Friday, February 3, 2017

Seven Vices & Virtues #5, Wrath & Patience

"Do not let the sun go down on your anger" (Eph 4:26b).

Ah, silly Paul. He clearly didn't understand life in our world today. There are so many things to be angry about! Politics are a mess. Racial tensions have flared up again. Immigration. Terrorism. Guns. Flag protests. And I haven't even gotten to taxes, road rage, or the fact that the Kardashians keep turning up everywhere. There's so much to be angry about!

It's one thing to recognize the presence of anger. It's another to normalize it. I remember the story of an American preacher who went to a Caribbean island. He preached that if wives caused their husbands to become angry—perhaps by not adequately preparing food or failing to meet other such "standard expectations"—then the husband was within his right to divorce his wife. That's a strange twist on anger! Blaming others for your anger isn't kosher.

So what's the deal with anger? Why is wrath one of the Seven Deadly Sins? The vice of wrath isn't just something dreamed up by desert monks in order to burden us with unrealistic standards. It's a real problem for those who want to grow into the image of Jesus Christ.

On the one hand, anger is a natural emotion. There's even such a thing as righteous anger. A little wrath can actually be healthy. The problem with anger, however, isn't its existence. The problem is what wrath does to us when it lingers.

Paul's point in Eph 4:26 is that anger will cause you to sin if you don't take care of it quickly. If you don't find a way to flush it out of your system, wrath can destroy your relationships. Unchecked anger can destroy your sense of peace and well-being. It can even do serious damage to your physical and emotional health. "See to it . . . that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and through it many become defiled" (Heb 12:15). If you harbor angry thoughts and feelings, it is like having a wrecking ball in your life that slowly demolishes you and those around you.

The opposing virtue of wrath isn't peace. It's patience. Learning to take the high road requires great patience. Playing the long game necessitates patience. The ability to successfully deal with troublesome people, issues and situations comes best to those who have learned how to be patient.

This Sunday, I'll talk about the vice of wrath and its contrasting virtue of patience. How do we grow more and more into the image of Jesus? That's the goal of this series, and I hope you'll join me as we ponder this fifth installment.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Seven Vices & Virtues: Sloth and Diligence

Think of Gilligan's Island as a parable based on the Seven Deadly Sins. Many folks think the creators based the series on these classical vices. (Here's one example.) A three-hour cruise turned into a seeming eternity. They were hopelessly marooned on a deserted island. 

One of the most common story lines across the show's 99 episodes is a potential rescue. And in almost every case, one character unwittingly or incompetently destroys any hope of leaving the island. It's Gilligan, the figure who most readily represents this week's vice: sloth.

Many in our contemporary world equate sloth with laziness. But the ancient vice of sloth, as brought to us via John Cassian from the desert fathers, comes from the Greek work acedia. This word is best translated as apathy or avoidance. This is what Cassian wrote about a theoretical monk faced with the danger of sloth (acedia): "He must also contend on both sides against this most wicked spirit of acedia in such a way as neither to be cut down by the sword of sleep and collapse nor to be driven out from the bulwark of the monastery and depart in flight, even for a seemingly pious reason."

The dangers of sloth are clear from his words. A slothful person finds a way to avoid pressing responsibilities. Some practice avoidance by running away. Instead of working through challenges in a relationship, a sloth just packs up and moves on. Instead of learning how to be a better employee or how to navigate difficult tasks, a sloth quits and finds a new job.

Sloths also practice avoidance by shutting themselves off. Some shut down by getting sick. Others find a way to emotionally disassociate themselves from their surroundings. Many people do one other unexpected thing: they get busy. No matter the means, sloths find ways to cloak their lethargy in excuses that look legitimate.

Eugene Peterson once said, "Pastors are highly susceptible to the sin of sloth." He continued, "Sloth is most evidenced in busyness . . . in frantic running around, trying to be everywhere for everyone, and then having no time to listen or pray, no time to become the person who is doing these things." Thomas Aquinas wrote that the sin of acedia is about failure to keep the Sabbath. Busyness can all too often be a form of avoidance that prohibits us from being focused on the task at hand.

This is why diligence is the opposing virtue to the vice of sloth. Some prefer to speak of magnanimity or the ability to take joy in the tasks God has given you to do. You might call it the bloom-where-you're-planted virtue. I like the word grit or the ability to focus on what needs to get done even if it isn't easy.

