February 28, 2008

The Better Part

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."

Luke 10:38-42

This familiar interchange between Jesus and the village sisters is a crossroads, a moment for decision, for all involved. Offered an invitation, Jesus chooses to accept the gift of generous provision and warm company. Met by a rabbi whose teaching apparently stirs her soul, Mary chooses literally to adopt the posture of a pupil. Faced with the responsibilities of hosting an eminent guest, Martha chooses to busy herself with recipes and resentment. And thus it all plays out, familiarly so.

But what interests me now, in this Lenten season, is the second choice of Jesus: his decision to place receptivity to God's word over responsibilities to fulfill. He honors Mary's decision to learn and grow, calling it "the better part." We can only assume he means "the better part" of life lived with and for God (see Psalm 119).

To be sure, the sisters' contrast is not a proof text for all faith and no work. There are times to labor and times to learn, days to be Martha and days to be Mary. The wisdom Jesus' commends is this: knowing how to choose which posture is faithful at what time. Hurried, haggard, task-oriented living turns out to be no living at all, if in the end one has no knowledge of the One who gives life in the first place, and who gives it abundantly in this same Christ. In the manner of Mary, regular sitting before God's Word turns out to be the better part of life. Indeed, it is even a necessary part of life if all those other pieces – the many details of living we must all steward – are to make any sense at all.

Jesus commends for us the better part. What choices will you make with your time during this third week of Lent?

February 27, 2008

March Madness

These are shrill times.

It seems everyone has something to say these days, some new bit of noise to add to the deafening din all around us. When the Grammy for Album of the Year goes to a beehived, tattooed, wiry British singer (Amy Winehouse) who is best known for a sassy, swinging tune about the all-too-serious matter of drug rehabilitation—"Ya try to make me go to re-hab, but I say no, no, no"—you know we're not in Kansas anymore. The track makes even the grim denial of a drug problem sound like a toe-tapping good time. Such noise.

And we preachers can be just as shrill. Just last week, a colleague forwarded to me a link to a video on the Internet featuring a preacher in Arizona who for five minutes passionately expounds on a cryptic Old Testament verse that the King James version renders, "… him that pisseth against the wall." His inspired conclusion? "Real men urinate standing up. The Bible says so!" (I promise, Presbyterians, I'm not making this up.) And the best part? It's been viewed some 80,000 times since he posted it online last month.

So much noise, even from the church. And I'm certain that in my time I've added my own ridiculous preacherly contributions to the chatter.

How do we speak our Christian story amid such clamor, inside and outside our walls?

For several months now, I've been reading a biography of Walker Percy, a southern novelist, essayist, and moralist who lived and wrote in the same little Covington, Louisiana, in which I grew up. In point of fact, he was our neighbor. His home was just through the trees—a fact that may constitute my only real claim to fame in this life! Percy converted to Christianity in the 1940s as a young man, soon becoming a devout Roman Catholic. His newly adopted faith, especially its claim that humanity is more than merely a set of biological processes playing themselves out, shifted his entire subsequent writing career (6 acclaimed novels and numerous essays) to wrestle with subtle questions of how faith, hope, and love could be possible in this topsy-turvy, mechanized, modern world.

Percy frequently bemoaned the sad state of language in the shrill times of the twentieth century, especially what he dubbed the "threadbarness of religious words." G-O-D was at the top of his list of complaints. What can the word "God" possibly mean anymore if the preacher yells "God says!" while down the street a sailor yells "God %$#&." The more holy the referent, the more susceptible the word becomes to overuse, meaninglessness. Early in his career, Percy concluded by complaint:

When the holy has disappeared, how in blazes can a novelist expect to make use of it? [It has been said] that God has left us, and I think that one can give this a Catholic (Christian) reading that though he has not left us, his name is used in vain so often that there remains only one way to speak of him: in silence. Perhaps the craft of the religious novelist nowadays consist mainly in learning how to shout in silence.

"Shouting in silence." That for me puts a fresh, new spin on the matter of evangelism, that business of learning how to tell this New Testament story we steward and to invite others into it with us. A stance of reverent silence, at least occasionally, may just make for the most faithful evangelism in these noisy times in which we live.

