Today is the third day of Lent.
In the religious world of my upbringing, Satan was understood to be a real being. If you could get coordinates and had the ability to travel through space and across unknown realities, you could find Satan. Not that anyone would want to try. When I went off to college to study philosophy and religious studies, I kept my desire to remain connected to my faith tradition, but I stopped believing in a literal Satan. It was, I felt, a little unsophisticated. I put together some fancy language to support my thoughts on this matter.
“Satan is clearly a personification of evil. The concept of Satan as a motivating idea or as a character in a mythic narrative is okay, I suppose, for simple and uneducated people. But it seems clear that there is no such being. The idea of Satan seems to have developed in the intertestamental period of Judeo-Christian history.”
And that’s what I believed, or didn’t believe about Satan all through seminary and on into my time as the pastor of Covenant Baptist Church.
And then I met Sam Todd.
I don’t know how I found my way to the Episcopal Church of Reconciliation. I have no memory of that. But somehow I stumbled into the beautiful courtyard of that dear church. It was sometime in the 1990s and I was feeling spiritually dry. I remained faithful to my duties as pastor, but I found no joy in my calling in those days. I was filled with doubts and was wondering if perhaps I should find some other way of making a living. Sam was the rector at Reconciliation at the time. I started attending evening prayers during the week, and eventually Sam agreed to be my spiritual director.
I told him that I almost felt I heard a voice speaking to me – a very negative and scornful voice – telling me that I was unworthy of being a pastor. The voice made me feel ashamed.
Sam puffed on his pipe for a moment or two. And then he said, “That doesn’t sound like the voice of our Lord.”
We sat together in silence. Then he spoke again.
“But I think I know whose voice it is.”
Sam looked at me and said, “It is the voice of our ancient foe. The one who does not want good for us. The one who means us harm.”
Then he went back to puffing on his pipe. He didn’t apologize. He didn’t qualify his statement or offer any disclaimers. He didn’t say, “I know that Satan doesn’t really exist, but of course I’m referring to an archetypal description of evil that continues to speak powerfully to us even in these modern and enlightened times.”
He didn’t say anything more. And because it was Sam saying this, because I had great respect for his intellect and learning, suddenly the idea of Satan didn’t seem childish and silly at all. A chill went up the back of my neck. And I left that place deep in thought.
Sunday morning I will preach again for the first time in 4 years. And the text for the first Sunday of Lent is the classic story of Jesus being tempted by Satan in the wilderness.
Matthew and Luke tell us that Jesus went into the wilderness for forty days specifically to be tempted by Satan. He marched into a wild and untamed place to face our ancient foe. I no longer have enough pride to claim any understanding of deep realities like this. I don’t know if there is a being behind evil or not. But I know the voice of our ancient foe. I have heard this voice myself. And I am comforted to know that Jesus both meant to confront that voice and did.
Thank you Sam.