“Stop! Drink water.”
There was a cartoon circulating on email a couple of weeks ago. The scene was the Vatican, and the speech bubble was of someone inside responding in surprise to Pope Benedict’s announcement of his resignation: “You’re giving up WHAT for Lent?”
There is a tradition of Christians giving something up during Lent. We might give up some indulgence that we don’t really need. We might fast on a certain day of the week or forego eating meat, as a way of disciplining ourselves and turning our attention towards God.
Others have changed up the tradition a little by talking about taking something on during Lent. They try to add something to their daily or weekly routine… making sure they come to worship every week, adding daily prayer to their schedule, spending some intentional time in service to the poor or the lonely or the sick.
Around St. Andrew’s this year, we’ve had a few invitations to take something on during Lent. I handed copies of a devotional booklet that I called “A Time to Pray,” and offered a Wednesday evening bible study on the appropriately Lenten topic of forgiveness.
The Stewardship Committee invited us all to gather our coins for a special offering to PWS&D, and they called us to pay attention to our stewardship of time during Lent with a survey and a time log, along with some thoughtful questions to help us evaluate our use of time and make some changes in our lives.
Of course, no one is expected to take on all of these Lenten possibilities, but hopefully most of us have decided to take on something – to mark this season by changing something in our lives, by doing something different in order to draw close to God once again.
Jesus’ parable of the fig tree reminds us that God has very clear intentions for our lives. Every one of our lives will look different. We’ll have different work to do, different relationships and different daily activities, but all our lives have the same purpose, the same goal… which is to produce fruit… to bring love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and generosity into the world.
In one of the prayers that we usually pray at memorial services, there is a prayer of thanksgiving to God “for all the good that entered the world through this person.” That’s the fruit that God intends our lives to produce. And we don’t want to wait until our lives are over to start paying attention to the fruit, noticing whether there is any fruit growing, and changing our lives to let God produce some good fruit through us.
On Wednesday evening we were reading about King David when he got off track and got into a spiral of sin. You may remember the dramatic story in 2nd Samuel where David sleeps with another man’s wife and gets her pregnant. He then tries in a variety of ways to hide what he’s done, and when he’s unsuccessful, he arranges to have the husband killed in battle and then he takes the woman for himself.
In our discussion, we started talking about whether David knew what he was doing was wrong. He must have known, right? I mean, it was adultery, followed by deception, followed by murder? How could he not have known it was wrong? So why didn’t he just stop? What was he thinking?
And I suddenly noticed that there was no commentary in the story about what David was thinking or why he was doing the wrong things that he was doing. Was he deluded into thinking that it was okay to do those things? Was he justifying his behaviour somehow? Or was he just being selfish? The text does not say.
But then I realized that the problem may have been that David just simply wasn’t thinking about what he was doing. He wasn’t reflecting on his experiences or his choices. He wasn’t pausing to ask what God would have him do in his situation.
A quote attributed to the ancient philosopher Socrates came to mind: “The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.”
Learning from King David’s mistakes and his unexamined life, we tried out a couple of practices of self-examination. Some of us tried out the “examination of conscience,” asking the Holy Spirit to help us look at ourselves clearly and see the ways in which we have missed the mark or moved away from God’s loving purpose for us. Others in the group tried out “an examination of consciousness” – a practice of reviewing our day in order to see where God has been present and at work in us, around us, and through us.
The practice begins by acknowledging with gratitude that God knows you through and through, God loves you, and God waits eagerly to summon out what you will become. In a sense, it’s like we begin by remembering that we are fig trees. When the examination begins, even if all we find on our branches is leaves or maybe some shrivelled up figs, God loves us and forgives us, and God is ready to work on us like a determined and faithful gardener to help us to produce good fruit.
The next step is to ask the Holy Spirit to help you to review with clarity the past 24 hours or so. Thinking back through the hours and activities of the last day, you are invited to identify two or three instances when God’s grace becomes apparent to you. Were you aware of it at the time? And how did you respond? If you recognized and responded in a way fitting the Christian life, give thanks! If you were unaware of divine presence or resistant to God’s love, confess and seek to become more aware and more responsive in the future. Finally, you are invited to write a psalm-prayer of praise, confession, and gratitude as it arises from your experience of self-examination.
Ignatius of Loyola was probably the first to recommend the Daily Examen – the regular spiritual practice of reviewing the day in order to pay attention to God’s presence and seek to follow God more closely every day. Christians who practice the Daily Examen or other similar spiritual practices during Lent or throughout the year find that they draw closer and closer to God, and they are equipped to bear good fruit.
You see, bearing fruit in our lives, bringing good into the world, is not something that arises from our own sheer effort or determination. It is a matter of allowing God to work on us and within us and through us…. digging around us, pouring water on us, shining sunlight on us, and even fertilizing us with manure. That’s how we are equipped to bear good fruit.
Daniel Debevoise, in a pastoral reflection on Isaiah 55, asks, “How thirsty are you?” He explains, “In my home climate of central Florida during the summer, when the humidity is so intense that you step outside and immediately begin to perspire, you know when you are thirsty. You are thirsty all the time! You know your body is dehydrated because you literally see all the liquid leaving it, droplets of perspiration soaking your shirt, dripping off your arms, and running down your forehead. Even if you do not feel thirsty, you know you are thirsty. You drink water before you go outside to exercise. ‘Everyone who thirsts’ – that is me and everybody else – ‘come to the waters.’
“In the southwestern United States, where the humidity is low, you may be thirsty and not even know it. Your perspiration evaporates so quickly that you do not realize you are becoming dehydrated. So whether you feel thirsty or not, you drink a little water as often as you can. In Grand Canyon National Park there are signs strategically placed along the trails that remind you to stop and drink water. ‘Stop! Drink water. You are thirsty, whether you realize it or not.’
“How could it be that we do not recognize our own thirst? There are times when we are intensely aware of our needs and desires, including the things we thirst for, and other times when we do not feel the need or desire for anything in particular. Isaiah’s words are like the sign in a dry climate – ‘Stop! Drink water. You are thirsty, whether you realize it or not.’ We need to hear and respond to Isaiah, but not on the basis of what we may feel about ourselves at any particular moment. Isaiah is telling us something true about ourselves at every moment of our lives.”
Not long ago, I was talking with one of our worshippers, someone who used to attend another Christian Church in which they celebrate Holy Communion every Sunday. I was explaining the pattern of our Communion services here at St. Andrew’s, and I asked him, “Do you miss having Communion every Sunday?” He thought about it for a moment, and then he said, “I don’t notice myself missing it week by week. But then when I do receive Communion I notice how much I was longing for it, how much I needed it.”
At the beginning of Lent we are reminded of the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, of the 40 years that the Israelites spent wandering through the desert. Some of us may have chosen to give something up or to take something on during these 40 days in order to draw close to God. But today’s text from the prophet Isaiah reminds us that all that God requires is that we respond to God’s open invitation. Come drink, come eat, come feed on the goodness of God and let God transform your life until you produce good fruit.
In our prayer of confession this morning we prayed: “Be patient, O God, as we amend who we are, in the hope of becoming who you intend us to be.” We can be thankful today because God is ever-patient with us. And we can be hopeful today because it’s not just up to us to amend our lives. God is working on us, and God is feeding us with what we need to produce good fruit.
If you give something up during this season, may you give up spending your money, your time, and your energy on activities and pursuits and material things that do not satisfy. And if you take something up during this season, may you take up the invitation of God to come and drink deeply from the water of God’s Holy Spirit. And with God’s help, may your life produce abundant good fruit. Thanks be to God for the good that is entering the world through you. Amen.