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.
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 (told in Genesis 2:15-17 and 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 far 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 (reread 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. Amen.”
Rev. Kent Carter
Bishop, Florida Conference, United Methodist Church