acedia / sloth

the enemy of Thanksgiving

Looking ahead to a special ecumenical service for Thanksgiving, I figured, “Well, at least I know what my theme is!”  For some people, the holiday of Thanksgiving is mainly about the history.  For others, it’s about the turkey, the pumpkin pie, the (fill in the blank).  And for some other very sad souls, it’s about football—especially the Dallas Cowboys!

Still, focusing on the theme of thanksgiving, of gratitude, while avoiding some of the clichés—it’s not as easy as it would seem at first.  I’ve found that sometimes the best way to understand something is to look at its opposite.  Having said that, thinking of the opposite of “thankful” as “unthankful,” and the opposite of “gratitude” as “ingratitude,” might not be much help after all!

1 thanks

I want to bring up something we don’t often hear about in sermons or Sunday school, and that is, the seven deadly sins of the medieval church.  Can anyone name them?  We have envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth, and wrath.  There’s one of them, sloth, that a lot of people think isn’t so bad.  But that would be a mistake!

The original Latin word for that specific deadly sin is “acedia.”  Over time, it became lost in the term “sloth.”  Most of us think of that as laziness. (Plus we have the image of those cute critters hanging from trees!)  It is laziness, but not simply the kind meaning you’re a couch potato.

Acedia literally means a “lack of care.”  In early monasticism, it was called the “noonday demon.”  It’s a condition of spiritual apathy, a state of sluggishness, in which the afflicted person is unwilling or unable to care about much of anything at all—at least, it ends up that way.

Fred Craddock, the well-known preacher in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), describes it this way.  Instead of mere laziness, he says it’s “the ability to look at a starving child…with a swollen stomach and say, ‘Well it’s not my kid.’…Or to see an old man sitting alone among the pigeons in the park and say, ‘Well…that’s not my dad.’  It is that capacity of the human spirit to look out upon the world and everything God made and say, I don’t care.”[1]  I don’t care.  But it can manifest itself in ways other than some obvious lack of caring.

If we can rouse ourselves enough to study sloth, then I think we’re getting close to the opposite of gratitude.  In her book, Acedia and Me, Kathleen Norris goes into great detail at how she has seen the noonday demon at work in her own life.  As I read her book, I felt like some of my theories were being reinforced.  For a long time, I’ve believed that of the seven deadly sins, sloth is the deadliest!

Norris quotes Soren Kierkegaard from Either/Or.  It’s like a strange twist on Dr. Seuss.  “I do not care for anything.  I do not care to ride, for the exercise is too violent.  I do not care to walk, walking is too strenuous.  I do not care to lie down, for I should either have to remain lying, and I do not care to do that, or I should have to get up again, and I do not care to do that either…  I do not care at all.”[2]

Has anyone else ever felt that way?  It’s almost like all the color of life gets washed away, and all that’s left are blah shades of gray.

2 thanksThere’s a passage in Norris’ book that reminds me of a line from the movie The Usual Suspects.  It’s when Kevin Spacey says, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”  In the movie, he’s referring to the notorious criminal, Keyser Soze, but it’s clear he means more than that particular villain.  The quote ends, “And like that…he’s gone.”

This is what Norris wrote: “I am intrigued that over the course of the last sixteen hundred years we managed to lose the word acedia…  We are tempted to regard with reverence those dedicated souls who make themselves available ‘twenty-four/seven’ and regard silence as unproductive, solitude as irresponsible.  But when distraction becomes the norm, we are in danger of becoming immunized from feeling itself…  Is it possible that in twenty-first-century America, acedia has come into its own?  How can that be, when so few know its name?”[3]

Obviously, we don’t need to know the name of something for it to control us.  We can even forget that it exists.  Are we too “slothful” to identify and resist acedia?

In our scripture text, St. Paul urges Timothy “that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone,” including those in authority (vv. 1-2).  None of those items are on Mr. Sloth’s “to-do” list.  None of those look very attractive to Ms. Acedia.

Something the apostle urges Timothy to do, as well as us, is to look outward.  No one can do the things in that list while constantly focusing inward.  It’s impossible to live a life of supplication, prayer, intercession, and thanksgiving that way.

Paul’s expressed desire in verse 2, that we “lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity,” may lead some to say we should leave well enough alone.  Let the world outside take care of itself.  But guess what?  That’s another way acedia raises its slothful head!

Perhaps the greatest sin of sloth, the worst assault of acedia, is the effect on the imagination.  Its biggest crime is what it does to creativity.  As Norris says, “Acedia can flatten any place into a stark desert landscape and make hope a mirage.”  It can make our world “obscenely small.”[4]  That’s a compelling statement.  If we believe the lie that we have nothing to offer—that we aren’t creative—then the problems in life will start to feel too overwhelming.  We will lose our ability to care.

“To someone in the grip of acedia, the beauty of sunlight, and of life itself, can only reinforce a bitter ingratitude.”[5]

What’s the opposite of love?  Is it hate?  Could it be indifference?  As the saying goes, there’s a thin line between love and hate.  But where indifference resides—where the lack of caring reigns supreme—the vitality of life gets drained away.  And that is a sin.  And that is deadly.

