A Self Affirming Lent

Posted: March 20, 2016 in Sermons Year C - Advent 2015 to 2016

Lent 1C, 14.2.2016 Luke 4:1-13

 

Oh to wonder at the gift of life, my life, our life with the earth, the shared body of our existence. And that which reminds us of our humanity. This could be the very reason for Lent. Today is the first Sunday in Lent when traditionally we reflect on the wilderness experience of the one we call Jesus of Nazareth. When we think about it this story of Jesus’ testing ordeal in the desert, has been significant in recent human history. It could be said to be legendary. From the call to suffer isolation and deprivation as a form of penance and sacrifice to the call to take time out to reflect, this story has influenced the human psyche for many years.

However, scholars – at least the ones who interest me -claim this story comes from one of the early traditions of the Jesus movement, which the storytellers, including Luke, adopts. Note it is one of the early traditions all be it the one we have inherited and secondly it is not an eyewitness, historical account. This might actually enhance it because we all know what fickle eye witness accounts might encourage.

Traditionally, though, in very recent times Lent has been the season of abstinence or self-denial. A time of doing without. A time of fasting. Note the personalization, the focus on one’s behaviour. Is this all it is?

Well, it is the way of celebrating Lent according to much of our broad church tradition. And it appears to have been a strong motivation over the centuries. But its just possible that the focus has shifted. Is Lent only about sackcloth and ashes, fasting and giving up or is it something more? Is it a more holistic season for rekindling our faith, a doing with rather than a doing without? Is it a time of self-discovery and self-affirmation, as well as a time to claim our connectedness with the whole of the cosmos, rather than a time of self-doubt, self-denial and self-abasement?

You might about now be saying yes but isn’t that a bit too introspective? Isn’t there a danger of seeing one-self as the centre of all things? Aren’t we selfish enough? And the answer is of course, yes, there is always the danger that we get caught up in the me, me, me syndrome, but only if we enter this examination of our lives understanding that we are social beings that we need each other, and in fact as much neuroscience suggests we are mirrors of each other, mimics of each other and our identities as individuals is that which others bestow on us. A lent season with a focus on one-self is an honest, humble and challenging one. It is a journey in the wilderness which is outside the norm, and more challenging than the present.

Rex Hunt tells a story that I found helpful in seeing the nature of a lent based on self-examination rather than the popular sacrificial, sackcloth and ashes self-denial sort of lent. Rex invites us to go walking with a birdwatcher. A good birdwatcher is someone whose sharpness of sight and sense of hearing is amazingly acute. And the remarkable thing is that their acute sight and hearing is set among the very ordinary. We share the same bush, sticks, shrubs, grass and trees and yet it is there that they see the subtle colour change and they hear the particular call of the bird, and in hearing it they almost pluck it out of all the other noises around as if it was the only one. What appears in common is then named, identified. The jumble of sticks and leaves and the flashes of colour become the fantail, the Sparrow or the yellow eye. The trained birdwatcher creates the awareness amongst the ordinary everyday. Maybe the Lent season is a call for us to enter the wilderness of not knowing, of potential, of the possible and be creators of beauty, peace and justice.

Entering the wilderness, like walking with a bird watcher we discover how much there is to be noticed. And our walks in the park or paddock become so much richer. The ordinary is seen differently and what was there all along, is noticed. Another thing about this time is the challenge to see that just because something is there doesn’t mean we automatically see it and understand it. Sometimes perception takes practice. Like the birdwatcher we have to train our eyes and ears.

So maybe Lent is a time when we could devote ‘forty days’ to the task of training ourselves to become aware, to uncover and/or discover once again our own self-worth, not as an isolated self but a self that is vital for the species, the world and the community. That we might explore our own potential, again not as an exercise of selfish success but rather as the tremendous complex and valuable contribution we can make to our world. And that we might become more sensitive to our interdependence, our connectedness to the earth and the universe, again not as an attempt to have dominion over and exploit for one’s own purpose but rather as an honest humble and compassionate engagement with the ideas of expanding cosmos, exploding wonder and an intimacy of being human in the image of God.

Lent can be about self-discovery and connectedness rather than self-denial and isolation. It can be seen as a life affirming discovery rather than life denying. It can be a lent that says we are not judged by our past, but rather but by the way in which we relate to it. And this raises another aspect of this challenge to see lent differently.

We know that entering the wilderness, will uncover moments when we have been faced with decision making that has shown our neglect of an inner life. We have all made decisions which have required us to put aside, throw away or avoid decisions about our own spiritual wellbeing. Sometimes these decisions can be called a ‘crisis’. Other times the word used might be ‘testing’. But all of them are about how we respond, or about our ‘being’ in the world rather than our doing. This I think is the difference between seeking to grasp one’s self-worth and one’s self esteem. One’s self-worth is about who one is in the global picture and self-esteem is how one acts, or what one does in a more localized expression of that picture. Perhaps the old idea of self-denial keeps us in a world of self-esteem rather than invites us to see the goal of self- acceptance as a product of self-worth.

