Jesus went out into the desert, a desert a lot like ours,
to get his heart straight with God.
I have been on long desert retreats,
but these days mostly I just drive through the desert
on my way from church to church.
The office staff always feel sorry for me
because of all the hours of driving alone in the desert.
They don’t believe me when I tell them that I like it.
There’s a lot of geology out there – biology too.
And the light falls at different angles at different times of day
and in the different seasons.
It is a spiritual retreat for me to drive all day in the desert
“in solitude, where we are least alone” to quote Lord Byron.
I find God out there.
My family worries about me though.
That’s partly my fault.
I have told them stories of terrorist attacks on my car
by kamikaze deer,
aerial assaults by suicide bomber hawks,
and -- worst of all – bovine roadblocks
by three cows standing stolidly
broadside across both lanes.
Like Jesus I am with the wild beasts.
I’ve actually never had a serious mishap.
The only wild beast that ever damaged my car
enough to go to the body shop was not a deer, cow, elk, or bear.
It was an enormous mutant jackrabbit.
Still they worry.
One year, my elder daughter sent me a set of deer whistles,
to scare the wild beasts out of my path.
There’s a hot controversy about whether they work or not.
I don’t know, but my daughter gave them to me so I installed them
as directed on the front of my Ford.
The premise of the deer whistle is that the wind blows through it
to make the sound that scares the animals.
The interesting thing was the maintenance instructions.
The maintenance issue is about smaller wild beasts, to wit: bugs
– the same ones that splatter our windshields and grills
are apt to die in the deer whistle and clog it up,
block the wind tunnel.
No wind – no whistle.
So it is necessary, from time to time, to clean the bugs
out of the whistle.
And that brings us to this first Sunday of Lent.
The Persian poet Rumi said the human being is a flute
which makes divine music when the breath of God
God breathes through us so that we speak, act, and move
with a grace like music – music that attracts people,
that draws them – not to our personalities – but to God.
Spirit means breath or wind.
Spirit isn’t a feeling we have or something we hold onto.
Spirit is God blowing through our hearts.
All of which brings us back to deer whistles, bugs, and Lent.
Like the deer whistle, the spiritual passageway in us can get blocked.
The bugs that choke off our spiritual air passage, we call sin.
Sins are not just bad decisions.
Sin is something that blocks God out of our souls
and keeps us from sharing God out into our world.
Sin blocks the flow of God’s spirit through us
like bugs block the wind from a deer whistle.
That’s a poetic way to put it. Let me explain.
Sin is a pattern or habit of feeling, thinking, or acting
that keeps us from attuning our lives to God.
Each new situation is a fresh encounter with God.
But fixed habits of feeling, thinking, and acting
make us oblivious to the wonder of God new in each moment.
Every feeling, thought, and action happens in the brain
when an electrical impulse fires from one nerve cell to the next.
“What fires together wires together.”
That means repeating the same patterns over and over
can trap us in a rat maze inside our own heads.
We get patterns of feeling, thinking, and acting
hardwired into our very bodies.
New things happen all the time,
but we keep having the same old experiences.
We are deaf, numb, and blind to anything new.
We are deaf, numb, and blind to God.
These habits that shut God out are the bugs.
Lent is the time for a spring-cleaning of our hearts,
to open up a passageway for God.
There are as many kinds of sin as there are bugs
along the highway.
But you can group them in categories.
In the 4th Century, Evagrius of Pontus
became an expert on sin the same way Jesus did.
He spent years as a hermit in the desert
and found every sin imaginable right inside himself.
He grouped the sins into three categories
corresponding to Jesus’ 3 temptations in the desert.
Turning stones into bread he called appetitive sin.
There are several in that file. One of them is gluttony.
But gluttony isn’t just about food.
Its’ the anxious craving to have more and more – of anything.
It’s the fear that we can never have enough.
Do you see how the mindset of constant craving
could keep us from seeing what we’ve got
because our eyes are scanning the horizon?
Psalm 78 tells how the people complained of hunger in the desert
and blamed God for their trouble,
so God miraculously fed them with meat and the bread of angels.
The Psalmist then writes this brilliant line,
“But they did not stop their craving
though the food was still in their mouths.”
The habit of craving denies us the peace of ever saying,
“This is enough. Thank you.”
Evagrius said the temptation to rule the world
represents the category of relational sins.
These are habits of feeling about others like sadness or anger.
Having the feelings is natural.
Getting stuck in them is the danger.
I find the spiritual airshafts of many a church
clogged with old grudges, grievances, and nostalgias.
Having feelings is human and good.
When the feelings have us, they turn into bugs.
The temptation to work impressive miracles
Evagrius said represents the sins he called athletic.
He meant they had to do with achievements.
His personal favorite sin was “vainglory.”
Dr. Samuel Johnson defined “vainglory” as
“the vain attempt to fill the minds of others with oneself.”
It is an extremely frustrating sin,
because no matter what we do
we can never occupy as much space in someone else’s mind
as they occupy in it themselves.
We will always be playing second fiddle.
They are just three examples to invite your reflection
on what it is in you that keeps God’s breath
from blowing through you like Rumi’s flute,
the way it blew through Jesus.
Is it a grudge, an addiction, a fear, or a shame?
Lent is the time to find it, name it, and give it over to God.
This calls for a shift in our prayer.
Many of us usually pray that God will change our outer circumstances
or that God will change other people.
In Lent, we ask God to change us.
Invite Jesus to cast out whatever is in you
that is less than your true heart, less than your very soul.
Invite Jesus to set you free to be who God made you to be,
a perfect flute playing a divine melody
to delight the world.