St. Michael and All Angels
February 26, 2012
"There you are with that mirror again. I should be used to it by now, but I'm not. Every Lent I come to you, O God, wanting your instant affirmation. Thinking you will be the god I thought I'd tamed. But in the quiet of your room, with never a word of condemnation, you hold up that mirror. I will not say what I see for the seeing needs no language. I will not deny the image nor question the reason for truth. Let the clock on the mantel be sound enough for what passes between us. Your warm embrace when I leave all the promise I need." Steven Charleston
The gospel lesson for the first Sunday of Lent takes us into the temptation story. We like to think we are talking about chocolate, television, alcohol or whatever we may use to dull our vision on any given day. We consider poor Jesus in the wilderness and we are grateful as we go into our homes and close the door safely behind us. It generally doesn’t occur to us to consider wilderness in our own lives. We prefer to live in a way that seems to be domesticated and safe. But what if we are wrong? What if the wilderness is right outside our door or worse yet, inside our very being? What then?
I love the words I read to you from Steven Charleston describing God holding a mirror up to us without condemnation, only the truth of who we are. He says that he begins each Lent wanting affirmation and thinking that he will meet the god he has tamed. So, here we are beginning another Lent and discovering a mirror. This journey we began on Ash Wednesday is not for the faint of heart. It is only for those who are willing to go with God into the wilderness and meet the wild beasts that are there. If you read each gospel account of this story, you will see that only Mark mentions the wild animals. That’s rather amusing because Mark’s gospel is known for lack of detail. Many accuse him of racing from one event to the next because he gives such little information. Why then, this detail? It is interesting that he doesn’t say that the wild beasts are with Jesus (as if they are learning from him), but that Jesus was with the wild beasts (as if he is taking his cues from them).
My friend Jan Richardson asks, “How will we see the angels if we don’t go into the wilderness? How will we recognize the help that God sends if we don’t seek out the places beyond what is comfortable to us, if we don’t press into terrain that challenges our habitual perspective? How will we find the delights that God provides even—and especially—in the desert places?” (www.paintedprayerbook.com)
Note the sequence of events in Mark’s lesson today: Jesus is baptized, the heavens are torn apart and a voice from heaven proclaims him as Beloved, he is driven into the wilderness to be tempted for forty days and he emerges proclaiming the good news. Whew!! It makes me tired just repeating it. In a mere 130 words Jesus’ life is completely reoriented. From baptism and the opening of heaven to wilderness, comes one who is now grounded in God’s love in such a way that he proclaims good news for all. The good news is not separate from the wilderness, but a direct result of it.
Biblically, the wilderness is a desolate and dangerous place. It is also a place where we encounter God in a unique way. Barbara Brown Taylor describes Lent as an “outward bound for the soul”. That’s not a bad way of looking it. We understand it as a time to go inward and deepen our relationship with God and so we make commitments for this season that will aid us in the journey. So you’ve decided to join a book group and Learn to Fall? Wonderful! You are going to do the Lenten retreat? Fabulous! You will pray daily? Terrific! All of those will contribute to our growth as people of faith.
What about the wilderness? Have you made plans yet to join the wild beasts this season? Parker Palmer describes this journey not as an easy choice, but as something he stumbled upon in a time of desperation:
<em>Like a wild animal, the soul is tough, resilient, resourceful, savvy, and self-sufficient: it knows how to survive in hard places. I learned about these qualities during my bouts with depression. In that deadly darkness, the faculties I had always depended on collapsed. My intellect was useless; my emotions were dead; my will was impotent; my ego was shattered. But from time to time, deep in the thickets of my inner wilderness, I could sense the presence of something that knew how to stay alive even when the rest of me wanted to die. That something was my tough and tenacious soul.
Yet despite its toughness, the soul is also shy. Just like a wild animal, it seeks safety in the dense underbrush, especially when other people are around. If we want to see a wild animal, we know that the last thing we should do is go crashing through the woods yelling for it to come out. But if we will walk quietly into the woods, sit patiently at the base of a tree, breathe with the earth, and fade into our surroundings, the wild creature we seek might put in an appearance. We may see it only briefly and only out of the corner of an eye—but the sight is a gift we will always treasure as an end in itself. (from A Hidden Wholeness p. 58)</em>
We tend to either romanticize or demonize the wilderness. Whichever way we lean, we often see ourselves divorced from it. We live in a world that is highly evolved…we are no longer nomadic people who depend on the land for our very survival. At least that is what we think. We are more like tourists when it comes to wild places. We may choose to visit a nicely manicured park. We may go for a walk with our dog in our neighborhood. We may have a picnic on our patio. In any case, we can look at the wilderness from a safe distance without really engaging it. But scripture calls us to do otherwise. Scripture calls us to go in to the wild places and trust God in a whole new way.
Philip Simmons has a chapter called Wild Things in his book Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life. He reminds us “the word animal comes from the Latin word anima, which means soul. To acknowledge one’s soul, then, is to acknowledge the animal within.” This may not be easy to hear because we like to put things in their proper place. Don’t blur the lines for us: wildness is out there; soul is in here. Wait. You mean wildness is inside us??? Philip encourages us to have a deeper connection to the wildness in our daily lives, that in becoming more fully wild we might preserve both our world and ourselves.
He suggests that we “live like animals, without doubt as to our life’s purpose so that our every act flowed effortlessly from what was highest and truest within us. It would mean rising each day to forage or feed, to shelter and care for our young, to laze or labor, fight or frolic without distraction, without self-judgment, without taking one step off life’s true path. And even in the face of misery and terror, even as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, even as the sleet freezes our hides or the hawk descends upon us, it would mean living in the faith that this, too, is the way…cultivating your own wildness takes practice…With time (months, years, decades, lifetimes—did you think this would be easy?) such practice begins to open a space within us. Call it a wildlife preserve, a space where our wild selves can breathe while our judging, criticizing, worrying, doubting minds are kept safely on the other side of the fence. With practice we find ourselves living more and more inside this preserve, a place we come to recognize as our true home.” (from chapter 5, pp. 53-60)
That is what this season is about. We begin in ashes to remind us that we come from dust and we will return to dust. The coming weeks are not about transcending our humanness, but digging in more deeply to what it means to be human, to ground ourselves in God’s goodness, to look in the mirror and see what God sees, to grow in love by loving our way into each day.
Warning: this isn’t likely to make life easier for us. We may no longer fit into the world we have carefully constructed for ourselves. My favorite commentary this week said, “This story is a preview to the rest of the gospel in which Jesus is the wild beast who refuses to be domesticated into the household of conventional religion.” (Feasting on the Word, p44)
Yikes! Remember, Jesus started in the wilderness and was killed for the ministry that came out of that. The good news that Jesus proclaimed was not good news to those in power and authority. Do not be fooled into thinking that this is a journey of sweetness and light. It is a place of wild storms, darkness, beauty that will take your breath away, and the presence of God that comes in a way you have ever known before. How else do you think Jesus was able to make the journey to the cross? He knew God’s sustenance because he survived the wilderness.
As we fill our backpack to step out into the wilderness, we will discover that some of the things that we thought we needed, do not matter so much. We begin to set things aside that will not serve this journey and in so doing, we make room for God to travel with us into the deep unknown that awaits us. It won’t be easy. It shouldn’t be easy. It is, however, the place where we meet God. In the wilderness, we look to the wild beasts outside and within us for cues about how to live. We encounter a vulnerability that makes us uncomfortable and it is there that the angels minister to us. We discover God as we take a long look in the mirror and see we are growing into God’s likeness each day. Only then, will we emerge from this wilderness ready to be God’s people in a powerful new way.