Monday, November 13, 2017

Extra Oil: Prepared not to Know, Becoming Friends of Uncertainty

What if it doesn’t go the way you planned?

What when it doesn’t go the way you planned?

The college admittance or job promotion you unexpectedly landed. Or unexpectedly didn’t land.

The big break years in the making that - while exciting at the time - in retrospect, didn’t in fact break the way you had thought it might, and has left you looking for a bigger one. And uncertain what you’re looking for, exactly.

The season when friendships stopped coming easily.

The death of a loved one.

The once-upon-a-time breathtaking romance that abruptly turned into hard work.

Unwanted interruptions of physical and mental health, others and your own.

What do you do when it doesn’t go the way you planned?

When it takes longer? Or goes faster? Or misses some other mark of your expectation?

What meaning do you make of such moments?

Are they signs that you are doing life wrong?

Are they punishments for past decisions, actions, inactions, or neglect? 

Are these moments the interference, the fault, of other people, from whom you need only to be freed?

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells a story of his second coming, his making things right. And there are two ways to miss the coming, it seems. One is to not expect. To not show up with a lamp. To not stay up for the bridegroom with the others. Just stay at home, business as usual, as if there’s not a party in the offing. The first way to miss the coming is to not expect it. The second way to miss the coming is to expect it. Or at least to expect that it will go as you expect and not run late. Expect that you won’t need extra oil, but presume that God’s working things out will unfold exactly according to the schemes and schedules in your heart and head. Extra oil is another way to name the difference between expectation and what happens. Extra oil names the gift and capacity to be trustingly present, even when the expected doesn’t happen like we expect. As one scholar notes about this story, “the wise or prudent disciple is the one who prepares not only for the groom’s return, but also for his delay.”

To expect what we don’t expect puts us in the terrible bind of never knowing when we can writing something off. Never knowing whom we can safely discard, which may be why Jesus follows this story by telling his disciples that whatever they do to the least of these they do unto him. When you don’t know the end, you can’t dismiss the now.

When Jesus’ disciples ask about the end, the only thing Jesus says with reliability is that no one knows the time, it won’t be as soon as they think, there will be a lot of suffering between now and then, but that suffering is not itself the end. In other words, make friends of uncertainty, be prepared not to know. Pack extra oil.

To prepare for a delay is, definitionally, a tricky thing. But then, maybe that’s what airport terminals and hospital waiting rooms are for, to give us practice. Practice for the surrender that necessarily must happen when we are not in control of the timing. What does it mean to be present when you don’t know the timing? Or to stay present when you’re out of gas and weak? Them’s the fault-lines of patience and hope. Stanley Hauerwas writes that “the foolish bridesmaids failed to understand that in a time when you are unsure of the time you are in it is all the more important to do what you have been taught to do. In the dark you must keep the lamps ready even if they are not able to overcome the darkness.”

"In a time when you are unsure of the time you are in, it is all the more important to do what you have been taught to do." What have you been taught to do? 

What does it look like to consider these things, what you’ve been taught to do, not as a one-off performances you can schedule, but rather as the character to which you commit your life, with God’s help, such that it becomes the you you are even when you’re not even trying, or when you’re too tired to try? What have you been taught to do? Could God make these things, things like turning to and resting in, the grace of him who died for you, the default of who you are? What does it mean to be taught to watch for Christ? And how can you watch for Christ with your life?

Let us pray.

Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our 
being: We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by 
your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our 
life we may not forget you, but may remember that we are 
ever walking in your sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. 
Amen. (BCP, p100)

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