The Gospel of Luke reports that, as Jesus hangs dying on his cross, "all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things" (Luke 23:49). And while Luke does not say they were silent, I cannot help but imagine they were. There they are, taking it all in, standing in awe and grief and silence as God's Beloved, their Rabbi-Messiah, surrenders his life right in front of them. There is nothing any of them could have said more powerful than their awe-full silence.

Before we know it, beloved, another Holy Week will be upon us. We Christians are annually gifted with seven days (Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday) to "stand at a distance" and "watch these things" unfold before us again. Of course, it's not really again, for the New Testament loves to celebrate the good news that this one Friday-Sunday weekend has happened "once and for all" (Romans 6:10, Hebrews 9:11-12, 1 Peter 3:18). But there is another sense in which it very much happens again, and again, right before our own eyes and ears. We break the Christ-bread and break open the Christ-story, hearing again about his agonizing death (and what it means) and of his astonishing new life (and what it means, such as in Luke 24:13-35).

I just can't help but wonder, amidst such nonstop chatter about Grammys and Primaries and War and Weather, if we believers might do well to huddle together for some sacred silence—deliberate moments of worship wherein the Holy Spirit creates fresh space in our cacophonous lives to hear again to the message that has come to us. Come join me and your elders for another Holy Week of hearing and responding in this way. And as you come, remember Psalm 62: For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.

Hush now, busy world; hear this strange and saving story we have to tell you. Quiet now, believing church; listen again to this bit of massive news that saves and sends you.


February 23, 2008

A Lenten Prayer

As once again we make this journey to the cross of Good Friday, and to the astonishing empty tomb of Easter Sunday, we ask of you, Holy Spirit, that the gospel of our Lord Jesus will illumine this challenging way and make straight our harder paths.

As we make this trek, change us from within. Implant the living word deep in our hearts and cause it to take root. My we on that Friday die to all those matters not yet transformed by your love. And on that Sunday of all Sundays, may we be raised up to new life—fresh, lasting, blessed Christ-in-us life.

We do long for this sort of change, O Lord. But even when we do not, grant us the very longing we so desperately need to begin this journey.

Speak to us through the testimony of Jesus. Amen.

February 20, 2008

Don’t Mess With Me (or Texas)

Even a preacher understands how easy it is to neglect the Scriptures. Hey, life happens … especially for persons with other lives under their care.

But when those of us who have been Christians for some time (read "those of us who should know better"—myself included) let many months go by without so much as a glance at an open Bible, I wonder if this may be because we instinctively recognize that this volatile yet vivifying word about Jesus will, to put the matter plainly, mess with our lives (Hebrews 4:12-16). Show me a fool with symptoms-a-plenty who deftly avoids a trip to the doctor and I'll show you a man smart enough to know that if he goes he'll have to make some changes. Familiar misery will usually trump any future in which we are not in control.

Contrary to popular opinion, it is not really change that we fear. It's death. Specifically, with regard to engaging the Scriptures, we fear the death of those persons/places/things we doggedly believe can save us. Perhaps we hold on to them so tightly because a nice, well-worn idolatry—however poorly it may actually be working for us—is always safer and more comfortable than a comprehensive Easter transformation. (Psalm 32, Colossians 3:1-17)

After you read a demanding passage in, say, the gospels, or in one of Paul's letters, the really good questions to ask of it are not, "How can I make this speak to my life?" or "How could this possibly be relevant to my world?" That's likely trying to cross the bridge in the wrong direction. To have any chance at all of hearing a word from the Lord, the better questions to ask of the Bible are: "What would have to change in me for this passage, promise, or prayer to be true?" "What in my life would have to die?"

It's not that Jesus takes pleasure in our pain. It's that until we get to the bottom of our "don't mess with me" neglect, we'll have no ears to hear what he has to say.

One day one of the local officials asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to deserve eternal life?" Jesus said, "Why are you calling me good? No one is good—only God. You know the commandments, don't you? No illicit sex, no killing, no stealing, no lying, honor your father and mother." He said, "I've kept them all for as long as I can remember." When Jesus heard that, he said, "Then there's only one thing left to do: Sell everything you own and give it away to the poor. You will have riches in heaven. Then come, follow me."

