What do I do now?
Returning to bed, after a short trip to the bathroom, with her brown eyes sparkling in curiosity, my grandmother asks: What do I do now?
My mother, or my uncle, my aunt, or my cousin, or her paid caregivers – whoever is on shift that day – they help her lean back into her pillows and remind her: sleep, mama. Now you sleep.
Oh, she says.
And she sleeps. Until she wakes, and then asks again. What do I do now?
Would you like to go to your chair? they ask.
It’s a journey of 20 feet, and can take an hour. Or at least, feel like an hour.
My grandmother, Elizabeth “Betty” Johnson Soderlind, is 94. She lives in Forks, Washington, a very small town in the rainforest in the northwest corner of the state.
If you’ve heard of it, it’s probably because you were an environmental activist in the 1990s following the spotted owl debate. Or, it’s because you or someone you love has read the vampire novel series, Twilight, which is set in Forks. (I won’t make you tell me which.)
My memories of Forks, growing up in nearby Port Angeles in the 80s, are of a declining logging town. Sad, but distinct. Returning there now, you discover more activity: main street is filled with Twilight-related shops staffed by the now-adult children of out-of-work loggers – and there are lots of shoppers who have come from all over. Which makes the town feel even more sad.
If you travel across Forks – a journey that takes all of 5 minutes – back to the Marietta Mobile Home Park, you’ll discover my mother’s childhood home, where my grandmother still lives.
She can’t move much, though on some days, she has bursts of energy and they get her to church or to the local pizza place. My uncle calls her Lazarus. Mostly she sits in her chair or her bed. Because she can’t hear, conversation is minimal – which tortures her – she loves a good chat and to know what’s going on. Before she lost all her hearing, she’d make a habit of looking for wherever the loudest and liveliest conversation was going on in a room, and go sit herself right in the middle of it.
She asks her question repeatedly, like she can’t believe that the answer isn’t something more momentous than – sit, sleep, eat, bathe, dress – like there’s something else she should be doing, and she just forgot and needs a reminder: What do I do now?
It makes perfect sense given the relentless activity of her life. She gave birth to her first set of twins – my mother, Mary, and her twin brother, David, when she was 32. Nine and a half years later, she had 7 children under the age of 10 – 3 more singles and another set of twins. Can you imagine?
What do I do now?!
It’s a question we all ask, actually, in one way or another, again and again across our lives, as one stage of life ends, and another begins.
It’s a question that seems to be about the future, but it is actually rooted in the dreams of the past.
We had a plan, a sense of who we wanted to be, what we thought we should do….Have children. Go to school. Get a new job, a new career. Retire. Marry. Divorce. So we go about planting seeds, doing the work, creating a new life.
And then, though it may not have turned out exactly as you had thought when you first imagined it – likely it did not – but in one way or another, you do it. It’s done.
Your children arrive, you hold them in your arms, tiny and so utterly dependent upon you. And you are a parent.
What do I do now?
Or: You say “I do,” for better or worse, and you are married.
What do I do now?
Or, you find that job you’ve been dreaming of, and lo and behold you are the called Associate Minister at a church in Fort Collins. Or rather, not you, me.
What do I do now?
As he made his way along the cloaks and palm leaves the crowd had set along his path towards Jerusalem, perhaps Jesus asked himself this same question.
It’s a common motif in world religions- the holy one arriving in the city. As place transforms, so does the traveler. Journey stories are stories of becoming.
The young Siddhartha set on the path to become the Buddha after he first went into the city and saw its suffering.
After a long journey, Mohammed too entered the city, where he was greeted with shouts of joy and proclamations of God’s goodness.
Historically speaking, right as Jesus is said to have arrived, the Roman troops and cavalry entered Jerusalem as well, headed by Pontius Pilate. These imperial powers came to enforce the rule of law during the season of Passover, when many thousands of Jewish pilgrims filled the city.
This story of Jesus’ arrival offers an obvious alternative to this Roman entrance.
Which is pretty common for Christian and Jewish stories, actually. It’s hard to imagine today, but in those first few centuries, Christianity was fringe of the fringe, hugely counter cultural, and so their authors were looking for ways to proclaim a different story than the dominant/mainstream narrative.
This story said: Our King is a humble carpenter’s son, who arrives on a donkey, with no more adornment than tree branches and cloaks thrown upon a dusty path. Our King comes to enforce not the rule of law but the rule of Love.
For the Christian community, this journey story asserted not just who Jesus was, and who he was to become, but who they were, and who they were to become.
This story also positions Jesus as the fulfillment of the Jewish story began in Hebrew scripture. The author tells us, he asked for the donkey because it fulfilled the prophecy his life came to fulfill. He went into Jerusalem because it was his destiny. The text is less clear, however, if Jesus himself understood it as his destiny. When he asked for the animals, did he realize what his entrance into Jerusalem would ultimately mean? Did he have any idea that in place of cheers of praise, a few days later he would experience a violent mob calling for his execution?
Theologians have repeatedly debated variations on this question: did he know?
And, if you are a theologian inclined to assert that Jesus is also God, this question means you are actually asking – did God know what was going to happen?
Did God send Jesus -God’s own son- to earth knowing what would happen?
And if so, does that mean God is the ultimate child abuser?
When these questions came up in seminary amongst my Christian friends, I confess I breathed a sigh of relief. After all, for most Unitarians, Jesus isn’t God. Jesus is human. Like us. So the question of whether he knew about his destiny becomes simply a human question. Which of course means, there is still plenty of difficult sorting out to do.
