Monday, February 15, 2016

A Tempting Identity

“If you are the Son of God…”

“If you bow down and worship me…”

“If you are the Son of God…”

Three temptations.  At their core they challenge  identity – Jesus’ sense of self, his self-understanding, his acceptance of who God proclaimed him to be at his baptism.  And they challenge allegiance – who or what is most important to him.  Put succinctly, the temptations raise two basic questions: Who are you? and Whose are you? 

In his book The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis reminds us the devil is, if nothing else, an opportunist, but it would be a mistake to think this wilderness event is a kind of drive-by temptation; a quick attack and retreat.  The text tells us the Spirit “led” Jesus into the wilderness, “where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.”  The verb form used here for to tempt is a present, passive participle, which means the action is ongoing, continuous.  Jesus is being tempted in wilderness throughout the forty days.  At the same time he is being led by the Spirit; the form of to lead is passive, imperfect which also implies continual, ongoing action. 

So as Jesus is being tempted he is being led and as he is being led he is being tempted.  He experiences both simultaneously, as we do.  As we are living into who we are we are being tempted to be someone we are not.  And as we are staying true to whose we are, we are being tempted to belong to something or someone else.

The Presbyterian minister and popular writer Frederick Buechner makes this observation:

After being baptized by John in the river Jordan, Jesus went off alone into the wilderness where he spent forty days asking himself the question what it meant to be Jesus.  During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask one way or another what it means to be themselves.

So who are you?  It seems like a simple, straightforward question, doesn’t it.  You can answer in any number of different ways.  You can tell me you name, where you are from, and what you do in life.  You can tell me about your parents, siblings, spouse, children, and extended family.  You can show me your driver’s license and give me your Social Security number.  All of these things tell me something about who you are, but they are not what I am asking for.  Who are you – the ‘you’ uniquely created by God to be.  Just as no two snowflakes are the same, neither are any two human beings.  There is only one you. 

Who are you?

  What energizes you?

  What drains you?

  When do you feel most alive?

  When do you feel most loved?

  What do you do that gives you deep satisfaction?

  If you could do anything – anything at all – with the rest of your day, what would you do?

  What was the greatest risk you took in life that led to the deepest payoff?

  When do you feel useful?

  What experiences cultivated in you a sense of self-worth?

  When and how do you experience authentic communion with God?

  How is your life oriented around the reality of God?

These, and questions like these, have answers, but typically not at the ready.  We have to sit with them over time – perhaps forty days – in order for an authentic response to emerge.  It is from what emerges you can begin to answer the question of identity – who am I?

I am looking forward to our Wednesday evenings in Lent as we use a resource called “Growing a Rule of Life”, which was created by the Society of St. John the Evangelist, an Episcopal monastic community in Boston.  Typically, most of us are not looking for any more rules to follow than we already have, but monastics use the word rule in a different way.  For them a rule of life is “a plan, discerned over time, to cultivate practices that lead to flourishing of body, mind, and soul.” 

I suspect every person here unknowingly follows some kind of a rule of life.  I suspect you have an established routine you follow over the course of the day.  You get up, make a cup of coffee, and check the internet while eating a piece of chocolate.  You clean up, dress up, and get off to work in much the same way Monday through Friday.  Work has its own established routines, even if there is little about the day you control.  You come home at night, settle down, and settle in in a way that has its own established patterns. 

These patterns (called practices in the monastic tradition) have a way of shaping who and whose we are.  They emerge over time and develop out of our specific context.  For most of us, our practices have come into being unintentionally, not as a result of thoughtful discernment to aid who we want to be.  As a result, the ongoing experience of being tempted looks like drifting along through life in the same old way, never knowing who we are and doing little to live into whose we are.

I have said before how much I appreciated the gift of the conference I attended in November where we were given the time, space, and guidance to discover ourselves again.  I identified many things I already knew about myself and landed on a couple of new insights. 

Here is something I already knew: I am not one for large, social gatherings.  Crowded parties with voices all around me, people standing shoulder to shoulder, moving from one conversation to another, is not my thing.  However, I really enjoy small, intimate gatherings with family and friends.  I recognized that, other than evening meetings at the church, I live largely alone so I set a goal to cultivate intimacy in my life.  Who am I?  I am a person who prefers intimacy to crowds.  I committed to four practices to live into this aspect of who I am:

  Once a week I make a lunch appointment with a clergy colleague, even if I have to drive several hours for it to happen.

  I invite 5-7 people to my house on Friday evenings from 5:00-7:00 PM.

  I set out but have yet to join or create a clergy group for mutual exploration and support.

  I adopted a dog.

These practices form a part of my new rule of life.  They support who I am.  I will want to revisit my rule from time to time to see how I am doing with it.  Have I drifted away from it and, in the process, lost something of who I am?  Are there new practices I can cultivate to lead to a greater flourishing of my body, mind, and soul? 

“Jesus went off alone into the wilderness where he spent forty days asking himself the question what it meant to be Jesus.  During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask one way or another what it means to be themselves.”  Someone once said if you can’t answer the question “who are you?” the world will give you an answer.  The single most difficult, ongoing temptation we face is to define who we are in ways others or the world wants us to be, as opposed to being who God created us to be. 

I was given several tasks to complete prior to going to the conference I attended last fall.  One was to work through a booklet titled Becoming Ourselves Again.  Let me conclude this sermon with the first two sentences in it:

When we get in touch with what truly matters to us, we discover what makes us most alive.

When we find that which rests at our core and gives us life, we rediscover the value God intended in us and for us.

I invite you into the wilderness of Lent to search yourself as Jesus searched himself – to learn who you are and to learn whose you are.