I met Mary in the summer of 1976. She was in the big, outdoor pool where I was a lifeguard (enough said). Our first date was a double date to an old-fashioned ice cream parlor.We saw each other at the pool and I went over to her parents’ home where we talked on the front porch after work. I took her out to breakfast before she left for graduate school. Mary and I became “official” boyfriend and girlfriend in the autumn that year. We were married in June of 1978.
A wise old pastor once told me, “We don’t get married because we are in love; we get married to learn how to love.” Jesus is the author and perfecter of our faith and our love.He uses marriage to mature both people so that, eventually, the couple will love the way that He loves.
Mary and I entered marriage with the belief that we deserved to be made happy by marriage—that somehow we would “live happily ever after.” It would be like dating, only more fun. But here’s the truth we have learned: If we aim for happiness, we won’t get it—but if we aim for love, happiness will get thrown in.
I’ve often thought that while a wedding couple say their vows, God hears and thinks, “OK. I’ll give you a chance to fulfill those vows. Sometimes it will be worse and not better, poorer and not richer. You’ll have sickness and not health. Death may separate you two, but it won’t separate you from Me. I’m with you forever. In the meantime, you’ll learn to love each other more like I love you.”
1Corinthians 1:20-23 Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles…
The death and resurrection of Jesus means the penalty of sin has been paid by the Lord Jesus Christ; it proved His power to forgive sin—His crucifixion spanned the gap which existed between Heaven and Earth.
As a result, the resurrection of our Lord means that the foolishness of Christianity is wiser than any other religion’s wisdom. Yet, Christianity appears foolish in the eyes of those who will not believe in and follow a crucified, risen Christ.
When the topic of religion comes up, some people have a difficult time taking faith in Jesus seriously. Perhaps there are raised eyebrows, sighs, or outright antagonism. More than once, friends have been surprised that someone as intelligent as I would believe the old Christian “fairytales.” I have also spoken with those who honestly think that the world would be a better place without Christianity.
The “foolishness” of the crucifixion and resurrection is the perfect way of revealing who Jesus is and who we are. Even I don’t understand why God chose to orchestrate Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection the way He did—I mean, I can’t understand it from a marketing perspective. From a barely noticed crucifixion, thousands of years before the invention of mass media in a remote part of the Roman Empire to an even less noticed resurrection—which nobody actually saw at the time but later was witnessed by a few women and a small group of friends— most of the world now knows about those events in the life of Jesus.
That makes no sense. I’d have waited until the Internet was invented, I’d alert every major world news organization. I’d make sure there were television crews and documentary filmmakers present—I’d have bloggers live at Golgotha writing about all the events of Good Friday. I’d place video cams inside the tomb, streaming every minute for three days. I’d have scientists reading spectrometers placed at the tomb’s entrance and an iMax film crew posted there on Sunday morning.
“The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom” (1Corinthians 1:25) however. God has chosen seeking and preaching as the preferred avenues of faith. We preach that “the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10). God wants to keep it personal. That’s God’s wisdom. So let’s tell our family, friends, and even our enemies about the wondrous events of the crucifixion and resurrection this Easter and afterwards. It pleases Jesus to save people He loves through that kind of “foolishness.”
So, you’ve probably heard the common application of this part of the Christmas story — that God announces to the lowly shepherds this amazing news so that we might know Christ came for anybody, regardless of social status. I buy that wholeheartedly, but there is so much more to be tasted in these delicious verses of Scripture. The shepherds were “terrified.” Hello. No kidding? You’re at work, minding your own business in the stillness of the midnight shift and someone much more powerful than your boss stops by. At this point, you’re not worried about how you’ve been slacking on the job — you’re worried about how you’ve been slacking your entire life! God’s own top brass has arrived and it looks like it’s time for an accounting; but no, the angel says he has “good news of great joy.”
At this point, the relief has got to be incredible. You find out in the following verses that God’s long-awaited promise to set everything right is finally kept. This is wonderful news, you’re thinking to yourself. And just about the time you’re getting comfortable with your lone midnight visitor, a whole army of angels appears, probably armed for battle. (Otherwise, why use the military term, “Heavenly Host”?) Somewhere in the spirit-world there is a war going on, and the angels are sounding the battle cry. We know that soon there will be threats on the baby Jesus’ life, that Mary & Joseph will have to flee with Him to Egypt. We also know that Satan will be trying to stop Jesus for the rest of His life.
Yeah, angels are terrifying (almost every time they appear to somebody in the Bible, they tell that person not to be afraid) and it’s because they are God’s special forces in the war against ultimate evil. Christmas was God’s D-Day on Planet Earth. Of course the shepherds were afraid. They were front-line observers as God, through the birth of His only-begotten Son Jesus, began to take back enemy-occupied territory in the battle for human souls.
