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Don't Wish Your Life Away – Br. James Koester

Homily preached at the Parish of St. James, Woodstock VT

Isaiah 49:8-16a; Psalm 131; 1 Corinthians 4: 1-5; Matthew 6: 24-34

I wonder how many of us would describe ourselves as being particularly wise. Do you think of yourself as wise? Sure, we might have a lot of leaning. Sure, we might have a lot of knowledge. But do we have a lot of wisdom? Are you an especially wise person?

I wouldn’t describe myself as especially wise. I know a little about a lot, and I know a lot about a little. Just ask me about icons, or bees, or chickens, and I can hold forth for quite some time. I can tell you why chickens don’t lay so many eggs in the winter as they do in the summer. (It has to do with light, and the role light plays in the hormonal cycle of chickens.) I can tell you what bees do in the winter; (they don’t hibernate, rather they cluster and vibrate to keep warm) and how much honey a single bee will produce in her short lifetime (1/12th of a teaspoon!  Think of that next time you put a tablespoon of honey in your tea or on your toast). I can tell you how to paint an icon, and what it all means. (That alone can keep me going for a couple of hours as some of you discovered yesterday!). But that’s knowledge. That’s information. That’s not really wisdom. So no, I wouldn’t describe myself as particularly wise.

But when I remember my grandmother, I remember an especially wise woman. I wonder if the same is true for you. Was your grandmother one of the wise women of your life?

One of the great regrets that my grandmother had was that she never went to university. Both her son (my father) and daughter (my aunt) as well as her husband (my grandfather) were university graduates. All nine of her grandchildren have earned at least one university degree (and some two or three). But Grandma never went to university, and she always regretted that. So in the latter days of her life, she filled her spare time with classes. She took poetry classes, and history and drawing classes. She studied history and religion and biology. It seemed that there wasn’t a class that Grandma didn’t want to sign up for and read the entire assigned reading list and then some. Whenever you talked to her she was always just back from, or about to go to, or busy reading for, one of her classes. But none of this made Grandma wise; at least not for me. What made Grandma wise was something she said to me over and over and over again. When I was busy longing for this to be over, or for that to happen, or for this to come, or for that to be past, Grandma would quietly say to me: “Oh, Jamie, don’t wish your life away.” Don’t wish your life away.

In her own way, Grandma was saying the same thing to me that Jesus says to all of us today: don’t wish your life away; consider the lilies of the field. These are wisdom words worth paying attention  to.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what

you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than

food, and the body more than clothing? …. So do not worry about tomorrow,

for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for

today. 1

Several years ago, as I was preparing to enter the monastery, I underwent a psychological exam to discover, as we joke in the community, if I were crazy enough to join. Since I have now been in the community for over 20 years, you can see just how crazy I am! At the end of that exam, I asked the examiner what she could tell me. Her response could not have been truer. She said to me, “James, you have a very active fantasy life.” And that indeed is the case.

I can spend hours and hours reinventing the past, or imaging the future. I can rehearse things over and over again wishing that they had gone differently, or imagining how they might go in the future. I can get caught up in a life of nostalgia or fantasy and miss the life I am living right now.

Perhaps this sounds familiar to you. Perhaps there is something in your life that you truly wish had gone differently: a relationship, a job, a situation. Perhaps there is something in your life coming up that concerns or worries you: a difficult conversation that needs to happen, the results of a medical test, even death. And perhaps like me you hear yourself saying: I wish that were over, I wish that hadn’t happened, I wish things were different. And when I find myself wishing those things, I hear my grandmother saying to me: “Oh Jamie, don’t wish your life away.” Don’t wish your life away.

Both nostalgia and fantasy have their place in a person’s life, but if we spend our time living in, and not learning from the past or worried about and not trying to shape our future then we miss the gift that is today for the past is over and tomorrow will never come. Today is the only day you have to live.

Today is the only day there is to say the words: I love you. Today is the only day there is to hear the words: I am sorry. Today is the only day there is to say the words: I forgive you. Today is the only day there is to live.

