William Faulkner and Holy Living and Holy Dying

Since we stay not here, being people but of a day’s abode, and our age is like that of a fly and contemporary with a gourd, we must look somewhere else for an abiding city, a place in another country to fix our house in, whose walls and foundation is God, where we must find rest, or else be restless for ever . . . we must carry up our affections to the mansions prepared for us above, where eternity is the measure, felicity is the state, angels are the company, the Lamb is the light, and God is the portion and inheritance.

  • Jeremy Taylor, Holy Dying {1651}

I cannot recall the time or the place, but I remember either being told or reading that William Faulkner kept two books by his bedside through most of his life – “The Book of Common Prayer,” and “Holy Living” and “Holy Dying,” by Jeremy Taylor.  Faulkner has been a companion in The Way for most of my life.  I remember sitting in my apartment in Burlington, Vermont while in college and reading “Absalom! Absolom!” in one sitting; beginning early in the morning and finishing late in the night.  The story of Shreve McCaslin and his family, told in the freezing Harvard dorm room of a New England Winter, in some mysterious way haunting my own apartment at the University of Vermont.  My grandmother told me stories of the young Bill Faulkner coming to Memphis from Oxford, his sitting barefoot on the porch of my great-great uncle, Clarence Ogilvie, having drinks on long summer evenings.  Generally I find a theological yearning in Faulkner’s characters; especially white Southerners haunted by a slippery, and mildly odiferous, Confederate mythos that was something like dreaming the dream of a dream. 

I remember seeing a photograph of one of my most beloved Bishops, the Right Reverend Duncan M. Gray, as a young man, standing as a priest over Faulkner’s grave giving the words of the Committal from the Book of Common Prayer.  Bishop Gray had been the Rector of St. Peter’s Oxford prior to become Bishop of Mississippi.

These days I read Jeremy Taylor far more than I read Faulkner.  The Anglican Divines are worthy guides from one world to another; and I sense the drawing near of a shore that was once distant.  Every day we come closer to the “something” for which we all search in this life.  While William Faulkner kept Jeremy Taylor beside his bed at night, during the day he wrote, he drank, he kept up a kind of “run-down” Virginia-Mississippi operation as a country gentlemen at Rowan Oak, in between the hours he was writing extraordinary literature that may have been as much serendipity as effort.  I am trying to be like the man in the photograph, who is standing over Faulkner’s grave reading from the other book that Faulkner kept by his bedside.  Both of us need good and boon companions like Jeremy Taylor, a guide from cradle to grave, until we are reunited on the other shore; where there will be a porch swing, a man named Clarence, and ice in glasses on a long summer afternoon in Memphis. 

Just thoughts and asides.

Blessings and Godspeed.

Unlocked Only From The Outside

One of the old saints of the Church – St. John of the Cross – once said of Advent, “The Heavens are Rumbling during Advent . . . but not for us.”  That can be a bit of shock during this season, hearing the words, “Its not about you.  It really never was about you.”

Coincidentally it is John of the Cross’ Feast Day tomorrow.  In some of his writing, John of the Cross describes a kind of  “dark contemplation,” something called the via negative, the ray of contemplative darkness; it is a path of moving more deeply into knowledge of God.  This dark contemplation, via negative, stands in contrast to the sunny, chipper, more extroverted styles of affect that we associate with popular Christianity.  It is reminiscent of proverb used in Stephen Ministry – “Don’t sing happy songs to the broken-hearted.”

         Advent is about something different than forcing happiness into the empty spaces in our hearts and souls; especially this Advent.  In its deepest recesses and mystery, Advent is about waiting.

         John of the Cross points out that darkness, emptiness, silence, are sometimes a sure footed, path to God – rather than a forced happiness, or manufactured cheerfulness.  I might add that confusion, anger, and fear, although seemingly barriers to God, they can actually provide a shorter path if they are honestly how we feel about our life.  God is generally no closer than our honesty with ourselves.

