Archive for February 12, 2012

“Remember, you must die!”

There is a novel by Muriel Spark called Memento Mori. It tells about a group of friends, all over sixty-five, who one by one receive anonymous phone calls telling them, “Remember, you must die!” The novel, partly serious, partly humorous, tells how different individuals come to terms with the telephone message. Though reactions vary, a common reaction is fright.

Still, the anonymous caller often causes characters to think back over their lives and assess how they have lived—about the good they have done as well as the not-so-good. In a way, the message they receive about death forces them to come to terms with the meaning of the life they have lived. Somehow death leads them back into life. For us Christians, the season of Lent helps us to realize and live this great truth that death leads us back into life. The sign of the cross on our foreheads with the imposition of ashes remind us of our mortality. It also reminds us of our willingness to participate in the long journey of death on the way of the cross, which leads us back to life.

1 “Shout with the voice of a trumpet blast. Shout aloud! Don’t be timid. Tell my people Israel of their sins! 2 Yet they act so pious! They come to the Temple every day and seem delighted to learn all about me. They act like a righteous nation that would never abandon the laws of its God. They ask me to take action on their behalf, pretending they want to be near me. 3 ‘We have fasted before you!’ they say. ‘Why aren’t you impressed? We have been very hard on ourselves, and you don’t even notice it!’ “I will tell you why!” I respond. “It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves. Even while you fast, you keep oppressing your workers. 4 What good is fasting when you keep on fighting and quarreling? This kind of fasting will never get you anywhere with me. 5 You humble yourselves by going through the motions of penance, bowing your heads like reeds bending in the wind. You dress in burlap and cover yourselves with ashes. Is this what you call fasting? Do you really think this will please the LORD? 6 “No, this is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. 7 Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help. 8 “Then your salvation will come like the dawn, and your wounds will quickly heal. Your godliness will lead you forward, and the glory of the LORD will protect you from behind. 9 Then when you call, the LORD will answer. “Yes, I am here,’ he will quickly reply. “Remove the heavy yoke of oppression. Stop pointing your finger and spreading vicious rumors! 10 Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon. 11 The LORD will guide you continually, giving you water when you are dry and restoring your strength. You will be like a well-watered garden, like an ever-flowing spring. 12 Some of you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities. Then you will be known as a rebuilder of walls and a restorer of homes.”

This passage from Isaiah reminds both Jews and Christians that the way of God; the way of true fasting and prayer is the way of repentance. According to the prophet, this way of repentance involves our whole way of life and living. Our relationship with God shall motivate and guide us to be workers for justice; to free those who are oppressed; to involve ourselves in acts of loving-kindness; to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, provide shelter for the homeless and the refugees. The prophet tells us that these deeds of repentance shall be rewarded by God. The Lord will listen and answer our prayer requests; the Lord will also provide for all of his people’s needs and give them a hope-filled future.

According to this long-standing Israelite tradition, which Jesus also taught and lived, our faith has a profound influence on how we treat other people. We contribute to mending the world by doing good deeds. Our task is to join God in mending and liberating the world. The most straightforward way to define good deeds is to say that a good deed is anything that dignifies or enhances life. Enjoying any intimate pleasure, for example, is a good deed. Any act of kindness or generosity, any support for a deserving cause, is a good deed. The range of good deeds is as wide as life itself. It is a good deed to keep one’s body clean, to visit the sick, to teach, to provide an honest service or product, to employ someone in useful work.

Righteous conduct is not a matter of unusual courage or brave acts. It has more to do with the day-to-day practice of good deeds, the ordinary healthy acts and questioning of evil and injustice, which if done regularly will not put us in a situation in which only heroes can act.

As an act of repentance, we like the ancient Israelite prophet can participate in the way of true fasting and prayer; the way of God, by changing our selfish, destructive habits, which contribute to injustice, and by doing good deeds of loving-kindness. People continue to fight against poverty and injustice. In the countries in Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East, over one-third of the people live below the poverty line. They often lack clean water, adequate food, health care and education. How are we to treat the “least of these”? For many, the answer is “development”—a basic commitment to improving the condition and quality of people’s lives, no matter where they live. In participating in development, we are enriched by God’s presence.

When we make contributions to Canadian Lutheran World Relief or The Olive Branch or your favourite benevolent organization, we are doing good deeds of loving-kindness, we are making a difference and improving people’s lives. The following story is an example of this.

In the village of Bhagra, Bangladesh, eighteen women have formed a community development group in order to improve their families’ lives. They have pooled their savings and invested in rice storage, goat raising, home gardening and land purchases. As a result of their investments, they have earned enough money to purchase eight cows and one goat. They plan to fatten the animals up and sell them. The selling price of eight cows is CDN$3,500—a huge amount when measured against the average Bangladeshi family income of $250 per year. The women plan to use their profits to develop their community—to purchase medicine, children’s school supplies, and garden seeds.

During this Lenten season, we are given the opportunity and the privilege to participate in God’s Way; the way of true fasting and prayer; the way of repentance; the way of the cross. This way of the cross involves our whole life and way of living—including our ways of thinking, speaking and acting. Are we prepared to participate in this long journey of death, which leads us and all people back to life? Are we willing to die each day to sin and the powers of death and evil? Are we willing to truthfully assess how we are living our lives—and, if necessary, to make the changes in order to follow God’s Way, the way of the cross? Are we willing to live in a new, reconciled, restored, loving, hope-filled relationship with our God and with one another?

These are some of the questions God is asking us as we once again begin our Lenten journey. What shall our answer be but “Yes, it shall be so,”—which in the language of faith means Amen.