affluenza

memento mori

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

1 ps

"Transience of Life" by Daniel Kansky

That is the poem “Ozymandias,” by the British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who lived in the early nineteenth century.

This Ozymandias was a fellow who wanted his name to live forever.  By virtue of this massive monument, he wanted to defy the grave.  I wonder how that worked out?  The traveler tells the poet of a “colossal Wreck.”  Long ago, the head fell off.  “Half sunk a shattered visage lies.”  The face has been smashed.  There is a proud boast: “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”  However, who is there to look on his works?  “The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

His bid to defeat death has turned into rubble.

Having led or helped lead two funerals in just over a week, and one the week before, I’ve been thinking about death recently.  Actually, I’ve been reminded how everything returns to its fundamental parts.  The chair you’re sitting on has crumbled into nothingness—it’s just a question of when it happens.  It’s true of your house.  It’s true of planet Earth itself.  In about seven billion years, our sun will expand out to Earth’s orbit.  (Not exactly the day after tomorrow, but we’ll get there.)  Bye-bye, Mother Earth!

2 psMemento mori.  That’s Latin for “remember death,” as in “remember your death.”  It’s a reminder that we are not immortal.  Lest we think memento mori is a walk on the morbid side, here’s something else to remember: we have an entire season in the church calendar that emphasizes the same thing—Lent.  Our Ash Wednesday liturgy directs us to “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  There are plenty of people who don’t like Lent because they think it’s too much of a downer.  I’ve even heard ministers say they feel the same way.

There’s a line in a prayer from our funeral liturgy that has helped remind me of such things these past few days.  “Help us to live as those who are prepared to die.  And when our days here are ended, enable us to die as those who go forth to live.”  It is a joyful affirmation that we will be with the Lord.

Memento mori comes from the time of the ancient Romans.  We’re told, “It was the custom of Roman triumphs, for example, for a slave to stand behind the triumphant general in his victory parade, and tell him ‘memento mori’—remember, in your hour of glory, that you are destined for the dust.”[1]

Have you ever heard the phrase, “The one who dies with the most toys wins”?  Well, here’s another one.  “You can’t take it with you!”

That seems to be the message of Psalm 49.  We already get that in verse 1, as the psalmist proclaims, “Hear this, all you peoples; give ear, all inhabitants of the world.”  It’s a message for everyone on planet Earth.  The Hebrew word used here for “world” is interesting.[2]  It only appears five times in the entire Old Testament.  It means “world,” but with the sense of a short period of time.  It means “transient” or “fleeting.”  It’s the perfect word, considering the theme of the psalm.

Give ear, all dwellers of this perishable planet!

There’s quite a bit in Psalm 49, but we don’t have time to go into all of it.  I’ll just mention a few points.  I want to take a tip from Ozymandias and “those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches,” as verse 6 puts it.

That’s some shaky ground.  We’re told we can find security in money or gold or real estate or whatever.  Considering the fires and floods and famine and whatever the coronavirus is up to, I think security might better be found in drinkable water.

3 ps

The psalmist continues: “Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life, there is no price one can give to God for it.  For the ransom of life is costly, and can never suffice, that one should live on forever and never see the grave” (vv. 7-9).  Well, tell that to the researchers who say death is something we can delay indefinitely.  There are some folks who say a lifetime of 150 years isn’t too far down the road.  And then there are already some people who’ve had themselves cryogenically frozen.  The hope is they can be thawed sometime in the future.

Of course, there’s always the vampire option!

Keeping my promise to hit only a few points, I want to jump to verse 16.  “Do not be afraid when some become rich, when the wealth of their houses increases.”  We can become intimidated in the presence of those with great affluence.  Verse 18 reminds us, “you are praised when you do well for yourself.”  (Remember the show, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous?  Robin Leach would engage in what could almost be called televised drooling.)

Nurse practitioner Vincent LaBarca notes, “Life pulls us into painful directions and our impulse is to fight.  But resistance is futile.  (I don’t know if he’s a Star Trek fan, but that’s the warning from the Borg.  You will be assimilated.)  Like swimming against a riptide, we inevitably wear ourselves out and drown.  If, however, we relax and allow the tide to take us, we are safely guided back to shore.”[3]

Verses 12 and 20 have always been the ones to catch my attention.  It is a repeated thought.  “Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish.”  We humans cannot hang on very long to our splendor.  I like the way Eugene Peterson put it in The Message: “We aren’t immortal.  We don’t last long.  Like our dogs, we age and weaken.  And die.”

I suppose if our measure of life is pomp and splendor, we might very well end up like an animal, even a beloved doggie.  I don’t believe their deaths are meaningless, but one thing we can do which they can’t is to consciously prepare for our passing.