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So, in a few days, pray for the gift of thanksgiving.  Ask for the grace of gratitude.  (Actually, that’s not a bad prayer every day!)  Let it lead you into the world “in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (vv. 3-4).

 

[1] Kathleen Norris, Acedia and Me (New York:  Riverhead Books, 2008), 115.

[2] Norris, 16.

[3] Norris, 45-46.

[4] Norris, 39, 85.

[5] Norris, 202.


striking a pose

I want to begin by reading something from a journal.

“I managed one hour of sleep last night.  Trent and I have made arrangements to stay at the homeless shelter tonight.  I have noticed a distinct loss of freedom as a street person.  Because of my appearance, there are many places I cannot appropriately go.  I sense the contempt others have for me.  My hair is dirty and uncombed, my pants are torn and grimy, my face is three days unshaven, and I imagine I don’t smell like a breath of fresh air.  I want to brush my teeth.

“The world can be an unfriendly place if you are homeless.  You lack an address, an identity, personhood, a bathroom, water!  The day drags on.”

1 striking

That journal entry was written by me.  It comes from an experience I had with Food for the Hungry, a Christian relief and development agency based, at the time, in Scottsdale, Arizona.  (They later relocated to Phoenix.)

I was there for ten days during the month of June, participating in a hunger awareness program.  We had lectures, readings, Bible studies, worship, and a number of other activities—including playing basketball under the blazing desert sun.  (The game didn’t last very long!)

We also watched the movie The Elephant Man, starring Anthony Hopkins and John Hurt.  This was meant to help us identify with the marginalized and outcast.  But the most dramatic component was the immersion experience.  We were paired up and put on the street in Phoenix for 48 hours.  (Trent, who was from Oregon, was my partner.)  We were allowed $2, one source of identification (in case the cops stopped us), a Bible, and a notebook.

We were told to disperse, but we were given certain geographic boundaries beyond which we weren’t supposed to go.  Besides that, we had little instruction.  We were simply to blend into the environment and be street people from noon on Friday to noon on Sunday.  We couldn’t tell anyone who we were, but we didn’t want to lie, either.  So we decided to say that some friends had dropped us off in Phoenix and were supposed to return some time and pick us up.  I soon discovered how very realistic that was.  We met several people with similar stories.

I’ve told you this to show how I was given just a taste of what it means to be on the street.  To be marginalized.  To be an outcast.  To be “the other.”

Central to our identity, as people called to live the gospel of Christ, is this matter of identifying with the marginalized, with “the least of these,” as Jesus says.  There are probably as many ways to do this as there are people.

Our epistle reading for Palm Sunday is a hymn quoted by the apostle Paul for the benefit of the Philippian church.  It may be hard for us think of it as a hymn, since we don’t sing it, though our hymnal has some songs based on it.  It can be a beautiful and powerful part of worship.  The problem comes when words and rituals of praise aren’t acted upon.  When worship isn’t reflected in our lives, it becomes hollow.  We’re simply striking a pose; we’re posturing.

2 strikingIt seems that we spend much of our time striking a pose.  We spend a lot of time wearing masks.  But we hear that Jesus was unwilling to strike a pose.  On that first Palm Sunday, as he entered Jerusalem, he was a king without a crown.  Instead of riding a mighty stallion, as conquering heroes would do, he rode on a lowly donkey.

Jesus let all the masks fall.  The choice of Jesus to identify with the other has unleashed in our world a power that cannot be tamed.  It is a strange power, a power that overturns our tidy world as only Jesus the God-slave can.

But surely this sense of break with the familiar—of rupture within our comfortable little world—is a sign of God’s presence.  It’s only our idols that remain predictable and easy to control.  God calls us into an uncomfortable, untested zone, in which faith really comes alive.

And indeed, as share the viewpoint of the outcast, as we take the form of a slave, things take on new clarity.  So let us return to downtown Phoenix, to the parched avenues of that desert city, and maybe we can catch a glimpse, as I did for a brief moment, the reality of those on the margins.  We might even see a clean toilet as a bearer of God’s grace.

The search for a place to relieve oneself can be a humbling experience.  Finding myself in that predicament, and not finding any public restrooms, I leave Trent sleeping in the shade of a tree and wander into a McDonald’s next to the state Capitol.  I think, “Okay, I can use the bathroom here.”  However, a locked door stops me in my tracks.  I know I’ll have to go to the counter and ask for the key.  But remember my appearance at the time.  I’m too proud to just ask to use the restroom.  After all, I’m not really a street person.  I’m better than that!

So I decide to buy something first.  I will be a legitimate customer.  I select the cheapest thing on the menu, a hot fudge sundae.  It costs me almost a dollar.  (I was there in the 90s; I’m not sure what their price is now.)  Remember that we’re only allowed two dollars—so I’m spending almost half my amount right here.

After finishing the sundae, I return to the counter and request the key that will end my torture.  Just a few more seconds, and I can lock myself into a world of privacy…of refreshment…of relief…of cool water from the faucet to splash on my sunburned face.  I can quench my ever-recurring thirst.  Just a few more seconds, and…THE RESTROOM IS OUT OF ORDER…what?…THE RESTROOM IS OUT OF ORDER.

