Out of the Wilderness:
Spiritual Lessons on Turning Forty

January 8, 2006
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

Lawrence Kushner,
"The Stranger on the Bus"

A light snow was falling, and the streets were crowded with people. It was Munich in Nazi Germany. Sussie had been riding a city bus home from work when SS storm troopers suddenly stopped the coach and began ex-amining the identification papers of the passengers. Most were annoyed, but a few were terrified. Jews were being told to leave the bus and get into a truck around the corner.

Sussie watched from her seat in the rear as the soldiers systematically worked their way down the aisle. She began to tremble, tears streaming down her face. When the man next to her noticed that she was crying, he politely asked her why.

"I don' t have the papers you have. I am a Jew. They' re going to take me."

The man exploded with disgust. He began to curse and scream at her. "You stupid cow!' he roared. "I can' t stand being near you!"

The SS men asked what all the yelling was about.

"Damn her!' the man shouted angrily. "My wife has forgotten her papers again! I' m so fed up. She always does this!"

The soldiers, convinced by the drama that she was the man' s wife, just laughed and moved on.

With a selfless act of love, a stranger on the bus saved the life of this woman. Sussie never saw the man again. She never even knew his name.

You are going about your business when you stumble onto something that has your name on it. Or, to be more accurate, a task with your name on it finds you. Its execution requires inconvenience, self-sacrifice, even risk. You step forward and encounter your destiny. This does not mean you must do everything that lands on your doorstep, or that you should assume every risk or make every self-sacrifice. But it does mean that you must tell yourself the truth about where you have been placed and why.

You do not exercise your freedom by doing what you want. Self-indulgence is not an exercise of freedom. But when you accept the task that destiny seems to have set before you, you become free. Perhaps the only exercise of real freedom comes from doing what you were meant to do all along.

If everything is connected to everything else, then everyone is ultimately responsible for everything. We can blame nothing on anyone else. The more we comprehend our mutual interdependence, the more we fathom the implications of our most trivial acts. We find ourselves within a luminous organism of sacred responsibility.

Even on a bus in Munich.

THE SERMON "Out of the Wilderness: Spiritual Lessons On Turning Forty"

One of the highlights of life in ministry is being able to celebrate people' s milestones with them. As we say in our covenant, we are here for each other to "celebrate the sacred moments of life' s passage," and I have done just that with this congregation and the wider community during weddings and memorial services, baby dedications and christenings at church and in the home, graveside memorials, wedding anniversaries, and the most sacred moments of life' s passage, birth and death. And birthdays.

In the spectrum of important occasions, birthdays are pretty low on the totem pole. We all have one every year; some people like a big fuss made about them, and others would just as soon you ignored it. I suppose a birthday is a big milestone only if the birthday boy or girl decides to make it so. I never decided that my 40th birthday, which falls next Saturday night, should be a big milestone, but it became one in my mind just about as soon as I turned 39. This surprised me, as I' m not an age-phobic person and since I really didn' t like being a child (because everyone treated me like a kid! and I hated that!), I assumed I would welcome in middle age with total equilibrium. But I' m just going to come out and admit that I' ve spent the last year obsessed with turning 40, which happens next Saturday. For those of you who are laughing that 40 is hardly middle-age, I would just say that I think of 40 as the baby of middle age. And I don' t think it' s old at all! I believe you' re only as old as you feel! I really do! And I ‘m still obsessed!

I have looked at my eyelids and thought about having a lift. The eye cream works on the crow' s feet, but there' s no cosmetic that will stop the ouchy jowls from developing around the mouth. I' m already worried that my nursing home won' t let me burn incense or open my windows. I still have to meet with an attorney in this congregation who offered to do my end-of-life directives. I suppose I am avoiding it. My memorial service plans are on file but I am a little bit worried about whether or not I will need knee or hip replacement someday, and if I do, which of my nephews will come and do my grocery shopping for me. My nephews are ten months and two years old. I bought them really good Christmas presents so that they' ll start to think fondly of their dear old spinster auntie. Yes. I am bribing them.

All of this is what Buddhists call "monkey mind." I have had bad monkey mind since I turned 39. Believe me, I will not be alone when 40 hits next weekend. Friends don' t let friends turn 40 alone.
I have struggled with this embarrassing obsession all year and I hoped that by sharing it, I might help at least one of you feel less embarrassed about having your own bouts of such catastrophic thinking, which you never have, …right?

Around July I figured, well, if you can' t beat it, try to understand it. I began to look around a bit to see if there was any reason turning 40 would have put my spirit into such nervous turmoil and was interested to learn that the number forty turns up at several very important moments in the Bible. Let me tell you what I found:

In the book of Exodus, the book of deliverance, Moses leads his people through the wilderness for forty years before getting to the Promised Land. This is significant. When the people of Israel get going on this journey, they are a motley gathering of cranky, skeptical, disobedient nomads. Moses himself loses his cool with them a few times, and he himself doesn' t always understand what in the world his new God YHVH is doing. But after forty years, and here' s the important part for any of you who have ever turned 40 – after forty years, that messy, stumbling crew emerges from the Wilderness to the Promised Land as a people. God has taken a band of ragtags and made them a people, a people called Israel.

