Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Last Temptation of Christ or Why Church is Sometimes All Joy and No Fun

Every first week of Lent, as we hear the story of Jesus’ temptation for 40 days in the wilderness, I can’t help but recall the way that Martin Scorsese depicted this scene in his controversial interpretation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel The Last Temptation of Christ.

As Jesus prepares himself for this time of trial, he draws a circle in the sand out of which he will not move. Scorsese films it from above, and from the arial vantage point we can see that it is not just any circle but rather a perfect circle which could never be drawn by a human hand, only by the divine. That always impressed teenagers when I showed the scene in class.

The controversy surrounding the film, of course, was not the depiction of Jesus’ temptation in the desert but rather a final temptation offered to him as he hangs on the cross. I remember as a child hearing adults around me talk about the movie and the people who were planning to protest showings of it around the country. Many too easily criticized the film because it it shows Jesus having intimate relations with a woman (or rather, a few women). Sex, then, is what we think the film is about--this is the “last temptation” that Jesus has to face. 

Kazantzakis’s book, though, is not really about sex at all. He uses the story of Jesus of Nazareth to explore the theme of the flesh verses the spirit. His Jesus wrestles with this nagging sense of divinity that is growing within him, with the pain that will come with submitting to its call, and with the apartness that it makes him feel from his fellow human beings. 

When Jesus succumbs to this last temptation, it is about being normal again, about having a family, about lifting the burden of so many expectations from his shoulders. 

To be honest, the movie ruined Willem Dafoe for me forever. His Jesus is just so angst-ridden, so troubled by his inner struggle, so frustrated by the misunderstandings of those around him. Dafoe’s (Scorsese’s/Kazantzakis’) Jesus may find divine joy in life, but he is not having any human fun in the living. This is his final temptation. 

In her recent book about the state of modern parenthood, All Joy and No Fun, Jennifer Senior describes this same struggle: that while parenthood holds brief moments of joy, the day to day living of it, wrestling with the expectations, facing the disappointments, loosing one’s autonomy, make most moments void of fun. 

As I parent I often experience being at church with my child as all joy and no fun. 

Yes, there are beautiful moments of joy: experiencing my son’s baptism, sharing the sacrament of Communion with him, listening to him him sing in worship, helping him light a prayer candle at an evening vespers service, watching him connect with an elderly church member who treats him as another grandchild. 

But for each moment of joy there are many moments that are very un-fun: not being able to keep him from crying during worship and knowing that some people are waiting for me to remove him from the sanctuary; needing to play tic tac toe with him during the sermon to keep him from squirming in the pew next to me--which means that I walk away from worship not feeling like I was present; arguing with him about being well-behaved during the Christmas Eve nativity after his shepherd’s crook has been used for nefarious purposes; seeing him almost knock over an elderly member of the congregation while he is playing tag with his friends in the church hallways. 

I know that church is not always fun for him either, and not just because his mother is the pastor.

It used to be the highest compliment we could garner to have a child or parent tell us that Sunday school was fun that morning. Fun was the goal. Fun was the benchmark that parents used when deciding whether or not to make our church their faith home. I have even caught myself asking my son, when we visit a new church, if he had any fun in Sunday school, as though that would be the sign that it was a good morning.

Honestly, we could never compete in the fun factor when the mega-church down the street installed slides as the means for children to reach their Sunday school classes. Now that is fun. 

Chasing the ever elusive “fun” in our families means that more often than not we are pulled away from regular participation in a faith community. I had a friend tell me once that on any given Sunday morning his young daughter is just as likely to ask to be taken to the pool as she is to church, and honestly, taking her to the pool just sounds like more fun. So that is what they do instead. 

If so much of our lives as parents or as families is not fun, why would we make time in our busy and burdened schedules for one more thing that can be un-fun?

Why does Jesus, in The Last Temptation of Christ, resist this last temptation in the end?

Because of the joy. 

Jesus (of the Gospels, not of the film) was willing to bear the burden of the cross because of the joy that comes in the resurrection. Jesus was willing to feel apart from his disciples because of the joy that comes through union with God. 

The question is whether or not we as parents, who in theory want to raise our children within the church, are willing to bear the un-fun burden of that kind of discipline in order to experience the joy of sharing the life of faith with our children. 

Last week as we began our Lenten journey on Ash Wednesday, I chatted before worship with the pastor who was co-leading the service with me at our small downtown congregation. He serves a church with far more young families than ours, and yet he pointed out to me that it was unlikely that any of them would make the trek in from the suburbs with their children that night. Even his family had stayed at home. I honestly had contemplated not going myself until my pastor had to call in sick and asked me to fill in for her. The potential for un-fun abounded.

And yes, my son did leave the pew to come and tell me about something that had struck him as funny right in the middle of the imposition of the ashes. Yes, he did read a book about children who morph into animals instead of paying attention during the sermon. Yes, he was the only child in attendance. 

But I would suffer it all again to hear him singing “What Wondrous Love is This,” clear and bright, as we stood in the front pew together. 

I focus on the joy, because it is those moments of joy that will serve as the foundation of his growing faith, and my growing faith as well. The temptation is to forget the joy, and to fail to recognize the power of the joy. 

Lent is about as un-fun a church season as you can have, and so we can only make it through if we set our faces firmly towards the joy that will come in our celebration of Christ’s resurrection.  

Lent is a season of confronting our limitations and our temptations. May this Lenten season, for me, be a time to resist the temptation to undervalue the joy of accompanying my son on his journey into faith. And may joy abound for all of our sakes.

What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss
To bear the heavy cross for my soul, for my soul,
To bear the heavy cross for my soul.

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