I stumble back out into the blast furnace of that June day in Arizona.  I wander across the Capitol grounds and leave before I attract the attention of security.  I think of the guy at the counter.  The look of disgust he had given me is still in my mind.  I wanted to say, “This isn’t who I really am.  I’m just playing a role.  I’m just striking a pose.  I’m not really a street person.”

3 strikingI have endured that humiliation.  I have wasted my money on something not terribly nutritious, and now I have to use the bathroom more than ever.  I keep walking in that 115 degree heat and finally come to a park with a nasty old building with a smelly old restroom with a filthy old toilet where I thank God and end my agony.

We sing the hymn of praise to Christ.  We join with the crowds on Palm Sunday, who sang their praises.  We sing, but we’re not always sure what to do next.

That isn’t entirely surprising.  It’s been noted, “We become accustomed to employing the [language] of…love.  In our very verbal faith, words easily become a substitute for reality.  And there is an odd sense of satisfaction we can gain by seriously talking about issues such as poverty [or world hunger] without ever doing anything about it…

“We need to get real and help [others] to get real.  We need to get off the band wagon of being deserving or undeserving.  Our opportunity is to…be real and loving as we are.  It is OK to be who I am…  All else is a running away from reality.  I am not going to do anyone any good by retreating into the ‘comfort’ of feeling guilty.  Guilt is a useful place to be only because it is a place from which to move on; it is not a place to live.”[1]

It might sound strange to speak of finding comfort in feeling guilty.  But sometimes it can serve as an escape, or at least a way of procrastinating.  “I’m no better than anyone else,” we might think, “so who am I to speak out?  Who am I to offer my gifts?”

I’ve talked about this before.  Of the seven deadly sins of the medieval church—envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth, and wrath—in my humble opinion, sloth is the deadliest.  (I know others have their favorites!)

One image that typically comes to mind when we hear the word “sloth” is the couch potato—one who conserves body energy by lying on the sofa, using remote control gadgets, or voice command, for everything.

Still, mere laziness is not the deadly sin of sloth.  Rather, sloth is a spiritual problem, one that causes us to resist the movement of God in our life.  Sloth is what causes us, when we sense the Spirit leading us to do something—or when we see someone in need—to say: “Oh, I don’t feel like it!  It’s just too much bother!”

Notice that I said, “when we sense the Spirit leading us.”  A lot of Christians don’t know, or they’ve forgotten, what that means.  They’ve hardened themselves; they’re set in their ways.  They don’t sincerely pray for God’s guidance.  This is probably a case in which laziness is a good definition of sloth.  I know what I’m talking about.  There are days when I don’t feel like seeking divine guidance—and I don’t do it!

In 1 Timothy, St. Paul calls himself “the foremost” of sinners (1:15).  He understands his weakness.  Maybe that’s why he says in verse 12, right after our hymn, that we have to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling.”  It takes discipline.  It takes work.  We must recognize our own weakness and the power of temptation.

4 striking

So, what would it mean to have the mind of Christ, which includes looking first to the interests of others, and not merely to our own?  How can we love with unconditional love, not with the conditional love of the Palm Sunday crowds?

We sing the hymn of praise to Christ, and we hear the good news that the Lordship of Jesus is confessed throughout the cosmos.  And we are invited to share the mind of one who takes the place of a slave, an outcast—who suffers humiliation and disgust.  He is the one who is exalted and who calls us friends.  We are called to join in that grand parade.

 

[1] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MtPent19.htm


Lenten foolishness

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the problems of the world?

There used to be a network called Current TV.  At the top of each hour, they had a brief show known as InfoMania, a quick feature of ridiculous things in the news.  It began with the chorus from the song, “Weight of the World,” by Pigeon John.[1]  (I was unfamiliar with him; I had to look it up!)  It’s a silly voice singing, “Sometimes I feel the weight of the world, and it’s so heavy and it’s bringing me down.”  For most people, that’s hardly a laughing matter.

There’s a book written by Christoph Blumhardt, Jesus is the Victor.[2]  He lived 1 Ps 32
Germany from 1842 to 1919, so among the problems of the world he witnessed was the growing drumbeat all over Europe to go to war.  It ended with the calamity that we call World War 1.

Here’s something from the first chapter: “Even if our age has become riddled with evil, even if death runs rampant on the earth, we will not accept these as final facts.  We must not sleepily say, ‘It is the Lord’s will.  What will be, will be.’”[3]

In the face of the immensity of problems—the immensity of sin—sometimes we can get paralyzed.  We can retreat into a bunker mentality.  We fall prey to fatalism, which is to say, “We have no control over what’s happening.  There’s no use in worrying about it.  It’s just our fate.”

Our medieval brothers and sisters had a name for this affliction, or something very similar to it.  It was one of the seven deadly sins.  It’s our old buddy, “sloth.”  In Latin, it’s acedia, and it literally means “absence of caring.”  It’s more a sin of omission than commission.  It’s a failure to use our gifts for the service of God and for each other.  Unfortunately, America can be seen as a vast wasteland of sloth.  We’ve been given so much, and yet…

In the chapter “He Conquers Sin,” we read how Blumhardt addresses the social and political conditions of his day.  “Apart from God,” he says, “we will not be able to do away with the discord in our hearts and the discord between us.  Sick in mind and body, we have no hope of creating a healthy world.  Inwardly and outwardly unclear and confused, torn by emotions and passions, we cannot form a society of truth and justice.”[4]

Unless we ourselves are transformed, how can we hope to transform our community and our world?  We would be in the position of Jesus in our gospel reading, when “the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me’” (Mt 4:8-9).

