Life must be understood backward but lived forward.”
Martha Conant traveled a great deal on her job, so for her it was a typical July morning in Denver when she boarded the plane to Chicago.
Soon the DC10 was cruising at 37,000 feet, and the flight crew had just completed serving lunch – this was 1989 when airlines still served meals – when there was a sudden jerk.
Adrenaline jolted through everyone on board, but they were quickly reassured by the pilot who in a calm voice said, “We’ve lost an engine, but no problem.
“DC-10’s can fly perfectly well on two engines. Sorry for the disturbance. I hope you enjoy the rest of your lunch.”
The flight attendants were picking up the dishes when a member of the flight crew came back to look out the window at the wings, but he was calm and talking to people as he strolled down the aisle.
So, Martha says, there was confidence that this was just a hitch, and that they were going to be fine.
About a half hour later the pilot came back on the intercom to say that they’d decided to land in Sioux City, Iowa and to apologize that they might miss some connecting flights but he assured everyone that they would be transported from there to O’Hare.
He said that it would likely be a rough landing and so just to be safe he gave instructions about how to everyone could brace themselves.
He said that when he says to brace, everyone should put their heads between their knees and tightly hold the seat in front of them.
What the pilot failed to mention was that as the DC 10’s rear engine had torn itself to shreds, parts of it had burst off the back of the plane ripping open the hydraulic system – thus leaving the pilots with none of the normal controls for flight and landing.
The crew devised a way of steering by powering one wing engine more than the other, but they were limited to only turning to the right.
Soon afterwards, the pilot’s voice again appeared, this time barking, “Brace. Brace. Brace”
Martha says that the next thing she experienced was a huge influx of air, gravel and debris.
Her body was bounced around and her arms flailed so much that she was out of control.
She tried to hold-on to the seat in front of her, but later discovered that she had grabbed onto the tie of the man sitting next to her.
Between times of lost consciousness, she said to herself, “Oh, I’m still alive!”
Then the motion stopped, and the plane was still.
Martha had just survived unharmed the crash of United Airlines Flight 232, that had carried 296 passengers and crew – almost all of whom were injured or killed.
The fortunate survivors were cared for by volunteer doctors, priests, and social workers.
She remembers one young social worker saying to her, “God must have a reason for saving you. You haven’t finished your life’s work yet.”
That comment bothered her.
You see, even after she invested a lot of time trying to figure out what she was supposed to be doing, the flipside of the young man’s counsel seemed to say that God didn’t have any more work for all those other people.
She couldn’t believe that.
Actually, a lot of factors contributed to that crash and to her survival.
The NTSB investigation revealed small fatigue cracks in the fan disk and blade assembly of the damaged engine.
Investigators encountered a confusing and contradictory paper trail about its origin, but it is most likely that it was used by GE despite having failed an independent company’s ultrasound test for purity – if so, it is a case of human sin, making a profit by risking the lives of airline passengers.
On the positive side, there was enormous competence and courage shown by the flight crew – including a DC10 trainer who just happened to be a passenger that day and who helped the pilot maintain considerable control beyond what DC10 engineers thought possible.
Let’s face it: we live in a world that has a fair degree of randomness.
Someone happened to be seated in the front of the plane where few survived, others happened to be sitting toward the rear.
A gamma ray happens to hit the wrong part of a strand of DNA and cancer develops.
God did not place us in a clockworks world where every tick is perfectly controlled by Him.
Bad stuff happens to good people every moment of every day.
Some of it by human sin, some by forces of evil, some by human error, and some by random chance.
Because someone dies doesn’t mean that they did because God no longer had a purpose for them.
But as long as we live, we do have a purpose, so wherever we are in life leaves us with a choice of how we will respond.
As the Psalm that we read together declares, God’s love endures forever, meaning that He will bring some goodness and blessing out of any hardship, any tragedy.
God can use what He did not choose … and we face the same choice: What will we make of whatever life has given us?
In the case of Martha Conant, her survival led to her reprioritizing her life.
She later would say, “One of the things that has accompanied me, followed me, surrounded me, wrapped me is that feeling of gratitude for whatever happens. That event was like being picked up by the scruff of the neck and shaken.”
And then tearfully she continues, “And God says, ‘This is your only life! Just be grateful for it. Just be grateful that you have these days and these hours and these wonderful people in your life. Just be grateful for that.”
The psychiatrist Irwin Yalom warns, “Life shrinks when death is denied.”
You can try to run from death by distracting yourself with screens and magazines, cutting yourself off from real life.
Part of what Lent is about is facing the reality of our mortality so that we can make our lives count – whatever our age, wherever we live, whatever our struggles.
One time at Costco, a man in front of me had a large-screen TV, a box of apples, a bottle of vodka and God knows what else in his cart.
Suddenly he stopped.
He froze and said, “Whoaaa…”
I looked up. There was a coffin for sale, right in the middle of the store.
The man didn’t sound upset.
It was just that the haze of his life had been punctured.
Everything around you is fleeting. You are fleeting.
As this reality breaks in, we can either try to hide and deny our mortality, numb ourselves with Netflix or drugs, or embrace the gift of our life in this moment … all that it is, and all that it isn’t.
Suddenly existence becomes remarkable.
Heidegger said that in this state one marvels not about the way things are, but that they are.
You are going to die. I am going to die. The clock is ticking.
At the time of the city’s conquest, and many of its citizens were forced into Babylonian exile.
Many suffered there, but you know, many others just got on with life and prospered in Babylon – even as they yearned for their homeland.
After seventy years, some fortunate ones were freed and may have expected that their troubles were now over, but then they came face-to-face with the crumbled walls of the Holy City.
Some became bitter and resentful, others became leaders of the rebuilding of the city.
Both groups asked, “Where is God?” but arrived at different answers.
Steve Jobs had a way of finding courage and creativity in life when it makes no sense:
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So, you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. …Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well-worn path; and that will make all the difference.
Martha decided to live with as few regrets as possible.
Seemingly small choices would mean everything in her new order of life:
Not leaving home in the morning being upset with someone.
Not passing up a chance to tell her husband or one of the boys how much she loves them.
It was hard to do that because it wasn’t her habit.
But whenever she thought, “Oh, this is hard” then she would think, “Well, I might not be coming home tonight. It’s not that hard.”
Every couple of years I pull out the poem printed on the back of your Sermon Notes because I believe it is so important and that we can’t be reminded of it enough.
Please, post it on your refrigerator or mirror or someplace where you will see it often:
Let me be aware of the treasure you are.
Let me learn from you, love you, savor you and bless you before you depart.
Let me not pass you by in quest of some rare perfect tomorrow.
Let me hold you while I may for it will not always be so.
One day I am going to dig my fingers into the earth,
or bury my face in the pillow,
or stretch myself taut or stretch my arms to the sky
and want nothing more than your return.