Wednesday, March 22, 2017

How to Avoid Those Annoying Little Blisters

On this third Sunday of Lent we encounter two readings that focus our attention on life’s pilgrimage. The first reading (Exodus 17:1-7) reminds us that our journey through the wilderness of life is done in stages. The second reading (John 4:5-42) is a story about the spiritual pilgrimage of Jesus, a Samaritan woman, her friends, and the disciples. Everyone in this story was at different stage on their life’s pilgrimage.

Thirteen years ago, as I prepared for my first walking pilgrimage in Ireland, I asked three young friends, who had walked their own pilgrimages, for some advice.

I asked the first one what was the most important thing she thought I needed to know about going on a pilgrimage. “Well,” she said. “You’re not going “on a” pilgrimage. You’re already “on” pilgrimage. The moment you decided to be intentional about pilgrimage was the moment your pilgrimage began. Life is “the” pilgrimage,” she said. “Walking Ireland is just one stretch of the journey.”

I asked the second young friend what advice he could give me about hiking. He said, “Buy the best leather boots you can find. And don’t be cheap. Good boots will cost you something but in the end, worth every penny you spend.”

I asked my third young friend what was the most important piece of equipment I should take with me. “Silk sock liners,” she said without hesitation. “They don’t cost much but they’ll save you from getting blisters.”

Wisdom from three wise souls. Not only for walking my many pilgrimages, but also for gaining wisdom from the metaphors about walking the pilgrimage of life.

My first young friend taught me that on life’s pilgrimage, I will need spiritual guides. It doesn’t matter what age the guide is—what matters is that they’ve walked the way before. In the story of the Samaritan woman, we understand that Jesus will be our spiritual guide. But also in the story, the woman would become a spiritual guide for many of her friends. They followed the way of Jesus because she pointed them to the path.

I’m not very fond of being called a Christian. But I do want to be known as a person who is following the way of Jesus. So, I look for guides, mentors, teachers who know the way. People who will hold me accountable. Who won’t let me hide or avoid things in life. Six weeks ago, when my pilgrimage took a dramatic turn, I called some friends who I know are experienced at leading churches through similar situations. During this time, I need their guidance and wisdom to keep me on the path.

Regarding my second young friend’s advice, I did buy an expensive pair of leather boots and I haven’t been sorry one step of the way. What he also taught me was that there will be a significant cost that accompanies my spiritual pilgrimage. In the story of the Samaritan woman almost everyone in the story took some significant risk. Jesus risked his reputation as a rabbi by talking to the woman. The woman risked humiliation by telling her friends that she had met the Messiah. And the people that followed her back to Jesus risked their time. The disciples, however, didn’t risk anything. They took the safe route. Instead of asking Jesus why he had been talking to the woman, they asked Jesus if he was hungry. There wasn’t anything wrong with their well-meaning question. But without taking a risk that would cost them something they weren’t going to grow spiritually.

Jung said that if there isn’t an outward journey, there will never be an inner journey. A spiritual pilgrimage requires the risk of going somewhere and doing something. We may not go to Ireland and walk the Wicklow Way or go to Spain and walk the Camino, but by being involved in a ministry that makes us uncomfortable and that costs us something, there we will be on pilgrimage and growing spiritually.

And I also followed my third friend’s advice; I bought sock liners. The thin silk socks cost less than three dollars. But I’ve hiked a thousand miles since that point and I’ve only had one tiny blister. What I learned from her advice was that I need to pay attention to the small details that will be important in my spiritual growth. Jesus told the disciples, “One person reaps and one person sows.” Often times, I tell my spiritual director that I’m overwhelmed. He typically tells me, “Gil, say your prayers and do your little bit.” As Anglicans, people of the Prayer Book, we understand that our prayers shape our belief. In other words, how we pray effects how we act. By focusing our attention on our prayer life, we trust that we will actually live a life of prayer; meaning we will naturally be doing God’s work in the world; feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and those in prison, and embracing the stranger in our country (Matthew 25:35). Our prayer life will guide us into living a life of service. To paraphrase Jesus, one person does one ministry and someone else does another. We all do our little bit.

I don’t want to skip over this important detail and make the assumption that we all understand what a life of prayer looks like. We all will be drawn to a different way of praying. Some will take the Prayer Book and follow the pattern of praying morning prayer, noon day prayer, evening prayer, and compline. Some will pray just one of those services of prayer.

Some will pray one of the small prayers at the back of the Prayer Book. Some will pray the rosary, which includes the Our Father and the Hail Mary. Some will pray the Eastern Orthodox Jesus prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me a sinner.” Some will pray extemporaneously. The point is not so much the form of prayer. The point is that we pray with the intention that the prayer shapes the way we act. There’s a subtle but important difference here, prayer shapes the way we believe and act, not the reverse, which is belief shapes the prayer.

I was in Canterbury Cathedral in England several years ago. We happened to be there at noon when someone said over the intercom that it was the custom of the cathedral that everyone stop for a moment and say the Lord’s Prayer in their own language. I was in the undercroft standing near a tiny side chapel just large enough for four people to kneel at the rail. As I knelt and began praying the Lord’s Prayer, I realized I was kneeling on a stone kneeler, where the prayers of people for over a thousand years had worn out the stone. The prayers of the people shaped the stone. And that’s what our prayers do to our mind, body, soul, and spirt. We are shaped by our prayer. While this life of prayer will protect the tenderness of our soul from the burden of life’s blisters, it will also activate us to live a life of service.