There’s a problem with that, though.  Something from within the creation (in this case, the devil—it could be a number of other things) can’t possibly bring about the change needed for a society of truth and justice.  It’s all part of the sickness.  Neither can the promises of politics or science or religion itself bring about a society of shalom.

So how can we break the cycle?  How do we welcome the power from outside of creation?  How can we find the healing for the sickness within ourselves and within our world?  Our psalmist seems to be onto something:

“While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.  For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.  Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the guilt of my sin” (vv. 3-5).

2 Ps 32
Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt

He realizes that he doesn’t have within himself what he needs.  People have said that he has been sick, he has been in pain, he has unconfessed sin, and who knows what else.  He begins his meditation by acknowledging, “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered” (v. 1).  The psalmist has felt liberation with openness to God.

So it becomes a question of opening ourselves to God.  That can be easier said than done.  In his book, Blumhardt says, “The greatest obstacle to the kingdom of God is us and our clever solutions.  Self-will leads so many people and so many nations to destruction.  Not even our Christian institutions are very helpful.  Too much pride has crept into them.”[5]  Pride?  What is he talking about?

I remember a time years ago, when I lived in Tennessee.  The youth pastor at our church was talking about a meeting he attended with fellow youth pastors.  He said they were all trying to outdo each other by talking about how fired up their youth groups were.  I told him he should have said, “So what?  Our group raised somebody from the dead!”

Thankfully, in our churches, we’re not infected by that vying for power and prestige!

Is it possible that we don’t want to give up “our clever solutions”?  And if that’s so, why would that be the case?  I wonder, could it be a question of control?  Maybe that’s part of it.

Our writer suggests something else.  “This is actually what Jesus demands of us:  Fight against your own selves!”[6]  Earlier I mentioned fatalism, paralysis, when facing the problems of the world, including those we see on a daily basis.  We may want to just throw in the towel.  We may not even want to hear how things could be better.  We don’t want to hear about it, because that might take away our excuses for not getting involved.

However, as we might expect, the psalmist has a word from the Lord to us on that point.  “I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.  Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you” (vv. 8-9).

So I guess it’s up to us as to how stubborn, how boneheaded, we want to be!  And I might qualify for being at the top of that list.

I’ll include one more quote from our friend Christoph to emphasize this.  “Even when suffering under terrible evil, we don’t devote our energies to getting to the root of it.  Instead, we skim off the nearest misery from the surface of our distress and bring that to God, saying, ‘Help me here, and then I will be happy once more!’  As though that could help.”[7]

I can’t speak for anyone else here, but I know that I’ve taken that approach.  It’s the approach that seeks a bandage on the wound, a temporary solution.  It’s a mentality that doesn’t desire true healing.  It says, “Just patch me up and let me go!”

What would cause such reluctance to whole-heartedly give ourselves to what, and who, we claim to believe?  Is it possible we realize we would really need to make some lifestyle changes?

I’m reminded of something I read several years ago.  Glen Bengson, a Lutheran pastor from Ohio (now retired), and a member of Bread for the World, tells the story of a visit by a doctor from Tanzania.

He says he “once visited our area for ten weeks, going from one congregation to another.  He was astounded at our medical facilities, not to mention the general level of wealth in the United States.  Visiting an emergency room with each patient area equipped with oxygen outlets in the wall, he told how his hospital, with 200 beds, had only two oxygen tanks, and one always had to be on ready in the surgery unit.  He heard the litany ‘God bless America’ and was puzzled.  ‘God has already blessed you so much.  Do you want more?’”[8]

3 Ps 32

Today is the first Sunday in Lent.  People often speak of things they’re “giving up” for Lent.  And there’s no question that there are plenty of things that we would be wise to give up.  But Lent is about renewal, repentance, reforming.  What better time to re-examine our lifestyles than during the Lenten season?

Since we’re still at the beginning of Lent, I want to sound a theme that goes with Ash Wednesday.  In Matthew 6, Jesus warns about “practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them” (v. 1).  But earlier, in chapter 5, he says to “let your light shine before others” (v. 16).  What’s the difference?

I realize that there are plenty of ways to approach this, but here’s an idea.  There are many public displays of faith, be it leading prayer in a group, feeding the hungry, peacefully demonstrating, visiting the sick and the prisoner, whatever.  So if you’re hoping others will notice and think you’re spiritual, even if you are helping people, your motives are still messed up.

However, if you’re reluctant to live out your faith before others, that’s a different problem.  If you’re embarrassed and don’t want to look like a fool for Christ, then by all means, you need to do it!  This is the season for some Lenten foolishness!

4 Ps 32

And the more we get used to Lenten foolishness for Christ, the less imposing those problems of the world seem to be.  We take them in bite-sized amounts, which is really the only way things get done.  And we can sing along with the psalmist, “Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart” (v. 11).

