Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Devil in Our Desert

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days He was tempted by the devil. (Luke 4.1-2)

No Arguments, No Equivocation

I’d always been “the skinny kid” until middle age kicked me in the gut. And it was some kick. The men on both sides of my family bear their excess weight around the middle. So that’s where mine collected. Gradually, my 30-inch waist rounded up to 36. A six-inch expansion over two decades may not seem like much to a lot of folks. But it was shameful to me, as it signified lack of discipline. I wasn’t fighting temptation’s power over me. Worse yet, when I considered the only alternative—diet and exercise—I consciously surrendered to temptation. Even though I knew my behavior wasn’t healthy, I had all kinds of rationale for attitudes and behaviors that masked unwillingness to resist temptation as defiance.

First, there was the notion that monitoring my diet and working out wasn’t “me.” I’d never had to do either one. How dare changes in body chemistry force me to change! Second, I abhorred the gay stereotype of the calorie-counting gym rat. I’ve always viewed that as an indicator of vanity in some, insecurity in others. Yet it grew increasingly obvious that “defiance” of the aging process and cultural stereotypes was harming me. My corkscrew logic didn’t work. I knew that. And I had to stop pretending I didn’t.

In January, Walt announced, “We’re getting you back in shape.” Because I know he loves me—will always love me—regardless of my physique, I knew his motives were pure. What’s more, he sealed the deal by saying, “We’re going to do this together.” Now Walt has never battled his weight. So volunteering to take this journey with me moved me to act. He threw out all the junk food and assumed the onerous task of ensuring we get to the gym every day. Then we had a long talk about my behavior when he’s not around—when I’m traveling, for instance, and he’s not there to monitor what I do. “You have to commit to making right choices on your own,” he said. “When that little voice tells you it’s okay because I’m not there, you have to shut it down. No arguments. No equivocation. Just, ‘No!’” So far, things are going well. It’s not always easy or pleasant. But now that I’ve fixed my attitude, I’ve discovered overcoming temptation is its own act of defiance—the kind of defiance that chooses health over harm, strength of mind over weakness of body. If all goes well, in a few months’ time, I should be back to my old self again. Except for one big difference: getting the “real me” back will require the “current me” to change. That’s what I’m learning with each new day.

Right Choices
When we open Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 4.1-13) to read of Jesus’s wilderness temptation, we take stock of what’s actually happening. He’s just left the Jordan, where God has audibly claimed Him as God’s chosen Son. He’s never been more sure of Who He is. The stories of His miraculous conception and birth, His adolescent curiosity about godly things—all of it suddenly makes sense. And when the Spirit steers Him into the desert, He brings more than certainty of Self with Him. Based on His future encounters with the Pharisees, we know Jesus is deeply suspicious of religious stereotypes. Before He begins His ministry, He will need to reconcile the singularity of His calling with the context of His culture. It is essential that He present the “real” Jesus to the world, rather than merely defy the appearance and trappings of religious norms.

Jesus knows that God loves Him without measure. He knows God will stay with Him during this struggle. (If He doubts any of this, why go into the desert at all?) Yet, as the story advances, it’s obvious that Jesus is led into the wilderness to test His ability to make the right choices on His own. In the temptations put before Him one hears the tempter say, “You’re out here by Yourself. No one need ever know You’ve had a few momentary lapses. Why put Yourself through this?” The devil is very crafty in designing specific challenges for Jesus—three in all, each targeting a potential weakness: confidence of Self that suggests He can eat anything He pleases; the promise of commanding worldly respect by defying stereotype; and the opportunity to prove His faith in God by forcing God to rescue Him. The nature of these temptations may not reflect those we normally face. But they’re transparent in their attempts to destroy Jesus. He sees through the scam. He knows what’s promised can never be delivered. Once the devil is convinced Jesus’s faith is secure, he leaves—although Luke ends story on an ominous note, saying the struggle will resume at a more “opportune time.”

Our Responsibility

What does this story say about our lives, the tests we undergo, and the Lenten journey we undertake? First, there will be times when the Spirit leads into wildernesses where we’re tempted, intentionally to teach us the importance of making right choices. God goes with us, but leaves the decisions solely to us. Simply knowing we’re God’s beloved children doesn’t exempt us from tests. And when we’re tested, we’re wise not to dismiss it lightly. Because we’ve been immune to temptation’s harms in the past doesn’t guarantee immunity. Because we’ve never had problems with certain attitudes and behaviors doesn’t mean they will never be problematic. And we must be very conscious that we’re every bit as vulnerable as anyone else to vanities and insecurities we want to defy. We have to make right choices. It doesn’t matter who is or isn’t watching. Every decision carries real consequences that can reshape us into people we were never meant to be.

