The Emptying Desert

Notes to myself on boredom and grief, and the desert temptations of Jesus…

Week of Sunday March 9 - Lent 1
Gospel: Matthew 4:1-11

"Look at those youngfellas over there on the rocks. They're sunning themselves like lizards."

"Well, we've destroyed their whole worldview; maybe there's nothing left to do except to sit on a rock and enjoy what life they can; it's pretty logical really."

"Yeah. It's not as though we have given them anything better to live by. I sometimes think they understand the emptiness and futility of our European culture better than we do."

This is a conversation of 35 years ago; one of those audio snippets which stay with us for life. Sometimes I think my friend and I should have sat down on the rocks ourselves.

I began to feel around the age of 45 that I was "over" work, that I had become prematurely tired, and was ready to retire. Slowly I began to see that I was not tired; I was bored. The work I was doing was interesting, often fascinating, but I no longer cared. And I was afraid. How could I endure 20, or even 40 more years of this!?

There are aspects of boredom, of loss of meaning, of depression, of ennui, and even of never ending tiredness, which are spiritually profound. They are a kind of grieving. They are desert experiences where, like Jesus, we will be tempted to take an easier way out in order to succeed at life. We may even belabour ourselves with moral lecturing about our lazy lying on the rocks, and wearily haul ourselves back up into action. Yet Jesus sat in the rocky desert for 40 long days, refusing any easy answers or short cuts.

Kate Greene writes

Existential boredom extends beyond discrete situations. It wraps itself, like a wet woollen blanket, around every aspect of life, so that a sufferer lives a life devoid of satisfaction.

I share some of her experience of life.

... I discovered that certain behaviours – imagining oneself in the future, making new plans, learning new skills, setting goals, trying to refresh and start anew – are typical of someone who feels bored. I could check all of these off. For as long as I can remember, I’ve responded to an ill-defined niggling inside that propels me to try new things.

This propulsion, I have decided, is almost always in the wrong direction. It is trying to deal with the symptoms of boredom, not its cause. It never satisfies. New things and new resolutions are more likely to be an idol that a healing of boredom. James Alison, writing about evil says

We are tremendously susceptible to … becoming fixated on tendentious and symptomatic signs of “something going wrong” as things which really are in themselves, [which] are significant…

He could be talking about boredom or ennui.  We seek new actions and new things to

 give us meaning, make us good by contrast, over against [our boredom]. To do this is to refuse to undergo being given meaning, significance, life, at the hands of the only lure which really can do so, and to grasp at ersatz meaning instead. To settle for instant but fake meaning instead of deferred meaning, and being over time.

Oddly, this 15 years of growing boredom with much of life has coincided with immense satisfaction and enrichment in other areas. When I write and think and imagine ways of being that are essentially different from nearly everything contemporary Australian culture tries to tell me makes life meaningful, and when I live these ideas out in even small ways, I find new levels of depth to life.

Boredom, I have decided, can be a profound blessing. It is our recognition— or is perhaps more a recognition thrust upon us—  that the life and culture around us— that part of culture that Paul might call The World— is not life giving. It is to grapple with the empty space left by things which have been a huge distraction, filling our lives, while all the time not being of any real import.

This kind of boredom hurts. That's why we often find it clustered with loss of meaning, and depression, and ennui, and never ending tiredness. It is hard work. It is tearing the weeds out of our soul, and finding that they are deep rooted. We mourn the time we have wasted, and the gaping holes in our being. This is a fearful time.

Monica Furlong wrote

I am clear about what I want from the clergy.  I want them to be people who can, by their own happiness and contentment challenge my ideas about status, success and money and so teach me how to live more independently of such drugs.

I want them to be people who can dare, as I do not dare, and as few of my contemporaries dare to refuse to work flat out and to refuse to work more strenuously than me.

I want them to be people who dare because they are secure enough in the value of what they are doing to have time to read, to sit and think, and who face the emptiness and possible depression which often attacks people when they do not keep the surface of their mind occupied.  I want them to be people who have faced this kind of loneliness and discovered how fruitful it is, as I want them to be people who have faced the problem of prayer.

I want them to be people who can sit still without feeling guilty and from who I can learn some kind of tranquillity in a society which has almost lost the art.  (Ourselves your servants: the Church's ministry. Sydney Evans; Monica Furlong; Basil Stanley Moss Published for ACCM  Church Information Office 1967)             

To do what Furlong says, is not so much to face emptiness and possible depression, as to ensure immersion in them!

I clipped her words from a church newsletter while I was in theological college, and glued them in the front cover of my bible. They have been one of my signal points, a succinct reminder of my calling which I periodically revisit, and from which I take a bearing on my position in life.