The greatest challenge to the old self-denial Lent is the accepting of ourselves unconditionally (despite our deficiencies).To live with the positive message is a supportive environment and sadly it is not the way of the world. Lent can be the opportunity to “certify” ourselves, as ok, and to validate our essential ok-ness. A time to get over our habit of constantly judging ourselves. If deep within us we’re ever to experience, as our normal state of being, personal fulfillment and peace of mind, we must first rise to the challenge of complete, unqualified self-acceptance.

I want to tell you another story that I think is about a journey of self-discovery and that it is done in the everyday and finally that right through it I think is the product of a worthwhile lenten time.

A blogger, Debie Thomas writes of the recent death of her grandmother noting that ‘the ground hasn’t behaved itself for me. It sways under my feet. It trembles, lurches, bucks. It gives way. As a friend said to me recently, it’s the nature of ballast to be invisible; we can’t know what steadies us until it’s taken away.

Debie noted that she had grown up practicing a conservative, fundamentalist version of Christianity — the version her grandmother observed and cherished all her life. She also noted that in recent years, she, Debie had moved away from that version, into a liturgical and more progressive expression of faith. She also noted that that description might be deceptive. It made the journey sound straightforward, as if her spiritual GPS had offered unambiguous guidance. Head north. Turn left. Continue straight. In two miles, take exit 32B, on the right. You have arrived at your destination. The reality says Debie is devastatingly something else. She writes………..

My grandmother’s death this winter comes hard on the heels of another long grief. My daughter, now sixteen years old, is sick, with a constellation of illnesses that seem, at the time of this writing, intractable. My husband and I continue to seek out every kind of treatment we can. We cry. We plead. We hope. But we also live in shadow, knowing that our daughter might die. Each moment is hard. Each moment is a battle against despair.

I’ve avoided writing about this crisis, in part to protect our family’s privacy, but in part to protect a lie — the lie that I can keep my faith intact despite my daughter’s illness. I can’t. Whatever happens now between God and me, it will happen — it could only ever happen — in this shadowland.

The morning after my grandmother died, I stayed outside the house and kept my eyes on the sky. It was a grey day, cloudy and dismal, but I didn’t care; I was busily imagining sunshine. Also angels in gleaming robes. Also a wide, blue river — the River Jordan, to be precise. I was wondering, quite literally, this: Has it happened yet? Did it happen instantaneously? Is it happening now? When will it happen?

“It” being my grandmother entering heaven. “It” being the sweet reunion of a widow with her long-departed husband. “It” being a mended hip, an end to arthritis, a fabulously restored memory. “It” being my grandmother meeting — at last, at last — the God she loved and worshipped so faithfully for a hundred years. The ground shook as I wondered these things. My fear is what made the ground shake.

The thing is, my grandmother believed in a literal heaven “up there,” a real and beautiful place where Christians go immediately upon death. She believed in the Bible as God’s inerrant Word, a holy book of promises written expressly for us. She believed in Jesus’s substitutionary death and bodily resurrection as the only cornerstones of salvation. She believed in specific and miraculous answers to prayer, divine healing, ecstatic spiritual experience, and the gift of tongues. She believed in the absolute and inviolable will of an all-powerful and all-benevolent God, governing every particular of our lives. She didn’t just believe in these things. She inhabited them. They were the walls, windows, ceilings, and doors of her life.

Here’s what my lurching ground feels like: I used to believe every single thing my grandmother believed about God, Christianity, and the spiritual life. I used to have a religious home as solid and certain as hers. To say that I have left that home is true. To say I had no choice — honesty compelled me — is truer. But the truest thing is this: I long to go home. I long to know where home is.

For the past few years, I’ve told myself that my grandmother’s version of faith is no longer available to me, and that I’m okay with that. Because it’s true. In theory, I’m perfectly okay with metaphor and mystery. In theory, I’ve moved past an anxious need for dogma, for certainty, for bedrock absolutes. In theory, I can hold my faith at a clinical distance from the messy particulars of my life. But then the earth buckles, and I understand. Death is not theory, and neither is a sick child. Nothing is okay when I stare at the clouds, looking for my dead grandmother, and no longer know what to hope for. Will I see her again? Is she up there? What does eternity mean now?

Nothing is okay when I hold my daughter up to God night after anguished night, and find no comfort in mystery. Nuance aside, I want answers. Clear bottom lines. Are the New Testament healings real or not? Are the promises of Scripture meant for us or not? Is God all-powerful, all-good, and all-knowing, or not? Will you heal my baby? Or not?

