Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Abstinence makes the heart grow stronger

This article in Slate magazine caught my eye. The premise is deciding if you are a moderator or an abstainer, with regard to your personal habits and preferences. One section reads:

You’re a moderator if you

  • find that occasional indulgence heightens your pleasure—and strengthens your resolve;
  • get panicky at the thought of “never” getting or doing something.

You’re an abstainer if you

  • have trouble stopping something once you’ve started;
  • aren’t tempted by things that you’ve decided are off-limits.

On the other hand, sometimes instead of trying to give something up, we’re trying to push ourselves to embrace something. Go to the gym, eat vegetables, work on a disagreeable project.

How does this strike you? Having spent my weekend talking to 11-13 year-olds about sex and sexuality, I can say that I don't think abstinence (or its companion, chastity) get enough airtime in our churches (or in our families) these days. When I talk to youth about abstinence, I try to emphasize that I nor the church catholic want to keep them from having fun or experiencing pleasure.

On the contrary, for them to know real joy is our own deepest desire. We don't want to see them become calloused, or hardened, about some of the most meaningful experiences in life. We're promoting the biblical virtue for the good of the soul and the body.

Of course, one can abstain from more than sex. There are all kind of actions that are harmful to the body and to the soul from which we should abstain. And there are plenty of other actions which we should whole-heartedly embrace- beyond moderation.

From my perspective, which is admittedly coming from within the church, the world is not divisible by moderators and abstainers. That sets up the dichotomy of "I can handle this... too bad you can't".

We would all do well to consider the virtues and demerits of both positions. There are some things that are best in moderation... for everyone. There are some things from which it is best to abstain... for everyone.

Happiness may well be found in getting what you want or being able to withstand the desire for it. However, joy is found in knowing that you have been given all you could ever need.

Monday, January 5, 2009


This is an interesting article from the New York Times about a connection between religious belief and self-control. The conclusion of the article is as follows:

Religious people, he said, are self-controlled not simply because they fear God’s wrath, but because they’ve absorbed the ideals of their religion into their own system of values, and have thereby given their personal goals an aura of sacredness. He suggested that nonbelievers try a secular version of that strategy.

“People can have sacred values that aren’t religious values,” he said. “Self-reliance might be a sacred value to you that’s relevant to saving money. Concern for others might be a sacred value that’s relevant to taking time to do volunteer work. You can spend time thinking about what values are sacred to you and making New Year’s resolutions that are consistent with them.”

Of course, it requires some self-control to carry out that exercise — and maybe more effort than it takes to go to church.

“Sacred values come prefabricated for religious believers,” Dr. McCullough said. “The belief that God has preferences for how you behave and the goals you set for yourself has to be the granddaddy of all psychological devices for encouraging people to follow through with their goals. That may help to explain why belief in God has been so persistent through the ages.”

My first frustration with this is the premise of the doctor involved that religion is inherently untrue, but does provide helpful personal and societal benefits. Our ability to see religion as mythological does not make it untrue. Granted, I might be biased in this arena, but I remain persuaded in the truth of my faith.

Secondly, the benefits of believing in God are not solely for the discipline of a God who remains with you (see Hebrews 12:1-12), but are also in the truth that you are not God, you do not have a cosmological vision or plan and that your salvation is not in your own hands.

The disciplines of religion are not so that one may attain salvation, but so that one may more greatly appreciate the joys of the salvation that has been achieved through Christ. I cannot say that I believe all Christians share this notion or even that I am able to espouse it every day of my life, but I believe this to be the crux of the biblical message.

Martin Luther's understanding of the 10 Commandments was that God gave them to people, not out of a desire to creation strictures, but out of love. Loving rules create freedom. It's a short list (10 things) of what one cannot do and a whole world full of possibilities for what can be done to worship God and help your neighbor.

What non-religious (and some non-Christian) people misperceive is that religion is all about the "should-nots" and that religious people live repressed, pent-up lives of worry and shame. Maybe they do. But it doesn't have to be that way.

Our discipline comes from the God who loves us enough to remain with us in promised and mysterious ways. The God who sends his Spirit to challenge, charge and comfort us. The God whose guidance is freeing and full of grace and truth. That might explain why belief in God has been persistent throughout the ages.

