Friday, March 23, 2012

Like God

Sermon preached March 18, 2012

Texts: Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

Retired Archbishop Robert Runcie used to tell of an incident that occurred while he was the Archbishop of Canterbury. Evidently, he once boarded a train in England and discovered that all the other passengers in the carriage were patients at a mental institution who were being taken on an excursion. A hospital attendant was counting the patients to be sure that they were all present. “One, two, three, four, five...” When he came to Runcie, he said, “And who are you?” “I am the Archbishop of Canterbury,” Robert Runcie replied. The attendant smiled, pointed to him, and continued pleasantly, “... six, seven, eight…”
I recall an episode of the television show M*A*S*H (Season 4, Quo Vadis Captain Chandler, November 1975) in which a wounded soldier is brought into the hospital claiming he is Jesus Christ. There is a haunting quality about the soldier, yet what do the doctors do? They call in the psychiatrist Sidney Freedman. Turns out the man is bomber pilot named Captain Chandler who is now unable to continue drop bombs.
To think of yourself as Jesus or God or even the Archbishop of Canterbury can get you classified as unbalanced – one brick shy of a load, one French fry short of a Happy Meal. Place a marker on that thought for a few moments.
This Lent our theme is “journey to and journey through” and today I want to talk about that aspect of our journey of faith which is the journey to God. At the heart of the Christian message, at the heart of the Christian gospel is the good news that God desires a relationship with us. “For God so loved the world.” “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us.” Both the reading from the Gospel of John and from Ephesians paint a picture of a God who desires to be in relationship with us, a God of overflowing love who is always reaching out to draw us near. The journey of Christian faith is the journey to God.
Yet we also believe that God is already here. God is already present. God is ever-present. So where’s the “journey”? If God is already here, we don’t have to go anywhere to find God, to locate God. Is the journey of faith simply walking in place?
The journey of faith, which is the journey to God is really a journey with God inside our own lives. God is doing something in us. God is creating new life in us. God is working in us to shine light into the world. God is working in us to create goodness. God is working eternal life in us – and I think eternal life in the Bible is something more than just life after death – it is a quality of life before death, too.
Let me put this even more radically. I think the journey of faith, the journey to God is a journey with the creative power of God’s love in our lives and that God’s creative power is at work making us like God. God is forming Jesus in us. God is forming God in us. In the devotional book I am using for Lent this year, Joan Chittister writes, “The One who has been within reach all our lives has begun to come to life quietly, but clearly, within us” (The Breath of the Soul, 57).
Think about that – our journey to God is the journey of having God come to life within us! ‘Course it’s not safe, but it’s good.
But we need to be careful here. If our understanding of God is of a capricious power, of one who never gains from the experiences of others, than to make claims about God being born in us leads to trouble. Caesar in the time of Jesus claimed to be son of God, and ruled ruthlessly, conflating the peace of Rome with the peace of God. History is littered with stories of megalomaniacs who confuse their murderous whims with the will of God. That’s not what the spiritual journey is about in the Christian journey of faith.
The heart of God is a heart of love – for God so loved the world. The heart of God is a heart of compassion and kindness – but God, who is rich in mercy. What God is seeking to create in us are hearts with God-like love, hearts with God-like kindness, hearts with God-like compassion. John Wesley, the primary person to whom United Methodists trace their stream of Christian faith, understood God’s saving action as “our renewal in the image of God” (Charles Wood, CFO paper on United Methodist Ecclesiology, referring to Wesley’s sermon “God’s Approbation of His Work”). He understood our journey to God as a journey to love – recall his definition of Christian perfection: By perfection I mean the humble, gentle, patient love of God and neighbor, ruling our habits, attitudes, words, and actions. (“Brief Thoughts on Christian Perfection” January, 1767)
This is what living our faith is about – becoming more transparent to the love of God that God creates inside of us - - - being more like plastic wrap than like cardboard. The journey to God is a journey to love – growing in love, growing into Jesus, growing into God.
Two quotes and a story.
The Jewish philosopher and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, wrote in his book Man Is Not Alone: If man is not more than human he is less than human (211). I think what Heschel is trying to say is that there is something in us of the divine, that we are “contemporaries with God” (211). We have the capacity to see our lives on a small screen, to define our loves narrowly, or we can continue the journey to God, opening our hearts and souls to greater love, kindness and compassion. If we fail to do that, we end up being something less than human.
Walter Wink is a New Testament scholar and theologian. In his book The Human Being, Wink writes, Jesus incarnated God in his own person in order to show all of us how to incarnate God. And to incarnate God is what it means to be fully human (30). To incarnate God is what it means to be fully human. That’s where our journey to God is headed, to making God more real in our lives and in the world, to becoming more like God.
Abbot Lot went to see Abbot Joseph and said, “Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of bad thoughts: now what more should I do?” The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like lamps of fire. He said, “why not become all flame?” (Kathleen Norris, Dakota, 123; Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert, 50)
I believe that it is as I grow into God, as I embody Jesus, I become my best me, become more fully human. It is then that I am better able to release gifts of love to the world. I believe that it is as we, as a community, grow into God, embody Jesus that we become the best church we can be. It is then that we are better able to release our gifts of love to the world. The world needs our gifts – the fire of God’s love for warmth, light, energy and to burn away hatred, prejudice, fearfulness, paralyzing anxiety. When we tend the flame of God within we can send sparks of faith, hope and love into the world.
For God so loved - God, who is rich in mercy. Out of love God is working in our lives and in our life together – to make us more loving, to make us more like God. That’s our journey to God. Why not become all flame? Amen.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Perfect Fear Casts Out Love

