I heard a Lenten reflection (from the Christian tradition) that I found really moving this week, and thought Stony Point Center friends - from all traditions - might appreciate it. Lent has become an increasingly important part of my own rhythm each year - a time of reflection about the cost of living one's faith. Thanks to Rev. Sarah Henkel for accepting our invitation to have it distributed to Stony Point Center supporters.
4 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
I recently read a youth group’s re-telling of Jesus’s temptation in the desert, written while they were on an unplugged-retreat (no internet, no phones, no iPads, and no computers). In their version, Jesus, with iPad in hand and a good Wi-Fi connection, is tempted online by the pull of despair and hopelessness, the promises of instant gratification and blessings, and the allure of notoriety and likeability. In each instance, Jesus chooses a better way through the promises of scripture and in the final line of their retelling as Jesus prepares to leave the desert, it says, “And so Jesus chose the hard work of creating genuine communities with people that would change the world because of who God called them to be.”
This work of creating genuine communities turns out to be the scariest and most beautiful work imaginable. The first thing Jesus hears as he returns from the desert is that John the Baptist has been arrested and so Jesus withdraws to Galilee where he begins to preach a message so radical and earth-altering that it gets people thrown in jail. While in Galilee Jesus invites Peter and Andrew, James and John to join him and they follow. They know Jesus’ message of healing and justice is dangerous but it is the most incredible life-giving vision they have heard and so they move forward in the tension of risking death to follow life and they go with him. All of this happens within the next handful of verses in Matthew’s gospel.
But let’s pause and go back to the desert for a moment. Actually, let’s stay there for about 40 days. For Jesus, the desert is a place of discomfort and tension where the values of empires and the powers-that-be collide with God’s vision for all creation. The desert is where Jesus was offered the easy road to power over people and nations and where Jesus issued a clear “No” to that power, choosing instead the call to share God’s reconciling power with all people. In the desert, Jesus began a journey into the tension and discomfort that creating a new kin-dom would require. To proclaim good news to the poor, the prisoners, the strangers in the land, the widows, and the oppressed, that was seriously at odds with the Roman Empire. The presence of tension in Jesus’ ministry was the surest sign that he was following the right path, the way to life in a death-dealing world.
Jesus’ journey into tension – coming up against Roman powers, leading a group of people who did not always see eye to eye, communicating the good news to people who resisted or hated him - is incredibly important to the formation and practice of Christian communities. The Quaker writer, Parker Palmer, speaks of “an ability to hold tension in life-giving ways” as one of the five habits of the heart necessary to heal this country and references churches and “the various places of public life where ‘the company of strangers’ gathers” as the places to practice these healing heart habits. Palmer writes, “Our lives are filled with contradictions--from the gap between our aspirations and our behavior, to observations and insights we cannot abide because they run counter to our convictions. If we fail to hold them creatively, these contradictions will shut us down and take us out of the action. But when we allow their tensions to expand our hearts, they can open us to new understandings of ourselves and our world, enhancing our lives and allowing us to enhance the lives of others. We are imperfect and broken beings who inhabit an imperfect and broken world. The genius of the human heart lies in its capacity to use these tensions to generate insight, energy, and new life.”[i]
What do we do with tension in our churches and communities? When values conflict? When who we are called to be as Christians is at tension with the way things are in the world? When our life practices as individuals and communities conflict with Jesus’ call to life and justice for all?
The first challenge is to allow the tension and discomfort to be present and to call it good. How deep an impact could this have on our churches and communities? A lot of anxious energy is spent trying to clear tension out and quickly. As followers of Jesus, if we encounter tension on the journey it probably means we’re on the right path. It means we are being called to clarify our vision and vocation together as a community. When we gather - in our liturgy and our conversations - we are asked to raise the tensions that surround us: the fact that racism continues to have a grip on our nation and communities of faith, the growing chasm of income disparity, the reality of environmental degradation. We lift up these tensions and we call the tension good because we would not want to be at peace with these current realities. We meet together because we want to continue building together the vision that God has for God’s people. We meet to exist in tension with the narratives and forces that push communities apart.
When we encounter tension, movement forward requires us to free up the time to be together. Confronting and responding to these tensions that should and do mark our journey as Christians together takes time. Deep reflection is necessary for bold action. The process of reflection, careful study and listening goes against the rhythm (perhaps rush is a better word) of our world but it is essential to our formation as communities and our creative response to tension. This time together forms and sustains the level of relationship necessary to create a vision of God’s justice where we are and rippling out far beyond us.
Tension is not just something to we “work through” and put behind us; it is the creative and generative heart of our Christian community. Here’s a mash-up of the youth’s concluding sentence in their reinterpreted version of today’s Gospel and Parker Palmer’s words, “The genius of genuine communities with people that would change the world because of who God called them to be lies in their capacity to use these tensions to generate insight, energy, and new life.” Remember it was the Spirit who led Jesus out into the desert and into the tension with the tempter that would clarify and propel Jesus’ ministry forward. And the Spirit is guiding us still into tension that brings greater insight, energy, and new life.
Are there hymns, poems or prayers that help you move deeper into discomfort and tension during this Lenten season? May we all learn to dance with tension, led by the Spirit through these desert days.
[i] Palmer, Parker. “Five Habits to Heal the Heart of Democracy,” Global Oneness Project, http://www.globalonenessproject.org/library/articles/five-habits-heal-heart-democracy, accessed March 13, 2014.