Where is your wilderness?

Sometimes you have to move away in order to understand how much you are formed by place. Wilderness was part of my upbringing, my formation as a human being. A native Coloradan, as a kid I camped and backpacked in the Rockies. I went to college out in California. I swam in the Pacific and spent some time falling off a surfboard or two. I even climbed a bit in the desert at Joshua Tree. Then after all my years out West, I moved to Washington, DC for seminary and stayed there to serve my first church. I have to tell you these days I am grateful to live back on this side of the “gateway to the West.”

When I lived on the East Coast I travelled a fair bit, through Virginia, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, the Carolinas. There’s beautiful country out there, but I couldn’t escape the impression that people lived too close together. Out East you can scarcely find an unsettled valley. As I grew to know the East Coast, I realized I would never be totally at home. I would always feel a bit crowded.

Maybe you’re like me, and when you heard Lord Grantham on Downton Abbey say to Mary, his oldest daughter (who has just failed again to secure a marriage): “Go out to America, bring back a cowboy from the Middle-West who will shake us all up,” maybe you also thought, “I resemble that remark!” Maybe. One of the gifts we have out here, out in the West is Wilderness. We are still a little wild out here.

Today’s Gospel begins: “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness.” Notice the prepositions: “up and into.” The Spirit of God isn’t leaving Jesus “down and out,” words you might expect of someone walking away from polite society. Nope, the Spirit is leading Jesus up and in. “Into the wild” those words express reason, purpose. Sometimes you have to leave behind the busyness of life, the hurry, the crowds. Sometimes you have to go somewhere quiet. The literal translation of the word in Matthew’s Gospel is “a lonely place.”

In the wilderness that we are free from human constructions of reality. Out of the cities and societies we create and manipulate we find reality a bit more raw, untouched by human hands. I remember coming back from backpacking trips in my teens to return to the “real world,” and wondering which world was more real. We are invited out from under the fluorescent lights of the shopping mall, out to bathe in the darkness of a star-lit night.

I spent a number of summers working sleep-away camps in Colorado. One particular summer, I was assigned to the ropes course staff. Each day we were assigned a group of teenagers and sent off in the morning to the “low ropes”, a series of games and challenges designed to build the team. In the afternoon, we got to take the kids up to the high ropes, help them put on helmets and harnesses. They climbed walls, walked tightropes, and eventually leapt from a platform 60 feet in the air and almost unfailingly screamed as they sailed on a zip-line down through a mountain valley. It was a great job.

In the transition time over lunch, between the low ropes and the high ropes, we had the group sit on the pine-needle covered forest floor around a giant wooden circle. Painted on the circle were three more concentric circles. The outer ring was deep green, and it was labeled “safe zone.” The innermost ring was labeled “danger zone” and was painted bright red. Between the two, in yellowish orange, was an area we called the “challenge zone.” We explained to the teens that the hope of the whole ropes experience was to bring them into the “challenge zone.” We didn’t want you to feel like you were in danger, but we also didn’t want you to be totally comfortable. Human beings tend to grow when they are challenged. You can fall asleep when you’re safe. You freeze up when you’re petrified. You can learn about yourself when you’re nervous.

For someone living at the time of Jesus, the wilderness was a challenging place. Away from the safety and security of your tribe, in the wild you were vulnerable to robbers and predatory animals. Galilee and Judea are surrounded by desert. Water is not always easy to find. What Jesus was doing could be dangerous. But this episode is just the first of several in the Gospels where Jesus goes away by himself, to a lonely place. Jesus often heads out alone to the wilderness. Like his cousin John the Baptist out there with the locusts and wild honey, the faith of Jesus is nourished by time apart from the safety and security of his group.

