Monday, November 10, 2014

Prepared for What?

Years ago an elderly woman invited me to visit her two-story garage, which was larger by square footage than any house I have lived in.  The woman’s husband had passed away and she was trying to deal with all the stuff he had accumulated over the years.  He had an old parachute, she told me, that I might want to use for games in the church’s children’s ministry (and no, we did not have kids jumping from the steeple).  When I entered the garage I encountered the vast remnants of a man who suffered from what is called compulsive hoarding behavior.  It is characterized “by the excessive acquisition of and inability or unwillingness to discard large quantities of objects that cover the living areas of the home and cause significant distress or impairment.”  As just one example, the man had collected enough fishing gear to open a tackle shop.  If he saw a lure he liked he bought the entire display.  I was so overwhelmed by the magnitude and diversity of items he had accumulated that to this day, my memory of that experience is vague and jumbled.  Suffice it to say there was a lot of stuff.

This morning’s parable about the wise and foolish maidens, with its emphasis on preparedness, is not encouraging us to be like that man.

Have you ever watched the television show Doomsday Preppers?  I have not, but apparently it focuses on survivalists who are preparing for various circumstances that will cause the end of civilization; economic collapse, military or terrorist attack, and pandemic plague being the most common.  According to a description of the show, new preppers are featured on each episode and a panel of experts grades their efforts and makes recommendations for improvement.

This morning’s parable about the wise and foolish maidens, with its emphasis on preparedness, is not encouraging us to become a doomsday prepper.

When I first moved to Virginia, being a northerner, I had to adjust to the southern way of engaging winter weather.  In Richmond, if snow was in the forecast, everyone hurried to Ukrops to buy bread and milk.  We do that here in Suffolk too, only we don’t have Ukrops.  Similarly, if a hurricane is moving up the coast and threatening the Hampton Roads area, you can expect a run on bottled water and other non-perishable staples at our local grocery stores.

As prudent and practical as this may be, this morning’s parable about the wise and foolish maidens, with its emphasis on preparedness, is not encouraging us to stock up before a storm.

Three remarkable women have been in the news this week: Leah Still, the four-year-old daughter of an NFL player who is battling a rare form of cancer; Laureen Hutton, a freshman at Mount St. Joseph College who fulfilled her dream of playing in a basketball game before a different rare form of cancer takes her strength and eventually her life; and Brittany Maynard, a 29 year-old newlywed who, dying from cancer, moved to Oregon to take advantage of its death with dignity law.  Last Saturday, on All Saints’ Day, she consumed a prescribed lethal dose of medication that ended her life, but also launched an important national conversation.

Even though it is essential that we share end-of-life wishes with our loved ones, this morning’s parable about the wise and foolish maidens, with its emphasis on preparedness, is not about dotting the ‘i’s and crossing the ‘t’s on medical directives and legal documents. 

Why is the parable not about these things?  Because each of the scenarios I mention describes being ready for something that (for lack of a better word) is negative, whereas the parable encourages us to be prepared for something that is joyous.  And I don’t think it is talking about getting everything lined up you need for a Thanksgiving dinner or getting all your shopping done early for Christmas.  I think Jesus is talking about something much deeper and more spiritual than that.

Those first followers of Jesus expected him to return at any moment.  It could be tonight, or tomorrow night, or some time next week.  No one knew exactly when it would happen, but initially everyone believed it would be soon – real soon! 

But as time passed, weeks and months at first, but then years and even decades, those followers had to rethink their position.  Perhaps Jesus was not going to return for a long, long time.  And some even began to wonder if they had gotten wrong the whole notion of a ‘return.’  If so, then it was time to roll up their sleeves and get about the business of life.  Many followed this new path, but not all.  The hold-outs began to emphasize the need for vigilance and the possibility of missing out.  Look at the last line of today’s parable (where the meaning of most parables is conveyed), “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”  It is a warning from one group to the other: stay with our program or you may get locked out.

And, two millennia later, their debate has very little relevance in our lives.  Yes, there are those who are caught up in the whole “Left Behind” mentality, but most of that thinking has only been around for a hundred years or so.  It is hardly a classic articulation of Christian theology down through the ages and it is something that, if we took the time to think it through, would reject as silly and preposterous. 

When I read today’s parable it suggests to me that the kingdom of heaven is always breaking into our lives, presenting us with moments of deep joy and cause for celebration.  One of life’s great challenges is to be in a position to recognize God’s kingdom in our midst and to appreciate it for what it is.  How do you cultivate a spiritual openness to joy and develop a capacity to be aware of the grace and goodness that is all around us?  Without these spiritual skills we are like the maidens who have no oil.  The kingdom of heaven comes close to us, but we are not in a position to receive it.  It is like we are colorblind.  Yes, we see the world, but are unaware of the vast and vivid hues that fill it with glorious and delicate beauty. 

How do we store up oil; that thing which makes us ready to participate in the kingdom of heaven when it draws near?  You know as well as I do the importance of solitude and prayer.  You know how the workday interruption may carry with it the most grace-filled moment of the day.  You know that religion and spirituality are more than coming to church on those Sunday mornings when you are in town.  It is an attitude and a perspective you carry with you at all times.  You know the power of gathering regularly with fellow seekers.  I can sit in the quiet of this space in the evening, light some candles, open a hymnal, and sing carols, but it will not come close to doing for me what will happen when we all come together on Christmas Eve. 

For the most part, we know what to do to add oil to our lives.  Our challenge is doing it; doing it consistently, passionately, and authentically.  Look around you; not just to notice the people who are here this morning, but also to think about all the people in your life: family, friends, and co-workers.  Do you ever get the feeling that they are getting something deeper and more joyous out of life that you are not?  If so, it may just be a sign that you need to attend to the lack of ‘oil’ in your life. 

In the parable of the wise and foolish maidens, the kingdom of heaven arrived as a single, one-time event.  Either you made it in or you did not.  The good news is that God’s kingdom draws near to us all the time.  We may miss a moment here or there – heck, we may miss most of them – yet still the kingdom keeps coming near.  It is never too late to get the oil you need to be a part of it and even if the doors get closed to today’s celebration, another one will take place in no time at all.  And guess what, you’ll have all the oil you need for that one.