Wandering in the Wilderness with Jesus - Part One
NOTE: So Lent is almost here - Ash Wednesday worship starts at 7 pm tomorrow - March 9th @ 7 pm. Here are my First Sunday in Lent worship notes for a series re: a spirituality of imperfection. I am rereading both Ernest Kurtz's text of the same name and Joan Chittister's Wisdom Distilled from the Daily as part of this year's reflections. Please join us if you are in town...
Today is the first Sunday in Lent: the sacred season was opened last week on Ash Wednesday as the community gathered for a time of ritual, Eucharist, silence, song and symbol. I hope you noticed that there wasn’t a lot of explanation – we simply assembled – and then opened our hearts to God in liturgy and story.
• I hope that our Sundays in Lent will be something similar – more experiential than didactic – more mystical and intuitive rather than intellectual and rational.
• Christian educator in the Roman Catholic tradition, Gertrude Mueller-Nelson, writes: “The Church offers us the scriptural readings, the symbols and the disciplinary forms necessary to surround ourselves as consciously and creatively as we can with the business of God’s transformation....”
Through the sacramental “little deaths” of the season:
We are asked to break out of our old patterns of behavior, our interpersonal laziness, our habits to control, criticize or put-down, our selfishness, our fears and reticence… for something bigger and better in ourselves… the soul of Christ alive in all our daily struggles. (To Dance with God, p. 131)
Because, you see, the whole point of Lent – and liturgy – is NOT to give us more knowledge about Jesus, but to help us experience his grace and live into his presence. Makes me think about the young salesman who walked up to an older farmer outside of the feed store and started to rave about the new book he was reading.
“This book,” declared the young man, “will tell you everything you need to know about farming. It tells you when to sow and when to reap. It tells you about the weather, what to expect and when to expect it. This book is incredible because it tells you all you need to know.” To which the old farmer simply said, “Son, that’s not my problem. I already KNOW everything that is in that book. My problem is doing it.” (Spirituality of Imperfection, p. 159)
So we gather – once more – for the start of Lent: some of us hate this season, some of us cherish it, some of us are utterly bewildered by it and some of us don’t grasp what the bother is all about in the first place. And that is why this Lent I want to tell you some stories… and see where they lead us, ok? This Lent our Sundays are going to be more about wandering with Jesus in the wilderness than sitting in worship at First Church on Park Square in Pittsfield.
• So right out of the gate, let me ask you: what does that say to you? What do you think is the difference between wandering in the wilderness for a time with Jesus and regular Sunday worship?
• One of my favorite Franciscan monks, Fr. Richard Rohr, puts it like this: In the early days of Christianity, “faith was not something that was taught nearly as much as it was caught—by lifestyle (and spiritual experience) itself! “
Our way was not so much preachers out on street corners as much as disciples going into a new area and building a loving community that shared, lived beautifully on the land and did not seek wealth or status. Our way was clear: people do not think themselves into a new way of living, but we live ourselves into a new way of thinking. (Richard Rohr, A New Start, March 8, 2011 @www.cacradicalgrace.com)
Wandering is intuitive – gentle – unhurried; there may be a goal – or not. What’s more, wandering takes time – it isn’t power walking or running – but a way of moving that notices the small details along the road without obsessing on a destination. Our spiritual ancestors in Judaism wandered in the wilderness for 40 years with Moses – and today’s gospel tells us that Jesus wandered in the wilderness for 40 days after his baptism – which simply means they spent a LONG time wandering.
• The number isn’t precise, ok? It is illustrative – even suggestive – of spending a long, long time roaming or even meandering.
• And why is that valuable – the implied long period of time – in both the wandering of Jesus and his Jewish great grandparents?
I suspect it is born of spiritual wisdom and experience: most of us don’t change deeply over night, right? I know that is true for me and my hunch is that this rings true for you, too. In order for God “to fill up the emptiness and heal the brokenness in which most of us live,” says Joan Chittister, “we have to unplug ourselves from the world that in overworked, over stimulated and overscheduled.” (Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, p. 3) That is, we have to learn to wander again for a time – during Lent it is the wilderness – like Jesus.