Henri Nouwen spoke of a “grateful death.”[4]  “The way we die,” he said, “has a deep and lasting effect on those who stay alive.  It will be easier for our family and friends to remember us with joy and peace if we have said a grateful good-bye than if we die with bitter and disillusioned hearts.  The greatest gift we can offer our families and friends is the gift of gratitude.  Gratitude sets them free to continue their lives without bitterness or self-recrimination.”

I had a professor at seminary who shared four statements that help in the very things I just mentioned.  “Please forgive me.”  “I forgive you.”  “Thank you.”  “I love you.”  That works both ways, for the one passing and for those left behind.  No regrets.

4 ps

photo by Efren Baharona on Unsplash

I was fortunate and truly blessed to have that kind of ending with my father.  Banu and I lived in Jamestown at the time.  My dad had been hospitalized several times, but this time, there was more a sense of finality to it.  I got a call from my sister, telling me I needed to come home.  I flew to Nashville the next day.  My brother-in-law picked me up at the airport and drove directly to the hospital.

My mom and sister, and my mom’s pastor, were in the waiting room.  They had already said their goodbyes.  So I went into the ICU and stood next to my dad’s bed.  His eyes were closed.  I held his hand and told him that I loved him.  He didn’t last much longer.  I think he willed himself to hang on until I arrived.  My dad passed away at five in the afternoon, just as the sun was beginning to set.  He was welcomed with its orange-red rays.  It was like something from a movie.

It puts a little different spin on the promise of the one who said, “I am the gate.  Whoever enters by me will be saved” (Jn 10:9).

I don’t need to tell you we’re constantly surrounded by death.  We are routinely reminded of the Covid count.  In some quarters, there seems to be a deliberate attempt to inspire fear.  However, our risen Lord says, “Fear not.”  Instead of fear, he inspires us with holy boldness. Memento mori is a fierce and wonderful embrace of life.  Thanks be to God.

 

[1] medium.com/@julesevans/the-memento-mori-f588311adce0

[2] חֶלֶד, cheled

[3] medium.com/illumination/an-existentialist-and-a-christian-walk-into-a-bar-91f713d5e5f0

[4] henrinouwen.org/meditation/a-grateful-death


don't kill the messenger

In case you didn’t know it, the book of Malachi is the final one in the Old Testament.  (Maybe it’s a case of the last will be first—something like that.)  Aside from that, in delivering his message, it’s his style that sets him apart.

Instead of the usual, “thus says the Lord,” Malachi uses a question-and-answer format.  Some say the book is meant to portray a court case, with the Jewish nation bringing charges against God, charges which in turn are rebutted.  The setting is the mid-400s BC, almost 100 years after the first exiles returned from Babylon.  This is well into the era of Persian rule.

1 mal

By this time, the temple has been rebuilt, but the people have grown weary of their new masters.  Still, just as the handwriting on the wall spelled doom for the Babylonian Empire, the Persian Empire will begin to weaken until, in the next century, a guy named Alexander the Great will lead the Greeks throughout the Middle East.

Besides his question-and-answer style, there’s something else that sets Malachi apart.  It is possible the prophet we call Malachi is anonymous.  The Hebrew word “Malachi,” מַלְאָכׅי (male’aki), literally means, “my messenger.”  It’s often assumed that the name comes from 3:1: “I am sending my messenger [I am sending Malachi] to prepare the way before me.”

If we know what the name Malachi means, maybe my sermon title makes sense.  As with other prophets, Malachi’s message is likely to get a chilly response from his audience.  He repeatedly mentions the covenant of love that God has established with them, as well as the ways they’ve violated it.

Here’s where understanding the history helps.  As I said, at this point, the Persians have been in charge for a long time.  Malachi addresses a defeated people.  We hear the cry, “Where is the God of justice?”  In the face of Persian rule, many doubt the Lord even cares about what’s going on.

Malachi speaks of the coming day of judgment, the day of the Lord.  The church sees the two figures, “my messenger to prepare the way for me” and “the Lord you are looking for,” as John the Baptist and Jesus Christ (3:1).

He gets on their cases about several things, but verse 8 has an interesting question.  He asks, “Will anyone rob God?”  Is it okay to pull a fast one on the Lord?  Malachi gets into the always lively subject of money and possessions.

2 mal

Actually, he’s already brought it up.  In chapter 1, he chastises the people for bringing lame and diseased animals for sacrifice at the temple.  Malachi makes this inquiry, dripping with sarcasm, “Do you think the government would let you get away with that?  So why are you trying it with God?”

I sometimes notice this with gifts to charities and church groups.  You’re not supposed to bring dirty and broken stuff.  More than once while bringing items to the Salvation Army or Goodwill, I’ve seen people dumping off their junk.  I remember watching someone dumping armloads of clothes onto the bare concrete, right next to the very edge of the loading dock.  I can’t say that the clothes were soiled, but the person didn’t appear to be treating them as an offering to the church.

The prophet continues his line of thought in chapter 3.  By being stingy with their tithes and offerings, he says the people are robbing God.  Malachi has mentioned other ways in which their worship has become slipshod.  The withholding of offerings is yet one more example of how their service is insincere.

But of course, this is much bigger than what happens on Sunday morning.  This extends to all of life.  We hear the promise of the Lord, when “put…to the test,” to “see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing” (v. 10).

I don’t know about you, but this is a scripture text I’ve heard abused in some pretty crass ways.  We’ve all heard preachers talk about giving to God like it’s a business transaction.  The promises of God’s blessings are compared with wise investments.

It must work!  The ministers encouraging those investments seem to have fabulous houses, fast cars, and fine suits.

Verse 11 continues the pledge: “I will rebuke the locust for you, so that it will not destroy the produce of your soil”.  The Hebrew word for “locust” אכֵל (’okel) literally means “devourer.”  Today, locusts are still a problem, but we all can think of things that eat up our resources.

3 mal

Malachi wants the people to reaffirm the covenant with Yahweh they’ve ignored.  They need to get their priorities in order.  When that happens, the word from the Lord is that “all nations will count you happy, for you will be a land of delight” (v. 12).  The Lord will bless them, or maybe, they’ll understand that they’ve already received a blessing.

The tithe, ten percent, was part of the Old Testament law.  It was part of the teaching Jesus received.  Many of his parables deal with the use of money and valuables.  In fact, much of Jesus’ teaching deals with money.

The crazy and “true story [is told] of a man in Dade County, Florida, who sued his church for the return of the money which he had contributed to it.  ‘I delivered $800 of my savings to the…Church,’ said the man in his [lawsuit], ‘in response to the pastor’s promise that blessings, benefits, and rewards would come to the person who did tithe 10 per cent of his wealth.  I did not and have not received these benefits.’”[1]

This guy, his pastor, or both of them are looking at this thing completely backward.  They’re asking, “What’s in it for me?”  And by the way, there’s some of that crassness I spoke of earlier.  (And I must confess, I don’t know how that case turned out!)

Our litigious church member, as well as his pastor, might do well to meditate on 2 Corinthians 9.  They need to be reminded that “God loves a cheerful giver,” one whose vision is expanded to see the big picture (v. 7).  When such a person gives, the result is an overflow “with many thanksgivings to God” (v. 12).

What we’re talking about here is stewardship.  And stewardship is about more than just money.  Again, this extends to all of life.  It even includes home sweet home.

4 mal

Marilyn Gardner wrote an article for the Christian Science Monitor entitled, “What’s Happening to the American Home?”[2]  One of the article’s main points was that the size of new houses in the US has been growing by 500 square feet every 20 years since 1950, while family size has decreased from 3.4 to 2.6.  The reason for the increased size is partly, if not primarily, due to our consumer culture’s thirst for more and more possessions.

It’s long seemed to me that referring to people as “consumers” is actually an insult; it’s a derogatory name.  Especially in America, whether in the church or out of it (sadly, it doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of difference!), we are given an order to consume.  We are to behave like locusts!

Take the earth’s resources, turn them into all kinds of useless crap, buy them, waste them, put them in off-site storage units, use cheaply-made products which soon break, throw them away, pollute the environment, and then consume more in a never-ending cycle.  (Please excuse my ranting!)

Cindy Glovinsky, author of Making Peace With the Things in Your Life, says, “If there’s one addiction that’s holding the human race hostage, it’s an addiction to things…  I’ve seen people who haven’t had a guest in their home for years because they’re having so much trouble keeping up with stuff, and they’re so ashamed of the way things look…  Yet these people refuse to let go of things so they can have people in their lives.”  Architect Sarah Susanka is even more blunt: “We’re not living our lives…  Our stuff is living us.”

The crazy thing—the insane thing—is that this addiction to consume is one we willfully plunge into.  But God, always faithful, constantly calls us to turn from this false god that consumes us, this ’okel, this locust, that devours!  It leads us to devote our resources and energy in a skewed way.  We forget that everything we own is a gift from God—and should be treated as such.

Here’s one more story.  It’s an old tale about the rabbi of Sassov (in present-day Ukraine).  Apparently, he “once gave away the last money he had in his pocket to a man of ill repute [who quickly squandered it all].  When his disciples objected, he asked, ‘Shall I be more finicky than God, who gave it to me?’”[3]

5 malIf you’re like me, when I first heard that, there was a red flag that went up.  Should we simply waste our resources?  That would seem to contradict what I said earlier.  Still, I wonder if, when opportunities for ministry and sharing present themselves, do we ever look first for reasons not to do something?  (“They don’t deserve it.  They’re just going to waste it.”)

We want to be free—free of the many things that would enslave us.  I can’t pretend to have the answer each of us needs for liberation from that stuff.  I’ve made some tiny hints at what such a life would look like.  Instead, I invite us to receive the message from God through the Holy Spirit, however that happens.

Please keep one thing in mind: don’t kill the messenger!

 

[1] Elizabeth Achtemeier, Nahum-Malachi (Atlanta:  John Knox Press, 1986), 189.

[2] www.csmonitor.com/2002/0724/p15s02-lihc.html

[3] spirituallydirected.blogspot.com/2008/11/undeserving-poor.html


no fear

Were any of you bullied when you were in school?  It doesn’t necessarily mean that someone tried to pick fights with you (or maybe did pick fights!).  Among girls, bullying rarely ends in fisticuffs.  But I won’t speak for my sisters; you can recall your own experiences!  We can think of many different ways someone can be bullied.

1 1 jn 4There was a particular fellow in high school, who for some reason I never figured out, decided I would be a good person to harass.  He never overtly tried to pick a fight, but when he was baiting me, I knew if I responded in an aggressive way, it would be something that he welcomed.  Kind of like a “make my day” sort of thing!

I’ll admit—I was intimidated by him.  I was afraid of him.  Still, aside from that, I just wasn’t interested in fighting, period.  I wasn’t interested in fighting anybody.  Maybe it had to do with being raised in a loving family.  Our home was not a fearful, violent place.  It was a safe place.  I don’t know about my friend from high school.  I don’t know what his home life was like.

Fear can be a controlling factor in our lives.  Sometimes it hides behind other emotions, for example, anger or despair.  Bullies are people filled with fear, and they project that fear out into the world.  A bully who’s been given authority—especially great authority—is a dangerous thing.

In her book, The Scent of Jasmine, Patricia McCarthy, changing the focus to faith, says, “There is no place for fear in the Christian life, not because we manipulate our emotions, but because we trust our risen Lord.  We choose to trust rather than to fear.  We choose to let God protect us, rather than defend ourselves.”[1]

The idea that we choose to fear, given what I just said, probably sounds strange.  We might object, “I just can’t help it!”

It might be useful to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy fear.  Fear of fire…fear of wolves encircling you, growling and showing their teeth…fear of your wife—that’s healthy fear!  Fear of going outside…fear of taking risks…fear that keeps you pinned down—that’s unhealthy fear!

Clearly, every person has her or his own story, and there isn’t one easy remedy, but it seems that, in some way, we do choose that latter kind of fear.  Several times in the New Testament, Jesus tells his disciples, “Do not fear.”  And in today’s epistle reading, we see that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (v. 18).

2 1 jn 4

Much of our fear deals with being left out, with being rejected, or with being denied the material necessities of life.

When he was a pastor in Clinton, Mississippi, Stan Wilson wrote about that kind of fear.  He said their church had “an unwritten rule: we will never ignore a member’s basic need.”[2]  Whether it’s someone out of work, someone with a medical need, whatever, they would come together and find ways to help.  It might have been through a benevolence fund, churchwide garage sale, or some other creative means.

During a Bible study one time, Wilson asked the people there, “Why not make it official?  Why not state out loud that no matter how bad it gets, we will be there for one another?”

He says, “I didn’t get an answer at the Bible study.  In fact, the very mention of the subject seemed embarrassing, as if I had violated a taboo and uttered that which must not be spoken.  I suspect that not only do we fear the future, we also fear each other.  We are afraid that somebody will try to take advantage of us, afraid that we will have to expose ourselves at our most intimate, private level: our bank balance.”

(Actually, I can think of other more intimate, private levels, but for the moment, I’ll go along with Wilson!)

3 1 jn 4

The author of 1 John deals with this very thing.  In chapter 3, we’re asked the question: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?  Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (vv. 17-18).  And in today’s reading, we’re reminded, “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (v. 8).

Wilson said he didn’t doubt that the members of his church loved each other.  He just wanted them to publicly proclaim it.  Unfortunately, in our society, we tend to have a fear of commitment.  In fact, our culture runs on fear and disordered desire.  And that stuff infects the church.

