Wilderness and Temptations
By Rev. Erik Swanson
Jesus fresh out of his baptism, there is that beautiful moment we are told that the Spirit led him into the wilderness. The Spirit led him into the wilderness. If the Spirit is leading, then we could assume this is a place of meaning, learning and growing for him. Not a bad place. Not a place to torture or berate or to thrash himself, but a place of learning and finding. A valuable and important place.
Welcome to the season of Lent— that’s what these days are to be all about. We are invited to face some things that we just may not want to see. This is one of the gifts of entering the Lenten wilderness for these 40 days.
For me, it is in my difficult times, when I am hard pressed, when life is not easy, that I have to deal with temptations more than other times. Our temptations may be one of these things that we don’t want to look at, but when we are able to, this is another place that we can grow.
What are temptations? Aren’t temptations seductive things or ideas or thoughts that draw us away from the deeper truth or deeper goodness? They tempt us to short cuts. To to rely on more superficial and quick pleasures or fixes. Temptations have the power to get us out of our best selves, best intentions, and whole ways of being.
Many of us have been taught it is important to resist temptation and overcome temptations. However, I wonder about dealing with them in a different way. What would it would be like to take accountability for them with the intent to learn and grow from them?
Whether it is the the Lindor chocolate that tempts me on the office desk or for someone the cheating on taxes, what would it look like to take accountability for the temptations that plague us? I wonder if the first step is to stop and invite curiosity into that moment. To wonder, what is really going on with me right now? What am I hoping to avoid, receive or escape by this action?
What is it about this temptation that actually temps me? For me, the chocolate on the desk is a temptation. I can say no to the chocolate, but that doesn’t help me in finding out more about what makes me tick. About what is going on within me at a deeper level. About what I’m running from, looking for or trying to appease.
May this season and its wilderness time be another opportunity to deepen in your walk with the One who guides you.
By Wendy Toda
Two Mondays ago, I was almost run down in two different crosswalks. This was only a few days after the mass shooting in my city. My heart rate didn’t even change when the truck turning left into the crosswalk stopped only a few feet from me. I felt zero emotion and only thought, “Hm, I guess it’s not my time to go.” before continuing on my way.
When there’s still plenty of emotional dust in the air, it’s hard to identify feelings beyond numbness and blankness. In the meantime, as if in a parallel universe, we keep moving through life without being particularly connected to it. My dust is slowly settling - it’ll take time, so I’m practicing being gentle with myself. I’ve been told numbness is a normal response, so I’ll be patient and let it run its course. Art has been my quiet companion in this place.
What throws emotional dust around in your inner landscape? Whatever you might be feeling or not feeling, please be kind to yourself there. Go slow. Maybe even slower, till the skies are clear enough for us to see where we are and make our way forward safely together.
None of us knows when it'll be our time. Let's live, love, and serve in the gift of this day.
Hounded By Grace
By Diane Pate
This photo appeared in a text on my phone one recent January night. Just as I, and a few family members and friends, were settling down to relax and enjoy the euphoria and quiet after a particularly special birthday party for one of our daughters. At first glance, I thought my sister was sharing with me the beauty of the Sierras around her little cabin during the latest storms. But something was out of place in this serene snowy scene. The leaning tree. Was it behind her cabin? It couldn’t be ON her cabin, could it?
A flurry of texts followed, beginning with this, “So this just happened. Neighbor’s tree. Took out chimney and went through our roof. On our way up now. What a nightmare.”
And just like that, our family peace was shattered.
The damage turned out to be extensive and will not be fully known until the spring thaws. My sister and her family are overwhelmed with the loss, and aftermath, and the waiting. But even more, they are awed by the goodness of God. For after a day of skiing, their plan had been to sleep at the cabin on the night the tree fell. Instead, feeling tired, they made the drive home.
Pondering my sister’s story, I realize, I too, am increasingly aware of God’s persistent goodness and protection, perhaps most especially in the dark places of my life. God’s grace and mercy chases after me all my days. I find that I need it most when anxiety and those inner troublesome truth distortions are my closest companions. KJ Ramsey writes in her book, The Lord is My Courage, that God’s love hounds us. God’s love does not simply follow us, like our dog might follow us into the woods. God hunts us down. We are haunted by beauty, and are being chased down by grace. Our lives are not about finding God. They are about being found.