People find all kinds of ways to avoid doing the most meaningful things in life. That's a form of sloth. But for those who have the courage, stamina and vision to focus on what's before them and to respond appropriately to the task at hand, they demonstrate the virtue of diligence. 

Join me this Sunday as we discuss the vice of sloth and the virtue of diligence.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Seven Vices & Virtues: Greed and Charity

Greed makes the world go 'round. Or is love what's supposed to make the world go 'round?

Regardless, Western capitalism is built on the premise of managed greed. The desire to want more pushes people to excel and acquire more. Without this drive to consume, the economies of market-driven nations would grind to a halt.

The basic premise behind the vice of greed is that people tend to want more than they need. But it's not just about wanting something. Thomas Aquinas wrote that greed "is a sin directly against one's neighbor, since one man cannot over-abound in external riches, without another man lacking them. . . It is a sin against God, just as all mortal sins, inasmuch as man [scorns] things eternal for the sake of temporal things."

His definition reveals the two main problems with greed—and helps us see what greed is NOT. First, greed is something that harms your neighbors. Having broadband internet when your neighbor only has DSL is not a sin of greed. The fact that your internet speeds are faster doesn't harm your neighbor. On the other hand, it is greedy to use an inside-connection with the 8th-grade basketball coach to get your kid on the team. In that instance, your kid's inclusion has possibly harmed another child who is thereby excluded. Greed does actual harm to others.

Second, greed focuses on the wrong priorities. It's not greedy to want mushrooms on your burger when you can afford to pay for them. Mushrooms almost certainly have no bearing on our relationship with God or with others. But if we consider the issue of the 8th-grade basketball team, the parent's priorities are clearly misaligned in this case. Kids don't become model citizens or God-fearing adults just because they were on the 8th-grade team. In other words, the ends don't justify the means because (a) someone else was hurt by your desire; and (b) the child might actually suffer in life because of the parent's undue use of influence. This childhood experience could create a feeling of entitlement that will be difficult to overcome in adulthood. Greed in this instance is shown in the parent's misplaced priorities.

How do we overcome greed? The opposing virtue of charity helps disarm the power of greed. What is the virtue of charity? This isn't the kind of charity where one gives $10 to the United Way or donates blood to the Red Cross. Charity can't even be summed up by a person's tithes and offerings to their church.

The virtue of charity goes back to the more ancient definition: Self-giving love. To be a charitable person is to look on others with genuine, unselfish love. This love may cause you to give some material help to another person. But in many cases, material help isn't a person's most important need. True charity looks to benefit other people in the most lasting, effectual manner possible.

This helps us see why charity rather than contentment is the counterpart of greed. Greed stems from selfishness. Contentment does nothing to oppose this inward focus. Charity, by contrast, forces us to look outward and challenges us to see the needs of others. Join me this Sunday as we examine greed and charity in more detail and as we think about how to apply this in our everyday lives.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Seven Vices & Virtues: Gluttony and Temperance

Gluttony and temperance are polar opposites. Gluttony represents overindulgence. Temperance symbolizes an ability to exercise self-control. As simple as these definitions are, however, both words are a bit exotic and relatively unknown to contemporary audiences.

What familiarity there is for these terms calls to mind particular images. For gluttony, one almost certainly pictures a character like Friar Tuck from the Robin Hood saga. The jolly good Friar never had a shortage of ale, and his round belly was always ready for a feast. This love of food and drink makes him an obvious symbol of gluttony.

Temperance is a relatively unknown word for many younger people. It likely reminds older folks of temperance movements that sought to ban or limit alcohol. The American Temperance Society was a major force in the US with tens of thousands of members pledging to abstain from alcohol. Various temperance movements across the world have stood in opposition to Western tolerance of excessive drinking and general drunkenness.

These images point us in the right direction, but they merely scratch the surface. Being a gluttonous person is not about being overweight. Being a temperate person may or may not involve abstinence from alcohol.

Gluttony and temperance are about how you receive the greatest sensual pleasures of this life. Do you receive them with gratitude and in moderation? Do you enjoy these gifts only as needed to make life beautiful? Or do you lack self-control, tricking yourself into believing that more is better? Do you overindulge, destroying what is innately good and beautiful about who you are?

