“You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me;
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.
Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”
At first glance, Psalm 23 seems a curious selection for Lent—somehow the phrases, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want…you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over,” seems at odds with the somber mood of Lent.
And the same might be said of today’s Gospel reading in which the man born blind, after being healed by Jesus, responds to those Pharisees who are questioning Jesus’ credentials by exclaiming, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see”—this eruption of joy seems definitely more celebratory than penitential.
As I mused on these readings, it occurred to me that maybe a lot of us have gotten it all wrong.
I’m thinking of how many of us have approached the season of Lent.
I’m thinking of how many of us have understood the concept of sin.
I’m thinking of how many of us have understood the judgment of God and what we should feel guilty about, what we should be sorry for, what we should regret, what we should repent of.
I’m thinking that we may have been worrying about the wrong things.
Could it be that we have tended to get ourselves in a dither of guilt over what is actually quite inconsequential and at the same time have been blind and oblivious to what we really should be distressed and remorseful about?
The Greek word for sin, “hamartia,” means “to miss the mark.”
So maybe instead of asking, how have we sinned?, we should be asking, how have we missed the mark, how have we gotten off track, how have we worried and stewed and felt guilty about the wrong things?
So often God has been painted in the image of a mean-spirited, tyrannical, overbearing parent—the ultimate “control freak.”
So often God has been made out to be a fussy, persnickety, bullying, insecure parent who needs to be constantly recognized and catered to.
This is the picture of God that all too often has been promoted and circulated by religious enthusiasts and earnest evangelists— an oversized cosmic parent who requires habitual reassurance and attention and who insists on being constantly remembered and thanked even when we don’t feel an ounce of thankfulness.
How strange that we should attribute to God characteristics that we would regard as repugnant and disastrously detrimental in a human parent!
When our children venture out into the world and go off to the local Montessori kindergarten or to band camp or the Senior Prom or the youth hostels of Spain or settle down with a new spouse on the other side of town or on the other side of the continental divide, what do we as parents expect of them?
Do we expect them, do we want them, to constantly think about us, remember us, worry about us?
Do we want them to continually fret over whether we would approve of what they do or say?
I would submit that for most of us parents, our highest hope and expectation for our children is to see in their faces some evidence of happiness.
Our greatest wish for them is not that they will graduate from college or land a starring role in a Broadway musical but more than anything that their lives will manifest signs of gladness and contentment.
It seems to me what most of us parents want first and foremost from our children, more than their trying to please us or be dutifully mindful of us, is to see them flourishing and enjoying themselves.
Isn’t this true—that our greatest reward and expectation as parents is for our children to be excited, curious, fascinated, thrilled, at the great spectacle of life unfolding around them?
Yes, it seems to me that at the top of our wish list for our children is that they will savor life’s bountiful offerings, that they will relish good food and good friends, that they will know the joy of being generous, compassionate, and thankful, that they will experience the profound pleasure and satisfaction of finding work that makes full use of their talents.
Yes, the biggest wish that many of us have for our children is that in spite of whatever suffering, disappointment, and heartbreak may befall them, they will love life.
Remember that passage in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus says: “Ask and it will be given you, search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you—if you, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will our Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him?”?
Jesus seems to be saying that if we flawed human parents want in the worst way for our children to be vibrantly happy and to delight in their existence, how much more does God, the source of all life and the true parent of us all, desire our true happiness.
If we want to give our children good gifts that make their hearts sing, how much more does God want us to blossom and our cup to overflow!
Well, if Jesus’ image of God is valid, then our understanding of sin and judgment may need to be thoroughly revamped.
Because we’re probably worrying about the wrong things.
Because for many of us so much of our religion has to do with the keeping of rules—rules of belief, rules of church-going, rules of conduct.
For many of us so much of our religion is so cautious, so wary, so heavy, so joyless, so preoccupied with trying not to offend a stern, virtually unpleasable god who is perpetually at the ready to punish our miscues and misdemeanors.
And maybe it was this impression that much of religious observance consists of dogged, dreary rule-keeping that led H.L. Mencken to define a Christian as a person who is deathly afraid that someone somewhere is having a good time.
And yet if Jesus’ picture of God is to be believed, what God constantly, relentlessly wants to give us are not rules but rich, fruitful life.
There’s a poem by Phyllis McGinley that describes a mother’s desire to give to her child, and it includes these lines:
“Life is the fruit she longs to hand you,
Ripe on a plate. And while you live,
Relentlessly she understands you.”
If Jesus is right, these words apply to God to the nth power.
And so maybe what we ought to be worried about is not whether we’ve kept the rules or done things ‘just so’ or been good enough or watched our Ps and Qs but whether we have knocked vigorously enough on the door of Life.
Maybe what we ought to repent of is that we haven’t been more daring, more bold, more adventurous— that we haven’t gotten out on a limb more, that we haven’t taken more risks, that we have been too calculating and put too many of our eggs in the “play it safe” security basket—that we have responded to the Divine offer of abundant life so half-heartedly, so meekly, so apathetically.
