Thursday, March 29, 2012

Rethink: Our Duty to Ourselves

Years ago I came up with a mnemonic device to help me remember the Seven Deadly Sins--Arrogance, Laziness, Lust, Greed, Rage, Envy and Gluttony. Using their modern names they spell: ALLGREG. And who is Greg? Dr. Gregory House, of course, who displays all of these sins in his life, especially if you define gluttony, as many theologians do, as including overindulgence of any appetite. But if he is so bad, why do I and millions of viewers continue to watch him? Because he's entertaining, of course. I realize that in real life, I would not want to be anywhere near such a reckless misanthrope but I can enjoy his outrageousness on the small screen. And he does have one thing that makes him somewhat heroic: a dedication to truth so fierce that he is willing to make great personal sacrifices for it. In this season's premiere episode, he was serving time in prison, as he should for what he had done at the end of the last season. He was within days of being released but deliberately did something that would get him more prison time because he saw it as the only way to prove that a fellow prisoner had a serious illness that had been misdiagnosed. House is a model of practically every vice but he is willing to face the consequences for his actions provided he can save a patient's life. That makes him just enough a hero that we continue to watch his adventures.

In real life, House would hardly have had any adventures because he would have long ago been fired, his medical license revoked and he'd be lucky to be in prison because otherwise STDs and his drug habit would have killed him by now. Most fictional heroes are much less flawed than House but they usually share his one virtue: self-sacrifice. We have no higher admiration than for people who sacrifice themselves to save others. In the world of fictional heroes, their willingness to die for what is right is so well known that villains no longer threaten to kill the hero if he doesn't cooperate but threaten someone else, either an innocent stranger or someone the hero cares about. A hero values the lives of others over his own.

Again, in real life, such people do exist, though extraordinary self-sacrifice is so rare it makes headlines. It's news when someone crawls into a burning car to pull a victim out, or donates bone marrow to a stranger or knowingly adopts and raises a handicapped child. But many heroes are unsung.

Most small charities and local non-profits only continue to operate because of people who are willing to sacrifice a comfortable life in order to serve the needs of others. But this has a cost. At a recent meeting on volunteer and caregiver burnout sponsored by Episcopal Charities, people I admire wept while relating how hard it was to get volunteers and support for their ministries and the toll it was taking on them. One friend tearfully related that her efforts had so taken over her life that it was as if the homeless folks she served were a tangible presence in her home, crowding out her family.

Still this is the cost of following Jesus, isn't it? Jesus used the metaphor of taking up one's cross, which is the very image of painful sacrifice. And we see Old Testament prophets who had hard lives and underwent difficult trials to preach God's word. Some sound as if they were on the verge of a breakdown. So is this what God wants us to do? If not, how did Jesus make us rethink sacrificing ourselves?

In response to the toll their volunteer and non-profit work was taking on the people at this meeting, the guest speaker made a very wise observation. Joyce Curtis, Executive Director of Jubilee Center, a homeless ministry, said, "You know how, when they give the safety instructions on a plane, they say if the oxygen masks drop down, put yours on first and then put one on your child? You need to do the same here." And she's right. You put on the mask first so you are able to remain conscious and put one on the child. And in life, if you don't take care of yourself, if you let yourself get to the state when you're coming apart at the seams, you won't be able to help others. Though Jesus raised the bar by telling us to love one another as he loves us, he didn't revoke the standard of loving your neighbor as yourself. If you don't find a way to love and care for yourself, how will you be able to truly love others? Or as C.S. Lewis put it, if you are in an orchestra, everyone, of course, must all be playing the same musical composition. In addition, you must be in harmony and in rhythm with all the other musicians. But you must also make sure first that your instrument is in good shape and in tune or you won't be much use at the performance. So, too, ethics has 3 parts: being in the right relationship with God, being in the right relationship with others and being in the right relationship with yourself.

Now obviously this means avoiding falling into sin. Studies show that when people do a lot of good, they may be inclined to think they can indulge in a little bad behavior because, well, they earned it. This is House's excuse. Avoid such acting out. It is not only self-destructive but it can destroy the good work you've been doing. And the next time someone who seems to be a saint falls from grace, remember this and pray for them.