There is a holiness in waiting; holiness in waiting for God to fill a space that we sometimes naively try to fill with light and music and tinsel and a posture of good cheer.

John mostly began to write his vision of prayer and waiting for God while he was in jail; imprisoned for disagreeing with the wrong people in Spain.  There is something of a genre of spiritual classics written from jail; obviously we have the apostle Paul, we have John of the Cross, John Bunyan, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., and others.  It has to do with being freed from distractions, surrendering to God.  It has to do with being reduced waiting, waiting, and waiting.

Advent is about waiting with a girl who is pregnant; a girl who really has not a clue as to who, or what, exactly is going to be born from her womb.  No notion; other than the dreams and conversation that she has been having with angels and God.  In the words of John of the Cross, Mary’s heavens are rumbling, as she waits to discover what favor will befall a lowly servant.

Being an early believer in Christ meant living with this sense of the Heavens Rumbling.  Early Christians mostly lived in a perpetual kind of Advent, at least for a few generations; wondering when Jesus might return to them, embrace them, finish one story of the earth and history, beginning another story of heaven and eternity.

The Eschatological Hope of the Church.  Eschaton simply means last – the final event in the divine plan.  And we are people who live with that sense of hope in the last things – that the best days of life are ahead of us.  First Thessalonians is the oldest identifiable Christian document that we have – 52 AD.  Paul is writing to an infant church in Thessalonica.  They are on the pathway toward an unknown maturity.  Being an early believer often meant taking a stand that would look foolish and unwise in the eyes of others.  Being an early believer meant that you had some inclination that God was bringing a new light into the world, as we hear in John’s Gospel.  Being an early believer meant that you were willing to suspend the certainty of all that you might have known, for the uncertainty and mystery of what might be.

These early Christians sometimes lived within hard situations, and they too faced difficult questions from within.  One of the hardest questions with which to live was resolving to live within the uncertainty of knowing when the Lord might return.

“Could it be this week?  This year?  Could it be today . . . that my life will change?  Lord we are praying for a change in this world, when is it you are going to break through the clouds?”

In our own lives we have mostly outlived this sense of urgency.  And living on the cusp of such a hope, such an expectation, is actually very difficult.  Having a mountaintop experience, and then struggling to stay on that mountaintop; dragging that mountaintop around with us through life.  It is one reason why folks are sometimes on edge during the holidays; the greatest of all expectations is in the air, yet there is also the ray of darkness.

I believe this is why Paul is having to write these letters to the early Church – they are all wound up, ready, living on the edge of expectation, and yet they do not quite know where to go.  The difficulty of waiting is causing them to unravel.  Inviting them to fill a space with their own expectations as they wait for God to act again in their lives.

Their expectations have not been met.  And so, as we are oft to do when we do not get what we are wanting deeply in our hearts, these Thessalonians are falling into the habits of spite, jealousy, blame – things that crop up when we are angry and disappointed.

Our season of Advent is a time for us to resist investing our waiting with too many of our own expectations; a time for us to wait and discover how God will surprise us with joy.

Throughout the history of the Church Advent has been considered a kind of little Lent.  A time for self-examination, a return to centeredness in Christ, a time to reclaim the gravity of God in our lives.  Advent is preparing us to receive the True gift from God, rather than simply live with the gifts that we might choose for ourselves.

Paul is giving this advice to the Thessalonians – wait patiently and with holiness for the gif that God means to give you:  God is faithful.

May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

God is carrying during Advent the gift that we cannot give to ourselves – the gift of His love, and that can make all the difference in lives that are sometimes filled with shadow, fear, and noise.

Although it may not be the gift that we have wanted or expected, it is the gift that we need.  This is how our holidays become our Holy Days.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian who actively plotted against the Nazis regime.  He had moved to the United States in order to find safety and security, only to discover that his heart was not at peace; that his heart still ached for the Church he had known and for his home country.  Rather than live in safety in America, Bonhoeffer returned to Germany to join in a plot to bring down Hitler.

