Sunday, March 1, 2020


When Jesus wanted to get his heart straight 
       with the Father,
the place he went to do it was the desert.
Back in Nevada, people had several names for me
     -- most of which I can’t repeat here.
But one that stuck was Bishop Desert Rat. 
In younger days, I’d been on some long desert retreats,
     but in Nevada, I just drove through the desert 
      week in, week out,  on my way from church to church.

The office staff felt sorry for me because of all the hours
                 of driving alone out there.
They didn’t believe me when I told them that I liked it.
There’s a lot of geology in the desert 
           – and more biology than you’d expect.
And the light falls at different angles 
      in the different seasons.

It was a spiritual retreat for me to drive all day
     in solitude, where we are least alone 
      as Lord Byron said.
I found God out there.

My family worried about me though.
That was partly my fault.
I told them the stories of terrorist attacks on my car 
     by kamikaze deer,
     aerial assaults by suicidal hawks,
     and once a bovine roadblock by three cows 
standing stolidly broadside across both lanes.
Like Jesus I was with the wild beasts. 

I never had a serious mishap.
The only wild beast that ever damaged my car
     enough to go to the shop wasn’t a deer, cow, 
     elk, or bear.
An enormous mutant jack rabbit 
       tore out my undercarriage. 
Still the family worried.

So my elder daughter sent me a set of deer whistles
     to scare the wild beasts out of my path. 
The premise of the deer whistle is that, as you drive,
     the wind blows through it
     to make a sound that scares the animals.

There’s controversy about whether they work or not.
I don’t know, but my daughter gave them to me 
so I installed them as directed in the instructions.
The interesting part 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,
                             blocking the wind tunnel.
No wind – no whistle.
So it’s necessary, from time to time, to clean the bugs
     out of the whistle.

And that brings us to Lent.
The Persian poet Rumi said the human being is a flute
     which makes music when the breath of God 
      blows through.
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
--  which brings us back to deer whistles, bugs, 
and Lent.
Like the deer whistle, our spiritual passageway 
        can get blocked.
We call the bugs that choke off 
         our spiritual air passage sin.

Sins are not just bad decisions.
Sin is anything 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.

Sin is any 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.
Neuro-scientists have a saying. It goes:
     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 are happening 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.
Now there are as many kinds of sin as there are bugs
     along the highway.
But you can group them in categories.

Evagrius of Pontus became something of 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 richest man on earth in his day 
           was an oil tycoon, J. Paul Getty.
A journalist asked him, 
      Mr. Getty, when will you be satisfied?
     How much money is enough?”
J. Paul Getty answered, A little more. A little more.
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.

In three decades of ministry, I’ve known countless
     good church folks who are still furious 
     with other good church folks
                 over things from years and years ago 
They haven’t even seen each other for 20  years 
        – but they’re still mad.
Having feelings is human and good.
But 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.
My personal favorite in this category is called 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.

Those may or may not be your demons, your deadly sins,
     your habits of thought and being.
 So I invite you this season to reflect on what it is in you 
     that keeps God’s breath from blowing through you
                 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, hold it compassionately,
and offer it to God for healing.
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 soul.
Invite Jesus to set you free to be 
      who God made you to be,
     a perfect flute playing a divine melody for the world.