But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. (Galatians 5:5 – New International Version)
For we, in Spirit by faith, the hope of righteousness eagerly expect.(Galatians 5:5 – Original Greek word order)
Hmmm… isn’t this interesting?Just after coming down on those who try to get God to like them by “following the rules,” the Apostle Paul writes the words above.He says that trying to make yourself okay with God by keeping God’s laws is the same as cutting yourself off from Christ.(And he is writing to believing Christians!)
Galatians 5:5 is a key verse for our “attempts” to be more like Jesus.We can expect God to do it.We cannot do it—on the contrary, the Spirit does it in us, according to our faith.We wait on God for the righteousness to come.When we try to do it ourselves, we actually push ourselves farther away from Jesus.
Expecting God, awaiting God—one gets the picture of a child staring out the window, looking for UPS to deliver a present from Grandma.She knows it is coming without a doubt, but nothing she does can make it appear.Still, she looks for it, she hopes for it, and when it arrives she is ready by the front door.
The “eagerly expecting” righteousness is our part.The rest is God’s part.I’m expecting this truth will trouble a few who read this.It will seem, perhaps, I am saying we have no responsibility to live righteously.Of course we do—we have free will and must apply that righteousness—in the same way that it is the child’s responsibility to open the package when it comes to the house and put the gift to use.
There is so much righteousness that I am waiting for—a heart that loves my spouse like Jesus loves, wisdom to lead in the home and ministry, strength to face the difficulties of every day life, freedom from my insecurities, patience with my family and extended family, a generosity of spirit and of stuff, a soul that longs to be close to God each moment of the day and night, etc., etc., etc.
This is supernatural. It is the thing that humbles us because we realize our need for Christ.When Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled,” (Matthew 5:6) He was talking about miracles.It’s a miracle when it happens for us.The Apostle Paul knew that.We should, too.
It’s difficult to talk about the Virgin Mary. On the extremes, some Protestants contend that reverencing her borders on polytheism while some Catholics take offense at any slight (as if somebody said something bad about your mom).
It is my opinion, from Scripture, that Mary was a virgin until after the birth of Jesus (Matthew 1:25) and that when the Gospels talk about Jesus’ brothers, they mean just that (John 7:3). I think that Mary was fallible, just like the rest of us, and needed salvation through her Son just as we do. Recall the story about when she and her other sons came to take Jesus away because they thought He was “out of his mind” (Mark 3:20-34). It is also seems that she jumped the gun with her request of Jesus to do something about the wine shortage at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee. Jesus told Mary that His “Hour has not yet come” (John 2:1-12). Moments later, however, Jesus does change the water into wine. My conclusion: God the Father must have then told Jesus to go ahead and perform the miracle, honoring her request.
Mary was blessed and graced like no other in history (Luke 1). I think that most Protestants pay too little attention to Mary as a model of faith, obedience, and perseverance compared to Jesus’ other male disciples. The Orthodox Church has a slightly different perspective on Mary than the Catholic Church. There is no Immaculate Conception of Mary in Orthodoxy—the belief that Mary was born without the stain of Original Sin. In Orthodox iconography, Mary is never pictured without Jesus. I think that’s healthier. Mary was born like the rest of us and must always point to Jesus as her own Savior and Lord. Thus, the sightings of the Virgin Mary—alone—at places such as Lourdes, Fatima, Guadalupe, and Medjugorje present me with some problems.
Some of my problems with the apparitions are: Why Mary and not other disciples? Is it because she’s a woman and sometimes the church needs a more feminine touch? Why does the first purported sighting of Mary (in Spain, 40 A.D.) occur while she is still alive in Jerusalem? Why is this predominantly a Roman Catholic thing? Why does Mary usually come across as the merciful one who is trying to “Hold back the heavy arm of my Son” in judgement of the people? (This is from The Apparition of La Salette.) Throughout the New Testament, Jesus’ mercy is highlighted as in this passage from the Apostle Paul:
“But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in Him and receive eternal life.” (1Timothy 1:16)
All that aside, I believe that God could send Mary as an ambassador if He thought it would bring people closer to Jesus as “The way, the truth, and the life” because no one comes to the Father except through Him (John 14:6). Thus, I always inspect the fruit of the apparitions—do they point people to Jesus? If they only increase devotion to Mary, that’s the biggest problem of all.
Look at the span of her life and see where Mary was after the resurrection of Jesus. She was with the believers in the Upper Room, waiting for the Holy Spirit to fall upon them (Acts 1:12-14). We would be wise to do likewise. She became part of the community of the faithful that shared with one another as each had need. She must have devoted herself to prayer and to the Apostles’ teaching like the rest of the church (Acts 2:42-4). Let’s be like Mary.
Ultimately, Mary falls at her Son’s feet with all of the saints, thanking Him for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life (Revelation 7:9-10). The result of her being “Highly favored,” the one of whom Elizabeth said, “Blessed are you among women,” and she whom “All generations will call blessed” lives happily under her Son’s rule, now and unto the ages of ages.