If you wish that yesterday you had said to someone, I love you; say it today. If you hope that tomorrow you can say the words, I forgive you; say it today. If you need an occasion to say, I am sorry; say it today. The past is over and we can’t change it. Tomorrow will never come. Today is the only day there is to live.

One of the truths about life the way we live it now, is that we are all too busy. We are all too busy rushing from one thing to the next. And as we rush from here to there and back again, we miss the now: we miss the beauty of the snow, and the glory of the hills, we miss the warmth of an embrace and the delight of a smile. We are too busy to see and taste and touch and feel. We have to move on to the next thing, and the next and the next.

Yet Jesus invites us today to consider the lilies of the field and to learn from and wonder at their beauty. He invites us to look at the birds and to ponder the grass. He invites us to live in the moment, for this moment, this minute, this instant is the only time that it truly ours. And it is only in this instant that we can heal the past and shape the future by living in the present. I love you. I forgive you. I am sorry.

Living in the present isn’t easy. Our minds are too full and our hearts are too heavy, weighing us down on the one hand and distracting us on the other. But there is another way to live. We can listen to my wise grandmother and stop wishing our lives away and live in this moment that God has given us. We can listen to Jesus and learn from him and consider the lilies and look at the birds and ponder the grass and not worry about tomorrow, but rather live in this moment that God has given to us.

And how do we do that? How do we consider the lilies and look at the birds and ponder the grass? By saying a few simple words; I love you; I am sorry; I forgive you. And above all, thank you, thank you, thank you.

My grandmother was a very wise woman, not because she took all those classes, but because she knew something about living in the moment. Like Jesus, she delighted in the lilies, and the birds and the grass. Which is exactly what Jesus is inviting us all to do today.

Consider the lilies, look at the birds, ponder the grass, don’t worry about tomorrow. Instead today tell someone you love them; ask someone to forgive you, say I am sorry and above all say thank you. For in those simple acts, you will find wisdom.

I love you. I am sorry. I forgive you. Thank you.

Thank you.

1 Matthew 6: 25, 34

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40 Comments

  1. Jaan Sass on July 29, 2017 at 11:40

    I struggle with ADHD and anxiety much of the time I tend to isolate myself from others it is unhealthy and family tends to pull me in. This homily spoke to me to let go and to look for God’s wisdom.
    Interruptions can be away God speaking to me to stop being anxious and busy and to listen.

  2. Claudia Booth on July 28, 2017 at 22:57

    Very wise and true words, Brother James. Everyone who is reading this needs to pay attention! I experienced the same with my grandmother who only went through 9th grade.

  3. Annette Mayer on July 28, 2017 at 11:19

    In hospice we talk to patients and families about saying “the four things that matter most” based on Dr. Ira Byock’s work – Please forgive me; I forgive you; Thank you; I love you. Those four things pretty much cover it all, and can provide much peace. I tend to carry it a bit further, recommending that we say them to those we love regularly, and not wait until we, or our loved ones, are on our death beds!

  4. Mona M. on July 28, 2017 at 11:02

    wow, How is it I get exactly what I need to read when I need to read it? I love this,thank you.

  5. Barbara Stewart on July 28, 2017 at 10:30

    James, your word for today, July 28/17 made me remember this:
    Listen to the Salutation of the Dawn
    Look to this day for it is life
    The very life of life
    In it’s brief course lie all the verities and realities of our existence
    The glory of action
    The bliss of growth
    The splendor of beauty
    For yesterday is but a dream and
    Tomorrow is only a vision
    But today well spent makes every yesterday a dream of happiness
    and every tomorrow a vision of hope
    Look well therefore to this day.
    Such is the the Salutation of the Dawn.

    It is from the Sanskrit and I memorized it when I was a child. I’m now 71 and it is still in my mind!

  6. Tim Willard on July 28, 2017 at 08:17

    Thank you so much for this.

  7. Gretchen Crawford on July 28, 2017 at 05:32

    Thank you.

