A Window and a Mirror (1): Clarification
by Louise Westfall
Do one thing every day that scares you. Sage advice from Eleanor Roosevelt that has found traction in contemporary brain science. Research affirms the benefits of stretching outside your comfort zone, of facing rather than avoiding fear, and intentionally seeking experiences that demand something of you.
In the church we call it Lent. It’s a special season that invites our self-reflection and prolonged gaze into the mirror of our soul. Some people choose a practice–daily devotions or participating in a study group—to exercise their faith. Others forgo some pleasure like alcohol or sweets–to gain a disciplined focus on spirituality. (Heck, I suppose even a cappella singing qualifies!) What do you and I see when we look within? Who are we? Who are we in relationship with others and God? What are we doing? And why?
Lent begins in the wilderness. Every year the gospel lectionary reading takes us with Jesus far from the crowds, away from creature comforts, into solitude and the harsh reality of the desert. It’s pictured as a fearsome time of testing in which Jesus experiences intense physical, emotional and spiritual deprivation. But it’s not for the goal of suffering per se; there’s another reason why Jesus went into the wilderness. A reading from the good news according to Matthew in the fourth chapter at the first verse. Do this one thing right now that may scare you: listen for God’s Word. [Matthew 4:1-11]
Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ wilderness temptation provides rich detail and drama. The powerful and persistent Tempter offers Jesus wonderful and worthy allurements for just the tiny price of turning his back on God. That Jesus resisted and withstood the temptations is less about him being a superhero with extraordinary willpower and more about the clarification of his human sight and insight. The specific temptations may have been geared toward Jesus specifically, but they’re all of a piece. Who is trustworthy? What can I count on? The Tempter and the world urge Only yourself. Only you can take care of yourself. You are the center of the universe and around you whirls everything and everyone else.
It’s a way that leads to death. Humans will starve for lack of bread…and we will also starve for lack of spiritual nourishment. Friends, the Spirit calls us into the wilderness because there’s more to life than avoiding discomfort and remaining insulated from our vulnerabilities, hurts and shadow sides. The Spirit calls us into the wilderness to discover who we are and what we’re made of. On Ash Wednesday we come face to face with the truth of our mortality. You squirm a little when a 14-year-old confirmand touches your forehead and whispers Louise, you are dust, and to dust you shall return. We are human. We will die. We are dust. But that dust is, in fact, stardust, and bears the unmistakable imprint of the One who created us in love and for love. In the desert, the familiar vanishes. We come to see with utter clarity who we are. We remember Whose we are. We face our deepest realities and worst fears.
We are human. We will die. We are dust. But that dust is, in fact, stardust, and bears the unmistakable imprint of the One who created us in love and for love. In the desert, the familiar vanishes.
But here’s the thing. The purpose of a wilderness (or Lenten!) sojourn is not for the sake of pain and suffering; the old “if it hurts it must be good for you.” No. Jesus went into the wilderness for clarification. To see himself and his mission more clearly. To see the Source of his life more clearly. To clarify the dynamic by which he would live: not heroic self-reliance or egotistical self-importance, but with humble trust in God, in community with others, who like him are dust and stardust.
So we will follow him into the wilderness too. Easter is a long way off, and there will be hell to pay before then. But here we will clarify the process of becoming who we already are.
I read an article this week that suggests the best way to go into the wilderness is a step at a time. The writer noted when it comes to making personal changes we well-meaning humans often choose big, brave goals and then wonder why we stumble in fulfilling them. She proposed a different approach: take baby steps. Set small, achievable goals. Do one thing every day that scares you.
Could that one thing be an intention to nurture your soul in the six weeks between now and Easter? Maybe you could participate in a Lenten life group, even one time. Maybe you could add a prayer to your mealtime or bedtime routine. Maybe you could plan to worship one more Sunday than you might otherwise. Check out the mirror in the chancel today (which will remain here through Holy Week). I invite you to use the dry erase markers to draw on the mirror (please not the frame) things that obscure or block your perception of how dearly God loves you. I expect the mirror will become completely covered before this journey ends. The wilderness is a place of awful clarification. But may this acknowledgement, this “seeing” reveal the One in whom we can trust completely with all that is most precious, with everyone we hold dear.
In a church outside Edinburgh, Scotland, there is a statue of two figures kneeling, facing each other in a fond embrace. Their heads are resting on each other’s shoulders. One of these is Adam–representing all our humanity. The other is Christ. The stone is sculpted in such a way that it is difficult to distinguish the two figures, except one has nail scars on his hands. This is the embrace we are hungering and thirsting to find; the end of our sojourn; homecoming (Sermon by Craig Barnes, preached at Princeton Seminary Chapel on September 27, 2019). And we need not fear–for it is Christ who is seeking us and will find us.
The text says after Jesus’ personal season of testing passed, angels came and helped him. Even in the wilderness God provides bread. So we gather at this table and are fed with gifts that strengthen us. We gather here with companions (the word literally means “those with whom we eat
bread”). Communion is both a window through which to see God’s amazing grace and a mirror reflecting it with warm intensity on the oh-so-familiar face looking back at us.