But the church, when it embraces its identity, is counter-cultural.  He wonders, “What happens if a little congregation breaks the rules and removes the fear by promising to care for one another?”  I wonder about that myself.  What would happen if this little congregation broke the rules and removed the fear by promising to care for one another?  This congregation does that better than some others, but what would it look like to take it even further?

“We might reveal the risen Son of God, the Good Shepherd, the one who lays down his life for his sheep.

“With a living God loose in the world, we might no longer live in fear, and no longer believe that the world runs only when people look out solely for themselves.  We might start to look out for one another, and violate one of the cardinal rules of our economic order.”

4 1 jn 4How can we do that?  For example, how can we break the grip of what Jesus calls “Mammon”: money and possessions, that become an idol, a false god?  Again, there isn’t one easy remedy.

Matthew and Mark tell us of a rich young man who comes to Jesus, asking about eternal life.  Drawing on the targeted advice Jesus gives him, there is one good way to deal with Mammon.  Just give it away!  That helps prevent wealth from setting up shop in our hearts.  (If you ask me if I practice what I’m preaching, I might need to respond, “Are you asking me how often I do that?”)

Recall the reaction of the young man.  Mark 10:22 says, “When he heard [what Jesus said], he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”  He was used to the advantages his wealth provided him.  It had become part of his identity.

Something that’s part of my identity is white privilege.  It enables me to avoid the day-to-day crap that my black brothers and sisters deal with.  Sam McKenzie, Jr. talks about “racial wealth.”[3]  The rich young man has financial wealth.  Too often, I’m oblivious to the wealth I have.

A couple of weeks ago, on the way back home from our trip to Tennessee, I was pulled over by the police not very far from home.  The officer said my taillights weren’t on.  (Which was true.)  I gave him the registration for our rental car, and he went back to his car to check things out.  He came back and said he would let me go.  After driving away, I asked Banu, “I wonder what would have happened if I were black?”  I honestly don’t know.

Recognizing our privilege can be fearful, because it calls us to action.  It calls us out of our comfort zone.  It calls us to hear stories that we possibly would rather not hear.

We have to confront our fears, and we have to do it with love.  That is, we must do it with love if we are to be Easter people.  Otherwise, we deny the resurrection power Jesus gives us.

5 1 jn 4The story is told of St. Francis of Assisi, who “was afraid of lepers.  One day he kissed a leper and the fear vanished.  It is important to note that the fear vanished after he kissed the leper, not before.  Before the fear left him, Francis had to take the risk of loving…

“There is a mutuality here in terms of cause and effect.  It is necessary to work against fear if we are to try loving our enemies, and it is absolutely necessary to risk loving our enemies if we want to be free of fear.  Like St. Francis, we need to risk acts of love before we experience feelings of love.”[4]

Why, at this point, do I bring in love of the enemy?  Besides the fact that Jesus stresses the need for it, “love of the enemy” speaks to so much of what we fear.  It is so darn hard to love those we consider enemies, whether consciously or subconsciously.  It requires a setting aside of self.

According to our scripture reading, the remedy for fear is love.  “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (v. 18).  Earlier I asked, “What would happen if this little congregation broke the rules and removed the fear by promising to care for one another?”  Can we take that one step more?  How do we translate that love among us to the outward community?

How do we go from the church father Tertullian, who famously reported the saying about Christians, “See how they love one another,” to living that here and now?  How do we live the call, and loving encouragement of Jesus to live a life of no fear?  Are we plagued by an inner bully, a bully who needs to hear again the warning—and the reassurance, “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”

I imagine we can see how that is warning.  It does sound stern.  However, can we see it as reassurance?  I sure need to.  Sometimes my love grows cold.  I need the fire of the Holy Spirit to set me aflame.  When I am floundering and drifting, when I do not know God, God is merciful, for God is love.

6 1 jn 4

Verse 13 says, “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.”  (I’m going to draw on my experiences with the Assemblies of God, those blessed Pentecostal folks!)  Do we yearn for the Spirit to fire us up again, to burn with holy love?

By the grace of God, through Jesus Christ, in the power of the Spirit, we will tell those bullies, “We have no fear, because we live in love.”

 

[1] Patricia McCarthy, The Scent of Jasmine (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996), 46.

[2] www.religion-online.org/article/ties-that-bind-1-john-316-24-john-1011-18-acts-4-12

[3] medium.com/@SamMcKenzieJr/white-privilege-its-stuck-in-the-pages-of-the-bible-764dea10aaa5

[4] McCarthy, 60-61.


fasting just in time for Advent

In recent years, we have been reminded there are more obese people on planet Earth than those who are malnourished.  There are a number of reasons: love of fast food and of huge portions in general, lack of exercise, and oh, let’s go again with huge portions—at Thanksgiving dinner!

