Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The 7 Deadly Sins: Lust

Dorothy L. Sayers writes that a young man once said to her, "I did not know that there were seven deadly sins; please tell me the names of the other six." The last of the warm-hearted sins is the most famous. And probably the most misunderstood. Because if you ask most people what lust is, they will say "sexual desires." And they would be wrong.

We have the same problem here that we had with anger. Anger is natural and can be a good thing. So is sexual desire. Without it there would be no human race. In fact, the very first commandment in the Bible is to "be fruitful and multiply." So the temptation is to say that lust is "excessive sexual desire." But that also is not quite true. People have different sex drives. In "Annie Hall" on split screen Diane Keaton and Woody Allen are asked by their respective therapists how often they have sex. Rolling her eyes, Keaton says, "All the time--2 or 3 times a week." Whining, Allen replies to the same question, "Hardly ever--2 or 3 times a week." The frequency is the same; their perceptions are different. If a couple is in sync on this issue, what someone else might consider excessive or insufficient is irrelevant. If we defined lust simply as an excess, it would be so subjective as to be useless.

One reason that sins trip us up is that they are cunning counterfeits of the good. Remember that God created everything good. Evil must therefore be derivative. It is the misuse, the neglect or the parody of good. So perhaps the way to delineate lust is to examine normal sexual desire. Sexual desire is good when it leads to or is part of a committed love relationship. In fact, during sexual activity the body releases the hormone oxytocin which causes the partners to bond. It's the same chemical released when a woman gives birth or a child suckles. The purpose is to bind people: lovers, parents, children. So when Jesus said that to look at a woman with lust in one's heart is the same as adultery, obviously he was not referring to looking at a woman and saying, "I would like to marry her and raise a family with her." He is talking about wishing to have the pleasure of sex with no strings attached. And that is the essence of lust.

Wealthy Romans of Jesus' time loved to feast. At parties and important functions they would serve more courses of exotic foods than anyone could eat. So after gorging themselves, some gluttons would go to the vomitorium and…you can figure out the rest. The point is, they were divorcing the taste of food from its nutritional function. And that's what lust is. It is separating sex from love. Comic book artist William Rotsler once defined sex as "a clever imitation of love. It has all the action but none of the plot." So why do we do that? Well, duh--it feels good!

My wife makes great chocolate chip cookies. But if she buys a bag of Ghirardelli's chocolate chips, she'd better bake the cookies right away. Because once the bag is discovered in the pantry, its contents will begin to disappear. As much as I love her cookies, I can't resist the temptation to eat the chips by themselves, even if it spoils the chance of my getting cookies. The pleasure of sex is the sugar and spice of relationships. Enjoying it alone ruins relationships.

But the taste tempts us. Advertisers know this and so they use sex to sell everything from deodorant to cars. Movie makers know this which is why almost all actresses get their start in Hollywood as eye candy rather than as real characters. Record companies know this which is why there are so few plain or ugly rock stars or rappers, leading one to conclude that musical talent and physical attractiveness must somehow go together. Only in opera, where one really has to be good and powerful without resorting to studio tricks, do most of the talented people look like regular folks.

And pornographers know that sex sells itself. In this industry, sex is even divorced from actual physicality. People will settle for mere pictures or images. C.S. Lewis said that if we went to a country where people would pay to see a man on a stage slowly lift the cover off of a plate of pork chops, we would conclude that there is something very wrong with the audience's appetite. Bill Cosby said that if you're really hungry, why would you pay to watch another man eat a steak? But when it comes to sex, unlike some other appetites, even the hunger, the lack and longing, feels good. And more to the point, some people will settle for fantasy.

Fantasy is the most dangerous aspect of pornography. It's not the sight of naked folks that warps minds, it is the unreality that goes along with it. We are usually presented with flawless people (and if they aren't, airbrushing and silicone will come to the rescue.) These manikins meet, are instantly attracted to one another, and are at it in less time than it takes most adolescent boys to work up the nerve to say "Hi" to a girl. No wonder these fantasies are so enticing. And it isn't just porn. A study found that on TV, 1 in 10 fictional couples who have sex have just met. In movies the percentage must be a lot higher. Even other animals generally have elaborate courting rituals. If asked point blank about the reality of such depictions, most intelligent kids would probably say they know it isn't like that in real life. But the constant bombardment of such images and scenarios must leave an impression. And kids are starting to think that casual sex is an early and expected part of dating, as opposed to something that is the consummation of a relationship built up carefully with the patient demonstration of understanding, faithfulness and committed love. Why eat your fruits and vegetables first when you can just have dessert right away? Why eat a meal at all when you can try living on pop tarts?

There are also the unreal expectations created. Wouldn't we all like it if our spouses looked a bit more like Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt? Wouldn't we want our every intimate encounter to register high on the Richter Scale? The impossible standards set and repeated constantly in the media can breed a certain dissatisfaction with the real world.

The existence of cybersex is convincing proof that fantasy is one of the strongest elements of lust. People share a mutual fantasy while connected by nothing more substantial than electrons and touching nothing more sensual than a mouse. Here we have a simulacrum of sex that can be disassociated from sight, sound, smell, taste or touch--unless you count touch typing. I saw a BBC documentary on people addicted to cybersex and it struck me that what hooked them was the fact that all the inconvenient elements of a real relationship were dispensed with. One needn't bathe, dress up, decide on a mutually desirable activity, movie or restaurant, show interest in the other person's life or do anything other than get to the imaginary sex. Ours is an impatient and narcissistic culture. If they created a computer program to play the part of the other person, cybersex between real people would probably wither away. They are probably working on a video game version using Wii or Kennect technology even as we speak.

It is telling that the fastest way to deflate lust is to make it face the real world. If most sexual encounters were depicted realistically in films, TV and books, complete with fumbling with clothing, accidental hair pulling, and that sudden realization that you really should have gone to the bathroom first, they would come across as comic at best and as anti-erotic at the worst. Lust is a hot house plant that can't survive too much reality.

The antidote to lust is to look past appearances, however pleasing, and try to see the person whom God created in his image and for whom Christ died. If you can see his love, gentleness, patience and faithfulness in that person; if you catch a glimpse of his glory, a glint of his grace, it will be harder to reduce that person to a collection of body parts. The reason you didn't fall for someone who looks more like Angelina or Brad, one hopes, is that you saw and were attracted to the inner person. Sure, physical attraction might have kicked things off but only a fool keeps going out with a good-looking jerk. That's one of the good side effects of the church's emphasis on how serious marriage is: that it is "not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God." It sometimes wakes people up to the fact that the decision to make a relationship permanent will forever change their lives. It will bind them to the reality of who they are, who they are marrying and the fact that selfish fantasy must give way to the real and sometimes messy pleasures that can only be found and shared with another person. As sad as it is for the person left at the altar, when that happens it is a merciful near miss with misery. Better that the other person cut and run before your lives are inextricably intertwined than afterward.

