Saturday, January 28, 2017
I’m resuming my blog after an unplanned hiatus last week due to the flu. During this month, we have been examining five key virtues, which are at the heart of a distinctive Christian lifestyle. In previous weeks, I described virtues as the values that define who we are as persons. Virtues are the attributes of our inner character that others see reflected in our outer life of words and deeds. Think of virtues as “habits of the heart.” Virtues become habitual, so ingrained within us, that they guide and inform our actions even when we are not aware of their influence on our lives. These five Christian virtues strengthen us as Christians to live ethically in a way that reflects Christ in what we say and do—and, this leads to a distinctly Christian lifestyle.
Over the past weeks, we have explored the Christian virtues of hope, love, and justice. This Sunday, I will focus on the virtue of frugality; sometimes called “temperance.” For many readers, my inclusion of frugality may appear to be an odd choice, to say the least. Within our culture and context, we tend to view frugality very negatively as the senseless denial of helpful and enjoyable products and diversions. Among its synonyms for “frugality,” the online Thesaurus.com lists negative terms, such as stingy, meager, niggardly, penny-pinching, scrimping, and tightwad.[i]
However, the virtue of “frugality” does not have to contain negative connotations. The literal dictionary definition of “fugal” means “economical in use or expenditure; prudently saving or sparing; not wasteful.”[ii] So, the virtue of frugality refers to the habit of careful, restrained use of goods and other resources; refraining from extravagance or wastefulness. The virtue of frugality also includes an attitude of valuing all available resources and products. This is a positive virtue.
Contemporary American popular culture frequently views frugality negatively because it assumes that extravagant consumption is required for happiness. This perspective understands happiness rather narrowly, in individual terms, as the consumption of goods and services. Therefore, to be happy requires constant consumption of goods and services. Further, this worldview assumes that greater happiness may be obtained by increased consumption.
Thus, the prevailing vision for the good life centers on obtaining and maintaining an affluent lifestyle of continual and increasing consumption. This vision of the good life is grounded in particular anthropological assumptions about what it means to be human. In this view, the essential defining characteristics of who we are as persons become our consumption patterns. To be human means fundamentally to consume. Thus, our self-worth becomes defined in terms of what we own and what we consume.
Given this prevailing vision of the good life and what it means to be human, then obviously the virtue of frugality must be viewed with disdain. In a consumer-oriented culture that understands consumption as the key to happiness, then practicing the virtue of frugality is tantamount to intentionally choosing unhappiness. Why would anyone choose unhappiness?
But, is consumption of more and more stuff really the key to happiness? Probably not. We know from the vast amount of research conducted by psychologists and other social scientists that consumption of goods and services is not an important factor in experiencing happiness. Instead, contemporary research among thousands of persons suggests that these are the keys to lasting happiness in life:
1. Ongoing personal growth
2. Positive attitudes towards life and others
3. Strong inter-personal relationships
4. A bountiful gratitude for life’s gifts and blessings
5. A strong sense of meaning and purpose in life
6. An ability and commitment to serving others.
7. An ability and opportunities for making the world a better place; that is, making a real difference in the world.[iii]
Of course, this delusion that consumption is the key to happiness is not endemic to our time and popular culture. Throughout history, many people have believed that happiness comes from being wealthy and having the money to buy whatever we desire. This is the case even in the Bible. In our scripture reading for this Sunday, the writer observes, “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” (1Timothy 6:9). That is, those who place their trust in riches end up chasing after many senseless, or even harmful desires, which lead to unhappiness rather than happiness.
Perhaps the most misquoted verse in all of the scriptures follows verse 9 above. 1 Timothy 6:10 is frequently misquoted as saying that “the love of money is the root of all evil.” Actually, the verse reads: “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.”
This is the crux of the matter. It is not that resources and possessions are inherently bad—or evil. Instead, when we become deluded into trusting our wealth as the key to our happiness and security, then we turn away from God and begin trusting in ourselves and our wealth. We replace God with temporal goods and services. Later in chapter 6, the writer of 1 Timothy observes that instead of trusting in their possessions, the rich are to use their wealth “to do good, to be rich in good words, generous, and ready to share” (verse 18).
The virtue of frugality helps us to keep our wealth and possessions in proper perspective. By properly valuing our possessions, while at the same time using them carefully, we develop the proper attitude towards consuming goods and services. Rather than trusting our possessions as the key to our happiness and security, we see our possessions as resources for serving God and the world. As it turns out, this is the key to happiness and a secure life in God. Perhaps the best summary of the virtue of frugality comes from John Wesley, who once wrote: “Earn all you can; save all you can; give all you can.”
If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us this Sunday, January 29th, at Christ United Methodist Church, as we reflect on the Christian virtue of frugality. In the proclamation, I will conclude with some suggestions on how we can cultivate the virtue of frugality in our lives. The church building is located at 4530 A Street. Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings.
Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.
[iii] Readers may remember my sermon series last winter on happiness. For a further discussion of social research into the keys to true happiness, see my blog post, “The Keys to True Happiness,” posted on 22 January 2016.