We’ve made it to our final week of Lent! I tackle our last Deadly Virtue — Generosity — as the antidote to greed. This theme is especially fitting on this Wednesday of Passion Week. Today is known as Spy Wednesday to mark the day that Judas (the “spy”) agreed to betray our Lord.And why? Because, being consumed by greed, he asked the chief priests, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?” So they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver. Judas lacked the virtue of generosity.
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”—Jesus, Matthew 6:19-21
“I’m convinced that the greatest deterrent to giving is this: the illusion that earth is our home.” —Randy Alcorn, The Treasure Principle
“I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. . . . If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charities expenditure excludes them.” – C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
The Deadly Virtue of Generosity
Oseola McCarty worked all her life washing and ironing other people’s clothes. She didn’t earn much, but she always saved her money. Her one regret was that she had little education, for she had quit school to help her family. In 1995, at age 87, she did an amazing thing: She gave $150,000 (a value of $257,500 today) to the University of Southern Mississippi, in her home town, so that other young people could afford to stay in school. An award-winning children’s book, The Riches of Osceola McCarty, illustrated by Daniel Minter, tells the story of McCarty, a woman who loved the Lord and loved to give.
In a church where I was on staff, there was a group of guys who called themselves the Desperados. This was an amazing group of young men. If they heard about a family that was in financial need, they’d buy groceries—and not just the regular stuff. They bought steaks, wine, candles, flowers and, of course, all the other stuff a family needs. They would set it on the porch late at night, ring the doorbell and run away into the darkness, watching for the family’s reaction from a safe hiding place.
They got the idea from some Desperados at another church. There, those Desperados found out about a woman who had no money and no gas in her car after she had just barely made it to the church service. They managed to get into the pew behind hers, reach under her seat, grab her purse, find the keys, slip her purse back, drive the car to get gas (while one of them stayed behind to hold the parking place), put the car back, and then return the keys along with slipping a $20 bill into her purse—all before the church service was finished. Can you imagine what she thought as she started her car and watched the gas gauge needle slowly sweeping toward the full mark?
The dictionary defines generosity as “readiness or liberality in giving,” and “openhandedness, marked by ample proportions.” Contrarily, the vice of greed is defined as, “excessive or rapacious desire, especially for wealth,” and “a selfish and excessive desire for more of something (such as money) than is needed.” Here’s the deal: you can’t be greedy in the same instance that you’re being generous, for the virtue kills the vice (see Matthew 6:24). That’s why we call it The Deadly Virtue of Generosity. How does a person becomes generous as opposed to greedy? The answer might surprise you.
“But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand.” —King David, speaking to God in 1Chronicles 29:14
We must remember that we are receivers before we can even think about being givers because God made us to be receivers first. He is the Giver and we are the receivers—over and over again. Everything we have comes from Him, and He has been very generous. Just look around: Where have you seen God give to you in over-the-top ways (or even in sneaky ways?) The Bible says that God loves a “cheerful giver.” That is because cheerful giving is what God does. It’s a blast to give away the stuff God has given to us, but we have to start with a theology of receiving that stuff first. Everything we think we own, we owe to God. We are trustees of all that we have received.
It is not, “How much do I give to God from what is mine? It is, “How much of God’s do I keep for myself?” Some Christians get stuck on the concept of the tithe; that is, the Old Testament concept of giving 10% of one’s crops, herds, and income. It is not about giving 10% of our money to God. God owns everything anyway. He doesn’t really need our measly 10%. Allow me to illustrate: I remember taking my young son to McDonald’s. He ordered a Happy Meal. We sat down, and after a while I asked him for one of his french fries. He didn’t want to give me one. I thought to myself, “I can go over to the counter and buy this kid enough french fries to bury him, but he won’t even share one of them!” We all know that it wasn’t about me needing a french fry—it was about him needing to learn how to share. Maybe that’s how God looks at us.
More than a billion people out of the Earth’s six-and-a half billion live in desperate poverty caused by famines, earthquakes, war, corrupt governments, lack of education, disease, unfair trade laws, and false philosophies. At least 200 million of these one billion desperately poor people are followers of Jesus Christ (Galatians 6:10). In North America, there is an increasing disparity between rich and poor, largely along racial lines. Meanwhile, middle and upper-class Americans, including Christians, now eat out an average 30% of their meals (except for now during the coronavirus pandemic). At the same time, the amount of money spent on sports, recreation, lawn care, video and computer games, home entertainment centers, pets, and dieting has skyrocketed. But Christians are giving less to charities than ever before, from an average of 4% of their total incomes in 1960 to an average of 2% recently.