And the vows that brides and grooms make come not from some killjoy church but spring from their own hearts. We just put the words in their Sunday best, so to speak. When you are in love with someone, you sincerely wish to stay with that person forever. You resolve to stick with that person regardless of the circumstances. You might even imagine yourself suffering nobly on their behalf. At least when you're young. As a home health nurse, I see a lot of older people who find themselves in a situation where they really are faced with sticking with a spouse in sickness rather than in health, for poorer rather than for richer…and I am amazed and pleased to see how often they rise to the occasion. They sacrifice their pleasures, their sleep, their privacy, their dignity and their illusion of self-sufficiency to care for a lover who may not be able to appreciate their efforts or reciprocate their affection. That is true love.

The obvious opposite of lust is not chastity but love. Lust is surface; love is depth. Lust is illusion; love is reality. Lust is temporary; love is eternal. True, Jesus says that in the afterlife we will not marry but that doesn't necessarily mean something less than the intimacy we have with our mate. Perhaps it means something more. After all, as the poets remind us, sex is the closest approximation in the physical realm to religious ecstasy. The Bible uses the image of married love as an analogy to our relationship to God. We are to treat our spouses as we would Christ and to act as sacrificially towards them as he did to the church. Our lives together are meant to be a mirror and a channel of God's love. That is why marriage is a sacrament: an outward and visible sign of and inner and spiritual grace. In heaven what is invisible will be visible. So the form of the sacrament will not be needed. The reality will be revealed. Our bodies will be transfigured. Why shouldn't the intimacy and love we have spent our lives building be likewise purged of their sins and imperfections and transformed into something stronger, purer and even more exciting? For if God created something as wonderful as sex for these merely physical bodies, what raptures await us when we transcend this limited realm of time and space and experience the undiluted beauty of his love?

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Lord's Prayer (Maori version)

I was a lay member of our parish before being called to serve as its priest. My successor, on her Sabbatical, went to Iona, the island where St. Columba set up his base for evangelizing the Scots. She brought back a Celtic Eucharist service that included prayers from a number of sources. We still use this Iona Liturgy on the first Sunday of the month. One of my favorite features is this version of the Lord's Prayer from the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer. It really makes you think when you see something familiar through the eyes of another culture.

Eternal Spirit,
Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,
Source of all that is and that shall be,
Father and Mother of us all,
Loving God, in whom is heaven:

The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!
The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world!
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!
Your commonwealth of peace and freedom
sustain our hope and come on earth.

With the bread we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and testing, strengthen us.
From trials too great to endure, spare us.
From the grip of all that is evil, free us.

For you reign in the glory of the power that is love,
now and for ever. Amen.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The 7 Deadly Sins: Gluttony

The warm-hearted or fleshly sins can be viewed as weaknesses. Rage, lust and gluttony can be seen as a lack of self-control. Viewed that way, we might excuse them. After all, everyone has his weak moments. But while sometimes our lower nature may seem to blindside us, it is also true that sometimes we knowingly expose ourselves to situations bound to tempt us. And conversely, we often have more self-control than we admit to ourselves. The man who doesn't hesitate to scream at his wife and kids will somehow be able to restrain himself around his maddening boss. The woman who can't pass up dessert will go on a crash diet to be maid of honor at her sister's wedding. The 2 teenagers overcome by hormones will break off any sexual activity in a second should they hear a parent's approaching footsteps.

Society goes out of its way to encourage some sins. We'll deal with lust next week. But our focus this week, gluttony, seems to be one of the main engines of our economy. For instance, McDonalds has single-handedly changed the world's agriculture. Before World War 2 the most frequently eaten meat was pork. Now it's beef. Slaughterhouses used to be regional affairs. Your burger came from one cow. Now abattoirs are huge industrial-sized places and your ground beef is usually a blend of several cows to make the meat tastier. No wonder those Mad Cow and Hoof and Mouth Disease outbreaks made the Golden Arches blanch. More farmers now raise potatoes, once considered a poor man's food, for all those French fries. The same agricultural re-prioritizing happened when coffee was introduced to the West and there was a proliferation of coffeehouses. Many poor countries even today devote an inordinate amount of agrarian land to raising cash crops, like coffee or chocolate, for export while their countrymen starve. Still the sin of gluttony is not limited to food; it's about the overindulgence of any appetite. Even that for a healthy body.

Our bodies are built to survive brief periods of famine. On the plains of Africa, and during the harsh Northern winters, a person never knew when he would get his next big meal. So we acquired the ability to store fat. Now that food is abundant, this survival feature is killing us. That, combined with our increasing use of labor-saving devices and screens that keep us immobile, has led us to the point where the majority of Americans are overweight. So now we take the leisure time gained by having machines do the hard work and use it to work out...on machines. We take the elevator to the gym where we get on a machine that simulates stair climbing! We no longer have to lift heavy things for a living so we buy heavy weights to lift…for fun? Our cars get us home from work faster so we have time to run several miles.

As bizarre as this sounds, it is better to exercise than not. But now we have people who feel if a little exercise is good, a whole lot more is a whole lot better. So they fill every available minute with exercise. Not content to add some tone to their muscles, they sculpt their bodies until they look more grotesque than comic book superheroes. Some women even cease to resemble their sex as they eliminate all fat and exaggerate every muscle group. Other women run until they cease to menstruate. During her heyday, Martina Navratilova only had a period every 5 months or so. This ability probably goes back to our years as hunter/gatherers. Back then, if you were running 15 miles a day, everyday, something very hungry and/or persistent must be chasing you. That is no time to be having a baby, so nature shuts down reproduction. This also happen when one is starving. Anorexia is a brain disorder that has unfortunately gotten quite a boost from a society that encourages women to become excessively thin.

But gluttony doesn't necessarily have to do with the body. Our culture encourages us to overdo all consumption. The average household has 6 radios, and a TV for every member of the family. People in America, Northern and Western Europe making more than $12,000 a year have on average more than 1 cellphone per person and more than 60 computers per 100 people. We are fast on our way to everyone having his own website. Some people are getting Facebook pages for their newborn children's future use.

Another thing that we consume constantly is entertainment. We spend an awful lot of time keeping ourselves amused--movies, sitcoms, soap operas, reality shows, video games, You Tube videos, shock jocks on the radio, music, sports, mystery books, romance novels, horror stories, even political news that is becoming more like entertainment daily. We listen to the radio or our I-pods in the shower, in the car, at work if possible. What's the first thing many of us do when we get home? Turn on the TV! And it's often one of the last things we turn off before bed, though today that may be the computer. We can even access the internet on our phones. We read magazines on entertainment, watch TV shows about entertainment, and visit websites about entertainment. We can't get enough.

I am not arguing that God is a dour and pleasure-hating deity. He created a delightful world that he expects us to enjoy. He endowed us with creativity so we could imitate him in devising new delights. But he doesn't want us spending all of our time indulging ourselves anymore than a parent wishes that his child spends all of his days in front of the TV or the monitor, eating snack foods. And for much the same reasons. It broadens your body and narrows you as a person.

Gluttony is about having too much but usually of just one thing. The glutton's world shrinks to a single obsession: food, science fiction, sports, exercise, music or sex. (This impinges a little onto the sin of lust but sins do tend to cluster and overlap. And lust is not really excess. But more on that next week.)

