Today was a strange day, with that odd catch in my chest coming at several different times, for distinctly different reasons - that odd catch in my chest that tells me I am close to tears. I found myself today alternately filled with gratitude for my life and my loved ones and my work, and bent under the weight of sadness for so many suffering people, people I know and love and people I likely will never meet.
I sat by the ocean quietly for 20 minutes at noon, reading and praying and wondering about my life in particular and life in general. Like a gift direct from the hand of God, I was reminded, in the space of just a few seconds, of the beauty of the world, the sweet faithfulness of my husband, the intelligence and integrity of my grown children and their spouses, the uniquely charming character of each of my grandchildren and the rewarding camaraderie I share with my colleagues in ministry. Gratitude washed over me like the waves at the base of the cliff below and for a few brief moments, my heart sang with joy at the experience of life, in all its strange beauty and complexity.
Literally minutes later, I found myself in my office at church, sitting at my desk, listening to a voicemail message describing the pain of a marriage newly fallen apart. I read an email prayer list from halfway around the world which contained heartfelt prayers by children stricken with AIDS. I left a message for another dear sister whose husband has recently left her, and I cried at a bittersweet message from a friend and parishioner whose elderly mom is now slipping away physically, even as she has been slipping away mentally for many months. And once again, a wave washed over me, this time a wave of grief, of sadness, of quiet anger at the suffering which permeates all our lives for one reason or another.
Most days, I am, at best, only dimly aware of the multi-textured weave of this life on planet earth - of the moments of joy thrust up against the moments of sadness. Today I was sharply aware of it all, sort of quivering inside, like a string being tuned, tuned into the full orb of our human condition. And that sharp awareness came as a welcome wake-up from the more phlegmatic mindset I've been experiencing for about eighteen months now. It has felt like I have been living inside a fog of sorts, a cocoon of fatigue and indifference and weariness, with little energy to spare for tackling new projects, meeting new people, undertaking new challenges. It is good to be reminded that I am still capable of a variety of emotional responses, that I am not lost in the fog forever.
I am studying in the gospel of Matthew this week, preparing to preach on the temptation of Jesus, as he was drawn by the Spirit out into the wilderness, immediately following his baptism in the Jordan River. And as I read and wonder, I am reminded of the ever-present voice of the Liar, the Temptor, the Accuser in my own life, my own wilderness. That voice that bends the truth and distorts reality, that voice that subtly questions and misleads. That voice that tempts me to question God's trustworthiness, God's faithfulness, God's call to endure suffering in the short term for the sake of glory in the long term. Long before Jesus walked into the desert, still dripping from the waters of baptism, the fledgling community of Israel, wandering amongst the cliffs and crags of that barren land between Egypt and Canaan - Israel faced these same temptations, these same tests, and Israel failed miserably. But Jesus, fully human Son of God, says a firm and scripturally insightful 'no' to the voice of temptation. He passes the test, steps into his assigned and assumed role as the Servant Savior of humankind, and ushers in the reign of God with quiet power and a fully orbed assurance of who he is.
I think that's what this strange and interesting day may have been about after all, a reminder of who I am: a much-loved child of God. I am a woman called to both family and ministry, a human person capable of a whole range of very human emotions, one who so often stumbles over and into both frailty and sin. But most importantly, one who is redeemed and reminded by that starving man in the desert that the ultimate test has already been met, the beautiful plan of salvation has been let loose in the world. Even the misery, the pain, the grief, the chaos that can so quickly overwhelm me, whether I'm reading the headline news or my own email messages, none of it can negate the powerful and unexplainable presence of grace and goodness in the midst of it all, in spite of it all. For it is the beauty at work in this world, the graciousness, the kindness, the courage, the strength of character, the resolute willingness to endure hardship for the good of another, the generosity and the gentleness that keep breaking through the messes we make and the messes we find - it is these things that speak to me of God, that remind me of the Galilean who stepped into the water and out to the desert in order to firmly and finally identify with us strange and interesting human creatures before putting on his sandals and walking into the towns, villages and hearts of his world. Thanks be to God!