It was the late winter in 1979.
I was a senior in high school and competing at the state tournament in forensics. Extemporaneous speaking was my event.
I grew up in a small town some 80 miles west of Chicago. We had a great speech program, mind you, with wonderful coaches. Those in charge of such decisions clearly had the foresight to prioritize this along with sports and music and I have always been grateful as my athletic ability was negligible and musically I was really just marginal. For some reason, though, I shone at this.
So it was that many an after school hour was spent in my coach’s classroom. Part of that time I would sit quietly clipping out magazine articles and filing them away. My makeshift file was an old beer box covered in yellow and orange contact paper. Those old beer boxes were sturdy, for sure. They could hold quite a bit and they could be dropped with no lasting damage. Travel a little further in towards the Chicago suburbs though, and on contest days those boys (and yes, they were mostly boys) in their three piece suits were pushing around carts with their school’s ‘Facts on File’ on board. No matter what else was true, in the smaller school district which was my home, our extemporaneous speakers were always at a disadvantage.
So it was on Monday through Friday, hours were spent clipping articles and talking about them with my coach. By the time I was a senior I had developed my own style of speaking and was pleased by then that I could present without notes.
On competition day, one entered an empty classroom with one’s file (or carts of files) in tow. One drew three prepared questions blindly and had the option of choosing one. Then one was given an hour to prepare one’s speech and you would enter another classroom to present and to be judged.
This was repeated every Saturday.
On many of those Saturdays I did well. Well enough, at least, that lots of days I would come home with a trophy or a ribbon. Well enough that I went to state my senior year.
I do not remember a lot about that day. I do remember that I placed well in the first round. In the second round, things fell apart for me, however. I had drawn a question on the Mexican oil crisis, about which I knew little. (I do not recall what the other two questions were, but I must have known even less about them.) As much as that, as I recall, the judge in that round disagreed with my conclusions. And it is so, of course, that my understanding of international economics at the age of seventeen was limited at best.
- Part of it was ‘luck,’ of course. And bad ‘luck’ at that. Another question would probably have suited me better.
- Part of it was privilege, or lack thereof. In this case if I hadn’t thought it through before, hadn’t chosen that article to clip from my pile of news magazines, there was no way I could rely on anything else that had been handed to me in a cart on wheels.
- And yes, part of it was simple lack of preparation. Never mind that one could not know everything about everything. I had missed the one thing that mattered. In this case the Mexican Oil Crisis of 1979.
Whatever the cause, I did not make it to the final round. My ‘career’ as a high school extemporaneous speaker ended in disappointment.
Quite simply? My oil ran out. It just did.
It has happened to all of us, of course it has. The one I offer now is but one story that played out on a late winter’s day more than forty years ago. I expect that all of us, though, can relate to the disappointment, the regret, perhaps even the fear that those five bridesmaids must have felt when they awoke to the bridegroom’s return utterly unprepared.
And yes, it is so, that I do not much like this parable.
- I do not like it because I do not know what the ‘oil’ is supposed to represent for you and me today. Is it good works, as some would have it? Is it faith? Is it one’s capacity for love and empathy? What is this ‘oil’ that I need, that we need, to keep our lamps burning?
- I do not like it because it is so individual in focus. Yes, faith is held by individuals, but it is also held by communities and communities of believers do have a part in keeping one another’s lamps full. For that matter? It seems to go against everything I hold dear in terms of faith that those with the oil would not, could not share at the end.
- I do not like it, in part, because the judgment at the end is harsh and unrelenting.
- And I do not much like it because it seems to imply that being ‘let in to the final party’ is somehow up to me. It seems to say that I need to be ready, rather than ultimately relying on the invitation and the grace and the gift of the one who waits to open the door.
And yet, this much is true. Perhaps if I can hear this parable as invitation instead of only as judgment, perhaps there is gift in it still:
I mean, I sat last week at the bedside of one who breathed his last. He was a rare one who knew his time was limited and he made his plans and preparations, doing all that he could to ensure his family would be cared for. He shared in the conversation about readings and music for his funeral. He chose his pall bearers and personally asked those who would speak to do so, telling them the time was short. The day before he died, as we had done many times before, we shared in the sacrament of Holy Communion. A gift, a meal, he was always eager to receive. He was as ‘ready’ as he could be, having said good-bye to those he loved.
He was fortunate in this way, of course, for he knew the hour was nearing. And yet, he also did not look away from the faces of doctors who told him so. He did not ignore the signs in his own body that he was close to done.
Not all of us are given that ‘gift.’ Even so, we all know that the end of this as we know it will come. It always has before. And neither you nor I will be the exception.
And yes, I wonder now if as a larger culture we have also been given such a warning in all the implications and experiences of this pandemic before it is too late. And I wonder if it is ours to look at it steady and clear eyed as did the beloved one who died last week. I wonder if we simply recognize that the ‘oil in our lamps’ is running low, individually and together, too, I wonder if the seeing it and knowing it if that is not our first best chance to have that oil replenished. I wonder if I, if you and I were simply to see and acknowledge the need for:
- Patience with those who differ from me, from us;
- Compassion for those who suffer in ways I have, we have not;
- And repentance which is called for in my own being: if not for what I have done then for what I have not done to allow and enable others to be filled with all that they need.
I wonder if one’s lamp begins to be refilled with the seeing and the understanding and the doing that necessarily follows.
For some reason today I was taken back to a Saturday winter’s afternoon more than 40 years ago. A day when my ‘lack of preparation’ was evident for ‘all the world’ to see. And yet, that was but one afternoon on the way. Indeed, it also soon became clear to me that those early years of ‘preparation’ got me ready for so much more, acquainting me with gifts I draw on to this day.
In the same way now:
- Perhaps this hearing of this parable this time…
- Maybe naming whatever it is that we are carrying now which reminds us that our own oil is running low…
- Perhaps this time in our shared life which can only be described as fraught…
- Maybe all of this and more serves as gift to push us to pay attention to that which matters most of all.
Indeed, perhaps all of this is ours to remind us that for those ten bridesmaids and all of us, the Bridegroom is still coming. And Jesus wants nothing more than for us to be there with our lamps shining bright.
What measure of patience or compassion or kindness or love or repentance or… what measure will it take for your lamp to be full once more? And how in the recognizing that your need to be replenished begins to refill it already?
Because this is so. If those five bridesmaids had only looked, I expect they would have done what they needed to do to receive what they needed.
As much as this is not my favorite parable, even so I am hearing this today as my call to ‘look.’
And perhaps that is the gift of this story.
- What do you make of this parable? Do you struggle with it as I do?
- Do you have an example of a time when you were ‘unprepared?’ When your ‘oil ran out? How does it help you hear this story now?
- What is the gift in the story Jesus offers now? I hear it as an invitation to pay attention, to simply ‘look.’ How do you hear it now?