He was arrested and put in prison, where even his guards were humbled by his holiness and his kindness.  Bonhoeffer was engaged to be married at the time, and his letters to his young fiancée have joined that canon of Christian literature written from prison.  In one of his letters he wrote,

“Life in a prison cell reminds me a great deal of Advent.  One waits and hopes and putters around . . . but in the end, what we do is of little consequence.  The door is shut, and it can only be opened from the outside.”

That my friends is the truth of Advent, the eschatological hope of the Church, the pregnant girl, and the deep recesses of our hearts during this season.  We want or need something so badly that we will try to fill it with substitutes, our own version of music and lights, but in the end, “The doors of our hearts are shut, and they can only be opened from the other side.”

Paul reminds the infant Church, we are being reminded, to be patient and wait, wait with Mary, because God is faithful.  The door that is shut in our lives, that one door that makes all the difference and leads to another country, is destined to be opened.  He is coming.  He will turn the lock.

“The one who calls you is faithful and he will do this.”

Come Lord Jesus.  Come Lord Jesus 

Turn our rays of darkness and our waiting, our holidays, into our Holy Days with you.

Living History

John the Baptist, Robert Campin, 1415

In one of her early books, Annie Dillard shares how she once learned a lesson, the hard way, about the importance of waiting. She had been watching a butterfly slowly emerge from its cocoon.  The oh-so-slow process of transformation was fascinating, but, at a point, she grew impatient. She took a candle and heated the cocoon, though only slightly, in order to speed the process.  It worked. The butterfly emerged a bit more quickly, but, because the process had been unnaturally rushed, it was born with wings that were not properly formed and it was not able to fly.  In this case, impatience had her price.

Learning patience, learning to wait for the things of God, is not something that is second nature to most of us.  Is it really any wonder that Christmas begins for most, in our towns and cities, around the time the Thanksgiving leftovers are finally gone – what more transparent window into our nature than our desire to have our Lord born premature, so that we might “have the season,” have the moment, regardless of the reason?

Bernard of Clairvaux used to encourage the monks in his monasteries to wait upon God in prayer, and when they grew frustrated with the waiting, he would remind them, ““Waiting upon God is not idleness, but work which beats all other work to one unskilled in it.” – Bernard of Clairvaux.

Hope can be born, in the midst of patience; even in the midst of a pandemic.

We always have God’s promise that we will not be forgotten.  It’s the message from Isaiah carried through the centuries.  God does not forsake Israel in the Babylonian Captivity and Exile of the 6th Century BC.  At that time of suffering, at that time of tragedy and frustration, at that time of hopelessness in Israel, Isaiah writes to Israel of a homecoming, a return to blessedness, in Jerusalem; a second Exodus from captivity to freedom.

Isaiah writes, A voice cries:

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;

The uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.”

And Mark is set apart from the other Gospels in that this missive does not begin with tales of a journey, a stable, shepherds, and tyrannical leaders.  This missive begins with a saying quarried from the storehouse of the prophets – from the quarry of Israel’s greats – Isaiah – ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight . . .” 

God is about to move in upon you.

The message being communicated here, “there is no way to Jesus that does not lead through the Torah and the Prophets of Israel.” {David Bartlett, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1999}

The promise holds through the ages.  God is not absent.  God does not forget.  God will move, God will act, so that his children can find the path that leads back to Him and to their homeland.

Jesus is coming, Jesus is moving, Jesus is fulfilling a long-standing and percolating work given to the Jews and instituted by the God of Sinai.

John the Baptist is out in the Wilderness, dressed like Elijah with the words of Isaiah in his mouth, as the image of the Israel of old; the Word of God is coming near when human beings are separated from their own kingdoms and enterprises that are created to serve themselves.  The invitation is to “go out,” away, from such things so that we might encounter our truest selves; so that we might engage those forces both within and without that would draw us from the love of God.  It is a kind of clearing the mechanism.