People who watch Christian trends have made two staggering calculations. If every American Christian did give 10% of their incomes, the additional amount of money that would be raised above and beyond the current level would be enough to eradicate world poverty in our lifetime. Second, the average age of major donors for both church and parachurch organizations is now well over 65 years of age. Current Christian work is being funded largely by retired people, who themselves lived a more frugal lifestyle a generation ago. Thus, unless patterns of Christian generosity change dramatically, a majority of currently existing ministries will close their doors for lack of finances within one generation.
One of the weirdest things is that while all this is happening, some Christian leaders are promoting a health/wealth gospel that pretends it is God’s desire for the already affluent American Christian (by Third-World standards) to become even richer. Even if we don’t feel rich, we don’t have to be rich to be greedy—many have little but their life is consumed by getting more. It is our conviction that the first step away from this madness and into the virtue of generosity is to begin with a theology of receiving. We are the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. We have received much—and to whom much is given, much is required. We are to be receivers first, givers second, and to be generous as God is generous.
Responding to the Deadly Virtue of Generosity
Who (apart from Jesus) is the most generous person you’ve ever heard of? Who, on earth, has been the most generous to you? Why do you think those people gave so much?
An eminent 20th-century innovator in the world of manufacturing and construction, R. G. LeTourneau tithed 90% of his personal and business income to the Lord’s work, establishing a foundation, a liberal arts and technical college, as well as making significant contributions to expanding the work of his church and its denomination. Do you think it is possible to be too generous? What percentage of your own income do you think would be too much for you to give? What percentage would be too little?
If you decided to be a Desperado like the guys in the stories above, what is one way that you might pull something like that off? Or, if you were to begin being like Oseola McCarty, where might you direct your additional generosity—to what organization or persons?
While being a helpful resource, money can never satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart. It can’t provide purpose, fulfillment, or true joy; furthermore, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,” according to 1Timothy 6:10. Think of someone who is greedy with money. How does that greed affect the rest of their life?Contrast that with generous people you know. How are their lives different, in all areas?
Two friends met in the street. One looked sad and on the verge of tears. The other man said, “Hey my friend, how come you look like the whole world has caved in?”
The sad fellow said, “Let me tell you. Three weeks ago, an uncle died and left me fifty thousand dollars.”
“Sorry about your uncle, but fifty grand’s not bad at all…”
“Hold on, I’m just getting started. Two weeks ago, a cousin I never knew kicked-the-bucket and left me ninety-five thousand tax-free dollars to boot.”
“Again, sorry about your cousin, but I’d like to inherit that kind of money.”
Then the dismal fellow added, ”Last week, my grandfather passed away and I inherited almost a million.”
“That’s too many deaths in a short time. I can understand why you’re so sad.”
“And what’s worse—this week—nothing!”
A Christian farmer is overjoyed to see that his cow is pregnant. Not being in need, he plans to raise the calf and sell it for profit. Time passes and the cow ultimately gives birth to two calves. The farmer is even happier, rejoicing and thanking the Lord.
He tells his wife, “God has been so gracious to us, when I sell these two calves at market, half the proceeds will be given unto Him.” The farmer’s wife commends his for his generosity.
One day, several weeks later, the farmer returns home from his work day on the farm, saddened and reserved. His wife asks him what happened.
With “shelter in place” orders, travel bans and various restrictions, do you have that sense that our whole country is being asked to do something like practice Lent together? The goals may differ but, there is something familiar about it. Perhaps, The Church—in her wisdom—has championed Lent throughout the centuries knowing that there will always come a time when everyone is asked to “go without.” Because of Lent, The Church would then be prepared to lead the way in times such as this, offering practical help and Holy Hope. Below, Dave Meserve writes about a virtue that helps us navigate today’s challenges.
“Whenever I feel the need to exercise, I lie down until it goes away.” (Paul Terry)
“But the precious possession of a person is diligence.” (Proverbs 12:27)
The DEADLY VIRTUE of DILIGENCE
Like most on our list of Deadly Virtues, the words Mike and I have chosen don’t necessarily carry the meaning today of their original intent. Our latest virtue, DILIGENCE, is no exception.
When I hear “diligence” my picture is of an auditor obsessed with attention to detail in order to honor “due diligence,” the most common use of this word. It’s as if diligence is only about satisfying some legal requirement. Hardly makes the heart beat faster.
The original idea of diligence is far more captivating. Our English word arrives to us from the Old French meaning “attention, care” and carries the sense of “taking delight” in something. It is “love and care through being attentive.” Now that quickens the heart.
Our Greek New Testaments offers something which is interesting for its stark contrast tothe Deadly Sin of Sloth. Diligence “speeds up” something within us, moving us to action and effort. Putting this all together, diligence is “love and care through being attentive” where our care is in earnest. This is a foundational virtue.
