Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Jesus was No Exception

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, 'He 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.'" Jesus answered him, "It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"

Anyone who has been a teenager knows what if feels like to be exceptional, immortal, borne aloft by angels. To drive my car at breakneck speed. To climb trees and mountains in any weather. To paddle into the ocean into the wake of an incoming wave. To sleep under the stars in a wilderness known for its bears. I am young and I am strong. My reflexes are awesome and life would not dare to kill me, not now when I am standing on the pinnacle of my future. In this spirit, the devil reminds Jesus that he is God’s chosen child. He has been set aside for a mission. No harm can possibly come to him. Since God will protect you, why not live a little? The devil does not pull empty enticements out of his brain. He quotes Psalm 91.
There shall no evil happen to you, *
neither shall any plague come near your dwelling.

For he shall give his angels charge over you, *
to keep you in all your ways.

They shall bear you in their hands, *
lest you dash your foot against a stone.

Like adolescents, nations, too, can feel exceptional and invulnerable. I know because I live in one. Most of my life I have been cloaked in assurances that being an American is enough to keep me from harm, that the tragedies that happen to other countries cannot happen here. Even a cursory look at photographs shows that Americans look younger, have better teeth and smile more than the denizens of other lands. God is on our side, isn’t he?

Maybe yes, maybe no. And what does it mean that God is on my side? If I am in with God, does that mean that God’s plan is a heavenly reflection of my own?

I remember when my eighteen year old cousin died in a car accident. The minister at his service said, “This was not part of God’s plan.” I was haunted. I was tempted. If this was not part of God’s plan, then who was more powerful than God and could take my cousin away? How could such a terrible ending cut short such a charmed, young life? But as I prayed through my tears I realized that I had fallen for a simple and literal world of black and white. I had assumed that a charmed life was the same as a long one. In all his eighteen years, my cousin had never known pain, failure, or poverty. He had never known rejection, hatred or fear. My cousin’s death at such a moment of perfection -- captain of his football team, most popular boy in school, soon to be mid at Annapolis -- made me realize what a chancy thing this life is. The longer I live in this body, the more chancy things I am likely to encounter. I've been around too long to be charmed.

To claim privilege with God and bungee jump off the temple into the arms of waiting angels is to ask God to work for me rather than my trying to work for God. It is to take a literal interpretation of what it means to be saved and make it the only one. If I, the chosen of God, announce at the outset of my ministry that the meaning of “salvation” is “survival,” then I have condemned all who suffer unjustly. I have rejected all the young people who die too soon in senseless car accidents, who were too stupid to grab a passing pair of wings. I’m saying “tough luck” to the poor. But Jesus says, quoting Moses in the desert, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Do not limit God’s reach. God is a God of life, and we humans, who are mostly limited by death, cannot see life in its surprising fulness. Trust God.

In our world of today, we have been taught since birth that the material world is dependable, that literal, provable, quantifiable explanations, while they may not tell us everything, are at least real in all circumstances and for all living beings. The spiritual effect of all this has been that we tend to read the spiritual world in much the same way, as a series of literal happenings, teachings and laws. This, too, puts God to the test. While God is certainly entirely present in the material world, it is not the only place where God is to be found. God is also to be found in the content of prayer, the content of dreams, in the hope that fills a heart, all of which, although it is possible to measure their biochemistry, it is not possible to measure the way they change my life.

In the world of the One Earth Lent, we have seen the terrible effects of materialism in the equation of material wealth with salvation, in pollution, in the enslavement of third world populations simply to satisfy my transient whims and desires. What of the nineteen year old Chinese girl who died of exhaustion making stuffed animals for American novelty shops? Where were her angels? All this reminds me that there is more than one way to fall into the arms of the living God. That maybe there is more to life than what lies before the eyes inside my head. Maybe there are also eyes that lie inside my soul. Maybe there are also eyes that lie inside my heart.

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