Standing there, dressed like Elijah, with the words of Isaiah in his mouth, John the Baptist is like one of those characters at colonial Williamsburg wearing the woolen wig, eating mutton, and standing in the stockinged calves of colonial American.  He is a vision in the present of a shared past.  And his appearance, his diet, his home, his words, were meant to evoke the common allegiance that his hearers would have with that past; they are caught beneath the sway of a collective memory.

And The Baptist is bowing with that collective memory, and bending his knee to the ground, so that with it he might untie the thong of the sandal of the One for whom that collective memory is waiting.

In the presence of John the Baptist, the journey of the Old Testament prophets is ending; there is a new story for Israel, for humanity, and it is a story called Good News.

Advent is a time for self-inventory; a time to look within ourselves, and ask the question, “For what am I waiting?  For whom am I waiting in this life?”

The repentance of Advent is a time for us to make a personal inventory – not unlike the inventory that John the Baptist invites in the countryside outside the precincts of the political and religious machinery of ancient Israel.

Metanoia – a change of thinking, a change of direction, a change in the sense of urgency with which we are living our daily lives.

Most of us have a genius for distraction, because we might think that waiting for God is too difficult, or that waiting for God is a kind of idleness.  We have an opportunity during these days of the premature celebration, wandering through the lightshow and noise of a season that is mostly of our own manufacture, to sit with our questions, to sit with our hurts and our hopes, to sit with the promises of God. 

In the midst of this virus and quarantine we have an opportunity to sit with our questions, and the promises of God that lay on the other side of those questions.

===

A few years ago, Forbes magazine ran an issue on its seventy-fifth anniversary,  “Why We Feel so Bad When We Have It so Good.” It contained articles by some of the media luminaries of our time: Peggy Noonan, writer for Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Dan Rather; the brilliant novelist John Updike.

The Nobel laureate Saul Bellow, wrote of the disillusionment that comes from our cultural fascination with affluence; the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, warned of the weary discontent haunting America, a nation surprised to discover that “economic and material goods are no compensation for social and moral ills.”

{Kavanagh SJ}

Evidently money and the things that money can buy for us do not bring us closer to meaning and joy in our lives.  For many of us, your Dean included, it is usually that old problem of mistaking feeling good and looking good for being good and doing good.  The message of Isaiah, John the Baptist, and Jesus is that we only stand to benefit and grow wiser in the ways of God if we make the choice to close this gap.  Our salvation lay in turning this corner in our lives.

Perhaps it is time that we move deeply into the promises of God, and seek the meaning and the joy that might discovered there.

Advent is a season in which to offer to God the particular burden that always seems be diminishing our lives with God.  The burden, the anxiety, the fear that draws us away from the path, away from the awareness, the heaven that Jesus is promising; we bring that burden to God.  The burden so obvious to us that we could name it within the space of a moment.

Bring that burden to God in Advent, so that God might exchange it for the gift that comes from heaven.

What gift, wrapped in flesh, might God bring to you this year?  What gift may be waiting for us in the Wilderness with John the Baptist this year?

Because the message from heaven, even in the midst of all of the noise and lightshow of a Christmas season born pre-mature, of a Christmas orgy of sugar, paper, and twinkling lights, is to be patient . . . I am coming for you; I am coming for you, and will give you the wings to fly home.  The message from heaven is the same during time of pestilence and violence – I am coming for you; I am coming for you, and will give you wings to fly home to be with me.

The heavens, the voice of God, declares, I will make the way when there seems to be no way.  I bring the gift that you cannot give to yourself.  These are the days to prepare, and the days for building our mangers.

There is in repentance, with God, this beautiful mystery– that we may fly fastest home on a broken wing.

William L. Sullivan {Unitarian minister and writer 1872-1935}

Answering The Question Of Our Lives

Christ The King Posters | Fine Art America

          One day there was a young man hiking across America standing on an interstate on ramp on the side of the highway in Gillette Wyoming.  It was snowing, and he had just spent the morning waiting out a blizzard in the town, and had been standing on the side of the highway a few hours when he saw a man making his way down the ramp toward him.

