I must make a confession today – I like Hallmark movies. You know the plot – a young man and woman meet, there’s some friction, then they discover they have feelings for each other, a crisis pulls them apart, and then they realize they can’t live without each other, and finally they kiss, and you’ll know they will live happily ever after.
The popularity of Hallmark movies has skyrocketed since the 2016 presidential election. In a time of conflict, we all need macaroni and cheese for the soul. We all need happy endings and a world where love wins.
But I can testify – and I am a person who gives thanks every day for my forty years of marriage – that the first kiss doesn’t always mean happily ever after. As a matter of fact, a good marriage involves not only joyful moments, intimacy, playfulness, and service; it also involves sick kids, going to the hospital, discovering how different you are and learning living with differences, facing adversity and failure, and ultimately growing old together.
As I tell couples who get too wrapped up in the wedding reception, this is the beginning and not the end of your journey together, and you will have to work hard and love hard to make it work.
The same is true for our spiritual lives and the Lenten season, and Lent focuses on Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness as a model for our own lives.
Jesus has just had an amazing experience. He’s experienced the clarity of knowing his calling, he’s been baptized as a sign of purification and new life, and he hears the voice of God – “you are my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.” For a moment, everything is clear – in this first spiritual kiss. No doubt Jesus is ecstatic, but then like many married couples, on the day after the wedding, he wanders “how am I going to live up to this? How am I going to live out my vows and grow in love, despite life’s challenges?”
And so, open to God’s spirit, Jesus goes to the wilderness. He goes to the place where the wild things are, the place of solitude and stillness, the place where he can hear God’s voice amid all the other conflicting voices.
Now, have you ever gone on a retreat? Have you every tried to meditate? I first learned meditation at a Berkeley ashram – a Hindu holy place where I was taught transcendental meditation in 1970 – and I have made meditation a central part of my life, almost an hour every day in silence, and yet, often when I close my eyes to be still, all my inner voices vie for attention….my mind wanders down the corridors of grandparenting, aging, a meal I’m looking forward to, a problem I’m facing in my professional life, or some good idea I want to write about. The Buddhists call this the “monkey mind” and compare our thought processes to a monkey going from branch to branch.
When Jesus went to this place of solitude to find his vocation, his mind went into a frenzy of temptation and conflict. He experienced the Evil One as his companion, tempting him to turn from his course – to focus on the easy rather than the difficult; to detour from his vocation toward the acquisition of power and popularity.
Now, few of us are tempted by bad things; we are tempted by good things that get in the way of better things. This surely was true for Jesus. Stomach growling after days of fasting, he imagined a gourmet dinner, with all his favorite foods. Filled with the power of the Spirit and superhuman energies, he imagined becoming the next Caesar – ruling the world with justice and equality and receiving the adulation of millions. Worried about his well-being, he visualized a life of safety and security.
Power, food, and security. All of these are good things. But, Jesus discovered that if these were his goals, he would miss the one true thing – his vocation as God’s messenger to humanity. He realized, in the words of Augustine, that “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.” None of these good things will satisfy us unless we see them in terms of God’s will for our lives.
We all have our temptations, don’t we? Good things that get in the way of God’s things. I certainly do – and despite spiritual direction, therapy, self-awareness, and success – they keep coming back like Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness. I know that as a child growing up in an emotionally complicated environment, I seek reconciliation, and I try to be help solve other peoples’ problems – all which make for being a good pastor, caring, comforting, healing – except when they become more important than following God’s way in my life and ministry. On occasion, I have to step back and realize that if I am to be faithful to my call, I need to face conflict, let go of saving others, and recognize that God is the savior, reconciler, and healer, and not me.
In the Celtic Christian tradition of Scotland and Ireland, there is a practice called the encircling. You draw a circle around yourself and say a prayer as a sign of God’s protective and guiding presence. I have used this to find peace and guidance in difficult situations – if God is with me, all will be well, even if I fail.
In the wilderness, Jesus circled himself with prayer. He brought his temptations to God. He placed them in God’s care, knowing that if he followed God’s way, power, comfort, and safety could be gifts and not temptations, ways of serving God and to his own ego or self-gratification.
So, during Lent, let us follow the words of an old Baptist hymn, “What a Friend We have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear, what a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer.”
Let us encircle our joys with God’s love, our fears with God’s love, our temptations with God’s love, and at the end of the day, with Julian of Norwich we can proclaim, “all will be well and all will be well and all manner of thing will be w