1 Is 58I’ve never thought of myself as particularly gluttonous, though I can’t claim I never over-indulge.  Still, if I had to name a single spiritual discipline I’ve been most reluctant to follow, it would probably be fasting.  At first glance, considering the note I mentioned at the beginning, it seems that I’m far from alone.  Still, as we continue, we’ll see how fasting is about more than abstaining from food.

Banu mentioned last week about the tradition of Advent, of how it’s about self-denial, waiting in expectation for the coming of the Lord.  With the madcap rush of the economically-driven invented holiday called Black Friday, we are encouraged—no, ordered—to jettison our sense of self-control.  It regrettably (or perhaps, fortunately) demonstrates our need for spiritual discipline.  It shows our need for spiritual disciplines, plural.

Here’s something about spiritual disciplines themselves.  They are practices, things we do.  They aren’t feelings or emotional states, although spiritual disciplines could possibly foster them.  No, spiritual disciplines, at least Christian spiritual disciplines, are to shape us into being more like Jesus, having the faith of Jesus.

And they are indeed practices, things we weave into our everyday lives.  Examples would be fasting (as mentioned), reading the Bible, prayer, worship, service, being accountable to someone loving and wise.  And there are plenty others.

I will confess I often have a problem with meditation.  I too often focus on the “monkey mind,” just jumping around.  I’m thinking about everything in the world.  “Wait, I need to write that down…  I need to fidget with that object on the table…  Hey, who’s that walking outside?”

One thing the disciplines are not is showtime!  They are not about self-promotion.  This isn’t something you post on Facebook.  If you encounter someone who says, “What has two thumbs and is becoming more Christlike every day?  This guy!” then clearly that poor soul is sadly mistaken.

2 Is 58

There’s a little bit about spiritual disciplines in general.  Now let’s get back to our feature story!

I think many of us have almost a fear of fasting.

I imagine we’ve all had our blood drawn to check medicine levels or whatever.  Sometimes that means fasting for 12 hours or maybe just skipping breakfast.  I remember one time going to the clinic to provide a sample, which required fasting after midnight.  The next morning, some of the people there were saying how they wanted to arrive at 8:30, as soon as the place opened, so they could hurry up and get something to eat.  Apparently, they were starving to death!

I don’t want to spend too long on the mechanics of fasting.  Suffice it to say that it doesn’t always mean consuming nothing whatsoever.  There are many different ways to fast.

In her Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, Adele Ahlberg Calhoun says the purpose of fasting is “to let go of an appetite in order to seek God on matters of deep concern for others, myself, and the world.”[1]  Clearly, “an appetite” can refer to many different things.  As St. Paul says in Romans 13, we’re to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ [like a garment], and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (v. 14).

Here, the “flesh” is not simply our physical bodies.  It speaks of the tendency to use the gifts of God for purely selfish intent, to not care what happens to others or to the rest of creation.  The “flesh” is self-indulgence taken to extremes.

When we take self-indulgence and the temptation to self-promotion we just looked at, we find our scripture reading in Isaiah 58 deals with something like this.  This last part of the book of Isaiah is often dated a few years after the return from exile in Babylon.  The initial joy of the exiles has faded as they deal with opposition.  They’re confronted by those who were never sent into exile—and by those who have settled in the land since then.

Their faith is faltering.  And as we look through the scripture text, we can see evidence of the ways in which many of them have stumbled.  We can also see evidence of their attempts to make things right.

3 Is 58

Right off the bat, we know something’s up.  The prophet is told, “Shout out, do not hold back!…  Announce to my people their rebellion” (v. 1).  Apparently, they’re not living in a way that befits God’s people, even though “day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness” (v. 2).

The people in our scripture reading say some things to God that might sound familiar.  “Why do we fast, but you do not see?  Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” (v. 3).  Where are you, God?  Why aren’t you paying attention?  Why don’t you help us?

The people are behaving as though fasting and other pious actions can compensate for injustice.  They think some acts of worship can cover up their crimes.

What have they been doing that’s so bad?  According to the scripture, “you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.  Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.  Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high” (vv. 3-4).  Eugene Peterson says, “The kind of fasting you do won’t get your prayers off the ground.”  The people are just going through the motions.  They’re not letting themselves be changed.

And here’s something else spiritual disciplines are not.  They are not magic.  There are no incantations to utter that will compel God into doing anything.  God is a God of love.  God is an ethical God, which means God cares about ethics.  It matters what we do; it matters how we live our lives.