Wise words from my young pilgrim friends. Listen to our spiritual guides. Be willing to pay the price of spiritual growth. And pay attention to the small details of life’s pilgrimage. Life is a pilgrimage. How we walk it will make a difference in our life as well as everyone around us.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

It's the Temptation of the Good that Get Me in Trouble

In my thirteen years of preaching in the Episcopal Church, I don’t think I’ve preached on sin and temptation, per se; at the most a few times. I’ve probably preached around the topic, or used another word for sin, like “mistakes,” or “those things that separate us from the divine.” Having grown up in the Southern Baptist Church, sin was a popular topic, particularly those obvious “Big Sins” that dealt with sex, money, and power. For the most part now, I think the majority of people who attend church do their best to steer clear of the sins of the obvious.

We work hard to avoid these temptations. But, temptation is actually a good thing. St Anthony of the Desert said that temptation is necessary for our spiritual growth. Which is probably why we heard in the Gospel of Matthew (4:1-11) that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted. St Anthony also said that the more mature the person is in their spirituality, the subtler the temptations would become.

We can’t study Jesus’ temptations without first making some sense of the other major character in this story, Satan. We can get some clue about who Satan was in this story by looking back at the Book of Job. In that story, all the heavenly beings were with God. There, Satan told God he had spent time on earth among God’s people. God asked Satan if he had seen Job, God’s servant, the man among men of earth that had turned away from evil and walked God’s path. Satan challenged God, suggesting that Job just hadn’t been tempted severely enough. So, God let Satan have his way with Job. Job might be considered the Old Testament Christ figure—a son of God would never turn his back on God, no matter what lie ahead. And who is Satan? Well, an easy way to look at that character would be to consider Satan like the older brother in the story. The one who always tells you, “Go ahead, it’s okay, you can do it, you won’t get in trouble.” But in the end, big brother leads you astray. With that in mind, let’s take a look at Jesus’ temptations.

First, Jesus was tempted to turn stones into bread. It is interesting that Jesus would, later in his ministry, turn “stones” into bread. At the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus would take the meager lunch of a boy and use it to inspire the disciples “hearts of stone” of disbelief, into enough food to feed the hungry masses. So, turning stones into bread wasn’t the temptation. The real temptation for Jesus was to do something good, at the wrong time for the wrong reason.

I’m pretty familiar with that temptation. There are a lot of things I’m asked to do that are good things to do—things I can do, things I’m qualified to do—the problem is, either the timing or my reason is wrong. I’m constantly being asked to serve on a committee, teach a class, train a group of people, take on some assignment—the issue is timing or my reason for accepting. Is this the right time for me? The better question is, “Do I have the time to do a good job?” The other question is, “What’s my reason for considering doing this thing?” Is it my ego that’s feeling good by being asked or is this something I’m really supposed to do?”

What did Jesus do in this circumstance? He looked for the deeper meaning. The answer wouldn’t be found by feeding his ego. Instead, he would discern by listening to the voice of God. Turning the stones into bread wasn’t a bad thing—it was just a “Good thing, at the wrong time for the wrong reason.”

Second, Jesus was tempted to jump off a pinnacle and rely on God to save him. Once again, Jesus would actually do this later in his ministry; he would crawl high upon the pinnacle of the Cross and leap off into the dark abyss of death, relying on God to save him. The real temptation here, though, would be that Jesus was tempted to avoid the hard work that needed to be done on the Cross.

Well, I’m pretty familiar with this temptation as well. There are things that I know are going to take a lot of hard work—dark night of the soul kind of stuff. And I know it would be a lot easier to avoid that work in my life, to simply turn around and walk away. The problem is, when I avoid walking through the storm, I miss all the work the Spirit will do in my life. It takes about two hours to drive the 100 miles of Ireland’s Wicklow Way, while it takes seven days to walk it. As Carl Jung would say, without the outer pilgrimage, there is no inner journey; no walking, no inner pilgrimage. Jesus didn’t avoid the hard work of the Cross. And he challenged us to take up our cross, to do our hard work in the dark night of the soul. Giving in to the temptation of avoidance will reduce our opportunity for spiritual growth.

Jesus’ third temptation in the desert was even more subtle than the first two. Typically, we take this temptation on face value—Jesus was tempted to worship Satan. But was Jesus really tempted to worship Satan? Maybe we could go a bit deeper and say that Jesus was tempted with power. Again, that doesn’t seem like anything Jesus would really be tempted by. Truthfully, after 400 years after Jesus walked on the earth he would be worshipped by the kingdoms of the world. So, how was he being tempted? I think Jesus was tempted by the sin of immediacy. “It can all be yours, now. You don’t have to wait.”

Oh, I know this temptation so well. My lack of patience tempts me to say, “We can fix this problem right now if we just do it my way.” The old adage my dad used to tell me rings in my ears, “if you want it done right, do it yourself.” But the immediate solution is not often the sustainable or systemic way to solve the problem. God’s way is outside the equation of time. God’s work has a long arc and takes a lot of patience.

Like Jesus, we too are tempted to do good things, though the timing and the reason might be off. We are also tempted to avoid the hard work of the dark night of the soul. And we are tempted to by the sin of immediacy.

Like Jesus, we must slow down and listen to God through our prayers. There we will find the strength to persevere those temptations that plague us. And like Jesus, eventually the tempter will leave us and then the angels will minister to our needs.