Temptation and True Power for Dark Days

“Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; 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.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Luke 4:5-8 NRSV

Immediately after his baptism Luke and Matthew give us the account of Jesus 40-day temptation by the devil. After trying and failing to tempt the famished Jesus with food Satan turns to the almost sure fire way to corrupt the best of us in the verses above—worldly power.

The devil must have known the famous line from British historian Lord Acton who said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” So Satan offers Jesus absolute power/authority over “all the kingdoms of the world.” We know, and Jesus certainly, did that this offer is a boldface lie. The prince of evil is offering a deal that is too good to be true because it is, and Jesus sees right through the clever marketing scheme.

But how often do we mortals fall for snake oil salespersons or ads promising everything from sparkling white teeth to age-defying beauty and sexual prowess? This year the marketing geniuses are hard at work earlier than usual as we approach the holiest of all shopping seasons. This is true for at least two reasons I’m aware of: 1) Because Thanksgiving is as late in November as it can be there are the fewest shopping days between then and Christmas possible; therefore we don’t just have Black Friday, we have had Black November. 2) Retailers are in trouble financially and desperately need to rake in as much loot as possible during this annual spending frenzy.

If you have never spent more on an item than intended or bought something you’d weren’t even shopping for my hat is off to you. I’m embarrassed to admit that my wife and I were suckers for a time share hard sell presentation 15 years ago. We have never used said vacation spot in paradise and only rarely used any of the other perks that we paid for and continue to pay dearly for in maintenance fees.

And just recently I was flattered by an invitation to join a company as a freelance writer. The prestige of that plus a chance to earn some extra income was very tempting. But this time I was smart enough to do a quick Google search and read some very negative reviews of this company which were a good reality check. Modern technology provides us with such tools to research things and do comparison shopping, and that’s good. But all of those tools are also available to all the marketing folks, and they are far better at using those tools for their purposes than I am.

So I personally love this story about Jesus shutting Satan down with one great comeback by quoting Scripture. “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” The next time I am tempted to bow down to the idols of materialism or self-aggrandizement I hope I can remember that line.

But lets dig a bit deeper into the carrot Satan is dangling in front of Jesus. It’s the same one offered to Adam and Eve–to be like God. And from the earliest days of human kind even when it’s a lie the offer of power can turn the heads of even the strongest among us. And one of the reasons that particular temptation is so effective is that it can shape shift into hundreds of different disguises. It can turn us into workaholics; it can certainly drown us in consumer debt (as a nation or as individuals); it can override basic human decency for the unquenchable thirst for more stuff and more prestige or security. Power hunger can turn simple and just economic systems into stacked decks that result in untenable income equality. The pursuit of power can turn a basic human right like health care into a corrupt billion dollar industry.

The desire to acquire or retain power produces the kind of corruption that makes good people lose their moral and political courage to speak the truth. And the flip side, the fear of losing power is so insidious it can justify genocide or slavery even in the name of the gods of false religion. The Hebrew prophet Amos famously said it can result in selling the poor for a pair of Nikes (my paraphrase, he just said “shoes” which should probably be translated “sandals”. Fear of losing power can even justify putting children in cages! Or if we don’t justify it we can be so easily distracted by other power play drama in our own lives or in politics that we put those kids out of our awareness.

But here’s the rest of Jesus’ temptation story: “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.” Luke 4:13-15

Two things of note in those last 3 verses: 1). The forces of evil are never done with us. Temptation to betray our best values doesn’t ever cease. There is no war to end all wars over the power of temptation. Luke tells us the devil left Jesus “until an opportune time.” We all know Jesus would pass each and every one of those tests, unlike you and me. But my point is that we must not ever grow complacent and think we have arrived at a point where we are stronger than evil. If anyone tries to sell us that one, it’s a big, fat lie! There is no vaccination for temptation in all it’s many forms, and when we think we are immune that is when evil sees the most opportune time.

And finally notice how and why Jesus is able to walk away from temptation and carry on his one true purpose. “Filled with the power of the Holy Spirit” he returned to Galilee just as he will later leave the serenity of the Mount of Transfiguration (Mark 9) and go down to face the most humbling and powerless humiliation awaiting him in Jerusalem. But we also know how that turned out!

The take away for is that Jesus was able to withstand evil’s best offers of comfort, fame and power because he was filled with the only power stronger than any and all temptations. That Comforter, that Holy Spirit is God’s gift to us, and it’s better than any Black Friday promise or back room political deal. It’s free for the asking, but here’s the deal — we have to be willing to admit we are powerless without the Holy Spirit.

I’m praying for that kind of humility for myself and for everyone who is tempted to drink the poison kool aid when promised absolute power if we just worship a false god.