It’s impolite to pose the questions so baldly. When I asked a priest I respect very much if he believes in a literal afterlife, he hemmed. He knew I was asking about my daughter, and his sorrow was etched into every line of his face. “I believe in Love,” he said cautiously. “I believe in God’s deep, deep Love, which is stronger than evil, sickness, or death.” “That’s nice,” I snapped, fighting back tears. “But what does it mean? And why on earth is it enough?”

We don’t know what gives us ballast until it’s gone. We don’t see what we’re made of until we’re unmade. We think we’re okay, we think we’re strong — and then the ground begins to shake. The earth heaves, our feet slip, and we grab wildly in all directions at once: backwards, forwards, sideways, down. Where is safety? Whom do I belong to? What is real? Where can I go? I didn’t know my grandmother was a placeholder. Keeping a thousand fears at bay with a faith I still admire, but can’t sustain.

Debies grandmother died in a village in South India, and Debie was unable to return for her funeral. She continues………… So a week after my grandmother’s death, in the middle of the night here in California, I found myself curled up tight on my bed, my laptop propped beside me, watching a livestream of her funeral. It was an experience unlike any I’ve had before — disorienting, piercing, raw. I was, at once, there and not there. Connected and disconnected. In community, but alone.

Debie was grateful for the technology that made it possible for her to witness the funeral but it also reminded her of just how much she had lost. She continues……..

I miss her in the flesh. I miss her long fingers on my face. Her sweet smile. The way she smelled of coconut oil, lotion, and spices. But I also miss the comfort of Presence. Of welcome. Of return. The assurance that no matter where I go, or how far I wander, I can always make a journey home.

The same friend who spoke so wisely of ballast sent me a gift last year. It’s a cartoon, in black and white, of a funny-looking man fending off a little girl. The man has his arm extended, his long fingers pressed against the forehead of the child. There’s a look of supreme — acceptance? patience? amusement? — on his face. But the girl is fury personified. Pigtails flying, fists and teeth clenched, feet moving so fast they never even touch the ground. She’s headed for the man with all the spitfire ferocity of a bull aimed at a red cape, and though her arms are far too short to reach him, it’s clear she’s determined to knock him to the ground.

“It’s you,” my friend explained when she sent the gift. “It’s you, fighting God.” She’s right; it’s what I do. I fight with God. Like Jacob in the pre-dawn darkness, wrestling the angel for a blessing, I ram my whole conflicted self into my Maker. I throw myself against his maybe-patient, maybe-amused self over and over again, until war is all I know. I do this in my writing, in my thoughts, and through my prayers. Every step of my faith journey has been combative. A pitched and desperate battle.

It’s not a bad thing. After all, to fight is to engage, to keep my arms wrapped tight around my opponent. Fighting means I haven’t walked away. Fighting means I still have skin in the game.

Debie writes that she keeps her friend’s cartoon on her desk and looks at it every day. Most of the time, it makes her laugh. But sometimes, she gazes at that furious little girl, so determined, so mad, and she wishes she’d allow herself a breather. She wishes the girl would drop her fists, unclench her teeth, and touch the ground. She wishes the man, instead of fending the girl off, would take her hands in his and say, “Good, but that’s enough for now. Let’s go get ice cream.”

Debie continues saying…… What my grandmother knew — and I still don’t — is how to make God my home. How to sit in his Presence gently. Quietly. Without a fight. Though there was nothing easy about my grandmother’s life — she suffered poverty, illness, even the death of a child — she found a way to inhabit a consoling faith. She was certain of her God.

Like many of us progressives Debie was not yet certain of her God, but she does not want to return to her grandmothers God, she does not want to accept an interventionist God but she acknowledges that she would like to be certain. Even when sure that whatever religious tradition or expression one follows it is only ever a container, a vessel for the holy yet she would still like to find God as refuge, solace and safe place. She senses that for her, God is still too much an opponent, a stranger she grabs in the night and seems locked in tiresome combat with. Her posture towards God is still the greedy child’s. “Bless me!” Answer me. Fix me. Give me. I won’t relax until you do.

As Luke’s Jesus of Nazareth gained an important piece of self-knowledge, we too can face the wilderness experiences of life, and in the process, discover the closeness, the intimacy, the presence of God, our hope is that the God we discover is the evolutionary impulse becoming, that we can understand the path we walk as an evolutionary impulse to ‘become’ and that we can celebrate the discovery of the fellowship of the initiating consciousness. Amen.

Notes:

Alsford, M. 2006.  Heroes and Villains. London: Darton, Longman & Todd.

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