We just prayed the very first Psalm. And here’s its very first verse. “Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked.” They “delight… in the law of the Lord and… meditate on the law day and night.” That’s a good beginning for the longest book in the entire Bible!
Then in verse four, we get the alternative to these happy meditators, the wicked who are like chaff blown away by the wind.
Our Psalm ends by directly contrasting these two ways. “The Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked is doomed.”
I think of these two ways, the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked, as a pair of roads. I picture us standing at the intersection of these two ways. The way of the righteous stretches out before us, leading ultimately to God. That is the way of love, and of joy, and of life. The way of the wicked is directly behind us, leading us away from God and therefore also away from love and joy and life. At the end of the wicked way lies eternal death.
Over the course of our lives, we are constantly moving in one direction or the other, advancing towards God or retreating from God, going back and forth, hopefully more forward overall, but doing a fair amount of regressing, too.
If you stop to think about it, our inability to consistently move forward is strange. I know that I am happier when I act in love than when I don’t. I’ve seen it over and over again in my life. And yet, I don’t always act in love. It’s weird, and it’s stupid, and it’s true for all of us.
Here’s an example from my life from last week.
Carrie usually goes to bed before I do, sometimes a good bit before but usually just a few minutes. If I am about ready, she leaves the light on for me. If I am going to be a while, she turns the light off. All good.
Last Sunday night, as Carrie went to bed, I told her I was going to say Compline, and I would be five minutes. Not that long. But when I was finished praying, five minutes later, the bedroom lights were already out, and Carrie was asleep.
And so began a spiritual battle in my soul. Picture me at that intersection. I’ve just been praying. I am facing the right way. In front of me is God, along with love and joy and life. But when I saw the lights out, I turned away from God, and starting moving towards death. Weird, and stupid, and true.
My first reaction was anger at Carrie. I thought how selfish she was being. Clearly, she needed to learn a thing or two about love. She needed to do a little spiritual maturing. And I was ready to help. I was prepared to straighten Carrie out. Indeed, straightening Carrie out seemed like an act of justice and love on my part.
That is what I was feeling. But I am hoping that sounds crazy to you! I was cranky, and my crankiness took the form of self-righteous anger. In reality, I just wanted Carrie to feel bad. But I pretended to myself that I was just being fair and honest.
That kind of self-righteous anger is, at best, misguided. It happens all the time. And it’s almost never helpful. It’s not helpful in politics, or in Church meetings, or in families, or just about everywhere else. It certainly was not helpful to me last Sunday night!
Whenever we feel that self-righteous anger rising, we would do well to pause and reflect before acting because the odds are pretty good we’ll regret anything we say or do.
On Sunday night, my self-righteous anger passed pretty quickly. But I didn’t get back on the road to God. My spiritual battle wasn’t anywhere near over. That was just round one.
Round two was my passive aggression. Carrie had left the door to our bedroom partly open. I turned on the hall lights. I stomped around in the hall outside the door. I made lots of noise in the bathroom.
Thankfully, Carrie is a good sleeper. But if she had woken up and complained, I could always say I was just going about my business. But, of course, that would not have been true. I was trying to punish her, while pretending to myself, and ready to pretend to her, that I was perfectly innocent.
Since Carrie didn’t wake up, that bit of passive aggression failed.
But I had one more (bad) option. I could sulk. I decided to sleep in Benjamin’s room. Really that was just another passive aggressive strategy. The next morning, I could tell Carrie I slept in there because she had turned out the light and I wanted to read in bed. Hopefully she would get the point and feel bad.
I had forgotten that we had turned off the heat in Benjamin’s room. It was cold enough that even in my sulkiness I could see sleeping in there was a bad plan.
Finally, I just went to bed. I pointedly turned my back to Carrie. And she slept blissfully on.
The last thing I do before going to sleep each night is say the Lord’s Prayer. Lying there praying, I saw how foolish I was being. Thus ended my little spiritual battle.
As I reflect back on that night, a few things strike me. The first and most obvious is that none of it was a particularly big deal. This was not a high-stakes situation.
But even minor temptations do matter. The fact is, I took a step away from God that night. Every time we act like a jerk, we take a step away from God. And if we always move in the same direction, even small steps can carry us a long way. Little things like my poor attitude that night can compromise our relationship with God. And that matters a lot.
The good news for me last Sunday night, for all of us all the time, is that God is always gently pulling us in the right direction, inviting us to turn around when need be and to take the next step towards love and life and joy.
In my case, I experienced God’s grace in prayer. It is to my shame that my little spiritual battle all happened immediately before and immediately after I prayed. The good news is, prayer helped me not to go too far in the wrong direction.
That is one of the reasons to pray. As we pray, as we enter consciously into God’s presence, we are pointed in the right direction and given a little encouragement to move forward. It seems like we shouldn’t need that kind of help since moving towards God is so obviously in our own best interest. But we do. So, I thank God for the gift of prayer.
That is also one of the reasons to gather for worship. We come together, and Christ is with us, and we hear God’s holy word, and we share in the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, and we get reoriented towards God.
As we continue with our focus on the stewardship of our time and our talent, I encourage you all to spend some time reflecting on your prayer life. If you need to make some changes, commit to making them. It’s one of the best tools for turning your back on the way of the wicked and moving forward on the way of righteousness.
In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan