Wednesday of Holy Week
Today I heard a wonderful sermon by The Reverend Doctor Thomas G. Long. One of the things he mentioned in the sermon was a book by Tracy Kidder called Old Friends, which is about a community of folks living in a nursing home in Massachusetts. Most of the residents were struggling with losing their memories. They were trying not to forget. Dr. Long held up to us the example of one of the residents who has a different problem - he was not able to forget. He was not able to forget the things he wished he had not done or had done differently in his marriage, now that his wife was dead. He wished he had told her he loved her more, he wished he had not yelled at her over a trifle. Dr. Long was talking about how there are these windows that open, just for a little while, giving us access to God, to love, to experiencing life in its fullness. And then they close. And then it's too late to go back.
I have written elsewhere about doors closing and windows opening, and I have written about regret. But today Dr. Long was speaking about God's regret. God's regret that we do not act, either out of our busyness or our numbness, when we have the chance. I had not thought about it in those term. The Gospel for the day was the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, from Luke, and his focus was on God's regret that the rich man had not taken the opportunity to care for Lazarus, and thus his own soul. Abraham, who was in the bosom of God and who spoke for God in the parable, called the rich man, who was in agony in hell, "child." And Abraham explained that there was a chasm fixed between God and the rich man so that those who would want to go to comfort the rich man could not. Because it was too late. Dr. Long pointed out the regretful way that Abraham spoke to the rich man. My child, even though I want to, I cannot come to you; it is too late. (Not, "You idiot, why should I come to you when you messed up so badly in your life.")
Dr. Long pointed out that of course it is never too late for salvation, that Luke also writes of the prodigal son and of Zaccheus, the rich man who was transformed by his meeting with Jesus so that salvation came to his house in the end. But he did want to say that there are some things for which it is too late, and that not only we but even God regrets that we did not have the life we were created to have.
Of course, when I think about this, I see that again discernment is the key to navigating the path through life. Discerning when the window is open, discerning what we might regret later, and yet not spending one's life agonizing over what could have been. God does not desire the kind of "penitence" that is simply self-flagellation over every missed opportunity. In the old days, at least among Roman Catholics, there was something called "scrupulosity" - a preoccupation with sinfulness, having an overblown sense of one's sinfulness, so that one cannot have a relationship with God. "Tender conscience" is a mild way of putting it, but there are others, such as Hazel Motes, the protagonist of Flannery O'Connor's novel Wise Blood who took to wearing a hair shirt and finally blinded himself - who can not do enough to scourge themselves of sin and never, ever feel that they are worthy to receive God's love. And they are tormented forever, at least in this life.
Life is hard. We try our best sometimes, we don't try enough sometimes. Windows open, doors close, chasms are fixed, we can't go back. But God does not desire that we live tormented lives. We have to be able to learn from not having acted while the window was open but not to be in living hell as a result.
Because in the end, one will always be invited to the banquet. There will always be bread and wine at the table for us at the feast of the supper of the Lamb.