Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Led By The Spirit

"Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil."
Luke 4:1-2

Ash Wednesday we call it, the day that begins the Christian season of Lent, and this year it begins Feb. 17. Lent is the un-fun part of the Christian year. It's the forty days we focus on things like discipline and fasting and when we read the Bible stories about the Israelites wandering in the desert and the above story about Jesus' temptation in the wilderness. It's a time when we remind ourselves about the brutally hard aspects of life and the uncomfortable fact that a true resurrection requires an actual death. Churches often cease using the word Alleluia during these 40 days and for good reason. It is not a fun time.

It is, however, an instructional and formative time. It was during the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness that a group of freed Hebrew slaves became a nation. It was the 40 days of temptation in the wilderness that gave Jesus the focus and strength needed to embark on his life's mission. In that sense, Lent is a bit like school. It's hard...and yet the harder it is, the better you turn out in the end if you put your mind to it and have the right support.

What I find comforting in both the story of the Exodus and the story of Jesus' temptation is that God is present. In the Exodus story God takes the form of a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, leading the Israelites across the harsh desert. Luke starts off his story by pointing out the same thing. The Spirit leads Jesus in the wilderness. God is there--even though Jesus is hungry and the devil shows up.

I also find it comforting to know that the hard, harsh desert times of our lives are not necessarily just my own rotten luck or punishment for my sins. It happened to Jesus, after all. No matter how or why those times have come, the Spirit is here with me...leading me...trying to make me into something stronger, better, and more aware than before. Too often I see the devil and fail to see the Spirit.

Around the world we are in a Lenten, desert season of sorts. Times are tough and just when we're down the blizzards come. Those who are supposed to lead us bicker like school children and call each other names. We encourage them to keep it up by voting our hatreds and keeping the ratings high for media outlets that do the same. We keep seeing the devil and failing to see the Spirit.

The season of Lent reminds us that hard times are where greatness is given birth. It was in the years of the Great Depression and World War II that the people we now call "The Greatest Generation" were molded. I would say that the Spirit led them in that time, even though some could see only the devil. I think we are in the same kind of desert now--the kind where it's hard to find water and the climate is uncomfortable and it seems like every hope turns out to be a mirage. But the Spirit is here, too, leading us to something better.

Lent reminds us that seeing that Spirit in a sandstorm requires discipline. We need to know the One we are looking for, and that requires time in prayer, study, and contemplation. Where I see a solid chair, a physicist sees a hub of molecular activity, but she didn't see that at birth. She learned to see it through disciplined training. Lent is that training for spiritual life.

We are in the desert. The devil is here and cannot be ignored. But the Spirit is leading us. Follow. The greatness of God is trying to be born in you.

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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Lesson of the Groundhog

"The seven years of plenty that prevailed in the land of Egypt came to an end; and the seven years of famine began to come, just as Joseph had said. There was famine in every country, but throught the land of Egypt there was bread." Genesis 41:53-54

It's Groundhog Day or, as I like to call it, The Feast of St. Chuck. As many of you know, I'm a fan of all creatures but have a special place in my heart for the lowly woodchuck. You can read about my most famous defense of them here.

More generally and more seriously, I have always believed that God's first revelation came in the created order and that everything in Creation has something to teach us. Which begs the question...what does God hope we learn from the groundhog?

The life of a groundhog is relatively straight forward: Eat all you can, get as fat as you can, sleep for several months together, wake up, predict the weather, repeat. There are times when that seems like an ideal life! But the gluttony of the groundhog that gets so many of you gardeners upset is not like the gluttony of people. There is a purpose for getting so fat. The groundhog hibernates for the winter. If a groundhog does not get fat enough, there is no spring awakening.

During hibernation, a groundhog's body temperature drops to 37 degrees F (3 degrees C) and its heartbeat drops from 80 beats per minute to 4-5. As it sleeps from roughly October - March, there is no nighttime raiding of the fridge. The groundhog lives off the fat accumulated in the Spring, Summer, and Fall, often even after waking back up, since the ground is often still snowy in March, with little to eat even then.

In short, the groundhog knows to store up during the times of plenty for the lean times ahead. It knows that some winters are longer than others and prepares for the worst, while popping back up in March, hoping for the best.

It was that wisdom that allowed the Hebrew patriarch, Joseph, to move from being a prisoner in Pharaoh's dungeon to being second in command in all of Egypt. Pharaoh had a dream and Joseph, while still in prison, gave the correct interpretation: The land would have seven years of plenty and during those seven years, Pharaoh should store up all the extra grain because seven years of famine was coming on its heels. Pharaoh did just that and when the hard times came, Egypt was the only place with food. The descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had to leave the land of Canaan and go to Egypt in order to survive.

It struck me how similar the plenty/lean cycle was to our current situation and how dissimilar was our preparation. When times were good, we did not look ahead and store up for the lean years. We were gluttons, yes, but for gluttony's sake--consuming anything and everything, whether we truly needed it or not. We neglected to remember God's lesson in creation that winter follows the harvest. While the groundhog dug his burrow deeper and prepared for hard times, we lived as if the abundance of summer would last forever. And it didn't.

The groundhog teaches us that hard times are a part of life. Some may be harder than others, but we can survive them if we remember that they will come and prepare. God sent that message through Joseph to Pharoah, allowing Egypt to prosper even in a time of famine. God sends that message to all of us who see a groundhog. Maybe we should put down our guns and traps and listen.

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