Today in worship we celebrate the 20th Anniversary of David Annett’s ministry at Knox.  Twenty years of Knox Youth Group, Fresh Spirit worship, technical support, Presbytery service, hospital visits, teaching, preaching; 20 years of being a good minister, friend, colleague, and companion.  Dave is 44 years old, the same age as me; in fact, our birthdays are just a week apart—he’s older.  Because we’re the same age, I can say with some authority that in this season of life, Dave not only looks back, he wonders about what’s ahead.  He’s starting to realize that he has roughly the same amount of time still ahead of him—maybe 20 years more in ministry, maybe another 44 in life.  So today seemed like as good a day as any to talk about the midlife crisis.

It’s a freighted term in our culture, weighed down with clichés and metaphors about Corvettes and adultery and being on the downhill side of life.  Let me be clear that I have no problem talking about the midlife crisis; I think it’s not only normal but important.  Developmental psychologists know that in midlife, healthy people will ask questions:  What have I accomplished so far, and does it matter?  Is this how I should be spending the time I’ve got left?  What else is there?  Did I make the right choices when I was younger?  Is it too late to change?  The questions are natural—and asking them openly with trusted friends leads to a richer life and faith.  The bad choices often associated with the midlife crisis usually aren’t because of asking the questions, but because of trying to ignore them.

These questions of midlife aren’t just psychological jargon, they are the stuff of great storytelling, the history of philosophy, and the journey of faith.  Revolutionary Road, John Stuart Mill, and the Book of Psalms—these are the great works of midlife.  Today we read Psalm 39 which asks:  “Lord, let me know the measure of my days, and…how fleeting my life is.  Psalm 39 is a strange prayer.  It meanders all over with cries for help and self-doubt about the past.  It’s got midlife crisis written all over it.  Then we read Psalm 90, which is partly about the misery of a life grounded in things that will not last.  The Psalmist cries out that life is like grass that grows in the morning but is scorched by the afternoon sun—it is as fleeting as spitting into the air.  And even though life is fleeting, he still wonders if the one thing that might last is his mistakes and misdeeds—is it possible that God is wrathful and will not let go of sins?  Can it be true that God is gracious, as we hoped?

These are not pretty, Sunday School thoughts, but they are things we think about.  MIT Philosophy Professor Kieren Setiya has written a thoughtful, accessible book called Midlife:  A Philosophical Guide.  Throughout the ages, he says, midlifers have wondered about the same things.  We wonder about “missing out” on the choices one did not make:  how might life have turned out had I chosen the path I didn’t choose?  We also spiral through questions about mistakes, failures, or misfortunes we are helpless to change and must carry with us.  And of course, there is the inevitability of death and the creeping awareness that life is shorter than we once thought it was.  Will it end before we are able to fulfill all our dreams—the answer is “yes.”  But the subject of midlife isn’t without humor or joy.  Setiya’s book seeks to help middle-aged people feel less alone.  The other people at the school festivals and on the sidelines at soccer games are asking these questions too and the Bible and the church are supposed to give us the means to talk about it.
Life’s hard questions are important to ask at church, and Dave knows that.  Knox Youth Group is a lot of fun, but they also talk about things: like cyberbullying and suicide, anxiety, and questions about the existence of God—because these are the things young people need to talk about.

I’m actually quite glad to reflect on some of the tough questions of midlife in worship today, for as the song we sang in Fresh Spirit today says it, “When I look at life thru eyes of faith, I see it differently.”  Psalm 90 is read mostly at funerals.  That’s not a bad thing—often it’s in the context of celebrating someone who has lived a long and full life, who figured out how fleeting life is and chose to make the most of every day.  Why leave that conversation for a funeral, when people in their 40s are trying to figure it out right now?  And our tradition offers tools for it.  The author of Psalm 90 isn’t just lost in the questions but suggests some answers.  My translation:  Shake off the hope you’ve placed in material accumulation; let go of your desire to achieve and control as much as you can—these things will only bring misery.  Take seriously your relationship with God, because before our grandparents and after our children, God is the one that remains, and when those other things are gone, that’s the foundation that lasts.  Want to receive the precious gifts to be found in every day?  Stop putting so much energy into things as fleeting as grass—this, says the Psalm writer, is how I’ve found joy.

