by Tim Pauls
A few years back, I needed a nice coat. There were times when I’d find myself standing graveside in the midwinter cold, and a green ski parka seemed a suboptimal choice for the presiding minister. It took some hunting, but eventually I scored. At a Dillard’s Presidents’ Day sale, I found one overcoat left in my size. It was a charcoal-gray blend of wool and cashmere, with a label that said “Ralph Lauren.” It’s one of those coats that makes you feel instantly warm when you put it on, and it was on clearance at a price tailor-made for cheapskates like me. For $75, I bought the nicest coat I’ve ever owned — and I felt sure I was buying it for a lifetime.
The coat was carefully hung in a closet, to be brought out only for special, frigid occasions. It served me well a couple of times the following winter, and early in the winter after that, I had need of it again. But then, as I stood at a graveside, head hunched against the cold wind as people mingled or filtered away, I noticed something on the left sleeve — a trail eaten out of the wool like a path dug through snow. At the end of the trail was a hole. Something had eaten my coat — my wool-cashmere coat, made by Ralph Lauren (in case I forgot to mention that before), and purchased to last a lifetime. If I were vain, this would have caused me some distress.
As it turns out, maybe I’m a little vain.
Apparently, moths in Idaho have impeccable taste. One little insect had done irreparable harm. There was no way to fix the damage: My coat would never be the same again.
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” The Lord’s words from Matthew 6:19–20 ring out on Ash Wednesday, and my coat bears silent witness to how true they are. For now, the arm inside the coat is doing better than the sleeve, but that will not always be the case: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.”
Whenever I wear my coat, it serves as a rueful reminder to repent of vanity and pride. Since I cannot mend it, I’ve instead come to see it as a theological metaphor: the moth-eaten “law” sleeve is on the left, while the right is the “gospel” sleeve on the arm I use for blessing.
Who knows? If it does indeed last a lifetime, maybe I’ll ask to be buried in it. It seems a good thing to put into the ground: There, it can complete its journey back to dust. Me, I’ll look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, solely for the sake of Jesus, who alone of all flesh has not seen corruption (Ps. 16:10), and whose right hand and holy arm have won salvation for me (Ps. 98:1).
The Rev. Tim Pauls is the pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Boise, Idaho, and a collegium fellow for DOXOLOGY: The Lutheran Center for Spiritual Care and Counsel.