Sunday, February 22, 2015

Overcoming temptation

On Friday night, my daughter went to a sleep-over birthday party at a friend’s house, and so my wife and I went out for dinner and a movie.  In the car on the way downtown the subject of possibly enjoying some ice cream later came up, but we decided against it, after a brief discussion, in which the observance of Lent was a deciding factor.  We got to the cinema, purchased our tickets, and, as we were going in we saw, by where the ticket taker stood, a little placard advertising a particularly delicious brand of locally-made ice cream on sale at the concession stand.  And Meg turned to me and said, “Temptation is everywhere.”
Temptation is everywhere.  That’s also the thesis of the prayer that began the scripture readings in this morning’s service, the Collect of the Day: “Come quickly to help us,” we prayed, “who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save.” 
Now it’s hard to see how that prayer applies to the kind of temptation we met at the cinema.  Unless we have some kind of life-threatening disease, seeing a sign for ice cream, is not that big a deal.  It might cause our self-control to waver for a moment if we’ve sworn off sugar for Lent.  But it’s hardly a situation that calls for God to intervene in might.  Is our salvation really at stake in choices like this?  Isn’t the worst that could happen that we’d have to admit our willpower is not what we’d like it to be?  We’d take a little hit to our pride, but that might even be a good thing.  Pride, after all, is our greatest source of temptation.
I don’t mean pride like “Gay Pride” or “Black Pride,” an antidote to a long history of suffocating under a blanket of shame.  I’m not talking about a healthy sense of self-esteem.  Pride, in the classic terminology of Christian moral thought is actually the opposite of that—it’s a kind of inflated sense of oneself that masks a crippling insecurity.  Out of fear of what we truly are, pride hoards the God-given energy of love.  It turns it backward toward a false image of the person we like to think we are.   Cut off from the ever-circulating flow, love grows cold.  Afraid to break and take new shape pride hardens the personality into a rigid form.  The virtues we admire most in ourselves become distorted counterfeits of the original gifts.  And the places where we are most open to healing connection, our weaknesses, are where we build the strongest defenses against knowing the truth of ourselves, of others and of God.
Whether or not we eat ice cream during Lent doesn’t really make a whole lot of difference to God, or to us, one way or the other.  But the Christian tradition understands that all our temptations taken together, small and large, yours and mine, are the multifarious devices of a single great tempter.  And the purpose of this enemy is to flatter, distract, entice, bewitch, seduce, threaten, madden, frighten, and cajole us—whatever it takes—into denying who we really are as children of God.  And how we respond to this assault over time, through our thoughts and actions, does make a difference.  Because these temptations really do have the power to destroy us, in the sense of turning us away from the very source of our lives, and their true purpose.  They can lead us away from the path of life that really is life, to a place of desolation, where we are helpless in the face of the stark and inexorable power of death.
The Bible considers the temptation to pride a serious danger, not only to us as individuals, but also to societies.  We moderns like to tout the amazing advances of technological and industrial civilization, whose medical science has prolonged our life-expectancies well beyond the traditional three score years and ten.  We point with pride to the cornucopia of goods and services, pleasures and therapies, entertainments and comforts, that are available to us as never before.  We can enjoy ripe summer fruits airlifted from Argentina in the dead of winter.  We can watch live TV in the back seat of the car on a device the size of a checkbook. 
It scarcely troubles our self-satisfaction that the system that provides us with these delights still fails to meet even the most basic needs of the great mass of the world’s poor.   We take what we have and seek to have more, as ours by right of superiority—the blessings of our ingenuity, industry, and thrift.  The desperation of the shantytowns and migrant camps of the poor is a sad commentary on them, but has nothing to do with us.    
But the poor know something that is still mostly hidden from the fortunate few—that the consumer society, whose production of endless novelty and momentary gratification seems to us so innocent, convenient, and fun, is destroying the earth.  As this truth impresses itself upon us more and more, casting a strange and somber light on all our harmless little temptations; it pulls back the veil on the pride of the human race. 
We call ourselves homo sapiens, the undisputed masters of the species of the earth, entitled to take what we want without regard for the “lower forms of life.”  And yet we are at precisely that moment in history when we are waking from our dream of domination, to see that our own survival and flourishing is inseparable from that of the larger earth community.  We are indeed a unique and extraordinary species, which can be a temptation to despoil, or a sacred trust of wise and loving care.
The late Thomas Berry, the thinker who achieved the deepest integration to date of the scientific story of earth evolution with the Gospel, described the urgent task of this moment as the “reinvention of the human at the level of the species.”  And this reinvention is the work of Jesus Christ.  He is the human person who masters the tempter through perfect obedience and loving acceptance of his rightful place in the order of things.  Jesus is not caught in between a death-trap world of temptations and a heaven he can aspire to but cannot reach.   In his story Satan is no one to fear, and temptation loses its menacing power.  The Gospel reveals that it is no more than the necessary process of purification, the tempering of character and will that prepares the human heart for the high calling of God.  
We are accustomed to thinking of temptation from within a dismal view of human nature.  The belief that we are basically rotten, that the image of God in us is lost, gives us a very modest notion of what overcoming temptation can achieve.  By the grace of God, one might manage, through great effort, not to be so terribly bad after all.  But at his Baptism Jesus discovers something else entirely.  “You are my Son, the beloved,” says the voice from heaven, “with you I am well-pleased.”  And the Holy Spirit comes upon him, and gives him a mission.  It sends him to Galilee and beyond, in truth and power, bearing the good news of God’s favor and love towards us all.  But first the Spirit takes him out to meet the tempter, to perfect his patience and humility.  There, in the place of hunger and thirst, of fear, and loneliness, Jesus finds paradise.  He accepts the fellowship of the wild beasts, and his dependence on the ministrations of heaven.   And so he restores the peace of the original human nature, before we succumbed to the tempter who played upon our pride.  
This is the work of Jesus Christ, and it continues when his forty days in the desert are done.  It is the way he follows all the way to Jerusalem, where he deals the tempter a mortal wound in his death and resurrection.  It is the same way we, who are baptized into that victory, are now privileged to follow.  In Christ we have the hope of being like Noah and his family, of one day emerging from the waters of the flood, of standing again on the ground, in the company of all God’s creatures.  In Christ we can imagine a day when we no longer war against each other or against the the earth, but have mastered ourselves and accepted our rightful place upon it, as witnesses and guardians of God’s covenant with all life.   

