In Ashes and the Phoenix, Forward Movement’s book of daily meditations which I commend to you this Lent, in the reflection for the Saturday after Ash Wednesday Porter Taylor, former Bishop of Western North Carolina cites Bernard Malamud’s novel The Natural in which Malamud writes: We have two lives … the life we learn with and the life we live after that. Suffering is what brings us towards happiness. However, Bishop Taylor suggests the difficulty these words pose for modern Americans. He writes: American culture presupposes that the goal of life is to be immune from suffering.
In a time and culture when choices multiply exponentially, we are people who believe that personal satisfaction is the goal of a life well lived. Temptation offers us the illusion of freedom from living within limits.
How easily Satan in the form of a ruthlessly individualistic culture tricks us into believing we can replace God at the center of our lives with the pursuit of myriad idols that demand our worship in return for the promise of individual fulfillment, and personal success.
We have two lives … the life we learn with and the life we live after that.
Matthew describes Jesus after his baptism full of the Holy Spirit being led out into the wilderness for forty days. He tells us that during this time Jesus fasted and describes in detail a series of temptations that Satan presents to the increasingly famished Jesus.
Matthew’s description of the temptations Satan presents Jesus with have become allegories for the temptations that trick us into believing that:
- If we are hungry, why not eat, even if it is at the risk of exploiting our privilege?
- As we navigate our way through a complex world of shades of gray, why not enjoy power and privilege when offered, becoming implicated in systems that compromise our desire to have God at the center of all we do.
- Why not give in to hubris – excessive pride and self-confidence, believing we will always be in control?
We have two lives -Matthew’s description of Satan’s temptations all center on an invitation to misuse power, privilege, and position in a desperate attempt to cling to the life we learn with – i.e. staying only within the parameters of our illusion that we are actually in control.
We have two lives, from the life we learn with to the life we live after that is a journey through our wilderness places. The wilderness places in our lives are not places of great suffering or and dramatic privation. They are places of boredom, frustration; places made barren because of their sheer mind numbing ordinariness. We long for more dramatic and interesting vistas. Yet, spiritually, the journey starts in the places where we most experience limitation.
Like it or not, we do not, in fact, thrive in the context of endless possibilities. As all good parents know it’s only when necessary boundaries are held firmly, that the space within becomes a safe place for our children’s experimentation and growth. Limitation forces us back into the space where our lives are actually lived and impels us toward the kind of creative adaptation that is the fruit of living within limitations.
The spiritual practices we are invited to consider in Lent offer ways to live into a deeper life with God at our center. Couched in the language and imagery of the 16th century these practices need some decoding for our modern ear:
- Fasting is the practice of varying the patterns of our consumption and use of food and alcohol so that eating and not eating become physically felt sensations, reminding us of our desire for God to be at our center and not an optional extra.
- Repentance is the experience of being sorry. How easy is it for us to feel sorrow, to be saddened and humbled by what we have done or said? Repentance is when we face our need for grace, the grace that will transform us into being better than we have been, of doing better than we have done.
- Sitting with Scripture is making time for an encounter with the conversation that God is seeking to invite us into instead of endlessly talking to ourselves.
- Prayer is simply showing up before God and reaching out in our loneliness for an experience of greater intimacy with God, and with those around us.
- Self-denial is the capacity to behold another’s presence before we act, to hear another before we speak, to develop the kind of self-awareness that makes room for another.
- Alms giving is the outward expression of our discovery of gratitude at the core of our lives. For where your treasure is there your heart will be also Matt 6:21
We have two lives. Lent is a boundaried period of time set between Ash Wednesday and Easter Day. Why not see this as a safe space within which to try out living into your second life. Beyond the life we have learned with, lies the life of possibility – to be lived after that.