Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, January 20, 2008
Moments later, there was the sound of screeching tires, then a great big splash. The minister turned to the priest and said, "Maybe the sign should just say 'Bridge Out'."
Sometimes, we figure that if we just keep ignoring the signs, the problem will just go away. but it doesn’t.
If sometimes the voice of God is a still, small voice speaking to us in our souls—or, if sometimes we, like Elijah, hear God in the silence after the storm-- at other times, God not so much speaks to us as hits us over the head with a frying pan. The signs are all there, but we choose to ignore them, and go on driving down that ill-fated road we’ve chosen.
“Wake up!” the divine voice seems to be calling out. “Turn around! Change direction! Repent—or that end is going to be a heck of a lot nearer than you might think it is!”
The new year arrived a few days late for me this year. With that new year—the real one; not the one the calendar dictates—came a whole new way of looking at life; and, I would hope, a new way of living that life. Whether the lessons life offers sink in or not, only time can tell. Certainly, our human record of learning from our mistakes and making changes when we need to is a mixed one, at best. I know mine is.
But there come those times in these lives we lead when the choice we face is stark, and the wise decision seems obvious. For whatever reasons (and they’re usually a complicated lot for any of us), the choices we have made have pushed us into a corner: the job we do is killing us; we’re entangled in a deadening relationship; we’ve gotten ourselves into some kind of deep moral predicament; or, as it was in my case, a lifetime full of poor lifestyle choices has catapulted us into a major health crisis.
So, what do we do then? Keep on down the road, like that unsuspecting driver, till the precipice comes and we find ourselves drowned by our decision? Or do we “let silence in,” as May Sarton has put it: stop the car; evaluate the situation; get some clearer idea of the other possible pathways; and then slowly but surely—mustering all the internal fortitude and strength we can find—turn the car around; relying on those we love to comfort us, and buffet us, and help keep us on track; relying on our faith and the hope to which it gives birth and the overriding grace of God, which, as Martin Luther King preached, always finds a way where there is no way; always watches over us and holds us in those never-ending arms, whatever life may bring.
Near the end of his rather short and unhappy life, the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that “There are no second acts in American lives.” But the case could be made that by then Fitzgerald was already a hopeless alcoholic and not really thinking very clearly. Because, truly, if you think about it, there is always a second act to this life any of us leads, wherever they might go. Whether that act two is a tragedy, or a farce—or an inspiration to those who see it—depends upon the choices we make. “[This] nation is practically founded on the concept of the second act,” movie critic Xan Brooks has written. “Ever since the first immigrants docked at Ellis Island, America has been the land of the second chance, the comeback kid, the re-launched and re-branded,” and, of course, the movie sequel.
History gives us so many wonderful examples of people who have claimed victory from defeat; who have turned their lives around; who have launched incredible new careers; who have started second lives so much more rewarding and inspiring than their previous ones.
Look at Jimmy Carter: a man whose lackluster and malaise-imbedded presidency even his friends find hard to defend; but whose post-presidency (whose second act) has elevated him into a sort of secular saint. Jimmy Carter—man of peace; builder of homes for the poor; voice of reason; Nobel Prize Winner—exemplifies perhaps the most successful second act in American political history. Following close on his footsteps is Al Gore, who after his “defeat” (sort of) in the presidential election of 2000, launched a new career as a crusader against global warming—and also won the Nobel Peace Prize. Now, one year from today (this very day!), we can all celebrate the great opportunity that George W. Bush will have as he (praise the Lord!) has an opportunity to change careers and begin a new Second Act for himself…
Think of all the great second acts there have been:
In 1832, Ralph Waldo Emerson was a struggling young minister at Second (Unitarian) Church in Boston. But he really didn’t like the ministry all that much, and really didn’t like working with people, so he decided to leave the ministry and dedicate himself to writing and lecturing. In time, he became one of the giants in the history of American arts and letters.
In 1975, George Foreman—just 26 years old at the time—lost his heavyweight title to Muhammad Ali in their famous “Rumble in the Jungle” in Kinshasa, Zaire. Foreman was “washed up” as a fighter, many said—and indeed, in 1977, he gave up boxing—for good (he said). Unlike Emerson, Foreman became a minister. But then, in 1987—38 years old by then—Foreman went back into the ring. In 1991—16 years after losing it—George Foreman beat Alexander Holyfield and became Heavyweight Champion of the World—again. He had his Act Two, after a long intermission!