Resolutions (Sermon 1/4)

JEREMIAH 3:7-14; EPHESIANS 1:3-14; JOHN 1:1-18

How many of you made resolutions for this year? Even if you didn’t formally write anything down or share it with someone, maybe you thought about something you’d like to try a little harder to accomplish. Maybe you came up with a new goal to stretch yourself. Resolutions seem to be a main part of a new beginning and the turn from one year to another is one of the clearest new beginnings in our time. Though much in the circumstances of our life remains the same between December 31 and January 1, the turning of the calendar page is a new leaf that brings inspiration to us in a variety of ways.

The readings this week seem to point to resolutions as well. In Jeremiah, Ephesians and John, we read about God’s own resolve toward God’s people. We see God’s determination to reach out to all creation and the promises that He endeavors to keep. God’s resolutions are completely different from ours, since we are not God (no matter how we resolve to try to be or not), but God’s resolve is what helps us not only from day to day, but also from year to year, within our life of faith.

In the reading from Jeremiah, God says to the prophet, “I am going to bring the people back from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here. With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.”

Here God has resolved to no longer allow the people to languish in exile in Babylon, that’s the land to the north. Everyone shall return to the place of promises, grain, wine, oil and honey. They do not have to fear leaving behind those who might not be able to make the journey, but God resolves to create a homecoming so that all may come home. God has resolved not to abandon his people, despite their wanderings, their hard hearts, their doubts and fears. God will not leave them without hope, but offers, through Jeremiah, his resolution of reunion and blessing.

In Ephesians, we hear God making the same promises through the author of that book. “With all wisdom and insight, God has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” Christ is God’s anointed, a Beloved part of God’s own self, come among us- so that we might have a deeper understanding of God’s nature and plans for all of creation and for us.

Here God’s resolve seems very much the same as it did in Jeremiah, that we should not feel abandoned. Rather than leaving believers to wonder about what God expected us to get out of Jesus’ life, God uses Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection to reveal himself to us in order for us to believe in God and to be saved. In Christ, we have the forgiveness of our sins, God’s own grace, so that we might not feel lost and hopeless, but so that we may know God’s own truth and, by that truth, be made free.

In John, we see this resolution even more clearly. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people… And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

God’s resolution here is deep and logical. Logos is the Greek word used in that opening line of John: “In the beginning was the logos…”, which does mean word, but is the root for other vocabulary terms we know including logic. God knows that the only way the stubborn human race and the desperate creation is going to grasp the true nature of a Creator/Created relationship is to experience the Creator in truth. Without intermediaries or prophets, but in person- a light piercing the darkness and revealing God’s glory.

God’s glory does not rest on being eternal, being praised, or even in being Three in One. God’s glory, as revealed through the Word made flesh, is in God’s mercy. It is this mercy that we only finally clearly receive through Jesus, “ to all who receive him, who believe in his name, he gives the power to become the children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh, but of God.” Here we see most clearly the fulfilling of God’s resolution not to abandon his people, but to accompany them in their pain and on their journey in person. In Jesus, we see God’s resolve to bind himself to us, because we are a little slow and reluctant and, well, unable, to bind ourselves to Him.
So we find ourselves, through God’s glorious mercy, at the start of another year. For some of us, that’s exciting. For some of us, the thought makes us tired. Nevertheless, here we are. And here God is as well, still promising to be with us and not to abandon us.

So how can we resolve to respond? Perhaps our own resolve should be to not act as though we’ve been abandoned. We’re called to claim the joy of living in a God who is eternal, revealed and at hand. We’re called to bring the light of Christ to one another, just as it came to us, so that light might pierce the darkness of those who feel hopeless, those who do feel abandoned.

We well know that we may be unable to keep our own resolutions to the fullest extent we hope. But we also believe that God exceeds His own promises; that his resolve is to bring us abundant mercy and grace. God only resolves those things because God knows us, inside and out. It is from God’s own closeness to our hearts, the hearts of his people, that God resolves to bring us home, to forgive us and to reveal himself to us in our time of need.

Let us resolve together to embrace one another as children of God, so that we all might know we have not been abandoned. Let us resolve to look for Christ’s own light in our lives, whether He shines as a penlight or a spotlight. Let us resolve to abandon ourselves to the joy and will of the God who does not abandon us.

For God’s own resolve through the Bible shows us patience, forgiveness and an abiding presence. From day to day. From year to year. We have not been abandoned. Thanks be to God.