In his new autobiography, the actor, Rob Lowe, describes standing in his son’s room before taking him to college. While his wife packs the suitcases, his eyes turn to water, thinking about all the nights spent reading Goodnight Moon, the Patriots posters that recall Sunday afternoons, his son’s dog—all about to be left behind. It reminds Rob of the goodbye’s in his own childhood: his parents divorce; having to leave his father on the weekends; Sunday mini-golf, trips to the mall, or seeing movies that he never could enjoy, anticipating having to say goodbye. He writes about his son, “I discover the depth and currents of not only our relationship but ones already downstream…” The relationships we hold now are always re-interpretations of those that are past, the ones downstream.
As many of you know, my grandmother died this past December. When she first moved to hospice last summer, before we took the long journey from Syracuse, NY back to Maine, we stopped by her room early in the morning. Drifting in and out of sleep, she held our son Rajan. And he held her too, content to drift in and out of sleep himself. He had been in the world just six weeks, and Grandma had less than six months left. They quietly told each other that we are never alone, even at the very beginning and the very end of life. In the gray light of the early morning, silently for a half an hour, Anjali, Nicola, and I said hello and goodbye as the wisdom of generations intermingled, feeling the “depths and currents, not only of our relationships, but the ones already downstream.”
Similarly, the day after Grandma died, I drove Grandpa first thing in the morning to some scheduled blood work. Pulling up to his apartment, I held my breath. Grandma and Grandpa were the kind of couple that did everything together. They spent summers driving around the country, visiting their children and grandchildren, Grandpa always driving, Grandma always next to him. They just talked on all those long drives, rarely listening even to a book on tape, practicing the discipline of listening and speaking, getting to know each other again and again throughout sixty plus years of marriage. Inseparable. So I held my breath, because, the day after Grandma’s death, I couldn’t imagine how Grandpa could carry on.
Instead of seeing a broken man, I pulled up to his apartment and found Grandpa had gotten up early and brushed all the snow off his car, shoveled his walkway, and was waiting for me with shoes and jacket on. He bolted out as soon as he saw me, and—with a big smile on his face—waved and said, “Hello, Benjamin!” In the car, he didn’t try to hide his feelings, admitting that he hardly slept the night before. He told his favorite nurses Grandma passed. Far from despairing, Grandpa spent his first day apart from Grandma focused on comforting everyone else.
The hospital happened to be in the neighborhood where he grew up. He showed me where he delivered milk growing up, and remembered an old diner he enjoyed that was still around. So we went there for breakfast. As he ate, telling stories, grieving and yet still living, I was a child again, watching my Grandpa do something impossible, wondering if I could ever do it half as well, soaking in every detail: so this is how you butter your toast on the hardest day of your life. I knew it would become one of those downstream moments, recalled during some day of grief. And when I try to butter my toast that same way, the downstream will be with me, and I will not be alone.
Yet we do not live in a world where everyone is lucky enough to experience birth and death this way. This week we are reminded of an immigration system that separates generations, forcing children in America—when death approaches—to choose between traveling back to their home country to spend the last few days with the ones they love, yet never being able to return to the US, because they don’t a visa to re-enter the country, or staying here, missing those final moments—their grief a political football.
We live in a world where the downstream memories of sexual assault are interpreted and reinterpreted, doing much good as they are recounted in marches and hash tags, but no doubt re-surfacing pain.
This winter, as Maine People’s Alliance collected referendum signatures to guarantee homecare for all seniors and people with disabilities, people break down into tears signing the petition, because they are family care givers who have had to quit their jobs or reduce their hours to take care of a dying loved, trying to make ends meet for their own family, spending down every dollar they’ve saved in supplemental care. Nothing is more stressful than knowing the person you love most in the world doesn’t have what they need.
These memories flow downstream, not merely as individual recollections, but as signifiers of our society: not just the memories of a life or a death, but of the dignity—or lack of it—society deems acceptable.
Whether it’s a stage of parenthood coming to an end when a child leaves for college, or of putting a career on hold to care for a loved one, these are moments of both vocation and of loss. They call to us, asking us to choose what is important, what we were put on earth to accomplish. That’s why, when I read our scriptures for this morning, the story of Jonah (and the whale), and Jesus calling his first disciples, I was struck by the realism of these stories. Modern eyes, taught to read the Bible in the worst possible way—as a collection of moral rules or scientific principles—might wonder how the story of a prophet being swallowed by a whale and spit out on shore could be called “realistic”; or, for that matter, fishermen abandoning their boats to follow an itinerant preacher at a moment’s notice.