This is the fast God chooses: “to loose the bonds of injustice…to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke” (v. 6).  Verse 9 has something I find especially interesting.  What’s disapproved of here is “the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil.”

The pointing of the finger.  We see this all the time.  We like to blame others; we try to avoid taking responsibility.  It becomes really obvious during political campaigns.  Advertisements flood the airwaves: ads which insult our intelligence and present the opposing candidate in the worst possible light.

I mean that literally.  You might hear a voiceover saying something like this: “Millions lack health care, but fat cat Joe Blow just doesn’t care!”  Meanwhile, the opponent is presented in a black and white still photograph, or worse, moving in slow motion.  That’s a neat trick.  You can make anyone look bad by showing them in slow motion, especially if they’re about to sneeze.  (I don’t know if anyone’s actually done that, but it would make the person look stupid.)

4 Is 58
Gesundheit!

And then when we switch to the candidate the ad is promoting, muted colors burst with the power of the rainbow, people are smiling, children are laughing, joyful music is heard—the kingdom has come!

Unfortunately, “the pointing of the finger” isn’t restricted to the political realm.  It is alive and well in the church.

“Fasting is an opportunity to lay down an appetite,” Calhoun says, “an appetite for food, for media, for shopping…  Fasting exposes how we try to keep empty hunger at bay and gain a sense of well-being by devouring creature comforts.”  Speaking of creature comforts, when the power goes out, I want it restored as soon as possible!

“Through self-denial we begin to recognize what controls us.  Our small denials of the self show us just how little taste we actually have for sacrifice or time with God.”[2]

I said earlier that I think many of us have a fear of fasting.  When we include these other appetites, it’s probably safe to say that we have a terror of fasting.  Americans in particular are afflicted with this terror.  Our entire civilization seems designed to keep us distracted.

Calhoun continues, “Skip the radio or TV for a day and become aware of how fidgety you are when you aren’t being amused or diverted.”[3]  I would say it’s become more of a challenge to avoid the internet or to stop fiddling with cell phones.

She asks a couple of questions.  “When you feel empty or restless, what do you do to try to fill the emptiness?  What does this tell you about your heart?”[4]

That’s some powerful stuff.  We all feel empty and restless, some more so than others.  What do we do about it?

When we fast from our appetites (and everyone has their own), we say to them, “I don’t need you!  I don’t have to be your slave!”  We begin to set ourselves free from our own chains, and we’re better able to show others how to be free from their chains.

Today is Christ the King Sunday, though this sermon really hasn’t been about that.  (Unless we consider Christ to be the ruler of our appetites!)

Do we really need to hear about fasting, just in time for Advent?  As I said earlier, the season of Advent has been a time of penitent reflection, of waiting for the Lord.  But you know the old saying, “No good things come to those who wait.”  (Hold on, do I have that right?)

5 Is 58

What are some things we need to fast from?  Can we fast from doing and allow ourselves to be?  Can we fast from busyness and allow ourselves to be silent, allow ourselves to listen?  How would that affect our relationships with each other and with God?

What does the prophet say?  “If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday” (v. 10).  Let’s have a proper fast, and let’s let the light shine.

 

[1] Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook:  Practices That Transform Us (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 2005), 218.

[2] Calhoun, 220.

[3] Calhoun, 220.

[4] Calhoun, 221.


affluenza

During the time of the prophet Amos’ ministry, the mid 8th century B.C. (about 760-750), Jeroboam II is king of Israel. His reign has been long and prosperous. His army has reclaimed land in the north that had been conquered, and the economy is booming. Having said that, Jeroboam has come to the throne during a period when Israel is on borrowed time. There is a certain amount of luck involved.

To the east, the mighty Assyrians have had to halt their westward expansion. They’ve had their hands full, dealing with intrigues inside the empire and also fighting the Babylonians and the Elamites—areas near what we now call the Persian Gulf. But don’t count the Assyrians out: they’ll be back!

Amos identifies some idols that Israel worships, idols that will result in the nation’s days being numbered. What are these idols? Are they something as obvious as sculptures of wood and stone? Are they something more insidious, something more subtle?

Well, let’s hear what he has to say. In chapter 6, he speaks of woe to “those who are at ease in Zion,” to “those who feel secure on Mount Samaria,” to those who are “the notables of the first of the nations” (v. 1). So in verse 1, Amos begins the passage with “the first of the nations.” In verse 7, he ends it with “they shall now be the first to go into exile.” That’s when the Assyrians make their return!

“So you think you’re the first of all?” the prophet asks the rich and powerful. “Well, guess what? You will be the first!”

