February 28, 2013

Things We Can’t Do Without


Text: Ps. 27:14: “Though my father and my mother forsake me, the Lord will sustain me.”

Maybe by now in your own observance of Lent this year you have decided to slightly modify the ideas you had about what to give up, or what particular disciplines to observe. Or maybe what you decided to give up this year was the whole notion of a discipline of Lent. After all, we are learning about ourselves that each of us has a kind of budget for self-control, and if there are things we have to spend it on already there simply won’t be much left for us to use when it comes to some new form of self-denial or making for ourselves a new routine.

At least I’m sure of this: Whenever we manage to give up something successfully, it doesn’t take long before the way we regard it takes on something like the following form: I don’t know why I thought I needed that. I never really need that so much. It turned out not to be that important after all.

There is plenty we have that turns out not to be all that necessary, and very often simply in the way of a deeper experience of the life of faith. There is plenty, an abundance of things, that are simply unnecessary to us.

A group of us has been taking the Saturday mornings of Lent and reading our way through Thomas Merton’s little book What is Contemplation? Merton was a man who lived as a Trappist monk; he speaks with some authority when it comes to the subject of the things you don’t need to be happy or fulfilled or secure.

He lived quite literally with possessions you could fit in a grocery bag. He had no home of his own, no income of his own, no car, no nothing. He lived in a cinder-block cell with a bed, a chair, a table, and borrowed typewriter, and that’s about it.

So I am spending my Lent being challenged by the thought of all I have that I can’t imagine being without and which is, in fact, completely unnecessary. And not just unnecessary; in the way. An obstacle. A part of this discipline of Lent is to begin to see that there is little in our lives that is neutral when it comes to our relationship with God. It either gets us more closely there, or it gets in our way.

So if you gave up on the idea of giving something up because you just couldn’t find anything so unimportant or marginal to set aside, you might want to think again. That’s a good indication that something there that has taken on an importance that might be a little out of scale with its eternal significance in your life.

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 Having said that—these early weeks of Lent are also a good time to do a little reflection on the things we really can’t live without. The lessons today speak to that in a general sort of way, and it’s important to remember that there really are some hard limits to our ability to live without things. There are things that fall into the realm of necessities.

I don’t mean the kind of physical necessities we all know we can’t do without. Water, oxygen, food, all of that. All that goes without saying.

I mean something more like the spiritual necessities. Things we may think we can give up that in fact are necessary to the health of our soul, our spiritual existence.

We can’t live without hope for the future. That is the point of the story from Genesis this morning. The plea of Abram is to have a future—to have children, to have an inheritance to pass down, to leave behind something. We can’t do without that. We are made such that we can’t simply live on a diet of the past served in the present.

We need to be pointed in hope toward something ahead of us, something that elevates our spirits and claims our energy and gives us a sense of purpose and dignity and value. We need hope for the future.

Here is something else. When I asked some people rather younger than me at dinner last night what I should preach on with very little notice to prepare, their answer was that I should preach on creativity. That is a sprawling idea, but it exactly fits my theme.

We cannot live without creativity. Let me say that a little differently. What my friends sense, and what any deeply thought out understanding of Christian theology teaches, is that we can’t live without the ability to express ourselves creatively. We must create.

This is not just a silly claim that we need to keep our inner child alive and have a box of crayons at the ready—although that is not such a bad idea. It’s something a lot deeper than that. It goes to this: Our claim in faith is that we are made in the image and likeness of God; and the first claim we make about the nature of God is that—you guessed it—“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” It is the first verb in the bible.

If God’s essential nature is to be creative, and if we are made in the image and likeness of God, then—well, there it is; we must create. It is essential to what it means to be human. And if we are deprived of the ability to create, we will fail to flourish as God intended.

A huge amount of the positive impact Christian doctrine has had on the development of Western culture is rooted in this basic idea of my friends. Our argument for individual freedom, our claims for social and economic justice, our convictions around the right of all people to be accorded with dignity, all take root from this. We didn’t just make that stuff up because it sounded progressive or good. Our whole understanding of God is bound up in it.

There is one thing more we can’t live without, one thing we really can’t give up for Lent—although many have, to their great cost. We can’t give up community. We can’t give up a place not just of interaction, but of relationship, of interdependence, with other human beings.

For us, that is what the church offers. For some of us the church may be the only place we know what community really is; a place that you can’t be in without giving something of yourself and receiving back something of yourself from other people.

Community is not our workplace or our colleagues. That is not a slight on our colleagues at work; but our workplace is something fundamentally different and far less mutual on the scale of interdependence.  And a lot of the places where we used to find community—our neighborhoods, our social organizations, even our extended families—are either too remote or too complicated or too withdrawn to be real communities these days.

We need community because it provides a means for us to have healthy access to one last spiritual essential. We can’t live without intimacy. I’m not talking about the kind of intimacy that Bloomingdale’s has in mind in the section of the store called “intimates.” I’m talking about something much, much more deep and much more essential to our very being—and as a result something because of which we can be very deeply confused and hurt.

We long to be connected to our source; we long to be in relationship with our creator. Whatever that means, at least it means that we long to know love; because we claim by faith that God is love, and therefore for us to know the actual, real power of love to transform us and give us a sense of connectedness and power, is for us to be connected to God.

If you don’t have places in your life to make that connection, if you take yourself out of communities where real and healthy connections can take place, then that essential need for intimacy will drag you into all kinds of trouble. And unlike our predecessors in the faith, we live in a whole culture built on the lie that anything you need you can get, even community, even intimacy, by means of some kind of transaction. But you can’t.

So like Abram we need hope for the future. Like Paul, like all builders of things, we need to create. Like Jesus, and indeed like all faithful people, we need to be part of a community of believers. These are things we can’t give up for Lent. No; on the contrary, we give up stuff so that we may hold on to these things, find new ways of pursuing them, with all the more energy. Amen.