Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Seven Vices & Virtues: Gluttony & 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).

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Five Keys to Reviving a Dying Church

This was my latest post for Charis. It's an online resource produced by the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry at Abilene Christian University.

Click, read & share. Thanks!

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

A Few Thoughts about Race Relations in the United States

Given all the trouble with police shootings and subsequent protests & counter-protests, I put together a few quick thoughts on the country's current situation (in no particular order):

1. Every gun death (or other violent death) is a tragedy and ought to be viewed that way.

2. We have WAY too many tragedies in our country.

3. Most folks jump to conclusions about what happened & why way too quickly.

4. Folks in law enforcement are typically outstanding people who have a tough job to do.

5. Being uncivil and rude to your fellow humans is rarely if ever helpful.

6. While protests might seem distasteful to many of us, the reality is that most hard changes would never have occurred without protest.

7. There are major, systemic problems in many of our African-American communities that don't run parallel to problems in other ethnic/racial groups.

8. The question to ask is not "Do these problems exist?" but rather "Why do these problems exist?" or perhaps better yet "What responsibility do we all have to make things better?"

9. Racism exists. Those who deny it are living a fantasy.

10. Christians ought to be leading the way in building peaceable communities that reflect the self-sacrificing love of Jesus.

(I actually wrote this a week ago. Just now posting it on my blog.)

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

When Emptying Out Isn't Enough

According to the Four Noble Truths, the goal of Buddhism is to reach enlightenment by emptying yourself of the things that cause desire and that thereby lead to suffering. In other words, you must detach or empty yourself in order to reach Nirvana. And what is Nirvana? It is emptiness, "nothingness" or ceasing to exist. That is the goal of Buddhism—to totally empty oneself out into the universe.

Perhaps that sounds attractive to you. In all honesty, there are days when emptying yourself out into nothingness might be a nice alternative to the feelings of stress, exhaustion & pessimism that you might go through. For folks who feel constant pain and who sense the pain of others, there’s likely to be a recurring desire to shake free from these feelings.

The Christian faith also teaches the importance of emptying. But there are significant differences in this regard between Christianity and Buddhism. Emptying oneself is not the goal of being a Christian. The objective of the Christian life is to be filled with God's goodness. Emptying occurs not for the sake of emptying but for the sake of being filled.

Jesus told a short parable in Matthew 12:43-45, "When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but it finds none. Then it says, 'I will return to my house from which I came.' When it comes, it finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So will it be also with this evil generation."

Cleansing your life from "bad stuff" is a great step. When you are able to stop smoking or end an addiction, that's a fantastic stride we can all cheer for. If you finally say goodbye to a dysfunctional and abusive relationship that was destroying you inside and out, we can all celebrate your decision to get rid of something that was killing you. Emptying is good!

But emptying is just one step for a Christian in the bigger process of spiritual formation. Paul writes, "Be filled with the Spirit" (Eph 2:18). A Christian should definitely allow God to clean up and clean out the messes in your life. But emptying out isn't enough. You also need to be filled with good things from God. Otherwise, the lingering emptiness will be an invitation for bad things to come storming back into your life in an even greater way.

Do you think the Christian life is one of emptying? If you think following Jesus is just about getting rid of things, then you will eventually fall back into your old life. In one sense, the battle against evil was won when you turned to Christ. In that moment God drove out Satan and filled you with his Spirit. The sign of this change is your place in the people of God. Yet this emptying and filling also takes place gradually over a long period of time. The old life will still haunt you well into your Christian life. Your past mistakes and shortcomings can still cause problems in your new life as you allow God to slowly empty you of the old and fill you with the new. But don't give up. Because emptying out isn't enough; it's just a part of the process.