So I wonder: if it takes forty years to make a random collection of nomads a people, maybe it takes a human being at least forty years to bring together all the different personalities we are, all the ragtag elements of ourselves, and become a person. In Yiddish, a mensch. You may not reach any Promised Land, but at forty, you at least know who' s on that wilderness journey with you. You are. Others will join you along the way and drop in and out, but you' re the only constant.

Something you might not know about the story of Exodus is that just as Moses is leading his people to the Promised Land – just as he sees it over the crest of the hill for the first time – he dies. He never gets to actually be there with his people. Very few Biblical scholars make satisfactory sense of this: it certainly seems a cruel way for God to repay Moses' loyalty, doesn' t it? But the way I see it, Moses had to die. After forty years, those people needed to grow up. They needed to know who they were and what their loyalties and commitments were without Moses to interpret it for them, and to goad them along, and to keep them from worshiping golden calves, stuff like that. After forty years, it was their journey to take themselves. After forty years, you' d better be ready to be your own scout master.

Forty shows up another time in the book of Genesis, earlier on in the Hebrew Scriptures, when we get the story of Noah and hear how it rained for forty days and forty nights. Again, a symbolic number: after forty days and nights – after forty anything, according to Biblical symbolism – you' re going to know something has changed for good, something has been established, something is a new, sanctified edition of what was. At the end of forty days and forty nights, those sons and daughters of Eve saw the skies clear and they knew it was up to them to go forth and deal with the new, fresh world. The wilderness experience of the ark, where they were tossed around against their will, was over. Now there was the land and their feet upon the land, and their responsibility for what came next.

The number forty appears at a significant moment in the Christian Scriptures, too:

In the book of Matthew, we hear that Jesus went into the wilderness on a kind of vision quest, fasting for – guess how long?-- forty days and forty nights. This was at the beginning of his public ministry, before he made his big entrance at the River Jordan. While he was in the wilderness those 40 days and nights, Jesus was tempted by Satan (the Adversary), so the story goes, who first challenged him to change some stones into bread (which Jesus basically ignored), and then said, "Listen, if you' re so special to God, why don' t you throw yourself off of this parapet and prove it? It says in your Bible that God will send angels to protect you and everything." And Jesus said, "Please. Like I' m going to fall for that." (forgive the pun) But Satan tried one more time, and took Jesus up on a mountain to show him the whole world. "Join my team," he said, "And all that is yours." But Jesus just laughed in his face and went off to do his ministry and to have his life.

And I think he could do that, you know, because he had been out there for forty days and forty nights, figuring out who he was, and getting good and hungry and sleep deprived and coming into serious encounter with his own soul. I think we' re meant to see that forty days and nights as a kind of speeded-up Jesus equivalent of what it takes you and me forty years to achieve: getting clear on what we' re going to do with our gifts, and not being tempted by all the glittery toys and fantasies that get dangled in front of us.

I promise I won' t do this more than once a decade or so, but I' d like to share with you some of the truths that I am holding to as I turn forty, that I think I have figured out over this year of thinking and obsessing. These are in no particular order, but these thoughts haven' t come in an organized fashion. They' ve come in the form of admonitions, as in "Well Vicki, you' re heading into your forties. You' re not a kid anymore. You should have figured some things out by now. What have you figured out?" So let' s call this list, "Things Vicki Thinks She Should Have Figured Out By the Age of Forty" (and maybe they' ll work for you, too, at any age):

1. So, number one. By the time you' re forty, you might not know exactly who you are, but you should know whose you are. This is a question of deep identity and highest allegiance.

Who do we really belong to? To what tribe or nation or ideal is our highest loyalty? For me, the progression went something like this: when I was a child, my most intense loyalty was to being a member of my family, being a Weinstein. When I entered my college years, I had a feminist awakening that led me to identifying with the world primarily as a woman; by gender. Eventually,

I began to see myself as a human, period. I realized this year that my highest loyalty is to the human tribe, one people, all brothers and sisters living in what I believe is a world infused with holy presence and purpose. This loyalty changes how I see everything: war, peace, politics, economy, what to do on summer vacation, how to read the news, where to shop, everything.

Whose are you? Heading to forty for me has been about crossing borders of loyalty, where I hope to remain a woman without a country, a citizen of Earth, belonging to my God.

2. Second spiritual lesson: childhood is important but I can' t stay there to look for answers to everything that I screw up today.

In short, I think there comes a time when we come to terms with our childhood, however glorious or awful it was. By forty, we know for sure that we' ve survived childhood, and even though we realize that our childhoods are to blame for many of our dysfunctions, hopefully we can claim the health that we' ve earned since those years and let the past go, mining it for its richest the best we can. I' m trying not to blame my childhood any more.

