March 31st, 2016
We ended our series on the vices Resurrection Sunday with a macroscopic view of vice and virtue in general, and how Jesus’ Good News puts a dramatically different spin on how we typically think of them. Onlookers might think us unduly fixated on moral improvement. But exploring and answering the vices was (and is) always for the purpose of discovering the life freed from them.
Conventional wisdom tends to view vice and virtue through the lens of finding balance: no need to swear off all of what the so-called vices encourage–only don’t let their indulgence sink you. Kevin found an article this week that articulates that point of view and here offers some thoughts on how moderation as an overriding concern may be an unhelpful way of navigating vice and virtue. Here’s Kevin:
It’s likely you’ve heard or even spoken pithy proverbs like these: “Moderation is the key.” Or, “Everything in moderation.” And what one typically means in uttering these aphorisms (or nodding along to another’s utterance of them) is that one ought not be under- or over-indulgent. There is a “middle ground,” a sweet spot that allows one to enjoy without falling prey to either of the other extremes.
But finding that sweet spot is hard; and maintaining it is harder. So, we often find ourselves simply abstaining altogether, rather than struggling to find that mythical middle. Nell Frizzell discusses exactly this problem here. And providentially, she links her query to the issue of “vices” and whether or not they need to be “such an all or nothing affair.”
Frizzell asks, “Why cut out when we can simply cut down?” Her answer, based largely upon social psychology, is that we have a consumer-driven need to categorize things rapidly within the binary of success or failure, creating a “narrative” that “leaves very little room for a healthy middle ground.” Changing this narrative is difficult because it requires us to “maintain” a particular habit in lieu of the old one. Its difficulty notwithstanding, however, Frizzell affirms, “…it is better to keep trying than to give up completely.”
If you’ll recall, we started our series on Vice by defining it as a sin pattern/narrative that (de)forms us. Each of the seven vices (lust, envy, avarice, vainglory, gluttony, wrath, and sloth) isn’t merely one of a handful of naughty delights in which we dabble from time to time. Rather, each is a controlling story that captures our very selves: our habits of thought and action, our eyes, ears, nose, mouth, etc. Vices redefine what constitutes happiness and humanity. Even Frizzell connects them to “narratives” and “stories” that we tell ourselves and that we believe. Vices, it seems, are storied problems and problematic stories.
The question that needs answering, though, is how do we deal with them? Is Frizzell’s desire for moderation a sufficient blockade against “vice” properly understood? I do not believe so. While there is surely some wisdom in “moderation,” it is actually not a universally applicable proverb (see Prov. 26:4-5 for a biblical example). In fact, you can likely propose a dozen things that are truly of no good – moderately or otherwise, proving the inadequacy of this (and all) misapplied axioms. Wisdom misapplied turns out not to be wisdom at all (see Job’s friends).
What vices need is not moderation. Finding a “healthy middle ground” may, in truth, be an impossibility, as the ground itself is trying to destroy us. Even if we were to find this storied sanctuary of balance, having done so doesn’t change the story. It only changes how we tell it. But no matter our rhetorical skill, the vice itself still writes the story. In other words, finding the middle ground does nothing to remove the excesses. Rather, it leaves us precariously perched between two poles that simply won’t go away. Like Gollum, we will find ourselves constantly at odds with ourselves, and even when we think we’ve won, it’s only a matter of time before vice and villainy come back (also a good display of both envy and wrath). And there is a conspicuous absence of a disinterested party who might arbitrate whether or not “middle ground” has been achieved. By whose rules are we playing, anyways?
In the recent, Oscar-winning movie Room, Joy and her young son Jack are held captive in what Jack grows up knowing as “Room.” He’s never seen the outside world and doesn’t believe it exists. Other than the occasional appearances of their captor, the television provides the only images Jack knows apart from Room. When Joy tries to explain that there is a world outside Room, Jack, struggling to make sense of it, adamantly declares, “I want a different story!” With similar intensity, Joy responds, “No! This is the story you get.”
What we and Ms. Frizzell – and everyone in the world – need is not a better plan toward moderating our vices. We need a better story. We need a different story. We need a story that allows for the possibility – the reality – of freedom and life abundant (cf. John 10:10). A story neither of excess nor of lack, but of true satisfaction. We need a story that doesn’t limit us to a self-imposed (and self-defined) moderation, but invites us to experience true delight. We need a story that makes us fully human.
And the grand and beautiful truth is that such a story has already been told – is still being told. It is the Gospel story. God’s story of redemption and salvation and the coming Kingdom of God creates in us a counter-narrative that doesn’t leave us to abstain from or to moderate vice; it calls us and enables us to cut it out of the story altogether, to enter a new storyline. And in this new narrative, we participate in telling it because, for the first time, we have looked upon beauty without lust, experienced lavish fare without gluttony, seen One infinitely grander than we with love rather than envy.