One can even become a glutton of religion. You know what I mean: the person who turns every discussion into a specifically religious one. His or her speech is heavy with religious words. He quotes Bible verses, but sometimes they have been wrenched out of their original context and stretched or twisted to fit the topic at hand. He lives in a different world, not the way one feels a saint would but in the way of someone who's a vampire or Star Trek or World of Warcraft fanatic. In fact, fanatic is a sometimes a good synonym for glutton.

Like a fanatic, a glutton's soul, far from being an expansive one, is really a shriveled thing. His interests are few and his scope of enjoyment radically diminished. Even that which he loves tends to pale over time as quantity reduces quality. He finds himself consuming more but enjoying it less, like the little boy who decides to eat all of his Halloween candy in one night. But the boy will usually get full or sick and stop. The glutton tries to outpace the Law of Diminishing Returns through greater consumption. How does someone end up this way?

Often gluttony begins when we find something that we really enjoy. We dive in but instead of merely adding this pleasure to out repertory, we slowly let it take over our lives. Eventually it can become an addiction, something we persist in despite escalating negative consequences. But how does this bad habit become a sin and a deadly one at that? The way any sin does…by displacing God.

We were created by God to love him and enjoy him forever. But sometimes we love the creations rather than the creator. When we do that we cut ourselves from the real source of our pleasure. Gluttony is a desperate denial of this fact, a dire form of idolatry, in which the worshiper tries to squeeze ever greater gratification from his golden calf.

While gluttony can't really wring more satisfaction from something than there is to be had, it can dull us to the Spirit's invitation to real joy. It can divert us from seeking the source of all delights. It can exhaust our spirits and convince us that, having experienced so much of the world's pleasures, that there is nothing beyond them. Gluttony can lead us to sloth and thence to despair.

The way to stop gluttony is to regain one's sense of proportion. And the best way is to put God back in his proper place in our lives, that is to say, at the center. This is not to say we must become fanatics--people so heavenly-minded that we are of no earthly use. Unlike the religious glutton, we are not to ram God down people's throat or artificially impose God on every situation. Rather we are to see all things in their proper relation to God. It's a subtle difference but a real one. Gluttony knows no subtlety.

A bicycle won't get us where we need to go unless the hub is at the center of the wheel and all the spokes are connected, straight and properly spaced. In the same way, we won't make much progress in our spiritual journey unless God is in the center of our lives and everything else is in proper relationship to him and to each other. When they start to get bent out of shape, come loose or go missing, our lives become unbalanced.

One virtue that helps us against gluttony is generosity. We in the United States are only 6% of the world's population but we consume 80% of its products. We are a gluttonous culture. The world's resources are not infinite, so we must learn to share and even be sacrificial in our giving. Pass up the super-sized Quarter Pounder meal and give the money to Food for the Poor. Ride your bike to work and give the gas money to your favorite environmental cause. Turn of the boob tube, log off the internet and read to your kids or play a game or go for a walk.

Another virtue that helps us stay balanced is moderation. It's not an exciting virtue but it is important to our spiritual equilibrium. We need that sense of when we've had enough--of pleasure or of pain. Because there really are people who are gluttons for punishment. Wallowing in guilt or self-pity can warp our relationship with God, too. That's why, for instance, in the very middle of Lent, we have Laetare Sunday, when we rejoice and relax our penitential observances.

A good analogy is dieting. Doctors and nutritionists tell us that to lose weight we must not only cut down on our calories but increase our exercise. We must balance the negative with the positive. And to keep it off we must change our habits and attitudes towards food. We must stop focusing on food and put it in proper place within the whole spectrum of a healthy life. Only a total change of mind will do.

And so it is with our spiritual life. To repent means to change one's mind. For some of us that means turning our back on our obsession like an addict who must give up the substance that enslaves him. For others it might mean simply reducing the object of our gluttony to its rightful size and place. Either way we cannot accomplish this without the help of God's cleansing and guiding Spirit. Whichever path is correct for us, we will find ourselves coming out of the narrow rut of obsession and into a wider appreciation of God's creation and his inexhaustible supply of redeeming love.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Least Popular Commandments: No Other Gods

If you wish to be a polygamist, don't try to justify it by referring to its existence in the Bible. Yes, it was practiced by the patriarchs, most notably by Jacob who had 4 wives. And it is always portrayed as a recipe for an domestic strife and unhappiness, most notably that of Jacob's household, though we can throw in Abraham, David, Solomon, and Elkanah, the father of Samuel. It's true today. Women who escape from the polygamous marriages of Mormon Fundamentalists tell of jealousy and vicious inter-family politics between the sister wives. Muslim women from Saudi Arabia have written of how upset they feel when their husbands announce they wish to take another wife. And just to show that this isn't a problem merely for multiple wives, a recent documentary "Three of Hearts" follows the marriage of 2 men and 1 woman which seems idyllic for more than a decade until the female partner becomes pregnant. First one man leaves and then the relationship between the remaining man and woman falls apart. There's a reason why, though polygamy (and polyandry) exist, monogamy is the norm, especially wherever women are liberated.

This is the first in our series on the least popular commandments in the Bible. But we're not talking about marriage, at least not directly. We'll do that in 2 weeks. Instead, we are dealing with the first of the Ten Commandments: "I am Yahweh, your God, who has brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery; there will not be any other gods for you besides me." This is the beginning of the covenant between God and his people. It is in the form of the suzerain/vassal covenant of the time and culture. An emperor would present this covenant to the kings who were his vassals, setting out what he would do for them and what their duty was to him. It was binding, like marriage. And marriage was a frequent metaphor used for God's relationship with his people.

If you read the Old Testament you may notice something odd. Though the culture was one that tolerated polygamy--for those wealthy enough to afford it, of course--and one where arranged marriages were the rule rather than the exception, the key marriages are usually love matches. At least one scholar has suggested the author of Genesis, or parts of it, was a woman. Yet it is normally the man (Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, etc) who sees and falls for the woman. It is the same in the marriage metaphor of God and his people. God sees and falls in love with Israel. The prophets tell it as a love story. Israel's spiritual unfaithfulness is depicted as adultery. But God is determined to win her back. The New Testament transfers the metaphor to Christ and his church. And in the Book of Revelation, the whole story of the Bible ends in the marriage of the Lamb, of Christ to his bride. The whole Bible can be seen as the love story of God and humanity.

Now you might see why I started with polygamy. It doesn't work well in human relationships or in our relationship with God. When God says in his covenant that we are not to have other gods besides him, it is like the wedding vow in which one forsakes all others and cleaves to one's spouse. Loving God is an exclusive relationship.

So why is the idea that we must stick with one God seen as a problem today? Because, to be blunt, we are a commitment-phobic culture. We don't like closing our options. We don't even want restrictive cellphone contracts. And we have gone from admitting that some sex does occur outside of marriage to that largely being the norm. For undeniable proof, there is the fact that 40% of all children born in the U.S. are born outside marriage, 60% of those to women in their 20s. Nor is it just our country: 66% of children born in Iceland are born to unwed mothers; in Sweden it's 55%. In France, Scotland, Wales, Slovenia, and Bulgaria, more than half of all children are born to unmarried women, whereas in Austria, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Denmark and parts of England it's more than half of first births. It's an epidemic in the rich, industrialized West, where, incidentally, birth control of all types is readily available. The best explanation is that we want love with all the pleasure but none of the commitment. Small wonder that attitude extends to God.

