Sexual Immorality

Sexual Immorality

 The demon of sexual immorality compels desiring for different bodies.

From the Praktikos, Evagrius of Pontus, 345-399AD

 Ted Hewitt survived the Battle of the Bulge. In the winter of 1945, food was scarce. Ted and the other soldiers depended on C-rations; canned meat and bread with a spread and a dessert may not be a feast, but it was enough. In a war-torn countryside, it was life itself.

The local women came at night. For a can of meat or some bread, they offered their bodies to the soldiers. Many had children to feed. Sex for crackers may not be a fair trade, but it beat starvation. Prostitution was a survival tactic.

Ted didn’t trade food for sex, and he had nothing but scorn for those soldiers who did – participatory pornography, he called it. The soldiers didn’t care about the women, only the pleasure their bodies could provide. The blame and shame landed squarely on the men. He felt they should have known better and been kinder.

It’s hard to make a judgment on such acts from the outside. Most of the soldiers were young and scared, surrounded by killing and dying – not an excuse, but certainly an extenuating circumstance. Compassion and generosity may have been buried under the atrocities of war. Perhaps sex was a way to keep their far worse demons at bay.

The war haunted Ted Hewitt for the rest of his life. In the abuse of hungry women, he saw a demon. How damaged were the souls of the others that they did not?

Kindness

My Friends,

Life is short, and we do not have too much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us, so be quick to love and make haste to be kind. And may the blessing of the One who made us, and the One who loves us,and the One who travels with us,be with you and those you love this day and always.   Amen.

(From Henri-Frederic Amiel, 1821-1881, found at www.standrewsmhd.org/susans_blessing)

      Rushing makes everything blurry, like riding a merry-go-round at full speed. Life is short, and we do not have too much time to get our work done, so we are quick to move through the store, the commute, and the daily errands. Basic courtesy is all that is expected, and often all that is extended.There will be time for enjoying life later. When is later? If life is short, later is now.

I see the world made new through kindness almost every time I go to my local Dunkin’ Donuts. Dozens of us wait in line to get coffee and muffins from the kind woman behind the counter. We get out of our cars to see her. We ask for her over the drive-thru intercom. She pours the same coffee, bags the same donuts, and charges the same price. She isn’t any faster or slower than her coworkers, yet she hastens to be kind to everyone she serves. In her kindness is the mighty power of the Spirit, given to all of us. A true saint who serves us as we come in and sends us out with a blessing as we go. When I leave with kindness and coffee, I know I’ve been to church. May I make haste to serve with kindness, too.

Gluttony

A Glutton is someone who raids the icebox for a cure for spiritual malnutrition. 

(Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004)

 The waitresses at Hector’s called him Mr. Ranch Dressing. He would come in for the all-you-can-eat lunch buffet a couple times a week, always alone. He would fill not just one plate, but three on his first trip. Then he would return to the line and fill three soup bowls with ranch dressing, cottage cheese, and ketchup. Everything got dunked in one of the three bowls. He’d grab a chicken leg, dunk it in ranch dressing, take a bite, then plop it in the cottage cheese. Roast beef went into the ketchup, fries in all three. Taking a few bites of each item, he’d work his way through three plates of food. He left half-eaten chicken standing in ketchup, spare ribs resting in cottage cheese, and fried clams sinking in creamy ranch. Then he’d return to the buffet line for more food. After an hour, he’d pay his check and go, leaving behind several plates of food, a big mess, and a small tip. When I think of gluttony, I think of him.

I hadn’t heard of Frederick Buechner back then, and I was too young to see a broken and hurting soul in Mr. Ranch Dressing. I didn’t see his isolation or wonder why he was always alone. Perhaps he took so many plates to fill the other side of his table where no one ever sat. All I saw was a waste of food and the mess I had to clean up. I never saw the starving soul drowning himself in food, seeking holy communion at a lunch buffet.

What if I’d sat down at his table and talked with him for a few minutes, offering real conversation as well as a beverage? What if I’d called him by his name instead of his food habit? Mr. Ranch Dressing’s gluttony was on display for everyone to see, but what about the hardness of heart I revealed every time he was a guest at one of my tables? All you can eat, and no one to dine with – feast and famine at the same table.

