Reconnecting with Spiritual Practice
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RECONNECTING WITH SPIRITUAL PRACTICE
A reflection given at Holladay United Church of Christ on March 5, 2017 (First Sunday in Lent/Communion Sunday)
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
– Matthew 4:1-11
A few months ago, many of you participated in a survey conducted by our pastoral search committee to get current information about our church. One of the interesting responses I saw in the survey results was that lots of you indicated a desire to deepen your spiritual lives. That is an ongoing challenge for all of us.
I thought that would be a good thing to work on during this season of Lent – this 40 day season of preparation for Easter that began on Wednesday. Last summer I attended the Contemplative Prayer Camp at LaForet – sponsored by our Rocky Mountain Conference of the UCC – and one of the books we read and discussed was “The Rebirthing of God: Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings,” written by John Philip Newell. Newell observes that the Christian faith, as most of us have known it for the past five centuries, seems to be crumbling. He hopes for a rebirth of God and the Christian faith. Fortunately, ours is a resurrection faith, which believes that even when something as significant as a religious faith dies, there is the hope of something new that will come from it. And Newell suggests that the key to bringing forth something new is to “reconnect” with God/Ultimate Truth/Divine Love wherever it might be found. Each Sunday for the next eight weeks we will explore a different chapter of his book – a different way that we might reconnect with the Spirit.
Today, the place for reconnection is in spiritual practice – things like prayer, meditation, fasting, yoga, journaling, labyrinth walking, chanting, etc.
As we heard in our centering reading, which comes from Newell’s book, Thomas Merton saw spiritual practices as a way to make our religious faith more personal and intimate – making a shift from knowing “about” God, to knowing God in a relationship; to having a personal experience of God’s love and transformative power. This is a very different understanding of religious faith than many of us grew up with – very different from what the Christian Church has taught for centuries. But I agree with Newell that this is absolutely necessary for giving birth to a more vital and relevant faith for the 21st century and beyond. It is to fulfill the ancient commandment to “love” God. That is one of the objectives of spiritual practice.
Additionally, Thomas Merton also taught that spiritual practices can help us remember our “diamond essence” – the image of God in us. And then to also discern that diamond essence in others, leading us into deeper compassion for God’s people.
But I want to focus on another fruit of spiritual practice, which is suggested by our gospel lesson for this morning – the traditional lesson for the first Sunday in Lent: the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.
For me, the significance of this story is that Jesus used the time in the wilderness to try to discern how he was going to minister to people. He had been anointed as God’s beloved child in the waters of the Jordan River—now, how was he going to use that unique authority to help people? The temptations of the Devil offered him three options, or three paths, that look promising at first glance. How many times have we wished that God might act to feed all the hungry people in the world, or perform some spectacular act that would convince people that God does exist and can do miracles and fill the churches, or to extend God’s righteous rule through the political systems of this world? Those options look tempting indeed! But Jesus rejected them all.
If we think of this story as something that may have happened to Jesus long ago, it remains distant and alien to us. I would like to suggest, though, that this story is a kind of an archetype of temptations we all face in our own lives. This is a story about what it means to be human. In this, I have been intrigued by the theology (or psychology?) of Father Thomas Keating, who has written and taught extensively on the spiritual practice of Christian contemplative prayer. So this is not a part of Newell’s book.
Keating’s theory, based on recent research in developmental psychology, is that as a baby grows and matures, it inevitably becomes psychologically “wounded” by some of the events of life, because life is a struggle for all of us. To oversimplify, if a child grows up experiencing life as dangerous, that child may learn to cope by searching for survival and security. If a child is made to feel unloved for any reason, that child may respond by doing whatever she or he can to receive affection and affirmation from others. A person who grows up subject to the whims and oppression of others, feeling powerless, may try to exert power and control over others to achieve a measure of freedom. Keating believes this is a universal human experience—all of us are tempted to achieve survival/security, or affection/esteem, or power/control in order to make it through life.
Keating calls these temptations for personal survival our “false self.” I, personally, do not believe there is some divine being that tempts people in opposition to God that we identify as the Devil, or Satan, or whatever. Instead, we may think of the Devil as this desire for survival/security, affection/esteem, and power/control that is at work deep in our psyche, and makes it difficult to trust in God’s love and care.
Jesus was tempted by the Devil to assuage his hunger by turning stones into bread. This was an appeal to Jesus to feed his need for security and survival as much as his empty stomach. Imagine the security of never having to worry where your next meal will come from! Jesus responded that we do not live “by bread alone.”
The Devil then tempted Jesus to impress people with a high-dive show from the top of the temple. This was an appeal to Jesus’ human desire for affection and esteem. Imagine how many spiritual groupies he would have had if he had pulled off that dare-devil stunt! Jesus deflected that temptation by recalling, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
The final temptation may have been the toughest to resist—the temptation to rule the world through political and military power. Imagine how wonderful this world would be if God’s law was enforced throughout the world! Jesus turned down the offer, declining to pay the price of worshiping the Tempter.
Jesus was able to resist these great temptations, I think because he had the clarity of vision — born of the spiritual practice of fasting — to see how empty they were. Security is a phantom, because life can never be totally secure. Absolute security is death. If you start searching for affection and esteem from anyone besides God and yourself, no amount of adoring fans will fill the void. If power makes you feel good, remember there is always someone more powerful to threaten you.
Jesus saw how empty all of these temptations were. We are not nearly as wise and discerning. As we seek to live healthy lives with others, our default mode of action is to do what makes us feel good, especially in times of stress.
I think we can see these same temptations at work in our nation at this time. People are demanding security from all enemies, not realizing it is impossible to defend ourselves from every threat. In fact, the effort to achieve absolute security may, in the end, do us more harm than any enemy. We want everyone to love us as the most powerful and moral and enlightened people on the face of the earth, yet unwilling to learn to appreciate the gifts of other cultures. We seek power and control through regime changes. But as a secular political entity, we don’t have the spiritual resources to recognize and resist the temptations that have threatened and undone every world power through human history.
Welcome to the wilderness of being human—the place of temptation. But be of good cheer. Christ has gone this way before us. Jesus has wrestled with the Devil and prevailed. He invites us to follow him, to recognize our own struggles in the ones he experienced; to confess how often we give in, trusting in God’s forgiveness; and to grow in consciousness about how we make our choices.
How do we do that? That’s what Spiritual Practice is for. Practices such as fasting—from the things that tempt us and control our lives, not so much to overcome them as to see exactly how powerful is their influence on our lives. And, as Thomas Keating and Thomas Merton and John Philip Newell would teach us, prayer. Not the prayer that tells God what we want (though that has its place), but prayer that asks God to reveal what God wants us to see and do. Prayer that deepens our awareness of God’s love for us, and develops our trust in God. If we make that a regular part of our life, God will slowly sharpen our vision, to perceive our false selves at work in our daily lives, tempting us to put ourselves first. We are invited, in this season of Lent, to reconnect with God through spiritual practice.
Robert J. von Trebra