Sunday, February 7, 2016

Tested

Luke 4:1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted (or tested) by the devil. (Luke 4:1-2)

Surely it is hard for most mere mortals to comprehend or relate to the strength and fortitude of Jesus as he withstood temptation after temptation in the wilderness. Perhaps this is because we don't have to think far before we come up with examples of times of temptation or testing which we ourselves have experienced and we recognize our own struggle with it. Indeed, given my own experience, I know his clarity of focus and strength were simply remarkable. While I could offer dozens of such examples, the one which comes to mind for me this week is one that goes back more than thirty years. I was tested, yes. And the test, while it began with a classroom and a teacher and a hoped for grade? It pointed me to so much more than that.

I was a senior in college. As it was, I had fulfilled most of my requirements to graduate (except math, but that's another story) and with a handful of electives left, I decided to branch out. I registered for Introduction to Literature, a class inhabited mostly by freshmen, of course. I signed up to take the course with Dr. Michaelson, a kindly man not much older than I am now, but whose face was lined with the horrors he had witnessed when he fought in Japan in World War II. I knew him by name and by reputation and was looking forward to learning from him. And there was this. Although I was not necessarily opposed to hard work, my degree was in sight and I was, in a very real way, only doing what I had to do to get to May. Simply put, I was not looking to work too hard and I figured his kindness would allow me this luxury.

On the first day of class, though, I was surprised when a tiny woman walked in. Dr. Welch was an adjunct professor in the English Department. Evidently teaching schedules had changed since I signed up a few weeks before. Even so, while I was surprised and more than a little disappointed, I settled in.

It was when I turned in my first paper that I discovered this was not going to be at all what I expected: a light course to dabble in as I made my way towards graduation. For in fact, at the top of the first page was a large red B, along with the request for a conversation after class.

And so I stayed behind. Dr. Welch sat in the desk opposite mine and said to me, "Janet, this is A work. However, I am giving you a B because you can do better."

Now this was a long time ago, of course. Today a student in a similar situation would likely file a complaint. (Truthfully, I'm not sure such an option was even available to us then, but even if it had been, my by then deeply ingrained sense of respect for authority would probably have kept me from doing so.)

Dr. Welch went on to tell me that I had gotten lazy, that I had been coasting for a while now, that I had quit reaching. Then she told me that if I had any aspirations for graduate school whatsoever, I was going to have to step it up a notch.

As you can imagine, I was less than happy. But even though I might not yet have been ready to admit it, I knew she was right. Indeed, I received a lot of grades in those four years of college, but I remember that "B" most of all. Partly because her challenge had its intended affect. I worked harder than I had in some time to try to measure up, to pass this 'test.'  And not only for the grade I would earn, but for all which I would learn for all that would follow.

So here is how I think of this as I consider Jesus' forty days in the wilderness and these forty days of Lent where we find ourselves now. Perhaps for Jesus, this time of 'testing' was not finally really about what happened in the wilderness where he was accompanied by the Holy Spirit and confronted by temptation. It was, rather, a time apart meant to 'test him' to get him ready for what would follow. It was a time of honing, sharpening, and perfecting in much the same way my college Introduction to Literature class turned out to be in a small way. For it was not really about the grade I would receive after twelve weeks of reading and analyzing and learning and writing. It was about learning skills I could later put to use. Yes, in this case it was about developing 'character' and learning to work hard and to deepen my drive towards goal and love of learning --- all attributes which I would need throughout my life.

To be sure, looking back I know more fully now that those four years of college and subsequent four years of seminary and all those years I spent working on my Doctor of Ministry were also that: time set apart to learn and grow and test and perfect. They surely were not an end in and of themselves, just as Jesus' forty days in the wilderness were not the end. Rather, times like these are meant to help give us what we will need for what comes next. In other words? It's not about the grade, the degree, or the stamped certificate Jesus might have gotten in another setting outlining his superior performance against the devil. It is about how God's gifts are perfected to help us be all God calls us to. As was so for Jesus.

And so now we find ourselves at the beginning of these forty days of Lent. This time, too, is not an end in itself. Rather, it comes to us as a time set apart to help us become more and more who God intends. What this means for each of us may well be different:
  • For some we may continue in the ancient practice of giving something up as a way of somehow identifying with Christ's sacrifice in our behalf. 
  • For others it may be a time of adding something: as in spending more time in worship and prayer. Or in experimenting with another kind of prayer which is less familiar to us.
  • Others still, will simply claim more 'quiet' time and space by refraining from social media or cleaning out our closets one piece at a time.
  • Still others will find another way to mark these forty days.
Certainly each of these has its place, And yet, I do wonder, what it might mean if we began all of these ways of observing Lent by first recognizing this as a time for 'testing' which will prepare us for what will yet be ours. I wonder what it would mean, no matter what we do or not do in these forty days, if we used this time and these practices to cultivate such attributes as patience or understanding or hope. Or gratitude. Or joy. Or wonder.

And I wonder how this plays out among church professionals who find ourselves simply swamped by the extra demands of this season. Indeed, perhaps just the extra preaching and worship leadership on top of what is already ours is enough of a 'test.' And yet, we are not truly 'tested', if we don't reflect and grow from it, are we?

More than thirty years ago an unexpected English professor taught me something about 'testing.' With one large red "B" she invited me to be more. With her critique and her encouragement I was able to begin to see beyond the current 'test,' to the world that was waiting for me after. And I have always been grateful.

May we also be grateful for the 'testing' we undergo in the weeks to come:  Indeed, when we come to Easter once more may we recognize that God has used this time to hone and perfect us for whatever life hands us, for wherever it is God leads us next.

  • As you consider Jesus' forty days and nights in the wilderness, is it helpful to you to think about his experience as 'testing' in addition to simply 'tempting?
  • There are certainly other periods of forty in the Bible such as time the people of Israel spent in the wilderness or the time Noah and his family spent on the ark. How did God use those times to 'test' God's people?
  • What life experiences of 'testing' help you to better understand Jesus' experience in the wilderness? 
  • What will these forty days look like for you this year? How will you allow hope or patience or understanding or gratitude or joy or wonder to be cultivated in you?