This was the last thing the official expected to hear. He was very rich and became terribly sad. He was holding on tight to a lot of things and not about to let them go.

Luke 18:18-23 (The Message)

February 15, 2008

A Day at the Senate

Rap. Rap. Rap.

"The Senate will now come to order."

The sudden clap of the lieutenant governor's gavel tore me away from a rather indulgent moment of people-watching—my favorite of clandestine hobbies, and one easy to rehearse in a place as interesting and alive as the Patrick Henry building. I was growing amused by our elected officials, so many of whom arrived in house just in the nick of time. I was even more amused by the amount of snack items one Senator was hurriedly stuffing into her desk, as if preparing for a sleepover. Ah … people. Nevertheless, it was time to invoke.

Everyone stood. I adjusted my three button suit, found my appointed place at the lower lectern, and cleared my throat.

Almighty God, Giver of all life, Shepherd of all souls, and the generous Provider of every moment we have been given …

Indeed, it was a generous moment for your pastor. My delight over an invitation last year from Senator Charles Hawkins to deliver an invocation before the Virginia Senate was matched only by the pleasure of the fleeting moment itself—four months of anticipation over forty seconds of prayer. I guess every dog does has his day!

A number of Virginians I know, upon hearing of my trip to Richmond, indicated to me their surprise that the assembly still even allowed public prayer, much less planned for it. Yet my experience there suggested a differing disposition. If warm hospitality and practiced procedure are any indication of predilection, then Senate seemed to welcome the moment of prayer. Perhaps it had already been a long day!

… with certain humility and with an eye toward the considerable tasks before this body, we ask today that you would send forth your deepest blessings, your richest benevolence of wisdom and discernment, courage and resolve …

Background to my words: If a populace is to rise above its lowest common denominator of virtue, and if its representatives are to provide for that difficult ascension, then surely the necessary ingredients must come from someplace—Someone—other than our own well-worn ideologies and victory-hungry designs. That was my assumption as to why a house would make room for an invocation—an official summons of divine blessing, help from above.

And I further decided that I am not yet a cynic about such a prayer. I reasoned that I could neither cajole or verify a senator's sincerity on the matter of actually looking to and trusting in the God revealed to us in the Scriptures. Whether boilerplate or bona fide, I had no control. All I could do, I decided, was to bring to bear the vision of providence inherent to the Christian gospel I represent.

such that the actions of this assembly might transcend the walls of this institution and go forth with haste to bolster the peace, purity, and unity of our Commonwealth. Without your superintendence, O Lord, efforts here at governance are for naught. But with your blessings, your direction, our citizens will surely prosper.

I must admit that I am a sucker for solemn formality, and the Senate has it in spades. From the "All rise!" to the ancient mace under glass, from the solemnity of the moment to the dignity of the assembly, there is still something about being in a place that is "bigger" than your normal everyday world. It seems a gift every now and then to swept up from our sometimes oppressive informality, for language and practice to exhibit dignity and grace.

All of this was in my mind as I worked in advance to craft prayerful language that was befitting to the formal occasion and—even more important to me—suitable for invoking the blessings of a God as awe-full as the Triune One whom we worship and adore. Will God accept our informalities? Surely. But God also deserves our superlative best.

Lord of Life, we are certain that you shape the grand courses of history, but we are also bold to believe that your gracious Providence extends even down to the details of living, to the subtleties of our particular lives.

And yet … it is also be true that sometimes our humanity is forgotten under the blanket of official rhetoric and public debate. When we do not know a person (in this case, our elected officials), we are prone to dehumanize them and thereby to expect from them more than they (or anyone) can deliver. And when formality is the only guise, never buttressed by genuine relationships, then I imagine that among elected officials themselves—and surely among the public—their personal stories, their particular lives are apt to be forgotten

As such, as I prayed for wisdom and for words, as I anticipated the assembly over which I would ask the Lord's blessings, for weeks a singular thought kept recurring in my mind: the formality of the capital notwithstanding, at the end of the day these people are human beings—blessed and cursed, able and unable as the rest of us. This theme persisted long enough in me that I concluded it was an urging of the Holy Spirit.

