Tag Archives: Despair

Leaning into the Wilderness

The Temptation of Christ, Simon Bening

A Sermon originally delivered to Calvary Community Church in New Berlin, WI

Text: Matthew 4:1-17

Immediately after Jesus’ baptism, the claim from the heavens that Jesus is God’s son, Jesus is led to the wilderness to be tempted.

While we may see these as different events, they are all tied together in one long narrative by the gospel writer to show Jesus’ identity as the Son of God.

The wilderness has a significant role in the story of scripture.

One day Moses was caring for the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, and he led them through the wilderness, to the far side. It is there that he sees, out of the corner of his eye, a bush that was on fire but did not appear to be consumed, and Moses thought to himself, I need to step aside, take a detour from where I am headed, and see this amazing sight. And it is here that God spoke to Moses and changed the history of the people of God.

As the people of God made their way to safety from oppression and slavery, they ended up spending 40 years in the wilderness as they learned what it meant to be the people of God. The desert was a time of challenge and temptation, but also grace and revelation. It was through this time that the people of God learned what it meant to be the people of God, not only for them, but also for future generations as they passed on these stories.

After the showdown with the priests of Ba’al at the two altars, Elijah gets word that he is going to die, and he goes into the wilderness and sits down beneath a solitary tree and asks to die. For forty days and nights he passes through the wilderness until he reaches mount Horeb, or Sinai, and there he meets God and he is given a new mission from God.

And it is in the wilderness that Jesus is led immediately following this statement by God. Until now, Jesus doesn’t really do much, he doesn’t gather disciples, he doesn’t teach, he doesn’t do miracles. These forty days in the wilderness is Jesus’ preparation as he, perhaps, learns as well. After all, Jesus was fully God, but also fully human.

Just as Jesus’ baptism is an extension of the epiphany to the Magi, his time in the wilderness is an extension of his baptism, the preparation for his ministry.

Jesus fasted for forty days, was tempted by the tempter and resisted and the angels came and waited on him. Just when we think things will let up a bit he leaves the desert and goes home to Nazareth to learn that John the Baptizer has been arrested. He leaves home and settles northeast by the Sea of Galilee in a village called Capernaum.

***

The temptation story also shows us what kind of redeemer, what type of king, what type of leader he will be. Even at his weakest moment, he will not embrace power, but will turn it down. He will let nothing stand between him and his mission. It is a mission which began in turmoil and will end in death, and ultimately a resurrection. Jesus does not exist for his own benefit, but for the benefit of others. He will not turn stones into bread for him to eat, but later in the story he will multiply bread for the people to eat. He will not take power over everything for himself, but he will offer the Kingdom of Heaven to those who follow him in righteousness.

The Gospel writer notes early on that he will be called Emmanuel, that is, God with us (Mt 1:23), and this shows how Jesus is with us, not only in terms of space, but also in terms of identification. Jesus not only lived among us, but could identify with us. Neither Jesus’ heritage, nor his identity, nor his calling would keep him from the experience of  humanity, from the experience of life, the good and the bad, the highs and the lows, the joys and the pains.

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, but without sin. (Heb. 4:15).

This is a transformative experience for Jesus, and one which will stay with him throughout his ministry. Indeed, throughout his ministry, Jesus will face temptations of various sorts, including the temptation to cut and run when his arrest and death was imminent. But this time of preparation in the desert, this will help him to understand his mission and to what he is called.

***

As God’s people we too are led into wilderness experiences. Not necessarily a physical wilderness, but a spiritual wilderness. We may not be abstaining from food, our wilderness experiences often make us feel a hunger, a deep hunger, as though we are not being nourished as we ought. It is a time of loneliness, isolation, fear, longing, hunger.

The wilderness experience of the ancient people of God was not a result of rejection by God, but rather, because they were God’s people. Jesus’ wilderness experience is not a result of rejection by God, but rather an extension of being claimed by God.

So often we may think that our wilderness experiences may be a result of rejection by or a turning away by God but perhaps this may not always be the case. Perhaps it is a part of being God’s people, perhaps it is a time to help us learn what it means to be God’s people, and perhaps these wilderness experiences help us understand what it means to be claimed by God.

But the best part about this is that we do not enter into these wilderness experiences alone, Jesus joins us in these wilderness experiences. Jesus joins us in the solitude, in the loneliness, in the hunger, in the thirst. Jesus joins us in the struggle and striving with God. Before Jesus leaves the people after his resurrection he promises to them, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt 28:20). and this is a promise that holds true today, a promise that holds true for you and for me. That even in these barren and lonely and hard times, we do not trod them alone, but we trod them with Jesus, who went through these experiences himself while on earth.