That’s a good song to sing, even if we feel foolish while doing it.

 

[1] www.youtube.com/watch?v=FVg6LhXCev8

[2] Christoph Blumhardt, Jesus is the Victor (Farmington, PA:  The Bruderhof Foundation, 2004).

[3] Blumhardt, 2.

[4] Blumhardt, 6.

[5] Blumhardt, 7.

[6] Blumhardt, 7.

[7] Blumhardt, 9.

[8] www.bread.org/publications/hunger-for-the-word/excerpts.htm


are we ready?

New Year’s Day.*  Epiphany Sunday (Epiphany itself is on Friday).  The eighth day of Christmas.  The morning after New Year’s Eve.  A lot of stuff is coming together today.

Maybe that makes sense.  Each new year has an unbelievably complex set of joys and fears, anticipation and dread.  That might be especially true as we enter 2017.  Many people are glad that 2016 is over!  Although, in speaking with Banu, we recognize that 2016 had a whole lot of blessing to it, and we thank God for it.

1

Of course, many of us make new year’s resolutions.  (Such as resolving to exercise—I mean, to exercise more!)  How long folks keep at it is another question.  Still, that speaks to the human need to look to the future and the felt need to change.  We remember the past, with both the good and the bad, but maybe we want a do-over as well.

What I’m about to say should be no surprise to anyone.  When we’re young, our storehouse of memories is very limited.  Everything is directed to the future, and most of us can’t wait to get there!  As time goes on and we get a little more of life under our belt, a little more experience, things begin to even out.  As the years go by, most of us have a wealth of memories, and if you’re regarding life as simply a measure of numbers, the future seems quite foreshortened.  (Still, as I often say, no one is promised tomorrow.  Any of us could be gone tonight.)

Perhaps not regarding life as simply a measure of numbers is a big part of keeping one’s heart young.  We welcome times to come (however that works out), while remembering “auld lang syne,” times gone by.

2

I begin with this little meditation on memory because we can see that in the Old Testament lesson.  Today’s passage from Isaiah 63 speaks about memory.  Verse 7 begins, “I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord.”  This person who is doing the recounting has seen times that are both awful and awesome.

Here’s a quick note about our author.  The first two-thirds of the book of Isaiah date to the time of the prophet himself, in the eighth century B.C.  Starting with chapter 40, we’re at a point in the Babylonian exile, in the sixth century.  This latter part of the book, sometimes called Second Isaiah, is considered to be the work of an anonymous prophet in the “school” or the “spirit” of Isaiah.

When we get to chapter 56, we’re a couple more decades into the future.  This final section is sometimes called Third Isaiah.  This is after the return from exile has happened.  For a while, there is a great deal of enthusiasm among those returning to their homeland.  Over time, however, hopes began to fade as cold reality sinks in.  Among other things, there is constant opposition from many who have settled the land while so much of the house of Israel has been held captive in Babylon.

This is probably about the time of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah.  One of the things they emphasize is the need to rebuild the temple that had been destroyed by the Babylonians.  The people need a kick in their complacency.

Last week, part of my Christmas sermon dealt with one of the seven deadly sins, sloth.  The sin of sloth isn’t a matter of being physically lazy, although it might include that.  Rather, it is a sickness of the soul, in which a person simply ceases to care.  It is a resistance to the Spirit of God which results in a hardening of heart, not in an angry way, but in a way that loses the desire to grow.  It’s a settling down into a dull routine in which the prompting of the Spirit is ignored.

The prophet’s audience in today’s text is largely afflicted by sloth.  They need a fire lit under them.

But you might not get that, based on the snippet of the chapter that is today’s passage.  The compilers of the lectionary tended to chisel out some of the “troublesome parts,” the scriptures that say things we find embarrassing, or stuff we just don’t want to hear.  Whenever I see scriptures that are deleted, I have a hard time letting that go—even if it’s something I don’t want to hear.

As I said earlier, our reading begins, “I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord,” because of all the wonderful stuff the Lord has done for us.  Verse 8 has affirming words about Israel being “my people, children who will not deal falsely.”  Things get wrapped up nicely with God’s “presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old” (v. 9).

Those are good memories.  It is vital; it is life-giving, to remind each other of what God has done for us.  It’s especially important when we’re in times of distress.

Still, this has been plucked out of its context.

The first part of the chapter talks about vengeance being unleashed.  Verse 3 is especially lovely.  “I have trodden the wine press alone, and from the peoples no one was with me; I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their juice spattered on my garments, and stained all my robes.”  The juice from trampling grapes is compared to blood!

However, this isn’t the action of a bloodthirsty god.  Our Lord isn’t roaming around, looking for heads to smash.  This crazy language is actually about grace.  George Knight talks about the way “the nations have made life for each other on this planet hell on earth.”[1]  So what does God do in response?  “God alone knows how to use [humanity’s] hellish activities for good; he does so by taking upon himself the absurdity of human violence.”[2]  That’s how we get the language about juice staining the garments of God.

We see here a preview of the sacrificial love perfectly demonstrated by Jesus.  Still, I guess that stuff about blood made our lectionary friends squeamish!

Now, what’s going on after today’s reading?

