Training Days

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I believe the word was "fragile." That's what they said about the French figure skating judge who succumbed to pressure from the Russian Figure Skating Federation and caused a huge Olympic brouhaha two years ago. Her unfaithful act robbed the Canadian pair of a gold medal. Judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne admitted giving lower scores to the Canadian skaters, and the evidence was strong enough against her that the IOC granted the Canadians a gold medal along with the Russians.

Said the head of the French Olympic team, "Marie-Reine cracked and was under extremely negative influence for several days, and this person, normally solid, was emotionally destroyed. I am convinced that things have been done to her in the days leading to the pairs competition."

Things have been done to her. Could this great embarrassment have been avoided? Of course. Was it predestined to happen this way? Certainly not! Why was Madam Le Gougne so fragile regardless of the pressure? How did she come to that high responsibility, the pinnacle of a judge's career, without having proved herself resistant to temptation?

The Olympic athletes Madam Le Gougne was judging had spent many training days preparing for their moment of truth and hoping it would be a moment of grace, instead of disgrace. Some succeeded because of their training. Some failed in spite of it. We cannot say that training is foolproof or failsafe, but who would argue that training doesn't matter?

This was true for Jesus too. He had a job to do for God, a mission to carry out, a destiny to fulfill, just as each of us does. Sometimes we think of Jesus as being totally different from us, he being the Son of God and all. But he himself had to undergo the severest of spiritual training in order to resist the temptations along the way that would deter him from his ultimate gift of self-sacrifice for the sake of the world.

Lent is the season of the church year in which Christians voluntarily enter again into training to fulfill our spiritual mission. These are training days if you will-days of strength training that will shore up our fragile souls for the mission God has for us in the world. We begin today on this first Sunday of Lent by moving into the wilderness with Jesus and considering how he resisted temptation in order to be faithful to his calling, which was clarified for him in his baptism and is declared for us in ours as well.

Immediately after his baptism by John in the Jordan River, Matthew says the Spirit of God led Jesus to the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Part of his training program involves submission to being worked out and worked over for forty days and forty nights by God and the devil. Now this is a strange pairing-God and the devil complicit in Jesus' training days. But there's a subtle truth packed into the passage. The trials we face in training for what God wants us to accomplish with our lives are at once both God's tests and the devil's temptations. The same word in the Greek peirazo can be translated either "to test" or "to tempt." The Bible is clear that God does not tempt us with evil but rather tests us for the purpose of making us stronger for the tasks we are called to. Ironically, God sometimes employs the devil as a fitness trainer allowing him to have a go at us. While the devil seeks to undo us, though, he always and only works unwittingly as the servant of God, which means-and here's a familiar phrase-whatever doesn't kill us can make us strong.

Jesus goes along with this. He has a sense of duty, a calling, or a claim he has discerned early in life and had confirmed in his baptism. What will he do? Is he prepared? These are the kinds of questions that run through our mind about the future-or should. And they most certainly must have run through his too. But how did he go about answering them? He went into training with deliberate intention. He got alone with his thoughts and prayers in a place of depravation. He knew something many of us need to learn. Success in the public world for God depends upon prior success in the private world of self.

This is something I fail at regularly. If you were to ask me where I am spiritually weakest, it would not take me a single breath to tell you that I too often substitute practical busyness for prayerful business. This is one of those failures parishioners don't really care enough about in me, because if they did, they might have to care about it more in themselves. If I said I had murdered someone and therefore broken the sixth commandment, you would be rightly alarmed. But if I tell you I persistently fail to keep the Sabbath or follow Jesus' model of nurturing a devout inner life with God, you understand. You go along with a wink and a nod and tell me that I should probably work on that, as long as I still return your calls or e-mail properly. But you are not the problem. I am. I don't want to practice spiritual disciplines most days anymore than I want to get up at 5:30 to run. I don't want to be still and quiet and unproductive. I want the game without the pain, the gold medal without the training. I would rather rely on my gifts than on the giver of them, and that makes me vulnerable.

There are no shortcuts to spiritual fitness. You can't take a pill to adjust your spiritual chemistry. You can't lose forty pounds of ego fat in forty minutes a day for forty days by buying a video. It's more like the earnest martial art student who went to the teacher and said, "I am devoted to studying your martial art system. How long will it take to master it?" The teacher casually replied, "Ten years." Impatiently, the student persisted, "But I want to master it faster than that. I will work very hard. I will practice everyday ten or more hours a day if I have to. How long will it take then?" The teacher paused long as if to calculate in his head. "Twenty years, then," he said.

