15 March 2009

Oculi - Lent III

Lent III
Oculi Mei

Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22
    Introit: My eyes are ever towards the Lord: for He shall pluck my feet out of the snare: look Thou upon me, and have mercy on me; for I am alone and poor. -- (Ps. 24. 1, 2). To Thee, O Lord, have I lifted up my soul: in Thee, O my God, I put my trust; let me be not ashamed.

One driver sticks post-it notes all over the dashboard of her car to make sure she remembers each errand. Kitchen calendars fill up with family appointments. Many cell phones now include calendars so their owners can have instant access to appointments that are too numerous to remember.

Chronic stress accompanies an increasing number of Americans who feel busy beyond measure. It’s a common problem for the current generation, even among the retired. People are so overwhelmed that one of the greatest luxuries of the twenty-first century is free time.

Busy-ness intrudes on all of us because we have so many opportunities. And because we want everything – and more. We have become slaves to what we desire, not what we need. We have become possessed by our activities – our getting and spending and doing. Isn’t that part of the malady that infects us during this difficult economic period? Living beyond our means? Materialism and greed? No boundaries to keep us in check?

Obviously, we need to re-set priorities and follow them.

A classic story about a business management consultant is instructive. The CEO of a large company stared failure in the face as he floundered, trying to pull his workforce out of a production tailspin. Swallowing his pride, he called in a consultant and said he would take any and all advice. The consultant asked the CEO to list what he did in the course of a normal week. Once this was done, she told the CEO to rank the list in priority. This took a while, but when it was finished, she told the CEO what he needed to do. “When you come to work, complete item number one before attending to item number two, and complete number two before going to number three. The next day, take out the list and start with number one again and repeat the process. Do the same each and every day. Don’t worry if you fail to reach lower items on your priority list. That’s it.”

The CEO tried it and turned the company around. He lived into his own priorities and his workforce followed.

Emulating this would be a good way for Christians to amplify their Lenten disciplines – setting priorities and following them rigorously. This might free us from the busy-ness and overindulgence that we have fallen subject to – that enslave us. Heeding today’s reading from Exodus would make that task easier.

The Ten Commandments begins with a reminder that it is God who first leads us from that which enslaves us. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, you shall have no other gods before me.”

God’s commandments can free us from the confinement of excessive busy-ness, too much wanting everything and more, obsession with our cravings and desires. God’s commandments lay out boundaries and help us set priorities by God’s standards.

Look at the list in your Prayer Book on pages 317 and 318. This stripped down list of ten priorities provides us with a time-honored but too-often-neglected guide for daily living. The Ten Commandments provide simplicity in the midst of too much complexity and busy-ness that often confounds us.

Furthermore, the Catechism, on pages 847 through 849 in the PrayerBook, helps us even further by grouping the ten into two basic priorities. First is our duty to believe and trust in God. Second is our duty to care for and respect our neighbors.

For the initial priority, simply said, we put God first and putting nothing in God’s place. The Catechism helps us understand deeper meanings of not making idols, not misusing God’s name, and keeping holy the Sabbath day.

We show love for God and obedience to him in “thought, word, and deed.” We set aside special time for reflection on “God’s ways” through worshipping with our fellow believers, and praying and studying about the things of God that are our priority.

For the second priority, simply said, we put our neighbors first. Again, the Catechism expands our understanding of honoring parents and refraining from murder, adultery, stealing, bearing false witness, and coveting what is our neighbor’s.

We “love, honor, and help our parents” and others who exercise just authority. It is a partnership, for the sake of God, with those who teach us and lead us into the way of Christ. We respect the created order of humanity by accepting the righteous reality God has made. We honor human life, deplore war, work for peace, rid our hearts of hatred and malice, and seek to become one with what God has created.

We “use all bodily desires as God intended,” remaining faithful in human relationships. We deal with others honestly and fairly, and we work for justice in the world around us and far off. We seek freedom whether it does not exist. We share the precious resources of this planet and do not horde unnecessary surplus when others stand in need.

We do not simply refrain from lying, but we exercise the courage to tell the truth. We are careful “not to mislead others by our silence.” We resist the all-too-human temptation to have what is not ours. We guard against desires that lead us to “envy, greed, and jealousy.” Rather, we look with happiness and thanksgiving at the success of others and what they possess.

In the process of living into these commandments, we continue to expand this view and uncover for ourselves, in the particularities of our lives, the richness of what each means.

The list of Ten Commandments need not complicate our thinking, because each is a part of one whole: duty to and love for God and fellow human beings.

Our Lord Jesus Christ reminds us of this. We recall this teaching in the Penitential Order in our Prayer Book, so appropriate for Lent:

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all they soul, and with all they mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commands hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

Here’s the place to grab onto the management consultant’s advice. At the beginning of each day, let’s lay aside or our calendars and day planners and lists of things to do. Rather, let us turn to this top item on our list of priorities, loving God and loving neighbor, and tend to it before we move on to the next thing.

Then maybe our problem of busy-ness, our rush to fulfill so many wants and desires, will cease to make us anxious, and the success of our personal lives will be secured.

-- The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of John E. Hines: Granite on Fire (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives in his native home, Bastrop, Texas. Email: Kesselus@juno.com.