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Finishing the Race

Yesterday, we celebrated A Day of Remembrance by lighting candles for those who have passed away in the last year. Doing this prompts us to reflect on our own mortality, which I think is a good thing. Remember that we won't live forever tends to put life in perspective and remind us of what really matters. It makes us grateful for what we have, and draws us back to the beauty of the moment. Hopefully it will even prompt us to work for healing within ourselves and with others while we still have the time.

In 2 Timothy 4, Paul (or the author who wrote in Paul's name) was obviously reflecting on his own mortality. He tells us that his life is already being poured out as a libation, a holy offering, and the end is near. And, he says, “I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

Those last years for Paul were pretty rough. By his own word we know that he was whipped five times, beaten three times, stoned, shipwrecked three times, persecuted, went without food and water, and imprisoned. And yet he kept going, he kept preaching and teaching. I think perhaps he was either a little crazy or had a true, deep connection with the Spirit that continued to sustain him. So, yes, he fought the good fight, literally. He kept running the race, and he never denied his faith or his calling. He persevered when many of us would have given up and gone back to our nice safe, comfy homes.

I’m not always fond of Paul’s theology, but I can respect and admire his devotion, his integrity, and his tenacity. While we may not have had to endure what Paul did, that doesn’t mean that his sentiment can’t still apply to our lives, for we all have challenges and difficulties to face. If we broaden the scope for this phrase it may be that fighting the good fight simply means to live life to its fullest, or to remain true to ourselves, or to maintain our integrity and our values. Perhaps finishing the race is about not giving up and succumbing to a life lived in front of the TV and computer screens. Perhaps it means that for every time we fall down, we get up again.

Listen to a few profound words from Parker Palmer's book, "On the Brink of Everything":

“I don’t want to fight the gravity of aging. It’s nature’s way. I want to collaborate with it as best I can, in hopes of going down with something like the grace of [the] setting sun. For all the wrinkles and worry lines, it’s a lovely thing simply to be one of those who’s lived long enough to say, “I’m getting old.”

We have no choice about death. But we do have choices to make about how we hold the inevitable – choices made difficult by a culture that celebrates youth, disparages old age, and discourages us from facing into our mortality. The laws of nature that dictate the sunset dictate our demise. But how we travel the arc between our own sunrise and sundown is ours to choose: Will it be denial, defiance, or collaboration?

Parker Palmer raises the question of whether we’ll approach our mortality with denial, defiance, or collaboration? We may all have a little bit of each of these in us. Let’s look at them a little closer.

DenialI don’t want to think about it. I don’t want to talk about it. I’m not getting old. I think these are the folks who won’t let their grandkids call them grandma or grandpa and want to be called by their first names or some variation of that.

Defiance – I think my dad had a touch of this. Six days before his stroke the doctors told him not to go hiking. He tried that for a few days and said he felt awful. The night before his stroke he called us and said he’d been hiking the last two days and felt great. The next afternoon he was in the hospital.

There is some denial in defiance, but defiance seems to be a blatant refusal to do things which might be in your best interests as you age, or in the best interest of those who love you.

I will not listen to the doctor. I will not plan for my funeral. I will not clean out my house. I will not move and down-size.

Collaboration – I think this looks like acceptance, but not rolling over. Planning, but not giving up. Making choices based on reality, not denial or wishful thinking. Continuing to learn the lessons life brings. It is introspection that births wisdom, and forgiveness that births peace.  Life  says, “Work with me here, I still have things for you to learn, and gifts to give you, in your aging and dying.”

Rachel Remen, in My Grandfather's Blessings, tells a story about leading a professional retreat for health professionals. She says that most of the medical professionals that attend these retreats have shared difficult situations with their colleagues and have trusted their expertise and judgment, but they have never really opened up to them about what their work means to them.

One exercise they do during this retreat is a group sandtray. During a two-hour session, the eight professionals in the retreat have the opportunity to choose objects from a sandtray room (they may be figures, or items from nature, or any number of other small objects) that represent the meaning of their own work to them and use these objects to share this meaning with each other.

A young nursing administrator, Marie, participated in one of these sessions. The group chose their objects and then placed them in their section of the sand and took a seat around the sandtray. They had been instructed that they had to use all the symbols they brought to the table, so it was interesting that Marie had kept one back, under her chair. One by one the group members started sharing the objects they chose and how they symbolized the meaning of their own work for them. Marie listened intently and seemed deeply moved by what the others were saying. About half way through she began so speak about what she had put before her in the sand. When she finished, she fell silent for a few moments and then hesitantly told us that there was something she wanted to add, but she didn’t want the others to see, so asked them to close their eyes.

With everyone’s eyes closed, Marie took the object from under her chair and placed it in the sand, then invited the others to open their eyes. In the center of her part of the sandtray was a slender white candle. Unlit. Just showing it to the group had obvious emotional significance. Rachel offered her a box of kitchen matches, and she sat holding them for a long time, unable to light the candle or even talk about it. Finally, she lit it, saying in a barely audible voice that it represented her real self.  It was a touching and surprisingly intimate moment, especially powerful as the candle bore a striking resemblance to her own beauty, simplicity and purity.

Others continued to share their objects and then the woman next to Marie spoke. She too, had an unlit candle in her part of the tray. It was short and fat. She said that it represented her dream of being a professional and working with an open heart. As she spoke, instead of lighting her candle with the matches, she picked it up, reached across the low wooden boundary between her section of the table and Marie’s and lit it from the flame of Marie’s candle. Marie burst into tears.

The woman, a sophisticated psychiatrist, began to apologize saying she had no idea why she had not used the matches and she didn’t mean to invade Marie’s sandtray. “Oh no,” Marie told her, “it’s that there is so much cynicism and judgment among us that I never show anyone at work what really matters to me. Only my patients know. I am afraid that people will laugh or that they will think less of me and so I hide myself. For me this work is holy. It is my calling. When you lit your candle from mine, I saw why it might be important to stop hiding. Perhaps I can find the courage to be who I really am. Perhaps there are others… like you… who are hiding, too.” There was a moment of silence, and then these two women reached for each other’s hands.

“I fought the good fight, I finished the race, I kept the faith.” It can mean something different to each of us. Perhaps for Marie the good fight would simply be to stop hiding her real self. To let her light shine and not let others quench it with their cynicism and judgment. Perhaps for the psychiatrist, her fight would be to keep her heart open.

I leave you to ponder this for yourself: What would it mean for you to reach the end of your life and be able to say, “I fought the good fight, I finished the race, I kept the faith”? And once you've answered this, what do you need to change, or how do you need to live to make this happen

Love & Light!