We learn from the Epistles what we are to earnestly care about: the poor (Gal. 2:10), keeping spiritual unity (Eph. 4:3), confirming our calling (2 Peter 1:10) and especially being diligent toward one another (2 Cor. 7:12). It is all about a having a heart that deeply loves and cares.
Other things to note from our Scriptures:
When Paul attaches virtues to the spiritual gifts, he specifically attached the virtue of diligence to the gift of leadership (Rom. 12:8). Spiritual leadership demands love and earnest care.
Paul says that earnest care was produced by the church’s “godly sorrow” (2 Cor. 7:11). A heart that can repent is a mark of a heart that can love and earnestly care.
Peter writes a beautiful progression that begins with faith and ends with love. He says that we must speed all of these virtues along by “applying all diligence” (2 Peter 1:5). Diligence is foundational to fully exhibit all the other virtues.
Diligence is deadly to the sin of sloth. We might call it laziness today, but it is deeper than how we tend to use the word. The heart of what it means to be lazy or slothful is not caring. In the early centuries, it was called acedia which literally meant to be “without care”. It was seen as a core sin as it strips away the very soundness of our soul. It has been called “the sin of the empty soul … a weariness of the soul.”
In this sense, the slothful person refuses to care or is incapable of doing so. To live with this, as one writer put it, is like being “on spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, yet can’t rouse yourself to give a damn.” Not only does it make us unable to care, it takes away our ability to feel bad about it.
My favorite reference for this condition comes from ancient monks who called this “the noonday devil” as it came upon them most intensely in the heat of the day. They would see this as an attack by the “demon” of sloth. We may refrain from that language but can appreciate their diligence in the face of this foe.
They believe that these “demons” could not act directly on the intellect and so, instead, they aroused bad thoughts by working on the memory and the imagination. For example, “nostalgia” — remembering the past far more fondly than reality suggests — was one way those “demons” would create sloth in the soul. If the best days are behind you, why care in the present?
Similarly, to subvert theimagination by obsessing over a “grass is greener” future also removed your soul from being attentive to others. You cannot love and care for others in the present when you are infatuated with your future.
When young monks needed help with sloth they would seek out an elder. Their elders resisted the modern advice of recommending a change of scenery or to go “treat yourself”. Instead they would insist on the virtue of diligence.
Let’s end with some of that ancient wisdom to help us strengthening diligence as a means to fight sloth. Most of this comes from Evagrius, a 4th century monk. I’ll add my paraphrases in bold.
When sloth came upon him in the desert, Abba Anthony prayed to be delivered and was shown that any physical task, done in the right spirit, could free him. Do something physical to help get you out of your bad thoughts.
When a young monk faced sloth in the repetitiveness of his work and scenery, the counsel would be to not look without but within; “Go, sit in your cell and your cell with teach you everything.” Your listlessness should not be avoided simply by continually changing scenery. Face yourself in the place you are.
“What heals sloth is staunch persistence… Set a measure for yourself in everything that you do, and don’t turn from it until you’ve reached that goal.” Make small, manageable goals throughout your day and stay with them until done.
“As far as we are able, exalt the mercies of Christ” to battle the despair of sloth. The reading of Scripture was essential to reorient them to reality along with “praying intelligently”. Read your Bibles out loud and sit with the words for a few minutes everyday. Talk to God about it.
I honestly love how practical those ancient monks were. As for our hopes of loving and caring through being attentive, there is nothing better to shake us out of care-lessness than fostering the deadly virtue of diligence.
O God, make speed to save us. O Lord, make haste to help us.
If there is a time we need to earnestly care it is now. May our eyes be open and our ears attentive to the world just around us. And, as we face the challenges of our times may we also learn to face ourselves.
Keep us from nostalgia that refuses to look forward with hope and from a corrupted imagination that doubts You are at work in our present.
Help us, O Lord, to see Your love through attentiveness toward us — every single day — that we may be diligent ourselves to the things You so deeply care about. Amen.
Responding to the Deadly Virtue of Diligence
Reflect on the definition of diligence as “loving through attentiveness”. Who has modeled that for you? In particular, how are they attentive and to what are they attentive?
The heart of diligence is to care deeply about something/someone. What do you care deeply about right now? What moves your heart to action? Has anything begun to shape your heart during this time of a global pandemic?
Have you had a season that might fit the description of sloth/acedia when nothing much seemed to matter in life? How do you describe it? Do your remember what helped you move on? Are you in that kind of season right now?
Depression v. Acedia. Writer Kathleen Norris* puts it this way: Depression generally has an identifiable and external cause whereas acedia arises out of nowhere, emerging from inner depths without warning nor reason. Depression is more amendable to treatment. It will disrupt life so that, eventually, you cannot fail to notice and take action. Acediais more subtle when it wells up and “only the venerable practice of spiritual discernment is of much use.” Reflect on these distinctions. Where does it take you?
Of the four practical responses listed above, which are the most natural for you? Which are the least? Is there one you that is calling to you?
