Sunday, March 23, 2014

Desert Days

There are few places that appear less supportive of life than the desert. Lack of moisture is, after all, what makes a desert. And moisture is essential for life. There are, however, degrees of desert - it does not take a whole lot of moisture to sustain some kinds of life. Since the wanderings of Israel, the desert has been a place of testing, of proving. The austerity of the external sharpens focus on the inner.  A wilderness defined by lack, a barrenness that brings nothing but demands much, presses hard against whatever it was that you brought with you into it. It wrings out whatever is in. And then goes back for more.

No wonder then, if we follow Jesus at all closely, we often find ourselves in a desert - in a place of testing, of proving. And, no wonder, when we do, that it is often the same things that get tested in us as were in Him. The scene begins as, water still dripping from His beard, black eyes alight with the life of the life of the newly born, He hears the declaration from the heavens, "This is my beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased." And, in the next moment, the Holy Spirit descends and rests upon Him - confirming and empowering Him for all that it means to be a loved and pleasing Son.

It gives pause to note that Jesus was driven out into the desert by the Holy Spirit - and, specifically, to be tested. The satan presses in, as is his job, on the core issue of identity - testing, refining, proving. "If you are the Son of God..." So begins the challenge - but only after 40 days of the strength training provided by feasting on nothing but the Word of God. By this time, Jesus is so solid in Who He is that the exchange, were the stakes not so high, almost assumes a cartoon like quality. The three challenges prove that he brought much to the desert with Him - and that, wrung out, it remains pure. He doesn't need to prove Who He is by turning stones into bread. He doesn't need to make the Father prove Who He is by rescuing Him. And, perhaps most important of all, He doesn't need to avoid the pain, the price, the destiny of Who He is, bypassing the cross on the way to Lordship over the world and all its kingdoms.

And so, in these desert days of the consideration of the moment of my death, I am challenged to hear the Voice of the Father, and to remember who I am because of what I hear.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014


Among the last words from the cross is the declaration, “It is finished.” I don’t think I can possibly know all that is meant in those words pushed out against the onslaught of unspeakable darkness. And, frankly, my fascination is somewhat less theological. What I am wondering is how it could be so.

Truth be told, I can think of at least a couple or three other things that Jesus might have done before finishing up for the day. Clearly, there were a few more sick to heal, a few more outcasts to embrace, a few more lepers to restore to fellowship, a few more lessons to teach, a few more demons to cast out… In the five porches surrounding the Pool of Bethesda alone there was still much work to be done – and He could have swung by a cemetery or two on His way there or back. But no. Finished!

Apparently His agenda was something other than what I think it ought to have been. And, for His agenda – learned from His Father – the word is finished. (I suspect, by the way, that His agenda is still other than I think it ought to be. Which may explain why “finished” is not a word to describe many of my days.)

What kind of life must Jesus have lived in order to be able to say those wonderfully final words? My guess is that a life that ends the final day with those words is a life that ended each day with those words.

You don’t get to finished on the final day without each day until then being finished. Jesus lets us know, probably from experience, that each day has enough trouble of its own – it doesn’t need trouble imported from the future or the past. Each day’s trouble must be dealt with that day – no carry overs.

I can’t help but wonder if it was the awareness of His death that enabled Him to live with complete focus each day to the extent that at the end of each day, it was finished. Not simply over or ended – finished. What was necessary to be done, done. No remainder.

In this Lenten exercise of contemplating the day of my death, I am challenged by how much of each of my days is taken up with something other than that day’s challenge. The result is that I can rarely say that it is finished. Over, done, ended, run out of, exhausted – all those and more. But rarely, finished. I want to learn from Jesus how to live each day. Period. I suspect that will mean more things left undone than are done. Perhaps that is the way to finish. My life will end finished to the degree to which each day until then ends finished.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Tied to the Dirt

On this first Sunday of Lent, the text for my sermon was Luke’s version of the Parable of the Great Banquet. It is part of a three beat narrative in chapter 14 in which Jesus, a guest for dinner at the house of a Pharisee, takes advantage of the opportunity to provide some lessons in Kingdom etiquette. In Lesson One, having noticed the jockeying for position and witnessing the embarrassment of those who apparently thought too highly of themselves being ushered to less advantageous seating, Jesus suggests they begin by taking the lowest seats – those belonging to those of least honor. That way, when the host notices, he might move them up, as appropriate. The advantage is clear – they get the benefit of being thought humble and get seated where they properly belong without shame! Win – Win!

Jesus then moves on with advice to his host; rather than inviting only people who can reciprocate with invitations of their own, employ a strategy which welcomes those who have no capacity for repayment! That way, in the resurrection of the righteous, he will receive an appropriate reward. This suggestion meets with decidedly less entusiasm – after all, in the category of competitive dinner parties, who ever would invite anyone who couldn’t reciprocate? Exactly no one!

Some awkward guest tries to cover the faux pas by reciting a beatitude – “Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the Kingdom of God.” He says this as if the Kingdom of God were still distant and hoped for, rather than sitting at table with them in the person of Jesus – who had announced open access to the Kingdom was now available.

