If I should wake before I die
I was standing in church a couple of Sundays ago, listening as the priest recited the words of the long prayer before Communion. In Jesus, the prayer said, God had, “brought us out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.” (Italics mine).
I’ve heard those words hundreds of times over the last 40 years and more, but this time was different. This time, a thought popped into my head: the “out of death into life” part is not just about life after physical death. In fact, since it says, “You have brought us out of … death into life,” it really refers to an action that has already taken place. The “death” I have been brought out of is the one I live every day: the stratagems I engage in to make myself feel safe, to avoid uncertainty as much as possible, to feel in control.
I avoid elevators because I’m afraid to get stuck in them, guard my personal space, generally don’t talk to strangers (and prefer that they not talk to me) and stay away from many activities I might enjoy because I’m afraid of them for one reason or another. I only take on responsibilities I’m positive I can meet, for fear of disappointing someone – perhaps mostly myself.
Jesus came to show the way out of the deadly shell of habit I’ve accumulated, which has become a sort of automatic pilot. I take the same routes to the same places week after week, engage in the same activities and think the same thoughts, often oblivious to what is right in front of me, too busy living in the past and the future to experience the present.
The present is where the “life” referred to in the prayer happens; in the chance meetings, the wrong turns taken, the unplanned experiences – all the things I am at such pains to avoid. And, yes, in my experience of God, more than in my reading or even my thinking about God.
“We are called,” I thought to myself as I stood there in church, “to not know what we’re doing!” Not to be incompetent, but to use our intelligence, our compassion and our skills in unexpected circumstances to meet unanticipated challenges. To not know what I’m doing, in this sense, is to let go of my agenda, to step out from behind my wall, to listen to what one Irish legend calls “the music of what happens.”
And then last Sunday, we heard a story from the gospel of Luke about a bent-over woman who appears in the temple when Jesus is teaching. He stops what he’s doing, calls the woman over to him and, before the assembled crowd, lays hands on her and tells her she is healed. She immediately straightens up and praises God.
Surely there is a bent-over woman inside me – inside all of us – a person deformed by circumstances, by poor choices, by what we think it takes to survive. It does not matter if we brought our deformities on ourselves, or they were just the result of bad luck. Healing is available to all, and all we have to do to receive it is to ask.
Well, all we have to do is ask and be willing to be changed. That’s the hard part, of course. I have to be ready to let go of my impatience, my fear, my addiction, or whatever, and allow myself to become a different person.
To do that may be both scary and difficult, precisely because it requires me to be aware of my habits and defenses and to choose something else.
To some extent, I just have to trust that change will happen over time. I can’t force it, but I can help it along by continually desiring it. And I can also nurture it by paying attention. If I notice when I feel impatient and offer that feeling to God, gradually it will be transformed. Gradually I will come to live in the present, at peace with myself.
This full participation in my own life makes me vulnerable; without my defenses and my agenda I may be hurt or find that, indeed, I don’t know what I am doing or what to do. I hope that I can learn to experience the pain and the not-knowing – as well as the joy and intimacy – as simply part of the package, part of the music of what happens.