I waiver between being perplexed by this passage from Matthew and annoyed by it for two main reasons. First, this is Jesus speaking, and those with do not share with those who have run out of oil for their lamps. When does Jesus not advocate for us to share? In every other story he tells where there are those who do not have enough, he commands us to share. In fact at the end of this very chapter is the When I was hungry passage that we all know and respect. So this different element upsets me. Then, these 10 women who are waiting for their one bridegroom to show up is a sign of the times they were living in where women needed to be taken care of, and were the unimportant ones in this story, the ones waiting to be rescued. And even when we see this as the parable it was meant to be, with the bridegroom being God, it still raises my hackles a little. For my theology says that God does not reject anyone, but would take all who were waiting, would lead them and love them and honor them until they changed enough to be ready. God doesn’t leave half the folk knocking at the door, refusing to recognize them.
In his younger days, John Wesley was of the belief that you had to be one of the chosen ones to get into heaven. He had a huge fear of death and dying and thought that you had to work hard, to be good, to lead a life of holiness to be in that limited number. But through an experience of nearly dying while aboard a ship in a storm, he saw something different. The ship was filled with Moravians, and while others were panicking in as the boat was being tossed about, the Moravians were sitting quietly praying. John began to have long conversations with these faith filled men and woman, and started to understand a different reality. Later he had his Aldersgate experience where his heart was strangely warmed during a bible study, again at a time when he was really struggling with faith… a storm in its own way…and from these stormy times where he began to feel his faith rather than intellectualize it, he formed his theology of grace that we, in the United Methodist Church, still hold as truth today.
Wesley put forth that there are three stages of grace: The first prevenient grace. Prevenient grace is the grace of God that surrounds all, and is at work in all, even before we know or care about it. It is a grace which is always there, inviting us to move deeper into our faith journey. It is present before we choose to be people of faith, and, in fact, enables and empowers us to make this choice. There is no limit to this grace, all are included.
Next comes justifying grace. Justifying grace is the assurance of forgiveness and a turning toward God's gracious gift of new life. So it is a grace where we are active in choosing God and allowing forgiveness to flood our beings. Again, it is available to all who choose it, and can be offered over and over again as we learn to live as people of God, preparing us, in a way, for the work of Sanctifying grace.
Sanctifying grace is the place where we practice what it is to live as Christians, where we work toward perfection in love…. A state that none reach, but all should strive for daily. The Book of Discipline states: "We hold that the wonder of God's acceptance and pardon do not end God's saving work, which continues to nurture our growth in grace. Sanctifying grace continuously forms us in the likeness of Christ and sheds the love of God abroad in our hearts, our actions and our relationships.
I believe that, when we stand in these tenets of grace where are all included, where the bridegroom would not leave anyone behind no matter how little light they had, then the question this story asks is not about being wise or being foolish, but rather how do we keep our lights shining…. Not so we are chosen but BECUASE we are chosen.
And I think this is where the Matthew reading comes in to focus for me. The 10 bridesmaids were waiting, but only 5 were ready when the time came. The others had run out of steam, out of power, out of hope. The ‘oil’ the five who were ready had been prepared in advance, so that when the time came they still had enough.
This ‘oil’ for us, I believe, is prayer. Prayer gives us the energy and strength to keep going, to be ready when the time is right, to step up to the task when it is asked of us. I know many people who do good work that don’t have any kind of ongoing spiritual practice, and most of them work hard for a while and are then totally burn out. There is nothing left for them to draw on. I know others who put prayer at the forefront of their work who can continue for years, sometimes against seemingly impossible odds.
