1st Sunday of Lent: February 17, 2013
Have you ever played “peek-a-boo” with a baby? Hide your face behind a baby blanket or your hands, wait a beat, and . . . “Peek-a-boo!” The baby’s squeals of delight are enough to make you repeat the move over and over and over and over . . .
Have you ever played “peek-a-boo” with a teenager? Yeah, not nearly the same effect.
Because teenagers have, we hope, developed the concept of “object permanence.” Right? They actually figured this out long before their teenage years. Just because you cover something up, doesn’t mean it’s not there any more. It only seems like it’s not there.
Now we might develop the concept of object permanence pretty early on, but I tend to agree with writer Nora Gallagher who says that “To come to terms with illusion is one of the great jobs of our lives.” It’s not just babies and young children who have to figure out is from seems. We all, Gallagher writes, have “to discern what is fantasy and what is reality, what is dead and what is alive, what is a narcotic and what is food, what are stones and what is bread. It is dangerous, wrenching and unavoidable.”
Unless a person has some sort of mental illness, the process of coming to terms with illusion in the material world follows a fairly straightforward developmental course. (Deep science and philosophical discussions about matter notwithstanding.) It doesn’t take long for “peek-a-boo” to lose its charm. And probably some time in grade school you figure out that those shiny patches ahead on the hot Kansas asphalt aren’t actually puddles. And by the time you are an adult, you watch a magician and think, “How did they dothat?” rather than just, “Wow! Magic!”.
To come to terms with illusion is, indeed, one of the great jobs of our lives. Hard enough in the material world, and much harder, I think, when it comes to the spiritual world. The people, the cultures, that surround us make really good cases for truths that don’t exist, for life that is actually death, for narcotics as nourishment.
This story of Jesus in the wilderness is completely foreign to our experiences in many ways. Still, at its heart, it is about this central struggle of our spiritual lives: coming to terms with illusion.
Because what the devil tries to do here is to get Jesus to accept comfortable spiritual illusions over more difficult spiritual realities.
The devil says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
Here Jesus is fighting against the illusion that comfort is the same thing as fulfillment. That what we want is what we need. This illusion that we can be truly fulfilled by getting what we want when we want it. However we can get it. Jesus is hungry. He wants something to eat. The devil says, “So make something to eat.”
It’s a spiritual illusion we all get duped by. That what satisfies our immediate cravings is what will fulfill us in the long run.
We’re hungry, eat. We’re bored, turn on the T.V or pop in a video game. We’re lonely, get on Facebook or go hang out at the bar. We’re confused, consult an expert or read some articles and books.
The world’s illusion is that we shouldn’t ever have to be uncomfortable or inconvenienced. And a lot of people make a lot of money when we buy into this illusion.
The spiritual reality, though, is that sometimes we need the hunger and the quiet and the aloneness and the confusion. Sometimes we need these uncomfortable spaces, these empty spaces, these unsatisfying spaces to experience the fullness of God’s love and grace.
Jesus answers the devil, “It is written,‘One does not live by bread alone.’”
So the devil moves on to temptation number two. He leads Jesus up somewhere high and shows him all of the worldly kingdoms. “To you I will give their glory and all this authority,” says the devil, “for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”
Here the devil offers the familiar illusion that control is power. Looking at all the kingdoms of the world there from that high place, the people and their institutions are just things to be controlled–for the sake of controlling them. Because the person in charge gets their glory.
This illusion of control for power is amazingly strong. It pulls at us on every level.
It can grip us at the personal level–the woman with anorexia thinks that if she can control her weight, she has power over her life.
It can grip us at the interpersonal level–parents struggle to control what their children eat and watch and say and do because we want the power to make them have good lives.
It can grip us at the societal level–legislators create laws to try to control what people eat and smoke, how people spend their money, who people can marry.
And at the international level–we have sanctions and threats of military action to try to control other governments.
And it’s not that attempts at control are, in and of themselves, bad. We should eat well and exercise to control our weight. Parents have an obligation to control certain aspects of their children’s lives–to keep them safe, to nurture them. Some laws are good–good for individuals, good for society. And international pressure against countries that are, for example, committing human rights violations, is a good thing.
There are times, there are situations, where we can and should exercise control. But we should not confuse control with power. The idea that anyone besides God has true power is a dangerous spiritual illusion.
And the idea that we can claim power for ourselves if we deny God’s power by worshiping other things–well, that’s called idolatry. According to the Bible, idolatry is probably the most dangerous spiritual illusion of them all.
Jesus answers the devil: “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve God only.’”
And so it’s on to temptation number three. The devil takes Jesus to Jerusalem and puts him on top of the pinnacle of the temple and says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘God will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'”
“God loves you, right? So let him prove it!”
It’s the illusion that affection is love.
We confuse affection with love in all types of relationships–with our parents, our children, our friends, even with God. I guess it’s because Valentine’s Day was this week that I’ve been thinking about this specifically in terms of romantic love.
There’s a Macy’s commercial that shows images of very happy (and attractive) women receiving gifts from equally happy (and attractive) men. The words appear and disappear on the screen: “love, devotion, amore, tennis bracelet, pearls, diamond earrings.”
I overheard a woman showing off her engagement ring once. “Look,” she said, “he paid over $3,000 for it.”
Thursday night I asked Jasmine if a lot of people at school had gotten flowers and balloons and stuff for Valentine’s Day. “Yeah,” she said. And I immediately remembered the wistfulness I felt in Jr. High and High School when other girls were walking around with visible signs of their romantic relationships. (Flowers or balloons from Mom and Dad just didn’t cut it.)
You may have noticed a trend in over-the-top marriage proposals lately. Yahoo has a whole series called “Ultimate Proposals.” For example, Toby rigs up a beach-side fireworks display and flaming heart as backdrop when he proposes to Erica.
Now nice gifts, thoughtful tokens, grand gestures–these are all signs of affection. And they are good–as far as they go. But we can get in trouble when we equate affection with love.
This illusion is dangerous because we can begin to accept affection instead of love. Abusive relationships tend to involve a great deal of gift giving and romantic gestures.
This illusion is dangerous because it can push us away from people who may not be overly affectionate, but do offer real love.
In the spiritual realm, this illusion–that affection is love–can be deadly. It leads us to base our understanding about how much God loves us on what sorts of external circumstances we face. If the angels don’t come swooping in to rescue us–or someone we love–then we find ourselves dealing with whatever crisis is occurring while at the same time doubting God’s love for us.
Jesus answers the devil, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
– – – –
Comfort is not fulfillment.
Control is not power.
Affection is not love.
But it can sure seem that way.
The tempters of this world have a lot to gain by maintaining these illusions.
I think Nora Gallagher is right in the first part of her statement: “To come to terms with illusion is one of the great jobs of our lives: to discern what is fantasy and what is reality, what is dead and what is alive, what is a narcotic and what is food, what are stones and what is bread.”
I’m not so sure I agree with her concluding words: “It is dangerous, wrenching and unavoidable.”
Discerning spiritual illusion from reality is dangerous. Yes. And wrenching. Yes. But unavoidable? Oh, we have all kinds of ways to avoid facing the truth. All kinds of ways to allow ourselves to continue living in the illusions.
That’s why the Christian tradition has given us Lent. This time when we are encouraged to acknowledge our mortality. To consider the darkness. To enter the wilderness. This time when we are challenged to set aside maybe just one of our conveniences, our crutches, our comforts while we do the hard spiritual work of pushing past illusion into truth.