11/14: 1 Samuel 1:4-20 and 1 Samuel 2:1-10 • Daniel 12:1-3 and Psalm 16 • Hebrews 10:11-14, (15-18), 19-25 • Mark 13:1-8
At the close of each church year, the lectionary cycle turns to predictions of terrible times to come. Daniel predicts a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence (12:1). Jesus warns that there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs (13:8). In the middle of these dire warnings, we also have the story of Hannah, whose deep anxiety and vexation (1:16) is tied to a specific problem: childlessness.
Hannah's infertility serves as a reminder of human limits. Fertility and the weather are two items on a long list of things over which we have little control. MasterCard advertisements to the contrary, we are not masters of our own fate. What we can control – what any one of us can do – is manage oneself and one's own response to challenge.
Whether the challenge is childlessness, famines, earthquakes, or something else, the underlying human response is often as Hannah described it: anxiety and vexation. Vexation – the state of being annoyed, frustrated, or worried – is a word covering a lot of ground. Looking back on the covid year, anxiety and vexation were interacting all the time: from the societal level to individual homes and back again.
When people are vexed by something, they have two directions to go in: engaging the challenge or becoming overwhelmed by it. Putting Jesus' comments (Mark 13) in context, he was aware that his own life would be ending soon. He knew that his disciples, under pressure, could become helpless rather than resourceful. He was trying to prepare them for what was to come, after his death, so that they could engage rather than run from what was ahead.
In a sense, every person has the same problem. At some level, every person is aware that his own life is coming to an end. Anxiety about dying can get in the way of managing to prepare oneself and one's networks - family, friend, congregational, and community – for that day. As I see it, each person must look to himself first, facing the fear of dying. One cannot expect to overcome this fear – it is operating at a deep level within every living thing, providing instinctive energy to stay alive. Still, though, the fear of dying does not have to rule one's life.
Contemplating our mortal nature can bring some surprising results. One can relax a little – quit trying so hard – in proportion to the capacity to see one's small place in the scheme of things. One can be less reactive over the day, viewing both oneself and others from the lens of flawed creatures. A new gentleness can emerge.
Accepting one's creatureliness not only makes living easier, it also makes one's life more grounded in reality. Moving towards this more realistic view of life – and death – is an ongoing effort. Engaging the challenge involves some surprising steps: focusing, for instance, on what one can reasonably accomplish rather than criticizing oneself for what has been left undone; finding, for instance, what one wants to say to others and saying it, while there's time. The freedom that comes from walking this path is as remarkable as the difficulty of starting down it.
Morning: How do I stay grounded in reality today? Where are my plans unrealistic? When might I be vexed?
Evening: What is different when I stop to contemplate my own death?
Psalm 16:11 You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.