March 9, 2014
I know a shapeshifter.
A shape. SHIFTER.
I've seen this boy shapeshift from one body to the next three times--it is never easy for him and the transformation is always dramatic.
His first body was a child's, with no clear purpose other than to grow. The boy's first shapeshift was from the body of a child to that of a wrestler--coiled muscles and fluctuating weight. This body only lasted as long as a wrestling season, and so with grueling workouts and diets so harsh he wouldn't even partake in birthday cake, the boy shapeshifted into a distance runner, a ganglier body, neck sticking forward as he stretched to cross the finish line.
His next shapeshift, well, that was the real trick.
He went from eating six eggs for breakfast and lean meat to everything in sight, chased by a protein shake, and mediated by hours at the gym. The shapeshifter tripled in size, his neck disappeared into muscle, and he took his place on the offensive line of the football team.
Really, I am not so unathletic to not understand that different sports are supported by different dietary needs, different energies and different muscles, but I was not so unobservant an older sister that I didn't see the calorie-counting, the binge-eating, the resulting mood fluctuations--the obsession. The fracture in the occasion of family dinners--he would make something else, he would stare at the foods he wouldn't eat.
It is exceedingly privileged to be able to manage, calculate, and strategize about food choices, but it isn't just food we crave--affirmation, affection, results, achievement, entertainment and maybe escape. All of these loop a person into a weird conversation with themselves about appetites---what to suppress, what to indulge, what to deny.
Surveys show that the number one thing American Christians give up for Lent is food--using Lent to manage our appetites, kinda like a second chance at New Year's resolution. It probably is not food that will tempt us to disregard the encouraging voice of the Spirit, but rather our own appetite for control. Our idolatry of busy-ness--like we should get a prize for being over-extended, stressed, and sleepless. Or the idea that if we just work hard enough, all our problems will disappear.
Since we already offer up these appetites, drives, and coping mechanisms to God for Lent, we could try to offer up our sense of control? THAT might be the real devilry.
Because stories of temptation that use the symbol of devil are not just folk tales of the Ancient Near East. News coverage of Philip Seymour Hoffman's death described his addiction in terms of demons and devils. Public deaths become magnets for public commentary, but those of us who are families or in relationship, and community with people dealing with addictions may have seen how the struggle becomes less against the demons and devils of appetite to the tempters and adversaries who say "Don't overthink it", "stop being so cautious," "you've got this under control--you can control what everybody else is calling an addiction." The tempters and adversaries are within our very selves and offer us the illusion of control over appetites and drives.
The devil is not offering major sins and extraordinary powers to Jesus. The devil is offering the chance to act as God rather than the Son of Man, the chance to work around the desperate hunger of fasting, get results, and exercise control.
All alone In the stark desert, preparing for his public ministry among crowds and in cities, Jesus resists the temptation as he seeks the wisdom of the Spirit.
The tempter says "If you just do this--everything will be easier."
Jesus remains in a state of holy patience by listening to the voice of the Spirit rather than human urges to hunger and safety. It would be a huge relief if the only obstacle in my search for God's mercy and work in the world was a box of Oreos. I'd be quite happy if that were the only obstacle between myself and the spirit was sugar and frosting because that would not take 40 days to fix.
But holy patience in a results-oriented culture, holy patience among people who idolize busy-ness?
That's. my. real. struggle.
This Lent, I'm seeking holy patience and to spend more time still, to let the Spirit's imagination inspire me and trying to discern what it is that really distracts me. We're lucky to have this time--you and I are offered the rich opportunity of Lent to let God shift our focus past our appetites and attempts at control. To look clearly at our world's hopes and hardships, to look for the guidance of the Holy Spirit both in the desert and in the city, to prepare for Good Friday's sorrow and pain and then Easter's joy.
So we cut out distractions, bad habits, and we add spiritual practices---prayer, reading, worship, reflection, to give all this a try and hope that maybe we can get a little holy patience in our lives too. It might take a whole liturgical season to interrogate how we manage our appetites, our sense of control along with our seeking of the Holy Spirit's voice. 40 days every liturgical year to enter and cultivate a spiritual state of wilderness and desert and to encounter this spiritual state every day beside our life in the city.
40 days to shapeshift. To open ourselves to be shaped by the Spirit. To shift the shape of our desires by letting the Spirit call us, lead us, and sustain us.
What shape will Lent leave us in?