When does a person come to know who they are, what they are meant for, who they are meant to become? And, how do we figure it out? And then once we think we got it, how do we go about actually becoming that, even while it often feels like a moving target?
Some people spend their whole lives searching for their place; some seem to know right from the beginning, and never waver. My dad announced in first grade he would become an architect. He’ll be 63 next week, and he’s never done anything else.
Most of us feel some combination of these two extremes – we are clear about some things, clueless about others, trying to live in to others. Some parts of ourselves develop as a great and pleasant surprise and we welcome them as true; other things we declare as truth early on in life, but never quite achieve them in reality. We are sure we will be partnered, with many children, only to discover a life as a single person without kids is our so-called destiny.
Was that Jesus? Did Jesus think his life would go one way, and yet it went another?
Perhaps growing up in that carpenter’s home, he thought he too would smell of sawdust, his hands also would be rough and yet tender. Perhaps he imagined someday bringing his own son in, passing down these skills generation to generation.
But then, something in him offered him a different path, set him to teaching and leading, to liberating and healing. A seed was planted, and he nurtured it, and it him, until one day he found himself calling for a donkey so that he could enter the city where he would meet his death.
So, did he know? Do any of us know how things will turn out? We know the end of Jesus’ story now. But that doesn’t mean he did then.
Right then, at that moment, I imagine he felt triumphant. A rush of power, and possibility. As the crowds laid their cloaks, and the palm leaves down before him, it was like a gigantic YES to him, to his message, and to their experience of his ministry. YES. Your dreams were valid, on target, and we see in you what you feel in yourself.
In Unitarian Universalism, we speak about true vocation requiring both an internal and an external calling. You might have a sense of who you are to be, but if no one else seems to agree, you might be off. And, vice versa.
From this understanding, becoming your truest self is not a matter of discovering and seizing upon an ontological reality but rather it is a deeply relational and evolutionary process that can only fully occur in loving, trusting and differentiated community. It requires both ongoing self-awareness of your particular skills, gifts, and passions, as well as awareness of others, and their particular yearnings and needs. As Fredrick Beuchner puts it, to discover that place where you are called, you must uncover where “your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
Traveling along those palms into Jerusalem, Jesus found that meeting place and fulfilled his calling. It was his precisely his path to take.
And yet, even if he did not know how the story would end, I have to imagine that in addition to triumph, there was also a tinge of grief. After all, any such transformation holds not just the promise of the new, but the loss of the past. We look back on the dream that brought us here, and consider what it means to be here, rather than there. Feelings of sadness are inevitable. You think you want to retire after 40 years in the ministry, but then you do, and it’s good, but also, it’s sad. Becoming requires loss. Grief is – inevitable.
Of course to be at this place of asking, “What do I do now,” means the change is done, and there’s no going back. You are already someplace, someone new. You can go down the rabbit hole of regret, but sooner or later, life is going to require making a turn towards acceptance.
You might remember Marc’s sermon on hindsight, where he said, basically, hindsight is a lie. Because you only know what you know now because it’s now. You couldn’t have known it then, because it was then. We make the best choice we can with the information we have. It’s all we can do.
And like Jesus, fully human that we are, we cannot know how it all will turn out, on this threshold, or at the next. And so you should cut your former self some slack. (This was more or less the message. Or at least, what I remember of it.)
Be nice to your former self, and offer yourself not judgment, but perhaps, curiosity:
Fascinating. Who was I then? What was I longing for when I started down this path? What was I thinking? What have I learned since? And, what does this tell me about my values that can be helpful as I discern what it is I am becoming next?
Which brings me back to my grandmother. When my mom first started telling me about this question she asks, and how puzzled she can get, I wanted to say – good God, doesn’t she just get to do nothing?
I didn’t tell you earlier, but before she had those 7 children, she was a registered nurse for 10 years. And before that, she worked hard in her growing up years on a farm in North Dakota. After her children were raised, she was very active in her community, especially in helping Vietnamese immigrants and others overwhelmed by poverty. She was a passionate advocate of education and literacy, and in the 1970s she helped to found Forks’ first food bank, and she was very active in her Catholic church. We used to joke that she was the Bishop of Forks. On top of all this, she cared for her own mother into her late 90s, in that same home where she still lives.
What do you do now, grandma? Nothing. You did it! You get to rest now.
But for her, as it would be for so many of us, that answer seems unacceptable. Who am I if I’m not doing, after all? Who am I if I am not figuring out the next plan, engineering and producing?
We may affirm our worth as inherent, but the way we live our lives, it’s more like we affirm our worth by way of our productivity. It’s good to remember just how counter cultural our first principle is.
What do I do now? Take a breath. Let others do the lifting for a while. Trust that the world will keep on going, while you rest. Trust you are worthy of love even when you are doing nothing. Trust that you don’t have to be 94 for this to be true. Our partners are everywhere, the gifts of grace are everywhere, carrying forward the ways of Love.
It’s hard to do nothing, I know. But only in these breaks can we really see and receive all of life’s abundant gifts.
We are always on our way from one place, arriving at another, beginning anew. We imagine the between spaces as the exception, but they are the everyday. They are life.
Our lives are a series of What do I do now’s? Our lives are the mix of triumph, and grief, eager anticipation, fretful anxiety. Memory, and hope.
Let’s honor it all. Take it all in. And then keep on moving forward.