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Lenten Reflections: Letting Go of the Search for Answers

'Giving Hands and Red Pushpin' photo (c) 2009, Artotem - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Saturday, March 9                                                                                            

Ecclesiastes 2:16-26
Mark 7:1-23
Colossians 3:1-11

By Meg Hanna House

Washing your hands seems like a pretty good practice—I’ve read we don’t do nearly enough of it. So when the Pharisees criticize Jesus’ disciples for skipping this very basic hygiene rule, I can sympathize. While it’s unlikely I would point it out to the disciples, or to Jesus, I might judge them, the way that I judge a driver who cuts in front of me. I might shake my head (or my fist). Don’t these people know the right thing to do?

But that is exactly the point of today’s scriptures: We don’t know the right thing to do. We work awfully hard at figuring it out, and we’re very good at telling others how to live as well. It’s not that the rules we come up with are bad, it’s that we cling to them. As Mark’s Jesus says, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” We rely on the rules as if they are what’s important, the answer to life’s questions. If we can only follow the rules, do the right thing, and work hard, then we, and everyone we love, will be OK.

But it’s not like that, according to Ecclesiastes. That’s not how life works. It doesn’t matter how hard we work, or how successful we are, he says, “there is no enduring remembrance of the wise or of fools.” Anything we build can be inherited by “fools,” and we will have no control. Ecclesiastes hits right at our fears of mortality. His constant mantra “all is vanity” is depressing. And scary.

I do (more than?) my share of worrying and looking for guidelines and rules that will answer my questions. What should I do? Will I make the right decision? What will happen? And as the questions swirl, my shoulders tense and my fists clench in the search for the right answer, a “wash-your-hands,” right-thing-to-do answer.

And if there isn’t one right answer? If it’s all vanity? I’m realizing that this can be freeing. My shoulders relax and my focus softens. I’m no longer looking to worship the idol of the right answer. Instead, I notice the people around me with more compassion, and I’m once again open to God. “You have stripped off the old self with its practices,” writes Paul in Colossians. “And have clothed yourselves with a new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its creator.”

Paul has his own set of rules for this new self: no anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language. But he wraps the rules in a bigger picture, with a focus on Christ and not on the latest diet or exercise plan. “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth,” he writes. And even Ecclesiastes finds a silver lining in this world of vanity:

“There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil.

This … also is from the hand of God.”

Prayer: Dear God, help me see when I have made my rules and my search for answers into idols, and help me to let them go, so that I can focus on you and the gifts you have given. Amen.

Meg Hanna House is a member of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, in Washington, D.C. This post is reprinted, with permission,  from NYAPC's 2013 Lenten Meditations booklet.


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