Prayer for Eagle’s Wings

It’s me again, God. As you already know I’m feeling very, very hopeless and helpless about the state of our country and world, and that makes it very hard to be motivated to do anything. Knowing that elected officials are stuck in their partisan foxholes and not about to venture into the demilitarized zone to work in a bipartisan, collaborative manor makes it feel useless to even write to them to express concern. There’s so much to be upset and concerned about; is this empathy fatigue? Are my minor physical limitations a valid excuse for not doing anything?

Where is my niche Lord? Pre-retirement I knew who I was and what I was doing each day; but now I’m lost in the ambiguity of despair and need guidance. Shine a light or give me a sign so I can see where I’m supposed to go and do what for the kin-dom. I don’t want to surrender to old age or despair, but I’m so tired, so very tired. I’m waiting, God. You promise that if I wait for you I will not be weary; I will fly on eagle’s wings. Sounds wonderful, but how long do I have to wait? Isaiah doesn’t say how long – he just says “wait.” Does that mean napping or staying busy with distractions of the world while I wait? Does it mean having my phone with me constantly so I don’t miss your call that will tell me what I should be doing? Waiting is tough, especially when I don’t know how long the wait is. Can’t you tell me how long like when companies do when I’m on hold on the phone? Or give me a number that tells me where I am in line? Or can I leave my number so you can call me back when it’s my turn?

You can see how impatient I am. Impatient with all the things my body can no longer do. Impatient with no clarity about what “retirement” means. That word isn’t in the Bible, Lord. Does that mean there is no rest for the weary? Jesus said, “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest,” didn’t he? Or did Matthew slip that into the Gospel because he was tired and needed R & R from kin-dom work?

I’m waiting, Lord; I’m on hold. You know my strengths and weaknesses; so please let this old, weary servant know what you would have me do in this world that feels like we are going to hell in the proverbial hand basket. I’m waiting for my eagles wings!

Fiddling Through the Storm

One of my favorite musicals has always been “Fiddler on the Roof.” Its theme of love conquering oppression never seems out of date and is all too relevant today. Some of its insights are so good I am tempted to call it the Gospel according to Tevye. I was in a discussion the other day about praying for President Trump, and all of us present agreed we should and he certainly needs it. His erratic and delusional Messianic references to himself since then only confirm that conclusion.

One of the first things that came to my mind about praying for the President is a line from Fiddler where Tevye says this prayer: “God bless and keep the czar—far away from us.” On a more serious note I think one of the best parts of Fiddler is the opening where the title and its metaphor for life are explained.

“Away above my head I see the strangest sight
A fiddler on the roof who’s up there day and night
He fiddles when it rains, he fiddles when it snows
I’ve never seen him rest, yet on and on he goes

{Refrain}
What does it mean, this fiddler on the roof?
Who fiddles every night and fiddles every noon
Why should he pick so curious a place
To play his little fiddler’s tune

An unexpected breeze could blow him to the ground
Yet after every storm, I see he’s still around
Whatever each day brings, this odd outlandish man
He plays his simple tune as sweetly as he can

{Refrain}

A fiddler on the roof, a most unlikely sight
It might not mean a thing, but then again it might!”

And then Tevye says, “A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask ‘Why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous?’ Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition!”

Our traditions of love, compassion, hospitality and justice are under attack, but they are the solid rock and anchor we can cling to in each and every storm; and if we do we will still be around after the perils of this present age are no more.

“A Fiddler on the roof, a most unusual sight…. It may not mean a thing, but then again it might.”

*music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick

Holy Roller Coaster Whiplash

Diana and I went with some family members recently to an amusement park-first time in years, and I had no intention of riding anything wilder than a Ferris Wheel. But you know how peer pressure is even at my advanced age. So I rode a couple of the “milder” coasters, and I use that term loosely. I opted out of things that went upside down but discovered that the old wooden coasters bang you around even more than some of the newer ones. One called the Blue Streak finished me off, and I was glad to find my head still attached to my body when it was done slamming me first one way and then the other.

That’s how I feel about consuming news in any form these days. We all know the stock market has had more dips and plunges in the last two weeks than most coasters, but trying to keep up with the shifting sands and contradictions coming from the White House has been equally disorienting.

In just two weeks we’ve had 3 mass shootings, on-again off-again Chinese tariffs, strange talk about buying Greenland and a cancelled state visit to Denmark. More EPA regulations have been shredded; background checks have been on the table again and off once more. The Emma Lazarus poem on Lady Liberty has been rewritten, as have rules now allowing the indefinite incarceration of migrant children, and the aforementioned stock market highs and lows.

