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“ENDS AND MEANS”
A post-homiletical discourse delivered by the Rev. Dr. James R. Beebe
Rector, St. Patrick’s Church, Incline Village, Nevada, November 13, 2011
Remember the story about Moses in the book of Exodus? He’s a slave in Egypt and one day he witnesses an Egyptian beating one of his relatives. He looks one way, then the other, and seeing no one, proceeds to kill the Egyptian. He thinks he’s committed the perfect murder, but later finds out that it’s common knowledge among his people. Even Pharaoh finds out. So Moses takes off and winds up in the land of Midian, which is a barren desert just east of the Red Sea.
Moses marries and settles down to a slow, but safe, life herding sheep. One day, as he’s herding his sheep he comes across a bush. It’s on fire. Thing is, it’s not being consumed by that fire. Curious. So he says, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” (Ever wonder why biblical characters talk to themselves? “So I sez to myself, I sez….” Interesting.)
As it turns out, that bush can do more than just burn without being burned up. It can talk. And when asked for Its name, It says, “I AM.” Well, needless to say, like the Scarecrow, Moses is pretty scared by now. You see, there’s this rule of thumb in Hebrew religion that if you accidentally see God, you’re toast.
So Moses turns away. But God wasn’t much interested in Moses’ comfort level. Instead, He is concerned about all those people Moses had left behind in Egypt. He wants Moses to go back to Egypt to spring them and take them to a land that God has staked out for them. After a lot of whining and excuses, Moses grudgingly accedes.
God wants Moses to do something, but do something for a reason. It’s not about Moses’ doing so much as what is to be done. God wants a community of His own. And that community, bound by a covenant, is supposed to be a certain kind of people.
Many interpreters speak of Jesus’ parable about the talents as a pep talk about doing. They lose sight of just why these talents are to be employed. It’s not about our doing so much as what is to be done. We’re not talking about a work ethic. We’re talking about fashioning a community of people who are a certain way.
There is a school of thought in theological circles. It was begun by philosopher-theologian Paul Tillich earlier in the 20th century. It’s called the “Ground of Being” school; that is, God is the prerequisite for anything that exists: trees, toads, rocks, humans, the whole lot. And faith, he says, isn’t some theoretical affirmation of something you can’t see, touch, taste, hear or smell. Faith, in other words, is not an opinion.
It’s a state of being. It’s the situation you find yourself in when you’ve answered Hamlet’s life-or-suicide question, “To be or not to be” with a “to be” to life. You’re agreeing to participate in that life and He-Who-Is-Responsible-For-It. That would be God. He’s the Ground of Being. In fact, God is Being Itself. “I…AM!” That’s not to say that God IS everything. Just the One upon whom everyone and everything relies for its very existence.
Now comes the really IMPORTANT theological question: “So what?” Well, sometimes we do everything EXCEPT the one thing that MUST be done. It’s like the lion that was captured and put inside a large, fenced-in area. There he found other lions, some of whom had lived there their entire lives. He noticed how they banded themselves into groups. One group, for instance, consisted of socializers; another was in show business; others tasked themselves with carefully preserving the history of the times when lions were free.
Then there were the religious lions. They gathered mostly to sing moving songs about a future jungle where there would be no fences. Every now and then a revolution would break out in the lion community. One particular group would be wiped out by another, or the guards would all be killed and replaced by another set of guards. As he looked around, the newcomer observed one lion who always seemed deep in thought – a loner who belonged to no group and mostly kept to himself.
There was something strange about him that commanded both admiration and hostility. He advised the newcomer to join no group: “These poor fools are busy with everything except what is essential.”
“And what is that?” asked the newcomer.
“Studying the nature of the fence.”
Ah, yes – the one thing needful. Nancy Mairs seems to have found that one needful thing. Nancy finds herself in a wheelchair, quite unable to do any of the normal things she used to be able to do. You see, Nancy has a degenerative nerve disorder. When she was first diagnosed, she thought she knew what to expect: that she’d go on living the way her friends and colleagues were living, just with more effort.
But now – well, now things are different. She’s in her mid-50’s and is confined to a wheelchair. She reflects: “As I slouch here in my wheelchair…questions batter my brain. Who in the world benefits from my idleness? Why am I still here? In a society that conflates worth with productivity, can I learn to define humanness in other than utilitarian terms?”
Then it hits her: she’s been living her life wrong way round. She used to buy the whole your-worth-depends-on-your productivity business. After all, she used up her energy hurrying from board meeting to reading engagement to worship service to demonstration. But now she’s starting to realize that being busy is not necessarily a good thing.
She’s discovering the same thing Thomas Aquinas discovered 800 years ago – that wandering after perfectly acceptable things may be hazardous to your spiritual growth. He wrote that when the mind rushes after knowledge without rhyme or reason it was just “uneasiness of the mind.” That when words are used excessively, they are merely another way of controlling relationships.
Busyness without design, in other words, is just another form of what people used to call “sloth.” Usually hailed as one of the seven deadly sins, sloth isn’t laziness so much as that kind of spiritual malaise that springs from anxiety and despair. That’s ironic because busyness SEEMS to be sloth’s opposite.
Nancy Mairs is growing spiritually despite her best efforts not to. The fact is, she cannot do things. She’s in a wheelchair. She doesn’t want to be, but there she is. So what she IS learning is that spiritual growth is not guaranteed by performing tasks or observing rules and rituals. Instead, the route to the spiritual life is learning how to be.
As Nancy says, “I will resign myself to my reality: I will do nothing easily. I will do most things not at all. I will learn to say, with the poet Theodore Roethke, ‘Being, not doing, is my first joy’…
…and I will hear God.”