Now, some of you might be wondering when I’m going to get around to talking about the devil. What I find interesting about this devil is following the names for Jesus’ adversary. An interesting progression happens in Jesus’ awareness of the character in this chapter. Matthew references the character as “The tempter” when he first appears to Jesus, famished after 40 days of fasting. After the first temptation, the name changes to “the devil,” the diabolical one. That Greek word is still a little diffuse. Where “devil” in English is more specific, diabolos in Greek can mean “adversary” less specifically. Diabolos can even mean “lawyer.” By the end of our reading Jesus yells “Away with you, Satan!” Jesus calls out Old Scratch by name. Out there in the wilderness, I wonder if it took Jesus awhile to discern with whom he is contending. But when Jesus knows the name, he can say “away with you!” When you know the name of your demons, are you able to banish them?

This episode is perplexing. Why would the Spirit of God lead Jesus out to face Satan? I know, and I bet you know dogmatic answers to that question: “It was so he could be tempted in every way as we are, yet not sin.” Congratulations, we pass catechism class. But I’m not sure passing catechism will help us follow in the way of Jesus on this one.

Jesus, just two chapters from now, tells his followers when they pray to include the line “lead us not into temptation.” Even as an adult Christian, I stumble on that line. I’ve never liked the idea that God could lead us into temptation, that we have to pray to ask God not to do so. This morning, I find myself wondering whether Jesus had this experience in mind when he gave the disciples that line of prayer. Did Jesus’ time in the desert in chapter four influence his prayer in chapter 6? Was Jesus shaken by what he saw out there in himself?

Really, as some of you know too well, we sometimes don’t choose to find ourselves in that lonely place. When we discover ourselves suddenly out there, in the desert, not of our own choosing, it is important that first we get out of danger. Make your way out of danger, but then step two is important as well. Learn from the discomfort. We often rush that second step.

I’m a novice when it comes to contemplative prayer. The particular way of praying I’ve been practicing for a few years now is called “Centering Prayer.” It’s a form of Christian meditation where you attempt to totally quiet your thoughts.The Buddhists have a wonderful way to describe the human mind as it approaches contemplation. Often when we sit for quiet, we find ourselves running through our shopping lists or picking at an old grievance with a sibling or co-worker. Our mind jumps from topic to topic. The Buddhists call this Monkey-mind. Our thoughts jump from branch to branch like a silly simian. Centering prayer teaches you to gently let go of the thoughts, to return to the quiet.

Once I was caught a bit off kilter in Centering Prayer when I was able to sit for several minutes with remarkably few thoughts. I didn’t even congratulate myself for my lack of thought, which I often do. This time I was just quiet. Then I teared up. I just started crying. I didn’t know why then, I’m still not totally sure what the tears were about.

Thomas Keating, the principle teacher of Centering Prayer, often tells folks not to be surprised if they are suddenly overcome by emotion. Many of us keep ourselves so busy that we don’t fully experience the moment. We don’t allow ourselves to fully feel the feelings of stress, loss, and general frustration in our day to day life. When we face a particular trauma, we often rush through, busily moving to the other side of the experience. Keating says he’s sometimes found it helpful to have a grief counselor at Centering Prayer retreats, because when someone is able to find that contemplative silence, old traumas can resurface.

“Lead us not into temptation” makes some sense from this perspective. What loving leader wouldn’t want to spare his or her followers the pain, if they could. But Jesus knew himself well enough to know he needed the time apart. He needed to wrangle his demons.

Brene Brown is a professor of Social Work and an Episcopalian. Her books and TED talks have become incredibly popular over the past few years. Brown talks about the courage it takes to be vulnerable, to open yourself up, to really talk with people about what you’re facing. She says that to really be embraced in a community we have to have our sufferings and our pains embraced as well. We can’t just say, “I’m doing fine.”

“Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”

It takes courage to be vulnerable. It takes guts to say, “I’m struggling over here.” But folks, we all struggle. It takes temerity to admit imperfection.

This is the first Sunday of Lent, the beginning of a long journey with Jesus. In the end we encounter suffering and sacrifice. I wonder, could this Lent be an invitation? Could we ask: “Where is your wilderness?” Where can you go to be vulnerable? Where will you face your demons?