          The man was dressed in dirty, torn overalls, his hair matted against his head as though he had not bathed for days.  The young man put his hand in his pocket on a canister of pepper spray that he kept there for unwelcome visitors and dogs.

          “You been here long?” the dirty man asked.  The young man nodded.

          “Where are you headed?”

          “California,” the young man said.

          “It’s warm out there,” said the dirty man.

          “Yup.”

          “You got enough food?” said the dirty man.

          The young man thought for a moment.  Clearly the dirty man did not have any food.  And if the young man admitted that he had food, the dirty man would want it.  That would mean the young man would have to open his backpack, display all of his expensive camping gear and photography equipment.  The young man was afraid; he felt vulnerable and ripe for pillage.  “I got some cheese,” the young man said.

          “You won’t make it to California with a little cheese.  You’ll starve.”

          The young man did not understand and kept his hand on the pepper spray, his thumb moving on the safety switch.

          “Believe me, I know; listen,” said the dirty man, “I’m living in a car back in town and every day I walk to the mine to see if they need me.  Today they don’t, so I won’t be needing this lunch.”

          The young man began to sink with understanding.  The dirty, homeless man knew that a little cheese would get no one anywhere.  “I am O.K.  Really.  I don’t need your lunch,” said the young man.

          The dirty man shook his head and opened the box.  A typical church meal – a bologna sandwich, an apple, a bag of chips.  And the dirty man insisted that the young man take it and began handing it to him.  Finally the young man took the lunch and watched the dirty man walk up the ramp back into town.

          Later that young man wrote a book.  In fact he has written a number of books.  This is something he wrote: “I learned a lot of things in college.  I learned a lot of things in Europe and in Mexico and in my hometown of Belmont, Massachusetts.  But I had to stand out there on that frozen piece of interstate to learn generosity from a homeless man.”

          That young man was bestselling author, Sebastian Junger, author of “The Perfect Storm”; perhaps you have seen the movie.  Moments like this one on the side of a frozen highway, and others in his life, later moved him to create a foundation that cares for families of the New England fishing industry.

          Today is the feast of Christus Rex – Christ the King – and we find Christ sitting on the throne of judgment in Matthew’s Gospel separating the sheep and the goats.  Sheep are separated from goats in the ancient world, because sheep are more valuable than goats.  In today’s Gospel, Christ the King sits over humanity discerning the value of those who will enter the Kingdom that is coming.

          Matthew is pointing out the sort of measurement that will be held over each person as they face Christ, as King and Sovereign.  Where doth true worth lay?  What is the “real” estate of humankind?

          Matthew is making things clear, very clear, to the point of repeating himself, lest anyone claim to have not understood.  The significant measurement, the “real” estate, in the presence of Christ the King at the end of our days will be how well we have cared for the hungry, the thirsty, strangers, the naked, the sick and prisoners; those without power, without means, without sanctuary, who live among those who have all these things in abundance.

          Christ the King identifies himself with the powerless in such a way that our attitude toward them will reveal how we really feel about Jesus.  They are His test for us. 

Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

          They are His first brothers and sisters, and we are brought into the family of the Kingdom by how we acknowledge and care for them in our midst.  Given such a prospect, we need always to ask ourselves about those mentioned in this parable; where are they in our lives?  Where is the hungry person in my life?  The thirsty?  The stranger?

          And there is more, lest we fall into any position of self-justification, Matthew emphasizes the unselfish love that ought to animate us.  The critical and strong emphasis is in caring for the least without looking for some glorious reflection in the mirror of self-righteousness; no walking up the stairs to the throne, and side-glancing in the mirror – “Oh, don’t I look good in righteousness today.”  

          Self-forgetting love; love that does not cast a shadow, the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing, is what the King is looking for in his friends, those who have chosen to serve Him. 

          It is a portrait of the most beautiful of loves – something that is so much a part of one’s behavior that we are embarrassed at their mention; surprised that such gifts given to the lowliest were also gifts given to Christ.