Self Control

 

The Eight Bad Thoughts

Evagrius Ponticus (345-399AD) was a monk, an ascetic, and a writer. In his work, Praktikos, he names eight bad thoughts (logismoi) that tempted monks to abandon the monastic life: gluttony, sexual immorality, love of money, sadness, anger, acedia, vainglory, and pride. (early church texts, earlychurchtexts.com/public. For extensive research, readers may subscribe to this site.) These eight thoughts draw the believer away from a holy life and lead to a diminished awareness of God and self. These thoughts were later adapted and renamed the Seven Deadly Sins.

The fruit of the Spirit

By contrast, the action of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Galatians 5:22-23

For the next few weeks, I will reflect on Evagrius’ Eight Bad Thoughts and Paul’s list of the action (karpos) of the Spirit. Karpos is usually translated as fruit, but the intent is more active than a still life subject. The word can also be translated as result, outcome, deed, gain, grain, and advantage.

Self Control

Giving up favorite vices, committing to good causes and practices – self control has to be the stick most of us choose during Lent…

In the 1960’s and 70’s, Stanford professor Walter Mischel and others ran the Marshmallow experiment, a study of deferred gratification (see  “Predicting Cognitive Control From Preschool to Late Adolescence and Young Adulthood”. Psychological Science 17 (6): 478–484. Archived from the original on June 22, 2007. See also Maia Szalavitz, “The Secrets of Self-Control: The Marshmallow Test 40 Years Later,” Time Magazine, September 6, 2011, online). Young children were offered a small treat – a marshmallow, cookie, etc. The experiment leader told the children that they could eat the treat right away, or get another treat if they didn’t eat the treat until the leader left and returned, about fifteen minutes later. The gist of the study: young children who could delay gratification and earn the second marshmallow were less likely to struggle with behavioral issues, drug addiction, or obesity in their teen years. Also, their SAT scores were significantly higher than those who couldn’t wait.

As these children became adults, the picture isn’t quite as clear. Some gained the ability to defer gratification, others didn’t. As an indicator of overall life success, the marshmallow experiment isn’t definitive: good news for the ones who couldn’t wait. Reality turns out to be written in water rather than stone.

Delaying gratification, giving up an immediate reward for a bigger one, is taking a longer view. The marshmallow in hand doubles its value when it’s saved rather than consumed. It’s a valuable life skill, but not what Paul was writing about.

Self control as an action or gain of the Spirit isn’t about marshmallows or whatever our equivalent temptation might be. Self control grows when we know that we don’t really want marshmallows: we want communion with God. If eating a marshmallow right away reveals God’s presence with us, eat it. If waiting for another marshmallow draws us to God, don’t eat it. The chief end of human life isn’t the acquisition or consumption of marshmallows.

Self control breaks the stranglehold that an external temptation has on us, moving us to seek God in all things and through all things. With enough practice, self control teaches us a great lesson: without God, there will never be enough marshmallows to satisfy us. With God, whatever marshmallows we have are more than enough – we might even learn to give ours away. After all, who needs to hoard marshmallows when we are seated at the heavenly banquet?

 

 

Choosing the Stick: Lent 2014

Choosing the Stick

My friend Linda MacDonald lived across the street from me when we were seven years old. She had four sisters, all of them daring and adventurous. And they were stubborn, which resulted in frequent fighting. When battles moved from nasty looks and ugly faces to kicking and hitting, one of the parents would step in to separate the main combatants. If the fight continued, the word came down: you’ve earned a beating. Then the offenders were sent outside to choose the stick they would be beaten with.

Linda usually chose the smallest stick she could find, sometimes no bigger than a pine needle. Her sister Brenda went for a big, rotten one – hard to lift and falling apart with the least movement. Cindy refused to choose most times; she just sat on the back steps weeping and gnashing her teeth. The older sisters just strolled around the yard the whole time with a peace which surpassed my understanding.