We want God's love, without any commitment on our part to love him faithfully. We want the security he offers, without any attempt on our part to act safely. We wants his forgiveness, without the need on our part to repent. We want what God has to give without being married to him; we want to be friends with benefits--with God!

You might say, "Come on, we don't live in a polytheistic world anymore. It's not like we're trying to create a pantheon with Jesus, Thor and Zeus." Well, there was that Episcopal priest who was in the news for saying she could be a good Muslim as well. I doubt many Muslims would agree. And certainly one of the objections to our God's stance is the idea that believers in other faiths would be left out. That's rather like saying the Democratic party is unfair for not accepting the major tenets of the Republican party. Or vice versa. Both parties may want the best for the country but each has somewhat different conceptions of what that would be and how to get there. It doesn't mean people from different political parties--or religions--cannot be friends or cannot act civilly towards each other or cannot work together for the common good. But rather than asking each group to adopt the other's beliefs, it makes more sense that if someone in either group believes the other has the answers, he should switch.

I believe it was theologian Paul Tillich who said God is a matter of ultimate concern. Defined this way, one can see that, rather than another deity, a more likely rival for God is anything we have elevated to the status of Most Important Thing in our life. It could be anything, any cause, any value, any activity, any treasured possession, or any political position. In Germany in the 1930s and 40s, it was the Nazi Party. Many churches, Roman Catholic and Protestant, were willing to toe the party line. Those that recognized this ideology to be incompatible with Christianity became known as the Confessing Church and many of its leaders, like Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoffer, opposed the symbolic seating of Hitler on the right hand of God.

That kind of idolatry is easy to spot. It's harder to see when Christian truth is mixed with politics or wedded to a cause. C.S. Lewis called it "Christianity and…" Modern examples are "Christianity and Capitalism," "Christianity and being Prolife," "Christianity and Feminism," "Christianity and Democracy," etc. People may see a certain cause as consistent with Christianity, but eventually elevate it to a position of being almost equal importance.

It can be a good cause. That's not the point. The problem is it can take over the central place in your faith. Lewis said beware of getting to the point when your support of the cause is no longer rooted in your relationship with Christ, but your support of Christianity is dependent on its compatibility with your pet cause. In other words, if you feel one cannot possibly (or absolutely must) be a Christian and a conservative, or a Christian and a socialist, or a Christian and pro-choice or a Christian and an environmentalist or a Christian and member of the Democratic, Republican or Tea parties, you have let your cause become as important or more so than God.

As a preacher, I have gotten into more trouble by revealing the startling fact that Christians can hold different points of view on contemporary hot button issues than any thing else I've said. Certain people cannot even tolerate the idea that other Christians might think differently than they and that they may some good points. Our tendency is to feel that a good idea is good all through and a bad idea is wrong at every point. If you can't love Christians who think differently than you, you have to ask yourself if you love people or you just love their agreeing with you.

This is not to say that Christians don't hold self-contradictory positions on small or even important issues. It's a matter of whether the issue is essential. As we said, the Nazi doctrine, with its racism, anti-Semitism, its denial of the value of people who were mentally ill, physically disabled, or simply non-Arian, ran completely contrary to the central truth that we worship the God of love as revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah and we serve him by loving God and loving all those created in his image, including those we perceive as enemies.

And then there are the idolatries of which we are unconscious, the choices that reveal what we really worship besides God. On what do we spend the majority of our energy, time or money after we have taken care of our job and the basics of life? Do we spend most of it entertaining ourselves, enhancing our looks, acquiring things, over-indulging our appetites, burying ourselves in hobbies, mindlessly playing games, surfing the net, watching TV? I'm not talking about needed recreation or time spent enjoying things with loved ones. I'm talking about trivial things taking over our time, talent and treasure with little of lasting worth to show for it. God asks for one day devoted to him. Most of us begrudge him an hour, saying we are too busy. But with what? When you are honest with yourself, do you goof off more than you glorify God?

Some of these activities can in fact become ways to serve God. There are motorcyclists who not only share their hobby but the gospel with other enthusiasts. There are people who through their athletics, visual or performing arts, use of specialized knowledge, or other activities minister to others, or convert them into personal prayers or praise for the creator who gave them these gifts. The medieval church used to employ people with all sorts of talents to glorify God. In medieval mystery plays, guilds would use their skills to tell Bible stories which linked together told the one great story of God's redemption of the world. The Tailor's Guild might perform the story of Joseph and his coat of many colors while the Bakers might do the Harrowing of Hell. Christians coming together, each making his or her own contribution to making manifest the whole gospel, is one way in which we can collectively mirror the image of the God who is so profligate with his gifts. In fact, one way not to worship things other than God is to remember that they should never be seen as ends in themselves. We are to give as we have been given, generously. So if, for instance, your talent lies in promoting causes or politics, do so, but always asking yourself if you are doing this to help only yourself or your friends or the least of Jesus' brothers and sisters and thus are doing it to Christ.

Ultimately we tend to worship what we most desire and wish to have. Charles Williams pointed out that we are to not covet anything that belongs to another. And everything belongs to God. So the only thing left to covet is God himself. And if he is our chief desire and pleasing him our chief pleasure, there will be no room in our hearts and lives for other gods.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

St. Patrick's Breastplate

Also called the "Lorica" or "The Deer's Cry," this prayer is attributed to St. Patrick, the apostle to Ireland. Probably Welsh and of Roman descent, he was kidnapped as a youth by Irish pirates and sold into slavery. Eventually he escaped and returned home. He was ordained and was called to return to the land of his captivity to bring the gospel to the Irish. This version was done by Fanny Alexander and is one of the my favorite hymns.

I bind unto myself today
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The Three in One and One in Three.

I bind this day to me for ever.
By power of faith, Christ's incarnation;
His baptism in the Jordan river;
His death on Cross for my salvation;
His bursting from the spicèd tomb;
His riding up the heavenly way;
His coming at the day of doom;
I bind unto myself today.

I bind unto myself the power
Of the great love of the cherubim;
The sweet 'well done' in judgment hour,
The service of the seraphim,
Confessors' faith, Apostles' word,
The Patriarchs' prayers, the Prophets' scrolls,
All good deeds done unto the Lord,
And purity of virgin souls.

I bind unto myself today
The virtues of the starlit heaven,
The glorious sun's life-giving ray,
The whiteness of the moon at even,
The flashing of the lightning free,
The whirling wind's tempestuous shocks,
The stable earth, the deep salt sea,
Around the old eternal rocks.

I bind unto myself today
The power of God to hold and lead,
His eye to watch, His might to stay,
His ear to hearken to my need.
The wisdom of my God to teach,
His hand to guide, His shield to ward,
The word of God to give me speech,
His heavenly host to be my guard.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity;
By invocation of the same.
The Three in One, and One in Three,
Of Whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

7 Deadly Sins: Wrath

Dorothy L. Sayers, the mystery novelist and lay theologian, separates the 7 Deadly Sins into 2 categories: the warm-heated ones and the cold-hearted ones. The warm-hearted sins are the emotional, fleshy ones, like lust. The cold-hearted sins are the intellectual or spiritual ones, like pride. The cold-hearted sins are considered the worst. But it's the warm-hearted sins that are more easily recognized and they tend to do the most obvious damage. Today we're going to look at the warmest or, shall we say, most hotheaded of them: wrath or rage.

