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Subtraction: Lent and the art of learning to say no

Subtraction: Lent and the art of learning to say no

The Bishop's Blog

A sermon taken from Matthew 4. 1-11 and preached at Duke University Chapel on March 5, 2017, and Bethune-Cookman University Chapel on March 8, 2017, by Bishop Ken Carter.

When I was in the eighth grade I was a sports fanatic. Not much has changed! As a kid I played the three sports that were common in South Georgia culture: Basketball in the winter, baseball in the spring, football in the fall.  We did not have year round sports. Year round sports are unnatural, but that is another story. 

So, this was my experience: I loved basketball. I was tall, I was slightly coordinated. And I loved baseball, I was a pitcher, and the height worked for me. I did not love football. I like to watch it, but I simply never loved playing football.

There was one catch: My father loved football, and his friends loved football. So I played football. Every year. Fall was not as much fun as Winter or Spring, but I played until I reached the eighth grade, and I came to a moment of clarity: I had played all of the football, in pads, that I would play in this life. Practice would begin very soon. The beginning of the season became a topic of conversation around the house. I thought about it all weekend. I needed to make a decision. 

Finally, I came up with enough nerve or courage to deliver the news to my father. Now remember, South Georgia is a football culture. They could have filmed Friday Night Lights in my hometown. So we were together, and I blurted it out: "I don't want to play football. I love basketball. I love baseball. I don't want to play football." There was silence, and then we talked. I remember several pieces of the conversation: Would this set a trend for me, that I would start things and not finish them? Would I lose my interest in playing other sports? Would I find myself outside of my circle of friends, who would all be playing a sport? But I had made the decision. I stopped. I gave it up.

Now you may think that is a trivial story, or a stereotypical incident peculiar to kids and sports. The experience came to me when I tried to recall my earliest memory of letting go of something. Many of us associate Lent with letting go of something, "giving up something for Lent": desserts or soft drinks, television or Facebook. Or political news coverage on television—I could go for that about now. I did not grow up in a tradition that observed Lent, but I have come to embrace it. It always comes at a good time for me: All of the holiday parties take their toll, the flurry of beginning-of-the-year activity, being constricted by the enclosed space of winter. None of that has anything to do with Lent, really, but it gives me a spiritual reason to evaluate my habits and my priorities.

We begin on the first Sunday of Lent, as we always do, with Jesus, in the desert, where he is being tested. Last Sunday we talked about the Transfiguration of Jesus, mountains and valleys, spiritual highs and emotional depletion, being exalted and humbled. We have come down from the mountain of glory into the ordinary challenges that face us all. In the gospel for Ash Wednesday, Jesus is quite critical of the hypocrites, who practice their religion for the purpose of applause, to be seen by others. The word hypocrite has its origins in the theater of the ancient world. A hypocrite puts on a mask, appearing to be someone other than who she or he really is.

In Lent we have the opportunity to align our lives with Jesus, and this involves paying close attention to his teaching.

•   He is always asking us to take off our masks, to believe that we are loved as we are, unconditionally.
•   He is always asking us to come apart with him to a lonely and quiet place where we can listen to him. 
•   He is always calling us to follow him, and we have that opportunity now, over the next 40 days.

Forty was an important number in the Bible. Rain fell on the earth for 40 days and nights in the days of Noah. Moses and the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Elijah fasted on the mountain for 40 days and heard the still small voice of God. Jesus was tested in the wilderness for 40 days.

Forty is significant; in the ancient world 40 years was roughly comparable to a generation or a lifetime. In our own lives, I have come to think of it as the amount of time it takes to really establish a habit, to take on something constructive or give up something destructive. 

Habits are the ways we orient and re-orient our lives. Through habits we intentionally set aside some things and embrace others.  Maybe we let go of something, we detach, unclutter or declutter our lives, we learn how to live on less, maybe the economy forces us to take on this lifestyle, maybe our health requires it, or the aging process. In the last months many have seen their political imaginations purged by the results of our national election; perhaps we had mistakenly fused the church and the nation-state, the Kingdom of God and America, as if they were one and the same. And so we regroup, reset, reorient.

Someone has given this a wonderful name: A spirituality of subtraction. Not more, but less; and since we are whole persons, this has to do with all of who we are: Our eating, our activity, our consumption, our pace. 

It turns out that a spirituality of subtraction can be empowering. When we hit the pause button in our lives, we realize that we have gotten attached to some things that are not appropriate, not life-giving, not interesting to us, not helpful to others.  And so it helps to sit down and go through all of that. I want to share an experience; it may remind you of a struggle in your own life. 

