First Sunday in Lent: Temptation

I dare not promise 6 reflections for the 6 sundays in lent, but I can pass on the first one. Offered today at the community of St Matthews Anglican Church in Ashburton.

You may like to follow the links to read the readings for the day, or you may be familiar enough with the story of Jesus’ temptation to read straight on: Deuteronomy 26:1-11Psalm 91:1-16Romans 10:8b-13Luke 4:1-13.

40 Days of Lent15473737130_017015fe1c_z

Here we are, standing on the edge of another metaphorical desert. Another year of Lent where we practice the disciplines of restraint and resistance. On the other side of the Lenten desert is the green lush of new life, the Day of Resurrection.

Christians are not the inventers of this kind of desert spirituality. Indeed, the Lenten journey deliberately echoes the much more ancient journey of the Jews, the forty days of desert after the exodus from Egypt, the story of which is recalled in the reading from Deuteronomy 26.

More generally, periods of ritual denial and testing often precede traditional rites of passage, like young boys being sent out into the wilderness to become men, or year 12 leavers travelling overseas for a year before they commence University education. And in the passage of a human life, the old and wise tell us that long periods of drought are normal, in journey of a lifetime. Furthermore, they tell us that in hindsight, these times of testing are seen to be forerunners to blessing, as we learn hard lessons of loss, love, grace and forgiveness.

The Temptation of Jesus

The temptation of Jesus is more than a model of human suffering of course. The story of Jesus’ 40 days stands in the gospels as evidence of his authority and authenticity. It invites us to trust in Him, as He trusted in His Father in the desert.

But following the invitation of the early Christian leaders who chose Jesus’ temptation as a model and inspiration for Lent, let us consider the nature of Jesus’ temptation as a model for how we ourselves might transgress both the desert of Lent, and the deserts of life as they come along.

Straight after Jesus is baptized, that is after he publically declared his trust in God, the Spirit sends him out into the desert where he does not eat for 40 days. Along comes ‘diabolou’ – literally ‘the slanderer.’ We get ‘Satan’ in some translations for the Greek work diabolou is equivalent to the Hebrew word ‘Satan’ – literally meaning ‘the adversary,’ one who obstructs or resists. Diabolou, the slanderer, is perhaps more relevant here as we hear the repeated citation of scripture from Jesus, and even a word from Psalm 91 slips from the lips of the devil himself, tempting Jesus to distort the word of God for his own purposes.

Jesus resists the slanderer, and is left to rest and recover from the test, though Luke suggests ominously that the battle is not over and that the devil will return at another, opportune time.

The Temptation of Israel

The three tests set by the slanderer remind us of three most significant tests faced by the ancient Israelites in the desert after they exited Egypt.

First, there is only so long one can walk about in a desert without food. Can we truly trust God to provide for the needs of the body in all circumstances? The slanderer invites Jesus to use his power to circumscribe God’s provision, but Jesus responds with words recorded in Deuteronomy 8:6,

“one does not live by bread alone.”

In the stories of the Israelites in the desert, almost immediately after they had crossed the Red Sea into freedom, they began to fear that they would die of starvation. God provided for them with the miraculous provision of bread or manna rained down each morning. Gathering the manna became like a spiritual practice, for the Israelites had to trust that God would continue to provide.

The second temptation brings to mind the struggles we all have with making our way in the world. A thirst for glory and authority might indicate that this is a test just for the overly ambitious, but that would be a mistake. On an ordinary, every day level, we all need to know our place in the world. Sometimes it would be enough for me just to have a predictable rhythm to my weekly diary! To feel like I have some control over my life! Jesus responds with words recorded in Deuteronomy 6:13,

“Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”

When Moses had ascended into the clouds on top of Mount Zion, drawn into a private conversation with God from which the ten commandments would emerge, the Israelites gave up their faith in God’s ability or willingness to provide for them. Before Moses could return from the mountain top, the people had built a god for themselves, an idol designed to make themselves feel safe. A life plan they thought they could control. What a mistake that was, and always is: to expect that we can control the unfolding of the universe and eliminate the unpredictability of God.

