Tuesday, October 25, 2011

All That's Left

Since a young age, I’ve always been captivated by Scripture. I’ve had a sense that within it there truly lies deep and profound truth. When I started becoming more active in my local Episcopal parish, I did so as what was then called a “LEM” (Lay Eucharistic Minister). That is, I read Scripture and served the chalice. And though I found deep meaning in both ministries, I absolutely loved the ministry of proclaiming Scripture. From my earliest years I was taught to love the text.

I still do. I still love hearing Scripture proclaimed, particularly when it is clear that the Reader has really taken time preparing. And sometimes the proclamation is so meaningful that it enables me to hear the text in a way I never had.

This past week we celebrated the feast of St. Luke the Evangelist. The epistle reading for the day was from Second Timothy (4:5–13). I’ve heard this text probably hundreds of times during my life. I’d read it before the feast, preparing for my meditation on the day. But for some reason, as it was read during the liturgy, it was almost as though I’d never heard it before.

I could picture in my mind’s eye St. Paul in prison. At this point in life he’s an old man. He’s tired. He’s been imprisoned for a while, writing letters to churches and friends, refusing to accept the possibility that Rome can end his active ministry. He knows that his life is nearing its ending point, that things will not continue as they are. And as he prepares for the death he knows only draws nearer each day, he writes to his long-time student and friend Timothy. Looking back on a life of painful ministry, where he has been lauded by some and attacked by others, he has this simple advice for his friend,
As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
(And then, in this last part, the reality that these are the words of an old man, approaching his death, becomes heartbreakingly apparent.)
Do your best to come to me soon, for Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful in my ministry. I have sent Tychicus to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.
There is this wonderful blending in the text. After a lifetime of painful ministry, approaching his own death, he has wise words about what it means to serve in ministry. But woven together with those words are a few small requests. He’s lonely, only Luke is now left. He’d like to see Mark, if he can. "Oh," he writes as he shivers in the Roman cold, "When you come, can you bring my cloak?"

Also the books?

And above all the parchments?

Somewhere deep within me, I understand Paul here. At the end of it all, he still has his words, he still has things he wants to teach and preach and say. But he also would like to see his friends, those he loves who have walked alongside of him. And a warm cloak would be nice. And his books. And above all the parchments, so that those remaining words he has to say can be made known.

Chapter 55 of St. Benedict’s rule gives direction for the clothing for the monks. Benedict says clothing should be given “according to the nature of the place in which they dwell and its climate.” He suggests that in general, “the following dress is sufficient for each monk: a tunic, a cowl (thick and wooly for winter, thin or worn for summer), a scapular for work, stockings and shoes to cover the feet.”

The simplicity and practicality of the Rule when it comes to clothing seems so very innocent and yet it also seems so very old and wise. It demonstrates a general ideal that runs throughout the Rule—while everything may be desired by some... that is not to be the case for the member of this spiritual community. There are actually only a few things in this world that are truly laudable, that are truly worth loving and wanting and needing. The Rule seeks to clear out the extraneous so that the community might focus on what is actually necessary for a good life.

It is so very easy to believe the lies of this world that we need many things. I was raised to love the text of Scripture, but society also shaped me to be a consumer, to think that my purpose here is to consume and use, to have and to hoard.

This text from Second Timothy, this reading from the Rule, it all serves as a gentle reminder that, in the end, I don't really need the many things I think I need. As blessed Rich Mullins once sang, “Well his eye’s on the sparrow / and the lilies of the field I’ve heard / And he will watch over you and he will watch over me / so we can dress like flowers and eat like birds.”

I think there is important gospel truth in this for those of us called to serve in ordained ministry. We are called to spend our lives building, creating, growing, that our communities may be vibrant places of faithful Christian ministry. It’s very easy to get off track, to become mistaken in what God is calling you to do. It's very easy to fall into the work of building up of a community that, at its root, merely consumes. This is, however, very different than building up of a community that, at its root, gives.

The faithful building up of a parish community is good. It is a wonderful and humbling gift to step into a long line of workers and do your part adding stones upon the foundation. But even the building up done faithfully is not the end that I'm called to have in sight.

Even good faithful ministry will draw to a close someday. No matter how valiant and faithful your work, it will end. Eventually most of us will wind up at the sunset of our lives, realizing that many of the things we allowed to break our hearts or suck our energy... many of those things probably mattered a lot less than we thought.

I would imagine that in the end, you won’t recall what your ASA was or what sort of change you saw in the average pledge or whether or not the church would be able to do another percentage increase in the budget for outreach. All of those things can be indicators for the growth of a community—but they are not the call.

Indeed, at that point, near the end, even those very important things—things that are absolutely a part of good faithful ministry—those things will cease to matter as much.

Instead, all one wants is the presence of those you love. And a warm cloak. And, of course, your books and something to write on.

After you spend your life being poured out as a libation—sometimes willingly and sometimes through the actions of others—after you’ve been poured out there is very little left.

Love. Warmth. Books. And the ability to still say something small but faithful. 

Maybe that’s all there really was all along.

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