When our children were young, there was this little game we used to play as we made the drive north every summer to go “up to camp” in Maine. It was actually a variation on a similar game played by my wife Lisa and her siblings when she was little; in which the object was to be the first one riding in the car to see the lake! It doesn’t sound like much, I realize; but trust me, this was a game that wrought some hotly contested matches over the years!
The beauty part of these competitions was that they were never formally announced or even talked about, yet always unfolded in much the same fashion: after a four-hour car ride with kids in tow, we’d finally turn off the highway on to the camp road: the blessedly final leg of an epic journey that was usually replete with detours, pit stops and several hundred inquiries as to whether “we’re there yet.” And immediately, there’d be five sets of eyes peering intently at the horizon ahead, each one silently anticipating that first moment when he or she could look down a hill, across a pasture and through some trees and actually spy a tiny bit of blue water in the distance, the very first hint of “the pond” below and the camp ahead; at which point he or she would surprise everyone else by fairly well shouting, “I see the lake first!” If you could say that before anyone else in the car, you were the winner. To this day, I’m not sure why that victory mattered so much, but I do know that for a time this was an essential and all-important family ritual; I also know that more often than not the game ended in a virtual dead heat, with five voices inevitably crying out in joyous unison, “I SEE THE LAKE FIRST!”
I suppose that for all of us, the whole endeavor represented a harbinger of good things to come: specifically, a visit to the lake with lots of time for swimming, boating and wandering through the woods, not to mention a few moments of “blessed quietness” amid the usual business of living. Both literally and figuratively, it’d taken us a long time to get there, so aside from the impromptu competiveness of it all, I guess it just was great to be able to rejoice with all due enthusiasm that after our arduous journey we weren’t that far from where we wanted to be!
Actually, come to think of it, this is exactly the kind of assurance I long for on that other arduous journey I’m on, which is the walk of faith!
In the Old Testament, God’s people are instructed by Moses to keep God’s word and his commandments – specifically the one about loving the Lord “with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5) – close to their hearts by “bind[ing] them as a sign on your head, fix[ing] them as an emblem on your forehead, and writ[ing] them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (6: 8-9) This is a reference of what’s known in Hebrew tradition as the Shema, a central prayer of the Jewish prayerbook; essential words of faith that are to be repeated at least twice daily and are routinely inscribed on doorposts and stitched on prayer shawls as a tangible reminder of God’s presence in one’s life and living. It’s a rich and important tradition still practiced in Orthodox Judaism, one that regretfully we post-modern Christians have too often tended to dismiss as empty ritual; preferring, I suppose, to “keep the faith” quietly, intellectually and as something deeply personal.
And basically, I understand that sentiment; after all, our own tradition has more than its share of those who carry pocket bibles and wear whatever version of WWJD bracelets are popular at the moment, but who have at best little more than a nodding relationship with God. In other words, practice doesn’t always equate to piety, and a mezuzah (a parchment on which are written those verses from the Torah) at the doorway is no guarantee of a faithful life once one’s passed the threshold and has headed out to the world to face the day.
And yet, who among us in this life doesn’t need a regular reminder of who and whose we are as we walk “on this road we call life” with faith and integrity; and therein is to be found my reason for wanting a bit of assurance along the way that we’re not that far from where we want to be where we’d like to be where God is concerned. Luckily, Jesus offered us one very important sign while talking to a scribe who was asking about which of the commandments Jesus considered to be the most important of all. Being the good Jew that he was, Jesus immediately answered by repeating the Shema, but then added, “The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:31)
So… it mightnot necessarily be a mezuzah or a cross necklace that provides the inspiration; it might well be that moment when we’re faced with the kind of moral ambiguity that the world just seems to have in abundance, and in response we go with the bedrock truth that has ever and always girded our lives and living: first to love God and then to love our neighbor as ourselves. It’s as simple (and, yes, often as difficult) as that: to actually live what we know and to do as we believe; but as Jesus says, it’s how we’ll always know we’re “not far from the kingdom of God.” (12:34)
And where faith is concerned, that has to be every bit as joyous and exciting as seeing the lake first!
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry