Jesus, Outfitter

2013-05-04_16-55-24_961The traditional Gospel for this First Sunday in Lent takes place in a wilderness.  For many of us, the word brings to mind forests, like the Black Hills here in South Dakota.  Wild, sure, but beautiful, spiritual, peaceful.

But the Judean wilderness in which Jesus was tempted by Satan isn’t green; it’s more like 2013-05-05_14-06-23_587South Dakota’s Badlands.  Dry, life challenging if not threatening, and suggesting the possibility of a malign visitor…

Ventures into the wilderness require an outfitter, someone who knows how to survive in the environment and can equip another to do the same.

The more I read the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, the more it appears to me that the prayer he taught his followers has direct application to our journey through a “wilderness” that is a spiritual Badlands, where we need to be outfitted against the life sapping forces of the world, the flesh and the devil.

+ In the wilderness, Jesus fasted and “was famished.”  The devil tempts Jesus to manipulate his power to create munchies, and Jesus resists by quoting Moses about not living by bread alone, but by the word from the mouth of God.

And so Jesus outfits us with the petition, give us this day our daily bread, at once a reliance upon God for the physical sustenance that protects us from rash actions born of want and a surrender to the eternal word of God versus the urgent demands of passing situations.

+ In the wilderness, the devil tempts Jesus to force a meaning on God’s word.  “Doesn’t God say his angels will catch you if you fall?  So make Him prove it.  Jump off a tower.”

So Jesus outfits us with the words, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven, an acknowledgement that God’s will, not ours, is sovereign, even in the things of this passing life.  We must not put God to a test devised in our own desires, but seek to know and obey His will as revealed in Scripture.

+ In the wilderness, the devil tempts Jesus with entitlement to all the impressive things of human life, as long as Jesus will worship the tempter – I mean, really worship by falling down in submission, an inferior in the presence of a superior.

So Jesus outfits us with the words, Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.  There is one God, the Father in heaven, the only worthy object of worship.  (If you’re in a liturgical church, note that the church’s prayers are to the Father, through the Son, in the unifying power of the Holy Spirit.)

And Jesus outfits us with the petition, thy kingdom come.  Whatever great things attract us, our “compass” must keep us on the hard trail that leads to life.  We seek the kingdom of God, and so many detours and assumed short cuts lead to destruction.

Jesus outfits us with the prayer, forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.  This is a radical rejection of all the impressive things that allure us deeper into the deadly wilderness and away from the eternal kingdom we seek.  To ask forgiveness is to drop the dead weight of our own self-important achievements and “travel light,” reliant on the mercy of God revealed in Christ Jesus for our life. To forgive others is to reject the power to arrange the world around ourselves.  It is to fast from our sense of entitlement to a “splendid kingdom” of this world, and to equip others with the mercy that can help them out of the wilderness in which they, too, are struggling to survive.

+ Finally, Jesus closes his outfitting prayer with words that seem to come straight from his time in the wilderness, And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.  It is a solemn prayer that God not leave us on our own in the wilderness, but equip us with all we need to resist the tempter.

More than that, it is a profound plea to make our time in the wilderness an outpouring of devotion to God.  Jesus’ final rebuttal of the tempter is, Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.  At these words, the devil retreats, and angels come to refresh Jesus.

Then, he goes out to begin preaching his Good News.  Deliver us from evil is not just a prayer for relief, it is a petition for the freedom to traverse the wilderness with all of the marvelous equipment that the Holy Spirit apportions to us, and to do so as part of an expedition, because no one can bear all of the equipment for the journey.  It must be made with others.

Which is why Jesus outfits us with a prayer to Our Father to provide for and protect us.


If anybody says anything…

…it’ll probably be this,

Hey, buddy, you got dirt on your head.  Yuck yuck yuck.


To which I’ll reply, Yep.  Glad you can’t see into my heart and mind, too.  Pretty much a total mess except what Jesus is making with it.

Or maybe some people will just ask, So, what’s that thing on your head mean?

To which I’ll answer, Dust is what I am and all I’ll finally be on my own. But Jesus has marked me as HIS own, and so I’ll be much more.

Hopefully, that will invite more comments and questions.  But about Him, not me.

Are we having fun yet?

I just read Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ thoughts on Purim.  His contemporary application of the raucous Jewish celebration is worth general appreciation in the current climate of terror:

The Jewish response to trauma is counterintuitive and extraordinary. You defeat fear by joy. You conquer terror by collective celebration. You prepare a festive meal, invite guests, give gifts to friends. While the story is being told, you make a rumbustious noise as if not only to blot out the memory of Amalek, but to make a joke out of the whole episode. You wear masks. You drink a little too much. You make a Purim spiel.

Precisely because the threat was so serious, you refuse to be serious – and in that refusal you are doing something very serious indeed. You are denying your enemies a victory. You are declaring that you will not be intimidated. As the date of the scheduled destruction approaches, you surround yourself with the single most effective antidote to fear: joy in life itself. As the three-sentence summary of Jewish history puts it:

“They tried to destroy us. We survived. Let’s eat.” Humour is the Jewish way of defeating hate. What you can laugh at, you cannot be held captive by.

Anything here that can flow into the Christian branches of faith?

On the Christian calendar, today is Maundy Thursday.  Followers of Jesus commemorate his institution of what is now shared as Holy Communion with Him.  He speaks two commands (mandates, hence “Maundy”), Do this in remembrance of me and Love one another as I have loved you.  He offers an example of humble service by washing his disciples’ feet.

Most Christian services on this day go in one of  two directions.  Traditional liturgy is quiet, reflective and carried out in the gathering gloom of Jesus’s suffering and death on Good Friday.  Non-traditional churches are already whooping it up, holding their early “Easter Services” to preempt Sunday seating problems.

What Rabbi Lord Sacks says, As the date of the scheduled destruction approaches, you surround yourself with the single most effective antidote to fear: joy in life itself, might help Christians find balance.  As the darkness that rules the present age seeks to extinguish what little light God keeps shining, rejoice.  But as we rejoice over the empty tomb, we do so knowing that we are still in a mad world bent on refilling it and sealing it up again.  

Gathered to dine with his disciples that night in Jerusalem, facing his great struggle, Jesus taught them, encouraged them and prayed for them.  Why?  According to Him,

I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.  (John 15:11 NRSV)

Sitting in a prison cell, the Apostle Paul saw beyond the surrounding walls to surrounding joy,

Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice!  Let everyone see that you are considerate in all you do. Remember, the Lord is coming soon.  (Philippians 4:4 NLT)

The tried to destroy us.  We survived.  Let’s eat.  To rejoice in the Lord as a Christian is to hear those words as Christ’s own – “They tried to destroy me.  I survived.  Let’s eat.”  Because the life in which we rejoice isn’t only the one gifted to us in the here and now, but in the new heavens and new earth He brings despite all of the currently deadly but infinitely mockable efforts to stop Him.

No consolations for you!

All of their time is spent looking for satisfaction and spiritual consolation; they can never read enough spiritual books, and one minute they are meditating on one subject and the next on another, always hunting for some gratification in the things of God.  God very rightly and discreetly and lovingly denies this satisfaction to these beginners.  If he did not, they would fall into innumerable evils because of their spiritual gluttony and craving for sweetness.  This is why it is important for these beginners to enter the dark night and be purged of this childishness.  (John of the Cross, The Dark Night I.6)

Am I wrong or does John sound like a spiritual version of Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi?

OK, laugh track off. America’s religious life is marked by “spiritual gluttony and craving for sweetness.” Christianity or any other religious system is meant to make one feel good.  Prosperity Gospel, spiritual-not-religious and moral therapeutic deism are expressions of this reality.  The guiding creedal affirmation is, “It’s what works for me.”

John of the Cross presents the alternative, which is to seek  God rather than stop short and wallow in the finite things – even good things – that God creates.

Life’s passing consolations throw a parade on Palm Sunday.  Jesus gets a hero’s welcome into Jerusalem. He is praised, waited upon and called upon as the only one who can make things all better.  Human affirmations play into our gluttony for consolation, as a friend of mine points out,

The stones (the people of the temple of God) that would go through that dark time, a time of humility and being silenced, would have to contend with persons who would be a Christ to them. When an individual is going through a hard time, he will reach out to anyone around him in the hopes that a consoling will take place… Jesus was saying that in order to grow into a lively stone of the temple of God, one must not lean on every shoulder that comes his way.

And we know that the shoulders of the welcoming Palm Sunday crowd were no place for Jesus to lean.

A few nights after the big parade Jesus has dinner with his unreliable friends.  He beckons them (and through them, all of us) into a dark night, without handy consolations, but promising something greater,

Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered him, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward.Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times.  ” (John 13:36-38 ESV)

Jesus posits a path marked by denial and failure that will ultimately bring Peter to share the place of his Teacher and Lord.  In another of his writings, John of the Cross described the practice of Spanish mothers who rubbed bitter herbs on their breasts to wean their children.  Fullness of life with God – what the Apostle Paul often terms maturity – requires weaning from consolations.

On Friday, Jesus will cry out Scripture’s least consoling passage, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?  Saturday is the profound darkness of the tomb.



How’s Lent going?

I can’t believe we’ve reached the Fourth Sunday of Lent.

It’s been a rich season for me.  My reading of Morning Prayer broke down for several weeks, but I found myself engaged in the Lord’s Prayer in the wee hours of the morning all of those days.  The Holy Spirit seemed to initiate prayer and, even more graciously, make me aware of the divine work infusing my weakness.

Meanwhile, the Lenten disciplines I planned toward the end of January are holding up well and proving fruitful.

Daily reading has become a joyful rediscovery, as well as a practiced repentance from lazy, sloppy internet browsing.  I’m smiling about this, as the 4th Sunday of Lent is meant for refreshment and rejoicing in the midst of the penitential season.

The Scripture guiding this discipline is divine Wisdom’s exultation in Proverbs 8:34, Blessed is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors.  Indeed, one of the books I’ve finished during Lent reminded me that one indicator of Christianity’s universal truth is our ability to engage “non-Christian” ideas and expressions and find Christ at work in them.

Other books have provided comfort and even a measure of healing; spiritual companionship and encouragement that I was able to share with others; and captivating stories with deep thoughts to ponder.

I’ve not abandoned the Bible in all this.  Despite my spotty attention to the Daily Offices, I’ve kept up my discipline of using Scripture to rebut and replace ungodly thoughts, as inspired by …and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Ephesians 6:17 ESV).

I’ve been recollecting the imperative form of the Hebrew verb naqah, meaning Cleanse me! or Empty me!  as expressed in Psalm 19:12, Who can tell how oft he offendeth /O cleanse thou me from my secret faults (Coverdale version).  This word alone has been like a diversion channel when the devil floods me with self-doubt and accusation.

From a friend’s counsel, I am recollecting Numbers 11:14, I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me and Matthew 11:30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light to resist some of my most self defeating expectations and judgments.

Finally, I’m doing pretty well with the discipline of doing something out of my comfort zone each day.  My wife’s been great about asking me about this each evening.  Most of what I’ve done is to answer others’ questions honestly, rather than trying to filter my response through what I think will keep them happy with me.  A lot more obedience to Jesus’ instruction:  Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil (Matthew 5:37 ESV).

That’s consistent with the Scripture that I use to guide this discipline, I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death (Philippians 3:10 NLT).  Death to self and life to the truth – which is always Christ – so that I might walk in new life with him.

How’s Lent going for you?


Spoiler Alert

I recently reread Tolstoy’s story The Three Hermits.  It is a charming, whimsical yet deep tale about…

Well, see, there’s the problem.  If I tell you what’s in it you won’t have the pleasure of reading it.  I don’t want to blog a big spoiler.

So I’ll just share this note that I scribbled to myself after reading it: You become what you imitate.  ’nuff said right there.