In 1990, J.K. Rowling—or just plain “Jo” Rowling as she was known then—was an unemployed, single mother, who had lost her job as a translator at Amnesty International and had been forced to go on the “dole” (or the British welfare system). But one day, while the train she was riding between Manchester and London was delayed, she had this idea about a book that featured this young boy attending a school for wizards. And so, Harry Potter—one of the most lucrative and creative second acts of all time—was born.
How, then, do we transform these ordinary times in which we live into extraordinary and purposeful lives? How do we become architects of our days, rather than mere victims of them?
Time itself inherently exists on two different levels: the chronological and the qualitative. We build our lives with both. In the language of the New Testament, there is chronos on one hand, and there is kairos on the other.
When I say something like, “It’s been a long time since I went to the theater.”—that’s chronos; a particular duration of time; so many years, or days, or hours.
But if I say something like, “I certainly had a wonderful time at the theater”—that’s kairos. We’re not talking about the particular duration of the time we were there, or how long the play was. Rather, we’re interested here in the quality of the time spent doing something, the significance of it.
All of us are given our lives to lead within both of these frames of reference—both chronos and kairos. But often we get so hung up in worrying about chronological time that we forget about qualitative time. Chronos was also the name of an ancient Greek god. He was a king who had six children, and he ate the first five because he was in such fear of loving his throne to one of them. (Only the sixth child, Zeus, escaped this horrible fate.) It is when we worship the god Chronos that we, the children of time, become its victims as well.
The amount of chronological time we have is unknown to each of us. We can not extend it indefinitely. (Of course, there are things we can do, as I almost learned recently, which can limit it severely.) But for all of us, chronos has a set span, at least within this earthly life. It began at some point in the past; at some point in the future, for all of us, it will come to a close.
Qualitative time—kairos—on the other hand, is not so limited. In its very essence, it is an unmeasurable aspect of existence. It exists beyond the realm of time and space; it operates on a deeper level. If it ischronos which consumes our lives and renders us victims, then it is kairos which redeems our lives and makes us true sons and daughters of Life, children of God. Each one of us, through the lives we choose to live upon this earth, is the vehicle, the vessel, the holy womb, the sacred soil in which chronos is transformed into kairos—in which the days of our lives become the essence of our experience-- and through which those extraordinary gifts of grace in this life are revealed.
Time is like a thief in the night sometimes, my friends. And, as we have learned in the past year in this little church of ours, how precious and fragile are the bonds that tie us to one another. But how we take them for granted—how we run roughshod over today in our haste to confront tomorrow; how we squander the opportunities of the blessed present moment waiting for a future which may or may not ever arrive.
The ancient Mayans saw each and every separate day as a different, brand new god—and each person, then, as a part of each god made manifest. Maybe if we, too, treated each day as a god—or each day as God’s re-creation of the world anew-- we’d be less likely to take it for granted. Maybe if we treated each other as reflections of God as well; and treated ourselves, and our bodies, as temples of the divine. Maybe each day is a new god—or, at least, a new manifestation of God—a new act in the divine drama each of us is living.
Whether we have seventy more years to live, or seven, our chronological time—our chronos—on this earth is short. We make the most of it, obviously, by living it fully while we are alive. Not by denying the past, but not by clinging to it, either. Not by worrying about real or imagined specters in the future either. We can’t live, really, until we let go of our fear. You can’t fear and live at the same time. No—really living today deliberately—that’s the real challenge. By knowing that we are not just victims of time, but architects of fate, as well, and that we can make our lives divine. By working boldly (but humbly) within those greater currents of life in which we live, and move, and have our being.
We can’t do everything. But it is possible, even within the limitations of each of our little lifetimes, to do many important things, indeed. (Remember, too, that sometimes, the most important things we do are these which are least visible in the eyes of the world.) It is possible to lead our lives consciously and expectantly. It is possible to stand for something greater than we are, to believe, and to find meaning. We can make decisions which will enhance our lives. We can discern and follow the path God intends for each of us.
As Goethe wrote, “Whatever you can do or dream, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.” Or as Gracie Allen once said, “Never put a period where God has placed a comma.” Even though a curtain may have fallen on one stage of your lives, there is always another act just ahead.
The life of any of us is but the tiniest gleam of light between two vast eternities said Henry David Thoreau. But that also means that we share in those eternities. There is a timelessness deep within our souls. And our lives, in all their acts, can become reflections of that eternity—reflections of the light of the Living God.