For Fun and Exploration:
There was a very diligent man who was overweight. He decided that he had some excess pounds to lose. Since he was very diligent, he stuck to his diet earnestly. He even had a new route to work so that he wouldn’t drive by his favorite bakery in the morning. However, one day, he came into work with a big coffee cake. His coworkers started to scold him because they all knew he was dieting. The diligent man said that he could explain. “You see, I accidentally drove past my favorite bakery today and I saw all these delicious coffee cakes through the window out on the display case. So I prayed. I prayed to God and said, “If you really think I should have this delicious coffee cake, please have an open parking spot right in front of the bakery.” Then the man paused for a moment and added, “Soon enough, there was one on my eighth time around!”—————————————— A sloth was reporting he was robbed by two turtles, when the officer asked for the details on the scene of the crime the sloth replied, “I’m not quite sure…It all happened so fast.” —————————————— The Sloth is a South American animal which sleeps about 80% of the time. When awake, it barely moves because its metabolism converts food to energy so slowly. Their speed is somewhere between a garden snail and a giant tortoise. A fun picture of a sloth comes from the recent animated film, “Zootopia”. Do a YouTube search of “Flash Zootopia” and watch a sloth (named “Flash,” of course) work at the DMV (Department of Mammal Vehicles)
* Dave is reading a book on this subject: Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life by Kathleen Norris (2008). It is not short (336 pages) but, if you are intrigued by the concept of “acedia,” this is a great read. Norris is a wonderful poet/writer who came back to the faith in her 30’s when she moved from NYC to S. Dakota.
LOVE: what more can be said? The old adage, “familiarity breeds contempt” may be a temptation when you first glance at this week’s theme of LOVE. “The Church talks about love all the time!” You may be thinking to yourself. Yet, to speak of it as a “DEADLY VIRTUE” changes the conversation. I (Mike) bring this week’s devotion. Read on and stay strong during these strange days and our final weeks of Lent.
Love doesn’t make the world go round. Love is what makes the ride worthwhile.
—Franklin P. Jones
“He that but looketh on a plate of ham and eggs to lust after it hath already committed breakfast with it in his heart.”
—C.S. Lewis, Letters to an American Lady (March 10, 1954)
It may seem odd to call “love” a virtue. I think it seems odd because our culture continually tells us that love is a feeling. Those of us who have been well-loved—or who have attempted to love well—know that it’s not just a feeling. Love is intention and action and difficult to accomplish (much of the time). If you don’t believe this, then re-read 1Corinthian’s 13:4-8 where we are told that love is “patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” When Jesus tells us to “love your enemies” in Luke 6:35, love, obviously, becomes a virtue.
Love, the virtue, is the mortal enemy of lust, the vice. Lust is a passionate, overmastering yearning. It’s an intense craving, usually for something sinful. Most of the time we use it to refer to an illicit sexual desire. As C. S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity, “Love is the great conqueror of lust.” Here is the irony. We lust because we think that the object of our immoral fascination will make us ecstatically happy—not understanding that God does want us to be ecstatically happy in ways that are true and lasting. Our lusts, as a matter of fact, move that happiness further and further out of our reach. God wants us to love so that we can actually find the joy that we seek.
Take the problem of pornography, for instance. After a few decades as a pastor of young men, I can tell you that most of them are seeking sexual intimacy and the pleasure associated with it (of course). Here’s the thing: God created them to long for that and He’s the one who came up with the whole idea of sex in the first place. The problem is that by lusting after the images on their computers and elsewhere, these young men are actually pushing the intimacy they pursue farther away—for they were created to love someone who loves them back within a secure covenant of marriage. I’ll repeat: God wants us to love so that we can find the joy that we seek—joy that is only found in Him who is Love. Hidden within every one of our lusts is a desire for something good. As G. K. Chesterton said, “Every time a man knocks on the door of a brothel he is looking for God.”
If lust is damaging to what we were created to enjoy, then love (by its very nature) is healing; although, it may not be easy. In his fantasy book, The Great Divorce, Lewis employs an allegory of lasting impact. It is worth a long look.
There is a man upon whose shoulder sits “a little red lizard, and it was twitching its tail like a whip and whispering things in his ear.” This lizard would implant lustful thoughts in the man’s mind and give him dreams that had “sometimes gone too far in the past.” In the book, a large flaming angel extends its hand and asks the man’s permission to kill the chattering creature. After much mental and spiritual struggle, the man finally agrees. The man “gave a scream of agony such as I never heard on Earth. The Burning One closed his crimson grip on the reptile: twisted it, while it bit and writhed, and then flung it, broken-backed, on the turf.”