In verse 10, right after the language of blessing that was read to us, we get a splash of cold water in the face.  “But they rebelled and grieved his holy spirit; therefore he became their enemy; he himself fought against them.”  But they rebelled.  Memories become a bit more painful.

Mike Stavlund has sarcastically noted, “With an editorial snip, we miss Isaiah’s inflammatory commentary on the unfaithfulness of God’s followers.”[3]  Then changing the focus to us, “who spend far more time proclaiming ourselves ‘God’s servants’ than we do acting like it.  Who pray for shalom while we make war.  Who ask for forgiveness while we stockpile bitterness.  Who preach repentance while we quietly judge.”

That’s an exceptionally biting comment: asking for forgiveness while we stockpile bitterness.  Can that be true?

As I said, we are on the cusp of a new calendar year.  2017 won’t automatically be better than 2016.  One of the narratives that was promoted this past year was that people are angry.  We were told that we’re angry.  Take our word for it.  And if you’re not angry, you should be!

But beneath all of that, we should remember that anger has its roots in fear.  We’ve been told to fear each other.  And that’s not anything new.  Fear is the opposite of love.  As 1 John tells us, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (4:18).  It’s impossible to carry out the gospel imperative to love one another if we’re afraid of each other.  We are armed against each other, both literally and metaphorically.

3

Fear can also result in loneliness.

Chris Hall, president of Renovaré, the spiritual formation ministry started by Richard Foster, talks about this in his review of 2016.[4]  He speaks of “an epidemic of loneliness in our culture.”  We can see this in America as a whole, but he especially focuses on feeling lonesome in the community of faith.

“This loneliness epidemic,” Hall says, “came into sharp focus for me several months ago, when I joined a group of Renovaré Institute alumni at a reunion in London, England.  One after another, often amid tears, people spoke of how desperately they missed the rich sense of belonging and connection they’d had while they were in the program.

“And it’s not just Renovaré Institute students.  We receive calls from folks nearly every day whose lives were altered at a Renovaré conference, or in the pages of a Renovaré book, and who now crave community with others who are on the same journey.”

He’s speaking in particular of those their ministry has reached, but clearly the reality that people are lonely reaches far and wide.  Going back to earlier comments, could the epidemic of loneliness also be the result of rebellion and bitterness on our part?  Does our fear prevent our loving each other?  And going back to the original audience of our scripture reading, do we suffer from the spiritual sickness known as sloth?  Does it keep us from caring, from really being with the other?

Like the new year we’re entering, we ourselves are a crazy, mixed up set of joys and fears.  We are beautiful, marvelous, wise, and courageous.  We are also afraid of our own shadows.  We are creatures desperately in need of a loving Savior.

We are in the season of Christmas, and God comes to us in the flesh.  God dwells with us in the flesh.

This is also Epiphany Sunday.  Like the magi from the East, we are drawn to the glory of Christ’s majesty.  But guess what?  That glory is also in us.

4

Remember verse 9: “It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.”  The very presence of God saves us and is with us.

So are we ready for what this new year holds?  Are we ready to be led by the Spirit into the new thing God has for us?

I want to finish with a quote that was attributed to Nelson Mandela, but actually comes from Marianne Williamson in her book Return to Love.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.  Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.  It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.  We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?  Actually, who are you not to be?  You are a child of God.  Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.  There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.  We were all meant to shine, as children do.  We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.  It’s not just in some of us, it’s in everyone.  And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.  As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Are we ready?

* This was for New Year’s Day, not New Year’s Eve!

 

[1] George A. F. Knight, The New Israel (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985), 73.

[2] Knight, 74.

[3] thq.wearesparkhouse.org/yeara/christmas1ot

[4] renovare.org/2016


have a zealous Christmas

“There won’t be any Christmas this year.”  I imagine we’ve all heard statements to that effect.  Maybe we ourselves have said something along those lines.  “This year, there’s going to be a lean Christmas!”  What would prompt such a statement?  How could we possibly prevent, or even hinder, the arrival of Christmas? Xmas, Ted Rall

Of course, I understand what’s usually meant by that kind of sentiment are financial problems.  It’s the feeling that there’s little, if any, money available to be spent on Christmas presents.  I have a couple of thoughts about that.  First is the notion that gifts that cost plenty of money are always better than ones someone has created, using their God-given imagination.  Second is the way we mimic the Grinch, who by stealing presents from Who-ville, thought he actually could stop Christmas from coming.

(But as you know, the Grinch undergoes a change of heart and realizes the error of his ways.)

Pleasant grinch
It’s that mentality which can reject the power of Christmas and turn it into something empty and hollow.  It’s that, and the sensory overload (starting well before Thanksgiving, even Halloween) which, among other things, involves Christmas-y music being piped in into all kinds of places.

Here’s an example.  Banu and I were at a couple of stores and at a restaurant, and I heard the song, “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” played four times, and each time, it was done by a different artist!

Okay, I want to change gears for a moment.

In the medieval church, there were seven sins that were called deadly sins: envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, and wrath.  If you were keeping count, you’ll notice that’s only six.  There’s one more, and I think it’s as deadly as any other: sloth.  Some people laugh when they hear sloth considered a deadly sin.  It’s the fatal flaw of the couch potato!