Will you venture into the literal wilderness? Will you sleep a night out under the stars in the quiet? Or perhaps, Will your wilderness be more metaphorical? Will you spend some time in silence? We’ll have opportunities for contemplative prayer here at the church on Mondays. We’re going to start church with some silence each week, and you’re allowed to get to church early. Really, you are.

Wherever you find wilderness, will you take the time to be vulnerable, to name your demons, to step into the more challenging aspects of your life?

If you decide to undertake a wild journey this Lent, I wish you every blessing. Don’t hesitate to ask for help. Know that Jesus has gone this way before. Know that God will never leave you. In my life, I have found God more easily in the “lonely places,” than in the busyness of life. Wilderness has value. Journey safely, just not too safely.

Ash Wednesday: Remember you are Finite

In just a few moments the congregation will file up the center aisle of Holy Communion to receive ashes. We will disfigure our faces, just as Jesus encourages us NOT to do. Still, the invitation stands. I encourage you to approach and to hear the words: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I invite you, in just a moment, to come forward to hear those words, but to hear in them the implicit grace, the freedom, the joy.

Joy may seem an odd word to use on Ash Wednesday. As the preacher William Sloane Coffin used to say: “Many people have just enough religion to make themselves miserable.”

Back when I was in seminary, Lent was awful. When people ask me what seminary was like, I often reply: “any time you put 200 people in a room who are convinced God is calling them to do something, well, you end up with a lot of crazies.” That statement is only partly true, but seminarians tend to be a dreadfully serious bunch. Lent brings out the worst in serious Christians.

During Lent it became almost impossible to prepare a meal for folks. Someone had given up gluten, someone else had given up sugar. Half the seminary was vegetarian year, but suddenly in Lent a huge number became vegan. Dinner parties regularly featured quinoa and kale, as the main dish. Some seminarians even took to wearing their black cassocks, the long black robes, not just to chapel but all day to class and to meals. This dressing up would have been normal at the Roman Catholic seminary across town, but for some of the more Protestant Episcopalians the black robed seminarians gave cause for much eye-rolling. When you compare fasting practices, when one-upmanship enters the game, well Lent can be problematic.

Thankfully, most Christians don’t spend three years at seminary. But for Christians, Lent can make faith busy work. We give something up, or take something on. We become serious about our faith. What if all that work isn’t what Lent is about? What if Lent is more simple?

In today’s Gospel, I wonder if Jesus isn’t trying to simplify faith. Don’t make it too much work! Don’t use too many words. Don’t disfigure your face. Don’t worry about how others perceive your faithfulness. Pray simply:

“Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.”

What if your Lenten Discipline this year was simply to pray as Jesus taught. Find 5 minutes of quiet each day, and simply say the Lord’s prayer? Could Lent be that simple?

Father J.J. O’Leary, is a Jesuit priest who used to teach at my college, the University of San Diego. JJ preached perhaps the most memorable homily in my history of Ash Wednesdays. A prolifically brief homilist, his reflections seldom lasted over five minutes, something I can’t promise you today. J.J.’s homilies were short, and they often concluded with the direction to “go into your hearts” and consider some spiritual truth he had shared.

That Ash Wednesday Fr. J.J. said simply that when we give something up for Lent, God doesn’t want us to give up things that make us happy. If we enjoy chocolate or a martini at the end of a long day we shouldn’t give them up. God wanted us to give up something that made us sad. He then said. “I invite you go into your hearts to consider what you might give up that makes you sad.”

Disciplines are not meant to be muscular expressions showing what ascetic lives we can live. Often, I think, we treat Lent as an exercise in control. We give up something, or take something on that is too difficult. We try to control an aspect of our life, an aspect of our time.

But discipline, in Christianity, is not about control. Discipline has the same root as “disciple.” Discipline is about letting go, not taking control. Discipline is about surrender. We don’t encounter God through self-control. We find God when we let go. After all, you don’t seize love, you fall in love.

I am aware that sometimes preachers get caught up in nuance. Why does it matter if my Lenten Discipline is about self-control. Isn’t self-control a good thing? Well, sure, it can be. But our society is addicted to control. Ash Wednesday is about knowing our limits.