Sermon preached March 11, 2012

Text: John 2:13-22

We made a decision at the staff meeting on Tuesday February 28 that if the schools were closed on Wednesday February 29 due to the expected snow storm, we would keep the building closed until noon and then decide about the rest of the day. The schools were closed, so I had more time that morning to read the newspaper. One item tickled my funny bone. It was a weather-related closing. The state tournament sendoff for the Superior High School boys hockey team for today has been cancelled due to the team leaving Tuesday. Seems a pretty good reason for cancelling a pep rally, the team has already left town.
Has religion, the church, an idea of God ever left you feeling empty and alone, alone in the blizzards of life, maybe even created the blizzard? Has religion, the church, an idea of God left you feeling like that? Have they been a burden instead of relieving burdens? Instead of making life more alive and interesting, have these left you feeling more lifeless?
Here are some stories.
Rob Bell is the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, MI. He tells the story about an art show the church held a few years ago. I had been giving a series of teachings on peacemaking, and we invited artists to display their paintings, poems, and sculptures that reflected their understanding of what it means to be a peacemaker. One woman included in her work a quote from Mahatma Gandhi, which a number of people found quite compelling. But not everyone. Someone attached a piece of paper to it. On the piece of paper was written: “Reality check: He’s in hell.” This story was the initial impetus for Bell to write his book Love Wins (p. 1).
Adam Hamilton, pastor of Church of the Resurrection in suburban Kansas City, the largest United Methodist Church in the United State tells this story. I was officiating at a graveside funeral for a young man who had taken his own life. The parents were still in shock and experiencing intense grief. In the eulogy and message I sought to help them and all who had gathered to make sense of this terrible tragedy while finding comfort and hope in God. As a part of the service we remembered the unique and special qualities of their son. Following the service a husband and wife – sister and brother-in-law of one of the boy’s parents came to me and asked, “Why didn’t you tell them that their son is in hell today?” Hamilton shared this story in his book When Christians Get It Wrong (7).
A woman I know suffered through one of the most difficult experiences a mother can, her young adult daughter died suddenly while in the hospital. She told a group that as she was sharing her story with another person one time, this other person told her that she probably had not prayed enough, or not prayed just right for her daughter.
Jeri finds herself in the office of a Christian counselor. She was either going crazy or on the verge of a spiritual breakthrough. The counselor asked her what was going on. Well, I went to my pastor a few months ago because I was feeling depressed a lot. He pegged the root problem right away, but I can’t seem to do anything about it…. I guess I would have to say the problem is, well, me. My pastor says I’m in rebellion against God. Apparently Jeri’s pastor, on hearing that she was depressed prescribed memorizing praise verses from the Bible to be repeated over and over again. When that did not help Jeri, she returned to her pastor to let him know that it was not helping. Further she told him that women in her family had some history with depression, that she was having some physical problems, and that things with her husband were not so great. She wasn’t sure his recommendation was what she needed. The pastor had a response. The fact that you won’t accept my counsel without raising all these objections and other possibilities was the major indication to me, Jeri, that your root problem is spiritual, not physical or emotional. When you talked about arguing with your husband, rather than submitting to him and trusting God, that confirmed it. The pastor concluded that Jeri was in rebellion against God, leading Jeri to seek help elsewhere. This anecdote is from a book entitled The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse (17-18).
Renee Alston in her book Stumbling Toward Faith, shares this horrendous story. I grew up in an abusive household. Much of my abuse was spiritual – and when I say spiritual, I don’t mean new age, esoteric, random mumblings from half-Wiccan, hippie parents… I mean that my father raped me while reciting the Lord’s Prayer. I mean that my father molested me while singing Christian hymns. (Bell, Love Wins, 7) Perfect fear casts out love.