We all need a way to root ourselves in this reality. We need reminders to turn our attention from all the harm that pursues us, to the God who pursues us more. We need daily spiritual practices, prompts, and rest to be brought back to this reality every single day. Take a few moments and name for yourself:
As you walk through the unknown of what each day brings, may you be easy in yourself, enjoying God and yourself, happy, useful and a lover of all.
Lemon Colored Blanket
By Brooke Maffia Wang
As I drive down our street my eyes catch the lemon colored leaves about to fall. Each November I’m stopped in my tracks when the otherwise drab pavement is transformed into a captivating canvas. The breathtaking blanket of color awakens something in me.
Is it because the leaves are most beautiful for a short time at the end of their life? Or, that such a welcome mess is made by them? Or, is it a centering reminder that change is my only constant, and I’m not alone? Even the earth is feeling it. Or, maybe, it is the sense of awe that washes over me, invites me to linger, drops the tension in my shoulders and allows me to exhale?
As I approach the new year, I find myself uninterested in New Year’s resolution, but wondering about the structures that hold me, us. Like the branches that are left after the colorful finale. The stark beauty hints of what has been, and what is to come. Naked and unashamed its structure is reveled.
I’ve always been drawn to the beauty of barren trees. Years ago, newly married with our backpacks we took an unplanned stop in Lucca, Italy. A walled city where these trees (photo above) sit a top a thick wall. I can still feel the release of my shoulders, the sinking of my chest and curl upward of my lips as I remember being there. What was true then, is true now. The structures that hold us matter.
As you walk into this new year or when you notice the leaves fall off your tree:
One of the branches on the tree of my life is the practice of receiving spiritual direction*. A monthly meeting with a skilled listener who gently and compassionately helps me discern the voice of the Holy in my life. This year marks 20 years I’ve given myself to this practice. I stay with it, not because it is easy, but because it continues to offer me something of beauty. Similar to the lemon colored blanket on the pavement each November. As you enter this new year, may you find yourself held and known as you walk toward what has never been before.
*If you’re curious about this practice you can find more info here.
A Season for Welcoming Our Feelings
By Barbara Milligan
For some of us, the holiday season is painful. We’ve lost someone dear to us. We’ve suffered from a broken relationship. We’ve lost financial stability or a cherished dream. Or we’ve experienced some other trauma, crisis, or deep disappointment that makes this season difficult. Whatever it is, we might try to put on a happy face, hoping the feelings will follow. Or we might avoid social interaction so we don’t risk spoiling someone’s party.
I lost my husband last year, one week before Thanksgiving. Although he had been ill for many years and his death was no surprise, I was not prepared for the depth of the pain I felt. I cried nearly every night. And still do. How could such a loving, sensitive, creative person be gone from this world? It didn’t make sense. And no amount of focusing on how he’s free from his suffering and is enjoying God’s presence and yes, I believe I’ll see him again, took away my longing for his physical presence right now, my missing hearing his voice right now.
I especially dreaded experiencing the holidays without my soulmate. Strangely, alongside that dread I also sensed a glimmer of hope: Advent, the season of “God with us.” I looked forward to it, not because it might cheer me up, but because I understood Advent as an invitation to come to God with all our feelings, in all their rawness. Uncensored. Unjudged. And with God’s full attention and compassion.
I believe that Psalm 34:18 is true: “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.” So, I’ve been trying to welcome my unwanted feelings. I’m not good at this. It’s sometimes hard work and I’d rather distract myself. But God is helping me to face each feeling that arises and to welcome it.
I also pray for an open spirit to receive gifts of God’s presence with me. And soon I start recognizing those gifts. I tend to receive peace, comfort, and sometimes even joy right alongside the grief. God’s gift might be someone’s kind word or an offer of help, or it might be something personal that only God could do.
Among my favorite things about this season is the return of migratory ducks to my community. One recent morning when I was feeling especially sad, I again asked God to open my spirit to receive good gifts. When I opened my eyes, I noticed several ducks swimming in a nearby lagoon. They didn’t appear to be our usual coots or mallards, so I looked at them through my field glasses. How surprised and grateful I was to realize I was receiving a gift from God—my first sighting of migratory ducks this season. And they were a breed I had never noticed before.
Coincidence? I don’t think so. Instead, I believe God was saying to me, I hear you. I see you. And I am with you in all your feelings.
May you receive many good gifts from God during this Advent season. May you experience “God with us” in all your feelings.