Stress Test

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First Sunday of Lent

I don’t run. I have brothers who do, and friends who do. They can get downright obsessive about it. It does nothing for me though. I don’t get it. But I’ve heard people who run talk about running with such passion, I’m almost jealous. Almost. They talk about the endorphin rush, the high that comes after you get past the physical pain and exhaustion, the tediousness and irritation, long after you ask why and you don’t care anymore about getting an answer. I’ve just never arrived anywhere near that point in my pursuit of athletic achievement. So I make excuses. I’ll run when I have reason to run either to or away from something. I can’t run just because. It has to make sense.

Ultimately, I suppose that’s exactly why some of us exercise and some of us don’t. Either we enjoy it, or we don’t. Or we become convinced of its necessity to our overall well-being. Otherwise, it’s just a pain. Some of us would much rather sit on the couch and munch on Doritos all day long. Don’t look at me. But that’s how some of us think, until something goes terribly wrong, and the doctor or family or close friends prevail on us to do something about it. In the end, it’s all about preparing the mind and body physically, mentally, emotionally, to deal with the daily stress of living, so as not to be overwhelmed when the unexpected happens. And it will happen. The idea is that if we are prepared to handle the stress of the unexpected when it happens, we are more likely to emerge from the experience in good shape, able to continue functioning, able to return to our daily responsibilities, able to resume the pursuit of goals and objectives we have set for ourselves. In short, we’re ready for the next challenge.

And challenges will come. It’s just part of life. It matters not how high up the food chain we sit. So it helps to get used to stress under more controlled conditions. That’s partly why exercise is healthy. We learn to manage our response to stress. The manifestations are similar—increased heart rate, blood pressure, physical exhaustion. So the better we are able to manage our response to self-induced stress, the better we will be able to manage our response to stress that comes at us without warning.

This winter has been quite stressful for a lot of people, especially in the northeast, or down here if you’re also dealing with the flu, or your pipes freeze, or you’re trying to find childcare when schools are closed. Stress will cause an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and physical exhaustion. Patience will run thin. Tempers will flare. It will seem easier to just shut down, put up a wall, throw our hands up in despair, and walk away. The stress will pass eventually. But will we be ready for the next one? It might seem reasonable to some of us that if we put complete faith and trust in God, if we live faithful to the commandments and the teachings of the gospel, if we mind our own business, go to church, and give to the poor and the needy, we will be spared any and all crisis, be successful in all our endeavors, and live in peace at all times. Spoiler alert. There is no such guarantee. There never has been. Instead there will be the cross. And Jesus tells us we should pick up our cross each day and follow him. The Father did not shield his own Son from the cross. What makes us think we will fare any better?

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So Jesus goes out to the desert for forty days, to keep company with wild beasts, and be tempted by Satan, while angels attended to his needs. The desert is a harsh place of solitude and desolation. It is not where we go to find life’s comforts and blessings. Why would anyone in their right mind embrace such an experience? Is it not stressful enough that such experiences will find us anyway in the form of life’s hardships and challenges? But it makes sense to face such experiences if only that we might learn how to better manage the stress that life’s hardships and challenges bring. It’s like going for a run. The desert is a stress test for life’s hardships and challenges. In the desert, we voluntarily embrace the strain and tension of physical hunger and desolation, of hardship and inconvenience, of loss and devastation. We simulate the experience of life’s hardships and challenges so we can hone our trust in God, our care for others, our patience, our humility, our self-restraint. The cross will always be part of our lives as children of God and disciples of Jesus. It works to our benefit to be well-prepared.

I recently watched an episode of a hospital drama on TV where a couple were dealing with a difficult pregnancy. The wife who was a devout Christian was having the hardest time. Her husband was more stoic. He knew his options. She on the other hand could not imagine why God would abandon her. Sometimes those who claim to have faith are the ones who question the mercy and goodness of God the most in the face of illness or natural disaster, of overwhelming odds and tremendous hardship. Such conditions set the stage for great story-telling and dramatic effect. And I have no trouble with calling on God with a heavy heart, of pleading and bargaining, of giving expression to anger and doubt. I will even encourage it. But when we ask the question why—why God would permit such hardship and heartache to befall us, especially after we have done our part to uphold his commandments and put faith in him—it is because we erroneously expect from God’s hands a life without the cross in exchange for our faith. But God never gave us such a guarantee! And neither does God cook up hardships and challenges to throw at us for his personal amusement.

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Noah was commanded by God to build an ark, and gather two of every living creature, herd them into the ark, and ride out the flood in safety and security. And God made a covenant with Noah, his sons, and all the human family. God will never give up on us. We can always begin anew. In fact, God provides us many such opportunities along the journey. One such opportunity is the saving grace of baptism by which we are cleansed, not from any physical stain, but rather that we might more willingly embrace God’s life. Just as God shares his life with us incrementally through our journey, to prepare us for the final installment of heavenly glory when the plan of God comes to fulfillment, so we embrace the cross in small doses, in the hardships and challenges of daily life, to prepare us for our ultimate surrender into God’s embrace. We will never know what form the cross will take in our lives, only that we do not bear it alone.

In this season of Lent, we enter the desert with Jesus to face our own humanity, our selfishness, our pride, our lack of faith, our self-indulgence. We voluntarily embrace Lent with its discipline to form us in trust, in humility, in compassion, and self-restraint. Lent prepares us for the challenges that come with bearing the cross and following in the footsteps of Jesus through the journey of our lives.

Lent is like going for a run. Now I know.

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Rolo B Castillo © 2015