It’s in verses 4 to 6, however, that Amos really makes his point. “Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!” (The term “Joseph” is sometimes used as a substitute for “Israel.”)

image from www.acting-man.com

This is a picture of those gripped by the disease of “affluenza.” (Not influenza—affluenza!) It’s been noted that these are people “who enjoy a life of luxury and ease, but who are indifferent to the sociological and political problems which are about to bring the roof down upon their heads.”1

Seven verbs are used to describe this affluent society. They lie (on beds of ivory)…they lounge…they eat meat (as opposed to the poor, who can’t afford it)…they sing…they improvise…they drink wine (not from goblets, but by the bowl full)…they anoint themselves (with expensive perfume). This picture of decadence should not be unfamiliar!

There is an eighth verb mentioned, something that the affluenza of Amos’ audience prevents. It’s in the final line of verse 6. They “are not grieved” about the ruin of their nation. Their lifestyle has blinded and hardened them to its ill effects.

So, what are the idols that Amos identifies? As I hinted earlier, they may not be things that immediately come to mind. There’s no golden calf, like back in the days of Aaron and Moses. Rather, things that have become idols for them are questions of national pride, military might, and economic prowess. That’s why the prophet is so critical of their worship. Their heart and soul isn’t in God; they really worship these things.

Chapter 7 features a confrontation between Amos and Amaziah, the priest. Amaziah serves as a kind of religious chief of staff for the king. And in his report to Jeroboam about Amos’ activities, he accuses him of treason. The prophet is painted as a conspirator, a subversive.

Amaziah gives him fair warning. He tells Amos that it’s time to hit the road. Go back home—or else. Verse 13 provides a revealing remark. Amos is cautioned to “never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” Without realizing it, Amaziah is admitting that he’s a spiritual sellout. He has allowed his relationship to the king to determine his message. He’s unable to speak truth to power, because he has so completely identified with power.

So, to the idols of national pride, military might, and economic prowess, we now add, as Daniel Clendenin puts it, “pimping religion for political empire.”2 I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say we can see these dynamics in America today. It’s safe to say we’ve done at least as much pimping with those idols than Israel ever did.

Bringing Cullen Murphy’s book, Are We Rome?, into the discussion, Clendenin says that America and the Roman Empire “both suffer from an exaggerated sense of exceptionalism.” That’s the idea that we’re a special case. We can get away with stuff no one else can.

Here’s but one example: just as the Romans spread their military throughout much of their known world, so have we. It’s hard to get an exact count, but a rough estimate would be almost 800 bases in over 70 countries and territories.3

I mention all this, not for the purpose of debating foreign policy, but to recognize what it does. In my humble opinion, it builds and defends a foundation for what is our greatest idol: affluenza. It’s a disease that infects all of us—a disease that leaves us restless, constantly urging us to consume, to buy more and more…stuff. It’s no wonder we can’t hear God! We’re too busy worrying, “How can I pay for the junk I already have? And for the junk I still want to get?”

I did say that affluenza infects all of us. Therefore, I have to ask the question: how does it infect me? This isn’t a disease with symptoms seen only in the purchase of items. It is a lifestyle. Do I insulate myself from people who make me feel uncomfortable with my privilege?

Do I too often join with the apostle Paul in saying, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15)? Do I too often take refuge in that thought? To all these things and more, I have to say, with some degree of embarrassment, “Yes, I do.”

Benedictine writer Joan Chittister observes, “We take things and hoard things and give things to control our little worlds and the things wind up controlling us. They clutter our space; they crimp our hearts; they sour our souls.”4

The remedy for affluenza is simplicity. That is, to unclutter, to untangle one’s life. “Benedictine simplicity” [however], Chittister adds, “is not a deprivation. It frees us for all of life’s surprises.” Simplicity frees us for all of life’s surprises.

Perhaps that’s one of the most seductive and sinister aspects of affluenza. It deludes us into thinking that we’re really living. It hides from us its ill effects on others and on the earth. We find ourselves unwilling to pursue the abundant life that Jesus Christ offers.

The process of choosing between the paths of, say, Amos and Amaziah is just that—a process. The choice between authentic faith and being a spiritual sellout isn’t made once and for all. It’s a continuous thing. And our Lord knows that.

As Anne Lamott puts it, “I don’t think much surprises him: this is how we make important changes—barely, poorly, slowly. And still, he raises his fist in triumph.”5

There are few changes more important for our own sake, and for the sake of the world, than dealing with the disease called affluenza. But with each bare, poor, and slow change we make—in the face of the powers of death—Jesus raises his fist in triumph.

1James Limburg, Hosea-Micah (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 112.
2www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20070709JJ.shtml
3www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/06/us-military-bases-around-the-world-119321
4Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 108.
5Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005), 46.