The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert,
and he remained in the desert for forty days,
tempted by Satan.
He was among wild beasts,
and the angels ministered to him. (Mk 1:12-13)

I’m wrapping up another Lenten season where I’ve given up fast food, alcohol (wasn’t too good on this one – darn that Oberon coming out on my birthday), and pop.  This one seems different because, unlike the other ones where I felt happy at the end to get back the things I gave up, I just feel “meh” and I can’t quite put my finger on it.

In a couple of past posts, I’ve shared homilies from my friend Fr. Ken Schmidt – the pastor of St. Thomas More in Kalamazoo.  Throughout most of my adult years, Ken has gotten me to think about things from time to time and he has a knack of doing this without bashing me over the head with the Bible or the Catechism.  Such was the case back in February when I went back to church after a long time on the first Sunday of Lent.

The Gospel reading that day was Mark 1:12 -15.  A brief passage that discusses Jesus temptation in the desert and the start of his public ministry.  Ken’s homily focused on what it means to be tested.  He said, in part:

In this reflection on the beginning of Jesus’ mission-activity, we hear a brief description of him being tested.  What does that mean – to be tested?  In this instance, Jesus was led into the desert, where he was exposed to extreme heat and the danger of wild beasts.  In other words, it’s an extreme situation where the usual human resources for life and relational support were missing – he was isolated and in danger and help was not readily available.

In one sense this was a big surprise because what he’d just experienced was a wonderful and even great event – his baptism by John, the epiphany of the Holy Spirit, and God’s declaration to him that he is God’s beloved Son. WOW!  And the next thing you know, there he was in the desert, being tested.

So what was the test?  In the experience of danger and isolation and without other help, how would he respond?  he had just received God’s profound assurance, and then he faced temptation.  Would he continue to believe, or doubt?  Would he stay faithful to God, or turn away?  Would Jesus think of God as the helper who sustained him in those trials, or the enemy who put him there?  Would he stand firm or collapse, waffle or stay the course?  Did he recognize the divine care of the angels, or was his attention focused only on his suffering and deprivation?

The geography strikes me – Jesus had to walk just a few miles to be in a very harsh desert.  And I thought to myself how this is sometimes true in our lives – one moment things seem fine, and then all of a sudden we’re in a crisis.  For the Badras and the Gibes (DQW’s note – these are St. Tom’s families who recently lost a child), all it took was one phone call about their child to break their hearts and turn their world upside down.  For others it’s a lab report to confirm an illness, or a request to see their supervisor and learn they no longer have a job.  Or they leave their house and come back to find out it’s on fire.  There’s not much distance between “everything’s going fine” and a crisis; it doesn’t take much time to move from a peaceful prayer or a religious “high” on retreat to a catastrophe that radically changes our lives.

There's not much distance between "everything's going fine" and a crisis ..

Then how do we respond to these tests?  Do we continue to believe, or doubt?  do we stay faithful to God, or turn away?  Do we think of God as our helper who sustains us in our trials, or the enemy who puts us there?  Do we stand firm or collapse, waffle or stay the course?  do we recognize and accept divine care and the assistance we receive from others, or do we only notice our shock and disappointment, and focus only on our personal hardship and suffering?”

As Ken wrapped up his homily, I thought about the times when I’ve played poker with some of my friends.  Those times where I’m just getting beat and the cards aren’t falling my way despite my best efforts.  I will sometimes go “all-in” with the hopes that I’ll win a hand and turn things around.  I have found that I will say a quick “Come on, Lord, help me out here!  I need a King, or an Ace.

And then the turn or the river comes and it’s a deuce.

It’s tempting to say “Come on!  You couldn’t help me out this once!!!”  It’s tempting to scream at the stars, up at Heaven and blame Him for not being there.  I’ve actually done that before (somewhere in Portage believe it or not).  I’m sure a number of other people have also, or at least I hope they have so I don’t look/feel like I’m a crazy ass.

Those are the times where I’ve failed the test.  I’ve failed it because I forgot what the bigger picture is.  And the bigger picture, no matter how many chips are in a poker jackpot, is that no matter how loud we yell – we are lucky because we have someone who is always looking out for us and will love us and will help us survive.

Ken hit on this in the written ending of his homily (sometime he doesn’t give the homily the same way he wrote it) by saying, “Even when the beasts attack us (literally or figuratively), even when our temptations appear again and again, even when we feel isolated and unprepared for what suddenly turns out world on its head, we’ll know that we will survive and not be destroyed, because we remember God’s promise, and God is good, all the time!  All the time, God is good!

I think that’s why I’m feeling blah at the end of this Lent – I keep thinking about that time I screamed at the stars and I realize how silly I am.  I think this time, more than ever before, I remember how many times I’ve failed the test in my life.  I’ve failed it numerous times and it’s getting tougher as I get older to pick myself back up.

But what I have to remember, and what we all have to remember is, like Ken wrote, “All the time, God is good!”