Lent: Standing By Your Word

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CHICAGO, IL (February 25, 2009) – John Weborg is Professor Emeritus of Theology at North Park Theological Seminary and a long-time columnist for The Covenant Companion. Each week during Lent, we are sharing one of his columns that originally appeared in the magazine.

By Dr. John Weborg

Christmas is the Word made flesh. Epiphany is the Word gone public. Lent is the demonstration of the Word worthy of public trust under the most adverse conditions. Jesus stood by his word and stood with it, identified fully with the destiny to which his words carried him.

Lent is about staying power. A promise made is one half of the deal. A promise kept completes the act of promise-making and promise-keeping. Speakers are responsible to verify their words, to bring them about, to keep their word, to make good on what they say. Speakers are to stand by their word and stand with their word. As my father used to say, “A person’s word is their bond.”

In November 1527, Martin Luther received a letter from clergy in Breslau, Silesia, asking him to comment on the responsibility of pastors to stay with their people during the time of plague and decimation of life. Luther’s response singles out the special duty of pastors to stay. Those who flee are the equivalent of murderers. To abandon the sick in such circumstances is to abandon Christ. The ordination promise to care for the flock over whom Christ has made one a shepherd now comes due: will the pastor stand with and by the promise? Will it come true in ministry?

Lent is the season for the defense of public trust in Christian words, in gospel promises. The Breslau letter brings to mind the time when young Ryan White had to leave a small Indiana town after contracting AIDS. Were there none to stay with him and his family? Poet Robert Hayden’s questions are known by those who stay: “What did I know/What did I know/Of love’s austere and lonely offices?”

Aaron Feuerstein of Lawrence, Massachusetts, came to know what it meant to stand with and carry out Micah 6:8 and Isaiah 1:12-17, 27. On December 11, 1995, a fire destroyed the Malden Mills, putting 3,000 people out of work. Feuerstein, owner of the mills, announced that he would keep all 3,000 on the December payroll, then the same for January and February. By midsummer, 85 percent of the workers were back at their jobs. The 400 remaining workers had their benefits extended, were assisted in finding work, and had their jobs guaranteed when the new plant opened in 1997.

In an interview with a reporter after the fire, Mr. Feuerstein began to explicate the Scriptures in impeccable Hebrew. He demonstrated that in addition to knowing how to do cost accounting, he knew how to count the cost – the human cost. His Bible had taught him that. But his Bible posed a question: will you stay with this word, stand with it as a way of staying with these displaced workers? Public trust in a transcendent word was vindicated.

Not all instances of staying power are dramatic. Think of those family members who care for sick loved ones, sometimes without respite. Sometimes they are left alone because, as someone has said, the allergy to painful situations is widespread. To change the metaphor, maybe it is contagious. So family and friends keep lonely vigils deserted solely for reasons of comfort by those who could make a difference. When the time to collect on the promise comes due, there was no promise to collect.

Words are costly. Promises come due. Vows create their own days of reckoning – baptismal vows, marriage vows, Hippocratic oaths, confirmation vows, the four-fold test of Rotarians, and parenthood itself is an implied vow – all have their day in court, even the court of public trust.

The Lenten query will always be – “What did I know/What did I know/Of love’s austere and lonely offices?”

Not much until we have to make good on our word.

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