Pushed and Pulled to Live and Grow

First Sunday in Lent

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

It has begun, the season of Lent, a season of rest, renewal, repentance, reconciliation, and learning (four R’s and an L). This year our focus will be on learning, specifically, we will explore how our faith can help ground and support our mental health. Lent is an opportunity to lift our lives to Jesus like a small child holding up a broken toy to fix what is broken. Lent is a time to uncover and to plug in to the healing grace of God hidden inside you and that comes from all around you.  In Lent we pray for God to wipe away our tears.

Scripture says Jesus was “led by the Spirit in the wilderness” (Luke 4:1). Our translation understates the tension. The Spirit took hold of Jesus and led him by force as one might lead an animal.  Still dripping wet with the baptismal waters of the Jordan, and with the name Beloved ringing in his ears, we are startled to read that Jesus was driven into the desert to be tempted by an articulate, Torah-toting, scripture-quoting devil. Is he pushed or pulled? Called or compelled?  Was he merely curious to answer the promptings of God or did he follow out of necessity?

In the desert Jesus is learning about himself and we are learning about Jesus. American politician Robert G. Ingersoll is supposed to have said about President Abraham Lincoln, “If you want to find out what a man is to the bottom, give him power. Any man can stand adversity — only a great man can stand prosperity. It is the glory of Abraham Lincoln that he never abused power only on the side of mercy.”

Jesus learns “…to trust that he can be beloved and famished, valued and vulnerable at the same time.  He has to learn that God’s care resides within his flesh-and-blood humanity — within a fragile vessel that can crack and shatter.” Jesus learns …”We are beloved of God.  And we will die.  The first truth does not prevent the second.  The second truth does not negate the first.” (Debie Thomas, “In the Barren Places,” Journey with Jesus, 2/27/22)

Jesus is son of Joseph; son of David; son of Abraham; Son of Noah; son of Adam; the son of God. Yet he did not use that special relationship to his own advantage: not for food when he is starving; not to increase his power over nations; not to test God’s love.  Jesus proved he had the right stuff. Jesus shows his trustworthiness to be our most intimate confidante and guide. Pushed and pulled, Jesus comes to believe and understand who he truly is.

I’ll admit, mostly, I don’t learn new things until I have to. God bless those who learn because they are merely curious. They say, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ and most often it is also what finally pushes me to climb up the learning curve.

Remember when the pandemic hit, we suddenly had to learn a bunch of new stuff?  At our house, one of those things was fitting two jobs and two high school classrooms into the same space.  It’s amazing how sound travels when people zoom. I started out at the dining table, then moved to Joe’s old bedroom, which was fine until Joe came home. Then I officed on the front porch until it got too cold.  So, then it was back to the dining table, or the living room, or the family room.  Looking back, I marvel at all the spaces, nooks, and crannies which had previously overlooked which remained unexamined and unexplored.

The Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi [1207–1273] describes our soul-space as a magnificent cathedral where we are “sweet beyond telling.” Saint Teresa of Ávila [1515–1582] described it as a castle. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul asked, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16). Cathedrals. Castles. Temples.

There is something deep in you pushing and pulling to enter into the indwelling fullness and presence of the living God. Most of us don’t dare imagine or even consider that we could be one with God/Reality/the universe. This is the illusion Thomas Merton (1915–1968) called the “false” self or sometimes, the “separate,” or small self, that believes it is autonomous and separate from God. [Joyce Rupp, Open the Door: A Journey to the True Self (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2008)]

However, we describe our inner terrain, one thing is certain: we tend to live in just a few rooms of our inner landscape. The full person God created us to be contains more than we can imagine. Opening the door of our heart [this Lent might] allows us entrance to the vast treasure of who we are and to the divine presence within us.”  Or as Paul said to the Athenians, to know that God is “the One in whom we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

Have you noticed in the Book of Genesis, “…God makes a home for things before God makes a thing? Not the fish first but the sea. Not the birds first but the sky. Not the human first but the garden.” A God who says, ‘Not out of my own womb but out of this here dust will I make you.” …“If you’ve suffered an anxiety attack, maybe you’ve encountered the grounding techniques of the five senses.  What’s one thing you smell? Tell me two things you hear. There is a mysterious entanglement between our welfare and our capacity to ground ourselves in a particular place.  We are meant to be connected to our where, to the sensory experience of it. The simple beholding of a place can slow your heart and steady your breath. It is quite a protective force” (Cole Arthur Riley, This Here Flesh, p 18-19, 2022).

We echo Job’s lament, “O that I knew where I might find God, that I might come even to his dwelling! (Job 23:3). This Lent we are invited—or perhaps—we are being pushed and pulled to explore the lesser-known and to open even the spaces we have walled-off within our own heart, mind, and soul. (The second is best done with the help of a trusted competent therapist.)

Whether because of the pandemic, or a racial reckoning, or the climate crisis, or the Russian invasion of Ukraine, clearly, we are living through a defining moment in history. Yet, while that definition remains unclear, it is entirely emotionally appropriate to feel anxious in such anxious times. Or to feel weighed down, languishing, or depressed by so much chronic stress.  Whether it is because you feel called to work toward a more hopeful future, or compelled to reduce the pain you feel, know that the spirit of Christ is working in and through you this Lent to help write the definition of these days that will be read 20, 50, and 100 years from now.

Come, come, whoever you are. Walk with Jesus.  Follow the leader.  It will not be easy. Take all the time you need.  Don’t be afraid to face your fears.  Find in Jesus the power to say no. Let Jesus give you strength to say yes. Lean on Jesus to persevere when your own strength is failing, until we find rest in the living sanctuary that we have in one another who are Christ’s body, and draw strength from the temple of the living God that is within each of you.