With that entire dizzying blur of reality coming at me I need to pray. Yes, I know “thoughts and prayers” have become a pious platitude that sometimes excuses inaction, but like that seat belt holding me into the roller coaster I need a solid grounding in something bigger and stronger than my puny self before I can even begin to know how to put thoughts and prayers into action. So, let us pray:

O God, I feel you calling me to a higher place where things will make more sense than the crazy world I’m living in. I love that feeling of being embraced in your presence. I feel you near me in summer nights when even the crickets are chirping your glory. I sleep securely in the faith that you never rest from watching over your children. A new day dawns in all its splendor, but then we crest that first big hill and the bottom drops out. The news is about bullet proof backpacks for innocent children and others who are frightened, alone, bereft of parents and life necessities because they come from the wrong side of an imaginary line we humans have drawn to divide some of your children from others.

The roller coaster of life careens around corners where we look for active shooters, past free-falling retirement accounts, endangered species, and climate refugees. We grasp at anything to hang on to as we fly up another hill only to plunge again into the abyss of loneliness and insecurity. We dare to open our eyes long enough to catch a glimpse of sisters and brothers hungering for food and others fighting the demons of addiction. We want to reach out to them, but we’re too afraid for our own safety to let go and extend a hand.

Values like compassion and kindness that we have relied on forever seem to be no more. Everyone is too busy hanging on for dear life to pay attention to fellow passengers on the coaster. We are connected and share a common fate, and yet we feel isolated and alone, helpless and at the mercy of those who build and operate the ride. We are only passengers, out of control.

Some people seem to like the chaos, the adrenaline rush, but it is too much, too fast for me. My mind can’t make sense of the 24/7 news cycle that bombards me with yet more natural and unnatural disasters. When will it stop? I don’t know if I can take it much longer, Lord! Are you on the coaster with us? Does it look less frightening from your perspective, wherever you are?

And then this part of the ride is over. We jerk to a stop and emerge on wobbly legs back into the broken world we call home; and soon we are searching for another escape from whatever new catastrophe awaits if we dare turn on the news again.

I need a sabbatical, a place of respite from the daily drama of Breaking News. But the world is too much like the amusement park, all noise and lights. I can’t see the Milky Way because light pollution robs me of the awesomeness of the universe. Traffic noise, cell phone notifications, construction crews bulldozing yet more trees and paving over more of Mother Earth. Make it stop, Lord! I can’t hear your still small voice above the din, and I have never needed to hear it more.

Oh, let me find that inner stillness, that holiness of true communion with you that transcends my fear, that smooths out the highs and lows of life, and calms my troubled soul so I can let go of my security blankets and extend an open hand to my sisters and brothers.

I am still, and you are God; and that’s all I need to know. Amen

Moon Shot Memories

Fifty years ago this week, like most people who could I was glued to my little black and white TV watching coverage of Apollo 11’s journey to the moon. By a quirk of fate I happened to be living that summer of ’69 on Kelly Drive in my hometown. I was working that summer after my first year of seminary as the associate pastor of the church I grew up in. Kelly Dr. has been renamed since then, not because I lived there, but because the house the church rented for us that summer was next door to Steve and Viola Armstrong, parents of the first man on the moon. So Neil’s “one step” was especially memorable for me, living on what is now Armstrong Drive.

While I’m enjoying reliving that exciting time this week I am also feeling cowardly for not being more prophetic in my ministry all these years. Neil risked his life flying fighter jets in Korea, as a test pilot for experimental rocket planes, regaining control when his Gemini 8 was tumbling through space in a near fatal spiral, and of course commanding Apollo 11. And what have I ever risked for fear of conflict with others who see things differently, who in the 1960’s and still today shout “America, Love it or Leave It” at any who dare to offer honest criticism of our country?

The moon shot helped unite a badly broken country briefly for 8 days in July of ’69, but that was also a year after the MLK and RFK assassinations and the My Lai Massacre in Viet Nam. The country was plagued by civil rights and anti-war protests, the prelude to students being killed at Kent State and Jackson State the following year. And 50 years later it is so discouraging to see us reverting back to hate and division at this stage of my life.

And so I ask myself what difference have I made? The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice but it gets twisted like a pretzel on the way. Neil took one giant leap for (hu)mankind but came home to a broken world that is more fractured and battered now than ever. But the real question is not what I’ve done in the last 50 years for justice and mercy, but what do I do now, today and in the future? How do I deal with my thorns in the flesh and the drain of time and energy they demand of me when there is so much I want to write, say, and shout from the rooftops?

Hamlet’s question “To Be or Not to Be?” or Descartes’ assessment of human life, “I Think therefore I Am” don’t go far enough. Thinking doesn’t change anything, and just “being” as in existence means no more than the life of a hamster in wheel going nowhere. The question is what will I be, what will I become or do with however much time I have left? What am I willing to risk? I gave money yesterday to support our church’s brown bag lunch ministry and that was painless and easy – but I haven’t taken time to go pack one lunch or deliver one brown bag because I’m too busy stringing and unstringing my instrument instead of playing a tune; mowing my lawn, cooking my meals, shopping for stuff or stretching my old achy muscles.

