Into the Lenten Wilderness

stone-desert-near-monastery-mar-musa-in-syriaWhen I was living in Japan, I would often attend the Buddhist temple that my father-in-law attended.  I gleaned a lot of good insight and in fact learned how to be a better Christian there.  How’s that for irony?  We would occasionally have special guests come and talk to us and on one such occasion a priest and professor came from Otani University in Kyoto.  I will never forget what he said.  He explained that a tadpole will naturally become a frog; however, a human child will not naturally become a humane human being.  A human must intentionally exhibit love, compassion, and empathy in order to consider him or herself a humane human being.  Before we perform any action or utter any word, we must consider the effect that it will have on those around us. This, he told us, is what it means to be enlightened.  This is what it means to be a Buddha.

When I heard this explanation I let it roll around in my head for a while as I pondered it imagining that there was some great significance until it eventually sunk into my heart – Eureka!  This is what it means to be more Christ-like!  This is the essence of being Christian!  When we are able to shed our attachments to a level that we are actually capable of considering another before ourselves every time we do something, then not only will be a living example of the love that Jesus taught, but we will also necessarily experience God so much more deeply as Jesus also taught.

Now, as I use the word “attachment”, I realize that I have to be cautious and clear about what I mean.  In the traditional Buddhist definition, an attachment is something that we create that leads to suffering.  For example, if I am getting off work after a rough day, I might think of how great it will be to get home, pop the top off of a cold one (whatever a “cold one” is in your definition), and watch a ball game.  The day has been rough, but with that cold one and ball game in mind, I can make it all better.  In fact, I equate those things with happiness.  So, I am driving home and I get stuck in traffic.  I get upset because they are getting in the way of me and my happiness.  I may start to road rage or at the very least just have a very stressful drive.  Sound familiar?  How many attachments in our lives do we create that just make us suffer?  Wealth?  Power?  Our own image of bodily perfection?

The desert fathers and mothers of the early church recognized how much these attachments and distractions could interfere with our experience of God.  Certainly there was persecution that they were running from and they against the eventual marriage of church and state as a viable form of spirituality, but mostly, many engaged in the practice of Hesychasm – a form of solitude where practitioners could encounter God in spiritual disciplines.  The Hesychasts realized that our attachments could lead to temptations, because, after all, if we are not attached to something it cannot tempt us.  So, through the practice of spiritual disciplines, they sought detachment which led to less temptations, which led to a stronger and deeper experience of God.

Jesus realized this also.  We often look at Jesus’s temptations as a malevolent being trying to take advantage of Jesus when he is at his weakest point.  He’s hungry, he’s apparently hopeless, and assumedly feeling powerless.  I think such a reading doesn’t really do justice to the story or to its point.  I don’t think that Jesus was weak at this point.  I think he was strong because he was in solitude and fasting.  He practicing spiritual disciplines out away from the distractions and all he had to contend with was his own mind.  Sometimes it’s our own wandering thoughts that are our biggest enemy.  Look at that beautiful car, I’d be happy if I had that!  Look how much money they have, man, if I was loaded like that I would never have to worry about a thing!  It must be nice to have so much power.  I could do whatever I want if I had that kind of power!

Jesus goes away from these things and finds himself able to overcome these temptations.  Jesus became quite popular with the people and many of them wanted to make him king.  He could have easily claimed power and riches for himself, but that wasn’t what he was about.  Because he was intentionally seeking God in all things, he found himself able to overcome the temptations when they were thrown at him.  Jesus doesn’t, however, say that overcoming attachments and the temptations that they lead to will be easy.  Just ask the disciples.  One rebuke followed another when the disciples were seeking power and prestige for themselves at the right hand of Jesus.  As we saw last week in the transfiguration story, Peter especially is always getting himself in trouble because of his attachments even though Jesus constantly keeps pointing the way toward God.

I wonder what it would look like if we followed Jesus’s example.  I wonder what it would feel like if we intentionally sought solitude and centered ourselves while shedding our attachments.  It would probably lead to less temptation.  Imagine that we aren’t as phased and stressed by the things that life throws at us and when things don’t go our way we just roll with it.  Imagine if we weren’t constantly looking ahead to some time in the future when things will be alright and we take what we have and say it is alright right now.  Why don’t we take these 40 days of Lent and start own own journey into the wilderness to find solitude and find God?

Imagine the renewal that would take place in ourselves and in the entire church if we were at such peace that we didn’t have to say “I’ll be happy when I get that bonus, or when this is done or that is done, or I get this or that,” but instead say “I am not going to let myself be attached to those things.  Instead I am going to sit right here and appreciate, recognize, focus, and experience the fact that I am in the presence of God.”

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