Having stayed up way past my bedtime taking my son to the Emergency Room–(he’s fine now; no need to worry)–I nevertheless got up early to help my wife sort out a rather hectic day. I had a break in the afternoon, but worked on an independent project rather than taking the nap I wanted–we never get to sleep much at night anymore–because my independent projects are my best chance of getting paid. Then I made (and largely burnt) dinner while trying to clean up from an unexpected collision of developments: one kid woke up unexpectedly, one needed food, groceries needed put away, and my independent project had created a bit of mess where we would soon need to eat. After that we went to the only church service in the Christian year that I almost entirely hate. Then I went out in the dark muddy cold to pick up garbage, because feral cats had knocked over our garbage cans again, and mingled garbage through the snow on our street that my local government refuses to plow. As I did it, I knew that I would go back inside in time to wrangle my daughter, who would be franticly trying to avoid having to go to bed, during which time my son would begin his nightly routine of crying inexplicably for about an hour.
It was a pretty typical day, actually, if you substitute more general things for the unusual specifics, like the Hospital visit and Ash Wednesday. I know that there are billions of people with days constantly worse; I’m not trying to compare my day to anyone’s to get pity. I’m establishing the background for a single thought I had.
I was cold and had splashed putrid garbage in my own face, so I was grumpy. My day wasn’t over either, because I knew my kids wouldn’t go to sleep easily, and then I still would actually have more work to do, like writing my blog which I’d neglected for however many days. I mostly wanted to go out with my friends, though, who had gone out to a restaurant after church. Or I wanted to play a game of some sort. Or watch television. Or read one of the books I’m half-way through.
I thought something like this, “I think after everything I’ve done today, I deserve….” That was as far as I got.
Even if I were to do everything perfectly always, I would have done nothing more than what was required of me. I wouldn’t earn a reward, I would meet the minimum standard. And frankly, I don’t do much of anything perfectly. For example, I’m not expressing this particularly clearly at all.
Today, a few times during the day, I did difficult things in an effort to serve others. I stayed up late to take care of my son. I woke up early to take care of my wife. I stayed awake to work to take care of my family. I went to church to be faithful to god. I picked up soggy trash to take care of my wife again (and neighbors and creation, but mostly my wife). I shepherded my daughter through her evening routine to take care of her. I walked around trying to soothe my son to take care of him (and also my wife again).
All of those things are good things. But if I look at my life, they’re the exceptions. They’re the times when I break my usual habits of selfishness and carelessness, and remember that other people might need me. By my count, that’s seven things up there. Seven. And I was exhausted by them and thought I had earned some time to be self-absorbed.
I’m actually a bit staggered by that as I type it. How out of shape my soul must be if so few attempts at righteousness exhaust me. It’s like jogging. If I were to try to jog right now, I might make it to the end of my block before I had to stop. Apparently my soul is in worse shape than my somewhat jiggley-in-the-middle body.
In terms of righteousness, I’m out of shape. (The technical term for this is “sinful.”) But perfect righteousness is the minimum standard! How far below that standard I am. (It’s important to talk about Grace, offered to us through the sacrifice of Jesus. I’m not belittling that at all. But we are offered Grace so that we might grow into the image of Christ, who was righteous, not so that we might remain as unrighteous as currently suits our fancy.)
Here let me pause to draw out a parallel. It’s easy to get angry when people talk about righteousness. It sounds so negative, like God telling me not to be happy. It’s entirely the reverse. Righteousness is happiness, or is at least a central part of it. Right now I imagine jogging as a sort of silly-headed torture, but I also generally hate physical activity because I hate feeling tired and in pain. Not surprisingly though, avoiding physical activity makes me out of shape, and being out of shape means I spend a lot more time being tired and in pain. If I were to do the difficult thing–exercise–I would discover something strange on the other side: health. I might avoid exercise because I just want to live my life, but my life is difficult because I’m unhealthy. If I were to exercise, I could be healthy, and thus actually have more of the life I want. (And, if rumors are true, I might even come to enjoy exercise in and of itself.)
Righteousness is like that. Being unrighteous (“sinners,” to use that pesky technical language again) takes away from us the strength and capability to be all of the other things we want, like happy. It separates us from God, who is the ultimate source of not only our happiness, but our life at all. We may talk about wanting to live our own lives, but this literally makes no sense without righteousness. It’s cutting off the branch on which we perch.
I’m out of time (and also very sleepy). Either way, my point is something like this: Lent, which started today, is one of the times of the year when we remember that we need to exercise our souls at least as much as we exercise our bodies. We need to build up the strength to be righteous, because righteousness is life. The Church has passed down to us a bunch of different ways to exercise our souls. They are the accumulated wisdom of thousands of years of faithful (and frequently brilliant) people. Things like fasting, praying, going to church services even when we don’t like them, these aren’t things we do because God wants us to be unhappy. They’re things we do because God does want us to be happy. He wants us to be happier than we are currently strong enough to bear.