As this happens, the man himself begins to be remade—more solid, brighter, stronger, larger—and something seemed to be happening to the lizard. “The creature was still struggling and even growing bigger as it struggled. And as it grew it changed. Its hinder parts grew rounder. The tail, still flickering, became a tail of hair that flickered between huge and glossy buttocks. Suddenly I started back, rubbing my eyes. What stood before me was the greatest stallion I have ever seen, silvery white but with mane and tail of gold. It was smooth and shining, rippled with swells of flesh and muscle, whinnying and stamping with its hoofs. At each stamp the land shook and the trees dindled.”
“The new-made man turned and clapped the new horse’s neck. It nosed his bright body. Horse and master breathed each into the other’s nostrils. The man turned from it, flung himself at the feet of the Burning One, and embraced them. When he rose I thought his face shone with tears, but it may have been only the liquid love and brightness (one cannot distinguish them in that country) which flowed from him. I had not long to think about it. In joyous haste the young man leaped upon the horse’s back. Turning in his seat he waved a farewell, then nudged the stallion with his heels. They were off before I well knew what was happening. There was riding if you like! I came out as quickly as I could from among the bushes to follow them with my eyes; but already they were only like a shooting star far off on the green plain, and soon among the foothills of the mountains. Then, still like a star, I saw them winding up, scaling what seemed impossible steeps, and quicker every moment, till near the dim brow of the landscape, so high that I must strain my neck to see them, they vanished, bright themselves, into the rose-brightness of that everlasting morning.”
Lust is an impoverished, pitiful substitute for the love God gives us when we submit to His ways. The Virtue of Love will carry us through this life and into the eternal joys of Heaven.
Lord, I confess my sin of lust to you and I denounce it for the vice that it is.
Help me to love instead—to honor the ones I have lusted after instead of using them.
May I not seek my own pleasure but strive for the joy that you want to give me by loving as you love. For you are love, my God, and the model of what it means to love another person.
May my love be patient, kind, not envious, not boastful, not proud.
May it honor others and not be selfish, not be easily angered and may it keep no record of wrongs.
May my love never delight in evil but rejoice with the truth, always protect, always trust, always hope, always persevere and never fail. So be it by your great power and your love for me, Jesus. Amen.
Responding to the Deadly Virtue of Love:
Who, among your family and friends, has loved you the best? Pinpoint a few specific examples of how that love was shown to you. Have you ever loved others in the same way? Why or why not?
It is said that lust seeks a legitimate desire by illegitimate means. Examine just one of your lusts. What do you think might be the “true good” you are searching for in the wrong way? How would God want you to pursue it?
In our overly-sexualized Western culture, where do you think the culture has, indeed, embraced love over lust? Why?
Name one person in your life that you want to love better. What is one way to exhibit the virtue of love these last few weeks of Lent?
“Before his death, aged 63 . . . the NBA’s Wilt The Stilt Chamberlain, confessed to some misgivings about his estimated 20,000 lovers. “It would have been better for me to have one woman 1,000 times,” said Chamberlain. “I wasn’t bragging that I was a great lover. Actually, you can say that I had so many women because I was such a bad lover. They never came back a second time.” —Tony Parsons in GQ Magazine, 22 February 2013
I asked my girlfriend to meet me at the gym but she never showed up. I guess the two of us aren’t going to work out.
How do you get a farmer’s daughter to fall in love with you? A tractor.
I dated a Communist once. I had no idea. She seemed sweet. But it didn’t end well. Honestly, I should have noticed all the red flags.
Love is telling someone to go to hell and worrying about them getting there safely.
We are being asked, for the sake of our communities, to suspend normal rituals and routines, and keep to ourselves until further notice. You have been receiving advice and warnings by the virtual truckload. Dave and I have no intention to pile on. All we want to do is help you keep your Lent fresh and your souls clean. This week’s virtue may be the most initially unappealing; yet, we think it is absolutely crucial for these strange days. Dave writes this week’s entry.
“I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure.” ~ Ecclesiastes 2:10
“I guess a modern version of heroism is regaining control of social impulses, saying ‘no’ to a thousand shallow contacts for the sake of a few daring plunges.” ~ David Brooks
Temperance: let’s give it another try.
It is impossible to write anything this morning without acknowledging the strange times in which we live. With the coronavirus, we are witness to something that literally affects every American (and world citizen) in real time. It is an unavoidable backdrop to Lent 2020. And we see no need to avoid it.
Mike and I understand these Seven Deadly Virtues as speaking into our present situation. Lent is not a distraction to real life but the path to walk gracefully through it. Therefore, it is precisely during times of disruption where virtue is most needed and where vice is most tempting.
That brings us to our Deadly Virtue of the week: TEMPERANCE. The word itself has lost its place in our language except to conjure up images of an angry, axe-wielding woman of old (see the fascinating Carry Nation) or, perhaps, the Puritans in general.
The dictionary helpfully describes temperance as “habitual moderation in the indulgence of a natural appetite.” The King James Bible keeps temperance in the text when our modern translations use self-control. The concept is easy to grasp; to be temperate is to exercise voluntary self-control.