But I think it’s exactly the right word: these stories tells us something about the character of reality. In success and failure, at the beginning and the end, the vocational work of our lives almost always involves the experience of loss.
Jonah was no fool. He knew this. When God told Jonah to go to Ninevah and call the city to repent, Jonah went straight the other way, on a boat to Tarshish, not wanting to get involved. There’s a very real way in which living a quiet life, keeping to oneself, never trying to accomplish anything too daring, is a much happier way to live. Jonah was fine with that. God wasn’t. So, to get Jonah back on track, God convinced the ship’s crew to toss him overboard, get a sea monster to swallow him up, and spit him back out on the right shore.
When Jonah finally preached at Ninevah, he was successful. The city repented. And Jonah grumpily gave God an “I told you so,” complaining that he knew God was going to be merciful and not overthrow the city; the futility of all this made him so depressed that he wanted to die. Not exactly a Sunday school end to the story, but there it is: we often experience success—even God’s mercy—as loss. Children going off to college, an all-consuming project at work well done, these accomplishments, the day after, often bring more emptiness than satisfaction.
If this is true at the end of one’s life calling, the story of the disciples shows that it’s also true at the beginning. Jesus walks up to Simon and Andrew, James, Zebedee, and John, and asks them to follow him. They are all fishermen. They leave their boats and nets, everything they know, to follow him. It literally costs them everything they have.
Our culture lies to us, tells us that life doesn’t work this way. We are supposed to be climbing a ladder, with each step of education and work experience credentialing us for the next move up, for more money, for more happiness. If we work hard, we don’t experience loss; we accumulate. The myth of meritocracy isn’t just a way of rationalizing who makes more or less money; it suggests our lives have linear, knowable purposes; that hard work can protect us from disillusion and grief.
In its realist style, scripture points out that none of this is true. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the theologian who gave his life returning to Germany to resist Hitler, had a term for this: “costly grace.” He distinguished it from “cheap grace,” the kind too many people—especially Christians—think Christianity is about. Life is not about following some trite formula centered on being good and getting to heaven. It means accepting the kinds of calls that Jonah and the first disciples received, calls that cost us everything we know, disrupt our plans, risk what we’ve accumulated, and often undermine our sense of self. Bonhoeffer’s grace is costly because it hurts; it is grace because, in still being able to butter our toast the morning after, our pain is not final. We are not alone in dealing with it. We experience it through the love we have received. Those downstream memories wound us a little less as they help make sense of our current pain. They change us.
After he gets home from dropping his son off at college, Rob Lowe reflects that, “My children always made me feel. They have always taught me, changed me, always for the better…. Having them in my life turned me into a man. Now…[after all these downstream memories] I realize that saying goodbye to him has turned me into a boy. And now we will both grow up.”
Love allows us to live our lives in circles, becoming old with our great grandmothers as they die, becoming boys with our children as they grow. These circular currents do not exempt us from pain, but they do transform it. If we spend our lives devoted to other people, the pain we experience, the memories of divorce, of physical assault or emotional deprivation, no longer wound; they can become tools for healing ourselves and others—if we choose to accept the call. The great losses, as they slip downstream of our lives, come back to us as the truths that make us strong, through the roaring cataracts where we live and relive our lives through each other. The world does not have to work this way. And yet, by grace, it does.
Pain is not final. “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” This is the hard truth of Paul’s message. “The present form of the world is passing away.” The lies of a culture that says we are all only individuals, meant to struggle by ourselves in a “dog eat dog” world, forever “pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps,” always getting what we deserve, never having to worry about those who don’t have what they need—this form of the world is passing away. Paul tells us that the appointed time has come, that those who are married must be like they are not, that those who mourn must be like those who are not mourning, that those with possessions must be like those without them. It’s not a call to monasticism so much as the opposite—a plunging into the messiness of a world lived together, where we cannot help but be what the love of others have made us. To live with children necessarily one day means to live without them. To be married necessarily means one day to no longer be married. To love means constantly become what in this moment we are not, but soon will be. These hard facts can be either the rocks on which the fragile timbers of our personal ambitions are wrecked, or they can be the stones always stirring the waters of our life together into the cataracts causing upstream and downstream to mix, roaring with power and grace.