I was asked to be in a group. It was really an honor to be in the group. It meets in another part of the country, typically twice a year. It does good work. The other members of the group are important people in their worlds, and you would recognize some of their names. When I was invited to be in the group, I said, "yes.” I did not give it much thought; it seemed like a "no-brainer.” Well, the group has been together for three or four years. The work is progressing. I have met some good people and networked with them. And I have come to a conclusion: I really need to get out of this group. I need to withdraw, to resign. 

What would keep me from doing this? Well, I like the leader, I respect him, I value what he is doing. And I wonder: Will people perceive me as a quitter? Will they remember that I left the group and not ask me when something important comes along again?

And then I realize that I am reliving an experience from my childhood.  I am still a kid, trying to quit a sport I did not love. So my dad was quite fine with the decision, not to play football.  And the leader of the group was quite gracious when he received my letter.  But what was the lesson for me? A part of why we jump onto the treadmill, why we get attached to so much stuff, a part of why we are seduced by the expectations of others is that we want to please them, we want to hear their applause. 

The earliest followers of Jesus went to the desert because they wanted to get away from all of that, they wanted clarity about who they were, before God. They wanted to take off their masks, and spend time with their Father who heard them in secret. This may be clear, but let us all confess that this is not easy. 

The Old Testament lesson for the first Sunday in Lent (Genesis 2. 15-17; 3. 1-7) is about a man, a woman and a snake. Many have dismissed the story long ago, because we read it literally and wonder now if there really was a snake or a garden. But in dismissing the story we miss the core truth that the rabbis wanted us to learn: The temptation is for us to be "like God,” to put ourselves in the place of God, to make idols of ourselves, to imagine that we have no limits. The desire to be God is the primal temptation.

For Christians, this is compounded with the idea of a "messiah complex,” which creeps into the lives of men and women, especially educated, accomplished people, people like you; a messiah complex which reinforces the belief that you can do it all. That can be a powerful temptation for us.

Most of us are better at addition than subtraction.

So what does it mean to give that up? The first of the twelve steps is clear: Our lives had become unmanageable. And the second: We came to believe in a higher power. We cannot do it all. The temptations of Jesus are to do it all: Turn stones into bread, throw himself from the temple, preside over all the kingdoms of the world. Henri Nouwen identifies these as the temptations to be relevant, to be spectacular, to be powerful. And then he asks: Can we, like Jesus, lay them down?

A spirituality of subtraction. To lay down these temptations is to confess that there is One God, as our Jewish friends say, and we are not God; it is to trust more deeply in the One who is the creator, remembering that we are the creature. It is confess our sin, acknowledge our brokenness, admit our powerlessness and identify our limitations. It is to make a list of everything we are doing and ask ourselves, "Why am I doing this?" It is to confront our finitude and our mortality. We are dust and ashes.  

Most of us, or at least many of us, are not motivated to change our lives until there is a crisis. It may be working for us, the desire to do it all. It may be working for us, the economy of consumption. We may be superman or superwoman.  It may be working for us, the way things are going right now. If this is true, then this sermon, these scripture passages, Lent itself may just be so much background noise. 

But if it is not, there is a long and deep tradition of wisdom that gives us another way. It is all about simplicity and subtraction.

The physician Paul Farmer, a native of Brooksville, Florida, and a graduate of Duke, reflecting on the practice of medicine among the desperately poor in Haiti, called this “the long defeat,” borrowing from Tolkien. When Jesus says no to the offerings of the Tempter, he casts his lot with us. He does not cling to privilege but empties himself (Philippians 2). Before the cross is victory it is self-denial, letting go. The mystics called this purgation.

And so we begin 40 days of spring cleaning, the great purge. It is about loving what is worthy of our devotion and letting go of all that is not. It is about a radical trust and dependence on the God who meets us in the dry and disorienting places, the desert places along our path. It is about a higher power who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, whose grace is amazing.

Augustine said it well: "God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them.”

I conclude with a prayer from my teacher and advisor at Duke, Tom Langford, Dean of the Divinity School and later Provost of the University.

“O God, your intention to give exceeds our readiness to receive.
Your boundless love is restricted by our small vessels.
Your generosity far exceeds our responding reception.
Your richness is restrained by our poverty of expectation.
Your expansiveness is channeled through our small hearts.

Enlarge our capacity.
Increase our receptivity.
Open us to your full life.
Make us more able to receive your generous grace.