Monday, September 17, 2018

Focusing in the Wilderness (book excerpt)

Below is an excerpt from Prayer in Motion: Connecting with God in Fidgety Times.

Our lives are filled with things that distract us, that demand our attention, and that make taking on a regular routine of prayer difficult. And whether we admit it or not, whether we are proud of it or not, whether we would claim them or not, we each have our own ways of coping with the stress that fills our day. We each have ways to “get through it,” that help take the edge off.

We may tell ourselves that these things help us focus, but it may be more accurate that they help numb us, serving as brief moments of pleasure in an endless sea of anxiety. For one person it may be food, for another caffeine or alcohol, and for yet another spontaneous purchases or pornography or the internet. These may bring relief and focus for a moment, but many of our coping mechanisms, habits, and addictions can lead to physical, emotional, and spiritual sickness rather than health or wellness. What we might claim provides temporary clarity can do lasting damage.

Jesus faced his own set of distractions in Matthew 4:
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying 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.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. (Matthew 4:1-11)
Jesus is driven by the Spirit out into the wilderness, where he fasts for 40 days. Let’s go right ahead and reject any attempts at over-spiritualizing this: the text says he was starving. The elements have worn him down, he is exhausted, his lips are dry and cracked, his limbs are weak, and his stomach feels like it is on fire from hunger. This is as far from being a fun time at summer camp as you could get.

We can also assume that he did not just sit in one spot for the entirety of his stay. We can picture him on an ongoing search for water sources, or taking shelter in caves during storms or the heat of the day. Did he pray? We can deduce that he did, given that he does so later in the Gospels. But given the context of his situation, such prayer might not have been for long stretches at times, or it could have been while on the move, and he observed it while always aware of the pangs in his stomach and the prickle of the weather against his skin.

But if all of the natural and biological struggles weren’t enough for him, Matthew tells us about three specific temptations that he faced. Let us set aside for the moment questions about who the devil or tempter is and instead devote our attention to what he is tempted to do.

In the first instance, Jesus’ adversary takes aim at the easiest and most obvious: he’s famished. The pitch starts with, “If you are the Son of God…” In other words, if you have this special relationship with and connection to God, you’re fully capable of feeding yourself. So go ahead and turn a few stones into a nice little meal for yourself. Jesus resists by quoting scripture, “[humanity] does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from God.” So far, so good.

The tempter then whisks Jesus up to the highest point of the temple in Jerusalem, and begins the same way: if you have this special relationship with God, go ahead and jump and God will protect you. Again, Jesus answers with scripture: “Do not put God to the test.” Okay, that’s two down.

We’re told about one last shot. This time the tempter presents Jesus with all the kingdoms spanning the world. All earthly power can belong to Jesus if he does one simple thing: he can bow down and worship this adversarial being. So much good he could do with this level of power, the difference he could make! But this final time, Jesus again answers with scripture: “Worship and serve only God, and no one and nothing else.”

We can parse out what Jesus is tempted to do in these three instances and find parallels to today. But notice the common thread that weaves through Jesus’ answers: all three times, he remains focused on God. No matter what comforts are offered to him as potential distractions, his attention doesn’t waver from his understanding of who God has called him to be and what God has called him to do. These opportunities that he has to use that calling for himself represent something other than that, and he refuses to be sidetracked by them.

Given these explicit examples, we could apply them to his entire time in the wilderness. Not only could he have been distracted by satisfying his hunger, testing God’s protection, or claiming conventional earthly rule, he also could have been so by finding other forms of relief from his 40-day sojourn through heat, cold, wind, rain, hostile animals, weakness, despair, boredom, and so much more. But if what we’re told is any indication, he remained focused on God no matter what else presented itself.

The distractions in our lives are constant, palpable, demanding, and draining. The ways we seek relief, self-medicate, or tell ourselves we have some semblance of control are just as numerous and their effectiveness may vary. How could we travel through the grind of our daily schedules with an understanding that God is with us every step of the way? What could change if we developed a focus on God at the expense of all distraction and temptation, moving through each activity prayerfully rather than frantically?

Just as God called Jesus to remain focused, so does God call us in the same way. Rather than hope for a free moment when we can try to give ourselves to a spiritual practice apart from the elements swirling around us, perhaps we should also think about ways to claim our time in the wilderness as a spiritual practice itself.

Prayer in Motion: Connecting with God in Fidgety Times is available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble in paperback and electronic formats.