The well-known preacher Fred Craddock (who died last year) had a compelling definition of this particular deadly sin.  Instead of mere laziness, he said it’s “the ability to look at a starving child…with a swollen stomach and say, ‘Well it’s not my kid.’…  Or to see an old man sitting alone among the pigeons in the park and say, ‘Well…that’s not my dad.’  It is that capacity of the human spirit to look out upon the world and everything God made and say, I don’t care.”[1]  I don’t care.

Another name for sloth comes from Latin, acedia.  It literally means “lack of care.”  (Don’t worry; this talk about sloth has a connection with Christmas!)

Acedia

Kathleen Norris writes about sloth in Acedia and Me, a book I really like and recommend.  And she has her own problem with Christmas.  (There’s the connection!)  In another place, she talks about the “many defenses [we have] against hearing the Christmas readings and taking them to heart.”[2]  She uses images that are very familiar.

For example, look at the Old Testament reading in Isaiah 9.  It begins, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (v. 2).  And how often have we heard the wonderful language of verse 6?  “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

We’re used to hearing these messianic titles, but where do they come from?  What is behind all of this?  Look at the end of verse 7: “The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.”  Zeal!  That’s not something we usually associate with Christmas.  It sounds a little too extreme, too fanatical.

But then, look at the epistle reading in Titus 2, starting with verse 11: “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.”  Okay, that doesn’t seem to be overly intense.  Still, as the passage goes along, things start getting a little more fervent.  At the end, we read that Jesus “gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are [get ready for it!] zealous for good deeds” (v. 14).  Zealous for good deeds.  There’s the “z” word again!

This is where we get back to our friend Kathleen’s ambivalence about Christmas, as well as her discussion about the before-mentioned deadly sin.

“I tend to enjoy Advent,” she says, “with all of its mystery and waiting, but find it difficult to muster much enthusiasm when Christmas Eve comes around.  I know I’m cheating myself, succumbing to my usual temptation to sloth, which Christian tradition understands as not mere laziness but as the perverse refusal of a possible joy.  The ancient monks saw zeal as the virtue opposed to sloth.”[3]  Zeal as a remedy for sloth!

I can see myself reflected in her words.  Is there something about which I could positively say, “I am zealous!”?  What would that look like?  And if I have trouble seeing it, could I at least claim to be zealous in wanting to be zealous?

She might have a point when she says “zeal makes us nervous…  We prefer the protective detachment of irony or sarcasm, and regard zeal as pathetic if not pathological.  When a person exhibits too much passion over anything…we label that person as obsessive or compulsive, and mutter, ‘Get a life.’”[4]

I don’t think very much convincing is needed when I say that even religious zeal can be bad.  Zeal can lead one to throw bombs, burn down abortion clinics, and show up at military funerals, claiming that this is God’s vengeance.  No, I don’t think we need much convincing when I say religious zeal is probably the worst of all.

Zeal

The long history of Benedictine spirituality addresses this; it’s well aware of it.  Chapter 72 of the Rule of Benedict distinguishes between the “wicked zeal of bitterness which separates from God” and the “good zeal which separates from evil.”  We need not fear this kind of zeal.  The reason for that is because it’s grounded in love.

According to Joan Chittister, “Good zeal provides the foundation for the spirituality of the long haul.  It keeps us going when days are dull and holiness seems to be the stuff of more glamorous lives.”  She adds that “sanctity is the stuff of community in Christ and that any other zeal, no matter how dazzling it looks, is false.  Completely false.”[5]  The glitz and glamour of our Christian cult of personality is shown to be bogus.

Somewhat of a trick is needed to dig through the layers of tradition, both good and bad tradition, which surround Christmas.  Too much of how we celebrate Christmas smothers the genuine, good, and life-giving zeal of its promise.  Again, there’s the danger of sloth, getting caught up in foolishness, in distraction.

Here’s a final word from Norris on that point: “The zealous love of this God has already appeared among us in the flesh to train us for a new life and teach us how to welcome him when he comes again in glory…  If we feel utterly exhausted, drained of all feeling and weary with worldly chores and concerns, so much the better.  Our weakness is God’s strength.  Our emptiness means that there is room for God after all.”[6]

Making room for God is probably the best definition for zeal, at least, for good zeal.  How do we do that?  How do we make room for God?

How about thinking of the people on that first Christmas?  They quite literally made room for God, even if they didn’t understand who the baby Jesus really was.

In a more meaningful way, they made room in their minds and hearts and souls.  They wondered; they asked questions.  Joseph wondered, upon discovering Mary’s pregnancy, what he should do.  He was granted a divinely-inspired dream to answer his questions.

Of course, Mary, after hearing the news that she was to be a virgin mother, wondered, “How can this be?” (Lk 1:34).

Then there were those shepherds, who received a celestial visitation—a sight that scared the crap out of them.  (You do know in the Bible, angels are not cute critters?  They are quite terrifying!)  After being calmed down, they said, “Let’s go check this out.”  They were ready to have their world rocked.

Some time after that, the magi and Herod also were asking about the wonder child, though each with their own agendas.  But that’s an Epiphany story, so we won’t deal with that now!

