Saturday, February 28, 2015

Humility and the “Strange Practice of Keeping Death before Us”

This past week I had company while I burned the palm branches from last year’s Palm Sunday worship service to create ashes for tonight’s service.  Susan Olp, Religion editor for the Billings Gazette, and a photographer, wanted a picture and a conversation around this Christian ritual for Saturday’s Faith & Values page.  I mentioned to Susan that the imposition of the ashes was a “blessing.” 

She paused.  I knew what she was thinking.  Who wants to hear the words, “For dust you are and to dust you shall return?”

In fact, for many years I’ve avoided the reference to dust in the Ash Wednesday worship services I led. I don’t want to upset people.  So I switched to the words “Repent and Receive the gospel.”  As if we’re not a little alarmed by the word REPENT, which means CHANGE!  Who wants to do that?  Change is very, very hard.

Embracing our limited life span is difficult as well.  But the subject comes up in the scriptures.  I’m mindful of the author of the 103rd Psalm who writes:
“15As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field;
16for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.”

And Psalm 23:
     “And even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”

And Psalm 39:4
“Lord, let me know my end,
    and what is the measure of my days;
    let me know how fleeting my life is.”

Did you catch that last reference?  It almost sounds like a prayer.  “Lord, Let me know my end; how fleeting my life is.”  As I repeat this phrase over and over, I realize that the author of Psalm 39 isn’t seeking head knowledge, but HEART knowledge.  The author isn’t asking for a death date to be circled on the calendar, the author is asking for a spiritual boundary marker.  “Let me EXPERIENCE how fleeting my life is…so that I can experience how stable your heart is.”

The understanding of the psalmist’s finality is about information to be sure, but the information isn’t going to be used to plan a funeral but to shape a life; direct a life; support a life.

Things are looking up!!!

This past Sunday the weekly magazine tucked into the Sunday Billings Gazette sported a cover picture of the actress Julianne Moore who nominated for an Oscar for the movie Still Alice.  It’s her fifth nomination.  The movie is about a fictional character named Dr. Alice Howland, a 50-year-old linguistics professor and a mother of three who is afflicted with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.  Quoting the article by Spencer who interviewed the actress, Moore says “It‘s a movie about mortality and being.  You’re never closer to loving life than when you’re close to loss.”

“You’re never closer to loving life than when you’re close to loss.” 

What I hear in her comment about mortality and being is that when we are in touch with our mortality a sense of alertness; a heightened attentiveness develops.  What Moore is describing is an energy—a POSITIVE energy.  Our days on earth are numbered.  What comes to me is “respect them.”  As a Christian I would add, “And respect who numbers them—respect the source of our numbered days—respect God.”  How do we respect God?  We live for God, we live for love.

I am reminded of a story in the gospel of Luke concerning Jesus and a few unidentified persons.  These unidentified persons have heard stories about two tragedies and they are trying to make sense of them.  We read:

 Unless You Turn to God

13 1-5 About that time some people came up and told him about the Galileans Pilate had killed while they were at worship, mixing their blood with the blood of the sacrifices on the altar. Jesus responded, “Do you think those murdered Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans? Not at all. Unless you turn to God, you, too, will die. And those eighteen in Jerusalem the other day, the ones crushed and killed when the Tower of Siloam collapsed and fell on them, do you think they were worse citizens than all other Jerusalemites? Not at all.  Unless you turn to God, you, too, will die.”

These persons want Jesus to make sense of a tragedy, and Jesus insists, instead, that a “tragedy makes sense of us.”  What can any of us do with our limited days and our limited senses? J

Well, according to Jesus and the psalmist and actress Julianne Moore, we can “wake up.”  How we live our life matters.

This past summer I picked up a little book by a monk from the 6th century named St. Benedict.  St. Benedict founded twelve monasteries in Europe, and his book, The Rule of St. Benedict, is his two-fold instruction on how to  live a Christ-centered life and how to run the monastery. I do not feel called to live in a monastery, but I do feel called to live a Christ-centered life.  I want to live for God.  Isn’t that what all of us said at our baptisms?  We want to live for God, like Jesus.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes my call to be a Christian gets a little stale and I need some help to keep moving forward, a mentor. “Rome,” we are told, “wasn’t built in a day.”  I’ve come to understand that a Christian isn’t built in a day, either. 

Have you ever watched someone paint a piece of furniture, or a house?  One layer doesn’t do the trick.  The paint goes on in layers, which are called coats.  Depending on the project, it might be necessary to add some fifteen coats to the object before its true beauty is revealed.