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Mastering fear

“The fear of the Lord,” says today’s Psalm, “is the beginning of wisdom.”  But some of us might disagree.  Sure, wisdom might have something to do with God.  Seeking God, perhaps, or loving God, or knowing God—these we might accept as starting points for wisdom.  But fear?  We like to think that God is loving and good, compassionate and generous and forgiving, and indeed the Psalm describes a God like that.  So what is there to fear? 
It’s a good question, and I think that to find the answer we have to look at what “wisdom” is.  Because wisdom, if it really is wisdom, is not abstract or theoretical.  It is always applied.  Wisdom teaches us how to live, how to find our way through the real world, with skill, equanimity, and grace.  But if we’re going to be honest I think we have to admit that we find the real world to be a fearful place.  We might reject the notion that God is someone to fear, but that doesn’t mean we are not afraid. 
The truth is we live in a world haunted by fear.  News about the economy, just to take one example, is full of fearful language.  Wall Street has “jitters,” we read, or the Federal Reserve seeks to “calm investors’ fears.”  Sometimes it even has to intervene to stave off a full-blown “panic.”  On a more personal level, my wife is fond of reminiscing about her childhood and how she and the neighborhood kids would play together outside, in and out of each others’ houses, and up and down and around the block until they were all called home to dinner.  But in our neighborhood today, though we know there are children because we catch fleeting glimpses of them from time to time, they are not out playing in the street.   And if they were, we wouldn’t let our daughter join them, at least not without adult supervision.  “Times have changed,” we say, but what exactly it is that has changed is hard to put your finger on, except that we are more afraid than our parents were.
We are afraid of things that we do not understand and cannot control, but that gives them power over us.  It doesn’t really matter if the Ebola virus, or Islamist extremists, or home invasion robbers pose a real threat to our lives—the fear of them is enough—enough to make us do things we wouldn’t otherwise do, or to not do what we otherwise would.  The fear is enough to curtail our freedom and destroy peace. 
It is when we consider this intersection of fear and power that I think we start to understand what the psalm is saying about wisdom.  Because the point is not that the God of Israel is a terrifying God, though he certainly can be when he means to, but that wisdom begins when we understand that in this world only God is to be feared, because only God has ultimate power.  We who do not fear God, and reject the very idea of fearing God, no longer believe in the power of God.  We might believe in a God who makes us feel better.  That is why we have such a need to for a “nice” God—but we don’t believe in a God with the power to save us from the things we most fear.

