Sunday, February 17, 2013

Temptations in wilderness and in abundance

Text: Luke 4 1-13 (Jesus tempted in the wilderness)

On this first of the six Sundays in the Season of Lent, the theme of our Gospel reading is temptation in the desert.

Despite today's snow, we live in an dry region that sometimes seems like a desert to me. Last summer's drought was like nothing I have ever experienced. I was especially struck by how the relative humidity kept dropping day after day as the sloughs dried up and the harvest continued.

But conditions for many of us in a rich country like Canada are more like feast than famine. And so today, I look at temptation in conditions of material abundance in the hope that this will help us orient our hearts and minds to the journey to Jerusalem with Jesus that is the Season of Lent.

When I was on vacation last month in Toronto, I succumbed to a temptation that is  common to many of us. I went on my first ever Caribbean vacation, and I quite enjoyed spending five days in Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic.

The ocean was warm, the swimming pools were inviting, and the palm trees waved serenely in the sunshine. The food and drink was all-included, the pace was relaxed, and the cost seemed obscenely cheap. It felt like a little slice of paradise wedged between a few damp and cold weeks in and around Toronto.

Part of my enjoyment was getting an up-close-and-personal look at the winter-escape travel industry. Given how inexpensive Caribbean travel has become, I understand why so many of us now make the trip south each winter. Getting on the plane in Toronto seemed no more glamourous than getting on Bernie's bus for a trip to the Mud Bog at Rockin' Beach. I ran into a married couple from the Toronto church I used to attend as we waited for our plane. It was their third trip to Punta Cana, which seemed like a good endorsement.

I was impressed by the large number of people being efficiently processed through customs at the Punta Cana airport. Nor were we just North Americans, but also people from Eastern and Western Europe, Asia and other parts of Latin America. When I realized that Punta Cana is just one of scores -- or is it hundreds? -- of similar resort areas in the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Pacific, the scale began to stagger the imagination.

I read somewhere recently that on any given day, there are now approximately 100,000 passenger jet flights. This marks at least a hundred-fold increase in my lifetime. Will another 50 years see a similar increase, to the point where 10 million flights take off and land safely every day?!

Of course, not every vacation ends with no more serious incidents than a sunburn or a few hangovers. For instance, there is this week's story of the 4,000 people stranded for five miserable days on the disabled cruise liner Carnival Triumph in the Gulf of Mexico. And yet several hundred thousand people are still cruising in the Gulf, the Caribbean, and the Mediterranean.

Recreational travel seems to be both a blessing and a curse. I am sure that I will enjoy more winter escapes in the years to come, at least until the melting polar icecaps raise the ocean level and drown ocean-side resorts. But the amount of travel most middle class people now experience is also related to massive releases of carbon and other pollutants. This pollution is exacerbated by the fact that the world's middle class has expanded by hundreds of millions of people in poor parts of the world during the last few decades.

Unfortunately, I see no force that can stop the continued increase in human consumption of resources. I used to hope that the prophets of "Peak Oil" would be proven right and price of oil would soar in the 21st century and thus slow climate change. But technological developments like fracking mean that oil and gas production will likely continue to ramp up for at least as long as it takes our economy to completely dislocate the climate.

No one is in charge; not President Obama; not the United Nations; not the universal church. Competitive pressures between companies, economic sectors and nations will ensure that economic development -- including ever-more wondrous travel options -- will continue apace without any controls on the side effects.

So, does my participation in this seemining insanity-- including my trip to the Caribbean, or my use of a car, or my enjoyment of an energy-intensive TV cable-box and DVR combo, or my many junked computers -- mean that I have succumbed to the devil's temptations and given up my right to consider myself a disciple of Christ on his joyous, painful and always austere journey to Jerusalem this Lent?

I don't think so. I disagree with environmentalists who argue that change in individual behaviour is the best way to effect social change. I have nothing against recycling, voluntary simplicity, trying to eat local, and so on. But not if this is the basis for self-righteousness, for hectoring friends and neighbours, or for illusions that such actions can make a dent in the destruction of the natural world caused by an ever-growing economy and population.

On the other hand, individual lifestyle choices can help orient our hearts and minds to what we most value: a trusting faith, hope in the midst of darkness, and above all, love. Lifestyle choices can sometimes help remind us of the living Christ burning brightly within each of our hearts.

When I was in the Caribbean resort, I easily could have succumbed to the lures of too much food, too much alcohol, too much sun, and too much mindless use of my time. Perhaps some of that happened for me, but by worshipping at the Catholic service that was offered the Sunday we were there; by becoming friends with a soon-to-be-retired couple from London Ontario that we met at worship; by reading one of the books I had brought with me; and by letting moderation be a guiding principle, I liked my time at the resort.

Still, the highlight of my four weeks off occurred not during my three weeks of vacation, but at a men's retreat I attended at the United Church's Five Oaks Centre west of Toronto on the final week. This was the seventh time I have attended this event over the last 11 years, and I appreciate it more each time.

The first times I attended, there was a theme to our discussions: fathers and sons;  ageing; native spirituality; and so on. But in recent years, there is no longer a theme or leadership. Instead, men gather for three days and nights to spend time in a sharing circle in which we pass a talking stone between us and listen to what is on each others' hearts and minds.

This year, I was one of 13 men, 10 of whom were ordained ministers. I knew about half the participants, but all of us had participated in the event before, so we were able to get into the spirit of the event quickly.

Unlike the week in the Caribbean, this was a modest affair. We stayed in simple and austere rooms. We sat in a circle around a hearth with a roaring fire and looked out over the beauty of the grounds of Five Oaks that is situated on the banks of the Grand River near Brantford. We used drums or sang hymns to start most of our time in the circle.

The deep sharing and listening of our time together felt to me like love at its best. I learned more about ministry by listening to these men and by trying to articulate my own experiences than I did in any course I took at seminary. I felt enriched by the painful and joyous stories of the other men, even though we are all so different from each other. I wondered if such sharing circles are all that we need in worship? This is a theme to which I will return in the next year as we journey together as a church.

I don't begrudge the trip to the Caribbean, nor do I feel guilty for "wasting" oil and other resources in this lovely indulgence. But I know that what we most crave in the dark winters of our souls are not warm breezes or free drinks. What we most crave are things like acceptance, sharing of our individual experiences of life, and the ability to love and be loved.

Jesus, by resisting the devil's temptations in his forty days and nights in the wilderness models for us this deeper path, I think -- the path that looks to God and his ever-present Love more than it looks to material comfort or political power.

This Lent and in this community of faith, may we offer each other companionship on Jesus' path of deep sharing and love. It is a path that leads us to the darkness of Good Friday and on to the light of new life at Easter.

Thanks be to God.


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