The particulars of our lives
Among the many blessings I’ve received in ministry: gifted predecessors who served with grace, insight and faithfulness. They made my own ministry easier, as I lived into wisdom they imparted to the congregation I would serve. One of these folks, a great guy, now a bishop (Okay, it’s Alan Gates, Bishop of Massachusetts) left a legacy of the following observation of human nature:
“I’ve never met a motive that wasn’t mixed.”
I’ve relied on that wisdom, adding the aphorism to my list of things that aren’t in the Bible but oughta be. It comes to mind often, but seems especially appropriate as we launch into Lent, a season that is a many-splendored thing. It’s a season of penitence and preparation. It’s a season that notes our wretchedness but speaks of grace and points to love. The word itself derives from an ancient word for Spring, while even here in North Carolina, it’s sub freezing.
Part of my Lenten discipline this year is to read (slowly) reflections by Howard Thurman, Dean of Howard University and Boston University, spiritual mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr and other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, mystic, poet, preacher. He opens his book entitled Temptations of Jesus with this meditation, a reflection on the complexity and contradictions of our souls:
We bring into the quietness of Thy presence, our Father, all the particulars of our lives. We would not hold back from Thy scrutiny any facet of ourselves: The things of which we are ashamed and by which our spirits are embarrassed; the good things which we have done and the good impulses of which we are aware; those whom we recognize by ties of kinship, but with whom we have no fellowship; those who we recognize by ties of kinship and with whom we have deep and abiding fellowship; those whom we love as best we can; those whom we have not yet learned how to want to love; the quiet satisfaction of some part of us that is found in the strength of hostility and the reinforcement of bitterness of heart.
There’s more, but that’s enough to chew on this first Monday in Lent, as we subject the particulars of our lives to a season that calls us to self-examination. Part of that process is intended as reminder that we have left undone those things that we ought to have done. We have not loved God with all our heart and soul and mind. We have not loved neighbor as self. There is not a day in my life when that is not true.
But in all of that, we all can look inside and find Christ’s presence in each one of us. Okay, we may occasionally feel like Woody Allen, who said that he wouldn’t want to be part of a club that would have him as a member. But given that, and granted that we approach all of life with mixed motives, there is the fact of original blessing. We are made in God’s image. On some fundamental level, it’s all good.
The particulars of our lives may be complicated and contradictory. Lent is a season to recognize that, embracing the wisdom of Martin Luther who said we are saints and sinners at once. Having recognized that complexity, we take steps to journey in Lent towards love and compassion, away from hostility and bitterness, a journey which will take us to Good Friday, where arms of love stretch out on a cross to draw us into saving embrace.
Psalm 51, read at the Liturgy for Ash Wednesday
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;according to your abundant mercy Blot out my transgressions.Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight,so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgement.Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.You desire truth in the inward being;therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
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