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus begins his ministry by walking into the synagogue at Capernaum on the Sabbath day with his four brand new disciples and beginning to teach.   Compared to the other gospels, Mark says very little about the content of his teaching.  He does summarize it right before today’s lesson, when he says,
“Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.””
That’s quite a message, but in the scene in the synagogue what is most important is the impact that the message has on Jesus’ audience.   They are astonished by its originality and by its power.  He speaks with authority, but it’s not the authority of being able to skillfully back up his arguments with quotations from scripture, which is what they are used to.  His teaching seems to come straight from the source of wisdom and truth.
Cynthia Bourgeault, whose book The Wisdom Jesus some folks at St. John’s are reading right now, speaks of the experience of hearing Jesus as a “recognition event.”  That is, his teaching isn’t about some religious beliefs or moral principles that exist “out there,” where you can hold them at arm’s length and turn them this way and that and decide what you think of them.  But it impacts people “in here,” in their own spiritual center, which stirs and comes alive, as if responding to a mother tongue once known but long-forgotten.  It is an experience of hearing the truth about oneself and about God, and recognizing what has always been known in the heart.
But the Gospel tells us there was one man in the synagogue that day whose spiritual center was not his own.  And while the others are moved by Jesus’ preaching, the spirit that has taken possession of this man recognizes Jesus’ person.  It sees who he really is.  It understands that his authority is not just a function of rhetorical genius or brilliance of insight, but of the identity and purpose given to him by God.  Jesus is on a mission, and his teaching is only one aspect of it; a mission to manifest the Kingdom of God, not only as a nice idea, but with power.  That kingdom is not going to come without a fight, and immediately, right from the start, the real enemies of God come out to do battle. 
I think it helps to understand what is at stake in this conflict if we consider why the Gospel refers to this antagonistic spirit as “unclean.”  In the Bible “clean” and “unclean,” are very important ideas, that do not mean what we might suppose.  They are not categories that pertain to hygiene, or to morality, but to religious worship.  They have to do with the way the ancient Hebrews perceived the world, and structured society, and lived their lives, so as to preserve the central place in all of it for God. 
And when they said that something was unclean it was not because they believed that it was hated by God, or outside of God.   God created everything that is, and pronounced that it is good.  But there are in our world objects and experiences that carry with them an intrinsic fascination and danger, things like blood, like the sleep and the death of the body, things like sex and childbirth. 
To the ancient Hebrew way of thinking, these things were unclean, not because they are “dirty” in some puritanical sense, but because they are powerful.  Someone or something that has been in contact with them needs to be made clean, to be purified by a religious act, to bring the numinous power of that contact back into its proper relationship with other things.  It needs to be realigned with the ordered world created by with God. 
And this was true not only of natural phenomena, and material things, but also of the spiritual world.  The Jews of Jesus’ time had a vivid sense of a world full of spirits, of unseen intelligences.  But some of these spirits refused their ordered place among the creatures of God.  Instead of worshiping before the heavenly throne, they preyed on human beings.  They fed on our fear, on our fascination with idols, with divination, sorcery, and human sacrifice, all our efforts to bend divine power to our control.  They sought to rival the angels, as if their power to dominate, to inflict insanity and sickness, to take possession of a person’s soul, were on a par with God’s power to heal, to bless, to give and preserve life.
Some people might say that modern materialistic science has made these ideas obsolete and irrelevant.  But what is at stake in Jesus’ conflict with the unclean spirit is not whether or not we believe in demons.  What is at stake is whether we believe there is anything more powerful than God.  Or let me put it a different way—of what in the world are you most afraid?  To what in the world do you turn to master the things that you fear?  How we answer those questions shows us where we still need to repent, and believe in the good news of God’s Kingdom.  It shows us where we still need Jesus to come in power.  

About Me

My photo
Petaluma, California, United States
I am a priest in the Episcopal Church, and have been (among other things) an organic farmer and gardener, and a Zen monk. I have a lifelong interest in social and spiritual renewal on the basis of contemplative discipline, creative nonviolence, and ecological practice. In recent years my work has focused intensely on the responsibility of pastoral ministry in the humanistic, evangelical, and catholic branch of Christianity known as Anglicanism. I'm married with a daughter, and have three brothers and two parents.