Gluttonous people lack the sensibility and wisdom to know when enough is enough. Gluttons lose perspective and are not honest with themselves. Instead of eating so that they might live, gluttons live so that they might eat. Consumption becomes the goal rather than a function to be controlled and enjoyed. A gluttonous lifestyle destroys a person’s overall health and beauty.

Temperate people, by contrast, have a deep appreciation for the greatest pleasures of this life. Out of respect for those gifts, they desire to acquire or enjoy no more of them than necessary. Knowing when to stop, temperate people radiate a true beauty that comes from being in control of themselves and respecting the needs of others.

With how much restraint do you enjoy life's greatest pleasures? Do you live in order to indulge in life’s pleasures? Or do you exercise self-control, allowing life's pleasures to sustain your existence? This Sunday at the College Church, we'll talk about how to identity gluttony and how to become a more temperate person.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Seven Vices and Seven Virtues (intro)

This Sunday, January 8, I’m starting a new series of lessons on vices and virtues. Dating back to the fourth century, much of the Christian world has grouped all sins into several major categories. In their efforts to become perfect, the desert fathers were the ones who created eight groupings of sins. John Cassian brought their work out of the desert and into the major centers of Western civilization. Pope Gregory 1 then reorganized the list about 590 AD. He created the well-known and widely-accepted catalog known as the “Seven Deadly Sins.” Thomas Aquinas, Geoffrey Chaucer and many other major teachers, writers and leaders have used these lists as sufficient representations of all the sins that afflict humankind. My sermons will work off this list.

Hieronymus Bosch’s The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things

The listing of “major sins” is nothing new. It goes back to the Bible. The wise teacher listed 7 “abominations” in Proverbs 6:16-19. Paul’s writings include several vice lists including 15 “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:19-21. We find another, similar catalog of wrongs in Revelation 21:8.

But what is the goal of listing and describing sins that plague us? And shouldn’t the list be updated to match our changing times?

We talk about sin in order to defeat it. While it’s true that some folks discuss sin in order to glorify it, Christians should examine sin in order to name and understand their enemy. “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” The evil things that remain in darkness are allowed to run rampant in your life and in our world. Sins left in the dark destroy and create havoc. When we name sin, however, and confess its power in our own lives, we allow the light of God to shine on what was previously dark. God’s light has the power to bring confession, repentance, healing and wholeness.

The ancient list of seven vices needs no updating. They comprise the most basic categories of destructive thoughts and behaviors. As we’ll see over the next seven weeks, these seven sum up our most basic weaknesses and adequately describe the dark powers that plague us all.

To replace the seven vices, there are seven Christian virtues. Like the seven sins, these are also described in the Bible and are deeply rooted in Christian thought. I’ll encourage us to seek these seven virtuous qualities that build us up and make us into godlier people.

Will you join me in this exploration of vice and virtue? As we start 2017, will you dedicate yourself to being people who bring glory to God in all that you do? Will you allow God’s light to shine on the dark recesses of your thoughts and actions? I pray that my messages will build us up as you pursue a right relationship with God and with others in this New Year.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The "Simple" Commandment to Love

"The commandments, 'You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet'; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"

The things God wants from us don't comprise a lengthy list of rules and regulations. What God wants is simple to say but hard to do. You can sum up everything God wants from you with one word: Love. It says it all. Love God. Love people. End of story.

Of course the logical question that follows unearths the difficulty of obeying this simply-spoken command: What does it mean to love?

This is why we need the Bible—not to burden us with lengthy lists of rules but to demonstrate what love looks like. In the Bible we see how God patiently waits for, disciplines and blesses people. In the Bible we learn how Jesus demonstrates love by laying down his life. In the Bible we discover the consequences of making loving choices versus those of making selfish choices. This is what the Bible is for—to reveal love to us so that we might know how to love.

How well are you living out God's simply-spoken yet oh-so-challenging command to love?

Monday, December 5, 2016

Knowing God's Plans

What is God doing in your life right now? If you could see what God was up to, would it give you confidence to move forward?

Having eyes to see God at work gives us hope and perseverance today. Knowing AND believing that you are beloved is perhaps the first step toward seeing God’s work in your life. Once you know how much God loves you, then you begin to understand that God wants the best for you. Then you can move boldly into the plans God has for you. But when you doubt God’s love and question God’s presence, then you cower in fear and live in the shadows of doubt, disillusionment and self-destruction.

I pray that “the eyes of your heart [may be] enlightened, [so that] you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power” (Eph 1:18-19).