Luke 2: 36 And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, 37 and then as a widow until she was eighty-four.[e] She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.
Ever since I first read about him, I’ve been trying to figure out if Brad McLaughlin is a hero, or a villain, or just plain crazy, for having started his own house on fire, on purpose, not accidentally. Brad McLaughlin is the main character in a poem by Robert Frost, published some 80 years ago, entitled, “The Star-Splitter.” Frost calls McLaughlin a “hugger-mugger” farmer, meaning , he doesn’t seem to have learned anything in 4-H. And he’s working poor, rocky soil in New England, which is a lot of New England. That denies Brad the income to support his first, true love and vocation: not farming, but astronomy. What he really wants from all his “hugger-mugger” labor is to buy a telescope.
Brad does figure out a unique way to get the money for a telescope: he burns his own house down to get the insurance money with which to buy that high-powered, professional grade telescope that he’s always longed for. He obviously pulled the wool over the eyes of the insurance adjustor. But he didn’t fool his neighbors. They didn’t think him criminal, though, as much as they thought him crazy. That doesn’t make him all that unique though among all his backwoods neighbors. The poem goes on to say,
“If one by one we counted people out
For the least sin, it wouldn’t take us long
To get so we had no one left to live with.
For to be social is to be forgiving.”
To those who call Brad McLaughlin crazy or criminal for exchanging his home for a telescope, he says: “The best thing that we’re put here for’s to see…” And yes, the word, “see,” means more than with just our eyeballs.
I hope that no one is inspired by this sermon to commit arson and insurance fraud. But I do recommend what Brad McLaughlin said about why we too are here in this world and in this life: to “see” in more ways than one. I think that Anna, the prophet in today’s Gospel passage, would also say Amen to what Brad McLaughlin said: Seeing is what we’re put here for. Though I’m pretty sure she would also say, “Put down the matches and the lighter fluid.”
For seeing was the climax and the fulfillment of Anna’s long earthly life of at least 84 years: seeing God’s promised Messiah, seeing the Lord, before she died and went on to see the Lord, in a union with God of eternal and infinite joy and time-free rapture even now. Many other saints and mystics in two thousand years of Christian history would say the same: seeing is what we’re put here for: seeing God, not just one day in heaven, but here and now, through the three spiritual senses which God gives us by which to “see” him: faith, hope and love. That’s the kind of vision, the kind of sight that is timeless and which endures forever: faith, hope and love. We know that we are starting to see the Lord, not with the eyes in our head but with the eyes of our hearts, as faith, hope and love especially grow in us.
At the age of 84, Anna was coming to that stage of life where people sometimes ask me, “Why am I still here?” and, “Of what value or use is my life now that I can no longer bake, build, cook, drive, or care for others, like I’ve done for most of my life? And from which I once took so much meaning and pleasure? Now that age is taking away my mobility, my customary pleasures and purposes, perhaps even memory and personality, people now have to work so hard taking care of me! Of what good then is my life?”
Our members in training for Stephen Ministry know not to reply too quickly to such painful questions with quick, glib answers and chirpy, cheery, false bravado. God grant that we hear and respect the grief that comes with such loss, that we be present as those who may also one day ask the same questions. I would hope that our presence, our prayers, our time and attention themselves would demonstrate the value and worth of every life, of every person to God, as well as to ourselves. I would hope that our listening, our love and our care would convey to everyone that just being here is worthwhile because we can be served, we can be loved, we can be given to, as we once served, loved and gave to others.
Because then, in receiving as well as in giving, hopefully we get to “see.” We get to see the Lord. Not as Anna did, visibly, as a baby carried into the temple, but through the inner vision of faith, hope and love. Even if time and aging should take away our eyesight, we can see the Lord in the love that others return to us, when they visit, when they come caroling like many of us did last Sunday night, when they attend to our physical needs, our needs for company, and attention, and to just being seen and heard, and loved.
Even should time gnaw away at our hearing, we can “see” the Lord in the Bible verses, and the hymn verses that echo in our minds, which encourage our faith and which give us hope of “seeing the Lord,” and “to know as we are known” on the other side of the thin place that we are all approaching.
Even should time erode our memories, and with them, some aspects of our personalities, we may yet “see” the Lord” in the people who love us, and in the memories that endure longest. Often those are our earliest memories, of parents, grandparents, teachers and others who reflected God’s delight in his creation through their delight in us.
When our family lived in Kansas and I served a Mennonite Church there, I saw how, sometimes, in their last months of their life, some of the oldest members recommenced speaking in the German of their childhood. The second language they had learned in childhood, English, had gone with their later memories and left no traces. They drew comfort from the beloved Bible verses that they had memorized in childhood, from Luther’s translation, like the Twenty-third Psalm or The Lord’s Prayer. Or for songs they had learned in German, like “For God So Loved Us,” or “O, Have You Not Heard of that Beautiful Stream,” or “Take Thou My Hand, O Father.” Those kinds of things seemed to linger last while other memories slipped away.
So, one answer to the question, “Why am I here?” at any age, let alone at Anna’s age and beyond, is so that we might “see the Lord,” here and now, as the glitter and glamor of everything else in this world and this life fades away. That prepares us to “see the Lord” forever, in timeless and eternal joy. We “see” the Lord with the eyes of faith, hope and love, and through all the people and the events in our lives that cultivate and encourage our faith, hope and love.
There’s a second answer that I would give to the common question, “Why am I yet here?” In addition to being blessed by seeing God, there is always a blessing for us to pass on to others. Even if, for reasons of health or strength, we cannot bless others in ways that we used to bless others, there are still blessings that we can pass on. The attention, the affirmation, the encouragements and the warnings that Anna and Simeon gave to Joseph and Mary came just when they needed them most. What they had been blessed by God to see and to know, they shared so that others could see, and be blessed.