Choosing the stick we get beaten with is how many of us experience Lent. Subtracting chocolate or swearing, adding daily exercise and volunteer hours – sticks come in many sizes and shapes. For the fights we started with others and the many ways we have misbehaved, we find ourselves in the yard picking up sticks. Let the punishment fit the crime.

So what happened to the MacDonalds after they chose a stick? Nothing. There was no beating. The real purpose of choosing a stick: time to calm down and stop the hurtful fighting. Ironic, really – choosing a stick didn’t lead to a beating, it ended one. The older sisters had already figured that out and spent the time in peace. I wasn’t around to see the younger ones catch on, but I’m sure they did.

If I’m spending Lent choosing a stick, perhaps even going further and beating myself with it, I’m missing the point. Lent is the time to stop the everyday beatings. Whatever faithful practices I choose to add or harmful vices I subtract are just what gets me into the yard – a place to disengage from aggression and engage in peace. Once I figure that out, yard time is a joy; until I do, it feels a lot like picking out a stick.

The Eight Bad Thoughts and the Fruits of the Spirit will be the focus of my Lenten meditations, leading into Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Something to keep in mind: human violence put Jesus on the cross, not God. No beating from God awaits, just the chance to stop fighting with our siblings.

Lenten Reflections

Lent began last week, and my writings on the prayer at the beginning of the day ended today. In the coming weeks of Lent, I’ll be delving into the Eight Deadly Thoughts and the Fruits of the Spirit. I hope you’ll join me, adding your own reflections to mine. The new writings begin Wednesday…

Prayer Ending?

Prayer Continuing

     Why is it that what I’m praying moves from words to flesh? Last week, the prayer at the beginning of the day came to life in the shape of a math teacher.

An awful note came home on my son’s test. It took legitimate criticism into the land of undeserved negative reinforcement. When I spoke with its author, expressing my concern over the comments and asking to meet with her, she was surprised. If I had no issue with the her assessment of my son’s skills, why would I object to the note? A week and a few notes to school later, I went to meet her.

The easiest way to make her understand what she did wrong: wave my PhD and years of educational theory in front of her and perform a cutting assessment of the note. Use big words and direct eye contact. Prepare counter arguments in advance, and make sure she wouldn’t be sending notes like that again – to my son or any other student in her class. Turnabout is fair play, after all. Except I’ve spent the last couple of weeks asking God to “teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering and embarrassing others.”

I went to the meeting, listened to the teacher, and asked her to listen to what she wrote. What I learned: she is a good teacher of math, not such a good teacher of children. There was no ill intention, just a lack of emotional understanding – no ability to see that how something is expressed matters. Because she had already adopted a more positive attitude toward my son, I let the matter drop. I asked that future notes be sent to me rather than my son. No one was embarrassed or left embittered, and my son won’t have to read hurtful notes.

My son and I settled on a plan: he will forgive her verbal missteps and I will diligently reinterpret future notes. We will take into consideration her shortcomings and feelings, and continue to give her the benefit of the doubt. If another incident arises, I will meet with her again. We will keep praying for her, caring about her into the future. Will she have any awareness or gratitude for this? I don’t know, but I am aware of the grace I received: the chance to act firmly and wisely, without embittering and embarrassing another – and to see my son do the same. For such grace, I give thanks.

Amen

Amen.

O Lord, Grant me to greet the coming day in peace. Help me in all things to rely upon thy holy will. In every hour of the day reveal thy will to me. Bless my dealings with all who surround me. Teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day with peace of soul, and with firm conviction that thy will governs all. In all my deeds and words guide my thoughts and feelings. In unforeseen events let me not forget that all are sent by thee. Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering and embarrassing others. Give me strength to bear the fatigue of the coming day with all that it shall bring. Direct my will, teach me to pray, pray thou thyself in me. Amen. (Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, d. 1867. From A Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers, Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1991, p. 20)

I missed something when I copied this prayer. Not a word, but a space. Here it is:

Direct my will, teach me to pray, pray thou thyself in me.   Amen.