So what kind of zeal makes room for God among us?  What kind of sloth, acedia, do we need to reject?  St. Paul says God’s grace trains us “to renounce impiety and worldly passions” (v. 12).  Those “worldly passions” walk hand in hand with sloth.  Worldly, not holy, passions tell us, “Do not be filled with wonder.  Do not ask honest and sincere questions.  Live in the smug satisfaction that has us saying ‘no’ to love, especially if it comes from unwelcome people.”

Xmas overload

Worldly passion has us rejecting the spirit of Christ in each of us.  It’s the spirit that is all about forgiveness and acceptance, and yet calls us to keep moving forward.  Good zeal drags us out of our proper, private fortresses and flings us into the craziness and zaniness that is the community of faith.

We have twelve days of Christmas, so let me do one better than wishing you, “Merry Christmas!”  Have a zealous Christmas!

 

[1] in Kathleen Norris, Acedia and Me (New York:  Riverhead Books, 2008)

[2] Kathleen Norris, “Zealous Hopes,” The Christian Century 122:25 (13 Dec 05), 19.

[3] Norris, 19.

[4] Norris, 19.

[5] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York:  Crossroad, 1992), 178-179.

[6] Norris, 19.

[The top image is a cartoon by Ted Rall from December 1997. Clipped from a newspaper, the paper has yellowed with time.]


lazy and wasteful

“Lead me on the paths of salvation, O Mother of God,
For I have profaned my soul with shameful sins,
and have wasted my life in laziness.
But by your intercessions, deliver me from all impurity.”

“I am sorry I have wasted (and still waste) so much time; I am sorry to be as agonizingly shy at eighty as I was at twenty; I am sorry that I speak no languages but my mother tongue and that I have not traveled or experienced other cultures as widely as I should have done. I feel I should be trying to complete my life, whatever ‘completing a life’ means.”

image from 25.media.tumblr.com

Today is Ash Wednesday, the day in which we are prompted to “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I began with two quotes.

First are some lines from the hymn “Open the Doors.” (It’s performed online by the Holy Cross choir at Holy Cross Orthodox Church in High Point, NC.) What gripped my attention was the bit about wasting my life in laziness. My old pal, the deadly sin of acedia, of sloth, rears its ugly head—but takes its time in doing so! It remains a major struggle. I need help, both divine and human, to be shaken from complacency. (That help includes intercession from Mary, the mother of God, as strange as my non-Catholic past would have it.)

The second quote comes from Oliver Sacks’ book Gratitude, a wonderful little book published last year, which consists of four essays that he wrote in the time leading to his death. As the title suggests, he sums up his life with gratitude, of being “a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

But likely due to that sense of gratefulness, the time he has wasted troubles him all the more. Still, posed with expectations of completing his life, he injects levity by wondering what that’s all about anyway!

A few weeks ago, while Banu and I were still in Tennessee, we took my mom to the eye clinic. As we were in the waiting room, a cockroach came walking across the floor. I was requested to step on it, but I refused. I noted that when our civilization has turned to dust, this fellow will still be around. (That is, his or her distant descendants!) Dust to dust; ashes to ashes.

We are reminded of our mortality. We wear the ashes because there is no time like the present. Laziness and wastefulness meet their match in those ashes.

[The inscription on the image is “Remember, man, you are dust and to dust shall return,” Jacques Gamelin, Nouveau receuil d’ostéologie et de myologie dessiné après nature. 1779]


don't you care?


At the beginning of chapter 16, Jeremiah gets a message from God that he can’t be happy about. He needs to forget any plans he has regarding marriage or a family of his own. In fact, he needs to forget about other aspects of community interaction, such as attending funerals. The reason? “Both great and small shall die in this land” (v. 6a). There’s no point in getting attached; these people are doomed. In verse 8, Jeremiah is forbidden to go to parties—so much for a social life!

So is this just a case of God making the prophet’s life even more miserable than it otherwise would have been? Does Jeremiah have no say in how he lives his life?

In the May 18 (2010) issue of the Christian Century, Belden C. Lane writes about “Caring and not Caring.” He refers to the Desert Christians, the desert fathers and mothers: Roman Empire-era monastics who went out and lived in the Egyptian desert. Lane says, “On the one hand, I tend to care entirely too much about others’ approval. I need to ignore it. On the other hand, when I’m not appreciated enough, I’m eaten by resentment and begin to turn inward—and a crippling indifference creeps up. The Desert Christians identified these two very different kinds of indifference as apatheia and acedia. They saw the one [apatheia] as an important virtue (trimming one’s life of trivial matters) and the other [acedia] as the worst of the seven deadly sins (undercutting any possibility of love).” (26) That deadly sin, of course, is sloth.

Today, we have conflated these two aspects of indifference. We rarely, if ever, distinguish between apathy and acedia. The former began as a healthy detachment that ignores what’s unimportant and is needed for spiritual life and growth. The latter is a state of inner listlessness that just doesn’t care—at least, doesn’t care about anything important.

So maybe the choices in Jeremiah 16 aren’t so one-sided after all. Maybe Jeremiah understands the difference between apatheia and acedia. Maybe by seeming not to care, he demonstrates the very depth of caring.