When was it that we saw you sick, naked, hungry, in need, in prison?  I just can’t recall . . .”

          The wealth, security and love that God gives to us in life is meant to be given away for the good of those who do not have these gifts; and they are to be given with all the self-forgetfulness that joyful confidence invites.  If we cannot give, then we are bound, and we will reach the end to find that we have served the wrong King, labored for the wrong “real” estate. 

          Christ the King will honor us if we will honor Him; His demand is not too great for any of us.  Christ our King would like for us to be where He is, and to follow Him.  Every day He sends messengers and guides into the world marking paths into His Kingdom; sometimes they look like a homeless man walking down a frozen highway.

          Certainly each one of us could manage a bologna sandwich on a cold day.  The question for us may be, “Given that you had so much . . . my friend, given that I gave you so much . . . why did you give me so little?” 

Or as one of the old saints once said, “God judges what we give . . . by what we keep.”

          I believe that Jesus is sharing this glimpse, into a moment that lay in all of our futures, as a gift – a gift, giving the opportunity for discernment.  What sort of life am I going to live?  The life of the better offer that I often choose for myself, or the life from God that happens to choose me?

          I believe that Jesus is sharing this glimpse with us so that we might have coordinates if we ever find ourselves lost and searching for God in the midst of our lives.  And honestly I have not met the person who in some sense would like to be “found” by life’s deepest and most beautiful meaning.

          None of us is living such a hermetically concealed life that we are not sometimes gently, or not so gently, interrupted by the wound of human need that walks through the world.  Sometimes the answer to the question to our life’s deepest meaning is simply a matter of letting God speak to us in the midst of the interruptions. 

          During an extended visit with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, Dr. Mary Poplin discovered the depths of sin in her own heart. It happened while Dr. Poplin was trying to care for a five-month-old infant who was deformed, constantly sick, and often miserable. Dr. Poplin always found ways to avoid feeding this child, but one day it was unavoidable.

          She writes:

          When feeding time was over, the babies were falling asleep in their bassinettes, and I was getting ready to go …. I glanced at the infants on my way out [the door] and noticed that undigested formula was dripping out of this child’s bassinette. He had thrown up what must have been the entire eight-ounce bottle. Looking around for someone to tell as I left [the room], I saw no one in the infant area, and the few adults in the room had their hands full with other children.

          So I decided, with no little struggle, to stay and clean up the mess. I put on my apron again, lifted the baby out of his bassinette and helped him on my shoulder as I began to gather the dirty sheets together and use them to wipe up the mess. As I was cleaning, I heard a muffled sound from the infant in my arms. Tears were pouring out of his eyes, and the only sound he could make was a convulsive sob.

          As I looked at him, I saw in myself what Jeremiah called “the desperate wickedness of the heart.” I realized I had approached this task with a spirit of resistance and impatience. I had thought very little, if at all, about this child and his needs, other than to be clean. As I threw the sheets into the laundry pile, I began to bathe his little misshapen body and change his clothes.

          Afterward I held him to me tightly as I … looked at him, rocked him, and prayed …. In a short time, he was asleep ….

          I must tell you that the moment I saw him weeping and realized the wretchedness in my heart, I knew it was sin.

          There was no doubt in my mind that this is what Christ meant when he said, “Out of the heart come evil thoughts.” I asked Christ to forgive and change me.

          In those moments as I rocked the baby, I could feel Christ’s work inside my spirit just as surely as if he were sitting next to me.  Mary Poplin, Finding Calcutta (InterVarsity Press, 2008), pp. 82-83

Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world . . .

Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

A Sense Of Urgency

Robby Robins was an Air Force pilot during the first Iraq war. After his 300th mission, he was surprised to be given permission to immediately pull his crew together and fly his plane home. They flew across the ocean to Massachusetts and then had a long drive to western Pennsylvania. They drove all night, and when his buddies dropped him off at his driveway just after sun-up, there was a big banner across the garage—”Welcome Home Dad!”

