This is a reflection given at a men’s breakfast at Christ Church in Little Rock.
Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
As we begin the season of Lent, I find myself in a period of transition. I wonder if you do too? Two weekends ago we held Arkansas’ 151st Diocesan Convention here in Little Rock, and marked several important milestones. John Tisdale, who has held the post of diocesan chancellor for a quarter century, was commended for his service, this being his final convention serving in that role. Mary Jane Hodges, the diocesan financial coordinator, who has served in the bishop’s office for nearly the same amount of time was also celebrated. She will retire next month. And, as you know, Larry Benfield retires soon after seventeen years as bishop, and fifteen years as my close colleague in ministry. These goodbyes, along with several recent clergy retirements in congregations throughout the diocese, made convention especially poignant this year. There was sadness, certainly, in recognizing so much change at once, but there was also a spirit of celebration for a job well done, and joy at being back in-person after two years holding convention via Zoom. This diocese is in great shape, truly, and I’m looking forward to its next chapter.
On a larger scale, the world is in a state of transition, having mostly emerged from the COVID pandemic. We’re all learning how to renegotiate our relationships and reawaken dormant social skills. We’ve had to learn how to have parties—or breakfasts together—again, how to be a good host or guest. I get the sense that many of us are looking out ahead to see what’s next, desirous of some sort of peaceful normalcy to resume, but also pretty sure that things won’t quite go back to they way they were. Maybe there’s a particular transition underway in your life too. Maybe a recent retirement, a move, or a change in health? Truthfully, none of us is immune to transition. It’s part of the human condition. The tricky part is that when transition comes around, so does temptation. As we heard in last Sunday’s passage from Matthew, Jesus, having just been baptized, was thrust out into the desert to be tempted for forty days and nights before beginning his earthly ministry in earnest. The desert is a way station of sorts, symbolic of the challenging emotional landscape we enter when experiencing transitions of our own.
From a Christian perspective, If I were to name the chief temptation that arises during these times of transition, it is that we can easily lose sight of God. We can drift away from our spiritual anchor, distracted by unhelpful ways of thinking. We often look for peace, comfort, or salvation in memories of the past, or in dreams of the future. We can long to be somewhere else, to have more money, to be in control, or to have the better life we imagine our neighbor to have. The widely known, but easily forgotten truth is that God is not necessarily in these places we are tempted to look, but rather in the places we least expect—and often right in front of us.
One of my favorite authors, Belden Lane, paraphrases a passage from a Nikos Kazantzakis book that illustrates this well, and I want to share it with you:
There was once an English monk who all of his life had dreamed of making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. There he would walk around the Holy Sepulchre three times, kneel, and come back a new man. Through the years he’d dreamed of leaving his monastery with its old yew tree in the cloister yard—making his way on foot from Canterbury to Rome along the ancient pilgrimage route, the Via Francigena. He’d cross the rocky terrain of Greece to follow the Templar Trail through the dry expanse of Cappadocia. He’d visit cathedrals and the tombs of saints, coming at last to the old city of Jerusalem.
Through the years the monk had prepared for the trip, putting away money that he received as alms. Near the end of his life he’d finally saved enough to begin his journey. Taking his staff in hand, he opened the monastery gates and set out for the Holy City.
But no sooner had he left the cloister, than he encountered a man in rags, bent to the ground, picking herbs on the side of the path. “Where are you going, Father?” the man asked. “To the Holy Sepulcher, brother. By God’s grace, I’ll walk around it three times, kneel, and return home a different man.” “Ah, that’s wonderful! I hope you have enough money to provide for you on your way.” “Yes, God be praised,” said the monk. “I’ve been able to save thirty pounds for the trip.”
The man then hesitantly responded, “Can I ask you something crazy, Father? I have a wife and hungry children at home. I’m searching everywhere for food to keep them from starving. Would you consider giving me your thirty pounds, walking three times around me, then kneel and go back into your monastery?” The monk thought for a long moment, scratching the ground with his staff. Then (with a divine absurdity) he took the money from this sack, gave the whole of it to the man, walked three times around him, knelt, and returned back through the gates of the monastery.
He came home a new man, of course, having recognized the beggar as Christ himself—not far away at the Holy Sepulchre, but just outside his monastery door, in a place he’d never have thought sacred. He’d discovered a great desert truth—that the holy is where you least expect it, that the desire for the trip is its own fulfillment, that he’d been drawn all along to transformation, not tourism. He greeted the old yew tree in the cloister yard, took a deep breath, and returned to his work.
As we begin our Lenten journey, I invite you to reflect on your own experience of transition and temptation. Where have you been? Where have you seen God in your travels? Have you ever lost sight of God along the way? One of the most important spiritual skills we can work on during Lent is getting better at recognizing God wherever we are—whether that’s during prayer time, within ourselves, within the signs of spring emerging around us, within our family, friends, and neighbors, or within the hungry person we encounter on our path.
For me, it’s a great help to know that Jesus once made a home in the desert and resisted its many temptations. Of all the places I have been and will go in this life, I suppose I’ve come to expect to at least see him there.
Excerpt from Belden C. Lane, The Great Conversation: Nature and the Care of the Soul (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019), 146-7.