As such, in light of your grace for all who seek you, I also today invoke your blessings upon each and every member of this Assembly. For amidst all the trials and tribulations of our Commonwealth and its people,amidst all the deliberations and decisions facing this body, represented in this Senate are also myriad lives, personal histories, individuals in your image—with homes, families, and stories of their own.

I thought a lot about the tenor of political banter in our state, about the weight of an oppressive bifurcation in public opinion, and I wondered how often invited clergy simply prayed, not for issues and items, but for them—as persons, men and women. Perhaps frequently; perhaps never. I did not know, so I decided to offer an intercession.

Where there is difficulty or burden, send your strength. Where there is frustration or grief, bring your hope. Where there are gifts or callings yet undiscovered, shine your light …

As for me, whenever these gifts—strength, hope, light—descend from the heavens, I assume it to be the fruits of our risen Christ. The only hope I know or can imagine is hope formed in the crucible of the New Testament cross and resurrection. As such, my language in prayer typically follows suit.

Yet I was interested—albeit, not surprised—to receive with my formal invitation from the Clerk of the Senate an additional sheet of paper: Guidelines for Prayer in a Pluralistic Society. Contained in the memo were reminders about the religious diversity of our society, and therefore of the Senate also, and how one should pray there with a corresponding sensitivity. It suggested that one should drop from one's invocation as many specific, creedal, and personal names for "the Deity" as possible—the less explicit, the better. (Well, there went my "I make this prayer in Jesus' name.")

Now to be fair to our lawmakers' clerk, there were merely guidelines, not rules. I do not imagine I would have been driven out to the edge of town for naming the particular name of Christ. But the whole idea did get me thinking: We Americans like to speak of our pluralism, the great breadth of our tolerance for varying creeds, culture, and concepts. Yet what we in fact seem practice is not plurality, but a kind of contrived oneness—a "unity" maintained by boiling the rich stew of our faith down into a thin gruel. If we truly practiced plurality, if we mustered the maturity we like to imagine we posses, we would in fact welcome the specificities of faith, expressed in the particular and peculiar language of prayer.

In an ideal world … (But alas, we do not live there.) So for now, I imagine that I am willing to hear an invocation close with some other name tomorrow if I can end with "Jesus" today. That would more accurately be pluralism—multiple voices. As it is, to pray in generic terms is perhaps to expect generic results. Take away the intercession ministry of the risen Christ, and I have little means or desire or language to pray. It is difficult to know which is the greater concession.

And yet, I thought about Paul in Athens (Acts 17), who carefully flew the gospel of Christ in under the radar of the rather generic religious sensibilities of the day—and in doing so brought those within earshot to the heart of the matter. One has to make careful connections between Scripture and the prevailing culture, and not mock the genuine invitations for speaking a word and asking for a blessing. In the end, I left off his Name from my prayer, but strove to lace his Words throughout mine. I trust this was befitting to his ministry.

… such that each of these women and men who serve us might come to know again of your loving-kindness and sustaining power, and from the overflow of that generous grace, that they might minister to our Commonwealth throughout these momentous days.

All in all, it was a tremendous experience—fleeting but poignant. To speak to God before the oldest democratic body on the continent; to represent you there, Altavista Presbyterians, and our greater Kirk as well; to be greeted by so many hospitable people with so much on their plates; to imagine in prayer that here and there, now and then, the wheels of our government are in some real way greased by the merciful Providence of God in Christ …

This, O Lord, is our invocation today. Amen.

P.S. On my way out of the room after my prayer, while the Senate moved on with its busy agenda, a kindly senator quietly rose and stopped me at the door with a handshake. "Thanks for being here," she whispered. I thanked her for thanking me.

And then, with an endearing mixture of gratitude and pride, she whispered, "You know, I'm a Presbyterian, too!"

February 14, 2008

My Tricky Valentine

It seems to me that we Presbyterians have had a kind of tricky relationship with romance in general and Valentine's Day in particular. The month of February has no particular place of honor in our church year, falling midway between the bright festival of Christmas and the rather ominous season of Lent. The liturgical planners rather plainly dub these weeks "ordinary time." Blah.