  8. Christina on October 29, 2016 at 12:32

    Again, your sermon arrived just at the right moment. I received a letter from my youngest granddaughter the other day. She is seventeen and hopes to be at university next year. I was in Portland for her confirmation earlier this year. This is what she wrote:
    “This year I really want to focus on improving my inner self. I’m going to start a nightly Bible study and really start acting out my faith in ways such as charity or volunteeer, which was the main theme of our sermon today at Mass. …….I’ll keep you updated on how it goes, I’m really excited!”

    When I was seventeen I didn’t have a thought in my mind along those lines. I think Br. James words may have something to say to her.
    Blessings
    Christina

  9. Jane Goldring on October 29, 2016 at 09:51

    Thanks James for your message. I was very lucky I had Brother Jonathan come over to help and guide me during our loss. I was fortunate I was able to go over for the week for Johns services. I thought your homilies very true. It was a very interesting week. I thought Brother Robts. homily was very true. Am back home now and have to get on with my activities with our Lords help. Thanks James

  10. Thank You | The Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana on October 29, 2016 at 00:05

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  11. Elizabeth Hardy on May 3, 2016 at 09:15

    James: Very poignant. In the words of another granny I know: “Why worry when you can pray?”

  12. MIchael on May 3, 2016 at 08:15

    I often think of the lilies of the fied and realize they doing exaxctly what they are desined to do. With God’s grace we will also get there

  13. Roderic Brawn on May 3, 2016 at 05:24

    The lesson of Bible cited in Br. Koester’s homily always makes me think of movie “The Lilies of the Field” in which Sidney Poitier starred. We need to do what is important right now.

  14. Fred Adams on November 11, 2015 at 12:13

    Bro James,
    Thank you.

  15. Rodney on November 5, 2015 at 10:52

    And so I hurry to read this email. Most of my life I have hurried. Why do I hurry? I’m like the idiot who speeds past other cars, cursing at them, to get to the red light 🙂

  16. N on November 5, 2015 at 08:01

    ‘This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.’ Thank you, Brother James.

  17. Mary on November 5, 2015 at 07:07

    Dear Br. James,
    This is the second time this has popped up in my mediation email and it’s fresh and new and real, just as it was the first time. Living in the present is a lifetime’s work of appreciation and practice and gratitude. I still struggle and get pulled to the past and the future. But recently, I have been given a glimpse of this in a young friend hospitalized now for 6 weeks after bone marrow transplant. Her symptoms are miserable, she is poked and prodded and transfused and scanned and biopsied. She lives absolutely in the moment. Her children’s pictures are on the opposite wall, facing her each moment. The future is way to scary and unknown, the past is another life altogether. Every day, every moment, she trusts, prays, gives thanks and doesn’t try to make anything invisible. When I read your Brother Give me a Word, I thought, this time, that’s Kate. What a gift you are and what a gift she is, and an example of how life can be lived gratefully in the most unexpected places. Peace be with you.

  18. Emily Osborn on December 16, 2014 at 13:22

    I remember very well learning the concept of the sanctity of the precious moment. At 87, 88 next month, I practice it to the best of my ability each moment. Life has been very good to me. My husband, Oliver, is alive and well and comparatively active in body and soul at 97. We pray together at every meal and at length after breakfast. We both love Jesus and enjoy the long life he has given us.
    Emily Osborn

  19. Todd Marshall on December 15, 2014 at 17:15

    Thanks for the reminder

  20. Jack on December 15, 2014 at 09:07

    Exactly what I needed to hear today. Thank you.

  21. Christopher Engle Barnhart on December 15, 2014 at 06:42

    This reminds of a book I read a long time ago, “Be Here Now” by Baba Ram Das. We cannot change the past nor control of the future. All we have is the present.