In response, Jesus tells a story of a generous host who did just what none of them would do – put on a banquet of such extravagance that no one could possibly reciprocate.  When, however, the notice went out that the banquet was ready – the excuses began to pile up. None of the invited could find their way clear to come. They could not consider attending a banquet that would result in such obligation. The result? None of the invited would taste the dinner – but the dinner would not go to waste because the host and his servants had rounded up those who could never repay.

Jesus uses this parable to describe what is happening – in His coming, the banquet is spread and the invitations gone out. But they, the invited, were distracted to the point of excuse. They were too anchored to the earth to respond to an impossible invitation to the Kingdom of God.

And this is where my Lenten reflection on the day of my death meets the story. I, too, am easily distracted by the busy-ness of avoidance, the business of obligation, the tasks at hand. I barely hear the invitation to the Kingdom. And the simple consideration of the day of my death quiets the background noises – the distractions of the earth – enough to hear the music in the distance. Time to dress for dinner.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Death :: Sharpened Heart Focus

The discipline that I have embarked upon for this Lenten season is the consideration of the day of my death. You can read the previous blog post for context, if you’d care to – but the gist of it is that the gift of Resurrection comes only to those whose hands have been emptied by Crucifixion.

The North American culture I grew up in seems to do all it can to conceal from us the fact that we are all going to die. Other cultures prepare their children more realistically. In some tribal initiation rites, the child is taken from his family by the elders of the community and, as part of the rite of passage, must spend a night in a hole he has dug in the ground. His grave. He comes out of the grave the next morning to join the company of adults – the company of those who know they will die.

And it is not death as a general idea – it is one’s specific death that is considered. By denying the certain knowledge of death, our culture seeks to protect life, but can not deliver on its promise. Only those who have reckoned well with death are ready to live.

That is what makes this Lenten journey so important. Those who are close followers of Jesus know that the awareness of His death was never far from His mind. In the last few months, there would come over Him a certain wistfulness, a certain anguish, a certain joyful melancholy – a longing for home accompanied by a dread of the passage ­– marked by a look in His eyes, staring off into the unseeable distance. It was unnerving for the disciples – so they did what we do. They resisted the idea of death. Specifically, His death. Their vision of the future did not have room for death – that was not how a Kingdom comes. But still, as the day drew near, He focused more intently on them – the few who had become family by obedience, friends by love. And on those who would yet believe as a result of their witness.

In trying to follow Jesus as He is marked by this awareness, I notice a distant, but parallel track in my own contemplation over the past couple of days. The very first thoughts that bubble to mind when considering the day of my death are of those I would leave behind – loved ones, all. My wife and sons most of all. And, strangely, little ones not yet born. Awareness of the day of death carries a challenge to keep short accounts, to not let love go unspoken, to give grace and forgiveness before being asked. Perhaps that is the kind of Kingdom that comes with the awareness of death.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Considering The Day of My Death

Today, Ash Wednesday, is the start of the slowing walk leading to Easter Weekend. The Lenten season seeks to reduce distractions that would otherwise blind us to the dark and difficult and glorious wonders lying ahead. We are invited to slow down, to come gently to that Good Friday death, to pause there at the foot of the cross ­­– and to not be carried too quickly past it by the momentum of our rush to Resurrection. The desire for new life is so strong that I often forget that the only way to that Sunday is through that Friday. And it is not true just for Jesus.

Lent invites us to embrace a bit of suffering, a bit of pain, a bit of dying to self as a way of preparation. It is often a time of fasting, making use of the shaking up of our systems of comfort to consider our capacity for life through death. As Advent sets the table for Christmas, Lent clears the table for Good Friday. Many followers of Jesus use it as a time of self-denial to push back against the relentless accommodation to any and all means of resisting discomfort. It seeks to train our gaze towards the cross, gently bringing us back to focus when we’d as soon turn away.

As a way of entry this year, I have decided that each day of Lent I will take a few minutes and consider the day of my death.

Last year a colleague introduced me to the Eastern Church’s prayers of memento mori – a Latin phrase which means “remember you will die.” Rather than a morbid fascination, the remembrance of death invites the full living of life. To paraphrase Dr. Johnson, “the knowledge of one’s death concentrates the mind wonderfully!” We are forced to focus on the day – this day – the Lord has made, and invited to rejoice, knowing that we won’t have it for long.

Distractions abound when there is endless time; editing occurs with awareness of limits. If it is true with the budgeting of financial resources, it is no less true with the budgeting of temporal resources. Scripture reminds us – often – that our life’s span is but a mist, a vapor – we are here today and gone… We do ourselves harm if we forget that reality. The Psalmist gives us the words to pray, “Teach us to number our days, O Lord, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” And again, “Show me, O LORD, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting is my life.”

Most of my days seem to be consumed with trying to do two or three things at once – with the result that I am barely able to do one thing at once! In Resurrection, we are made capable of life forever. But, as it turns out, preparation to live forever, involves remembering that I won’t live forever.