Yet the more I have taken their direction to heart, the better minister I have become, in her terms, the more I have become bored, depressed and tired. For so much of what we do, and so much of what we are encouraged to do; by omnipresent advertising, in school, in exhortation from pew and pulpit, by self-help books, on Lifehacker— so much of this I find trivial. Much of it is pointless, and little of it has anything to do with peace and lasting satisfaction in life. It does not lead to the tranquillity Furlong coveted.

When we begin to see through it all we are called lazy, lost, not a team player, boring, slackers, bludgers, depressed— and often we are; it is depressing— misfits, killjoys... and for those whom just remain busy, we are those things.

How shall we then live?

Alison talks of two imaginations in his paper Deliver us From Evil.

So we might talk about two sorts of imagination alive in humanity, one, the apparently normal one, in which we are run by death and given meaning starting from death, in which the search for meaning is always over against some other, and in which we lure each other on, and which is inevitably futile – haunted by vanity; then the other sort of imagination which has been made available by the installing in our midst of the first fruits of a counter-lure: the possibility that our imaginations and our desire can be made alive to meaning and goodness in a way which does not lead us into conflict and rivalry. (My emphasis)

This is why I injected boredom and ennui into his discussion of evil earlier in this paper. A quick fix for boredom and ennui— ersatz meaning, as he called it— is actually an encouragement of the first sort of imagination. It will inevitably be "over against some other" and so not only be futile, but, finally, violent.

What will lead us to a place or way of being— an imagination— where "All is vanity!" is not a cry of despair, but a recognition through boredom— I mean because of, and as part of the boredom-ennui experience—  that life is a great gift? What will make "There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil," into a statement of great good news rather than resignation? (Ecclesiastes)

Matthew 4 tells us, first of all, what will not!

As the pioneer of our faith, (Hebrews 12:2) Jesus shows us a way to live. In the temptations in Matthew 4, he is shown to be different in his being human from the way Israel (us) have tried to be human until now. Will we follow? Will we live with the boredom and grief of "40 days in the desert" or will we simply opt for the immediate idolatry of keeping the mind occupied? Or the eventual idolatry of some spiritual quick fix such as a more entertaining church?

The temptations come before his ministry begins. If he had failed here, the ministry would have failed. Crucifixion would then have only been defeat.

1Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 

The Spirit leads him— and us. To be taken into a wilderness is what is needed! It is gift. Wilderness strips us of our idols. It points us to the one thing— the one "person"— upon whom we can rely.

2He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 

The forty days is a reference to Moses and the Exodus from Egypt, which was an exodus from a place of false safety. Egypt seemed to be a place of salvation in the famine of Jacob's time; it proved, later, to be a place of enslavement. How much of our culture and its wonderful achievements and comforts is actually an enslavement? (There is another Old Testament echo here, too. 1 Kings 19 has Elijah in the wilderness for 40 days, during which time he is sustained by angels. cf Matthew 4:11)

Matthew sees Jesus as the greater Moses. We might note that whereas Moses did not finally enter the Promised Land, Jesus does, all the way to Jerusalem.

Forty days is a long time. The reference to the 40 years in the wilderness is plain; it is a reference to a lifetime in the wilderness. We may be in such a lifetime wilderness, because we have found, as Caputo says, that

"…life is a risky business and we don't in fact know in any deep way who we are, or what's going on."

My lifetime has seen a great loss of confidence and a cacophony of surface of the mind activity and acquisition that attempts to hide the emptiness. The great temptation is to join those who seek to escape from this wilderness, rather than to live with what we have been given. If God gives us this wilderness in the midst of the choking hustle of modern life, how can it not be a blessing? Yet almost everything in us will want to escape.

Entering this wilderness will famish us, exhaust us. To imagine a different world is like seeking to lose weight when you work in a chocolate shop, or become an ascetic while working for Harvey Norman.

The devil tempter Satan and Jesus speak in the words of Scripture. By this device, Matthew is showing us what is at stake in the gift of the desert experience, by referring us back to our faith's foundations.

3The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ 4But he answered, ‘It is written,
“One does not live by bread alone,
   but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’

The Scripture reference is Deuteronomy Chapter 8.

2Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. 3He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

Perhaps one of the key issues of our culture is our lack of humility. We pretend to know what life is about with a kind of desperation that will not own up to itself. The doubters and seers are scorned. 

Conspiracy theorists pretend to know; with a total lack of humility they become false prophets and seers, indulging in a bizarre, modern gnosticism which while pretending not to be "taken in" is totally deluded.

Long desert journeys are boring, even numbing. I've seen people filled with fear at the apparent emptiness of desert spaces.  All our props are removed. We learn how limited the idol Internet really is as mobile coverage fails us. And then we are confronted with "what is in our heart." We hunger, starved of our normal noisy diet, and must become acquainted with new ways of being. But if we will not endure the emptiness and fear we will never cross the desert.