The third temptation of Jesus by the slanderer had an more explicitly religious theme. The slanderer takes Jesus to the place of wisdom – the Jerusalem temple – and quotes scripture at Jesus, inviting him to prove himself with what would be a miracle. Jesus responds with words recorded in Deuteronomy 6:16, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” The original context in Deuteronomy expands to say,

“do not put the Lord your God to the test as Israel did at Massah.”

In the desert journey of the Israelites, having dealt with their fear of hunger, they soon turned to the issue of water security. At Massah, the people complained of their unending thirst, and like before, God provided. Moses struck a rock and water poured out. But God was not pleased that Israel still refused to trust in God’s provision for them, so Massah became known as a place where God’s people stubbornly tested God.

The Fruit of Temptation: Steadfastness

What does resisting temptation do for us? In the gospel narrative, the temptation of Jesus proves his trust in God alone. Proves that Jesus is single minded about his ministry, his message and the manner in which he will conduct himself.

For us, resisting temptation develops a similar characteristic. It trains us in having a single focus and staying on track. For example, the spiritual practice of fasting in Lent, is a type of resisting temptation, but as anyone who has developed a discipline of fasting will testify, it is not at all that straight forward. Rather, refraining from food for certain hours in the day, or certain types of food for the whole season of Lent, invites us to pay more attention to our food intake, and then redirects our attention.

When we fast, we discover what we really hunger for. We discover how often we eat to satisfy an emotional hunger rather than the physical need of the body for sustenance. Our attention is also directed to the sources of nourishment. Are we grasping for more food than required at the detriment of others? Are we dependent on sustainable methods of producing food?

Paying attention to the process of eating allows us to let go of things that do not bring life – whether that’s a certain type of food, or a certain type of anxiety, that does not trust that there will be enough.

Letting go of things that do not bring life includes more than food that is bad for us. It even includes, as the slanderer has shown us, the letting go of beliefs or interpretations of the word of God that are not life giving! That is why silence is another spiritual practice of Lent. In silence we let go of words in order to sense what our words are hiding. Slightly distorted teaching that justifies our own prejudices perhaps. As for fasting, refraining from words focuses our attention, and creates an opportunity for us to examine the way we construct our stories of truth.

The way of the desert is the way of fasting and silence. Perhaps ‘testing’ is not the most positive way to view these two great spiritual practices. For they are simply disciplines that invite us to pay attention to what is truly life-giving.

What is truly nourishing? What is truly purposeful? What is truly wise in your life?

Silence

I’m on retreat for three days of silent contemplation this week, with reflections aimed at Rediscovering St Paul the Mystic. 

I felt inspired to offer a little something for you to contemplate while I’m away…

Is it time you re-read Paul’s letters in the New Testament?

Or do you need to literally breathe in some fresh air?

Or do you need to join me,

sitting cross legged on my red japanese floor cushion

and enjoy the special inner space that silence brings?

Blessings to you, for your own moments of connection this week, whatever and wherever they may be.  XX.

Prayer as Crucible by Sarah Coakley

Christian Century, March 2011

Sarah Coakley is an excellent writer, perhaps especially for an academic theologian!  She is clear, concise and somehow very direct: a ‘straight shooter’ we might say.  I always get the impression that whatever ends up on the page has been ruminating in her head for a long time – like a slow cooked roast, ready now to fall off the bone and melt in the mouth.

In this article for Christian Century magazine, she explains how her experience of contemplative prayer has transformed her understanding of theology.  In her first academic post Coakley started a program of transcendental meditation and quickly discovered the power of silence.  She then started a quest to understand what was happening to her in the silence through the wisdom of the Christian tradition in which she was academically trained as well as spirituality formed from childhood.

This is something similar to my own experience: the shock of discovering the transformative power of silence.  Of discovering reams of cognition beyond rationality and in particular the depths of knowledge we hold physically in our body.  Yes, I still feel a little self-conscious when I come out with statements like this: in particular my non-spiritual family members clearly think I’m on drugs!  But once you’ve experienced it there is no turning back.