Despite America’s Puritan heritage, we must admit that temperance has become a very un-American virtue. We are not exactly known for voluntary self-restraint. The writer of Ecclesiastes (quoted above) may be our culture’s patron saint; we, too, are tempted to deny ourselves nothing which our eyes desire.
Temperanceis the antidote to the sin of gluttony. Where temperance moderates indulgences, gluttony impulsively over-indulges. Fundamentally, gluttony is a failure of self-control, the inability to be temperate with something that is otherwise normal and necessary.
There was a famous Stanford University study, The Marshmallow Experiment (1970), regarding self-control and children. Kids could choose one marshmallow in the moment or, if they waited an indefinite amount of time, they could have two. The conclusion: those who delayed immediate gratification tended to have better long-term life outcomes.
The idea is sound. To exercise self-control by choosing not to indulge in something you want — even something good—is part of our personal maturity and our spiritual formation. And, like all Deadly Virtues, it leads us to better life outcomes. How is your life of self-control these days?
Both Peter and Paul include temperance/self-controlin their lists of virtues. Peter tells us to add self-control to our knowledge (2 Peter1:6) as he describes the progression of spiritual growth; knowledge requires temperance (see the reflection section below).
Paul places it at the end of his famous Fruits of the Spirit list (Galatians 5:23). It caught me how important temperance must be when its place is alongside iconic virtues such as love and joy. By calling it a fruit of God’s Spirit, we admit that temperance is more an outcome of following Jesus than something we simply will into our lives. Like the metaphor suggests, our focus is to cling to the Vine as if our lives depends on it and in season, fruit arrives (see John 15).
Fasting—historically the centerpiece of Lenten practices—is designed to build the virtue of temperance. There is much Christ can do with a person who seeks to practice self-control in even one area of their life. For starters, things get revealed: chronic dependencies, favorite self-medications, places of constant temptation, “good” things that lead you away from community or responsibility and more.
All of these personal revelations open space for God if we let temperance do its inner work. And as we become more proficient at self-control, other areas of our life may open up for God’s grace to move. Yes, temperance is a foundational virtue that will lead us to a better long-term life outcome.
Regarding our current reality with the COVID-19 sickness, this is a time for our whole culture, not just the Church, to rediscover the grace and power of temperance. Where is Christ calling us to restrain ourselves for the sake of our neighbors?
We need to stop fighting against this archaic-sounding virtue that has the audacity to deny us something within our reach and within our rights. We need to embrace the Spirit of Temperance and reclaim a piece of our spiritual heritage—and this embracing will help navigate this time of crisis.
Lord, hear our Prayer:
May this time of “social distancing” create a deeper hunger for community in our neighbors and ourselves.
May our hearts be more focused and our actions more compassionate during this crisis.
May we learn to deny what will harm us while we learn to embrace what will heal us.
May our attempts at temperance — no matter how small or how frustrating — grant us a greater taste of your grace and may they be marked by Joy.
May our growth in temperance lead us to you.
May our failures in temperance lead us to you.
May our true fast be to loosen the chains of selfishness that bind us.
Lord, grant us the power to do so—in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
During our current coronavirus outbreak, where have you noticed a struggle with self-control? Is there a good, natural appetite you’re having to moderate or deny? Can you re-focus that to become a spiritual practice by inviting Christ into it?
If you have taken a Lenten fast, how is it going? (Did you give up March Madness?) Consider taking one week for a concentrated fast. Find one good thing in which you indulge everyday (food, drink, screens, games…) and simply deny it. See what it sparks within you. Talk to God about it.
If you have never read through “The Twelve Steps” of AA*, you would be wise to become familiar with them. Which steps catch your attention? Is there one takeaway for this time of crisis? (*AA was founded just two years after Prohibition—two different approaches to the same problem of alcohol addiction).
Peter writes that self control helps us with knowledge (2 Peter 1:5-8). How might that work? Think about what is involved in knowing something or someone else; what role might self-control/self-restraint play in deepening that knowledge?
Temperance (translated self-control) is one of three subjects Paul brings up to a Roman Governor when he was under house arrest (Acts 24:25). Why do you think he brought up self control? Is this why Felix left the conversation terrified?
A preacher was completing a sermon on temperance. With great expression he said, “If I had all the beer in the world, I’d take it and throw it into the river!”
The congregation nodded their approval. With even greater emphasis the preacher added, “And if I had all the wine in the world, I’d take it and throw it into the river, too!”
The people clapped and said, “AMEN.”
“And if I had all the whiskey in the world,” said the preacher, “I’d take it and throw it into the river!”
As the reverend sat down, the song leader then stood very cautiously and announced with a smile, “For our closing song, let us sing Hymn 365: Shall We Gather at the River.”