Therefore, sisters and brothers, the wilderness is a part of life with God, a part of struggling and striving with God. In the wilderness lies growth, learning, an epiphany even, if we live into the wilderness experiences into which we may be led. But we do not enter into the wilderness alone. Many times we have other members of the body of Christ who can journey with us if we allow it.  But even more, we have Jesus who has walked in our shoes, who has lived a life like ours, who has experienced every piece of human life and can sympathize with us.

 

Waiting for the Mail Carrier

There is nothing like the excitement of waiting for a package to arrive in the mail. Internet tracking allows me to see exactly when it is going to arrive, and it is a day which brings eager anticipation.

The items in the package are not that exciting, simply utilitarian items. I know what they are, after all, I ordered them. But the excitement is not about the items themselves, it is about the experience.

The experience of hearing the knock on the door, or arriving home and seeing the brown cardboard box leaned up against the door, is an exciting one. Although knowing what is on the inside, seeing the box — sealed, opaque — there are endless possibilities for what it could contain. There is something, at least somewhat unknown, that will likely contain something good, something exciting, something new and fresh. Something with potential, with possibilities, something that has yet to wear out or break — something which can offer a new future.

***

As I was waiting for my package, however, the mail was late, and I had to catch my bus. I walked down the stairs to the sidewalk, and over to the bus stop. After all, what I am truly waiting for — hoping for, longing for — won’t arrive in the mail.

Pulling Back the Cobwebs

Cobwebs

By Diane Brennan on Flickr

Well, dear readers, I have been absent for a while — a long while — without any explanation. Over a month.   Perhaps you may have thought that I have abandoned writing, or abandoned my blog. Neither of these are quite accurate. I have abandoned neither writing nor this blog, I have not been able to write anything which has been fit to publish. In fact, I have not been able to finish much writing at all. It has turned into a bit of a Lenten fast, though that was not originally intended.

I had grand plans throughout Lent, plans of sharing with you my journey through the somber season of Lent, but something happened. I lost, for a bit, the taste of sweetness on my tongue which I attempt to share with you.

The words would not come, the sentences would not form, and all that appeared was a collection of black symbols on a white page which were pleasing to neither the mind nor the soul. So I waited.

This has been the second time we have shared together on thealreadynotyet.com a time of waiting. A time in which words do not come, and waiting is necessary.

On some level I feel guilty about this. I feel undisciplined, I feel as though I am not taking it seriously, or as though I cannot just “buckle down and do it” as my parents used to say as I was trying to avoid doing homework as a child. I feel as though my waiting as been a passive wait rather than an expectant wait.

On another level, however, guilt, in this instance, offers little benefit for moving forward.

So I move on. What has not been, has not been. What will be, will be.

So, dear readers, I’m pulling back the cobwebs, and I’m back. I hope that you will continue to journey with me.

Living with what used to be

It was a large square brick building painted grey, about six stories high. It used to be some sort of a manufacturing company, at least that is what I gathered from the remnants of the painted sign on the facade. The days for productivity for this building are over, at least that is what I gathered from the boards over all of the windows, or at least where the windows used to be.

I wondered what was inside this old building. Was it completely empty, or where there still remnants of its previous life? Was there still equipment that could tell stories about how materials were transformed into something useful?

Living in a hard-hit rust-belt city, I have learned a new vocabulary. The vocabulary of “used to be”. This used to be a factory. That used to be a warehouse. Those used to be railroad tracks. There used to be jobs. We used to have hope.

The language of “used to be” is the language of no longer. It is the language of the past, it is the language without much of a future.

People also use this language about themselves. I used to have a job. I used to have a home. I used to have a family. I used to have a future. It is language of despair. Of things gone wrong.

I wonder exactly what this building used to be, and who used to be there.

I continued walking by many other used-to-be’s. This looked like it used to be a beautiful house. That looks like is used to be a corner store.

I walked down the next block and I saw what I thought were used-to-be’s but as I came closer, I saw that they are the “are-nows” — things which used to be something useful and have been transformed into something else useful. I stopped and looked at the new-found sight. I saw was used to be a tannery complex, but is now refurbished space for offices, social service agencies, and commercial space. All of this just a few blocks down from a sea of used-to-be’s.

I think about myself, and I see a lot of used-to-be. It’s hard to identify as a used-to-be. It cuts deep into one’s soul as one reflects on what and who one used to be, but is no longer. It is a great sense of loss, it involves grief, and it can involve a bleak future. Many days I feel like I am running in a hamster wheel forced to watch a never ending film of all that I used to be.