It is the Gospel that emancipates us, body, mind, and soul from what we can retrospectively see was nothing short of slavery – and that invites us, body, mind and soul, to “taste and see that the LORD is good.” (Ps. 34:8). The Gospel gives us an entirely new well from which to draw; and what we draw is life – life as it was meant to be: full and fully human, free, faithful and faith-filled. In this story and the Jesus it proclaims, we have a life that understands what the psalmist understood: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps. 73:25-26). This life is not meager, mean, or mediated. It is, rather, a life that proceeds out of the overflow of the God who love us, a life that is full and feasting.
And speaking of feasting, this Sunday (April 3), we’ll hear from Luke 14:15-24, Jesus’ Parable of the Great Banquet, as a prelude to our coming to The Table (see below). Come and hear what it means to be part of a covenant family that feasts together.
We wrote at length last week about how envy may be a vice to which modern people are particularly given. We only wish we’d shared another form of contemplation on that lurking and inwardly-corroding vice–this from our own Jane Pappenhagen. It’s a poem on the answer to envy, and it captures far more succinctly and beautifully the contours of envy and the interiority of moving past it in the context of God’s grace.
My sister’s needle nimble fingers
carefully choose exquisite colors,
crafting them into perfect patterns.
Exactly what I cannot do.
Her shadow fell across me.
Smothered under the grey,
I couldn’t see or say or even know
what I could do.
Needles don’t go where I want them to go.
No matter how many lessons
or hours practiced.
Finally, I see.
Envy invites all kinds of discord.
invites wonder at the beauty she creates
without wanting to have created it myself.
Now I am free to explore my gifts.
My fingers were not created to hold a needle
or wield a sewing machine.
They were meant to hold a pencil
To create beauty with words,
to write on a classroom whiteboard.
My gifts do not lend themselves to instant laud.
For you cannot cover a bed with a poem
as you can with a quilt.
Or teach English to a wall
like you display embroidery.
Content with my gifts
I marvel at the beauty of each of her stitches.
All to God’s glory
for His gift to her
and mine to me.
Finally, few things in Christian doctrine have inspired both more contemplative beauty and more acrimonious controversy than The Table of the Lord Jesus–the mysterious meal.
We like to offer a little reflection on The Table in advance of coming to it, which we will again this Sunday, in order to prepare ourselves for it. Paul makes clear there is a responsibility entailed with receiving the elements. While we cannot plumb its depths or capsulize its fulness, neither can we concede to its mystery without contemplating its meaning insofar as we can. So this week we share some of Augustine’s contemplations on this Sacrament meant to move us both to gratitude and to action.
The perfection of love
Dear brethren, the Lord has marked out for us the fullness of love that we ought to have for each other. He tells us: No one has greater love than the man who lays down his life for his friends. In these words, the Lord tells us what the perfect love we should have for one another involves. John, the evangelist who recorded them, draws the conclusion in one of his letters: As Christ laid down his life for us, so we too ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. We should indeed love one another as he loved us, he who laid down his life for us.
This is surely what we read in the Proverbs of Solomon: If you sit down to eat at the table of a ruler, observe carefully what is set before you; then stretch out your hand, knowing that you must provide the same kind of meal yourself. What is this ruler’s table if not the one at which we receive the body and blood of him who laid down his life for us? What does it mean to sit at this table if not to approach it with humility? What does it mean to observe carefully what is set before you if not to meditate devoutly on so great a gift? What does it mean to stretch out one’s hand, knowing that one must provide the same kind of meal oneself, if not what I have just said: as Christ laid down his life for us, so we in our turn ought to lay down our lives for our brothers? This is what the apostle Paul said: Christ suffered for us, leaving us an example, that we might follow in his footsteps.
This is what is meant by providing “the same kind of meal.” This is what the blessed martyrs did with such burning love. If we are to give true meaning to our celebration of their memorials, to our approaching the Lord’s table in the very banquet at which they were fed, we must, like them, provide “the same kind of meal.”
At this table of the Lord we do not commemorate the martyrs in the same way as we commemorate others who rest in peace. We do not pray for the martyrs as we pray for those others, rather, they pray for us, that we may follow in his footsteps. They practised the perfect love of which the Lord said there could be none greater. They provided “the same kind of meal” as they had themselves received at the Lord’s table.
This must not be understood as saying that we can be the Lord’s equals by bearing witness to him to the extent of shedding our blood. He had the power of laying down his life; we by contrast cannot choose the length of our lives, and we die even if it is against our will. He, by dying, destroyed death in himself; we are freed from death only in his death. His body did not see corruption; our body will see corruption and only then be clothed through him in incorruption at the end of the world. He needed no help from us in saving us; without him we can do nothing. He gave himself to us as the vine to the branches; apart from him we cannot have life.
Finally, even if brothers die for brothers, yet no martyr by shedding his blood brings forgiveness for the sins of his brothers, as Christ brought forgiveness to us. In this he gave us, not an example to imitate but a reason for rejoicing. Inasmuch, then, as they shed their blood for their brothers, the martyrs provided “the same kind of meal” as they had received at the Lord’s table. Let us then love one another as Christ also loved us and gave himself up for us.