Back to Basics

I’ve got some good news for you this morning. This relentless, seemingly interminable year is in fact drawing to an end. The snowfall earlier this week and the golden carpet of leaves cushioning my morning runs leave no doubt about this. The flip side of the waning of the year is that Advent is just around the corner, only three weeks away. Advent is a season of waiting, watching, and preparing for the coming of Jesus. Today’s readings provide us with our first glimpse, a warning shot across the port bow, if you will, of what is to come. Together, they remind us to go back to basics and make sure our foundations are solid.

Get ready, they tell us. Get your act together.

The first reading comes from the Book of Joshua.* At this point in Israel’s story, the People have taken control of the Land of Promise and Joshua (Moses’ successor) presents them with a choice:

Now therefore revere the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD. (Josh 24.14f)

This scene is often framed as a renewal of the covenant with YHWH that Israel made at Mt. Sinai. That covenant was itself a collective appropriation of the covenant that YHWH had made with Moses at the burning bush. And that covenant hearkened back to the covenants God had made with Moses’ ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It’s interesting that while God certainly didn’t need to be reminded of these relationships, we humans did and do. We tend to be a forgetful and fickle lot. Even the simplest things like being tired or hungry can cause us to forget who we are and who we are committed to being in our relationships.

And so, as they take possession of the Land, God’s people are asked one more time who they are and who they want to be. The choice Joshua offers them is clear: You can choose who or what you worship, he says, but understand that you are making a choice and make it with intention.

In the thought-world of the Bible, this wasn’t just a question of religious affiliation: Which gods — and whose gods — you worshiped said something about who you were, what you valued, and where your heart was. To be devoted to Ba’al or Ashterah or Diana or YHWH was a fundamental question of identity.

Who am I? What do I value? Where is my heart? These are the questions Joshua puts to Israel as they are about to start their new life together.

In a very different way, the Gospel today presents us with a similar challenge. In it, Jesus tells the story of a group of young women in a bridal party. Their job is to welcome the groom with lit lamps. Half of them do their due diligence; the other half are complacent, and don’t bother to bring a supply of oil. So, when the groom is delayed and arrives in the middle of the night, only half of the group is prepared. They rush off to get ready, but it’s too late, and they end up missing the whole thing.

Get ready, it tells us. This is no time for complacency. The Lord, the Bridegroom, is coming.

I couldn’t help but notice today that what was expected of the young women wasn’t extraordinary or unusual. It was a simple, basic, everyday task. While the punchline of the story is “Stay awake,” falling asleep wasn’t really their problem — both groups fell asleep waiting. All they were asked to do was to have their lamps ready, something they’d probably do every day.

This is a helpful life lesson, that really resonates with some of the things I’ve learned the hard way over the years. So much of what allows us to rise to the occasion in a big moment, whether happy or challenging, is being ready for the little everyday moments.

This pandemic year has really brought this home for me. Being prepared on a practical level didn’t mean hoarding supplies or fleeing the city, but simple things like washing my hands and ensuring I have a stocked pantry. Similarly, self-care this year has been about exactly the same things as it always is: the fundamentals like getting enough sleep, drinking enough water, and using the toilet when needed. (Don’t let Instagram fool you: Self care is and has never been about spa days and luxury vacations!) And in the same way, what’s got me through the year spiritually hasn’t been undertaking any great new challenge or discipline, but simply having the existing structure of prayer, Scripture reading, intuitive practices, and writing to carry me along, like water wings adding extra buoyancy in my heart and mind.

Being prepared is, for the most part, about making sure the fundamentals are sound. Really, it’s simply being intentional about life and how we use the time, energy, and opportunities we have.

If the Joshua reading asks big conceptual questions like, “Who am I?”; “What do I value?”; and “Where is my heart?”; the Gospel reading asks us how we live out our answers: Does how I spend my time and how I interact with others reflect my identity, my values, and my heart? And if not, how can I bring them into closer alignment? Am I covering my bases? Is my foundation sound? Am I ready for what comes next?

As the year winds town and Advent approaches, this is a perfect time to reflect on these questions. And I’m grateful for this wake up call today’s readings offer us. It’s time to get back to basics. Let’s do it.

 

* This is a very problematic book and how we deal with it is a question worthy of far greater thought than is ‘in scope’ for today’s reflection. For today, I’ve chosen simply to reflect on the portion of the text set out for us in the lectionary and ignore the bigger hermeneutical and ethical concerns presented by the book.

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