Some time ago, I had dinner with a friend who works as a therapist. We have the kind of friendship that allows us to cut through the usual pleasantries. When we ask one another: “how are you?” we don’t expect the usual, “oh, I’m fine.” So early in the conversation my friend shared that a longtime client had completed suicide. “I’m so sorry,” I said. My friend continued saying he was dealing pretty well, but couldn’t shake that old gnawing sense: “maybe I could have said something, done something, and my client would still be alive.”

I was surprised to hear this from a friend with a background in psychology, training in therapy. In his graduate program, just like in my seminary program, you hear over an over again: “you are not in control of outcomes” especially in the arena of mental health. Still, it is hard to accept our limits.

My friend’s reaction to death is common. Oftentimes for months, even years, after someone dies, close family members will ask: “should I have gotten her to the hospital sooner?” or “could I have known his heart was failing?” Grief often manifests as guilt.

Into those questions: “could I have said something?” “should I have done something different?” comes the reality of Ash Wednesday: “Remember you are dust.”

We are all finite. We have limits. We won’t ever be able to say all the right things, do all the right things. No matter what we do, eventually we will die. Our time on this earth is relatively short. “To dust you shall return.”

Being finite is not a cause for alarm. In life, as the old saying goes, there are only two sure things: death and taxes. We all go down the the grave. We all have our limits. In Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief, the last step is acceptance. Until we accept the loss, until we accept our limits, we cannot fully move forward.

The sense of regret, of course, is not limited to literal death. Many of my activist friends lately have been caught in questions related to guilt: “Could I have done more?” “Could we have persuaded more voters?” Some are moving from a place of dis-illusionment. But disillusion isn’t bad. It means losing your illusions. Knowing your limits means knowing that progress doesn’t often shoot straight out like an arrow. Progress swings like a pendulum. For my activist friends, we need to know that we’ll have to take on some small causes, find small places to buld consensus these days. We’ll need to build momentum first, and that can feel like loss.

If you try to muscle your way through loss; if your faith is all about regret, about “would have, should have, could have;” if you try to overwork yourself through life, you will make yourself miserable. And you’ll make everyone around you miserable as well.

Lent is a season of atonement. Slow that word down a bit: at-one-ment. Lent is about honestly confronting our limits and our failings, but not getting stuck there. When we accept the things we cannot change, when our discipline allows us to surrender, we are set free to encounter God. When we acknowledge that we are not in control, we can encounter the God who helps us to stand in love.

Lent is simple, deceptively simple. Lent is about accepting our limits. Lent is about giving up what makes us sad. Faith is about falling in love, and following Jesus. You don’t need to make a big show of fasting, or compare your practice to others. You don’t need to have the right answers. You just need to let go, to let yourself fall in Love. When we act out of love, we have a much greater chance of helping God’s kingdom to come, God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven.

You will return to dust. We all return to dust. But when we do, we also return to God. When we accept our limits, we can sense our ever-present connection to God. We know our destination. In the end we return to the One who creates us, who redeems us, who sustains us in life. Our life has limits, yes, but when we accept our limits we can encounter the limitless life, the limitless love of God.

Practicing Lent: Submission/Obedience

A conversation about faith practices for Lent with my good friend Jason Evans.

Jason: On Pentecost Sunday, I will be confirmed in the Episcopal Church. Many have asked me if confirmation is a means to some end. “Is it necessary for your job?” “Are you planning on becoming a priest?” Neither of these were my motivation.

I remember reading Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline years ago and thinking to myself, “I’ve never practiced the spiritual discipline of submission.” I’ve been a follower of Jesus for most of my life but I have never been called to submit to the wisdom and authority of the community–to trust the Spirit at work through a collection of God’s people … or if I was called to such a practice, I wasn’t paying attention. I decided to go through the confirmation process because I needed a physical example, a symbolic ritual to root me to the practice of spiritual obedience.

