March 10th, 2016
With last Sunday’s sermon on gluttony, you’d expect some leftovers. Here’s a little of what we were just too full to partake of.
Laurie Shapiro is a writer who found her weight-gain inexplicable. She’d had seasons of excess eating, due to stress or pregnancies or loss, but at least during those times she could account for the gains.
In recent years she’d sworn off sugar-consumption and even took up an exercise regimen. Still she found herself gaining not losing, or even maintaining, weight.
Not until her husband, who had become equally perplexed by the situation, set up a camera in the kitchen to switch on in the wee hours was the mystery solved. There in dark shadows but living color was his wife wandering into the kitchen and engaging in what’s come to be diagnosed as “sleep-eating.” Laurie hadn’t been on any sleep aids (like Ambien which is a typical culprit of this condition). But she had been on a thyroid pill which had helped her to fall asleep but which couldn’t keep her from virtually sleep-walking to the fridge or the pantry and literally eating spoonfuls of flour.
The video confirmed the phenomenon. A talk with her doctor identified a cause: the stress associated with the publication of her most recent book had triggered an “interest” in food to alleviate it. Left to itself during stressful situations, the body will invite us to take our pressures to food. Once it finds a kind of relief in the solace food offers only some significant measure can restrain us from a gluttonous way.
Her doctor found a cause. It was her teenager who offered a solution of sorts: securing the fridge with a bike lock each night. Sure enough, the impediment to midnight binging enabled her to lose the weight.
Shapiro’s story exemplifies a part of the process for displacing vice. There do need to be “structural” measures taken, where applicable, to mitigate the capacity (read: temptation) for falling into what’s destructive. To appeal to another example, one won’t burn away one’s tendency to lust by burning all the adult magazines in his home. Then again neither will he unless he does. That’s a terrific first step. (Another would be installing an internet filter with accountability features.)
But there are too many waking moments when purely structural means won’t do to get to the heart of the cause, or to its remedy. For those who find themselves in full command of their senses, a lock of whatever sort will in time only invite circumvention. Only a change of heart can serve as an abiding solution.
We’re all like Laurie in that we all face stress. And while our bodies’ responses to circumstances aren’t always identical, the way food can provide a palliative is true for everyone. But if our bodies in some way become our enemies (to be sure with a co-conspirator in a culture that makes food everywhere available), and if stresses are unavoidable, then something else must intervene to lock out that conspiracy.
I didn’t make much time to develop the thought near the end of the sermon, but I’d like to riff here a little longer on the idea that gratitude for delight is its own deterrent against overindulgence. In that *film we referenced, Chocolat, the chocolatier, played by Juliette Binoche, excels in offering just the right confection to warm and to cheer the various townsfolk she encounters. The truffle she gives to the anxious wife, or the pepper-spiced hot-chocolate she whips up for the hard-bitten widow, aren’t abstracted from her, but are real extensions of her kindness. They are not just from her, they are part of her. And in each moment of sharing the recipient feels love in their sweetness, which in most cases provokes an undeniable if subtle gratitude.
Why does the giver’s connection to the gift matter to the receiver? It is hard to imagine any of the chocolatier’s beneficiaries hastily absconding with more than what they’d been offered. It would be equally bizarre for them to conclude that in these delights they were meant to find life rather than just a “lift.” That is because what they were receiving was always coming from a kind hand, which meant their appreciation of the gift was always tied to the giver. And so it would only reason to be that it’s their gratitude for the kindness mediated from a Loving source that would make both overindulgence and distortion of the delight’s purpose non-sensical if not abhorrent.
The “saying grace” we encouraged as deterrent against gluttony was a call, not merely to say words of thanks before each meal, but an encouragement to give thought to the sustenance food is, the delight food can be, and most of all the taste of a greater reality yet to come by means of it. What C.S. Lewis said of beauty in his famous sermon “The Weight of Glory” might equally be applied to flavor:
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
In the food there may be a flavor in which we rightly delight. But to locate its essential glory in itself is to mistake the source for its image.
When Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty,” He means there is a contentment in knowing Him that exposes both the nature and limits of food. It is a gift and delight, but in knowing Him is our life.
There are habits we may form, with help from external sources and means, that improve our chances of escape from the mastery of vices. But until something within takes hold in such a way that what tempts loses its allure, no lock, no filter, no friend will ever suffice in loosening vice’s grip.