3. The third spiritual lesson is taken from the philosopher Terrance, who said "nothing human is alien to me."

This has been a mantra for me over the past three years, and it' s a helpful mantra in ministry. Nothing human is alien to me. Yesterday someone in town asked me, "Vicki, did you see on the front page of the Patriot Ledger that there' s a big prostitution ring on the south shore ? Can you believe it?" I said, "Sure I can. Nothing human is alien to me."

In forty years, you can see a lot if you' re paying attention. You know the depths of human depravity and the heights of altruism. You' ve seen natural disasters and wars and learned something about history and how it all folds back over itself like a mobius strip. No one wants to become jaded, but there' s no real need to keep being shocked by so much. I came to realize that this is a spiritual lesson when it dawned on me how often shock is peddled to all of us as mind-candy -- and that shock is actually used as a divisive measure by everyone from advertisers to the news media to local and national political leaders to religious leaders to … well, lots of places.

Shock is a dramatic reaction to something human and earthly, and it' s a trickster: when we feel shocked by someone' s behavior or a predicament they' re in, then we actually don' t have to care about them, we don' t have to put ourselves in their shoes, and we don' t have to help. Shock takes us right out of a sense of relationship and into a place of distance. We can just sit there from our own comfortable place on the couch and say, "Oh my God, that' s so shocking" and feel like we' ve had a meaningful reaction just because shock is such an energetic response. In truth, we' ve done nothing but exercise our jaws. So shock is a real trickster, and I' m not getting tricked by it again. That' s the end of my relationship with Jerry Springer.

4. Fourth lesson of forty: standing for something is a lot more meaningful than standing against something. In my younger days I spent a lot of energy and time denouncing things I rejected and didn' t like. I was so intent on proving myself a non-conformist that I was just like every other non-conformist out there! At this stage of life, I think it' s much more appealing to passionately witness to those things I do believe in and hold dear, than to spend my time and energy pronouncing my disagreements with this or that philosophy. Mama says you draw more flies with honey, and she' s right.

I finally figured out: why make a big production of my individuality? When you reach a certain age, you realize that pretty much everyone defies categories. As the old joke goes, "Of course you' re special…. just like everybody else."

When it comes down to it, I' ve realized that very few people care to know what I don' t believe in. And not that many care a whole lot what I do believe in. What they care about, actually, is having a conversation where they feel listened to and respected. Which leads me to the fifth lesson I' ve learned, which is short and sweet, and it is this:

5. One of the most loving things you can do for a person is to listen generously to them. You don' t have to fix, you don' t have to analyze. Just listen generously, receive their truth, hear their story without waiting for your turn to speak or comparing their story to yours or judging. What a simple way to love someone. And harder than it looks.

6. Sixth, in a word: children. I finally get what Whitney Houston means when she sings, "I believe the children are our future." This year I' ve become intensely aware of the legacy we' re leaving our children. I have a sense of urgency that we not leave them a grossly polluted planet full of petroleum addicts who can' t figure out how to provide the society with health insurance, decent jobs, a college education that won' t put them into so much debt that they' ll never be able to buy a home, and no prospect of retirement. I think about this a lot lately – thinking that I' ve had my turn to grow up with wonderful parents and mentors along the way, and now it' s my turn to be there for the youngers. At forty, I' ve decided that if some whipper snapper thinks I have some wisdom to impart, I' m going to get over my terror of failing them and try to make a contribution.

I begin teaching at Andover-Newton seminary on February 2, when I will be forty and three weeks old. Think I should tell the class that? "Hi, I' m Professor Weinstein and I' m forty and three weeks old and ready to mentor you!" I' m sure they' ll like that.

7. Seven, if you want to figure out how to age gracefully, surround yourself with people who are aging gracefully and make yourself their student. Easy job here, I can tell you that. I interviewed six nonagenarians last May and it was the best tonic for fears of aging I could have asked for.

8. Finally, an eighth lesson, and it' s one I started learning early on but am finally beginning to truly accept. It goes something like this: "More love, less control."

What that means is that there' s a lot in life that I can' t predict and can' t prevent, no matter how much I worry, how hard I work, or how much I try to steel myself against suffering (both mine and others). My life' s task isn' t to construct an edifice of security I think I can hide in, but to walk together with people I love in the spirit of love and trust, knowing we can respond well and compassionately to whatever comes along. And knowing that we will. There is great solace in that; a different kind of security.

I was startled to recently re-discover these great words by Lawrence Kushner --which I had read once and loved, but haven' t seen in about a decade -- because they resonated so deeply for me. He wrote, "You do not exercise your freedom by doing what you want. … when you accept the task that destiny seems to have set before you, you become free."

I used to think that becoming a grown up meant to live out all my wildest dreams. And then I grew up (chronologically, at least) and realized that there is really only one dream, and that we are all having it together. It is indeed a wild dream.

Thank you for helping me, in so many ways and without ever knowing it, through this wilderness year of facing forty. I feel blessed every day to be living out this wild dream with you.