Psalm 39 offers its wisdom as well.  My favorite line is where he writes, “I am your passing guest” in this human life.  Here, just a little biblical scholarship is helpful.  (For more, see Mays, “Psalm 39” in Interpretation)  The Hebrew for passing guest is resident alien—refugees who found themselves in the land of Israel.  The Law’s demand, which we fall far short of in the modern world, is that the resident alien would receive a hospitable welcome and a place to stay, and would be cared for just as a neighbor.  This is the image the Psalmist gives to human life on earth.  We are not fully at home here, this is not where we’re from.  Our time spent on earth is but a handbreadth along the eternal journey of history.  But God welcomes us in and offers us a place to be cared for as we navigate our journey through life.  Because we are not yet home, it is inevitable that there is restlessness and difficulty in this life, questions we cannot fully wrestle to the ground, and dreams that will not be realized.  And yet the miracle of being on this journey is found in the people who are seated around you in the community that has welcomed you.  Look around!  Here there are people who are older and are passing on good work that is yet incomplete so that those of us who come next can be faithful to it.  And here there are children and youth whose journey is just beginning, whose hearts are open and whose questions are many, and whose potential is limitless because they still believe they are immortal.  And we have the chance to nurture them and ground them in faith for the life ahead.  When we think of ourselves as passing guests, we can loosen our grip on life, hold life’s gifts a bit more lightly, receive blessings with gladness when they come, and share them generously.
Like most of my sermons, this deals more in questions than answers.  And so, a couple of final suggestions on things you might want to think more about in this fragile and quickly passing life:

First of all, this sermon is an invitation to ask our questions together instead of alone.  You might consider joining one of our small groups, several new ones are beginning this fall—the church isn’t meant to be just small talk, like the sideline of the soccer game.  We don’t come and go without talking about things that matter.  This place can be different if you allow it to be.

Second, you might reconsider worship and Bible study as resources to navigate the questions that make you feel stuck.  Confession and forgiveness are articles of faith here—not because we want you to feel guilty, but because we can let go, learn and grow in light of our past.  Prayer is meant to help us do more than just get through the day, but to learn to embrace each moment.  I’m a big fan of yoga and therapy.  Did you know that the gifts of mindfulness, kindness, and living in the moment are core to the teaching of Judaism and Christianity?  The institutional church fails a lot—we’re regular people after all, but our ancient stories and traditions have always meant to help us navigate the real questions and frustrations of life.

I suspect that’s why Dave got into ministry in the first place.  And so, Rev. Annett, good friend, I thank you.  You have given us all, and especially those of us in midlife, a gift today.  You have allowed us to share some stories from your first 20 years in ministry.  And I pray that this day will renew in you a sense of the sacredness of your daily calling in this season of your life.  When one reaches the ripe old age of 44; when one has a spouse to love, a home and children to care for, bills to pay, and deadlines to meet; when you realize that people once asked you all the time, “aren’t you a bit young to be a minister?” and that they’ve stopped asking that…  When these things are true, there is a temptation to feel stuck, and that life is a bit of a grind.  But today, we have looked back at the ways that your day-to-day living gives you the chance to change lives for the better.   And we’ve done it in ways that the rest of us can learn from and adopt.  For yours is not a story of dramatic and famous triumphs, but of how lives are changed for the better when someone has the willingness to listen, care, and share the love of God with others.  Might the life of David Annett have been different, sure.  If only you had shaken the dust of this little church off your feet, might you have been the next Justin Timberlake?  Maybe.  But because you have responded to God’s call on your life, day by day God transforms lives at Knox Presbyterian Church, Cranston Memorial and Hyde Park School, Walnut Hills, and all of the communities touched by your life.  The individual people we have heard from today speak for many.  And they, like your three beautiful children, are the blessing of your having chosen life and a ministry here.  We are passing guests.  We learn how to navigate this journey from the faithful souls who go before us, and we pass on our wisdom for when our journey comes to an end.  And in the middle, we pray as the that ancient Psalmist did, “O God, prosper the work of our hands.”  My translation:  “Make something good of the life you have given me.”  It’s not a bad way to live, is it?  Amen.