The temptation of “normal”
By Rev. Chris Wylie (bio)
A couple weeks ago at our New Wineskins Virtual Theology Pub, we discussed Matthew 4:1-11, the testing/tempting of Jesus.
In this passage, Jesus faces different temptations. Many interesting questions came up in our discussion. Who was there? Who recording this happening? Did Jesus come back and tell his disciples about it?
Those questions make for interesting pondering. I think the important question though—a question I try to ask myself often—is simply, “What is this encounter about and what does it mean for me?”
That’s a question that isn’t always so easily answered and, as importantly, isn’t so easily lived out.
Who’s in control?
One idea that hits closely for me is that this testing is about control. Could Jesus be tempted enough not to persevere? Could Jesus be tempted enough to forgo the most difficult part of faith?
You probably know that part, right? I know I do.
My faith is most challenged when I must trust that restorative Love is big enough to hold me even when I’m facing struggles and difficulties beyond my control. When the going got tough, would Jesus get going?
According to the story as written in Matthew, Jesus stayed the course. I can’t imagine it was easy. I’m not sure I could have kept going. In fact, I doubt I would have made it very far at all.
As one of my favorite movie lines, uttered by a priest in the movie Rudy goes, “In 35 years of religious study, I’ve come up with only two hard, incontrovertible facts; there is a God, and I’m not Him.”
On this I hope we can agree. Whether you believe everything as I do or not, we are not God.
Except here’s the thing. We create god (small g intended) in our own image all the time and, whether we realize it or not, this usually happens when we are trying to maintain control…or at least the feeling of control.
We aren’t really in control after all. I’ve had to confront this reality personally, especially as my body becomes more disabled.
Sitting with vulnerability
Of course, I have always been disabled. I have cerebral palsy. However, I have been a full-time wheelchair user for less than 10 years. Like many in my younger days, I used to run around, play sports, and climb stairs. I even ice skated (which put me on national television in my early teens!). As I often say, though, “Everybody’s body is aging, mine is just aging faster.”
So, here I am. I literally sit with my vulnerability every day. I can’t pretend to be in control anymore. Life is my daily reminder that I roll in “the shadow of death” (Ps: 23). I live a little bit of Lenten mortality each day while simultaneously holding onto restorative life and hope all year around.
I’ve felt this acutely during the COVID 19 pandemic and not just internally. Like many disabled people, I’ve watched as non-disabled people hung in there with safety precautions for a little while and then moved on as they felt safer.
I don’t believe it is safer and I know I’m not. Even the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) lists COVID 19 death rates at well over 100,000 people per year.[i] Moreover, recent studies have shown COVID 19 increases blood clot and pulmonary risks for years beyond acute infection.[ii]
The urgency for normal is entirely rooted in our fear of vulnerability and desire for control. People with a vested interest in maintaining systems of oppression for the most marginalized in society know and exploit this for personal gain.
But, what about us? What about the Beloved Community?
Loving from the margins in
Time and again, Jesus shows us a new path toward true inclusion from the margins and it starts with his example in the wilderness. He gives us an example that sets the tone for his ministry and ours.
Again, I’ll use disability as our lens for understanding.
In John 9, Jesus heals a man born blind. Looking beyond simple physical healing, however, Jesus is really restoring the man into full community.
We know this because we have the unfortunate rest of the story. Reading further in the text we witness the religious leaders questioning the man and his parents, and ultimately throwing him out when their personal control feels threatened.
They exclude him from community and true societal life.
This brings us back to our current discussion and my life living as a disabled person in the pandemic. If you want to truly include me, even if you aren’t so worried about your personal risk, wear a mask. It’s just that simple.
It’s not just for me, your friend Chris, either. You don’t know who else you’ll encounter in your daily journey whether you know it or not. Scripture tells us that too when we read about “doing for the least of these” or “entertaining angels.” (Matthew 25:40, Hebrews 13:2)
This is why Jesus’s temptation to take control out there in the wilderness matters. I don’t know exactly his experience, I only know what I read in these words of scripture written before me, but I do know I have a choice.
When faced with decisions leading to exclusion or inclusion, control or vulnerability, will I follow the way of the world, or will I follow Jesus?
Rev. Chris Wylie is a disabled, ordained United Methodist Church Elder, public theologian, theomusicologist, activist, long-time friend of New Wineskins Faith Community, and musician also known as DJ Pastor Rock. Together with his wife Jennelle he founded Rolling Nation Network which uses his music to provide wheelchair van grants for people in need.
Feature image: Korn V. via pond5.com