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The Desert as the Way to Life: Blooming in the Fierce Reality of Love

  • Posted on Mar 15, 2019

In our Collect for the First Sunday of Lent, we pray: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations, and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you might to save.

Fierce and true words for each of us.
We all know the truth of this prayer.
And when we pray this prayer, we know what many of our temptations and weaknesses are.
Lent is a time to recognize these temptations, name them, and go deep with them.
In the process, we often find that we have only scratched the surface of what truly bedevils us.
But when we scratch that surface, we are on the brink of everything essential to our life.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is on the brink of everything.
Baptized by John in the Jordan, full of the Holy Spirit, he is ready to embark on a ministry that was his alone to do.
But before he begins, he is led by the Spirit into the wilderness where he is tempted by Satan.
We all have come countless times to what we think is the brink of everything.
When we were babies and stood up and took our first steps. We were on the brink of everything and life was never the same.
When we went got on the school bus for the first time and went to school, we were on the brink of everything and life was never the same.
Middle School, High School and College….marriage, children, job, moving house or town, retirement.
We are on the brink of everything too when we lose someone we love.
When we await news of a diagnosis.
When we approach our deaths—we are on the brink of everything.

Parker Palmer, the Quaker spiritual writer, has just published a book titled On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity and Getting Old.

In this book, Palmer quotes an 85-year-old psychologist Florida Scott-Maxwell who wrote: “You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done…you are fierce with reality.”

As we enter into Lent, we come again to stand on the brink of everything–our life as we know it this year–and try in these coming forty days to examine our lives so that we move forward FIERCE WITH REALITY.

Problem is: there is a sense that when we are standing surveying our lives–particularly at times of transition–that we feel utterly alone.
When I was expecting our first child, I tried to comfort my fears and anxiety about the birth process by saying to myself: “Women have been having babies for centuries….”
But just like waiting in the pre-surgical area, I felt utterly alone as the due date drew ever nearer.

Feeling alone. That is the desert and wilderness experience. But the desert experience is also about facing that sense of aloneness and realizing that it is not completely true.

Those of you that spent time with Carolyn Metzger when she came to Emmanuel for a Lenten retreat last year were amazed that she would go for three weeks ALONE into the canyon desert in New Mexico–without cell reception or electricity–bringing in all her provisions. What she discovered was that she was surrounded by the birds and beasts of the canyon. That life was all around her. And God was there.
Carolyn says that those annual three weeks in the desert save her—but I think she always goes in with some trepidation. For she shared with us the fierce reality that she could die in the desert….and always writes a note each year to leave for those who come to find her body if she has an accident or unexpected illness.

The devil tempts Jesus with power, prestige and possessions–the seduction by which society has always defined success.
As Jesus tells his disciples again and again, the mark of Christian faithfulness can only be “failure” by societal standards.
Jesus’ conversation with Satan shows this to be so.

And it is so hard to learn to walk with Jesus because the very experience of failure will bring the deep feelings of loneliness, desertion, abandonment and fear into our reality from somewhere deep within.
When this happens, we’d rather turn to our weaknesses, our temptations, our chosen addictions to keep from doing our spiritual work.
For those of us who are workaholics, we know full well the fear of doing nothing, for constant activity is our addiction, our only defense against the anxiety of being alone.
So too the next drink for an alcoholic.

W Paul Jones, a Catholic monk, writes that our “desert blooms the moment we are willing to be last—not because last will someday be first, but any gain of “first” and “last” has lost its appeal.” (W. Paul Jones, Facets of Faith: Living the Dimensions of Christian Spirituality)

I wonder what those times are in your own life when you have realized success wasn’t what it was cracked up to be.

That any gain of “first” and “last” has lost its appeal.

This Lent revisit those times–for those are where the spiritual gold lies.

For me, that happened in 1993, when I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
I was in the ordination process and about to go for my candidacy interviews.
This process had been several years in the making and I wanted to succeed.
Before the cancer, I would have been a nervous wreck preparing for the interviews, not wanting to fail.
But somehow, as I approached the interviews, I had this great sense of peace.
Being alive itself was the precious gift—it really didn’t matter if I moved forward or not.
But I had to lose my sense of control, my sense of succeeding, indeed my very health—and enter my desert to understand the gift.
The Fierce Reality of Love that sustains, gives life and wipes away any need for “firsts’ and “lasts.”

Jesus shows us again and again how to walk this way–the gain of first and last has no appeal to him.
Satan can not tempt him with the world of success and failure.
Jesus knows that it is about the precious gift of life in relationship with our Creator that wipes away all need of first and last.
As Richard Rohr says, time to burn the scorecard of meritocracy—for that is truly where our weaknesses and temptations lie.
And we come to a place where we are loved and know we are never alone.
We need the season of Lent to recover this fierce truth and reality once again.

Note: If you are reading Richard Rohr’s Breathing Under Water this Lent, take a look at Chapter Four “A Good Lamp” which begins on p. 29.

(c)2019 The Rev. Martha N Macgill