How did they know? No one had called, and the crew themselves hadn’t expected to leave so quickly. Robins relates, “When I walked into the house, the kids, about half dressed for school, screamed, ‘Daddy!’ Susan came running down the hall—she looked terrific—hair fixed, make-up on, and a crisp yellow dress. ‘How did you know?’ I asked.

‘I didn’t,’ she answered through tears of joy. ‘Once we knew the war was over, we knew you’d be home one of these days. We knew you’d try to surprise us, so we were ready every day.'” {Lee Eclov, “Heaven,” Sermon, Preaching Digest}

The parable of the ten virgins – some foolish and some wise – is plainly a cautionary tale share by Jesus with his friends and followers.  For some followers of Jesus, this cautionary tale might create a feeling of dis-ease, of discomfort, because its message so clearly points to living a life of self-examination.  The parable points out that followers of Jesus will surrender control at the end.

The parable ends with the challenging truth that there will be a deadline, an ultimatum, a point of no return, or returning; it is the judgement.  And because we are powerless over knowing the day or the time of the bridegroom’s arrival in the world, or in our lives, Jesus counsels a constant awareness – be “ready every day.”

In the words of Christian writer Frederick Buechner:

The New Testament proclaims that at some unforeseeable time in the future, God will ring down the final curtain on history, and there will come a Day on which all our days and all the judgments upon us and all our judgments upon each other will themselves be judged. The judge will be Christ. In other words, the one who judges us most finally will be the one who has loved us most fully.

         Jesus was not really telling his friends and followers something that they may not have heard or learned as faithful and earnest Jews.  Wisdom tales, wisdom stories, were common among the rabbis.  Dividing human beings into the wise and the foolish – that was also something that you might have learned in an ancient school of Greek philosophy among Stoic and Cynic philosophers.  The ancient world was full of stories about how the world is divided between the wise and the foolish.  For Jesus, the wise are those who live prepared to meet God.

What does being ready look like?  How do we know if we have the “oil” necessary for this holy act of patience and endurance?  A common response is that we need to be busy in the doing of good deeds; always seeking to help and contribute to the well-being of others.  That is an indisputably good use of our time.  But there is probably more that Jesus is suggesting as well.

Biblical scholar, Douglas Hare – “Undoubtedly Matthew understood being ready as involving a tireless performance of good works, but he surely included other obligations as well: abstinence from bad behavior; love for enemies; love for other Christians; forgiveness of others; unhesitating faith; loyalty to Jesus; love God.”

We see these admonitions throughout Matthew’s Gospel; we find them in the Sermon on the Mount, in the teachable moments that arise when Jesus engages the Scribes and Pharisees, and toward the end of this Gospel as Jesus’ words are given the added gravity that they are being spoken toward the end of His life.  There is an internal disposition toward God and others articulated.

And so the “waiting” that is being encouraged, counselled, is more than accumulating merit badges of good deeds done; more than building an impeccable resume of virtuous deeds; more than living a life that could easily be praised by others, while our motivations and our hearts are far from God.  Taking the full scope of what Matthew shares of Jesus’ teaching, there is both an inward as well as an outward preparedness.  Good deeds done while the heart is wayward, restless, and self-concerned is most likely not what Matthew would counsel as a wise preparation.

This kind of “waiting,” this kind of preparedness, is living day to day with a sense of purpose and urgency for giving God each of our days – for God’s sake, not for our sake.  How are we living our days for God, for Jesus, the person whom each of us will meet one day?

The Bible teacher William Barclay summarized this parable – “Jesus is warning us that there are certain things which cannot be borrowed.”

Just as these foolish virgins find it impossible to borrow oil when they most need it; so too some will find it impossible to borrow a relationship with God when it is most needed.

We cannot borrow a charitable heart.  We cannot borrow a mind, an intellect, which is inspired by God rather than the world.  We cannot borrow a faith, a familiarity that Jesus will have with us when we meet him; we must have allowed Christ to cultivate that friendship with us prior to that meeting with the Bridegroom.