Maybe we ought to feel regretful that instead of eagerly sitting down to the resplendent, five-star, five course meal to which Life is continually inviting us, we’ve been all too willing to settle for skimpy left-overs, morsels, and tidbits— that we haven’t sufficiently heeded the advice of the character in Saul Bellow’s novel who says: “Live all you can—it’s a mistake not to.”
Maybe we ought to feel sorry that instead of being awestruck and bowled over by the shimmering glory and goodness of creation, by the marvel of our simply being here, by the wealth of possibilities that Life has strewn in our path, we have all too often expressed that sentiment that Peggy Lee made famous: “Is this all there is?”
Maybe we ought to feel badly for those times when we have buried our talents, kept them under wraps, and thus have denied ourselves the incomparable, exhilarating privilege of offering our gifts for the sake of our neighbor and the glory of God.
And maybe what we ought to be remorseful about most of all is that we have repeatedly failed to drink deeply of the unqualified, boundless forgiveness of God, and thus we have continued to be bogged down by dismal re-runs of immobilizing guilt and self-contempt.
My five year old grandson is a kindergartener at a Catholic school—last week he told his parents that his class has been learning about Lent and how you should give something up—his mom asked him what he’s going to give up, and he said, “I think I’ll give up not liking myself.”
Julian, my boy, I think you’ve got it—because if, in spite of all that we find intolerable about ourselves, the Source of All Life and Living has embraced and approved us, has said Yes to us in no uncertain terms, and has assured us of our unassailable worth, then who are we to not like ourselves?
The story of Jesus healing the man born blind suggests that the most serious kind of blindness is not physical blindness but blindness to the unmanageable generosity of God, and that the locus of Divine activity is to be found not in quibbling and wrangling over who’s a true believer, who’s in and who’s out, but where something redemptive is happening, where someone is given eyes to see what she has never perceived before, where new life and rejuvenation overflow.
And so if we’re trying to identify where the Spirit, the giver of Life, is having an effect, we might do well to keep our eyes peeled for wherever astonishingly vibrant life is manifest.
Clayton (Peg Leg) Bates was an African American tap dancer who died in his 90’s; his obituary notice mentioned the following:
“Mr. Bates lost his leg at age 12 in an accident at a cottonseed-gin mill where he worked. He had been dancing for his own pleasure from the age of 5…(he said) ‘After losing the leg, for some unknown reason, I still wanted to dance…at first, I was walking around on crutches, and I started making musical rhythm.’
He began dancing again after his uncle whittled him a wooden leg. (He said) ‘See, I did not realize the importance of losing a leg…I thought it was just like stubbing my toe and knocking off a toenail that was going to grow back.’
Mr. Bates went on to become one of the most popular tap dancers in the nation, an irrepressible performer who was as much acclaimed by his fellow dancers as by his audience…he mastered a variety of styles and pyrotechnical flourishes, reinventing everything for a wooden leg whose half-rubber, half-leather tip gave Mr. Bates’ tapping an unusually deep and resonant sound.
‘….I’m into rhythm and I’m into novelty,’ (he said)….’I’m into doing things that it looks almost impossible to do.’ One reason he had mastered so many styles, he said, was to surpass two-legged dancers, adding that he often did….
Mr. Bates performed frequently for the disabled, first in the 1940’s in Army and Navy hospitals. He would imitate a dive bomber, leaping high into the air and coming down on his wooden leg, and then tell the applauding soldiers and sailors that with that kind of encouragement he would be happy to break his other leg. After all, he told his cheering audiences, he had more legs in his dressing room. There were 13, one to match each of his suits. After his retirement from the stage in 1989, Mr. Bates continued to perform for the handicapped, as well as children and the elderly.”
Mr. Bates’ story is one of those living parables that invites us to open ourselves wide to the Spirit, the Giver of Life, to take the plunge and throw ourselves into the great swirling dance of creation rather than sit on our hands hoping that no one is going to drag us out onto the floor which, I have to admit, was exactly my attitude during those awful junior high mixers.
The Giver of Life enables us to bear the impossible and, in spite of everything, to utter this heartfelt prayer: “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
Wouldn’t it be something if our observance of Lent inspired us to become a little braver, a little outrageous, a little more generous, a little more playful and free-wheeling, a little more attentive to the infinite mystery of creation, a little more receptive to new life-giving possibilities which are even now knocking at our door?
That would be a Lent to remember, wouldn’t it?
Back in the early 90’s, the jazz singer Shirley Horn released a CD called “Here’s to Life” which I would propose as an alternative to Ms. Lee’s “Is This All There Is?”.
The title song by Artie Butler and Phyllis Molinary contains these lyrics which I gratefully borrow for my Lenten toast to you:
“…who knows what tomorrow brings or takes away
as long as I’m still in the game, I want to play
for laughs, for life, for love.
So here’s to life and all the joy it brings.
Here’s to life, the dreamers and their dreams.
May all your storms be weathered,
And all that’s good get better.
Here’s to life, here’s to love, here’s to you.” Amen.
The Rev. Robert Dwight
Christ Episcopal Church
March 2, 2008