I have a confession to make. I am not an optimist. “The power of positive thinking” made popular years ago by Norman Vincent Peale doesn’t work for me any more than it worked for Monty Python. In his satirical film The Life of Brian, Jesus’ next door neighbor, Brian, is mistakenly identified as the Messiah. As Brian is crucified, he sings from the cross:
Some things in life are bad
They can really make you mad
Other things just make you swear and curse.
When you’re chewing on life’s gristle
Don’t grumble, give a whistle
And this’ll help things turn out for the best…
And…always look on the bright side of life…
Always look on the light side of life…
* words and music by Eric Idle
As a Christian I seek to be a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth, not the mistaken savior of Monty Python’s film.
My tradition observes the season of Lent, a liturgical time spent in the wilderness of the human spirit. We are “driven” into the wilderness by the Divine Spirit, as Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew is driven there, to live among the wild beasts of ego, narcissism, pietistic claims, and the ambitions of power that often twist the good of our best intentions into something quite dreadful.
The purpose of this time in the wilderness is to clear our hearts and heads under the guidance of the Spirit. We are removed from everything that has become familiar in order to sift and sort and come to the deeper things that neither moth nor rust can consume. After forty days and forty nights Jesus is hungry. The Adversary throws before him three self-serving ways to claim his calling. Each is based on a dimension of life: material/economic, religious/ spiritual, and social/political. Reduce the meaning of life to material security – feed the world – and they will love you. Jump off the temple heights like Superman – and they will all applaud and follow. Bow down and worship me, and you will run the world. Each test is a distortion of the good, a twisting and turning of single dimension of our humanity into something sinister.
In the first two weeks of this Lenten time in the wilderness I have watched nuclear plants hit by a tsunami explode and stand on the verge of a meltdown. I see helicopters and canons used for crowd control dowsing the red hot rods that threaten the oceans, the land and the air. “always look on the bright side of life,” sings Brian, while we build nuclear power plants on land vulnerable to tsunamis or on fault lines. Nearer to home I see photos of a gas line explosion in South Minneapolis, its heat melting cars, its red flames lighting the sky in broad daylight, and hear the news that the utility company does not know the reason for the explosion. I also know that 50% of the infrastructure through which the natural gas reaches our homes and businesses is 50 years old and deteriorating while we “look on the bright side“ and deplore taxation as the government’s attempt to rob us of what we think of as our personal private finances. “Look on the bright side of life.”
We can choose between the insipid optimism of Brian and the courageous, responsible hope of Jesus. Brian and Jesus live right next door to each other inside the churches and in our own hearts. One is a blind optimist; the other is a man of genuine hope. One sees things as he wants to see them; the other sees into the heart of things and lives and dies to change the world.
We repeatedly choose not to choose between optimism that assumes everything will turn out well and the hard work of hope that accepts the God-given limits of the Garden that feeds us and waters us.
The wilderness is the place where the Spirit drives us to become clear again about bread, spirituality, and our place among the nations. It was there that Jesus defined his life and ministry. It is there that we will find ours.
Gordon Stewart (HR) is Stated Supply Pastor of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, Moderator of First Tuesday Dialogues: “examining critical public issues locally and globally”, whose commentaries are published regularly by Minnesota Public Radio and MinnPost.com, as well as the Chaska Herald.