Anger is not always a bad thing. God gets angry; Jesus gets angry; Paul gets angry. But they tend to get angry at sin, callousness, and injustice. That kind of anger can lead people to reform society and create missions of compassion, provided one follows the dictum of William Arthur Ward: "It is wise to direct your anger towards problems--not people, to focus your energies on answers, not excuses." Still we must be careful comparing ourselves to God and Jesus. Moral indignation in mortals has often been the pretext of some horrendous atrocities, like the Inquisition and the Crusades. Nothing feels better than having God's permission to hate and hurt. But, of course, we don't have his permission. Anger can be so destructive that we know we need some justification to act on it. If not God, then we blame it on the victim. When the abusive spouse apologizes to his battered victim, he usually says something like, "I sorry I did that. If you just hadn't done what you did…" We can't seem to admit that the awful rage is a part of us.

We know rage is evil. It is indiscriminate, it is excessive and it often destroys what it purports to be protecting. And yet we celebrate it in our heroes. We secretly can't wait for the point in the movie when the hero looks at the pitiful body of his partner, whom the villain killed just a week before he was due to retire, and says through gritted teeth, "Now it's personal!" Oh, boy! Now the bad guy is going to get his butt kicked but good! And we push away that nagging feeling that we could do the same thing. We don't want to admit that deep down we, too, have a well of bloodlust.

Where does this come from? Back when we lived as hunters and gatherers, anger was an important survival tool. When faced with a threat, our bodies are flooded with adrenaline. This gives us the energy for flight or to fight. It enabled our ancestors to fight off a charging beast or a marauding tribe, intent on stealing their food or women. But as humanity settled into villages and cities, extreme behavior threatened the peace. Before the monarchy and a unified justice system, ancient Israel designated 6 of its cities as places to which those who committed unintentional manslaughter could flee from the avenging kin of their victims. This gave the town elders time to judge whether the death in question was murder or accident.

Still anger was condoned if it were directed at one's enemies as in war. Parts of the Old Testament sound very bloodthirsty. Much of this is due to the fact that Israel was situated at a major crossroads between Arabia, Asia, Asia Minor and Africa, surrounded by larger rival nations and aggressive empires. There was no United Nations to intervene and Israel was fighting for its survival. Still, we see a change taking place over the centuries. In the story of Jonah, the prophet is pursued by God until he preaches to the wicked town of Ninevah, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, which eventually destroyed the northern kingdom and took its ten tribes into an exile from which they never returned. Jonah is depicted as much more angry than God, who offers even to those who anger him forgiveness if they repent. In the New Testament Jesus even asks God to forgive those who had just nailed him to the cross.

Paul could get quite hot in his disputes with those who would distort the gospel. Yet he tells us not to repay evil with evil or to take revenge. He tells the Colossians to rid themselves of things such as anger, rage and malice. And he gives the Ephesians this wise advice: "In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry and do not give the devil a foothold." In other words, anger isn't necessarily a sin but nursing it is. Toddlers will get angry at one another and soon will be playing together as if nothing happened. Anger slips into sin when it is prolonged unnaturally, when we stoke the flames of anger until it is a consuming fire. Then we cross over from displeasure to despising, from irritation to loathing, from anger to hatred. Oddly enough when wrath becomes hatred, it can go from hot to cold. And like water vapor turned to ice, cold fury can be hard and unyielding. Once you separate anger from the haze of passion that clouds thinking, you can hone it into a very precise weapon. Some of anger's worst damage is done with a cool head and malice aforethought.

So how do we as Christians deal with anger? First by recognizing that anger is normal. We usually get angry when we feel threatened or frustrated. So in calmer moments it might help to analyze what situations tend to make us angry and why. Does the way your parents treat you threaten your sense of your own maturity? Does your boss frustrate your desire to do a good job? Does your spouse attack your self-esteem? And do they do these things with intent or inadvertently? Are you inordinately sensitive on certain issues and prone to overact to innocent remarks or actions? Anger is like a watchdog. It will bark at real threats, like a burglar. But it also barks at squirrels.

If your anger is justified, the thing to do is not to act when you're angry. Later, after you've sorted out your feelings, find a time when you and the object of your anger can sit down and talk. Explain how the other person's actions make you feel. Don't deny your anger but try to see the situation from your adversary's point of view. And be ready to forgive.

Don't give up. It may take several or ongoing talks to clear things up. If your adversary cannot or will not change, change your strategy. Avoid the situations that make you mad if possible. Or change your job, roommate, etc. In case of real harm, see an attorney. But always remember that as Christians we are given the ministry of reconciliation. We are to be peacemakers. We are to turn the other cheek, go the second mile. In Egypt, Muslims and Coptic Christians are trying hard not to let their relatively peaceful revolution deteriorate into sectarian violence. We just may see what will happen when people who would normally be enemies are more interested in peace than in trying to settle old scores.

If upon reflection you realize the problem is just your temper, get help. Perhaps there are issues in your past that have made you hyper-vigilant. People don't generally seek to injure others, even with words, unless they feel that they have suffered injury at the hands of others. There are anger management techniques that can be learned and used. Getting psychological help is no more a betrayal of faith than getting medical treatment for a physical problem. An explosive temper may not eat away at the soul in the same way nursing a grudge does but it can destroy relationships, careers and lives.

In any case, we have access to additional help: the peace of God. Much of the dissonance in our life comes from being out of harmony with God. When we come to God, confess our sins, and accept his forgiveness, we know the peace of being reconciled with our creator. When we turn our lives over to him, we know the peace of having our lives brought into harmony with his purpose for us. And as our relationship with God is put right, our relationship with our siblings in Christ should be put right, resulting in peace.

When we unite with God, we are united with his Spirit. And as Paul says, the fruit that the Spirit produces in us include peace, patience, gentleness and self-control. These are the virtues we need to combat anger. Patience counteracts the anger that comes from expecting our demands be fulfilled immediately, in accordance with our impatient culture. Gentleness restrains us from trying to force things and people to our will and the frustration that inevitably results. It makes us think of the other person's feelings rather than our own desires. Self-control is one of the Spirit's more paradoxical gifts. The more we surrender our life to God's control, the more able we find ourselves to control our actions. His will becomes ours because we live in him and he is us.

And finally we find peace in him because with God on our side we need not fear any threat. As it says in Paul's letter to the Romans, "If God is for us, who can be against us?…Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor death, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord." In that deep security there is peace for the most troubled soul.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The 7 Deadly Sins: Sloth

This is a revision of the first sermon series I ever preached, 10 years ago to the month. I had just been installed as the first Licensed Lay Preacher in the Diocese of Southeast Florida. You can't footnote sermons when you preach them but I do know this got its inspiration from Dorothy L. Sayers' essay "The Other Six Deadly Sins." This installment owes a debt to James Bond creator Ian Fleming's essay on the sin of Sloth, especially its manifestation as ennui.