I found this out the hard way when I was in seminary. In the summer between my first and second year I went to Angola for 7 weeks with the United Methodist Volunteers in Mission. It was a life changing experience, filled with grace and hope and prayer as we worked in a small village. As we traveled home I saw a tv for the first time in nearly two months at the airport, and there were scenes from New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina had just struck. I decided there and then that I should try to figure out how to do part of my internship in New Orleans, and did a week long trip down to the devastated area about 6 weeks later. I began to set up a semester long internship, with two other short trips, and the next fall I headed down for 3 1/2 months. I was based in a United Methodist community center on the edge of the French Quarter, both setting up the community center to accommodate teams coming down for a week, and working with community leaders to find people whose homes needed work done on them. I was also mentoring with a teen girls program that served African American young women in the community center, the only community program that taking place. The days were long, the stories were heart breaking, the trauma that people had and still were experiencing was intense…. And remember this was over a year after the hurricane had come. Many of those we served had been living in homes that had been flooded, mold on the walls, or families of 7 or more in small one bedroom mobile homes that had hastily been set up. A lot of people I met were determined to try to stay in the city as that’s were their jobs were, where they community and churches were, where their family were, and were living in terrible conditions. Each day, it seemed, I heard new stories of horror… teens that had waded through hip deep water carrying younger siblings as high as they could and trying to distract them from the dead bodies floating in the water; stories of schools without resources trying to to stay open; stories of tensions running high as families were living so cramped together. And for the first few weeks I was running without pause, putting on the kind of super hero cape that thought I could save everyone. Pretty soon, the oil had run out. I was exhausted, but had trouble sleeping, my body ached from the tension I was carrying in it and I didn’t know how I was going to keep going until the semester was over.
A group from my church and the seminary from California had arranged to come down as the first volunteer group we were hosting at the center, and it included two wise women I knew. That week felt like a breath of fresh air to me as I hosted and worked along side them, gutting houses, trying to save little things we found in the possessions that were left, listening to stories. And as I spoke to these women, it was like a lightbulb went off in my head. I wondered what was different about that week, and noticed that I had more of a balance. I would get up and prepare and eat breakfast with the team, then we had a time of devotionals before we went out, which included a lectio practice. We worked hard, broke for lunch, and then carried on. The afternoon was more physical work, and then we would pray for and with the homeowners before coming back and cleaning up. After dinner we had another time of prayer, a debrief and returned to the lectio from the morning. Then we had evening prayers before bed. These times of prayer, along with the company of friends was what had been missing. I had been in the mind and body set of go, go, go. But I saw and felt the need to balance this out. The lectio practices, in particular, had been restoring and deep, reminding me of what God was telling me was MY part to do…. Not to save the whole world, but to do the thing in front of me that day. I began to incorporate this practice of lectio into my life, and the rest of the semester, while tiring, was not that deep spirit exhaustion that it had been before.
We are in times right now that feel traumatic, that are tossing us about like a storm. Many of us have stories to tell of friends or loved ones who have lost their lives to CoVid, or become part of the long haulers… those who have been sick for weeks or months. We know people who have lost their jobs and small business owners who are struggling to make it. All of us have been impacted in some way as we try to keep one another as safe as possible. And we have felt the tensions around the elections and wonder what is going to happen as we live into the next four years. And this is not even counting the multitude of other issues we face. And we need ways to fill our lamps so we can shine brightly into the world around us.
So I want to offer you the practice of lectio divina: Divine Reading as one way you can pray as we work our way through these times. There will also be a link to an audio recording of the practice posted on the website each week that you can use at home. This will be a shorter version of the prayer practice, so know at home you can do a short version or spend as long as you need with the last portion of the process.
This is a slow reading of scripture, one where the same short passage is read several times. The first time it’s read in its’ entirety just so you can hear it; the second time you listen for a word or phrase that sticks out for you, that captures your attention, that glimmers for you. Then, using this word or phrase to listen with, it’s read a third time. As you sit with it, see what feeling or image or memory arises within you. You sit with this for a few minutes before the final reading. After this final reading, you listen for how God is speaking to you through the passage, how God is inviting you to act or be or do something, if God is asking you to think about things in a new way. The silence after the last reading can be as long as you like, and you may want to journal, do something artistic, go for a walk as you listen, or just sit and with God in the silence.
Right now we will just do the first part, to give you an idea of this prayer practice, but I encourage you to try it later at home to see if it feels like a good way to replenish your oil!
'Lord, lord, open to us.'
But he replied, 'Truly I tell you, I do not know you.'
Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
Listen to the passage.
Listen for a word or phrase that captures you in some way.
See what feeling image memory thought arises
As you go about your day, bring all this to mind and see how God may be inviting you into a new awareness, into an action, into a closer relationship.
This week, find those things that fill you. Try the practice of lectio divine at home and incorporate it into your prayer life. If lectio is not the prayer practice for you, find a way to pray that does work. For when God calls us, our task is to be ready so we can respond with a hearty yes! Then the banquet will be ours to enjoy!