We are worshiping here today, in a place and among people which testify to the faith, hope and love of generations before us. And so they bless us even as their bodies lay perhaps in the cemetery immediately to our north. They did not pass on to their descendants perfection. Nor shall we. But we are blessed by the faith, hope and love they received and that they shared.
If we have been here in this life long enough to start wondering, “Why am I still here? And “To what purpose is my existence anymore?” I hope this comes to mind: “We have been here long enough to see some things, to learn some things, gain some things, and understand some things that younger people need, but haven’t been around long enough to even know that they need them. Even if we can’t understand half of what they’re saying about technology, the media or their activities and entertainment, even if they have no idea of who we’re talking about whenever we mention Walter Cronkite, Jack Benny or Captain Kangaroo, “we can still bless them through our prayers, through our love, our time, our attention and our smiles, through our faith and hope and love. Even, just being here, to accept help, service, care and love from others, is itself a testimony and a blessing for future generations, for it says that all of us are worthwhile and valued by God and others not for what we do, nor how much we do, nor how well we do it, but just by being here, and being content to be here on God’s timetable.
So, if ever we go to visit someone in a nursing home who doesn’t even know who we are anymore, they are still blessing us, at the very least, by reminding us why we are, “human beings,” and not “human doings.” For we are known to God, and that alone is more than enough to validate anyone’s existence. That’s a second reason why we’re here for however long God wants us here: to bless as we have been blessed, even if only by the gift of our existence.
The third answer to “Why am I still here?” and “Of what good is my existence?” comes out of Anna’s prayer, another one of “The Prayers of Our Mothers” for our Advent/Christmas/Epiphany season. This Sunday, it is Anna’s prayer of Thanks.
The author, Ann Lamott, says that three basic prayers can get us through life: Help, Thanks, and Wow, in a book by that same title: “Help, Thanks, Wow.” St. Luke only tells us that, upon seeing the Christ child in the temple, “she gave thanks to God.” Yet I can’t escape the suspicion that Anna’s Thanks to God also sounded a lot like, “Wow!” as she talked to everyone who would listen about the Christ child.
That’s another excellent reason to be around: not just to bless the next generations, but to bless God; to worship and give thanks to God like Anna did, even if from a bed from which we will never rise on our own power. And so prepare for the next life of seeing, worshiping and giving thanks to God in time-free delight. Worship and gratitude are also ways of “seeing” God.
We Mennonites especially need to think about this mother of ours in the faith, Anna, whose status. accomplishments and contributions in this life probably seemed so little, this mother of ours who was so invisible in the crowd, but who saw the Lord when others blindly rushed by. Several chaplains of nursing homes have told me that sometimes their Mennonite residents are the hardest people to comfort and assure of God’s love as they approach the end of this life. All those messages we may have heard over the years, telling us to get busy and active and show our faith, not just think it or speak it, to make a difference in the world, so that it is a better place by next Tuesday, to be good workers for God and the church, and leave behind something just and practical to show for our life of discipleship, is well-intentioned and true, to a point. But it can have a dark side, and some unintended consequences.
It can be such a subtle temptation to do justly in order to justify our existence, and so prove ourselves more worthy than people who we think don’t do as much good. When we know that we are standing at that thin place between this life and the next, is it any surprise then if we get anxious as to whether or not we did enough, or did well enough, or made enough of a difference in the world, to be “worthy” of seeing God?
I detect no such anxiety in Anna and her late-in-life prayer of thanks. Because God counted most to Anna, she knew the assurance of how supremely much she counted to God. God showed her how much she counted to him by showing her the Christ, so she might see him in this life, to prepare her for seeing him in the next. She received unearned and overwhelmingly generous proof of how much she counted to God in the fulfillment of her prayers: seeing the Lord. For that is the ultimate reward promised us in the Bible: seeing God, and not dying, but living, forever, in thrall to “the beauty of holiness.”
Anna reminds of another poem, only thirty years old, by the Country Western singer, Garth Brooks, “Friends in Low Places.” It’s kind of a snarky song, about giving the raspberry to upper class, highly educated, glamorous-looking people in silk dresses and tuxedoes drinking champagne in their ivory towers, while he drinks…I won’t say what… in a roadside tavern called, “The Oasis.”
With apologies to Garth Brooks and his fans, I have tweaked it for the Christmas season, in a way that the Prophet Anna might appreciate. I won’t sing it, but I think I can talk “Country Western.”
What a wondrous surprise that first Christmas sunrise,
When the Savior was born in a stall,
Just a babe fast asleep, among cattle and sheep
In the hay lay the Lord of us all.
Mary, Joseph, a few, scruffy shepherds there too,
Knew what happened, and that’s about all
Who were in on the news, whom the Master did choose,
To look for and call,
Cuz’ God makes friends in low places,
Where you’ll often find that God’s grace is,
Where He showed up again, in an animal pen,
Well, God don’t care what your family name is,
Cuz’ to the Most High everyone the same is,
Cuz’ God makes friends, in low places.
Randy Travis, Garth Brooks, Dolly Parton got looks,
In concert, on TV they shine.
Dancin’ girls look so slim, in cowboy boots and jeans trim
Rhinestone vests and their Stetsons so fine.
Next to them, who looks great? I’m thirty pounds overweight,
And too old to break into their show,
But I still have got hope, with my low status I cope
Cuz’ this much I know,
That God makes friends in low places,
Where you’ll often see the most scruffy faces,
Savior, reign in my heart, this, the lowliest part
Of this troubled earth, where your Momma gave birth,
And you joined us where all of our pain and disgrace is,
Cuz’ God makes friends, in low places.