In the Ash Wednesday service we are invited to observe a holy Lent "by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word." Today Lent has eroded to simply giving up something trivial like sweets for 40 days. Occasionally we may give up something truly sacrificial--like TV or car travel. But will this result in spiritual improvement or are we just making things inconvenient for ourselves? It depends on how personal the denial is and what positive trait we are substituting for it. But if we really want to build spiritual muscle we must wrestle with our innermost flaws. And it starts with self-examination.

Medically, self-examination for breast or testicular lumps can be a life-saver. And the Heart Association is trying to make the symptoms of stroke, or as they prefer to call it now, brain attack, just as well known as those of heart attack. Mental health officials are publicizing the signs of clinical depression. I made myself a mnemonic list of symptoms that indicate a nursing home patient (or any person) should be sent to the ER: Bleeding, Blue, Blacked Out or Broken Bone. For centuries the church has had a list of major spiritual maladies for which one can check one's soul. But most people have forgotten the list except for its title: the 7 Deadly Sins. So here they are: pride, envy, covetousness, sloth, gluttony anger, and, of course, lust.

This is not a list you will find in this exact form in the Bible, although each of the sins do pop up alone or in clusters. And there are other sins that Jesus, Paul and other Biblical authors mention that are not in this list. So what makes these sins the deadly ones? They are not so much actions as attitudes and so are the roots of most other sins. We can illustrate this through an examination of this sermon's featured sin: sloth.

Fighting sloth is not easy today. Our world is filed with labor-saving devices that increase our leisure and thus our time for idleness. We drive even if we are only traveling a few blocks. We will sit in long lines at the drive-thru rather than parking and walking into a bank or restaurant. We are so addicted to the remote that if we can't find it, we will tear up a room looking for it rather than walk over to the TV. And they even have recliners which contain a small refrigerator so that we don't have to get up to get something to eat or drink. Our culture practically encourages sloth.

But while sloth makes us do absurd things, it does not immediately come to mind when one thinks of a truly terrible sin. Laziness is deadly? Well, yes, if you're the guy who's supposed to watch the gauges or do the maintenance at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. Or if you wish to avoid heart disease. But primarily these 7 sins are deadly to the soul. Let's see how sloth does the job.

You could call sloth a gateway sin. One of its worst effects is that it leads to other sins. People can drift into sins like lust or violence or covetousness through sheer boredom and aparent lack of anything to do. This is what's often behind mindless misdeeds of youth: vandalism, casual sex, drug experimentation, random violence. It's not the only cause, but too much leisure and too little direction certainly contributes to the kind of otherwise inexplicable actions of otherwise decent kids. A study has shown that the more unstructured and unsupervised time a child has the more likely he is to get into trouble. This is hardly a new revelation. I remember an old saying that began "Idle hands…"

Adults, too, are susceptible to the subsidiary sins of sloth. Some midlife crises might simply be a reaction to the letdown of having achieved your goals and finding your life strangely empty. Having nothing else to work towards, you might furiously throw yourself into a frenzied show of enjoying the fruits of your labor: a new car, a new boat, a new house, rounds of parties, expensive vacations, expensive new hobbies, expensive new spouses. Eventually all but the most non-self-reflective person realizes that such things can fill your time and your home but they cannot fill your soul. And that's when sloth can become ennui--"been there, done that." Life loses its flavor and appeal, you cease to care and can become careless in the worst sense. I think one can see this in the lives of certain celebrities, like Elvis. Sloth led him to gluttony, an out-of-control consumption of food, drugs and women, and he carelessly lost his life amidst the clutter and chaos of his extravagant existence. Elegant actor George Sanders said in his suicide note that he killed himself out of boredom. However, I don't think it was simple boredom but sloth in its most malignant form: despair.

When ennui develops into despair, sloth really turns deadly. Once one realizes that things cannot bring more life into one's existence, that things are essentially dead, one can lose hope of finding goodness and meaning. Faced with a tasteless, grey and grating existence, death ceases to terrify. It becomes the end to the pain of despair. And despair is a very great sin because it is the opposite of one of the cardinal virtues: hope.

Now when I am talking of despair, I'm not talking of clinical depression. Depression is a disease of brain that manifest itself in black moods and even the inability to feel any emotion. Depression can be treated with medications and therapy. The despair I'm talking about is the philosophical and theological view that says existence is without value. Of course, such a stance can be depressing when one really lets the implications sink in. If more atheists followed their premise to its logical conclusion, they would find themselves in cosmic despair. They may put a brave face on their philosophy and say that without a God one can give things one's own values and create one's own meaning to one's life. And one can. But such meaning and values are all subjective and they won't last beyond one's life. It's like a condemned prisoner drawing a pretty landscape in chalk on the walls of his cell and giving the cockroaches pet names. It doesn't change the reality of his situation. And according to atheism, we are prisoners of a cold, impersonal universe, that is indifferent to our fate and which admits no hope for ultimate justice or an afterlife. At the end of the last mile is either oblivion or a new life and that makes all the difference.

Despair is a sin because it is a rejection of the world that God made. It contradicts his verdict that what he created was "very good." It is a refusal of all the gifts God has presented to us. The antidote is hope. Hope has been called the future tense of faith. It is trusting that the future is not necessarily determined by the past. It is the belief in possibilities just as despair is the belief that all doors are shut. And again, I am not talking of hope as a feeling but as a deliberately adopted attitude towards life, grounded in God's love and goodness. It must be cultivated and nourished through prayer, scripture reading, Christian fellowship and acts of love. And hope is a renewable virtue. Living in hope breeds more hope.

There is another virtue that helps us fight our sloth in its early stages. It is diligence. This is not to be confused with busyness. Many people think that they are immune to sloth because they are so busy. But it is not the amount of activity that counts but the kind of activity and how you are doing it. As Paul writes to the Colossians, "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men…" Diligence is doing a job the way it should be done, with care and attention. It is not only satisfying, it is a good Christian witness in a world where workers are becoming more and more indifferent to the products of their labor and their performance is becoming more and more shoddy.

One area in which we increasingly need to practice diligence is thinking. Every day you hear politicians on all sides eschew hard thinking and simply parrot the talking points their party provides them, regardless of whether they contradict themselves or oversimplify reality. Vocal Christians often do the same, seldom checking what scripture actually does and does not say, or looking at church history or historical theology. Scientists with an agenda will do a study or experiment and then go well beyond the results or current facts to speculate on the reasons why things are as they seem to be. Experts in one field will make pronouncements on a field in which their knowledge is superficial at best and erroneous at worst. No one seems to understand the difference between paradox and actual contradiction; no one notices nuance; no one does research or critical analysis. Some of this is motivated by ideology but a lot of this is mental sloth.

An especially good way of fighting sloth is to practice diligence in the disciplines mentioned in the Book of Common Prayer: prayer and reading and meditating on God's Word. I daresay most of us could use a more regular devotional life. Put aside some time each day. If your mornings and evenings are too hectic, use lunchtime. Use the short devotional forms following page 136 of the Prayer Book. Read the scriptures assigned for the Daily Office in the back of the Prayer Book. Clip out the prayer list from the church bulletin and take it with you during the week. Bring them with you into the bathroom instead of a magazine and use the time to pray. It's not like God doesn't see you in there anyway.