But we are not just talking about sins of commission but also sins of omission, or to use the modern word, neglect. And what Joyce Curtis shared with us, Jesus already knew.

Though Jesus lived a life of self-sacrificial love, he did take care of himself. For his spiritual health, he was often up before the disciples and would find a place to be alone and to pray. For you this may take the form of going for a walk and praying or closing the bathroom door at home and praying. I had a teacher who was definitely not a morning person so he did his devotionals at the start of the Jewish day, which is sundown the night before. Whatever works for you, schedule in some time to spend with God in prayer and meditation every day! Make it a daily habit like brushing your teeth. Otherwise you will find excuses to skip it. Get oxygen to yourself first!

Jesus was also deeply into Scripture. Not only did he quote it a lot but, in reading the Old Testament, I frequently come across passages that Jesus merely alluded to or a phrase he borrowed. Yet there were no pocket Torahs to carry with you back then so Jesus must have dropped by the synagogues during the week to nourish himself with the word of God. That may have been where he met and debated with Pharisees when he was on the road, as he did in the Temple when in Jerusalem. We have it better than Christ did in that regard. We have portable hard- and paperback Bibles as well as searchable Bible websites, the Bible as software for our computers, Bible apps for our phones and audio Bibles for the iPod. There are also free devotional podcasts you can download and listen to in your car as you commute or jog or work around the house. As Jesus said, we do not live by bread alone.

And Jesus attended Sabbath worship weekly. He may have healed on the Sabbath but we never hear of him being scolded for doing his carpentry work then. Jesus realized the importance of the Sabbath and that it was created for its benefits to humankind. Remember to keep the Sabbath holy.

Besides taking care of himself spiritually, Jesus took care of himself physically. Though Jesus kept up a grueling schedule of tramping around the countryside on foot, preaching and healing, he did take time to recuperate. He caught naps when he could. At one point, his whole group is so harried he manages to get away with the disciples for an impromptu retreat. Every fishermen with a boat knows you need to get it out of the water occasionally and check for barnacles, cracks, and wear.

When Jesus ate, by virtue of the foods available to him, he probably ate a much healthier diet than us with fruits, vegetables and grains in abundance, as well as fish and only occasionally meat. Aside from his fasting, there are no indications that Jesus and the disciples starved. And just before his crucifixion, he moved up the Passover feast, so he could enjoy it with his friends. It also gave him nourishment for the ordeal ahead. So enjoy your daily bread.

You can't say Jesus took time to exercise, but unlike us, he didn't have to. Just getting around Galilee on foot, he walked many miles a day. Lacking today's labor-saving devices, he and the disciples were in better shape than the majority of Americans are. As Paul said, blessed are the feet of those who bring good news.

Besides taking care of himself spiritually and physically, Jesus took care of himself socially as well. Loneliness can literally make you sick. Jesus had a band of disciples with him constantly. Meals in his society were occasions for spending time with family and friends. Jesus was invited to many dinners. While traveling he stayed with the families who offered him hospitality. It is quite different than today, where you might eat food via drive-thru window or microwave by yourself, stay in a hotel by yourself and deal with many people primarily by phone, email and Facebook. Just remember: Don't confuse pixels with people.

Jesus took care of himself mentally. He had a very well developed theology to explicate and defend. He had to think on his feet when challenged by critics. The things he experienced everyday came into his teachings, such as farmers sowing seeds, weeding, and harvesting. He painted vivid pictures of fathers dealing with disobedient sons, women searching for lost coins, fishermen sorting their catch. He picked up a child and set him in front of his disciples to illustrate how one must approach the Kingdom of God. When the Twelve got too full of themselves, he stripped and grabbed a towel and basin and taught them humility. I imagine Jesus was one of those people who took in everything around him. For him everyone had a story, everything had layers of meaning and there were clues to God's nature everywhere.