The devil in our desert knows us all too well. It knows the games we play to justify unhealthy thoughts and actions. It knows that God’s protection stops short of preventing us from harming ourselves. That’s our responsibility. Yet while decisions we make are ours alone, we are not alone. We combat the diabolical voice that says, “It’s okay—nobody’s looking,” with our Maker’s voice. Not only during Lent, but always, we hear God say, “Let’s get you into shape.” When we’re tested, we follow Jesus’s example. No arguments. No equivocation. Just, ‘No!’” Too often yielding to temptation masks itself as a better choice than doing the hard of work of self-denial and spiritual exercise. But in the end, it’s a lousy decision and we eventually discover that getting back to the “real us” will require the “current us” to change. We choose health over harm, strength of mind over weakness of body. It’s a lesson we learn and relearn with each new day.

The devil in our desert knows us all too well and targets our potential weaknesses. What we do in response to temptation is a choice we must make on our own.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Resonance and Power

He must increase, but I must decrease. (John 3.30)

Our pastor opened her Ash Wednesday reflection this year with the story of a priest who asked his congregation, “What’s the difference between a stick in the mud and a flute?” After they pondered the riddle for a moment, he told them. “A stick in the mud is full of itself. But a flute has been emptied out to make music.” The metaphor was obvious. Lent is the time when we consciously empty ourselves out so that God’s Spirit can blow through us and transform our lives into song. Yet it occurred to me that I knew very little about how a flute works. So I looked it up and learned something very interesting.

The flute’s hollowed-out chamber is called a “resonator.” As air travels through the passageway, it’s directed across a series of holes that causes the air inside it to vibrate. The player changes the pitch by blocking the holes to alter the resonator's length and its corresponding frequency. This is why piccolos—basically, half-sized flutes—emit higher, somewhat shriller tones, while longer flutes have a lower, mellower register. So it turns out the keys have little to do with the depth and volume of a flute’s melody. It's not about what comes out of the flute, but what happens inside it. The more room a flute provides for its player’s breath, the more power it possesses and the more resonant its music becomes.

Of course, we know sticks in the mud make no music. Being full of themselves, they have no resonance. Worse still, they’re already dead and don’t know it. They’ve fallen from the tree that gave them life. They stand, not in their own strength, but in the muck and mire collected around them. If they make any sound at all, it’s the crack of being snapped in two to or the crackle of being tossed onto a fire.

Some time after he baptizes Jesus, John the Baptist’s disciples inform him that Jesus has started baptizing people on His own. He’s having great success, which alarms the Baptist’s followers. But John immediately discerns the situation. To challenge Jesus would indicate he’s full of himself. He will become useless to Jesus—a stick in the mud who’s lost touch with God’s purpose. “He must increase,” John says. “But I must decrease.” John empties himself out so the resonance of the Gospel can flow through him.

The less of us—our will, pride, and self—there is, the more melodious our lives become. In this season of emptying out, we examine ourselves thoroughly, searching for blockages that impede the flow of God’s Spirit in our lives. We get out of our own way to allow God to have God’s way. The less of us there is, the more resonant and powerful our music will be.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Pieces of Us

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. (Psalm 51.10)

With a free afternoon on our hands, Walt and I recently took a guided tour of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing. We turned into one of the galleries and the docent pointed to a pile of colorfully wrapped candies spilling out of a corner. She told us the work, by conceptual artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957-96), was called Portrait of Ross. We had no idea what to make of the sculpture until we heard the story behind it.

Ross was Gonzalez-Torres’ life partner. In peak health, he weighed 167 pounds, the same weight of the sculpture when it’s in peak condition. With just this much information, the docent asked us to call out qualities that the artwork conveyed. “Sweet-natured. Colorful. Sparkly. Inviting,” we said. Then she went on with the story. After Ross was afflicted with AIDS, his body grew depleted, as the virus took more and more of him away. The docent invited us to take “pieces of Ross” with us, as a loving testament to his life. Someone asked what happens to the sculpture over time. Does it gradually fade into the corner until the last piece is gone? “Oh no,” she answered. “This isn’t about Ross’s death. It’s a portrait of Gonzalez-Torres’ love for him. We continually restore the candy to its original weight so everyone who visits the museum can draw from Ross’s joyful spirit. It’s a remarkably hopeful work.”