5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you”,
   and “On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’ 
7Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’

The devil is quoting Psalm 91 in this second temptation. That Psalm also contains the words

7 A thousand may fall at your side,
   ten thousand at your right hand,
   but it will not come near you. 
8 You will only look with your eyes
   and see the punishment of the wicked. 

Even as devotional poetry these words fail today. We may even feel a certain pity for the lone chance survivor of a train crash who sincerely believes God saved them, holding in their joy and grief to the delusion that life is fair, and by implication, that all the other people on the train deserved to die.

It is also a desert temptation to think we can make meaning of the tragedies and vicissitudes of life. Desert and wilderness mean that tragedy is thrust before us naked and pointless. It is stripped of logic and meaning. In the desert we face raw destruction without the green of garden beauty because the skeletons and mummified carcasses lie uncovered and unhidden. Beauty must be found in something else.

The greater temptation is to force God to act to remove this pain, and to relieve the agony of the enwrapping sense that nothing matters, that there is no meaning, no fairness, and that nothing can be done. This is called "testing God."

Jesus' reply to the second temptation comes from Deuteronomy 6.

For context, Massah is the place where Israel was short of water (Exodus 17:2-12) and demanded Moses provide some. The water which flowed from the rock Moses struck was no miracle, but a failure. (He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarrelled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’ (Exodus 17:7) This failure is the reason Moses himself does not enter the Promised Land! Deuteronomy 32:51)

16 Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah. 17You must diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and his decrees, and his statutes that he has commanded you.18Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may go in and occupy the good land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give you, 19thrusting out all your enemies from before you, as the Lord has promised.

20 When your children ask you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ 21then you shall say to your children, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. (Deuteronomy 6)

We see in Jesus' answer what not putting the Lord to the test means: "18Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord…" And remember that Egypt is Egypt, not a salvation: you shall say to your children, "We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt." How much does pursuit of the goods and distractions of modern culture in order to avoid the emptiness that comes with Alison's second imagination enslave us to new Pharaohs called Gerry Harvey, or Rupert Murdoch, or Apple?

Everything the devil offers Jesus is based around getting a shortcut out of the desert. "Do it my way and escape the boredom. Do it my way and mask the pain." The first two temptations are really only more specific examples of the last temptation: serve Satan. Escaping the desert early or easily is to serve Satan!

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; 9and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ 10Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! For it is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
   and serve only him.” ’ 

We have already seen reference to Deuteronomy 6. Jesus' last reply is also from this chapter.

4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart….

  12take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 13The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear. 14Do not follow other Gods…

We cannot solve spiritual boredom, or loss of meaning, or depression, or ennui by avoiding God. There is no other God if we wish to be healed of the emptiness. There is no short cut around God. That is, there is no quick healing once we see the idolatry and emptiness of our materialist consumer culture, only a long slow continued rejection of it, a "a long term education in becoming un-excited" (Alison) by the glitter of fool's gold.

11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

In the end there is relief. The issue for us is what we will call relief from the desert. In his paper Worship in a Violent World, Alison exposes the psychology and the power dynamics of the Nuremberg rallies. His description is frightening for its exposé of the psychology and power dynamics of much Christian worship.

What will we seek, or long to see on the horizon of our desert journey? Will we just go back to Egypt? Much of what I hear described as "blessing" and "joy" and the renewal and growth of congregations sounds like promises to provide and hold on to mountain top experiences like The Transfiguration. Even up there, God interrupts Peter and says listen to Jesus!

In the article with which I began, Greene speaks of the promise of bliss on the other side of boredom. David Foster Wallace is quoted as saying

Bliss – a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious – lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom…Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping back from black and white into colour. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.

It sounds like a secularised version of the over-the-top promises of orchestrated worship. If he is talking about this bliss as something that persists, I simply don't believe him.

I think contentment is a more realistic hope. I'm in the central park in Gumeracha. Shortly after I arrived in this little paradise an enormous cherry picker arrived bearing a chain saw wielding worker who has been pruning dead limbs off the river gums. Hardly bliss… but oddly enjoyable. Once I would have moved on.

None of the world is changed. I've spent a fair amount of time simply contemplating a young bloke engaged in the oddly pointless task of pruning gum trees! What could be boring is peaceful and I feel somewhat "at one" with the world.

And soon I must go back to what Matthew 4 tells us is the way to find the liberation and gift in Ecclesiastes' recognition that "All is vanity!" and that "There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil."

Matthew tells us this way in his Old Testament references, and follows it with the rest of his gospel where Jesus simply does it.

4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart….

  12take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 13The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear. 14Do not follow other Gods… (Deuteronomy 6)

Living as Jesus lived sometimes leads to moments of bliss. But it more often leads to cleaning the church toilets, and sometimes worse, sitting through Synod. But some of the fear is gone. The tiredness is more wholesome, and yes, we do step into a world of colour.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!




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