  22. Barry Jenks on October 13, 2014 at 18:11

    Thank you, Brother James, for this and for all you contributions over the past few months. I used yours on Water with a group and e-mailed you but, obviously with the wrong address as it bounced back. I especially wanted to wish you a blessed and happy Canadian Thanksgiving Day today. Barry

  23. gwedhn nicholas on October 6, 2014 at 19:01

    I have recently learned that God does not wish us to bear the burden of our past. He does not wish us to carry a heavy cross made up of all our mistakes and sins. He wishes us to rise with Jesus and be free of our burden. I have also learned that I am having the time of my life, right now, I am living my hearts desire, so I no longer think of the past the way I did, or look with eager anticipation to whatever may or may not happen in the future. Of course I have times when I do, but I have learned to let it go and remember the present; honouring my life so that I may give God the glory, by being present and intentional in what I do. In this way I am always with God. Thank you Br James
    for sharing your grandmothers wisdom. It has confirmed for me what I have been learning over the past year. Blessings, Gwedhen

  24. Pam on October 6, 2014 at 17:04

    I have always tried to tell the people I care about that I care, or I love them. I am not afraid to say I am sorry or I forgive you and if I have done it badly I am realizing that’s okay because I know I have tried my best and sometimes I just have to leave it with God and live… So thank you for this. My gran was a special women too and had no education and yet she knew the best thing of all…. She knew how to love and make it known and for that I am so grateful. I can remember she used to enjoy just sitting and watching nature and I loved to sit with her and the silence between us was never awkward but full of pleasure. I don’t remember her telling me she loved me except when I went to work overseas as an adult ( she would always end the conversation like that) but I knew she loved me. I needed no reassurance because I just knew she did…….I shared her with all my friends and all the neighbors kids too – to them she was gran too and she loved everyone of us. Her stories and her hugs were the best and shared with all. I think she taught me the wisest thing …… That love should be free and that if someone shows that they love you or tells you that they do, believe them, because you don’t need reassurance because that can only kill love. And that love is the one thing that never seems to get divided, if it really is love.
    I realize now it made all the difference in my childhood and how I grew up and for that I am so very grateful, because I wonder now where I would have ended up , if I hadn’t believed that all those years ago.

  25. Christina on October 6, 2014 at 09:15

    I was on the same page as your grandmother. My husband, and all my children went to university. I was never jealous of their accomplishments – they all worked hard to gain them. I am blessed that my children are all good, thoughtful people.
    But, in the working world it made me angry that those of us who didn’t have a little piece of paper to hang on the wall were lesser than those who did. So, when I was fifty I left the working world and went to university. It was the time of my life – I loved many of the courses I took. It was difficult for me because I didn’t really have the background (I had no idea what DNA was for example) but somehow I made it through bit-by-bit. Receiving my degree has made all the difference to my life; my only regret was that I did not gain the confidence that it gave me earlier in my life. No. It was not a brilliant degree but I am grateful for having had the opportunity to take it part-time. Christina

    • Mryka on May 3, 2016 at 13:54

      Christina,
      As a University prof let me tell you that you are the kind of person I want in my classes. I am always pushed towards teaching as competing for grades among my students and preparing them for a tough, competitive job world. That’s of course necessary in some ways, but I always want students who are there to learn things new to them and see new connections.
      Often I have women who have devoted their lives to raising families and keeping the finances afloat come to talk about coming back to University to learn: their main problem is usually that they think they can’t succeed. I almost always say “You’ve held a job for 20 years? You’ve raised kids to adulthood? You’ve learned that things are not black and white? You’ve learned that challenge is not failure? You’ll do just fine!”

  26. Polly Chatfield on October 6, 2014 at 08:56

    Thank you, James. If I have an impulse to love, to forgive, to comfort, I must give into it. It is a gift of the holy Spirit, a blessing not to be spurned. I didn’t know this truth for years. Foolishly I thought it came from inside me, but now i know we are enveloped by the Spirit’s wisdom.

    • Christina on November 5, 2015 at 09:48

      Dear Polly (2015-11-05)
      I have read Br. James homily before this morning. Always speaks to me. This morning your response also spoke to me. Thank you.

  27. Ruth West on June 4, 2014 at 18:14

    Br. James, what simple and wise truths! Thank you
    so very much.