But February is renowned among our neighbors for being a month of love, romance, and even passion. The symbols of this abound in shops and on cards: hearts, candy, flowers, and more shades of red and pink than you ever knew existed. But what's a baptized life to do with all this talk of passion? What's the church to make of romance—is it virtue or vice?

In general, we Presbyterians tend to be a little wary of our emotions, or at least the public display of them. We take Paul's decree to do all things "decently and in order" to its most logical extreme! We have often had a kind of love/hate relationship with our inward affections. We know all good things come from God, and yet we always have in the back of our minds the fear that all good things can also become our idols and our masters. A person who quite naturally "falls in love" is one thing; a person ruled by passion and enslaved by affection is quite another. More or less, we have publicly steered clear of the whole matter, recognizing that there is hardly a thing less "orderly" than romance! It can wholly undo even the most put-together of lives.

Perhaps we have overcorrected. We need to learn again how to be courageous exegetes, daring interpreters of the Scriptures, relearning the art of claiming the inherent giftedness of a thing without succumbing to the temptation to exploit it. See Genesis 2 for a story about goodness and exploitation. Or consider the Song of Songs in the Old Testament. I was never really satisfied growing up with the official explanation I was given as to why a sensual, romantic love poem was in fact a Holy Spirit-inspired, church-endorsed member of the sacred canon. "It's about Christ and his church," we were told. Please. Adolescents are not so easily fooled. It's a hot-blooded valentine, written from one beloved to another, played out in the presence of God. Shocking! Indecent! And Biblical.

Must this love poem be some sort of cryptic ecclesiology in order that its place in our Bibles be legitimated? Is our embarrassment about affection the Bible's problem, or ours? Could it not be that the romantic love and sensual affection—created by God and born out in the covenantal relationships of men and women—is endorsement enough for its place in the canon, and for affection's station in the baptized life?

But, you say, sins and saints tend to hang together. The goodness, even greatness of such emotions is rarely so pure and undefiled. Just look around.

Yes, I know: Nothing like a little total depravity to ruin a good date. Granted, that's true. We do live in the world, this world, and we often fall short of the glory so manifest in the goodness of God in Christ. Our affections easily become our idols and we are prone to sin all over. We let affections in marriage grow cold. We let affections beyond marriage kindle just enough to entice us. Obvious affections in others we watch with both envy and disgust. Let's not pretend, most who are alive have known these and many other romantic temptations. Theologically speaking, the whole thing is just downright messy.

Maybe old Paul is helpful here. Consider 1 Corinthians 8. It might be worth a read this day. His whole argument there is about food and sacrifices—issues that seem light years away from us. But substitute romance for food and suddenly the teaching comes alive. When romantic affection becomes the idol we worship, we are in trouble. The passion is only sinful when it passionately drags us away from God.

When we are in love with being in love, when we hunger for passion because our own has long faded, when we organize our life and time in order that our thin sensualities might be satisfied, when we pour out affections on others in order that they might recapitulate them and in turn give us meaning and purpose … these are the angst-ridden alters of romance which mistakenly command our worship and, as such, ruin our lives. Paul's point is this: Even that which is so good and right can become terribly demonic. Don't stumble, he says. And don't cause others to stumble either.

Instead, if you have it, let passionate romance for your beloved spring out of the baptized life, out of your response to God's passionate mercy in Christ, in honor of the goodness and divine image with which you have been endowed, in celebration of the marvelously mysterious affection that cultivates between woman and man, out of the deep gladness for the strength and stability of your marriage vows (or those soon to be), and as an expression of your gospel agape for your beloved, your loving acts that build up the other's life. Out of these matters let your romance flow—without shame, without embarrassment. This is your worship, says Paul, living your life before God.

"For there is only one God, and through him do all things exist." All things. Even romance.

Have a blessed St. Valentine's Day.

February 13, 2008

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

The story of the young man with his many possessions has always haunted me. Matthew 19:16-22 is where you can find it. While this poignant gospel scene has popped up in many a stewardship (or better, church budget) sermon, I guess I have never really felt that the crux of this ephemeral conversation was really about money. It's more about saying goodbye, about breaking up. It is about leaving behind one relationship and choosing to foster (follow) another.