Forty days and forty nights is a biblical way of saying a good long time. And that's why we have forty days and forty nights in the season of Lent. We are getting ready with Jesus for the big stuff ahead. Jesus had to get ready to bear the cross for us. We have to get ready to bear our crosses for his namesake.

In some Christian traditions, people give up something for the forty days of Lent so that they can learn this dependence on God all the more. Sometimes people start doing something new as a positive act of preparation for service. For example, some might give up television and take up spiritual reading for this period. Some might seek out a friend to pray with for forty days. Well, these are disciplines that match the spirit of Jesus' own training in the desert. Many of us will not accomplish great things with our lives because we are unwilling to pay the smaller prices of preparation that lead to greatness. We want to be famous singers, but we don't want to take voice lessons. We want to be wealthy, but we don't want to risk any of our own money to do it. We want to be happily married someday, but we give ourselves away too easily and too cheaply when we are young, or we fear being hurt too much and don't give ourselves at all. And, so, either way we lose the capacity to discern love when it comes knocking or knocks us over.

Meditating on a story like this about Jesus gives us a chance to practice in private for the tests and temptations we will face in our lives. It will make or break us in fulfilling our callings. It's like rehearsing your testimony with your attorney before going to court. She tells you that the other lawyer is going to attack you in this way or that. You need to feel the pressure in private to be ready in public. You need to imagine possible turns in the plot and surprises that may come up so that you can be ready when your moment of truth arrives.

God gives us these opportunities everyday if we would only listen and pay attention. Scripture is one way, but it's not just Scripture and prayer that gives us this practice. All around us are resources for reflection if we would only open our eyes, see them, open our ears, hear them. You read or see J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings," for instance, and you are confronted with an epic battle between good and evil. You quickly identify with the young hobbit Frodo whose destiny is to protect the wicked ring and travel against all odds to the fiery volcano of Mordor where he will destroy the ring and bring peace to the land. So many times he is tested and tempted to take the easier way out, to run away from his calling, to listen to those who have a better idea than the only true way he knows he must follow. And as we watch him, we gain courage and faith to say no to lesser things in service of the greater goods we are called to.

Week by week preachers like me announce the good news - that God is for you, that nothing you can do or fail to do can keep God from breaking faith with you. We tell you that it is not what you do that matters most; it's what God has done for you in Christ. But what God in Christ has done for us is not only to give us eternal life but to show us a better way to life, a way not plagued by futility and sadness and regret, a way instead that brings success and gladness and pride. That Jesus endured these tests and resisted temptation makes his power available to you and me too. The Spirit of God aided him in overcoming the devil, and his same Spirit lives in us, ready to help. The Spirit speaks to our hearts, while the devil whispers in our ears. We have to learn to discern the voice of each and follow the Word of God that wants to lodge in our hearts. Even Jesus had to hone the hearing of his heart to perceive the unique calling that was his, and we must do the same.

The remarkable Mattie Stepanek died last year at the age of 13. He was an irrepressible spirit. In his few years, the courageous boy authored five books of heart-felt poetry that touched millions of adults as well as children. One such collection of poems called "Heartsongs" made the New York Times bestseller list. By all rights Mattie could have been a bitter and lonely young boy. His disease had taken the lives of his three siblings. He knew he was going to die. But he determined to live until he did. He believed God had something special to do with his life. Despite his diagnosis of mitochondrial myopathy, despite having a trach in his throat all the time, a ventilator and oxygen always handy, his goals in life were to become a daddy, a writer, a public speaker, and most of all, a peacemaker. He succeeded in most of them. In his poem "Heartsongs," he says

I have a song
deep in my heart
and only I can hear it.
If I close my eyes and sit very still,
it is so easy to listen to my song.
When my eyes are open
and I am so busy and moving and busy,
If I take time and listen very hard,
I can hear my heartsong.
It makes me feel very happy.

Feeling happy is the result of passing God's tests, not the alternative to it. It is the product of our successful enduring of our training days, not our avoidance of them.

You have a heart song unique to you. Have you heard it? Listen very hard this Lent. Amen.

Let us pray. O, Lord God, we thank you that you have called us to serve you. We know that your Spirit sends us into a world that is filled with testing and even temptation, but we know that you wish to make us stronger by the facing of it. And we thank you for the power of your Spirit and the example of Christ to guide us. Now make us the people you need us to be to accomplish the mission you have for us. In the name of Christ we pray. Amen.

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