Jesus said, "I come that they might have life and have it in all its abundance." And the best way to fight sloth is to turn your life over to God completely. If you do, you will find your life full of things to do and people to see. You will find challenges for your mind, body and spirit. Your life will be hard at times, scary at others, rewarding, frustrating, exhilarating, dead serious, and hilarious. But I promise you, it will never be boring.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Defaming the Name

Since the re-launch of Doctor Who, the title character has become extremely powerful. In the classic series, the Doctor was merely smarter than his foes. In the new version he has achieved virtual omniscience along with other almost divine mental and physical powers. So it was a nice touch when he took down someone powerful with one sentence. After saving the earth again and making the alien race agree to leave our world alone in the future, the Doctor is outraged when the British prime minister uses a secret weapon to blow the retreating warriors out of the sky. She was his ally but her needlessly aggressive action causes him to threaten to destroy her with 6 words. He goes to an aide and whispers, "Don't you think she looks tired?" This simple doubt about her stamina and ability to continue leading the country goes viral and does her in politically.

Words can be powerful, which is why political parties and companies spend so much time framing issues and characterizing opponents through language. Thus the "estate tax" become a "death tax," "medical savings accounts" become "privatizing social security," "firing lots of employees" becomes "trimming the fat," and a department of people with little or no authority to make any significant change in your account are called "customer service." As Mark Twain said, "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is…the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."

Words can even affect us physically. A recent study showed that if you gave people a powerful painkiller and didn't tell them you had, they received only a little pain relief. If you gave them the painkiller and told them so, their pain was significantly diminished. If you gave them the painkiller but told them it had been withdrawn, they experienced no pain relief at all. What they were told was more effective than the medicine they were given!

The ancients knew the power of words. They knew that spreading gossip and lies could destroy. Just recently, one of the websites I read repeated the lie that silent comedian Fatty Arbuckle killed a young actress by raping her with a Coke bottle. The fact is that she died of infection from a botched abortion. The infection did kick in at a drunken wrap party thrown by Arbuckle. But the story was started afterward by a friend who hadn't even seen the actress collapse. After Arbuckle was charged, the politically ambitious prosecutor realized the actress' friend, his chief witness, was an unreliable one who kept changing her story and so he never called her to testify. But she went on the vaudeville circuit repeating her story. In addition, the Hearst papers picked up the story and spread it far and wide. Though Arbuckle was acquitted and the jury actually apologized to him for his ordeal, his career was ruined and this lie will forever haunt his name.

Our sermon suggestion concerns the way people casually use and misuse God's name. I know that when people in my secular job find out I'm a priest, they frequently apologize for their language, although they use obscenities more often than profanities. And they don't usually know the difference, that obscenities are crude, often sexual words whereas profanities are using the names of God or Jesus inappropriately. Profanity is nothing new. The old English term "zounds" is a contraction of "Christ's wounds" and the word "bloody" refers to the blood of Christ and is still considered an offensive oath in Britain.

In the ancient world, a person's name was more than just a label. A name stood for the person himself, his authority or his character. So swearing to the truth of something using God's name was the equivalent of invoking his authority. Which is why Jesus tells us not to swear to anything but simply let our "yes" or "no" mean exactly that. And it's easy to see how swearing to something by using God's name degenerated to turning his name into an exclamation.

While researching this, I came across an interesting perspective on the third commandment. According to the IVP Bible Background Commentary, the primary focus of this prohibition was not bad language but the use of God's name for magical purposes. Contrary to what you see in the Harry Potter films or books, magic in the real world involves invoking the name of a god or demon. Knowing the real name of such an entity and calling upon it could be used to make them carry out your will. So in the third commandment what God is saying is "don't even try to use my name for magic."

The opposite of magic is prayer. In prayer, one is asking God, not trying to manipulate him. Implied in every prayer is what Jesus said in the Garden of Gethsemane: "Not my will but yours be done." Magic is about making the universe bend to your will; prayer is ultimately about bending your will to God's plan for the restoration of the universe.

Though the primary focus of the third commandment might be prohibiting using God's name in spells and hexes, it is obvious that God would not want his name misused in other ways either. So we should not be using God's name casually, especially as a profane exclamation or adjective. In order not to use the divine name God revealed to Moses, the one erroneously transliterated as Jehovah, Jews took to using the word "Adonai" or "Lord" instead. And this practice is carried on to this day with most translations of the Bible. Anytime you see the word "LORD" all in caps, it was substituted for the covenant name of God.

I cannot help but think that there are other ways in which we misuse God's name: when we use his name for causes or justify methods which contradict what we know of God. For instance, the tiny Westboro Baptist Church recently won a Supreme Court case over their right to protest at the funerals of our servicemen. I'm not going to deal with the question of free speech; I'm not going to talk about their stance on homosexuality. It seems to me that the real questions arise even before one gets to that. In Christianity, the end never justifies the means. So why are they trying to upset the families and friends of our soldiers with offensive messages on an issue that has nothing to do with those involved? What are they trying to accomplish? Are they just after publicity for their tiny church? Are they trying to drive people away from God rather than convert them?

The answer to the last two questions is yes. They are seeking publicity for a church which is primarily made up of Fred Phelps' family. They were going to protest at the funeral of the little girl shot in Tucson until a clever radio station in New York offered them free airtime that conflicted with the time of the funeral. By canceling the protest to take the airtime, they betrayed the naked cynicism of their campaign. And, as an NPR story reveals, they aren't trying to save anyone. According to their spokesperson, "we are supposed to blind their eyes, stop up their ears, and harden their hearts so they cannot see, hear or understand, and be converted and receive salvation." This is not just aimed at gays but at all Americans for their tolerance of homosexuals, whether explicit or implicit. Not only are they misusing a statement Jesus made about parables, they are going against Christ's Great Commission, in which Jesus commands us to go and make disciples in his name. I can't think of another church that practices anti-evangelism. Of course, they do this because they disbelieve other parts of the Bible, such as Ezekiel 33:11, where it says, "As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live." And John 3:16, which says, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life." "You're going to hell!" is not God's good news! For this group to say that they do these things in the name of the God who is Love is an abuse of that name.

The same could be said of the crusades, the inquisition, and the witch trials, all of which contradict Jesus' prohibition of taking up the sword even to protect his person much less his name. We are way too fast to slap God's name on things that go against his explicit commands. And that is a graver abuse of his name than any inadvertent slips of the tongue.

You would not use the name of your mother, or child, or friend in the manner that many people use God's name. And it doesn't matter that it's allowed by our constitution. Morality and legality are not the same thing. And we Christians must remember that having the right of free speech is not saying that all such speech is free from consequences. Just because no one can censor us doesn't meant we should not think before speaking and filter out our baser feelings before opening our mouths. We should acknowledge when we are voicing our own opinions and when we are proclaiming God's word. And never confuse the two.

Words are powerful. They have impact and are therefore important. We must be careful, especially when using God's name. We mustn't use it sloppily, casually, or to justify our prejudices or politics. In fact, if you think you agree with God on everything, you're fooling yourself. No one is that Christ-like. Even the prophets balked at some of God's hard truths. But we must always remember that the purpose of our speech is show forth God's love. And we must match what we say with what we do. Because between sending the wrong message and mixed messages, we are not doing what Jesus told us to do. If we were, less people would be cursing with God's name, and more would be joining us to praise it.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

What, We Worry?