I begin to wonder if perhaps the used-to-be’s are more than just this. Perhaps they are actually “could-be’s.” Those things which used to be something but are simply waiting to be transformed into something else useful.

This is why I identify as a Christian. When I read scripture, I hear one message over and over: God telling the used-to-be’s that they are actually the could-be’s and that one day they will be the are-nows.

…God First Loved Us

Baptismal Font

By brandsvig on Flickr

I had the privilege of administering my first baptism yesterday.  It was an infant who was recently born of one of the families in our congregation.

It was a wonderful celebration of the sacrament of baptism.  The liturgy is beautiful, the child was adorable and dressed in this lovely white dress.  She fussed a little bit but it was not like the weeping and gnashing of teeth that sometimes occurs.  As a fellow pastor friend of mine once told me, “If the baby doesn’t cry you’re not doing it right.”  Which refers, of course, to the fact that in baptism we symbolically die with Christ, and as such, there should be at least a little bit of fussing.

The moment was a wonderful celebration of God’s grace, and God’s love for us even when we cannot yet love.  There is a portion of the liturgy when the minister speaks directly to the person to be baptized immediately preceding the administration of baptism with the Trinitarian formula.  In the case of an infant, it reads like this:

[Name],
For you Jesus came into the world;
For you he died and for you he conquered death;
all this he did for you, little one,
though you know nothing of it as yet.
We love because God first loved us.

We love because God first loved us.  That is, of course, quote from 1 John 4:19.  This is also where the theology behind infant baptism all comes together.  I cannot find a better defense of infant baptism than this.  After these words were spoken, and I dipped my hand into the water, I felt as though we were all in the very presence of God.  I wish that we could have stayed in that holy moment forever.

However, that moment did not last.  Shortly after the service, the sinfulness that pollutes the world reared its ugly head.  Divisions, anger, self-centeredness and greed invaded the aftermath of this holy moment. It had been a very difficult couple days leading up to that day, and I felt as though I was delivered from the inferno to the very presence of God and then immediately dragged back to the inferno.  I quipped to my wife after we returned home that this experience is what Dante saw in his vision when writing the Inferno.

We love because God first loved us.

Perhaps, however, this was somehow a gift, it is an example of life in this world.  Our world is grossly imperfect, polluted by sin and evil.  Much of life is filled with trials and sufferings, but these are always punctuated by moments of heaven.

We baptize infants not because they are perfect, not because they are faithful Christians, not even because they are good.  We baptize infants because God first loved us, and therefore we are able to love God because God loves us first, and we are able to love others because God loves us first.

We love because God first loved us.

Perhaps it is fitting to experience both the heights of the experience of God’s grace and the depths of depravity.  This is, after all, what we experience in this life.  We have experiences when love is easy, when we feel loved.  We also have experiences in which love is difficult, and we have to love in spite of the fact that all we may receive is hate, anger, and bitterness.  We do not love because the other is nice, or because they are even deserving of our love.  We love because God loved us first — God loved us despite of our anger and bitterness and hate, and God requires that we treat others in the same way.

I wonder what that child thought of all that was going on.  I do know that she rubbed her forehead onto my shirt to dry it during the prayer after the baptism.  I’m sure she had no idea what was happening, and I am certain that she has no idea what the future holds for her.  I do know, however, that God’s grace is not ultimately dependent on what we can understand with our minds, but God’s grace is stronger than all of our weaknesses.  My ability to love people is often times weak, and I continue to hope and pray that God’s grace will not only transform the life of that child as she grows, but also transform my life as I am still in the process of becoming a Christian and learning how to truly love.

We love because God first loved us.

“…With Sighs Too Deep for Words”

prayer..

By Aronki (Dae Ho Lee) on Flickr

I had an out-of-town meeting yesterday, about an hour away.  On my way to this meeting, the distance provided me with one full hour of unstructured alone time.  I was not reading, I was not making telephone calls, I was not having people stop by my office, and I was not writing.

I had an hour of uninterrupted time to spend some time praying.  I had a lot on my mind, after all.  I was worried about a family in our church that just had their power shut off, I was wondering where the new leaders in our church would arise from, I was wondering if we would have enough money to be able to finish the year, I was concerned that violence continues to cast a dark cloud over our neighborhood.  I felt a weighty burden on my shoulders.  Often times, the only thing that I am able to do is to pray.