Saturday, January 14, 2017
This coming Sunday we continue our examination of the question, “What makes the Christian lifestyle unique?” Last week, I suggested that there are five moral virtues, which are at the heart of a distinctive Christian lifestyle. I described virtues as the values that define who we are as persons. These virtues are the attributes of our inner character that others see reflected in our outer life of words and deeds. Think of virtues as “habits of the heart.” Virtues become habitual, so ingrained within us that they guide and inform our actions without our awareness of their influence. The five Christian virtues strengthen us as Christians to live ethically in a way that reflects Christ in what we say and do—and, this leads to a distinctly Christian lifestyle.
Last Sunday, we began by exploring the virtue of Christian hope. This Sunday, I will focus on the virtue of Christian love. In subsequent weeks, we will also consider the virtues of justice, frugality, and humility.
Of course, the word, “love,” has many different meanings. There is the romantic love of a couple who have entered into marriage with one another. Alternatively, I love ice cream, or I love living in the town of Lincoln, Nebraska. Clearly, these examples are not what we mean by love as a Christian virtue.
What, then, do we mean by love as a Christian virtue? C. S. Lewis, a English professor and Christian, once wrote: “Love is not affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained”[i] I think this observation from Lewis contains the gist of love as a Christian virtue. For the purposes of describing a Christian virtue, I would re-frame the Lewis definition in this way: “The Christian virtue of love is both an attitude and action. As an attitude, love means accepting and affirming the inherent value of those whom we meet, regardless of how repulsive or evil they are as persons. Building upon this attitude, Christian love means seeking that person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.”
In our scripture reading this week, Jesus describes the ultimate act of Christian love, when he says: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Then, Jesus continues by saying, “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14). Of course, this was exactly what Jesus did at the end of his ministry, when he accepted crucifixion on the cross in order to demonstrate the depth of God’s love for each of us. Carol O’Day, a Biblical scholar, notes that in this passage the Greek word for friend is “philos,” which comes from the Greek verb, “phileo,” meaning “to love.” O’Day goes on to observe that the English word, “friend,” does not adequately convey the depth of Jesus’ meaning.[ii]
Perhaps a better word would be the word, “beloved.” So, we could read John 15:13-14 in this way: “No one has great love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s beloved friends. You are my beloved friends if you do what I command you.” Previously Jesus had told his disciples, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). So, when we love Jesus, then we keep Jesus’ commandment to love others and then we become Christ’s beloved friends.
Jesus goes to some length to stress that his followers are his beloved friends, distinguishing his beloved friends from servants:
“I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father…And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that would last…I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” (John 15: 15-17)
So, to summarize, the relationship between Christ and humans is based upon a love that elevates Christ’s followers to the status of beloved friends. Christ’s love for his beloved friends is exemplified in his life, ministry, and crucifixion. Jesus loved us so deeply that he accepted the torturous death by crucifixion in order to demonstrate how awesome his love is. All persons who obey Christ’s command to love are his beloved friends. As Christ’s beloved friends, we are invited into a special relationship, which has two important components. First, Christ promises to share all that he has learned from the Father; that is, we are to grow in our relationship with the Divine. Second, we are invited to go and bear fruit. When we share the love of Christ, then we become Christ’s junior associates, joining in the work of establishing God’s Reign throughout the world.
Many philosophers and theologians believe that virtues may be strengthened and developed through practice. In other words, if we want to have the Christian virtue of love, then we can develop it intentionally. When we consciously cultivate an attitude of accepting and affirming the inherent value of those around us, regardless of their faults and failures, then we can strengthen the Christian virtue of love within our own character. Similarly, when we diligently work for each person’s well-being and ultimate good, then we strengthen the Christian virtue of love within our own character.
If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us this Sunday, January 15th, at Christ United Methodist Church, as we reflect on the Christian virtue of love and how we can cultivate that virtue. The church building is located at 4530 A Street. Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings.
Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.
[i] C. S. Lewis quotations from the website, http://www.whatchristianswanttoknow.com/22-awesome-c-s-lewis-quotes/, accessed 11 January 2017.
[ii] Carol O’Day, , “Commentary on the Gospel of John,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 9, accessed by CD-ROM.
Saturday, January 7, 2017
What makes the Christian lifestyle unique from other lifestyles? While there are certainly additional considerations to be included, I believe that five moral virtues are at the heart of a distinctive Christian lifestyle. These five virtues are:
Beginning this Sunday, January 8th, I will explore these critical virtues over the next five weeks. We can define virtues as the values that define who we are as persons. They are the attributes of our character that others see in our lives. Virtues strengthen us as Christians to live ethically in a way that reflects Christ in what we say and do. That is, virtues give us moral strength to make ethical decisions, even when those decisions make us unpopular or those decisions are not in our own best interests. More than that, virtues give us clarity of vision so that, in confusing and difficult ethical decisions, we can see clearly what ought to be done.
