Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Wilderness

Trying to find the Wilderness this Lent?  Last week I let my wilderness be the University Book Shop where I ranged across the NZ poetry section looking for unfamiliar poets with the expectation of discerning something of the Presence stirring through others works.  Not looking for ‘believers’ you will understand, simply looking for the poetry where the Spirit speaks.  I came away with 'Gleam' by the late Sarah Broom and 'Playing God' by the poet/physician Glenn Colquhoun.

First Sunday in Lent 2016

Readings: Luke 4.1-13;

This First Sunday of Lent has made me remember the statement (attributed to Socrates) that “The unexamined life is not worth living”.  If Lent is about anything, it is about living an ‘examined life’; by which I mean to reflect on what it means to exist at all and to ponder who we are and who we are becoming.  As I say that I realise the immensity of the proposition  (after all, I am saying this in the same week that physicists have announced the discovery of
merger of two black holes
gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of spacetime that will allow scientists to trace what happened at the initial ‘big bang’ of creation 13.8 billion years ago)!  To start to think about that and the sheer immensity of the universe – and to be ‘listening in’ for 20 milliseconds to the merger of two black holes, at a distance of 1.3 billion light years, somewhere beyond the Large Magellanic Cloud – frankly beggars thought.

Such immensity overwhelms us and the great story that science begins to decipher also overwhelms us by its strangeness, accessible only to the few that grasp the theory and its languages.  This too is surely part of the ‘examined life’ but most of us need something more accessible; a simpler form of the story that will open our mind and transport us into a space where we can recognise and re-examine our place in the vast narrative and mystery of the universe.  This is where Lent begins.

So let’s just begin with the story in the gospel this morning – the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.  Around the world this Sunday there will be thousands of sermons and reflections on this gospel; over nearly two thousand years since this gospel was written – there will have been countless ripples of our engagement with this passage.  We come to hear this gospel against the cumulative white noise and static of all these responses.  It’s hard isn’t it?

We begin Lent with this story of a man in the wilderness.  He is alone.  There is no audience; no one about to observe him; or to approve or reprove him.  He may do as he chooses.  There are some very basic facts about his human situation: he needs sustenance; he has nothing; he is prey to deep existential questions about his being, his reality.  Nothing to live on; nothing to hold on; nothing to make sense of: here is the dilemma of every human; here we may recognise ourselves.  

(Those with a literary bent will hear the echo of King Lear in the storm on the heath (Act 3 Sc.4) when he asks “Is man no more than this? …unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare forked animal as thou art.”)

But to make sense of this gospel story of the man in the wilderness with nothing we need to remember another story – it is in Genesis chapter 2, the story of the first human who is placed “in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’”  

We call this the story of The Fall. Here we recognise ourselves and our human story; our relentless capacity to ignore boundaries and limits and in the process to lose our way. Here we recognise great discoveries – gravitational waves and the like - alongside such great disasters as global warming, global financial crises, global pornography, poverty and abuse.

So we go back to that man alone in the wilderness, holding in himself our perennial human predicament: the craving for food, things and meaning.  (The tempter comes: are you hungry? turn these stones into bread; you need shelter? here are the kingdoms of the world; so you want proof of meaning? go on, test the void, I dare you!)  

The man in the garden ignored the boundaries.  The man in the wilderness let the power of evil come right up to him but said no!  For him our human predicament was a sacred trust: it is through our predicament that we learn to become human and hearts are turned to goodness, not stones to bread.

So behind us this start of Lent there are these two stories, and this is the season where we let these stories resonate in our lives: the strange, horrific but recognisably human story of the Fall and that story of the temptation in the wilderness that reverses the Fall.

Where may this take us in Lent as we seek to live the examined life and ponder news of gravitational waves beyond imagining?  The image of the wilderness is a productive place to start: it is the unfamiliar place; it could be a lonely place but think of the elements of the unfamiliar and the unexpected.  Where are the places that open us to the Spirit, what the Celts would call the ‘thin places’?

Where might your wilderness be this week?

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