Jesus took care of himself emotionally. We see him tired, ironic, astonished, angry, troubled, and sad. We know because, as in last Sunday's gospel, he told his disciples. He didn't bottle things up. He wept when a good friend died. And He possessed such a sense of the absurd as to imagine Pharisees fishing gnats out of their drinks and then swallowing camels, folks with logs in their eyes looking for splinters in the eyes of others, unjust judges being defeated by nagging widows and kings throwing open their wedding banquets to the sick and poor and unwashed. I think we can assume he laughed a lot.

We are to be temples of God's Spirit and together the Body of Christ so we need to do the same things Jesus did to stay healthy for a life of serving others. That means we need to set aside time to talk to the most patient listener of all, our heavenly Father. We should spend time hearing, reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting God's Word. We need to observe the Lord's Day and rest from all other pursuits. We need to make sure we get enough sleep, eat properly, and get exercise. Studies show exercise is not only good for us physically but it can help fight depression and anxiety. We need to have social lives. We need to keep our minds sharp and flexible. We need to acknowledge and discuss our emotions.

But all this doesn't sound like sacrifice; it sounds like common sense. Where’s the sacrifice? I think we have a narrow view of that term. It is interesting that the English word "sacrifice" comes from a 13th century French word. And that word didn't mean to "give things up", it meant "to make sacred." You make something sacred by offering it and its use to God. A life of sacrifice should primarily be one of making people and activities sacred by offering them to God's use. Sometimes that does require giving things up. But nothing we give to God is lost. Instead, he makes them "holy," which simply means "dedicated to God's use." Jesus assured us that whatever we give up in this life, we will receive back a hundredfold in the next.

Prior to Jesus, the most heartrending sacrifice God asks of anyone is what he asks of his friend Abraham. God wanted to see if he was willing to give up what he loved the most but he didn't want the old man to actually kill his son. God provides the sacrifice, a ram that time, in Isaac's place. God had other plans for Isaac which involved furthering the family line that that would eventually produce Jesus. At that point, and for all time, God provides the sacrifice, the only sufficient one, in the form of his son. We need not try to out-suffer Jesus. The sacrifice he asks of us is to give up rights to what we love the most--ourselves--and to use our lives to follow Jesus instead. What we are really sacrificing is the illusion that our life is our own to do with as we wish. Yes, Jesus says we must take up our cross, but before that he says we are to deny ourselves. A better translation is to "disown" ourselves. That's the real sacrifice. If we don't give up our imagined right to veto God's plans for us, then we will never take the next step and actually pick up our cross.

So the sacrifice Jesus asks of us doesn't mean running on empty. After all, it would be a sorry story if the lifeguard who dove into the water to save a child drowned instead because he hadn't taken care of himself. It would be unbearably sad if the woman who adopted so many unwanted kids let herself become so worn down, tired and bitter that she abused them. It would be a tragedy if selfless servants of Christ let themselves get so burnt out that they lost their faith. Jesus doesn't intend us to wear ourselves out serving him and those who represent him. Just as a wise investor doesn't buy a trucking company and then hold back on maintenance until the trucks can no longer run, so Jesus doesn't want us to trash the bodies, minds and spirits he bought with his blood. He wants them repurposed. He wants us to take care of them so we can better carry out his mission of bringing the world and its people back to his Father. He wants us to be fit to serve.

When we take up our cross, there is always the possibility we may die for our faith. Christians do in other parts of the world. I went to college with the daughter of Jim Elliot, one of 5 missionaries martyred in the Amazon. His widow Elizabeth and his daughter went to that tribe and converted them through lives of self-sacrificial love. Jim Elliot's death is therefore not a defeat. Why not? We'll explore that this Sunday.

But in the meantime, ask yourself these questions: If I am to be a temple of God's Spirit, in what ways I am neglecting or abusing myself spiritually, physically, socially, mentally and emotionally? If God wants me to be whole and fit to serve, in what specific ways can I address these aspects of my life? If I am to live a life of sacrifice, in what ways can I make sacred the activities and people of my life?

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