I read a story, once upon a time, of a person sitting in a room in late summer. On one wall of the room was a closed window with an open door right next to it. The person sat and watched some flies beating against the window, buzzing as flies do. They kept on, determined to get out of the room through the closed window—even though just a few inches away was the open door with easy passage to the freedom they sought.
I’ve seen flies do that. And, well, I’ve done that with troubles in my own life. Albert Einstein is reported to have said, “Insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result.” Actually, I like the way the folks at AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) say it: “If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.”
As we begin our annual Lenten journey of soul cleansing, these images and sayings come to me as I read and pray with today’s readings. These two readings form the outline of a good path to help us truly make these 40 Days a time of conversion.
Moses to His People: Follow God’s Commandments
The setting in the first reading is Moses’ final speech to the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land. Moses is 120 years old, and the Lord has told him he will not cross the Jordan with his people. Leadership will move to Joshua. The Lord has led these Hebrew people for 40 years in the desert through Moses’ direction. The people have not always listened and obeyed well. Moses wants to give them words they can remember which can guide them:
“Today I have set before you
life and prosperity, death and doom.
If you obey the commandments of the LORD, your God,
which I enjoin on you today,
loving him, and walking in his ways,
and keeping his commandments, statutes and decrees,
you will live and grow numerous,
and the LORD, your God,
will bless you in the land you are entering to occupy.
If, however, you turn away your hearts and will not listen,
but are led astray and adore and serve other gods,
I tell you now that you will certainly perish;
you will not have a long life
on the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and occupy.
Moses’ words give us a part of the path to new life within us: follow the commandments of the Lord.
Our Church Teaches Us What Those Commandments Mean Today
In my life I have thought I was following the commandments of the Lord when I was not. As a child I learned them in their broad meaning. For example, “Thou shall not kill.” I knew I had not killed anyone. So I checked that off as a commandment obeyed. Some years ago I was blessed to have a confessor who had me read Part Three of the catechism, Life in Christ. I learned there is MUCH more to obeying ALL of the 10 Commandments than I had ever dreamed of.
For example, “Thou shall not kill” includes much more than abortion, euthanasia, murder, or homicide. It includes not causing scandal or gossiping. It includes eating, exercising, and resting appropriately to maintain health. It includes fostering peace—including acting with charity and justice to all, including enemies. Ouch! In light of that information, I cannot say I am not guilty of disobeying “Thou shall not kill.” Ditto for other commandments.
Looking at Part Three of the Catechism might give you and me guidance for our Lenten journeys. You can find it online here. It is good to have a copy of the catechism for ready reference at home. If you don’t have one, it might be a good thing to purchase (and read) as part of your Lent keeping.
The Other Side of the Road
Today’s Gospel also occurs at a time of transition. Just as the Israelites had been journeying for 40 years following the Lord in the dessert, but now were about to enter into a new life with God, the disciples and Jesus are entering into a new phase of their journey. Just a few verses before today’s reading, Peter has answered Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” with “The Messiah of God.”
From this point in all three synoptic Gospels there is a distinct change in what Jesus says to his disciples and what he expects of them. Interestingly, in the Gospel of Mark, the only direction Jesus gives his disciples different from what he says to crowds UP UNTIL Peter’s confession of faith is “Follow me.” Jesus gives the disciples other directions in Matthew and Luke, but not what Jesus says here today:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected
by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed and on the third day be raised.”
Then he said to all,
“If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself
and take up his cross daily and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.
What profit is there for one to gain the whole world
yet lose or forfeit himself?”
Forming a Lenten Path
In a way, Jesus now clarifies and defines what “Follow me” means: “I will have to give myself up, lose my life—because that is the path to the full Kingdom of God, a life deep in the heart of God” AND “As my disciples, you must begin now to practice the habits of giving up your life, too.”
Again, ouch! The Kingdom of God is more than teaching, giving out bread, calming storms, casting out demons, and healing. It is giving up selfishness, survival-of-the-fittest motivations, safety, the status quo, and thinking of today.
There’s plenty for me to work on this Lent in light of that.
This call to self-giving forms the other side of the road today for my Lenten journey. On one side, what keeps me from following the precepts of God? Where do I fall short?
On the other side, where is my heart self-centered instead of focused on the needs of others and letting go of my life?
My path for Lent needs to start with letting God show me what needs conversion this year. He has done that. This week, all week, he is now guiding me to give myself up to examination by standards of expectations of God’s precepts in catechism and Scripture. What is the standard I need to move toward?
Today’s readings remind me I ALSO need to look at how I lose myself (my preferences, my ego, my belief I am right, my nursed wounds and resentments, my fears, even perhaps dreams and goals) to meet the legitimate needs of others and to do what God asks me to do.
I believe that if I stay on a path between parameters of God’s precepts and the call to self-giving love this will be a good Lent. Come April 1, God will have scrubbed me clean and formed me anew in some way that will enable me to STOP hitting against a window that isn’t going to open. It will enable me to move beyond doing what I always did to real freedom in Christ—through the doorway into the sunshine.
What I’m working on isn’t easy. But, yes, I see the freedom possible.
Blessed, holy, work-hard-and-let-God-scrub-you Lent for all of us!
Lord, thank you for this precious growing time of Lent. It is a bit exciting today to think of letting you scrub me clean, that come Holy Week I can be holier, more in alignment with your vision for me. But, Lord, we both know from experience that when you really start working on me, I don’t like it. I squirm and try to hide and close my ears and cross my arms for a day or two. I want to move out the door, but sometimes it is so very hard to change my focus away from what I’m used to doing to let you show me how to be free. Lord, this Lent, show me your path for me and help me follow it. It is a narrow, uphill path—but, honestly, that is easier for me to follow. Keep me from losing heart and from distractions. Walk with me, Lord. Let my love for you be real—and lived. Amen.