Photograph by Garreth Paul via Unsplash

What is left in this life?

March 13, 2024

For many of us, the season of Lent began with the imposition of ashes. A minister or other church worship leader may have smudged your forehead solemnly, while quietly reminding “you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Perhaps it was in a large crowd of worshippers, so it was a word from a stranger. Or it was in a more intimate setting, where your pastor looked at you as she placed the smear of a cross upon your forehead, eyes locked for a moment with the sea of faces coming forward, much closer than the usual Sunday morning encounters allow when you gaze at the listener from the pulpit, a gulf of space that ashes eliminate in the immediacy of the encounter.

For the first Sunday of Lent, I was guest preaching at a church about how any sense of success or achievement they have or strive toward is not the point. The gospel lesson is Mark 1:9-15, retelling the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Mark’s telling notes in verse 12 that the Spirit “sent him out into the wilderness” (NIV), though the older King James Version is edgier: “And immediately the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness.” The Greek text says Jesus was thrown out into the wilderness (ἐκβάλλω, to throw, to toss, etc.). While we prepare the palms for the Triumphal Entry, remember that Jesus started with the bruised reed that was Himself!

For many, this initial Lenten gospel reading summarizes Lent. It is a time of long reflection (40 days and nights) while also encouraging privation and denial, so that you can focus more on God. The Cross looms rightfully over this entire season, as we follow Jesus to Jerusalem, where the final week of Jesus’ life comes crashing down with betrayal, show trial, mockery, and death by crucifixion.

Lent is not a season for the faint of heart.

While keeping these traditions, I am countered by a recent book, Jesus’ Vision for Your One Wild and Precious Life: What Jesus Can Teach Us About Life Before Death (Market Square Books, 2023) by former seminary professor Dr. Mike Graves. After teaching homiletics for thirty years (most recently, at the Saint Paul School of Theology) Graves, presently Scholar in Residence at Country Club Christian Church in Kansas City, MO, has turned his attention to the life of Jesus, the element of the salvific triptych of the life, death, and Resurrection that we often neglect, to the peril of deepening our discipleship.

Graves writes,

“But between the night Jesus was cradled in that bed of hay in Bethlehem and his crucifixion outside of Jerusalem some thirty years later, he lived a life. For various reasons, we often focus on the death to the point of ignoring or at least downplaying his life. Or maybe, more accurately, we think everything about that life was focused on his eventual death. It’s true that the Gospels portray him predicting his death, but not on every page. Jesus wasn’t preoccupied with his death; he had a life to live before that.” (p. 3)

Inspired by the late poet Mary Oliver’s question “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Dr. Mike Graves observes that we frequently focus on the birth, death, and Resurrection of Jesus, while ignoring or downplaying the fullness of the lived life of Jesus.

During the waning days of Lent, many churches revisit the “Seven Last Words” of Jesus. Appropriately, such practice is a heavy matter, accompanied by silence more than song. Graves suggests we remember the seven “first words” (really, the first phrases) of Jesus’ words he deems essential to understanding the gospel, and beginning to live our lives more closely to the earthly life of Jesus. These seven include:

“Follow Me.”

“Good News to the Poor.”

“Blessed are the….”

“You Give Them Something to Eat”

“Your Faith has made you well”

“The Kingdom of God is like”

“Love of God and Neighbor”

In several short chapters, Graves leads his reader into consideration of each concept.  Undeniably, these are core teachings of Jesus, and in pondering them more patiently, we see a greater depth to the gospel that again, is not for the faint of heart, yet expands our humanity and our sense of Christianity alike.

Borrowing a line from the late poet Mary Oliver in her famous poem “The Summer Day,” Graves connects these “first words” of Jesus with her luminous question:

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?”

With this line in mind, Graves notes how we sing frequently of the birth, death, and Resurrection of Jesus, yet our hymnal indexes are very light on hymns that dwell on the fullness of the lived life of Jesus.

The book lends itself well to an adult Sunday School class series, or better yet, a reading group where congregants (and hopefully friends with little or no faith connection) can gather for a discussion of each chapter. As a homiletics professor long invested in the narrative homiletic movement, Graves knows how to engage audiences with a good story, yet deft in his movement to bring the listener (or here, reader) into experiencing depths previously left unsounded in the life of many believers.

These seven “first” sayings of Jesus are counter to the seven “last” we shall likely dwell upon with our Holy Week observances. We need the balance of both, yet the deeper discipleship may loom ahead of us when we tackle the inevitable questions of life’s inequities and encounter the sin-fractured world’s systemic issues. You cannot follow Jesus without the last words, yet you cannot skim over the first words either.

Graves offers several reflection questions at the end of each chapter. Along the way, you may encounter issues more from today’s front-page headlines than the average Sunday School curriculum. As the lengthy subtitle notes, you will have to deal with “things like poverty, hunger, polarization, inclusion and more” if you are to follow Jesus through this life, seeking to embody His life in its fullness.

The Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot serves as the Associate Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State.  NOTE:  As a student at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in the Kansas City metro area (1997-2002), he was a student of Mike Graves in several homiletics and worship courses.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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