I used to think that it was because I am a bi-vocational priest that the bulk of my sermons are written on Saturday between the time I get off work as a nurse until 2 or 3 in the morning, with a final edit on Sunday from 7 am until I must hurl myself into the shower. It's why I walk into our church at times muttering about how it must be a Satanic conspiracy that the ink in my printer always chooses to start running out on Sunday morning. But it turns out I'm not the only preacher who does this. A friend said she wondered why her preacher/grandfather used to go into his bedroom on Saturday evenings, close the door and yell at himself. And in the era of Facebook, I've gotten ample evidence that sweating out sermons on Saturdays is common. Just this Saturday a colleague posted this question: "If you never worry about tomorrow, will the sermon get done?" Another colleague added: "Yes, by your successor!"

Does Jesus really mean what he says in the Sermon on the Mount when he tells us not to worry about tomorrow? Yes, but notice that Jesus is not saying do not plan for tomorrow or do not prepare for tomorrow. He's just saying not to worry about it. It's a sad commentary on life that we have trouble conceiving of being ready for the future apart from harboring anxiety over it.

Short-term bursts of stress are actually good for you. They help you meet a mental or physical challenge, make yourself stand out at work or in a dating situation, run a race or give birth. A shot or two of good stress is why we read suspense novels, watch scary movies or ride roller coasters. It's chronic stress, unrelieved long-term stress, that leads to anxiety, upset stomach, chest pains, sleep problems, depression, substance abuse and other troubles. And it isn't a modern phenomenon. Jesus' audience lived in an occupied country where society was stratified and static, most people were poor or slaves, life was short, and disease was largely incurable. So they knew what it was to worry.

Jesus counters this by pointing to the good things God gives us and to the fact that worry solves nothing. It won't give you a stitch of clothing, an inch of height or an hour of life. Worry poisons the present over a future that may not come to pass. What we need is not fretting but faith.

But isn't that naïve? We can't live like the birds, can we? Except birds don't lie around waiting for something to fall into their beaks. They always have an eye out for something to eat. What they aren't doing is sitting around worrying that they'll never get another worm or another fish or another berry. They use God's gifts to find their food. And while they're at it, they soar.

In an honor/shame society, such as ancient world, people were acutely aware of what their clothes said about them. They would agree with Mark Twain who said, "Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society." And that goes for the shabbily dressed as well. When Jesus is talking about contentment with one's clothing, he was talking about those were dressed, just not as well as they wished. Again the modern world is not that different.

Jesus says the cure for worry is faith. And by this, he doesn't mean a vague belief that things will somehow turn out well. He means faith in God. When we trust that our loving, just and forgiving God is in charge, we can let go of useless thoughts that only cause us to lose hope and to brood on what we don't have. We can instead think productively of how to make God's reign concrete in our lives whatever our circumstances. And if we pour our energy into that, rather than negative, largely self-fulfilling prophesies, we will find what we really need along the way.

Francis of Assisi was not an organizational genius. When he founded his order, the brothers concentrated on spreading the gospel, not going after funding. Yet in short order, the order grew and became popular and well-funded. This led to real controversies because of Francis' emphasis on poverty. But the point is that, according to worldly wisdom, the order should have floundered; instead, it flourished, not by focusing on money, but by focusing on serving God and preaching the gospel.

Worry does more than ruin the present; it can narrow future options. If our concern over a possible future becomes worry, we may hesitate to take necessary risks and kill perfectly good initiatives. Or if we do make the right choice, worry can weaken our resolve to follow through and do things properly. Scott Adams gets a lot of emails about company decisions even sillier than the ones he makes up for his "Dilbert" comic strip. One person wrote of how his company decided to make the sales force more productive on the road by giving them laptops. Unfortunately, one middle manager was worried that the laptops would disappear. So he had them bolted onto the sales staff's desks. Influenced by his worry, he completely negated the company's attempt to make the salesmen more mobile and efficient.

Of course, it's easy to say you won't worry; it's harder to actually shed the angst when it comes unbidden. But there are proven techniques to lessen anxiety like exercising, eating right and getting enough sleep, as well as meditation and thinking about God. Personally, I have a prayer about God's presence being peace that helps me. In addition, studies show that people who are attend religious services weekly tend to be happier, healthier and live longer. Just as Jesus said, trusting in God trumps being worried.

Another thing Jesus tells us to do is take it one day at a time. Why transfer tomorrow's troubles to today? Tomorrow will be here soon enough. Concentrate on tackling today's tasks. In doing so, you may lessen the severity of some of tomorrow's problems.

Since it is hard not to worry when you or someone you care for is facing something threatening, the best thing to do is to ask God to take the burden of worry from you. Lay it at his feet. Ask him to take it to the cross, to nail it there, to bury it. That way you can be free to think about the problem without the interference of feelings of anxiety or dread, without the repeating loop of distressing images and hopeless scenarios playing endlessly in your head. Nothing messes up thinking like having your guts twisted in a knot.

One big worry, then as now, is money. In Matthew 6:24 Jesus says one cannot serve 2 masters: God and money. As Paul says, the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. (That's the proper translation of that verse, by the way.) It seems obvious that we shouldn't love money more than God. But neither should we let worries about money eclipse our faith in God. Any obsession with money, even a negative one, can take our focus off of God and chisel away at our trust that he will provide for us. Now I know that it's hard not to worry about money, especially at a time when people are losing jobs and homes. Think of it like this. When you're trying to climb out of a hole, you need to concentrate on where you put your feet and hands and keeping your balance, not the distance between you and the bottom of the pit. God is our rock. If we stay in close contact with him, and keep moving in the right direction, focused on the task at hand rather than constantly checking on how far we've come or have to go, we will make it. We may have to move around obstacles, we may have to stop to rest, we may have to reconsider our route, but we can't be constantly taking measurements and fretting over each inch up or down we must travel if we are to get to our destination.

One of the most horrifying conditions one can imagine is locked-in syndrome, in which a person's body is paralyzed, while their mind is awake and aware of what is happening around them. We know this by their brain activity. In most cases all these people can do to communicate is blink their eyes. It was a great surprise when a recent study found that the majority of such patients reported that they were happy. That's the ultimate refutation of the idea that our happiness depends on external conditions. Stripped of all ability to control their circumstances, these people have discovered an inner resource, something that provides contentment in what should be the most distressing of situations. What could provide happiness to such a person? According to the study, 72% reported being happy and 70% reported being religious. When all else fails, God is sufficient to sustain us.

Jesus never promises us a trouble-free life. He promises us triumph through him. But that means we must stop trusting in the things that people typically think are necessary for happiness. In fact, the more things we try to accumulate, the more we have to worry about and the more they weigh us down. Jesus said his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Jesus doesn't tell us to stop working, but to stop worrying. He doesn't tell us to stop wearing clothes but to stop worrying about them. As we learn from locked-in syndrome patients, what is essential is internal: trust in God, the one who made us and loves us and will be our companion, our food, our wealth, our protection from the elements, if we let him. We need to let go of our worries, so we will be able to take his hand and he will lead into his kingdom, not through fear, but through faith.