In my prayer manual, there is a three letter space separating the Amen from the rest of the prayer. I missed the presence of this absence when I began writing this prayer, paying no attention whatsoever to what wasn’t there. I might chalk it up as a printer’s mistake if there weren’t three spaces separating every writing in the prayer book from its concluding amen. Not an accident, then, but an intentional separation. If this were a book of prayers created for communal worship, I might think the space was added to remind the priest that the “amen” wasn’t his or her line – it’s the response of the congregation. But this is a book created for private devotional use. The one who says the prayer also says the amen, so why include a space?

Amen can be translated many ways: so be it, let it be, or make is so (the Star Trek: Next Generation version). It’s more than agreeing with a prayer, it’s asking God to make real what has been said. The gap between a prayer and an amen is there for a very good reason: to give me time to decide if I really want to commit the words to God. Do I really, truly want these words to be made real? Am I willing to be transformed by them – and work for the reality they bring? It’s one thing to mouth words about wanting the holiness of God to transform my life, it’s another to commit myself to it. Words are powerful, and prayers can change the world. Am I really ready to see the face of God in everything and everyone, even in myself? Words of prayer are a door into God’s love: the amen is taking hold of the Spirit’s hand and going through it.

With every amen, I cross a threshold. Once I move from the prayer to the amen, there’s no going back. Only God knows what adventures will follow. Chances are, I’ll be changed each and every time. The space tells me to be aware. This is a doorway to eternal love: enter at God’s own risk.

Line ten

Direct my will, teach me to pray, pray thou thyself in me.

Direct my will, because will without direction spends itself getting lost in the maze of distractions that every day offers. When you direct my will, the world changes from a maze that confuses me to a labyrinth that leads me to you.

      Teach me to pray, because I can’t hear you or talk to you without learning from you. Prayer is holding myself and others up to you, handing my world back to you. Teach me, or I will grasp at things and cling to them rather than opening myself to your embrace.

     Pray thou thyself in me, because who I am is rooted in who you are. When you pray in me, my smallest self is embraced by you.

      Praying is dancing. When we are babies, someone dances us around, held in arms high above the floor. As we grow, someone slides feet under ours, teaching us the steps, holding us secure as we move to the music. When we put away childish size, we stand on our own feet, dancing with the partner of our soul who has shown us grace from the very first minute the music began.

Line nine

Give me strength to bear the fatigue of the coming day with all that it shall bring.

     When I first read this line, I took it to mean something like this: Every single thing the day brings requires energy, and I ask for the strength to meet each one of them even when I am tired. At first glance, it’s the day that’s bringing all things. But it’s not the only way to read this line.

     Today, give me strength to carry what being exhausted brings into my life. It’s not the things that the day shall bring, but all the things that fatigue brings. Fatigue is an exhaustion that comes from extreme mental or physical exertion. Weeks and months can go by in a blur because it takes every ounce of energy just to survive each day. Every moment becomes something to endure rather than something intentionally lived. Life can be reduced to checking off a nearly infinite to-do list with little time to enjoy a single item on it. Fatigue brings with it a life nearly impossible to bear with hope. Finally, it brings the truth: God’s strength is the only resource sufficient for such a time.

This happened to me once. My husband and I had moved to New York City where he was soon immersed in a new graduate program. I was busy with our infant son, teaching classes at New Brunswick Seminary, writing a dissertation, daily housework, and adjusting to my new home. Like Emily in Our Town, I realized that I was missing the beauty of my days. I could get everything done, but couldn’t seem to appreciate it or muster the strength to find God in it. With no better idea, I took a chance and met with Brother Clark for spiritual direction.  Brother Clark listened to me, paused, and said, “It sounds to me like you’re dealing with the blessing of answered prayer.”

He was right. All of it came from receiving a yes to heartfelt prayer. Although nothing changed, my world was transformed.

I think both readings of this line bring hope and peace. I ask for strength to bear what the day brings, and I need strength to bear what fatigue brings. Once upon a time in New York City, the day brought me the blessed reality of answered prayer – and fatigue brought me the truth that I could live in its midst and never see it.

Moving into God’s presence through words