The words would not come out.  I could not even think the words that I wanted to say.  I knew what I was thinking, I knew what I was feeling, and I knew the type of things that I wanted to express, but I could not.  In my desperation I let out a big sigh.

It was then that I remembered a verse from the Letter to the Romans, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26, NRSV).

I wondered, perhaps, if this is the experience to which this passage refers.  There are times in which we feel an oppressive weight upon our shoulders, when our hearts are burdened.  When we find it difficult to focus or concentrate, or even make words.  There are always times in which we feel as though we are barely treading water and as though our pockets are filled with stones.  These are times in which praying can be difficult.

How ironic that there are some very difficult times, times in which we most need to pray, that it is difficult to do so. This is particularly difficult for me, as words are the way in which I make my living and the way in which I live out my calling.  I interpret the words of scripture, and I use words to explain scripture and why it matters to those in my congregation.  I use words to offer up common prayers with and on behalf of my congregation.  I use words to comfort those who are sick, I use words to celebrate the sacraments, I use words to help those entrusted to my care to try to make sense of God, their lives, and how God impacts their lives.  Words are what I do.

There are, however, times in which words are never enough.  When people grieve, sometimes the ministry of being is more important than the ministry of words.  Words are useful only insofar as they communicate something which needs to be communicated.  There is something, though, of the human condition which is ineffable, which cannot be expressed within the limits of language. Sometimes there is something so beautiful and wonderful that words cannot do it justice; other times there is so much burden and that words cannot express the depths of despair.

At these times, perhaps, it is best simply to remain silent knowing what is on one’s heart and mind.  Perhaps, at these times, when words cannot suffice, words need not be necessary because presence with another person and/or presence with God is enough.  When something limited like language cannot express what we need to express, there is a communication which is far deeper than words.

Earnestly Praying for Peace

Dove of peace

By Mafleen on Flickr

“Pray for peace.”  This is a common thing to say.  I pray for peace.  Mostly, however, I’ve prayed for the idea of peace, I’ve never had to actually earnestly pray for peace before.  The Milwaukee area is still on edge from the massacre at the Sikh temple in one of the south suburbs.  We have not yet begun to recover from this, and just this week, we had seven shootings in 24 hours in the City of Milwaukee.  One of these shootings was three blocks from the church — the same place where a shooting occurred less than a month ago.

Where is God in the midst of all this violence?

There are multitudes of people pointing out what is wrong with our neighborhood.  There are plenty of people who are too afraid to come to our neighborhood.  People in our community are nervous about spending time out and about.  Whenever people have the means to move out of the neighborhood, they usually do.

We need peace.

We don’t just need for the violence to end, we actually need peace.  Peace is not just the absence of violence, it is the presence of wholeness.  It is the presence of love, it is the presence of community.  It is the ability to live with other humans in the way that God intended.

We need more than just safety.  We need a wholeness in our community, we need for people to care about one another, we need true peacemakers.  Come, Lord Jesus.

Grant us peace, O God. Make our community whole, and transform us so that we can live into the way that you desire us to be. Amen.

On Being Dried Up

stairs under a fall sky

From Jim VanMaastricht on Flickr (Used with Permission)

Hear my prayer, O LORD;
let my cry come to you.
do not hide your face from me
in the day of my distress.
Incline your ear to me;
answer me speedily in the day when I call.
For my days pass away like smoke,
and my bones burn like a furnace.
My heart is stricken and withered like grass… (Psalm 102:1-4a)

For the past month or so, I have felt dried up.  I have felt like grass that has been scorched by the hot summer sun and has not been given the nourishing water which can rejuvenate it back to life.

My writing has not only been impacted here on this blog, but my other writing as well: my sermons, my church newsletters, even my written correspondence has been impacted.  I sit in front of a computer with a blank page and a blinking cursor, and instead of creating, I sit.  I sit at my desk with a blank piece of paper before me, which would usually be received with gratitude for the empty space which I could fill.  However, now I sit at it with dread, because the emptiness of that space reflects back to me the emptiness that I experience.

Preparing sermons, which typically brings me joy and fulfillment is now only met with distress as Sunday approaches closer and closer and my sermon remains unwritten on Friday, and Saturday.  My church newsletter still sits on my computer, 4 weeks late, partially finished with paragraphs that are disjointed and do not flow, and do not even contain a coherent message.

Written language, which usually serves as a spillway for when my thoughts burst through the dam, now seems to drain the remaining water in the reservoir.

I appreciate the Psalms, particularly the psalms of lament, because when I am in a situation such as this, when I cannot find words with which to express myself, I have words that have been given to me.

Thanks be to God.  Even through these dry times.