Sadness

 

Sadness sometimes arises from frustrated desires… when desires are frustrated it arises…Evagrius Ponticus

My son Jared read Frost’s The Road Not Taken this week. It’s a good poem for any age; everyone old enough to read has chosen one path over another. Deeper life meaning is there, but like many of the things our grandparents tell us when we are young, it’s not important yet. It takes a certain amount of maturity to care whether the road not taken might have been a better one…

Sadness isn’t about what path is taken. It comes from not taking either path wholeheartedly. Looking back toward the fork in the road, staring into the woods in a vain attempt to see if the other road was the better one, not seeing the ground underfoot and the sky overhead – that’s what makes it a bad thought, something that will drain the soul of vitality and hope. The path chosen has more rocks, dull companions, and poorer weather. Clearly, the other path is easier and holier – It shows a different part of the woods, and the sun shines brighter on it. All that is good and desirable is on the other road, so who wouldn’t be frustrated? Frustration dulled over time becomes sadness – it takes a lot less energy to live in the grey shade of sadness than in the blazing red of angry frustration. All that is good is on the other path, and nothing of great value on the one chosen. If only the other path…

On the other path, others are staring into the woods in a vain attempt to see if another road was the better one, not seeing the ground underfoot and the sky overhead. The path chosen has more rocks, dull companions, and poorer weather. All that is good is on another path, and nothing of great value on the one chosen – just  frustration and sadness.

The refusal to see the blessing of the chosen present, forgetting that Jesus walks this path just as surely as any other – these are the fruits of sadness. Enjoyed often enough, it slows the feet and numbs the heart.

Frost looked back on life to see blessing in the road taken. The road less travelled made all the difference because it led to an extraordinary life. Had Frost taken the other path, I suspect he’d have found blessing there, too. Holy ground or hell bound? It takes a certain amount of maturity to know that the road not taken wasn’t a better one. Blessing and sadness are usually in the heart of the beholder – and the feet of the walker.

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.

 

Peace

Peace

 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. John 14:27

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Phil. 4:7

As I write about peace this morning, the wind is driving snow sideways outside my window.

“Look at the birds on the feeder. It’s blowing all over the place and they’re still sitting on it.”

My husband Dave’s words get me over to the window. Outside, wind and snow push at the feeder, making it spin and swing.  Goldfinches and cardinals are hanging onto the slim perches, eating the seeds. Blackbirds are feasting on bread heels and crusts, undaunted by the storm. They are blown off course in their flights from tree and bush to feeder and ground. Still they fly.

“I’m amazed they’re on the feeder; look at it move,” Dave says.

“It’ll hold,” I say.

“Yeah, but they don’t know that.” He’s right, they don’t.

Birds come to eat in storm and in calm. The weather may make the flight an adventure, but it doesn’t stop them. With hearts untroubled, they cling to the perches and eat the seeds.

Do the birds know the feeder will hold? Maybe not, but they aren’t afraid. The weather may be unpredictable, but the supply of food isn’t. The storm can’t take away the food that sustains them.

The peace of God may surpass all understanding, but it reveals itself in feathers right outside my window. Storms may blow me off my path, but I’ll find the perch and the seeds that sustain me. In the Spirit, I know it.  Maybe that’s why peace is a dove.

 

Love of Money

Love of Money

 Love of money suggests: a long old age; hands powerless to work; hunger and disease yet to come; the bitterness of poverty; and the disgrace of receiving the necessities of life from others. (Evagrius of Pontus, the Praktikos)

Those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. I Timothy 6:9-10, NRSV

Money keeps away hunger and provides shelter. It puts shoes on our feet and a car in the driveway. It pays for education and health care. When shared, money can build libraries and hospitals, parks and museums. It is necessary for an abundant life, and a means to a better world.

Love of money is money misunderstood and misdirected. Instead of a means to abundance, it is a defense against some imagined future scarcity. Having enough to meet the needs for a blessed life is never sufficient; more and more must be tucked away for future use, more and more things bought to meet every possible need. It can’t be shared in any great amount – what if it’s needed later? No matter how much money there is, it’s never enough to keep at bay “the bitterness of poverty and the disgrace of receiving the necessities of life from others.” The hoarding never ends because the frightened soul can imagine any number of future disasters.

The truth: no amount of money can ward off all pain and disease. Every person will experience loss and grief. Death comes. It is the inevitable void, and it must be faced.

God doesn’t remove the void; God takes it up into an all-encompassing holiness – the truth revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Death isn’t the final reality: resurrection is. We fall through the void of death, landing in the arms of God.

Love of money is a root of evil because it promises to weave a carpet out of our funds and fears – a rug big enough to cover the infinite void that threatens to annihilate us. It’s a lie, of course, hiding two sure realities:

1 No matter how big the rug, the chasm is bigger.

2 No matter how big the chasm, resurrected life in God is bigger.

Faithfulness

Faithfulness

 Chalk Pond is small and spring fed, with some marshy areas on the edges. There are overhanging trees in some places, wild blueberry bushes in others. Lots of frogs, turtles, and fish live there. Loons and mallards dropped in every so often. During the day, the pond’s water is in constant motion from the breezes that sweep across its surface. It’s small enough for strong swimmers to cross its width and large enough to take a few hours to explore in a canoe.

Just after sunset, Chalk Pond becomes so still that the wake from waterbugs skating on its surface is visible. The pond is so smooth that the night’s stars float on its surface – a living mirror of the heavens.

Faithfulness, a faith full reality, is pond life: sustaining the many lives it touches, fostering its own growth and diversity, and having such peace that the glory of God is revealed upon its face.

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…

Moving into God’s presence through words