I know - all these stories are from a Christian context. I am certainly not saying that all awful things that happen in the name of God and religion happen in the name of Jesus or the Christian religion. Each religious tradition has its horror stories. Hindus in India burn Muslims in train car. Muslims in Afghanistan, while perhaps rightly outraged by the desecration of Korans, nevertheless allow their outrage to boil over into murderousness – much to the consternation of many other Muslims. I focus on Christian stories because that is my tradition, our tradition, and it is from that tradition and to that tradition that I speak. It is for that tradition I have some responsibility.
Given these horror stories, is it any wonder that National Public Radio might broadcast a debate entitled “Would the World Be Better Off Without Religion?” By the way the debate was held at New York University and prior to the debate, 52% of the audience members agreed that the world would be better off without religion. After the debate, 59% agreed. (NPR, November 21, 2011)
Given such stories, is it any wonder that Daniel Radcliffe, the young actor who played the role of Harry Potter in the highly-successful films might say the following when asked about his religion. I don’t [believe in God]. I have a problem with religion or anything that says, “We have all the answers,” because there’s no such thing as “the answers.” We’re complex. We change our minds on issues all the time. Religion leaves no room for human complexity. (Parade, January 8, 2012)
Perfect fear casts out love.
This Lent our theme has been “journey to and journey through.” Some of what we need to go through on our journey of faith, our spiritual journey, our journey with Jesus, may be religious baggage, scars and wounds left by people who have wielded religious language as a weapon. Many of us have experiences of being hurt or wounded. We have experienced things that have come in the name of God, but that miss the Spirit of God. We have experienced things that have come in the name of Jesus, but without the love of Jesus. If we are to grow in our faith we need to allow ourselves to look at these scars and wound. We need to see where religious language has gotten in the way of a relationship to God instead of facilitating that relationship.
And from where might we get the idea that our journey with Jesus can be helped by questions and critical thinking? How about from Jesus? The story we read this morning is sort of the ultimate in a journey through religious baggage. The story should not be read as a wholesale condemnation of Jewish practice in the time of Jesus, nor in our time. It should be read, I think, as a cautionary tale. Religious language can become hurtful and repressive. Religious concepts can be misused. Religious practices can become life-denying rather than opening us up to the fullness of life. In the story, Jesus recognizes that the tools meant to further the God-life can be misused. His cleansing of the temple is a wonderful symbolic/metaphorical action – it is the journey through religious baggage. It is the willingness to learn and grow and cast off old religious notions that no longer give life or connect with God.
Two quotes and a wrap-up. Kirk Bingamon, a psychologist and theologian, in one of his works writes about “the supreme choice facing every person of faith, namely, whether or not to update and transform our psychical image of God” (Freud and Faith, p. 60). In his lectures on religion, Alfred North Whitehead writes that “Religion… runs through three stages, if it evolves to its final satisfaction. It is the transition from God the void to God the enemy, and from God the enemy to God the companion” (Religion in the Making)
To see the journey of faith, our journey with Jesus, as a journey through religious baggage is see the importance of growth in faith. It is to understand that there are unhealthy uses of religious language and practice that need to be avoided, and sometimes wounds in our lives from such misuse of religious language and practice – wounds that can be healed more fully. In our journey with Jesus, questions are o.k., even necessary. In our journey with Jesus, critical thinking is, well, critical.
I want to cultivate in my life a passionate and compassionate faith that is also a thoughtful faith, a faith that not only leaves room for human complexity but helps me understand it even better. I want us together to build a community of faith where we hear the stories of hurting people even when their hurt has come from someone claiming to speak in the name of God, of Jesus, and of Christian faith. I want us to be a place where after the temple is cleansed, after we have critically looked at our religious baggage, God’s of love still flows freely and Jesus remains alive and well. I want us to be a place where we can let go of whatever hurtful ideas have come to us in religious garb and embrace God as our companion on the journey. God has already embraced us in Jesus. Amen.

