The Kingdoms in Our Heads

The Kingdoms in Our Heads
(Luke 4:1—13)

by Anthony Chvala-Smith

Deserts abound in the journey of life. There’s no sense acting like we deserve a free pass, either. A famous desert saint, Antony of Egypt, said ‘Without temptation no one can be saved.’ He might as easily have said, without wilderness times no one can be saved. Why? In the privation of the desert we can glimpse the famished depths within. What we’re made of is hunger. “Everybody’s got a hungry heart”— Bruce Springsteen got it right, too.

Many people in Jesus’ time hungered for a new day. They wanted Roman occupiers gone; they wanted a messiah to come who was up for that task. This Son of David would be part Jewish freedom-fighter, part emperor. He would smash Israel’s enemies, give them what they deserved, and judge the unrighteous. Everything would be made right. The glory days would return, only on steroids.

It’s funny how the hungry heart can play with the mind. Unanalyzed hunger creates mirages. The images seem real and plausible. And the next thing you know, you’re trying to create what you want. People in Jesus’ homeland wanted a certain kind of kingdom. Interestingly, Jesus’ temptations play off these desires. Would he be what they imagined? Would he be the king they were starved for? So Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness, fasting. Fasting is a way to discern true hunger from the false –and it’s the false hunger we should fear. Would Jesus be what God wanted, or would he give in to his contemporaries’ images?

There’s no room to be smug. Who hasn’t been tempted by images that bubble in the unconscious places of our souls, just out of sight. We would be ashamed to voice them, if we could see them clearly. But because we don’t see them clearly, these imagined yearnings rule over us. In brief they are little kingdoms in our heads. These kingdoms in our heads are yoked to what ancient spiritual masters called the “appetites.” Do you want to see them? If yes, then, don’t feed them and see what happens!

When I finished my doctoral studies, I was ready to start my academic career. The long path of study had begun with a clear awareness of God’s call. With the degrees behind me, I was now ready to make a name for myself in the scholarly world.

“Make a name for myself.” Only later would I see how that desire had worked a spiritual coup d’état in me. During the years of graduate study, I had unwittingly turned God’s call into a plan for me. Hunger for success had formed a kingdom in my head. It seemed so reasonable: scholars make names for themselves. Why shouldn’t I? I yearned for the same recognition they all had.

But when I couldn’t find an academic job anywhere, Charmaine and I found ourselves stuck in a 3½ year desert excursion, off-script and off-track. Kicking and screaming, I protested that deserts were for other people. But this no-exit situation became a forced fast. Without it I could never have glimpsed false hunger and the kingdom I had formed in my head. That kingdom was impeding God’s call. It wasn’t what God wanted. My life, and Charmaine’s and my life together, could not be about ‘making a name for me.’ For it to be shed, this distorted desire needed to be named. Without wilderness times, no one can be saved. Thank God for deserts.

Lent has begun. What should we do? Jesus didn’t get a free pass on the desert. Luke says the Holy Spirit led him there. He didn’t resist the wilderness; he chose it. The liturgical calendar wisely gives us space to follow him on our own little 40–day trip to the spiritual hinterlands. For a short time we get to go without. Scarcity is a useful tool for smoking out the latest kingdom in our heads. Better, fasting from what we want is a means of grace that recalls us to the real kingdom: the Reign of God preached and embodied in Jesus Christ.

Let whoever is hungry come.

 

Anthony Chvala-Smith
Paul E. Morden Seminary Chair of Religion
Assistant Prof. of Theology & Scripture
Community of Christ Seminary,
Independence, MO 64050
tonycs@graceland.edu
https://www.graceland.edu/seminary/

Holy Impatience

By Katie Harmon-McLaughlin

In 1963, while Martin Luther King Jr. was in the Birmingham, Alabama jail, he received criticism from white clergy for being “unwisely and untimely.” His response, written from his cell, may be one of the most powerful pieces on the urgency of justice and the tension of privilege.

On the subject of waiting he writes, “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied’ …. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”

Advent is the season for waiting, which sharpens our attention to how we wait and what we are waiting for. It is easy to say that in general I am waiting for shalom, for the birth of Christ’s peace into the world. It is harder to get specific, especially when the particular prompts painful transformation within me and the systems I rely on.

From a place of privilege, I confess that I sometimes manipulate the waiting into procrastination. The white clergy in the 1960s were uncomfortable with King’s civil disobedience. They knew what was coming was nothing less than radical reform and the cost was high. It called for confrontation of not only a racist society, but also the lingering racism in their own hearts. “Just wait- I’m not ready,” they said, not maliciously as much as fearfully.

In the glitter and glow of this almost-Christmas time, I can forget the high cost of the birth of Christ that is almost upon us. In the waiting of Advent, we are not sitting passive or idle. We are allowing the Spirit to work within us. We are noticing the signs of our deepest hope coming alive along the way. We are cultivating the ground of soul for the God-seed that will die and become bread at the tables of the hungry. We are hearing with greater receptivity the impatient cries of the most vulnerable and oppressed with whom the Christ we wait for spent his life. When Advent comes to an end, when the waiting is over, will we have the courage to accept the new life placed in our hands for the healing of the world?

We must honestly discern within ourselves,
For what am I waiting expectant? (Poised)
For what do I procrastinate the arrival? (Resistant)

We learn slowly that this Advent waiting is not a linear process that happens once a year. The Christian seasons reveal to us the rhythms and patterns of life found consistently in discipleship. We know Christ’s peace is already here, accessible and urgent. We know it is coming, always being revealed. We hold this paradox in our hearts as we face the enormity of injustice before us. The waiting is for the forming of our lives into the Christ who gives all for the sake of others. We are to discern carefully, in every season, when action is required and when patience is action. This requires maturity in the spiritual life, honesty about our motivations, and the desire to be deeply rooted in God’s Spirit as the source of all movement, as was the Christ we await.

“Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively,” writes Dr. King, “… We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”

How are we called to use time constructively and creatively this Advent season for the particulars of Christ’s peace to change our lives and world?

This Advent, may we grow legitimately and unavoidably impatient for justice.

Spiritual Practice: Repeat the two questions above in your own heart to discover where you wait expectant and where you procrastinate the prompting of the transforming Spirit. Pray for the courage to be a co-worker with God, attentive to each moment where the time is ripe to do what is right.

If you want to read the whole Letter from Birmingham Jail, you can find the text here: http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html