Wednesday, April 20, 2016

5 - Metaphors for Living: Life is a Test, a gift, and brief

                We have the ability to shape our lives.

            The way we use imagination to envision a possible future influences our future. It influences how we invest time, spend money, use talents, and value relationships.

            Such images are life metaphors. Life is a puzzle; life is a journey; life is a minefield; life is a party; life is a game; life is a battle; life is a race.

            One helpful exercise of the imagination is to reflect upon one's life, consider the pattern one has weaved with one's life, and consider what obvious subtle metaphors have already shaped one's life. We often have family metaphors that shape our lives in tacit ways. Too often, the metaphors by which we have lived our lives have deeply embedded themselves in our subconscious. They may be healthy metaphors – or not. We move toward taking responsibility for our lives as we choose the metaphors by which we will live. We can do this as we take a pause and consider.

            I will suggest three metaphors that I hope prove helpful.

            First, a human life is a test. As Søren Kierkegaard asserts in Practice in Christianity (1850, No. III), this earthly existence of ours is a real test. Life is an examination. To be a human being is to engage in the tests of life. For Kierkegaard, of course, the greatest test is to become and to be a Christian. Human words and deeds testify to one thing, he says – whether he or she is up for the examination.

            This metaphor suggests that each person is responsible for his or her life. It also suggests that we are responsible to someone. It suggests that we are agents of history, and not simply shaped by history. The Bible often uses words like trials, temptations, refining, and testing. It also tells stories that involve the metaphor of testing. The story of the Garden of Eden contains many metaphors. One is whether Adam and Eve would trust God or trust the serpent. When Abraham began a journey with Isaac that almost ended in the sacrifice of his only son, the text says it was a test of whether Abraham would obey God. Joseph lived in Egypt and experienced a moral test through the wife of Pharaoh. He passed the test. King David, on the other hand, failed his test. He failed a moral test with Bathsheba and a criminal test with her husband, as he arranged for his death. He failed the test of raising a family, most dramatically with Absalom. Jesus had a test after his baptism that tested the character of his public ministry.

            Jesus made it clear that death can overtake us at any moment.

Luke 17:26 (NRSV)

26 Just as it was in the days of Noah, so too it will be in the days of the Son of Man.

Mark 13:32 (NRSV)

32 "But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

Mark 13:34-36 (NRSV)

34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 Therefore, keep awake-for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.

Luke 12:35-38 (NRSV)

35 "Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36 be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. 37 Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. 38 If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.

Luke 17:28-30 (NRSV)

28 Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot: they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, 29 but on the day that Lot left Sodom, it rained fire and sulfur from heaven and destroyed all of them 30 -it will be like that on the day that the Son of Man is revealed.

Luke 13:6-9 (NRSV)

6 Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7 So he said to the gardener, 'See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?' 8 He replied, 'Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.' " 

Therefore, we need to lead lives in which we are ready. No matter when the end comes for us, we want to die well. That would mean passing the test and being up for the examination.

            We reveal our character in the various tests we have in life. Often, such tests are not of our choosing. Few of us like tests. Some tests in school we have had great anxiety in taking. Life thrusts such tests upon us. We will rise to the occasion and pass the test, or we will discover that we could not pass the test. In some cases, failing a test may help us to redirect our lives. Because life tests us, we must not fear to test life. Every human decision has an open-ended character to it. We can revisit every decision and impulse.

            One of the gifts human beings have is to learn from others. This means that, whether we are aware of it or not, we are evaluating the lives of others all the time. Others are evaluating us all the time. Of course, we hope others will listen to our lives and judge generously. We can also hope that we will extend to others the same courtesy. People see how we relate to others, how we do our jobs, what we do in speaking in public, how we raise our children, how we treat our spouses, how we have fun, how we respond in problems, conflicts, and illness, and so on. Such tests often become ways in which life tests our faith, our hope, and our love.

            Our temptation is to think of tests coming in the large decisions we make in life: whom we shall marry, what career to which we commit ourselves, the development of basic beliefs and values, the decision to move to different parts of the country, and so on. These are important tests of character, beliefs, and values. However, life tests us in the routine of each day. How we treat spouse, children, and pets on a daily basis are hints of the kind of person we are and want to become. How we treat others who serve us throughout the day are important tests. How we treat police officers, soldiers, and firefighters suggests the ways in which we value the interconnection of the community and nation. The question is whether we treat others with generosity and kindness.

            The apostle Paul said it quite well.