We all have our certain crutches, to greater or lesser degrees. Crutches: habits, ideas, fantasies, possessions to which we cling tightly because we believe, however erroneously, that they will get us through. We believe that they will be there for us when others will not. We suppose they will save us … from facing the truth, from coming to grips, from being alone. In that way, they feel like old friends to us. Companions. And like an old man with his literal crutch, we hobble along through life with these "friends" of ours. Each step is painful, but even pain can be comforting in its familiarity.

That's the problem for our young text-friend. He has a relationship with his stuff that is too entrenched, too familiar, too much an integral part of his life for him to imagine saying goodbye. Indeed, breaking up is hard to do. This is how I read the deep sadness of the twenty-second verse. He grieves what he knows he cannot, or will not do.

But what really haunts me, I suppose, is that at the end of this conversation about relationships and decisions, our Jesus lets him walk away.

Some part of me wishes that our Lord would in a dash go running after him, claiming our friend after all—Jesus giving up his stake in a kind of divine game of chicken. But he does not. Somehow, amid his inscrutable predestined grace, God still manages to guard enough freedom for us to walk away.

Like many a teenager, years ago I probably settled too often for friends of a lower quality—and here I mean the human kind—because, even though I knew in the end they would probably be no good for me, they were available. They were present in the moment. And sometimes in the harsh data of the moment, it is hard to trust that anything will get better in the future. So it was for the Hebrew children of old: Egypt may have been slavery and suffering, but at least it was predictable and well-known. Freedom is hard won when an unlikely future seems too far away. See Exodus 14:10-12 for more on such fears.

All I know is that we are mostly creatures of comfort. We are willing to entertain even the worst of habits and ideas and behaviors if it means stability, familiarity, consolation. And even when we know our old cronies are no good for us, even when we learn that we always get into trouble when we hang around together, the prospect of being alone in our newfound freedom is often too much to bear.

Again, this kingdom-exchange between our young friend and our young savior is not about money at all; not about things, either. It is about leaving old securities behind. It is about breaking up with one in order to be engaged to another. Religion he can do. Morality and decency he already practices. But the call of Christ hits him hardest when it asks him to leave behind his old friend-who-is-no-friend at all.

In these moments the calling of Jesus to new/free life can seem so crazy, so impossible. But I imagine that Christ is most alive in us, for us, precisely in those risky but righteous moments—those junctures of trust when we feel deep within us that frightening/wonderful call to leave behind the old and embrace the new. I do not imagine these calls come because our Lord relishes our sin suffering or delights in our raw difficulties. I imagine they come because, in the end, there can be no life abundant as long as there are competing claims. Our comforts are no longer holy when we worship them.

Our Comforter is a jealous God, not likening the competition we so regularly stack up against him. So the One who deserves our worship will likely ask us to give away our crutches until we are able to walk behind him unhindered in his Friday-Sunday way.

To walk away from Jesus in burdened-sadness; to walk toward him in trusting-fear. Those are the only options for most of us, on most days. The former is familiar and safe—granted. The latter, however, is surely abundant life.

February 12, 2008

It Is Written

Jesus answered him,
"It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'"

Every Sunday we pray in the Lord's Prayer, "Lead us not into temptation." In at least one instance in Jesus' life, however, the answer to that prayer was a sobering "no."

Quick on the heels of his beautiful baptism (Luke 3:21-22), Jesus finds himself in a barren place. The Spirit brings him to the "wilderness"—a situation no doubt familiar to him, as it was so utterly familiar to his ancient forty-year forbearers in faith. Indeed, God has a long history of rescuing his people from the wild, barren, even deadly places (Exodus 16:35, Ezekiel 37:1-14).

Consider the undeniable gravity of Luke 4:1-13. In his lonesomeness and hunger, our Lord is besieged by a trinity of temptations. Each one is alike in that he is being enticed to choose a different vocation, another (no doubt easier) way of being messiah. Shall he exploit his status with the Father to secure a more certain and painless future, or will he trust that in the calling he has been given, God will surely supply his legitimate needs? To be (the Christ) or not to be … that is the question in this wilderness, his wilderness.