Is that the report I want to give to God about what I’ve done to win the battle in my sector? No pain no gain doesn’t just apply to exercise – it also means that without risk and moving out of my comfort zone I don’t grow and don’t influence anyone else. God’s question to Elijah on Mt. Horeb is the same question she has for me and everyone – “What are you doing here?” “Don’t whine and tell me Jezebel is out to get you and you are the only one left. Go enlist Elisha and other allies. You’re not done till I say so.”

In Whom Do We Trust?

Note: I am republishing part of a post from 2/7/18 (“Power Parade”):

“Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses,
but our pride is in the name of the Lord our God.
They will collapse and fall,
but we shall rise and stand upright.” (Psalms 20:7-8)

If we want peace in the world and not just an excuse to pour more money into the military-industrial complex the answer is not more weapons. Ask Pharaoh how well his horses and chariots did against unarmed refugees at the Red Sea. (Exodus 14) Peace will not come by unpeaceful means. Life will not flourish by weapons of mass destruction.

This is not a new problem of course. I found these words I wrote in this blog 2.5 years ago: “The answer is not more horses and chariots or bigger bombs. The answer is not more guns. The answer is to examine our fears that drive us to build gated communities, to propose building walls on our borders to keep others out. Instead of repairing roads, educating our children, alleviating poverty, and addressing social injustice, we spend obscene amounts of money and resources on defense because we are afraid. The gun lobby sells more and more automatic weapons that have no purpose but to kill other people because we are afraid. Wealthy lobbies buy more and more congressional votes because our legislators are afraid to take courageous stands that will cost them their office and lifetime benefits. The church is silent about being peacemakers and turning the other cheek because we are afraid those unpopular views will cost us members and contributions.” (Aug 6 2015, Blowing in the Wind: Hiroshima and Our Addiction to Violence)

Our money says “In God We Trust” but,for too long we have put our trust in more and bigger horses and chariots. If we continue to do that the United States will go the way of every other empire in human history, just as the Psalmist says: “They will collapse and fall.”

Perhaps this is best captured in the words to a contemporary rock song by that very name, “Horses and Chariots:”

“Horses and chariots, churches and states
Devotion turns dangerous when armed with rules of faith
Prisoners and patriots, angels and saints
If minds are persuaded enough compassion turns to hate

So when the tide comes to bury us, together we must stay
Don’t let their horses and chariots drag our love away
No!

Borders and boundary signs drawn by red tape
Those who color outside of the lines define the human race
Warlords and suffering eyes, soldiers and slaves
The side of the fence that we climb determines who’s afraid

So when the tide comes to bury us, together we must stay
Don’t let their horses and chariots drag our love away
Until we swallow our pride our hearts will collide.” (Billy Talent, 2016)

Be Their Voice

Just wrote this to my congressional rep and senators: “The humanitarian crisis at the border with Mexico breaks my heart, embarrasses me and makes me furious. Innocent children are living in deplorable conditions for no reason other than the president needs to score political points with his base. I appeal to your basic human decency to address this travesty immediately. Work with the Democrats to adopt humane immigration reform with bipartisan, veto-proof support. America is better than the image we are projecting to the world because of this president’s racist policies and it must stop. I believe what we do to the least of these defenseless children is how we treat Christ himself. (Matthew 25:31-46) Please let me know what you are doing to stop this tragic misuse of political power. Thank you.”

Many of us feel helpless to do anything, and that’s just how oppressors want us to feel. I don’t expect my words to break through the political gridlock, but as discouraged as I am with our political leaders I still do believe there is a basic human sense of compassion (which means “to suffer with”) in most of our elected officials. Most of them went into public service with a real desire to actually serve the public good, but the forces of evil that corrupt even good women and men are very strong. The question is which is stronger?

Yes, the perks that go with elected office can warp the best of human motives. Once these people taste the benefits of insurance and pensions better than the rest of us, not to mention the heady aroma of power, it’s natural that their decisions are affected by the desire to keep their jobs. I’m not sure I could resist those temptations either.

So we are fighting strong, deep-seated powers, and I’m guessing that some of our senators and representatives feel pretty helpless too. But feeling helpless is no excuse to be complicit in causing human suffering by staying silence. Every elected official’s website says he/she wants to hear what’s on our minds. It may not change a thing, but it certainly can’t hurt. The good thing about political influence is that we the people do actually hold the ultimate power. The lobbyists and corporations may have the money, but if we who vote speak long and loud enough and in enough numbers, trust me, the folks in Washington will eventually remember who they work for.

If enough of us care enough to make our voices heard they will listen. Those kids living in squalor at the border, those broken-hearted parents who have had their children ripped from their arms, they can’t wait until 2020. They need those of us who can to speak up for them because they can’t.