We moved on to other works. But my mind couldn’t release itself from Portrait of Ross. I kept wondering, “If it were a portrait of me, what would it be made of?” I trust there would be a lot candy, a lot of sparkle, a lot of color. But visitors would also need to be told I’m not all sweetness and light. There are hard rocks buried in my pile, along with shards of glass, dead seeds, some needles, and more than a few brightly wrapped bits that carry a tart aftertaste. If my sculpture were to portray any hope at all, it would be that my Maker would sift out the unsavory pieces and substitute them with more delectable morsels—that with each replenishing, the increased portrayal of God’s love would result in more of me becoming a thing worth reaching for.

Lent is our sifting time. In partnership with God, we rummage through our lives and discard pieces of us that don’t reflect the love of our Maker. And as we go through this process, we will feel depleted. But we will not be sifted away. How God sees us is far different than we see ourselves. God sees us as God wants us to be: sweet-natured, colorful, sparkly, inviting. With each sifting, what is taken away is substituted with more delectable morsels. With each replenishing, more of us becomes worth reaching for. Lent’s depletion isn’t about death. It’s a portrait of God’s love for us. It’s remarkably hopeful work.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

On High Alert

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? (Isaiah 58.6)

It’s Ash Wednesday. Once more we find our way to an altar, where we bow in humility and rise from our knees bearing a visible sign of repentance. As always, there will be a lot of thought and conversation today about what we’re “giving up” for Lent. We will leave the Ash Wednesday rite with the best of intentions and spend the next few weeks struggling to honor them.

To be sure, there is merit in self-denial. It teaches us discipline and retrains us so that we can master unhealthy reflexes and habits. Yet what’s supposed to come out of fasting? In Isaiah, we discover that it’s less about what we elect not to do, and more about relearning what we must do. In Isaiah 58, God says our piety and ritual—our subscription to religious obligation—mean nothing if they don't alert us to sacred obligations to those around us.

Sacrificing meat or candy bars or TV is, at best, a start. We do these things to keep us mindful that fasting is, above all, an act of faithfulness to a God Who desires meaningful change in our attitudes and behaviors. Yet if Lent starts and stops with what we’re “giving up,” we’ve not gone far enough. “Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high,” God warns. “Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?” (v4-5)

There’s a break in the text, making room for us ask, “If there’s more to this fasting thing than getting off our high horses and wallowing in our guilt, what can it be?” The answer is remarkably simple and direct: God expects our fast to focus on doing better in the here and now—not feeling sorry that we haven’t done so in the past or pledging improvement in the future. Listen very closely to God’s definition of an acceptable fast (quoted at length, because its emphasis cannot be overstated):

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindication shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and God will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

If we enter Lent’s desert intent only on adopting an ascetic mindset—grappling with self-denial and its attendant temptations, distancing ourselves from others to relish the benefits of solitude—we fall short of God’s demands. The Hebrew word for “fast” literally means, “to cover one’s mouth.” Thus, it stands to reason if we refuse to placate our hungers, we have more to give. What are we to do with our excess—this food we don’t eat, this extra time we have on our hands, these comforts we sacrifice? God tells us: we surrender them to others in need.

We enter Lent on high alert, extremely conscious that our wilderness adventure will open opportunities to share. Indeed, if we’re doing the real work of fasting, we seek out the less fortunate, the hungry, the afflicted, and the oppressed. We create the means of practicing Lent’s discipline. We look for distressed families we can feed. We extend ourselves to overworked parents and provide them respite by offering to sit with their children while they recharge their batteries. We seek out solitary coworkers or churchgoers and sit beside them. We find the senior who needs help cleaning up the house or running errands. We make time for the sick and grieving among us, assuring them they’re not alone. We embrace the ridiculed and misunderstood. We speak kindly to ears bruised by insults and cruelty. We touch the untouchable and love the unlovable.

We are surrounded by fasting opportunities.

We leave our comfort zones, because fasting should make us uncomfortable. It thrusts us into a desert of strangeness and uncertainty. It tests our wills and purifies our motives, leading us beyond the desire to be holy so that we become holy. Fasting has very little to do with what or how much we “give up.” It’s all about what or how much we give. And if we center our Lenten experience intent on caring for others, our wilderness will explode with new and abundant life.

Your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. (Isaiah 58.10-11)