Thursday, March 8, 2012


Sermon preached March 4, 2012

Texts: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17; Mark 8:31-38

Begin with “Prodigal Son” Power Point from Discovery Zone.
No, you did not miss it. We did not read this story this morning, but the story fits. It fits our Lenten theme of “journey to and journey through.” It fits today’s emphasis on journey to generosity and justice. The journey of Christian faith, our journey with Jesus, or with God in Jesus, is a journey in certain directions, toward something. One of those directions is generosity and justice. One of the early self-descriptions of the Christian community, found in the second chapter of Acts, is that followers of Jesus were people with “glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:46).
The Christian journey of faith is a journey to generosity and justice, to glad and generous hearts. The short journey of the father toward his wayward son returning home, a journey he made running, was also a journey toward a more generous heart, toward a generosity of spirit. The father’s sprint both displayed his generous heart, and it deepened it. And Jesus told the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) in response to people who were grumbling about his sense of hospitality and his eating habits. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2). He was saying, “God’s kingdom is like this – joy and celebration and welcome.” Jesus was saying something in this story about the character of God. God is an open-hearted, open-handed God, a God of profound and profuse generosity.
That God is open-hearted, open-handed, profoundly generous is an ancient witness in the biblical faith. God’s character is revealed in his dealings with Abraham and Sarah. To this childless old couple God promises profuse blessings. From them will come multitudes. God’s profuse generosity will be on display in the fruitfulness of Abraham and Sarah. God is going to bless them. Nations will come from them. Kings of peoples will come from them. In another place the profound generosity of God’s covenant with Abraham is extended to all. “By your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessings for themselves” (Genesis 22:18). So profuse and profound is the generosity of God, so wild and mind-blowing, that the response of Abraham is to fall on his face and laugh.
God is an open-hearted, open-handed God, a God of profound, profuse and wild generosity. The generosity of God is that God wants to bless all nations, all peoples. As followers of Jesus, we are recipients of the generosity of God. We know God’s grace, God’s persistent presence in our lives – God never giving up on us. We experience the beauty of God’s creation. We see unimaginable kindness and tenderness in relationship. We witness compassion, care for the earth, work for justice, peace and reconciliation. We are loved and gifted.
We are recipients of the generosity of God, but not so we can horde all that generosity. Such hording kills life. Holding too tightly chokes the flow of life and love. Jesus said: For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Holding too tightly to life, grasping, clinging chokes the flow of life and love.
Tuesday’s Duluth News Tribune reported on the results of a study that was presented this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study concluded that wealthy people are more likely to commit unethical acts because they are more motivated by greed. The researchers concluded that “because rich people have more financial resources, they’re less dependent on social bonds for survival.” In the words of one researcher (Paul Piff): If you occupy a more insular world, you’re less likely to be sensitive to the needs of others. The research also seemed to indicate that anyone who becomes wealthy is prone to that kind of insularity.