It’s Ash Wednesday, and one way to look at Lenten disciplines is imitation of holiness, so that we might grow in holiness.  That’s not alien to  the New Testament:

Join with others in being imitators of me, brothers, and observe those who thus conduct themselves according to the model you have in us. (Philippians 3:17 NAB)

Sometimes the need to imitate holiness is stimulated by our frustration with lack of holiness.  Sincere reading and hearing of Scripture, followed by our inability to apply it in daily life, can irritate us and send us looking for holy examples to imitate.

This thought about frustration came not from great literature, but from a song that popped up on the car radio the other day.  The video has a bit o’ the sensual about it, so it that’s a problem you can skip down and I’ll give you the relevant lyrics…

Doctor, doctor won’t you please prescribe me somethin’
A day in the life of someone else?
‘Cause I’m a hazard to myself

Don’t let me get me, I’m my own worst enemy
It’s bad when you annoy yourself so irritating
Don’t wanna be my friend no more
I wanna be somebody else

For Christians, this frustration and longing to be somebody else comes with a big spoiler…

you’ve been warned…

don’t look if you don’t want to know…

My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20 NLT)

The holiness is already there within you. Trusting Him – by imitating him and by relying upon his self-offering when you don’t – is the right outcome of any discipline, Lenten or any time.

May your Lent be blessed with greater discovery of the life of Christ within you, already transforming you into His likeness.

But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Philippians 3:20-21 ESV)

Oh, dang it, that was another spoiler, wasn’t it?


Thinking toward Lent

Ash Wednesday is just around the corner, on February 10th this year.

winter sunrise feb 2011 001

Christians who observe Lent in preparation for Easter take on disciplines in order to become better, well, disciples.  When the joyful celebration of the Resurrection comes, we want to more perfectly walk in newness of life with the one who died and rose for us.

But Lenten disciplines sometimes emerge from a process resembling last minute Christmas shopping.  “Oh no, tomorrow’s Ash Wednesday and I didn’t come up with a discipline for Lent.  I think I’ll just _______________.”

I’m posting this now, with ten days to spare, as a friendly reminder and encouragement to pray and give thought to your Lenten discipline(s).  I am considering three:

  1. Say or do something uncomfortable each day.  I’ve known for a long time that I’m a people pleaser.  So I want to say or do things that I know to be right and true in God’s eyes, even if I fear that this will make people think less of me.  I’ve asked my wife to hold me accountable at the end of each day by asking me about what scary thing I said or did.  I want to find myself walking more confidently and automatically as a disciple of Jesus, guided by the Holy Spirit rather than emotion, accepting the discomforts of this old life so as to follow Christ into the joys of the new one.

Guiding Scripture: I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death… Philippians 3:10 NLT

2. Fill my head with thoughts that refute Satan’s accusations.  Small wonder I’m a people pleaser.  My head is full of perfectionist thoughts, which allow Satan (which means the Accuser) to have at me 24/7.  I’m constantly thinking about how I have to be good enough and do stuff just right so I’m not a Very Bad Person.  That is clearly Satan shouting over the reasonable voice of conscience to say, “You must save yourself!”  Which is exactly the kind of religion that one who acknowledges Christ as Savior must reject.  So I will be seeking Bible verses to recollect when I need to refute the Accuser, mainly passages celebrating justification, redemption and salvation by the grace of God in Christ Jesus.  I need to protect my brain and let the Holy Spirit wield my thoughts.

Guiding Scripture: And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God… Ephesians 6:17 KJV

3. Reading for an hour each day.  I’ve let myself become too much the internet surfer and skimmer.  I have a stack of books I’ve been meaning to read, several of them gifts from people I know to be godly and wise.  Some days it might have to be smaller chunks of time that add up to an hour, but the time for reading and opening up to fresh insight is certainly there if I’m disciplined.

Guiding Scripture: Blessed is the one who listens to me (Wisdom), watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors. (Proverbs 8:34 ESV)

How about you?  Any ideas?  Please share them in a comment as a possible encouragement to others.

And if you are new to this, Western Christians (pretty much all who don’t identify as Orthodox with a big O) keep their disciplines Monday thru Saturday for 40 days; Sundays are a Feast of the risen Christ and you get to take a break and celebrate.