Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Places That Scare Us

Mark’s story of the temptation in the desert
is fast moving and concise.
After Jesus’ grace-filled experience at the River Jordan
where he heard God call him the beloved,
and the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove,
things took a quick turn in another direction.
Mark says, “the Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness.”
“Here is no sweet dove,” Barbara Brown Taylor observes.
Another preacher says “The Spirit morphs (from a sweet dove)
into a . . . pecking, beating bird nightmare that sends Jesus
fleeing into the desert.”

Shift the image from the dove on your Christmas tree
to something by Alfred Hitchcock
with Jesus in the place of Tippy Hedren.

Wrestling demons in the desert for 40 days
wasn’t Jesus’ idea.
In fact, he was against it.
And the experience probably did not change his mind.
He went on to author the prayer,
“Lead us not into temptation”
– in other words, let’s not do that again.

Since Jesus’ time in the desert corresponds
to our observance of Lent,
we may take comfort in noting
that he wasn’t thrilled about the idea himself.

In a progressive young church I know
– not in this diocese; it’s back East –
on Ash Wednesday, the priest imposes the ashes
then immediately washes them off
to remind the people they live in the Resurrection.
On the day for reflection on our mortality,
she reduces that reflection to about 5 seconds,
and rushes back to the happy thoughts.
In another church I once heard the priest say that rather than
giving up anything for Lent,
people should just take some quite time
enjoying God.

Some of us don’t want to observe Lent.
That’ s ok. Jesus didn’t want to go there either.
As much as we love the Mojave,
in Scripture, the desert means the place
we do not want to go.
But immediately after his baptism,
his life changing encounter with God’s love,
that’s precisely where Jesus was compelled to go.

Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron titled one of her books,
“Go to the places that scare you.”
That’s what the Spirit made Jesus do,
and that is what the Spirit presses us to do as well
– to go to the places we would rather avoid
because something essential happens there.
That’ s where our religion gets real.

The danger in religion is that it so easily becomes escapist.
It so easily becomes a flight into pleasant fantasies.
That kind of religion is fragile, unstable, and undependable
because reality keeps breaking in on us.

Some years ago, Paul Simon wrote the song lyrics,
“And so I’ll continue to continue to pretend
my life will never end
and flowers never bend
with the rainfall.”
Shallow optimistic religion continues to continue to pretend
and then we get the shadow on the x-ray,
the “something amiss” on the MRI,
or our self-image as one of the good guys
is marred by a moral lapse.

Reality insistently intrudes on a false faith.
The Holy Spirit turns on a dime from a happy feeling
into reality forcing us to confront the demons.
And that’s a good thing.

Psychologist William James called the false faith
of optimistic denial “the religion of happy mindedness.”
He said two world religions are particularly effective
at getting people through life
precisely because they are not “happy minded”
-- because they acknowledge what we try to deny.
Those two religions are Buddhism and Christianity.

We observe penitential seasons to make room for the minor key,
to paint with the darker tone.
That keeps our faith true enough, deep enough,
rich enough to help us through all kinds of times.
Our faith isn’t about living in an oasis.
It’s about living in the desert with wild beasts
but that’s where we meet the ministering angels.
Psalm 84 says when we pass through the desert valley,
that’s where we find springs.
Ours is a faith for the hard times – not a na├»ve promise
that if we get our minds right
everything will be just fine.

Observing a penitential season runs counter to our culture.
Secular society and some brands of Christianity assume
that it’s all about feeling good all the time.

Feminist theologian Dorothee Soelle writes:
“. . . (W)hat will become of a society in which
. . . suffering (is) avoided . . .; . . . in which a marriage
. . . smoothly ends in divorce; . . .
relationships between generations are dissolved as
quickly as possible, without a struggle, without a trace;
periods of mourning are “sensibly” short;
with haste the handicapped . . . are removed from the house
and the dead from the mind . . .”

Soelle says that in such a society
“even joy and happiness can no longer be experienced . . .”
Suffering and joy are two sides of one coin.
To anesthetize ourselves against one
is to anesthetize ourselves against the other.
“No cross, no crown,” Spurgeon used to say.
We might say, “No Lent, no Easter.”

Yet much so-called “spirituality” tries to insulate us from pain.
Meditation is reduced to relaxation exercises.
Contemplation is pretending we are in a pleasant place
instead of the mixed reality of our actual life.
Prayer is an incantation to drive away our hardships;
and faith is positive thinking.

Today’s lesson teaches us a very different kind of spirituality.
Liberation theologian Jon Sobrino defines spirituality as
“a fundamental willingness to face what is real”
– including the realities of pain and injustice.
Archbishop Rowan Williams says,
“the Spirit connects us to reality in a way that bridge[s] . . .
the gulf between suffering and hope . . . confronting suffering
without illusion but also without despair.”

Our brand of spirituality dares to see things straight on,
to face the joy and the sorrow alike,
to acknowledge our failings and celebrate God’s love.

Lent is the time of the desert,
the time to go to the places that scare us.
We can do that.
We can do what Jesus did in our Gospel lesson
because of the rainbow in Genesis.

We can face anything – even what is disappointing in our own characters --
we can face our own mortality, and the overwhelming demands
of our lives because of that rainbow.
The rainbow means God is faithful.
God is present in every situation to help.

When we are in the desert with the ravenous beasts, as Jesus was,
the ministering angels will be there too.
And when that hard situation has passed --
when all situations have passed –
God will still be there and God is faithful.

So I invite you to the observance of a holy Lent.
I invite you to a deeper awareness of life.
And I invite you to a quiet confidence
that God is with you –
always there to strengthen and sustain you –
always there to love, forgive, empower, or console –
always at your side.