We are nearing the Sundays of Advent.  And the Church is encouraging a sense of urgency prior to the lessons we will have describing the coming of the Son of Man.  The Bridegroom cometh in the Church calendar, and the Church teacheth – don’t be relying on a borrowed or enterprised relationship with God.  Don’t live with folly.  Don’t live with the folly of thinking that God is going to pause in the midst of this cosmic unfolding of reality because we decide that it just might be possible to borrow “oil” for the lamp of your soul; when truly, the only oil that will burn in that lamp – is the oil of a life given to preparing to meet the Bridegroom. 

If we feel lost and a bit anxious about waking up the reality that this indeed is God’s world, and we are indeed God’s children, and we could possibly find ourselves “locked out” of whatever future we might want to have beyond death . . . if, if, if . . . the place that I look, the place that I would have each of us look, is actually in this Prayer Book.  Its in the old service.

Its called the summary of the Law:

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith:
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with
all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great
commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt
love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments
hang all the Law and the Prophets.

The greatest adventure of life – having a real conversation with God – through prayer, study, worship, and discovering how the truths found these places actually  extend into our lives as fathers, mothers, spouses, friends, colleagues, and come to life in whatever profession we find ourselves.  The other adventure of life – giving ourselves to simple, and sometimes profound, moments of kindness; caring for the poor as Jesus cared for them.  Caring for the lonely as Jesus cared for them.  Forgiving those who wrong us, as Jesus forgave.  Trying a little bit every day, even in the midst of the election season in our nation, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

Reaching vertically toward God, reaching horizontally toward others, this is one way to accept the counsel to wait with a sense of urgency, to keep oil and lamps in tact for the great day of our reunion with The Bridegroom.

 adapted by Don Schwager

This story is true. So the Russian villagers of Nemirov swear. Every Friday morning he vanished! The rabbi that is. He was nowhere to be found. Not in the synagogue, not in the library, nor in the park. Nobody in the village worried however. They say: “The Rabbi, blessed be God, ascends to Heaven every Friday morning where he talks with God.”

“Ascends to Heaven?” scoffed a skeptical Litvak who visited the village on occasion.

“Nonesense! I will solve this mystery once and for all,” said the Litvak.  So the disbelieving Litvak devised a scheme to trap the Rabbi. Sorry. You do not know what a Litvak is? A Litvak who knows his Talmud well will tell you plainly that nobody ascends to Heaven. Not even Moses ascended to Heaven during his lifetime. Litvak:  a Jewish person who believes themselves to be intellectually superior and places great emphasis upon wordly items, such as money and prestige. They place little emphasis upon traditional Judaism and are instead obsessed with self-affluency and the need to belittle others for ascendency and fortune.

Well, the Litvak hid behind the Rabbi’s house one Friday morning. And waited to see what this Rabbi would do. As usual, the Rabbi rose, said his prayers very devoutly, washed his face, combed his lengthy beard, and then slid into his dark black boots. Before he left the house he grabbed an axe and a thick piece of rope. And off he went away from the village.

The Litvak drew a deep breath and then began to follow the Rabbi. Secretly of course. He didn’t want a Rabbi to know that he was spying on him! The Rabbi headed into a thick woods and began to chop down a tree. He cut the limbs into numerous pieces and made a large bundle with his rope. Strapping the axe to his belt, he hoisted the large bundle of wood onto his back and headed towards the end of the woods. Near the edge of the village stood a little house, barely room enough for two. Inside dwelt an old feeble woman and her sick son. The Rabbi left the wood near the door. The bundle was just enough for a whole weeks supply of fuel. As he left the widow’s house the Litvak could hear him mumble some prayers, no doubt for the widow and her son.

Well, the Litvak became the Rabbi’s friend and even his disciple! He went to his synagogue every Friday evening and came to his house every week so he could learn about God and his holy word. Now, whenever any of the villagers say that “our Rabbi ascends all the way to Heaven on Friday mornings”, the Litvak quietly adds, “If not higher!”

“Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”