There is nothing like a brush with mortality to sharpen the senses and invite reflection on what really makes for life. This week I had to evacuate my home ahead of an out of control wild fire (and happily was able to return a day later). Combined with the readings this week I am feeling reflective. (RCL Jeremiah 17:4-10; Psalm 1; 1 Corinthians 15:12-20; and Luke 6:17-26)
This last week the little coastal town I live in nestled amongst towering karri trees was under prolonged fire attack (Denmark, Western Australia). Most of the town were evacuated and sadly a few houses, businesses, livestock and untold flora and fauna were lost. Hundreds of local career and volunteer firefighters were joined by crews from further away and at one stage we had sixteen water bombers working overhead until on day three the good Lord provided rain. Most of us have miraculously escaped what might have razed us from the map. It has been, and is continuing to be, an experience that clarifies what is important to me.
Like many we evacuated on day two, although I had us ready within an hour of the fire starting (I worked in a Burns units when a young hospital social worker and have no desire to be burnt). While we were camped in a neighbouring town with family a friend messaged me and asked was I able to pack up the things I love? It was a good question. The answer was yes and no. Yes I had my husband and the dog (and prescription medication, my lap top, a few legal papers and clothes for three days). No – I calmly left every precious sentimental valuable item I owned behind. (I did get my three children’s baby photo albums because I am the custodian of their childhood but that’s all). We had a day to pack and I could have fit a lot more in as we brought our caravan out as well as two vehicles but my instinct was no don’t even try and choose one item over another, one gift over another, one memory over another because that would be impossible and would also deeply distract me and take my energy away from the task at hand. This is life and death and I choose life for me and mine. The rest is bonus. (A day later I was very grateful to see our little home nestled among huge trees still there.)
And I wonder if that is not part of what this week’s readings are about: relationships and priorities and principles and choosing what is most important and working out from there. Too often the temptation is to attend to the worldly and practical first and then the principles later when we have the luxury of time but that distraction can last a life time and we can end up on our deathbed having not got around to what is most important.
Jesus warns us that if we choose riches we have already had our consolation; that if we choose to sate our hunger now then we will know the greater hunger later; that if we choose laughter now as our priority then we will find ourselves weeping and mourning later; and if we choose to be thought well of by others as our priority now we will find that we have attached ourselves to false prophets, to the misled and misleading. I don’t think Jesus is necessarily saying that abundance, food, drink, laughter is wrong (he was after all accused of being a drunkard and a glutton himself for having too good a time and not sticking to the purity codes closely enough!) but I do think he is warning us that these are not helpful life giving priorities. An abundance of food, drink, laughter and being thought well of are not of themselves bad (only distracting) but they are such temporary fleeting experiences that chasing them is a terribly foolish dead end street.
Even more confrontingly Jesus says to us that we are blessed if poor, hungry, weeping, excluded because of our beliefs, for surely our reward will be great in the divine realms. I think this is true in two connected ways. Firstly that those who are poor in various ways are truly desirous of change, they do not have an investment in the status quo but are open to the kingdom of God – a new order of being in which justice and mercy prevail. This is a strong theme in the Hebrew Bible and is carried into the New Testament poetically in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) “... for the Mighty One ... has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty ...” For the chosen people of God of old a good life was a life on one’s own land with vineyards, livestock a plenty and many children. Ancient scripture frequently describes the blessings of God in terms of a banquet in which God will provide the drink and the food and Jesus often used parables in which banquets featured. Those who desired the reign of God most were often those who were hungry for literal food and inclusion and for a more just and generous society that would provide that food and place of belonging.
And those who follow the spiritual path of Jesus (and many other spiritual traditions) are challenged to detatch from the hold that temporary priorities can have over our life and to hunger for what brings life without end. The first principle of Ignation spirituality expresses it this way:
“The goal of our life is to live with God forever.
God, who loves us, gave us life.
Our own response of love allows God’s life to flow into us without limit.
All the things in this world are gifts of God, presented to us so that
we can know God more easily and make a return of love more readily.
As a result, we appreciate and use all these gifts of God
insofar as they help us develop as loving persons.
But if any of these gifts becomes the center of our lives,
they displace God and so hinder our growth toward our goal.
In everyday life, then, we must hold ourselves in balance
before all of these created gifts insofar as we have a choice
and are not bound by some obligation.
We should not fix our desires on health or sickness,
wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or short one.
For everything has the potential of calling forth in us
a deeper response to our life in God.
Our only desire and our one choice should be this:
I want and I choose what better leads to God’s deepening his life in me.”
The First Principle and Foundation by St Ignatius as paraphrased by David L Flemming SJ in “Hearts on Fire: Praying with Jesuits” edited by Michael Harter SJ, Institute of Jesuit Sources, St Louis, 1993.
For myself I do not claim to have achieved a lack of desire for the good things in life, yet. Or at least only for fleeting moments in meditation. I do prefer good health, a materially comfortable life, success, and a long life. But I do absolutely believe that God is also to be found in sickness, poverty, failure and a short life. I do believe that my hunger for the eternal and limitlessness of God is holy. And I am grateful for every reminder and opportunity to practice making the things that are truly about life – life in the flow of the Divine Beloved’s great love – my priority and orientation.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, and draw us further into the flow of what leads us deeper into life in God.
Lent is approaching fast and I invite you to consider the course I have written for this year, Lent Year C:
"The Path of Descent."