Romans 14:7-12 (NRSV)

7 We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 8 If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. 11 For it is written,

"As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall give praise to God."
12 So then, each of us will be accountable to God.


            Second, a human life is a journey with a beginning. The nature of the beginning of life is such that a helpful metaphor is that life is a gift. We spend too little time reflecting upon the life metaphor derived from our physical birth. We do not produce our bodies. We are the product of two persons who came together physically and hopefully with love for each other and for the child to come. The biological base for our lives is in the genetic structure that resulted from the union of others. Genetic structure shapes many aspects of our lives. We need a basic trust that as the processes of life unfold, we will have the resources we need. Our time, energy, intelligence, opportunities, relationships, and resources are all gifts. We are stewards of these gifts. Human ownership is always temporary. A saying attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas suggests this same theme: "Become passersby." Jesus told a parable illustrating this dimension of life. We often refer to it as the parable of the talents.

Matthew 25:14-27 (NRSV)

14 "For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, 'Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.' 21 His master said to him, 'Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' 22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, 'Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.' 23 His master said to him, 'Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' 24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, 'Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.' 26 But his master replied, 'You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 

Such a story reminds us of the importance of investing what gifts we have. Further, hoarding such gifts does not lead to fullness of life. Each of us is a gift. The question life poses is whether we will offer the gift that we are to others. If we commit ourselves to do this, we will discover a meaningful and full life. However, if we do not share the gift we are, we selfishly hold it within. We do not give others the benefit of the gift that we are. We deny to others a gift that may benefit their lives and assist them in their journey of life.

            The business side of the parable is quite appropriate. How we manage our money is an apt sign of how we manage our lives. The priorities we have with the use of financial resources suggest the core beliefs and values that guide our lives. For many of us, the greatest test we face in life is how use our financial resources.

            Third, a human life is a journey with an end. Life is temporary, brief, and transient. Jesus told a parable that relates to this metaphor.

Luke 12:16-21 (NRSV)

16 "The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17 And he thought to himself, 'What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?' 18 Then he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' 20 But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' 21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God." 

Among the most important decisions any of us will make is how attached we become to this world. When we realize how brief the journey is, we can treat this life with the seriousness it deserves, realizing that the only home this body will have is here. God loves this world. To live with God in this world is to love this world with the same love that God has for this world. We will not receive another chance. Yet, we also realize that we need to hold this world somewhat lightly in our minds and hearts. Realizing the temporary nature of human life helps us not to cling to this life.

            The fullness of the meaning of our lives is beyond this world. The full significance of our lives will unfold long after we die. This is what religion calls eternity. In that sense, our eternal home is beyond the home we have on this earth. This awareness opens us to freedom, creativity, and risk. This world can become a prison or trap, as we bind ourselves to the wealth, power, fame, and prestige that it values. We can become a prisoner to the opinions and evaluations of the culture in which we live.

            If we journey without direction, we have wasted time and energy. A vision of eternity helps us to place our culture in perspective. We practice the capacity we have to reflect upon ourselves, as well as the family system, community, and culture that shaped us. We do not know the nature of that eternal home. What we do know is that if we become too attached to this world, we will adopt the values of this world. We will want to receive the fame, power, wealth and status that this world offers. Such dedication will often lead us down a path that we eventually discover is self-destructive. We discover that, no matter what we achieve, we never achieve enough. No matter how many people love us, it is never enough. We have longing, desire, and hope that no degree of fulfillment in this world will satisfy. Satisfaction with what we do, think, and feel here does not satisfy us because human life is oriented beyond this life. In fact, this is why people will sacrifice this life. Some of our fellow citizens will rush into burning buildings, move toward criminals, and fight as soldiers for the freedoms we enjoy, because they value something more than longevity on this earth.

            Paul said in I Corinthians 13: 8, "Love never ends." Most cemeteries have many persons long since dead. They may go back three, four or five generations. They loved. Others loved them. In most cases, no one alive today remembers them or their love. In that sense, love has ended. Yet, the love they shared continues in subtle, unknown ways in the lives of the people they touched, and then the lives that group of people touched, and so on. What Paul said is true if we consider eternity. That means God is the one who preserves love long after we die.

            Frankly, it takes faith, hope, and love to live on earth. Such qualities open us to a possible future. Without such qualities, we close ourselves from imagining a possible future, and simply collapse into the present. Moving forward in life with anticipation opens us to undiscovered potential in ourselves, in others, in the community, in the nation, and in the world. The stories we tell with our lives continue well beyond death.

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