It’s June and in neighborhoods like ours here across the street from the University of Washington, there are questions in the air. You can see them in the anxious and hopeful expressions of graduating seniors posing with their parents in cap and gown, “What now?” “What’s next?” “What are you going to do with your life?”
I reminded our graduating seniors the other day that the reason we plague them with questions about their future plans is because we are plagued in anxiety about our own. We wonder with them about our own futures. We hope they might inspire us with their clarity, purpose, passion and drive. We too are hoping to find some of the same.
Life brings challenge and change to us all. We want to make something of our lives. We want to make a difference. We don’t want to be lost in our pain as we sometimes are. We don’t want to be isolated in our privilege tempting as it is. We want to do something meaningful and we struggle often with what we ought to do.
This week a mother, a boxer, and a neurosurgeon have opened my imagination to how we might answer the question of what we shall do, what we might possibly choose to do today in response to the triumphs and catastrophes that are life.
On Sunday we baptized a little girl named Amaya. She’s named after an El Salvadoran woman, Rufina Amaya. In December 1981 government troops came into Amaya’s village where she lived with her husband and children. The next day they starting shooting. 809 people, her whole village, was killed. Amaya hid in a tree during the massacre. She was the only survivor.
I don’t know what “survival” means after a trauma like that. I understand “survival” as running and hiding, keeping silent, getting lost in the black hole of despair. I understand any of these responses. And Rufina Amaya chose something different. She chose to do another thing. In a time of unimaginable loss, she bore witness to what happened that day. She kept telling what happened even though her government and the US government shook their heads at the delusions of this poor peasant woman. She kept on telling the story. It took 10 years until they finally dug into the earth and discovered the bodies. Amaya found a way out of the ashes of her life to move forward. A little girl in Seattle bears her name and carries her memory. I want to remember what I might choose to do when life is full of losing.
I met Muhammad Ali once. Or rather, I had breakfast with him. Well, actually we were in the same restaurant at the Holiday Inn that hot summer day in Chicago in 1991. He sat there across the room at a little table eating his breakfast. 1964 Cassius Clay had stood arms high overhead, the new heavy weight champion of the world. Cassius had it all but he used all he had not to advance his career to but to live into his call.
He aligned himself with the Nation of Islam. He changed his name to Muhammad Ali. He registered as a conscientious objector. He used his status not to advance his own career but to speak out against the Vietnam War. Instead of racking up prizes in what promised to be a brilliant career, he was fined, sentenced to prison. He lost the best years of his boxing life. He used his status, his privilege not to withdraw in isolation but to challenge what it means to be black in America. I’ve thought about him a lot this week of his death. I want to remember what I might choose to do when I have it all. I too want to use what I have to live into my call, to do some good despite all it may cost.
Paul Kalanithi flipped through the CT scans, saw that the body he was looking at was riddled with cancer – lung cancer that had metastasized, a deformed spine, a dark spot on the liver. As a surgeon he’d seen hundreds of such scans before. But this one was different. This time the scan was his own. What do you do when the verbs are running out and you have to choose what to do with the little time that is left? He’d worked all his life for this – to be here, 35, newly married, all the credentials, the fancy schools, Stanford, Yale, the job offer in the Midwest, his dreams to be a surgeon/scientist. Suddenly all he had dreamed, all had aspired to do, felt like something he would never be able to do.
He knew that if he had 20 years, he’d take the fancy position in Wisconsin and be a surgeon/scientist. 10, he’d go back to surgery. A year? Write. But he doesn’t know how much time he has left and even if he did, none of those decisions help him decide what to do right now in this moment and time, on what to do next. When he could have chosen so many other things, Paul returns to his call as a neurosurgeon. He and his wife have a baby. He chooses life in the midst of facing his own imminent death. He picks up his pen. In his memoir, When Breath Becomes Air, he bears witness to the struggle to make a choice moment by moment when the moments are running out. Finally, his memoir is incomplete and the final chapter completed by his wife. And yet, maybe it is complete, complete as all of us are ever going to get as we lean into making meaning of our lives. I want to remember to lean into life when the moments are running out.
At the conclusion of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus stands with the disciples on a mountaintop. At a time when questions are in the air, “What now?” What’s next?” Jesus offers the disciples three verbs and a blessing. Three little verbs on what he hopes they might do with their lives – make disciples, baptize, teach. Three little verbs that lean towards something – something Jesus called the Kingdom of God. A Kingdom where we draw wide the circle of God’s way of peace and justice, love and hope. To make a kingdom where there is a place for all, food and table and blessing for all, “Lo I am with you always to the end of the age.”
Rufina Amaya, Muhammad Ali and Paul Kalanithi all open up my imagination to possibilities. They did not withdraw into pain or fame – understandable as either choice might be. Instead, they used their pain to go deeper and their fame to go further. They used what they had to do something that mattered. None of them answer for me what is mine to do today but they open up the possibility that there might be other options than what I have imagined. There might be other things to consider than the endless pursuit of making money, finding security, securing some status. Maybe what we are called to do is more than that.
Maybe it’s a stretch to say that Amaya, Muhammad Ali and Paul Kalanithi lived into the Kingdom that Jesus spoke of or perhaps this is exactly what it looks like when we do.