Lent is here. Already. The look on Fran Howard’s face last week when I announced the Ash Wednesday service said it all. (Make face.)
Those who were able to attend the Ash Wednesday service got a good start on the reflective work of Lent. If you missed it, not to worry. The theme we introduced Wednesday will take us all the way to summer. There’ll be plenty of time to catch up.
What is the theme, you ask? What could we possibly spend the next 14 weeks reflecting on? Our theme for Lent and Pentecost this year is spiritual longing. The idea for the theme came from reading the Scripture stories for the next few months. Each passage illustrates a deep human need, a yearning in our inmost beings, an ache we seek to fill.
It’s the filling process I’m inviting us to reflect on. Because sometimes, the things we use to try to satisfy our spiritual longings don’t fill them and in fact intensify them …things like alcohol, food, drugs, excessive spending, excessive scheduling, excessive Facebooking…
Wednesday night, we confessed the things that get in the way of having our spiritual longings met. Today, I invite us to take a closer look at what we mean by spiritual longing.
There’s no better place to begin our reflections than with Jesus in the wilderness. Right after his baptism, Jesus heads into the wilderness, where he fasts and prays for 40 days. Luke tells us that during those 40 days “the Devil” tempts Jesus. Luke doesn’t say what those temptations were; he just says they happened.
It’s the last three temptations Luke describes in detail… the ones that come when Jesus hasn’t eaten in 40 days, when he’s weak and vulnerable. “Make this stone a loaf of bread.” “Let me make you the king of the world.” “Do a header off the Temple and let God’s angels swoop in and save you.” Jesus counters each temptation with Scripture and doesn’t let himself get pulled in. Then, Luke tells us, the Tempter “departed from him until an opportune time.”
An “opportune time.” I wonder what makes a time “opportune” for temptation. And if the Tempter is waiting for an opportune time to tempt Jesus, then the moment of which Luke writes must be an in-opportune time. So what makes the end of this scene an in-opportune time for tempting Jesus?
Here’s the thing about temptation–it reveals to us so much about ourselves. That year I gave up French fries for Lent? I’m still trying to get over that. I learned that year just how much I love French fries….just how dependent on them I am—I mean–was.
As I continue to process that Lent so long ago, I continue to ask myself–why French fries? What does ordering and eating French fries tell me about my deeper needs? Why does it feel like those deeper needs will be met by eating French fries? (This is where I need to say that Lenten reflections are for the reflector alone. You can’t do someone’s reflecting for them. J)
So maybe after 40 days of being tempted, Jesus had learned a few things about himself… enough that he’d gained some clarity about who he was. Maybe those temptations helped Jesus get honest about his deepest needs so that he knew precisely what would meet them…. which made him less susceptible to trying to fill them with things that could not satisfy. Maybe the Tempter departed because he knew that through his wilderness experience, Jesus had become so strong that he was able to resist any temptation the Tempter could throw at him.
Knowing our deepest needs empowers us. If we don’t know our deepest needs, all we feel is an undefined ache. The ache hurts, so we try to fill it up. If we don’t have a name for the ache, we’ll throw anything at it to try to quell it. That’s when we can get ourselves in trouble.
I want to take a minute to talk about something hard. The last several weeks during Joys and Concerns, we’ve heard about the deaths of 3 young people. In November, we learned of the murder of an Allatoona High School student by her friend. Two weeks ago, Jim Kennedy told us about the 27 year old daughter of a friend who died of a drug overdose. Just last week we learned that a 17 year old boy in the Heilhecker’s close-knit neighborhood took his own life.
It’s hard to talk about the violent deaths of young people. We don’t want to believe the world we live in can allow such things to happen, especially not to people we know and love. And yet, as we have learned, terrible things do happen.
It would be easier not to say anything about these tragic deaths….we want church to be a happy place, right? But if we don’t talk about these hard things here at church among our friends of faith, where will we talk about it? If we can’t bring these terrible events to God, who also knows the pain of losing a beloved child to a violent death, then to whom can we bring them?
I wish I could tell you why these kinds of things happen. I can’t. I don’t know why bad things happen to good people. I don’t know how people can destroy themselves or each other. I have no explanations.
I do think, though, that the best way to honor these young people who have died is to learn everything we can from their deaths so that we can do what we say we as followers of Jesus want to do: act others into well-being.
And that, I suspect, comes from looking at and being honest about spiritual longing. What is it deep down that we human beings want and need? I suspect it’s pretty much the same for all people: we’re all looking for acceptance, inclusion, a feeling of worth, love. We all want to know, need to know that we are precious.
Hear me well. I’m not suggesting that the three young people I’ve mentioned didn’t know these things. I never met any of them; it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to speculate on what led to their tragic deaths.
What I am suggesting is that we take time in our own lives to ask ourselves for what we long. What truly will make us happy? We also need to create spaces for other people–especially the young people in our lives–to reflect on, name, and share what their deepest longings are. Henry David Thoreau said that most people “lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” I suspect that’s true. One of the gifts of Christian community is that it gives us a place to name the things we’re desperate about. There’s something about sharing our fears, our hopes, our desires in community that makes us feel less desperate, more loved, more whole. Community helps us sing our songs before we die.
Of course, it’s not only the tragic things that reveal our spiritual longings. Last Sunday’s experience with our friends from the Ahmadiyya Muslim community also revealed a longing—the longing to connect with folks who find God by a different path.
The responses have been strong to last week’s worship service, presentation, and fellowship time. Some of you described it as one of the best Sundays you can remember. Others expressed the desire for our friends to return soon to continue the conversation. I’ve been pleased by the responses…and also a little surprised by the passion behind them.
But after thinking about it, that passion makes sense. I suspect that when we hear anti-Muslim rhetoric these days, it doesn’t feel right; it doesn’t feel true; and it sure doesn’t feel loving. And yet, we work hard to live just, authentic, loving lives.
I suspect that we’ve all been hungering for a long time to find an appropriate way to act our Muslim friends into well-being. Posting anti-anti-Muslim statements on Facebook is one way to do it, or rolling our eyes when we hear another Islamophobic diatribe, but that doesn’t meet the deeper spiritual longing of connecting with people who find God by a different path from us. The only thing that can meet that longing is actually to connect with people of other faiths. I think that’s why last week felt so good. We didn’t throw some temporary stop-gap measure at the need; we went to the heart of it and tried to meet it. We spent time with and connected with friends with whom, we discovered, we have a lot more in common than not.
For this first leg of our journey into exploring spiritual longing, we’re going to work on an art project together. We’re going to create a cross out of broken glass. The bits are sea glass, which means they’ve rolled around the ocean floor long enough that the sharp edges have been worn off, so no need to worry about injuries.
The invitation with the bits of glass is to glue them to the plexi-glass cross. Each Sunday in Lent, you’ll have the opportunity to come forward and glue on a piece of glass. The invitation is to reflect on your own spiritual longings, on the places where you might feel broken. Or you might choose to reflect on a place of brokenness in the world. In fact, that could be your Lenten practice this year—to think about and pray about the longings of a particular group of people… or maybe even the longings of creation.
Now to logistics…. The cross is as big as it is because we’re going to be gluing glass on it all six weeks during Lent. So, you’re limited to one piece of glass per week. If we get to Palm Sunday with lots of empty spaces, we can fill them up then. Until then, one piece of glass per person.
Today, you’re invited to come as Soohyun plays. Bring all your brokenness, bring all your longing, and leave them at the cross.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan ©2016