Right Things, Wrong Reasons
The weeks and months of our lives move forward. Inexorably they move ; there is nothing we can do to make time literally go faster or to slow it down. I think back with regret over periods of my life that were too, too busy and very stressed, times in which I was prompted to wish time away – to want to fast-forward, times when I paid lip service to what was going on around me in order to keep my eye on the harried line, hold out for the end of the bumpy patch. My challenges were real, but along the way I was wishing away precious days, the gift of being alive, the privilege of looking for grace within challenges, opportunities to love up my wonderful family and friends. These are a part of the everyday, too, along with the difficulties. Those who are grieving, and those who have serious health challenges, often need no reminder that we must never wish away a moment of life.
The weeks and months of our lives move forward, and now they plunk us down in the season of Lent. It can be tempting to some to simply bide their time in these weeks and keep their eye on the horizon line of Easter. That’s how the Lenten story ends, of course, with the Resurrection. But let’s not wish away this time. If we truly observe Lent, we risk growing and even changing. We risk a deepened faith, and maybe the discomfort that can come from honest self-assessment. Let’s not wish away this time. Let’s truly inhabit it and see where it will take us.
It begins by taking us to the starting point of the wilderness. We are invited to walk with Jesus, and to be tested in our own vocations and lives as he is in his. The temptations placed before him I find heartbreaking. Yes, they are each temptations to exalt himself, to prove himself, but that’s only the surface. The invitation to turn stones into loaves of bread was an invitation to end hunger, want, and suffering the world over. With his heart of love for all humanity, how Christ must have struggled not to just say “yes!” to ending the life-threatening crises that either claim or compromise millions upon millions of hungry lives each year. If you and I are so upset by photos of starving children – cavernous cheeks and eye sockets, thinning hair, bloated bellies and leg bones outlined with the thinnest covering of flesh, how must Christ have yearned to end that suffering. But not on the devil’s terms.
The devil showed Jesus all the nations of the world and offered him dominion over them. Unlike us, Jesus is not in love with power, but if he could order the affairs of every nation they would be just . If you and I are so dispirited reading news dispatches from the lands of tyrants, places where people are violently repressed, how must Jesus’ heart have ached to with the word “yes!”- save all people in every time and place from state-sponsored oppression, cruelty, domination. But not on the devil’s terms. The devil then tempted Christ to throw himself off a high place and be caught by angels, but Jesus does not want to be our Lord because we have common sense or accurate reporting but because we have faith. He wants us to believe in him, but not on the devil’s terms. How his heart must have ached for all who struggle to believe, or will have no truck with faith, that they might have the joy of “the life that really is life.”
The season of Lent sends us , if we will let it, like Jesus, into the wilderness to be tested. We do not have the power, of course, to bring global healing, justice and faith. Our testing will be on a smaller order of magnitude, but it will be potent. Like Christ, we are tempted to do not those things we can’t do, but the things we can . I can’t bring world peace, but I can ruin a reputation, or a career. I can willfully misdirect or misadvise someone. None of us is necessarily powerful, but there is much that is within our power . Like Christ, our greatest testing is to do the right thing for the wrong reason. Christ was tempted to heal the world and bring it to faith (right things) to the glory of the devil (wrong reason). While we may not be approached by a deal-making Satan, we do endure temptations to do things that, in the moment, seem only good. As a minister, I have the profound privilege of being taken into the confidence of many people. Over a couple of decades, people have shared with me (after the fact) how they decided to do something that was, in quick retrospect, very obviously wrong. It seemed only wonderful and worthy at the time. For some, it was to engage in an extra-marital affair, a new relationship that brought passion but more so the deepest happiness and human connection. It felt like a gift from God. It was all a very positive, deliriously happy impulse, but the wrong choice. From students, it’s been my privilege to be a confidante in matters of plagiarism or other academic infractions. In the moment, it seemed a blessed alternative to an undeserved hard situation – slipping far behind in work because of an illness or an unexpected but necessary trip home. A slight academic indiscretion at a moment of crisis isn’t what rules against cheating are really about – they’re about big, intentional, corrupt behavior, not borrowing some lines from a friend’s work. The difficult situation is honorable and so this remedy is as well. There is everything good about doing high quality academic work, but never through means of lying or misrepresenting oneself. Our biggest temptations, like those of Christ, aren’t really about bringing ruin to others but a lovely thing to ourselves. We are most tempted to make happen what we want for ourselves, and to be blinded by the goodness in it. As Fred Craddock likes to say, no self-respecting devil would invite you to ruin yourself. That is in the fine print.
In all of this, our perhaps biggest temptation is to compromise . We make ourselves believe it is the right thing. We compromise on our principles and then call it progress. We scale back our expectations for ourselves, then congratulate ourselves on all the headway we are making. We set out to make a challenging effort, and when we find ourselves a little out of breath, we move the goalposts, remove the challenge, and pat ourselves on the back for reaching the end zone. We decide that we will give a certain amount of time to a group on campus, or a certain amount of money to an organization doing lifesaving work, but when the commitment becomes demanding we reduce our stated obligation and call ourselves wise, balanced, mature about this. No, we must never over-commit ourselves, but we must also never compromise on righteous work because we don’t want to have to really labor at it.
Plunked down as we are in the season of Lent, how shall we spend our time? What does Lent invite us to do? The writer and minister Fred Beochner has said, “After being baptized by John in the River Jordan, Jesus went off alone into the wilderness where he spent forty days asking himself the question of what it meant to be Jesus. During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask, one way or another, what it means to be themselves… to answer questions like this is to begin to hear something not only of who you are but of both what you are becoming and what you are failing to become. It can be pretty depressing business all in all, but if sackcloth and ashes are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end.” Hmm – Lent as the opportunity – the responsibility? – to ask what it means to be ourselves. What does is mean for me to be Alison? What does it mean for you to be you ? Most people, if asked if they were currently being fully true to themselves, would say no. Do I inhabit the integrity that I think Alison is called to have? Or the honesty? Or the faith? Do I yet inhabit the joy that God placed in my soul not just to relish but to share ? Do I yet inhabit the courage to really challenge those who are unfair or unjust? What does it mean to be Alison, and is Alison today who she was meant to be? What does it mean to be you, and have you really become you yet? Sister Joan Chittister, who preached here last fall, has written, “Lent is the time to make new efforts to be what we say we want to be.”
Uncomfortable as it may be, Lent is our time to submit ourselves to testing, to clarify who we were meant to be, and to grow. Sometimes we test ourselves, and sometimes we expose ourselves to testing from the devil - the tempter, or angels, or hum-drum folks in between. Boechner is right – if we begin this season in sackcloth and ashes - that is, in an attitude of repentance – our spirits will be fertile soil for growth. If we begin Lent not on the defensive but with honest self-assessment, and a readiness to learn challenging truths about ourselves, we risk growing so much into the people we were called to be, we risk learning just how many right things we do for the wrong reasons.
Let us not wish away those weeks of Lent. They may be the struggle we don’t want , but yet the struggle that sets us on our truest course. Christ prayed in his wanderings, and he was famished, and he emerged from the profoundest temptations unimpeachable in his calling, ready for the journey ahead of him. He was able to endure Calvary. There was for him no Easter joy without the trials and clarification of the wilderness. Let us invite Christ to our side as we journey through our own temptations, our own honings of self and calling. Jesus has been this way before; he knows how powerful the lure can be to abandon the person we know we are, for the quick “yes!” to the right thing for the wrong reason. No, let us not wish away these weeks of Lent but embrace them as holy opportunity .