It should be noted that amid the onslaught of attractive alternatives—these three temptations to forget both who he is and whose he is—his chosen remedy is not his creative originality or some fantastic superpower. The Jesus of Luke's gospel is neither a virtuoso genius nor a plastic superhero; he is the beloved of God. As such, he fends off the devil with the best "power" at his disposal: the old, old word of the Lord.

Thrice he is temped, and thrice he replies: "It is written…"

His quick recall of those inspired scriptural words suggests countless little stewardship choices along his earlier life's way: I shall use this moment to feast on the word of the Lord (cf Luke 2:46). And having feasted often, he now knows the word of life even amid his current famine. By God's word, Jesus is not only shielded from the clutches of substantial temptation, he finds the strength he needs to embrace his true calling. Indeed, by the very next verse, he is off and running (Luke 4:14).

Here's a Lenten question for us all: If even our Lord looked to scripture in his time of vexing need, how much more does it behoove us to stockpile plenty of scripture in the cupboards of our mind? Engaging the Bible often is no mere item of duty on some religious to-do list. Time spent feasting on scripture might just turn out to be the difference between life and death.

Every word of God proves true;
he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.
Proverbs 30:5

May the old, old promises of God take root and bloom in your life, and in the lives of those you love, during this Lenten journey to Easter.

February 6, 2008

Count Your Days

Every day is a journal page
Every man holds a quill and ink
And there's plenty of room for writing in
All we do is believe and think
So will you compose a curse
Or will today bring the blessing
Fill the page with rhyming verse
Or some random sketching

Chris Rice, from the album Smell the Color 9

Back in the days before Microsoft Outlook and cell phones with built-in datebooks, my father had on the wall of his electrical engineering office one of those daily tear-off calendars—a promotional freebie from some low-bid contractor, I'm sure. I remember it held 365 thin sheets of paper, each one with the day of the month emblazoned in big, bold numbers. Every morning, someone in the office would tear off another day now gone and reveal its successor. As the year went by, the stack steadily diminished in size—an uncomplicated symbol for the continual passing of time.

Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.

The psalmist's prayer (Psalm 90:12) causes me to wonder: What if each of us had a giant tear-off calendar on our wall, with one piece of paper on it for each day of our life still remaining? What if we could see so tangibly, so readily, the precise number of our days? To daily experience our own finitude by tearing off one more slip—What effect would that sobering gesture have on the way we live our lives? (Not too long ago my concept became reality when I discovered for sale in a knick-knack catalog a little battery powered clock that does just such a thing. Based on an estimated life-span, it sits on your desk and counts down the minutes, hours, and days till your end!) How grim, right?

Perhaps. But then there's the psalmist, who has lived long enough to know that in the arithmetic of living before God, regularly counting up all your days equals, of all things, wisdom. Wisdom: knowing the truth and living accordingly. Add up your remaining days, say a prayer, then tap the equal sign on the calculator of your life. The result should not be depression, but differentiation.

When I am acquainted with my own finitude I also come to know God's infinitude, and I am therefore less likely to confuse the two. I am creature; God is Creator. And having settled that matter one more time, life—real living, with faith, hope, and love—can begin again. The vastness of God's mercy (see Psalm 139) relieves me of the terrible burden of a never-ending life, even as I am embraced in my contingent flesh by the Eternal One who is, who was, and who is to come (Revelation 1:8). That I will not go on forever is either a terrible load or terribly liberating—it all depends on your worship.

Since about the eighth century, Christians have gathered on this fortieth day before Easter (not counting Sundays) to place gritty ashes on their foreheads and have the stark Biblical truth recounted in their ears. "Remember, O man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19). It looks to be one big trick for staring mortality right in the face, which itself seems a strange and rather morbid thing to do.

Then again, maybe our forbearers in this communion are on to something. Maybe this is what Jesus was talking about when, speaking in his typically inverted way, he counsels: "Those who lose their lives for my sake will find it." Maybe it is akin to what people mean when, usually after they have stared their mortality in the face, they say something like, "You know, I was never able to really live until I was really ready to die." Maybe we should all count our days.

Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us, and as many years as we have seen evil. Let your work be manifest to your servants, and your glorious power to their children. Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands—O prosper the work of our hands!

Psalm 90:14-17

The peace of our Lord rest upon you this Ash Wednesday.