We begin this weekend with the virtue of hope. What does it mean to have hope? What is hope, exactly? In his book, The Anatomy of Hope, How People Prevail in the Face of Illness, Jerome Groopman explores hope and its role, especially in the lives of persons struggling with cancer or some other serious illness.[i] Jerome Groopman, who is a medical doctor on the faculty at the Harvard Medical School, is an oncologist. Over a 30-year career as a physician, specializing in cancer, he has become very interested in how patients who are seriously, or terminally, ill with cancer have coped with their diagnosis. In particular, he has studied how the virtue of “hope” can sustain these patients.
Groopman believes that there are two components of hope. One component is a rational, or cognitive, element while the other component is emotional. In his study of hope, Groopman interviewed Richard Davidson, an experimental psychologist studying positive emotions, such as hope. In their discussion, Davidson suggests that hope contains both rational and emotional elements, which are intertwined. Davidson explains the rational component of hope this way: “When we hope for something, we employ to some degree, our cognition, marshaling information and data relevant to a desired future event. …[we] generate a different vision of [our] condition in [our] mind.”[ii]
Dawson continues by describing the second component of hope as emotional. The emotional component involves, “…affective forecasting—that is, the comforting, energizing, elevating feeling that [we] experience when [we] project in your mind a positive future. This requires the brain to generate a different … [positive, emotional] …state”. [iii]
For Groopman, then, genuine hope occurs when the rational and emotional components interweave and modify one another.[iv] Groopman elaborates further, claiming that the distinction between “true hope” and “false hope” concerns the intertwining of these two components. On the one hand, true hope integrates both the rational and the emotional components. On the other hand, false hope is more like blind optimism. It is only emotional and does not have a rational component.
I find Kroopman’s proposal that hope is comprised of both rational and emotional components to be very plausible. However, in addition to these two components, the Apostle Paul suggests a third component to hope in his discussion in Romans 8. Paul writes, “For by hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8: 24-25)
It is important to see Paul’s discussion of hope within the broader context of this scriptural passage in Romans 8. For Paul, God’s work of redemption is ongoing and not yet complete. Further, this redemptive work is not restricted to just human persons. Instead, the scope of God’s redemption includes all of Creation. A little earlier in chapter 8, Paul had written, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (Romans 8:19).
Paul’s expanded view of Creation is based upon two themes within the Hebrew scriptures. First, in Genesis 1, when God creates human beings, God assigns humans the role and responsibility of caring for the rest of Creation, as stewards working on behalf of God. This role of caretaker which humans have been given is both a great privilege and a great responsibility. Secondly, in the Hebrew prophetic book of Isaiah, God promises a sweeping re-creation in which all things are made new:
“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.”
(Isaiah 65:17; see also Isaiah 66:22)
For Paul, God is still active in world, working to redeem and re-create the world. However, God’s transformative work has not yet been completed. Thus, all of us—humans, as well as the nonhuman environment—are waiting on the full establishment of God’s Kingdom here on Earth. Paul writes, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8: 22-23).
While God’s re-creative work of redeeming and transforming all of Creation has not yet been completed, Paul believes that it has already begun through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Indeed, for Paul, the Resurrection offers a foreshadowing and guarantee of the redemption and transformation to come, when the Kingdom of God will be fully established. Thus, God’s Reign has been established, but is not yet completed.
Christ invites his disciples to join in the work of kingdom-building, as junior associates. And, for Paul, humans have a special opportunity and responsibility to ultimately bring about the transformation of nonhuman creation. Paul believes that through humans “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). Commenting on this key theological point for Paul, the British New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright has written that humans “will be God’s agents in bringing the wise, healing, restorative divine justice to the whole created order.”[v]
Both humans and nonhumans alike continue to wait for the full establishment of God’s Kingdom and God’s transformation of everything in a New Creation. Yet, we do not wait alone or in isolation: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8: 26-27).
This is the basis for the third component of hope. As Christians, we have hope because God is still at work in the world, redeeming and transforming the world—and each of us—into a New Creation. We wait with eager anticipation; we wait with longing that the wait will be over and God’s Reign will be established. We wait, knowing that God has invited us into the work of building God’s Reign. But, ultimately, we know that we are not alone in our waiting. God is with us, and that grounds our hope.
Hope is a core Christian virtue because it shapes our outlook on life. We live with optimism and confidence for the future because we know that we are not alone. God is still active in the world, working to transform us into a New Creation.
If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us this Sunday, January 8th, at Christ United Methodist Church, as we begin an examination of the virtues which make the Christian lifestyle unique. Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings.
Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.
[i] Jerome Groopman, The Anatomy of Hope, How People Prevail in the Face of Illness (New York: Random House, 2004).
[ii] Richard Dawson, as recorded by Jerome Groopman in The Anatomy of Hope, 193.
[iii] Richard Dawson, as recorded by Jerome Groopman in The Anatomy of Hope, 193.
[iv] Groopman, 193.
[v] N. T. Wright, “Commentary on Romans,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 10, accessed by CD-ROM.