  28. Tinka Dawson on June 4, 2014 at 10:07

    I appreciate all the excellent words and thoughts that come from all of you. What I haven’t heard are words relevant to a mobile-impaired, non-driving senior. No, I’m not rushing around, etc–been there, done that. Now I’m alone, pretty housebound with lots of time for contemplation. Yes, I do spend much time praying, reading, etc but I struggle to figure out how to do God’s will and help others in God’s name. Any thoughts?

    • Leslie on October 6, 2014 at 08:16

      Tinka, my hope for myself is that I will knit mittens for the homeless and make quilts for the church bazaar.

    • Meribeth Zane on December 15, 2014 at 11:07

      I was a long time registered nurse, when a tree fell on me in 2009. While I can now drive and walk short distances, I can’t walk or stand very far or long. I also lost my nursing career at 60. I too struggle to know how I can serve others. I’ve written a memoir of my journey over the past several years and am seeking to publish it. I’d been a person of limited faith (but constantly seeking Jesus) until I found myself alone and despairing in the hospital. A hospital worker a transporter was pushing my guerney when I cried out to God for help. At that moment, she came up to me. “You’re going to be okay. God is going to heal you. You don’t have to be afraid,” she said. At that moment, I felt Jesus’ presence speaking through her. In the next, I felt the Holy Spirit awaken within me and despite the mess my body was in, I felt joy!! I wasn’t alone! Despite that life changing event, lately, I’ve found myself a little depressed. Today as I read your post, I felt much better.
      Thank you so much for reminding me that my connection with the Lord lies in this present moment and not in obsessing about past and future.
      I love you for your thoughtful words and spirit of love.
      Meribeth

    • Faith Turner on July 28, 2017 at 17:47

      I am like you. In assisted living now. All I can say is “Be an encourager” “Encourage other people by telling them something positive about themselves . We need this in the present day when many only say negative things to each other. Help others in a small wayl Smile at them Recognize them as a fellow child of God. Pray for them quietly. As you encourage others you will see that you are lighting up your brain with God’s Wi-Fi

  29. Julianna Hodge on June 3, 2014 at 21:57

    Thank you, James, for sharing these
    Words with us. They bring me back
    to Grace.

  30. Alexander Gordon on June 3, 2014 at 21:24

    Thanks James

  31. Emily B. Osborn on June 3, 2014 at 13:42

    After a discussion with my husband just a few minutes before I read this, it was as if you wrote it just for me. ebo

  32. Melanie Zybala on June 3, 2014 at 13:08

    Thank you
    I might add one or two other lines to yours:
    “Help me. I can’t do this alone.”
    Personally, I’m uneasy with the word “Wisdom”.
    Hearing it, I want to run the other way. But what
    your grandmother said was real and good.

    • Mryka on May 3, 2016 at 13:46

      Melanie, I’d like to know what bothers you about “wisdom”. A few years ago someone told me I had a gift of wisdom and I resisted it quite strongly, because it sounded to me like I was being perceived as an “elitist” or someone claiming extensive knowledge – as in “Wisdom” being a theological synonym for part of the Trinity. But I have come to see it as a gift. A big turning point was “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” but not fear as being scared but as being awed and worshipful: we not only can’t but must not use religion to try to control God, but to worship and be in awe of how much beyond our comprehension He is – and also through Jesus be aware at the same time how much he loves all of His creation, namely everything. So I have come to see being wise as not being cynical or elitist, but as being in ever more constant touch with “the love that moves the sun and other stars” while accepting how unable we are to understand it and turning that not to disinterest or fear (in the bad sense) but to worship, prayer and awe.

  33. Ed McLean on June 3, 2014 at 12:11

    Thank you, Brother Koester,

    This was the advice that I needed to read today! It has turned my day around and I will go in a better direction..

    Again, thank you, thank you!

    Peace and blessings.

    Ed

  34. jane tiernan reilly on June 3, 2014 at 07:02

    Thanks so much, James, for today’s word. I am just a week and a half away from our son’s wedding, and I needed that! Bless you!

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