Becoming Christ-like is the result of layering, or coating, in order for our true beauty to be exposed; for CHRIST to be exposed.  The Christian reads scripture not ONCE, but over a life-time, each exposure a coat of paint.  The Christian prays not once, or simply at the whim of their emotions, but regularly, honoring appointments with God, each appointment a layer of paint.  The Christian works in community, serving their neighbor in love, each act of love a layer of paint.  The Christian worships, entering into the dialogue offered through the songs and prayers and sermon and the passing of the peace, each conversation a layer of paint.  The Christian forgives endlessly, each act of forgiveness a layer of paint.  The Christian experiences beauty in many forms be it the ballet or the beach or the flight of a bird, and each experience of beauty is a layer of paint.

Faith, as I understand it, is trust in God’s help.  To quote the author of Psalm 27 “I believe I will see God’s goodness in the land of the living. ”  However, I had for many years thought that God’s goodness existed in my life to answer to my will.  “I want this and I’d like that,” I’d pray, “Reward this and punish that and please don’t let me live without this, that, and the other.”  This type of prayer makes ME quite LARGE; it makes ME SMART, it makes ME the LEADER.

When I came to my senses through many faults of my own, I had to laugh.  What in the world did I really know about what was good, and right, and necessary for anyone, including myself?  Thank GOD for NOT answering all of my prayers.

Why?  Because only God knows.  Jesus teaches us the better prayer life, “For I came not to do my own will, but the will of God who sent me.”   This is the proper perspective.  This type of prayer makes GOD quite LARGE; it makes GOD SMART, it makes GOD the Leader.
But would I follow?  Would I abandon the longings in my own heart and let God make me over…into compassion…into God’s image…into God’s heart?  Now we are sneaking up on humility as I understand it.  Faith asks “Does God exist?”  Humility asks, “Am I willing to listen?” 

Well, who knows best, God or me?

St. Benedict, in his instructions to his monks, to persons who long to stay in dialogue with God continually (to pray without ceasing) that they may indeed act purely for God, understands that we are more apt to  stay motivated to live for God if we “keep death daily before our eyes.”  We have to remember the real race we are running.  It’s not success, it’s transformation—becoming ALL God.  We are all running the race of transformation until death—death being the great consummation of our self IN GOD. 

So in the 4th chapter of St. Benedict’s Rule for beginners, the chapter given over to Instruments of Good Works, #47:  “Keep death daily before our eyes.”  

Well, you know, the first time I read that, I shuddered.  There’s the death thing again—so foreign to a society that thinks it is going to live forever.  We drink green drinks loaded with ginger and kale, and replace body parts, and book flights to Hawaii on our cell phones from the hospital.

For St. Benedict, monastic spirituality is a spirituality of the heart; it is entirely directed to helping the monk discover his own inner source of spiritual vitality and living in harmony with it.

By instructing a monk to “keep death daily before our eyes” Benedict is reminding his student in pursuit of Christ that there is an urgency.  Life is short, but it matters, don’t give in to complacency.  Today might be the only day you have to abandon your heart to God; indeed, it might be the only hour.  There’s an urgency in the story I shared from Luke’s gospel about the tragic deaths and Jesus’ invitation to focus on our own inner renewal and not the faults of our neighbors.  “You might perish just as easily as they did.”

To miss the transformation from living for the love of ME to living for the love of God is, according to Jesus, is the real tragedy.  

Many, many years ago a friend told me the story of how his family hated him.  Since he was a pastor, he told me the story of how his church didn’t like him very much, either.

“I was in a constant state of anxiety, depression, and rage,” he confessed.  “Since I wanted to keep both my family and my congregation, I sought help.  But I didn’t seek help from a counseling agency, I learned how to seek help from the Holy Spirit of God.  God put me back together again; turned my thinking around…emptied me of the illusion of control and filled me humility…so God could fill me with grace.”

My family loves me…

My church loves me…

I love me…

My life truly began when I learned how to get out of the way of the One who’s way was INSIDE of me. 

And as St. Benedict would add, “Towards the ONE (GOD) all of us are moving.” 

I’ve noticed it’s at an alarming speed.

Isn’t this a good thing—to be, in the end, totally absorbed in the goodness of God?


I don't know about tomorrow
I just live from day to day
I don't borrow from its sunshine
For its skies may turn to gray
I don't worry o'er the future
For I know what Jesus said
And today I'll walk beside Him
For He knows what is ahead

Many things about tomorrow
I don't seem to understand
But I know who holds tomorrow
And I know who holds my hand

(This sermon was preached on Ash Wednesday--February 18, 2015--by Reverend Dana Keener at Central Christian Church in Billings, MT.)

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