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On Birthdays

Tue, Nov. 06, 2012 Posted: 12:07 AM

Birthdays are milestones, rites of passage through time. We look back from this moment given, and we look forward from this moment given.

On my birthday I celebrated another year of life, another gift, full of challenge, grace, survival, blessings. I have lived sixty-five years, and recently embarked on my sixty-sixth. I've been given a specific portion of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in which to breathe, to think, to laugh, to cry, to love. I have been given a body and a mind for which I have been responsible. Have I been a good steward of these gifts?

I have known sorrow and joy. I have done ill and I have done good. I have repented and I have succeeded. Have I made peace with my past?

It is said in my family that when I was born in Fresno, California, in the summer of 1947 my mother cried out, "Another girl for the mission field!" At the time they thought the statement odd, since I was her firstborn. But on reflection I have come to believe that my mother was the first girl for the mission field, for she in her own way had been a missionary. She didn't go to China or India or Burma or the African jungles, but she led Bible studies and new member gatherings in our living room. My father had served as a Navy chaplain in the South Pacific in World War II. When he returned home he became a Presbyterian pastor, and with my mother worked for Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. Later, when I was six, they founded the Lafayette-Orinda Presbyterian Church on a hilltop east of San Francisco.

And in my own way, I became that missionary my mother announced to the nurses sixty-five years ago, for after a few wrong turns in my early life, I found God.

It is difficult for someone who has God in their life not to share him, for he pushes out. He is too big to hide. He was part of all of the prayers offered, all of the eucharists received, all of the words of saintly men and women read. He filled this time given, these layers of minutes and hours and days and weeks, forming me.

Other Christians have formed my life as well, in miraculous ways. We are like a garden of many shoots, thorny roses and wild daisies, pungent rosemary and poignant lavender, all growing together in the same soil, watered by the Church, the sacraments, the Word of God. Some of us are mighty trees and some of us are creeping ivy. We brush against one another as we turn our leaves to the sun, or as we drink in the rain.

In Sunday School the children and I made a Church Year wheel, gluing the heavyweight paper shapes onto thick white foam-board. The triangles all pointed to the center where I placed a simple cross. Most of the year was Trinity green – June through November – then wedges of Advent purple, Christmas white, Epiphany green, Lenten purple, Easter white, Ascension white, Pentecost/Whitsunday red, and back to Trinity green. It was an orderly division of time, but also rich with meaning, as the year revealed the enormous events in the life of Christ and God's redemption of man.

We sang "Advent Tells Us Christ is Near," following the seasons in verse. We considered each of the nine "tides," and talked about the Apostles' Creed, our statement of belief.

As I considered the colorful Church Year wheel, I knew that those seasons, year after year, had woven into my life an indescribable richness. Each Sunday, season after season, I lived out, through liturgy and ritual, rich with symbol and song, God's love for me and all my sisters and brothers in the pews, the Body of Christ. God wove us together, making a fine cloth, a colorful tapestry.

So as I reflected upon my sixty-five years, I saw a rough-muslin life that slowly became multi-textured, multi-colored, like Joseph's coat, like my Church Year wheel, like the garden of flowers and herbs, full of sweet aromas. And I was incredibly, or credibly perhaps, thankful.

I wondered what the next year would hold, the next month bring, the next week give, the next day offer, should I be given more hours on this earth to breathe, think, love? Should I be given more conversations with God? Should I be given God himself?

I prayed that God continue his weaving, his painting, his molding, his watering. It is so good to be loved by God, so good to be nourished by him. On my birthday I prayed the words of Clare of Assisi on her deathbed: "Thank you, God, for having made me."

Christine Sunderland, author of Pilgrimage, Offerings, Inheritance, and Hana-lani (all OakTara), formerly Vice-President of the American Church Union and Church School Director for the Anglican Province of Christ the King, lives and writes in Northern California.