I don’t read this study as an indictment of rich people, or a criticism of wealth per se, but it points to a pattern in human beings, a pattern Jesus perhaps had in mind when he warned against holding too tightly, clinging, grasping. Such behaviors and attitudes keep our hearts Grinch-small.
The journey of faith, the journey with Jesus is a journey toward generosity and justice, toward a glad and generous heart. It is a journey in the direction of degrinchification.
All this use of the word generosity in a sermon may have you squirming on your wallets or holding a little more tightly to your purses. Please relax. I am speaking about a principle, not making a pitch. The journey of faith is a journey toward generosity and justice.
Generosity has something to do with sharing, but it is not only about sharing our financial resources. That is part of it, but only a part. Generosity has to do with sharing our time, our energy, the gift that is in us. For my Lenten discipline this year I am reading through two books, Malcolm Boyd’s Are You Running With Me, Jesus? And Joan Chittister’s The Breath of the Soul. This week, I read these words in Joan Chittister’s book. Each of us has been given something that is meant to make the world a better place for the rest of us. We cook and sing and teach and write and clean and organize in uncommonly common ways. Each of us has something that the rest of the world needs. (The Breath of the Soul, 26). Generous hearts celebrate the gift that is given. Generous hearts seek to develop that gift. Generous hearts give that gift to the world.
Generosity of spirit is also an important part of generosity. When I was a district superintendent, I noticed, and then wrote about generosity of spirit. Churches that were doing better seemed to have such a generosity of spirit. There was laughter. People did not hold on to grudges. People recognized that sometimes another person was not being mean, but was just having a bad day. Small things stayed small. Generosity of spirit is a reflection of the love of God in our midst and is a quality those outside the church are hungry for.
The journey of faith, the journey with Jesus is a journey toward generosity and justice, toward a glad and generous heart. It is a journey in the direction of degrinchification.
The biblical concept of justice is rooted in an understanding of God’s generosity and is rooted in the idea of the generous heart. For Christians, justice includes “recognition of all others as persons equally created in the image of God – free, thinking, creative and relational persons with capacities to develop these qualities” (Bard, 365). I wrote that in my doctoral dissertation 18 years ago. God has given to all gifts to be developed and shared. There is an inherent dignity in that that needs to be respected.
Out of this understanding of the generosity of God and the potential of each person comes a sense that the world should be ordered so that no one starves, so that each person has some opportunity to develop themselves. Out of our generosity of heart we want to see others develop their hearts and minds and lives. That’s justice. Justice moves us into the realms of law and politics where we have legitimate disagreements about what laws and what ordering of society recognizes human dignity and offers opportunity for growth and development. That we disagree, though, is no reason to avoid the call of justice into the hard work of law and politics.
Yet at its core, the biblical concept of justice is that it is a matter of the heart, of developing hearts big enough and strong enough to care about the poor, the outcast, those on the margins, the hurting, the abused, the lonely. Lady Gaga, at Harvard this week to kick off her Born This Way Foundation, encouraged her audience to “challenge meanness and cruelty” and noted that there is no law that will make people be kind to one another. She is right. Justice is a matter of politics and law, but even more deeply it is a matter of the heart, of a degrinchified glad and generous heart. And that’s where our journey with Jesus is trying to take us. Amen.

