(3/14): Numbers 21:4-9 • Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 • Ephesians 2:1-10 • John 3:14-21
Count on the fourth Sunday of Lent for things to start getting dicey. This year, the Numbers reading has the Israelites complaining about their circumstances and resenting the leaders who had brought them there. Next come poisonous snakes. Finally, God tells Moses to craft a poisonous serpent on a pole and hold it up; anyone bitten by a snake who looks at the bronze serpent on the pole will live.
In a similar vein, the psalmist is unsparing in his description of people. Some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities endured affliction. The Ephesians reading begins with the declaration that you were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived. Finally, the gospel reading likens Moses lifting up the serpent on the pole with the lifting up of Jesus on the cross.
What's the poor human to do? In my humble opinion, this week's lectionary selections, perhaps a well-intentioned effort to remind us of our need of God, can instead induce a bit of helplessness. If it's this bad, why try? If the cycle of try-repent-try-again is bound to repeat itself, why bother? Growing towards the person one wants to become can seem too hard, too slow. The inability to be perfect, to get it right, whatever it is that day, can induce more helplessness, more immaturity!
At this point, laughing at oneself can help. And trying something new can make a difference. Consider the bronze serpent on the pole. Take the very thing that is poisonous to you, and stare at it. Perhaps an early version of exposure therapy, the idea would be to sit with it long enough that it no longer scares you.
Many human problems begin with something we're afraid of. Once anxiety is in the air, it looks for a place to land. For the Israelites, it was being in the desert itself that got them scared. After that, it was easy for the tension to spread around the community, and to land on the bad food and lack of water. The snakes were the final blow, but the fear had started much earlier.
For us today, one year into the covid pandemic, it seems like people have almost forgotten what got everybody so anxious. Tension, blaming, and arguments can land on anything, it seems. And here's where one has to stop staring at the current issue, the snake, as it were. People must step back and see the worry, the tension in the air. Each must consider how the worry is getting managed or spread around the group, considering one's own responsibility for oneself.
A worried attention on another person is a common way of managing one's own anxiety. Mistaken for compassion, it actually interferes with the growth of the other and also keeps one from appropriate attention to one's own self. If a person can ever stop focusing on others, what they should do or think and/or how one might 'help,' then one can set the mind on a more curious course. A broader perspective and new insights may result. Relationships may be restored. Life may look a little brighter.
Small steps, for sure – but leading towards a new set point one's life. Others may try to push one back towards one's previous functioning, but that's all part of the growth. They will eventually adjust and begin to grow themselves, too. And the next time one goes through the try-repent-try again cycle, one begins with a little more self in place, and a little more connection to others.
Morning: How will I work to manage my own anxiousness today?
Evening: When did I notice tension today? How was it managed or spread around the group?
Psalm 107:1-2 O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever. Let the redeemed of the LORD say so, those he redeemed from trouble