Saturday, February 25, 2017

Setting Priorities

The Gospel according to Matthew challenges us not to worry and fret about so many things.  But we all worry, don’t we?  About many things.  Take the “worry test.”  Ask yourself what keeps you awake at night.  That may tell you where your heart is.

Discipleship, the Gospel writer says, requires a single, wholehearted commitment to God.   You can’t divide your loyalty.   First things first: our relationship with God and one another.  And do our best every day, as if it were our only day.

Wednesday, we will have our foreheads smudged with ashes and begin once more the Lenten season.  It's a time to consider again our priorities.

Two short novels by Tolstoy
 Leo Tolstoy, the 19th century Russian writer, can be a good introduction to priorities.  Many of us had to read his novels “Anna Karenina” and “War and Peace.”  But Tolstoy also wrote shorter, profoundly religious novels.   In some ways, they are like parables, good spiritual reading for Lent.  “A Confession,” for example, describes Tolstoy's own search for meaning and purpose.  He discovered that the simple farm people of Russia found the answer to this question through their lively Christian faith: their relationship with God.

Perhaps Tolstoy’s masterpiece was the 75-page novel “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.”  A man on his deathbed realizes he has wasted his life by living badly, and he's terrified of his fast approaching death.  Ilyich, in exchange for luxury and status, has sacrificed authenticity and integrity. And that results in a spiritual barrenness, leaving him ill-equipped to deal with the specter of death.  He faces a mortality he never acknowledged.

Avoiding thoughts about death in favor of superficialities is not a flaw reserved for 19th-century Russians.  It's the story of everyone.

The servant who attends to Ilyich at his deathbed is everything Ilyich is not: humble, poor, devout and selfless. Ilyich manages to learn from the servant just before his last breath the purpose of life. Tolstoy suddenly bathes Ilyich in light but leaves the reader in suspense about Ilyich's salvation or damnation. This novel can be powerful Lenten spiritual reading.

Why?  Because Lent is about asking who and what are our most important priorities.  We follow Jesus who went out into the wilderness for forty days to ask the same questions.

The 20th century poet, Frederick Buechner, asks his readers to consider their priorities in life.  Buechner gives us an examination of conscience in these questions:

If you had one last message to leave to the people who are most important to you, what would it be in twenty-five words or less?  Of all the things you have done in life, which is the one you would most like to undo? Which makes you happiest to remember?  If this were the last day of your life, what would you do with it?

To hear yourself try to answer questions like these can be depressing, but if sackcloth and ashes are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end.

As we begin again the Lenten season, let us ask God for the grace to get our priorities straight and pursue them singlemindedly.

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