Friday, March 2, 2012

A Haunted Forest

Sermon preached February 26, 2012

Texts: Mark 1:9-15

Sometimes things come together in worship in wonderfully surprising ways – a hymn chosen weeks before says just what it needs to say, an anthem sung by the choir or by Tapestry fits perfectly the theme of the sermon. It happened last week when one of Tapestry’s songs had a line in it about the journey of faith encouraging questions. Sometimes I get goose bumps when such things happen. All I can do is give thanks to God for that kind of serendipitous grace.
And other times – well…. Take today for instance. Weeks ago Marilew Barnidge came to ask me about UMW Sunday, United Methodist Women. I knew that I was planning the sermon series I finished last week, so I thought it would be good to wait until that was done. Next Sunday is a communion Sunday, so that probably would not work as well, so we chose today. Today is the first Sunday in the season of Lent and what I had not considered is that the traditional reading for the first Sunday in Lent is the temptation story of Jesus. So here we are – women and temptation.
Just for fun, I thought I would type women and temptation into an internet search engine. I did this at home because I was not sure what might come up. It ended up being kind of interesting. There were a number of advice sites – Bible churches and an Islamic site – about avoiding the temptation of women. One site claimed that beautiful women seem more a temptation for men than handsome men are for beautiful women, but another site was claiming that women, too, can be tempted by men. Then there was a link to a film called “Women in Temptation” a Czech romantic comedy about a therapist whose husband leaves her for a younger woman. I watched the trailer, and it looked like it could be a funny and enjoyable film, though I cannot be certain because I don’t understand a word of Czech.
I really did not want to preach on women and temptation anyway. And my sermon title has nothing to do with United Methodist Women. I am grateful for the work of United Methodist Women in this church and in The United Methodist Church. I am honored that as pastor, I am a member of United Methodist Women. My sermon today, however, is focusing on Lent, and on our theme for Lent – “journey to and journey through.”
John Wesley, to whom United Methodist Christians trace their beginnings, was an advocate of the importance of growth in the Christian life – growth in grace, growth in faith, growth in love. To use the theological term, he considered “sanctification” a vital part of Christian life, and believed that Christians should be moving toward “Christian perfection” which Wesley defined this way: By perfection I mean the humble, gentle, patient love of God and our neighbor ruling our tempers, words and actions. (January 27, 1767) By “tempers” Wesley meant something like attitudes and dispositions. Our journey of faith is a journey to that kind of life, and I will be saying more about that in coming weeks.
The journey of faith, however, is not all sweetness and light. It is not all smooth sailing. Sometimes the way is wide and smooth, but sometimes it is narrow, bumpy and potholed. Sometimes the landscape is beautiful, and sometimes we travel through haunted forests. We have the testimony of many that this is the case.
Anthony of Egypt (251-356 CE) was among those early Christians who believed his faith needed to be lived out away from the mainstream society, away from the Roman Empire, which during his life became much more accommodating to the Christian faith under Emperor Constantine. Many took to caves along the Nile River to live out their faith. There were thousands of such hermits by the end of the fourth century and about 5,000 who had established themselves in the desert outside the Egyptian city of Alexandria. Anthony was one of these. Collectively these Christians have come to be known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and their writings on the Christian journey of faith have been preserved. Saint Anthony of Egypt once said, “This is the great work of a person: always to take the blame for his or her own sins before God and to expect temptation until the last breath” (The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, Paraclete Press, 88). The journey of faith can be potholed roads and haunted forests.
Another Desert Father, a man known as John the Dwarf had prayed to God to remove his passions. He went and shared with an old man, “I find myself in peace, without an enemy.” The old man told John, “Go, ask God to stir up warfare so that you may regain the affliction and humility that you used to have. For it is by warfare that the soul makes progress.” (The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, 110)
But we can look even earlier in our faith tradition, to our Scriptures for testimony that the journey of faith can be arduous, can take us through difficult places, haunted forests.
Right after Jesus is baptized and hears the remarkable words, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased,” he is driven out into the desert, the wilderness, by the Spirit. “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” (Mark 1:11-13)
Mark provides no details about the temptation of Jesus. All we know is that he was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness. He was alone, but not – there was Satan, there were wild beasts, there were angels. Jesus was tempted. He engaged in spiritual struggle. Other gospel writers tell a more detailed story. Mark keeps it brief, and that is o.k. We are left to fill in some of the silent spaces.
