“You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.” These are the words of church father Saint Augustine, who lived in the 4th and 5th centuries. I think of Augustine as one of our mixed blessings. On the one hand, he championed the doctrine of original sin and fueled Christian suspicion of the body and human sexuality. On the other hand, he was an honest and humble person of faith, genuinely seeking God. His book, Confessions, as a spiritual autobiography, was the first of its kind. It is in the Confessions that he describes the relationship between God and humanity with these tender words: “You [God] have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.”
We are made to be in relationship with God, Augustine says. That is what Jesus heard affirmed at his baptism. The sky broke open, the spirit-dove soared, and the voice of God spoke those intimate words: “This is my child, the beloved, with whom I am well-pleased.” And then, immediately, before the waters of the Jordan had even dried on Jesus’ skin, the spirit-dove led him into the desert wilderness where he would wrestle with this identity, this relationship. It seems that he ventured into the dangerous and desolate wilderness empty-handed—without food, or blankets, without a shelter, or a weapon. Yet, Jesus’ wasn’t lost. He wasn’t being punished. He was right where he was supposed to be. God sent him to the desert to ground himself in the strength and grit of his ancestors, the people of Israel, who wandered 40 years in the wilderness. God guided Jesus through a process of preparation for the ministry before him. In this time of solitude, of hunger, of vulnerability, Jesus needed to surface and combat the lies and delusions that tempted him, so that he could truly learn to trust God’s love as the deepest truth of the universe.
Now the season of Lent is modeled after Jesus’ wilderness journey. Lent is a time for us to emulate Jesus, in his fasting and prayer, his clarification, testing, and temptation, his learning to trust and rest in God. But what does Lent look like for an ordinary mortal, with an ordinary life? Most of us can’t simply withdraw from all responsibility for six weeks each year. How, amid all the things that fill our days, can we make space and time, to seek relationship with God?
Katherine Willis Pershey, a pastor in Illinois, writes about this challenge, saying:
I work full time as a minister, charged with nurturing the spiritual lives of young families—yet I cannot seem to get a handle on the spiritual life of my own young family. I have grand intentions. This is, of course, part of the problem. Spirituality is especially vulnerable to our tendency to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We think it must be all or nothing—you either do the weeklong silent yoga retreat or eschew yoga entirely, even though a five-minute-a-day practice could be quietly life-changing.
Many faith traditions press for total commitment. But…I’m awfully relieved that Jesus celebrated faith the size of a mustard seed. So we don’t always manage to fit in our Lenten devotions, and our Jesus Storybook Bible isn’t quite as well-worn as it deserves to be. But every single night, without fail, my family practices a variation of the Ignatian examen, an ancient prayer practice and tool for discernment. This sounds fancier than it is. Let me explain.
In Sleeping with Bread the authors (Dennis, Sheila, and Matthew Linn) introduce the Ignatian examen through simple words and illustrations. “For many years, we have ended each day the same way,” they write. “We light a candle, become aware of God’s loving presence, and take about five minutes of quiet while we ask ourselves two questions. For what moment today am I most grateful? For what moment today am I least grateful?”
Our practice of the examen unfolds without the benefit of silence and candles, but during the holy chaos of breaking bread together as a family. As we eat dinner, we practice the art of listening to one another—and listening to our lives. We pay attention to what gives us joy and what breaks our hearts, and we offer this to God. So what if the two-year-old cites the boy next door as the best part of her day for three months straight? He is. What I like about this ritual…is that it works for us now, but our practice will deepen as our children grow. It already helps us reconcile ourselves to one another (when you’re culpable for your kid’s worst moment in her day, you have a lovely opportunity to model the art of seeking forgiveness). It can also help us seek God’s will. As the Linns write, “Insignificant moments when looked at each day become significant because they form a pattern that often points the way to how God wants to give us more life.” God wants to give us more life. Not more guilt. Not more items on our to-do list. More life.
Jesus’ debate with the devil is, at its core, a disagreement about what life is. Making bread from stones would have been an expression of self-sufficiency. Jesus recognized that acting as if we don’t need God or neighbor, or pretending that we don’t rely on healthy soil, sunshine, and rain to grow our food, is a path that leads to spiritual death. Bread sustains the body and relationship sustains life. The urge to test God’s angels with a leap from the temple represents the temptation to believe that life in relationship with God means being spared the hard things. In fact, it’s the opposite. Living fully and loving deeply, as God calls us to do, requires that we take genuine risks. God is not cosmic rescuer, but a companion who stays beside us through everything we experience. And, of course, the devil’s offer to give Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor is delusional. There is no life to be found in exploitation, in treating the earth and its peoples as a prize to be won. Life is membership in the community that is God’s creation. Life is serving and sharing, honoring each other as beloved children of God made in God’s own image.
In today’s passage from Romans, both Adam, the earth-creature who was the first human, and Jesus, are symbols for humanity. Adam exists in a state of alienation from God, which is named sin. This broken and dysfunctional condition is painful; it leads to spiritual death. The tempter’s voices would have us believe that this is our only truth. But humanity is complex. Adam’s condition not the full story. In Jesus, we glimpse another side of ourselves. We are free to choose life in relationship with God. As Augustine said, “You (God) have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.”
This Lent let us create a space within our daily lives for simplicity and intentionality. Let us go into the wilderness of testing, temptation and clarification. You received a “Lenten Covenant” sheet with your bulletin—please pull it out. As always, we have choices at First Church. As a congregation, we’ll be practicing the Examen during worship each week. During the offering time, we’ll also be handing out journals for you to use to do the Examen on your own each day during Lent. On Ash Wednesday, we learned about the discipline of Ho’oponopono, a practice of relational healing that is used in the Hawaiian culture. A handout on the back table describes it more fully. You could still join a Lenten group, focused on immigration issues and our discernment around Sanctuary; please sign up in Pilgrim Hall. Or, perhaps there is another discipline that is more right for you—something to give up, or something to take on. What is it that will help you build your capacity to rely on God, to rest in God, to trust God’s love as the deepest truth of your life?
Let’s take some moments of silence to fill out the covenant forms. You can place them in the plate during the offering time today.