But let me quickly add this qualification lest anybody feel anxious: not all wandering is equal, ok?
• Parents with small children will need to practice wandering in ways that are different from folks who are retired. Parents with teens – or young adults at home – will have to figure out their own rhythm of wandering, too.
• Just as married people will discover a wandering that is their own but quite distinct from the wandering of a widow or a person in a divorce. Are you with me here? Not all wandering is equal and there is NO one size fits all…
And this brings me to this morning’s gospel – where Jesus wanders in the wilderness for 40 days after his baptism – and I want to ask you what word best describes the action here: temptation or release? Do you grasp the difference?
• Sometimes this passage is talked about as the story of Jesus facing down Satan’s temptations in the desert – and that is certainly going on here – with the Tempter’s offering bread to a fasting man and power to one who is oppressed.
• But temptation – while profoundly real – shapes our sense of the spiritual through fear – which is mostly for children: do NOT put your hand on that hot stove or you will burn yourself, do NOT play in traffic or you will be injured by a car, do NOT trust strangers who offer you candy because they want to hurt you.
In my wandering with Jesus in the wilderness, I have come to sense that most of the time he doesn’t operate or teach us out of fear. Fear-based religion has its place – and serves a purpose in limited quantities – but mostly for small children. And as St. Paul says, “When I was a child I acted like a child and spoke like a child, but now that I am growing up I have put childish things away.”
So my hunch is that there is something else going on in this first Lenten story – some other path besides a religion of fear – and I think it has to do with release: letting go and experiencing God’s new freedom in our lives in a way that is real but never obtained, owned or possessed.
“It is that feeling,” writes Ernest Kurtz, “of the chains falling away and a weight being lifted… but not in triumph (as if we accomplished it) but rather receiving it as a gift in awe and wonder” and gratitude. (Spirituality of Imperfection, p. 165) So could it be that Jesus let’s go of his hunger for a time to consider God’s deeper truths – in this the bread of Satan has no power over him – because he isn’t even paying attention?
And what would it mean if he is able to turn his back on the lure of power and prestige because he has experienced God’s grace so profoundly that he no longer wants to be distracted by things that glitter but aren’t gold? Do you see how this is different from talking about temptation?
I really have come to believe that release is more central to being faithful in Lent than fighting our temptations. Because to give up our fears and simply trust God profoundly, unconditionally and gracefully is what Jesus did, right? My other favorite Roman Catholic monastic, Brother David Steindl-Rast – who is a Benedictine – puts it like this in his commentary on how to Live the Apostles’ Creed:
To believe is to dedicate yourself in complete trust to a power greater than yourself… such is the heart of faith… for faith is far more than the sum total of our ideas and concept (and fears) – they are merely pointers – while faith is profound and unconditional trust… that’s why the Latin word for belief is credo – it is a compound word from cor (heart) and do (I give) that literally means that which I give my heart to. (p. 24)
This sounds like Jesus to me – living life with unconditional trust in God –that let’s go of fear. It is one of the ways we experience of God’s grace – and Lent is about the experience more than the ideas, ok? Especially the experience of trusting that God can take our mistakes – and failures – and faults and bring us a healing that arrives the most unexpected, tender and grace-filled ways.
It is, as some have called it, a spirituality of imperfection that asks that we not take ourselves so seriously that we confuse ourselves for the Lord. It is an invitation to live beyond fear into trust – beyond understanding into experience – beyond control into faith – and beyond failure into release. Remember: we do not think ourselves into a new way of living, rather we live ourselves into a new way of thinking that empowers us to transform life rather than transcend it.
So let me ask you to take a few moments to be still in community and see what bubbles up within and among us from this morning’s wanderings, ok? Like the poet Denise Levertov observed: Not to flood darkness with light so that the darkness is destroyed, but to enter into darkness – the mystery – so that it is experienced.