“I hadn’t been going longer than about two months with this simple discipline of 20 minutes of silence in the morning and early evening when what I can only call a seismic shift of seemingly unspeakable proportions began to afflict me. Whatever was going on here was not only “transcendental” but severely real…
But I must not leave the impression that this adventure in prayer was all anxiety-making, although its initial impact on my sense of self as a young theologian was certainly that. Underneath was an extraordinary sense of spiritual and epistemic expansion —of being taken by the hand into a new world of glorious technicolor, in which all one’s desires were newly magnetized toward God, all beauty sharpened and intensified. Yet simultaneously all poverty, deprivation and injustice were equally and painfully impressed with new force on my consciousness…
Lest this seem like a claim to some special supernatural encounter, I hasten to add that the daily practice of silence itself was usually more like the tedious quotidian discipline of brushing one’s teeth than anything else. It was the effects outside prayer—including, of course, the effects on other normal Christian or academic duties (hearing the Word, participating in the sacraments, attending to students in difficulties, writing lectures and so on)—that were initially hard to quantify and yet palpably transforming of all my previous theological assumptions.  “

Coakley identifies three areas where her experience of silence has transformed her approach to theology.

First, Control and Loss of Control: ‘powers and submissions’.  For a feminist, power is a primary preoccupation, particularly personal power.  Is not this kind of submission to God a dangerous relinquishing of our individuality?  No, because this is prayer: the place where we become our best, most powerful selves.

“submission to God and silence before God—being unlike any other submission or any other silence— was that which empowered one to speak against injustice and abuse and was the ground of true freedom (in God) rather than its suppression.”

Second, Coakley discovered Sex, bodiliness and the Mystery of Desire in prayer.  I have been utterly surprised at the intense physicality of sitting still!  My personal meditation practices have veered more and more towards conscientious embodiment, particularly using breathing to refocus my attention on that abstract ‘space’ within me where my true and whole self encounters God.  This transition into the body, integrated with head and heart, was one I desperately needed to make, and for the first time I understand Jesus’ metaphor of being ‘born again’.  As for my concept of sexuality: it was blown out of the water!  Sarah’s description perfectly matches my own:

“No less disturbing than the loss of noetic control in prayer and all that followed from that was the arousal, intensification and reordering of desire that this praying engendered. Anyone who has spent more than a short time on her or his knees in silence will know of the almost farcical raid that the unconscious makes on us in the sexual arena in such prayer, as if this is a sort of joke that God has up God’s sleeve to ensure that “ourselves, our souls and bodies” are what we present to God and not some pious disembodied version of such. Our capacity as Christians to try to keep sex and God in different boxes is seemingly limitless, but the integrative force of silent prayer simply will not allow this, or not for very long.”

The third change Coakley identifies is particularly relevant to her vocation as philosophical theologian.  Rationality and its expansion: variations on post-foundationism.  In silence, we encounter an expanded experience of cognition.  Knowledge and ‘truth’ take new and varied forms and we realise that empirical knowledge is but one small aspect of the whole.  All I can say is, ‘Amen Sarah, amen!’

“In a period when there has been a remarkable set of attacks on classical foundationalism by both philosophers and theologians, I have again felt myself to be plowing a subtly different course as a result of the prayer perspective I have tried to outline above… My own response to this philosophical and theological crisis is one that seeks to analyze the dark testing of contemplation as precisely an epistemological challenge. In other words, I continue to reject another false modern disjunction—that between spirituality and philosophy. It is not that contemplation affords just another sectarian theological perspective, which one can take or leave as one wills. Rather, its painful and often dark expansion of consciousness, its integration of thought and affect and its ethical sensitizing to what is otherwise neglected (including, of course, the poor “who are always with us”) all demand that one give an account of how philosophy, and science and politics too, cannot ultimately afford to ignore the apprehensions that contemplation invites.”

You can access a copy of the whole article on the Christian Century website:  http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2011-03/prayer-crucible