Jesus was tempted. Temptation comes in different forms and in different ways. We are tempted to lose our way, to miss the mark, by our vulnerabilities. We might let the image of Satan be an image of being tempted by our vulnerabilities. Jesus was hungry. Jesus was perhaps lonely. Maybe Jesus was afraid. Perhaps Jesus was uncertain. All these may have led to temptations. When we are hungry, we might be tempted to make a quick stop to eat something that is not so good for us. When we are lonely, we may reach out to some other in inappropriate ways. When we feel uncertain, we may try and mask our uncertainty by shouting our opinion more loudly. We can be tempted to mask our fears with false bravado.
We can also be tempted by our strengths, the wild beasts. Jesus had extraordinary faith. He had a special relationship with God – you are my son, the beloved. He could have been tempted to trade on these in some inappropriate way. When we have strengths we like to use them, sometimes ignoring the shadow side of such strengths. If we are good with hammers, we treat every problem as if it were a nail.
So there is temptation, Satan and wild beasts, and only in the midst of the struggles do the angels come and wait on Jesus. Sometimes it is only as we struggle, only when we follow the journey of faith into the haunted forests, that we grow. Here is a stark statement of that truth from Ernest Becker. [To change, to grow] is… the going through hell of a lonely and racking rebirth where one throws off the lendings of culture, the costumes that fit us for life’s roles, the masks and panoplies of our standardized heroisms, to stand alone and nude facing the howling elements as oneself (The Birth and Death of Meaning, 146). I think that is a good description of the temptation story of Jesus – Jesus facing the howling elements as himself before moving into ministry.
Christian life is a journey of growth, a journey toward deeper, richer, wider love. It is a journey through some difficult places. It is a journey through some of our own unpleasant stuff. If we are to grow in grace and faith and, most of all, love, we cannot hide our vulnerabilities or the shadow sides of our strengths in a big locked trunk. We have to journey with and through them, giving all that we are to the work of love, the work of Jesus in our lives and in the world.
Like the Gospel of Mark, I cannot fill in for you where you are most tempted, where your vulnerabilities may be leading you astray or where the shadow side of your strengths may be moving you away. I can offer a couple of quick pictures for you to use as you ponder this part of the journey of faith.
Thursday night I attended a lecture given by Martha Nussbaum, a philosopher and legal scholar whose works I have been reading for years. Her lecture was about the importance of education in the arts and humanities for democratic citizens. In part of her lecture she identified the forces in human life which she believes get in the way of humane personal development. We are born helpless as humans and there is a certain shame about our helplessness and incompleteness that can lead to desires to be overbearing, over-controlling. We develop early a sense of disgust and aversion, which while it can be helpful – our disgust at the smell of sour milk prevents us from drinking it – can also be damaging when we project all that we find disgusting onto those who are different from us. We seem to have a high deference to authority and to peer pressure and so give in even when authority and peer pressure work toward evil – as in the Nazi Holocaust. When we can be anonymous, these negative forces in our personalities become more powerful and expressive – people say things anonymously on the internet they may never say in person. Feeling anonymous and egged on by a crowd we might scream out terribly inappropriate things at a hockey game. (see Nussbaum, Not For Profit, 28-44)
Mark Whitlock recently reminded me of the work of Gerald May. In his book Addiction and Grace, May offers an analysis of the human situation. We humans have an inborn desire for God (1). Both repression and addiction turn us away from that desire, with addiction being the more potent force getting in the way of our desire for God. Addiction uses up desire…. Addiction, then, displaces and supplants God’s love as the source and object of our deepest true desire…. Addiction exists wherever persons are internally compelled to give energy o things that are not their true desires. (13-14). For May almost anything can become an addiction in this sense.
So where are your addictions or temptations to addiction? Where are those places in your life where you have projected disgust onto some other or been tempted to do so? Where have you given into authority or peer pressure or been tempted to do so? Where have you been over-controlling instead of trusting? Where do you hear the voice of Satan or the cry of the wild beasts inside? I ask myself these same questions.
The journey with Jesus is sometimes a journey through the haunted forests that such questions create. It is a journey through our own stuff. It is a journey that means opening the trunk of our lives to see all that is there – the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful – our vulnerabilities and the shadow side of our strengths. Here’s the good news. Jesus has been this way before. Jesus walks with us. We have each other. Sometimes the angels who minister to us as we struggle with Satan and wild beasts are the people sitting near us this morning. Amen.