[*The film has a PG-13 rating which entails discretion. Our friends over at Mockingbird gave an extended exposition of how Chocolat nevertheless gives a taste of the goodness of the Gospel. You can read their whole review, with pertinent clips, here.]
Ruling elder Hugh Comer brought this to our attention earlier this week. Embedded in one of Ken Myers’ regular essays associated with the Mars Hill Audio Journal–this from the Journal’s frequent installment called “Addenda”–is a quote from the late Fr. Alexander Schmemann (whom we have quoted nearly every Lent as a guide to our participation in it). It’s not a quote you read once–or even twice–to get its meaning. The Orthodox have a way with pithy reasoning and reflection. But it has to do with how culture has done more to shape the church in its own image than the reverse.
“It sounds like a paradox, but the basic religion that is being preached and accepted as the only means of overcoming secularism is in reality a surrender to secularism. This surrender can take place — and actually does — in all Christian confessions, although it is differently ‘colored’ in a nondenominational suburban ‘community church’ and in a traditional, hierarchical, confessional and liturgical parish. For the surrender consists not in giving up creeds, traditions, symbols and customs (of all this the secular man, tired of his functional office, is sometimes extremely fond), but in accepting the very function of religion in terms of promoting the secular value of help, be it help in character building, peace of mind, or assurance of eternal salvation. It is in this ‘key’ that religion is preached to, and accepted by, millions and millions of average believers today. And it is really amazing how little difference exists in the religious self-consciousness of members of confessions whose dogmas seem to stand in radical opposition to one another. For even if a man changes religion, it is usually because he finds the one he accepts as offering him ‘more help’ — not more truth. While religious leaders are discussing ecumenicity at the top, there exists already at the grass roots a real ecumenicity in this ‘basic religion.’ It is here, in this ‘key’ that we find the source of the apparent success of religions in some parts of the world, such as America, where the religious ‘boom’ is due primarily to the secularization of religion. It is also the source of the decline of religion in those parts of the world where man has not time enough yet for constant analysis of his anxieties and where ‘secularism’ still holds out the great promise of bread and freedom.”
Mmmm, yeah. What?
Let me venture a distillation. Though part of the church’s resilience, the Gospel and the Spirit of God notwithstanding, is attributable to its ability to both shape and flourish within all manner of cultures, it is nevertheless susceptible to also being shaped by that culture. Sociologists call that syncretism and it can occur both at the level of doctrine and ritual.
Schmemann argues that the church’s habitation within a secular context has seduced the church into a kind of cultural accommodation that makes its central teachings almost indistinguishable from what its surrounding culture propounds. And that overlap between church and secularity centers on what either (both) can “do” for its proponents in their search for some notion of progress, albeit opaquely defined. So long as the entity can offer a way forward–success, personal betterment, maximal happiness–the source of the wisdom becomes irrelevant. “What can it do for me?” is the question searchers bring, and the church, in Schmemann’s construal, has chosen to, like the culture, let that question be its overriding concern. The benefits of faith begin to obscure whether what faith argues is even true, or that the benefits originate from a Benefactor to whom all love and deference is due.
In a sermon series on vices, we might easily fall prey to unwittingly reducing the spiritual life to that of burnishing one’s moral character. Faith becomes how to get your best life now, not whether what it advocates is true–submission to which may in fact make life in many respects harder. Answering lust with continence, sloth with diligence, vainglory with magnanimity, and gluttony with temperance may preclude a host of unwanted experiences. But divorcing whatever pragmatic value of the gospel there is from Him who is truth (John 17:17) is to turn God into a life coach rather than to honor Him as Lord.
Sunday night we’ll gather together to pray, as we do each 2nd Sunday of the month. The theme of the evening will be to “pray it forward.” We always invite people to share prayer requests using the the prayer cards inserted in the bulletin. We also take note of requests listed on The City. Henceforth we also invite you to send requests to us at the newly created address: [email protected]. Feel free to send requests at any time and let us know if you’d prefer it to be kept confidential among the elders.
Meanwhile, on Good Friday we’ll convene for a Liturgy in Stone at 6pm at Canterbury. We’ll reflect on what weighs us down, the weight of His Cross, and how the latter means to help unburden us of the former. Childcare will be available.
Finally, we’ve given you a hint each week of what vice we’ll be exploring this Sunday. Consider this hilarious account (HT: TED talks) your hint.