When Moses had finished speaking to all Israel, he said to them, “I am now one hundred and twenty years old and am no longer able to move about freely; besides, the Lord has told me that I shall not cross the Jordan. It is the Lord, your God, who will cross before you; he will destroy these nations before you, that you may supplant them. It is Joshua who will cross before you, as the Lord promised.”Deuteronomy 31: 1-3
I’m sure it’s the reality of growing older that draws my attention to the pathos inherent in Moses’ coming to the end of his role as mediator of God’s call to the Hebrew people. Moses tells the people that the Lord, their God, will continue to lead them and give them the land promised to them. It is now Joshua who will take up Moses’ role of interpreter of God’s will for the people.
According to the Scriptures, it is because of his lack of faith that Moses is not able to enter into the promised land with the people. Yet, isn’t it one of the most difficult experiences of every one of us that we are never to know and experience the completion of our call? Even to our end we are still journeying toward the freedom that God promises and the fulfillment of our life call and task. For Moses, as for us, the greater journey is always continuing, and so we, as he, will always be passing the call and the challenge to those who follow us. Thus, an aspect of our ongoing living out of our call and vocation is to “generate” in others their own capacities to live their life call to the full.
Our experience of growing old, of experiencing more and more the limits to what we can do is always a complex one. At the level of our rational-functional selves we are often frustrated at how little we feel we have accomplished. The “problems” with which we have dealt most of our life seemingly remain intractable. The utopian visions of our youth have proven unattainable. As Moses in following God’s call to lead God’s people out of bondage and into the promised land has seemingly failed to complete the task, so too ourselves. Yet Moses sees that despite his own limits and failings, God will cross the Jordan before the people and Joshua will now represent this fulfillment of God’s promise.
While still experiencing the call to continue to work and to fulfill the call of my own vocation, I take heart increasingly in what I have done to foster the fidelity of others to their own deepest call. I grow less frustrated in what I am unable to do as I sense how the work will go on in the lives of those who follow me. Strangely enough, however, that consolation lies in my willingness to give up my demand to understand and to control the specific goals of my efforts. Moses did not know that his task was not to lead the people to the promised land but rather to take them to this point where they would leave him and go on. it was to prepare the way for God to finish the work through Joshua.
Perhaps one of the greatest sufferings of our later years is regret. It would be easy for Moses to be so hurt by the fact that he cannot complete the journey that he would rebel against and deny God on the one hand, or fall into self-pity or self-recrimination on the other. He does neither, however. What he does is merely to describe the reality of the situation and express his faith, not only in his own regard but also in that of all the people. He not only accepts but inwardly ratifies that it is to be Joshua and not himself who will follow God and lead God’s people across the Jordan.
At least for me, it is not easy to bear the truth of the failings, limits, and mediocrity of my life. Awareness of the little I have been able or willing to do with the abundance of grace I have received is not a pleasant realization. As I age, I grow increasingly aware of the laziness, timidity, obtuseness, and selfishness that have often been determinants in what I have done and in what I have failed to do. And yet, when I ponder, for all my own weakness, the love I have been given and have tried to give, I am filled with peace and joy. It truly is love that overcomes all fear (1 John 4:18). To truly love another is, at least to some degree, to have loved them into greater being. With those I love I experience a participation and a sharing with them in the “great work” of Jesus in repairing the world, and in them I recognize that the work to which I have been called goes on. It is not my work but God’s work.
Thus it is that often in life I do not even recognize the work to which I have been called. i frequently mistake my own agenda and mission for God’s. As a participant for a very brief time, I am engaged in a work that is far beyond my capacity to complete. What I am able to do, however, is to serve the unique participation of others in that work. Moses turns his glance to God and to Joshua. He does not turn it in on himself in regret and self-pity. Moses will not complete the journey, but his generativity has paved the way for Joshua to complete it. As he now takes leave he trusts the continuance and completion of the work in faith.
Because the work is so much more vast than any particular manifestation of it, we are always, at every stage of life, called to begin the work anew. The image of “the golden years” in our advertising is of a constant recreation and recuperation from decades of futile (what we used to call servile) work. Our idea is that if we have made enough money and now thanks to our retirement fund are able finally not to be driven to work for survival, we are now able to live a more humane life of leisure. If we work for fifty years in service to wealth and a consumerist driven economy, we can have perhaps twenty years of living for ourselves. Yet neither of these relates to the sense of life as “task, assignment, and mysterious call.” The “work of God” is very different from what work has come to mean in both capitalist and communist societies. Every moment of our lives is a summons to deepen into the unique call and work that is ours. Yet, because in our strengths and our weaknesses we are constantly changing, we are always beginners in that work.
In the passage from Deuteronomy we read today, Moses is doing the work of the moment to which he is called. He is letting go of the place he has held and he is empowering another to take it. At every moment of our own lives, we are called to the work God has given us to do.
As a young man, I often wasted much of the life energy and strength that I had been given. I tended to withhold significant aspects of my self, my talents, my time from my engagement with others and the world. I did “well enough” to get by but did not spend myself for the sake of my call in the world. I am still not totally free of this particular form of selfishness and self-depreciation, but I am aware that as my physical energy may actually be less, I now at least try to give more of myself to the task at hand.
The work to which we are called does not get easier as we age. In fact, it must, if we are attempting to be faithful, actually ask more of us. We often experience the disappointment of “toiling in vain.” This is actually, however, how we learn that we are “useless servants” in the great work of God in the world. Our motives for and so our contribution to that work are purified as we discover how in our particular lives “God’s ways are not our ways, nor are God’s thoughts our thoughts” (Isaiah 55: 8). Life does not get stale as we age, for we are always being called and challenged anew to take up the work that is ours. A key aspect of that work is loving each other. This is, of course, the most difficult work. Yet, when we truly love we help to make real in the other his or her own unique task, assignment, mysterious call. We evoke in the other the capacity to collaborate with us and with all, in his or her own unique way, in the work that the Father has given us to do (John 17:4). It is not easy to diminish in body and mind, but it is easier to let go into that experience when we can see the work going on in those whom we love.
Here’s Wendell Berry’s tribute to his old friend ,the celebrated poet Hayden Carruth, who was in his eighties when Berry greeting him “at the beginning of a great career”:Parker J. Palmer, On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, & Getting Old, p. 112
To Hayden Church
Dear Hayden, when I read your book I was aching
in head, back, heart, and mind, and aching
with your aches added to my own, and yet for joy
I read on without stopping, made eager
by your true mastery, wit, sorrow, and joy,
each made true by the others. My reading done,
I swear I am feeling better. Here in Port Royal
I take off my hat to you up there in Nunnsville
in your great dignity of being necessary. I swear
it appears to me you’re one of the rare fellows
who may finally amount to something. What shall
I say? I greet you at the beginning of a great career?
No. I greet you at the beginning, for we are
either beginning or we are dead. And let us have
no careers, lest one day we be found dead in them.
I greet you at the beginning that you have made
authentically in your art, again and again.