Mike: Lent is the traditional time of preparation for new converts for baptism, confirmation, and reception into the tradition. In the service, you make promises in front of a bishop. Episcopalians make a big show of a lot of liturgy, and that image of making promises to a Bishop is a pretty powerful one. The Bishop represents the unity of the church. She (or he) is the representative of the whole community of the faithful. When you make the promises of the Baptismal Covenant, you choose to take on an element of discipline.

For those of us who are ordained, this can take a whole other tack. When I was approved to go to seminary, I was ecstatic. I really wanted to study at Yale’s Divinity School. My bishop told me no. I was going to HIS seminary in Alexandria, Virginia. Obedience can be a tough pill to swallow. I spent my first year at seminary resenting his decision, but knowing that if I wanted to be a priest, I didn’t have a choice.

A year into seminary, I started to discover some pretty amazing friendships. I realized that Washington opened some great opportunities for experiences that weren’t available to me in New Haven, Connecticut (where Yale is located). I was chosen to be a seminarian, and later a priest at a church right by the White House. I helped with a huge young adult ministry and a Latino congregation. Through a friend from Virginia Seminary, I met my husband. My life today would be completely different if I hadn’t obeyed my bishop. I discovered that obedience wasn’t so much about the content of the decision, but in my reaction to the decision. It wasn’t about where I went to seminary so much as who I was as a person when I got there.

There is a certain gift in giving some of your power over, a freedom. You can focus less on making the right choice, and more on trying to grow as a person. Today, I am very grateful for my time at my unchosen seminary. I’m such a big Virginia Seminary supporter that I have somehow been elected Vice President of the Alumni Society. (And I got to nominate my former Bishop to run for the executive board, which made both of us laugh). Obedience for me opened up some incredible doors, but it wasn’t easy to take at first.

Jason: I feel the need to step back for a second and look at this practice from another angle.

It would be quite easy for someone like me–a white, hetero male–to talk about practices such as obedience, or humility, or nonviolence–for example–and fail to take into consideration that for others these practices may sound or feel more like subjugation, humiliation, or annihilation. I’m self-aware enough to see that part of my privilege is being able to choose submission. I can’t answer for others, but for myself this is part of why I feel the need to practice submission–part of being a Christian, for me, means a willingness to let go of authority I didn’t earn but received due to societal sin.

That said, choosing spiritual submission is not the same as being subject to oppression. Oppression presumes someone is less valuable. The opposite would be self-aggrandizement, which presumes that the one’s worth supersedes all others. The practice of spiritual submission begins with the conviction that each of us is born with priceless worth. It ends with the conviction that the purpose for that priceless worth is found in service to the whole. The practice of obedience comes down to a willing response to offer your God-given gifts to the needs of your faith community without your personal benefit as contingency.

Mike: I’m grateful for your clarification here. While I don’t share your “hetero” identity,  it is important to acknowledge that we both speak from a position of incredible privilege. One of the best paradigms for talking about submission is the reading from last night, Maundy Thursday. Jesus, at the last supper washes the disciples feet.

I had the opportunity once to hear Andy Stanley, the Evangelical pastor from Georgia, preach on this lesson. It was at the morning service we held at St. John’s for President Obama’s second inauguration. St. John’s has held a service for almost every presidential inauguration since the early years of the United States. The preacher looked out over the crowd, a congregation that included the President, the Vice-President, most of the President’s cabinet, even Oprah was there. He asked them: “What do you do when you discover you are the most powerful person in the room?” You could hear a pin drop. I could tell, a lot of them were trying to decide who the most powerful person in the room was.

I think Andy Stanley hit the nail right on the head. Jesus says to his disciples that they should wash one another’s feet for “servants are not greater than their masters.” We follow, we obey, we submit ourselves as Christians to a teacher who lead by serving. Submission is the way of getting ourselves out of the way, getting our egos out of the way, and remembering our place. Sometimes that practice has gone awry in Christian history. People have wielded spiritual power for self-serving purposes. But practiced well, obedience/submission can be life giving, for ourselves, for the church, and for the world.