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Several years ago I decided to read some of the longer classic books. One was Democracy in America, written by a French politician who toured the US and later summarized his observations of the American experiment for his readers in continental Europe. Alexis de Tocqueville had keen insights into the American psyche. Some of the things he wrote are instructive for pondering our history and the future of our culture. Many observations about us are as true today as they were in 1835. On this Independence Day – enjoy. All page numbers refer to the 1969 version published by Anchor Books.
Christian writer Barbara Johnson says that we’re Easter people, living in a Good Friday world.
Anne Lamott, in Plan B – Further Thoughts on Faith, p. 140
A careful reading of the entire new Testament suggests that the resurrection experience involved both Jesus and his followers, took place not only on the single day later known as Easter but continuously, and consisted of the presence of the risen Jesus among his followers through the Holy Spirit.
Luke Timothy Johnson, in The Creed, p. 12
The truth of the resurrection is not simply that Jesus is no longer among the dead, but that he now shares the life and power of God.
Luke Timothy Johnson, in The Creed, p. 178
Life on the other side of Easter is not easy and we are tempted, and in fact we succumb to our temptation, to go back to where we were, and to what we were, and to what we were doing before Easter came along and interrupted us with its power, its glory, and its transformation.
Peter Gomes, in Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living, p. 79
Anger. Of course it is a deadly sin. News stories about road rage and disgruntled workers shooting former coworkers remind us of the deep anger which permeates society. Envy has destroyed many relationships and on a national level can lead to war. Surely it is a deadly sin. But Sloth? Really? Are our neighbors sinning because they enjoy extra time in the Jacuzzi? Are our children sinning when they procrastinate? Am I sinning by mindlessly decompressing in front of my iPad? Is sloth that bad?
In fact, as a type A personality, I envy (oops, a deadly sin). people who can relax and not worry Maybe the productive people in our society could use a dose of sloth in order to chill out. Few educated, productive individuals see sloth as a personal problem affecting them, and calling it a sin? Forget about it. No one asks a pastor, “I need help. Can you recommend a good book on sloth?”
In our society we see sloth applying to a class of people: the chronically unemployed, the stereotyped deadbeat welfare recipient, the mythical people we hear about who are on disability when they could work. But those of us who work, those of us with calendars filled with obligations – well, there is no way that sloth is an issue in our lives, and it is certainly not a sin we commit.
Not so fast. A problem in our understanding of sloth is one of translation. What we call sloth was called acedia (in Latin) and connoted much more than laziness. A full recipe for acedia includes 1/2 a cup of laziness, but also contains an equal part of apathy. A-pathos – without emotion – it means we don’t care. Thus, when we mix apathy with laziness, it means we don’t care that we don’t care. The acedia problem becomes more difficult to root out. An individual suffering from acedia finds herself in an unfulfilling job in a job, but doesn’t care enough to look for another. A married couple with acedia finds their relationship barren, but continues to go through the motions because change is too much effort.
But apathy and laziness are only part of the complete recipe. We must also add a stick of boredom and stir thoroughly. Here is James Gleick’s portrayal of boredom:
You are bored doing nothing, so you go for a drive. You are bored, just driving, so you turn on the radio. You are bored just driving and listening to the radio, so you make a call on the cellular phone. You realize that you are now driving, listening to the radio, and talking on the phone, and you are still bored. Then you reflect that it would be nice if you had time, occasionally, just to do nothing. Perhaps you have a kind of sense organ that can adjust to the slowness, after being blinded by the speed. The void is not so dark after all. With the phone not ringing, the television switched off, the computer rebooting, the newspaper out of reach, even the window shade down, you are alone with yourself. The neurons don’t stop firing. Your thoughts come through like distant radio signals finding a hole in the static. (James Gleick, in Faster, p. 268)
Now for the final ingredient in the mixing bowl of acedia: two cups of distraction. At this time of year, our primary distraction is football. We pretend it matters so much because it really matters so little. But it does distract us from real life, meaningful relationships, or involvement in causes that could make a difference. Did you know the word “sport” comes from the Latin disport, which means to distract? The latest mass shooting pales in importance next to Tom Brady’s availability for a fantasy football league. God bless you, Tom Brady. Thanks to deflategate, I don’t have to think about those victims. Or my soul. But sports is only one distraction.
Even our crammed schedules are distractions: 5:00 am – Crossfit; 7:30 am – take kids to school; 7:45 am -work, where I multitask all day; 4:30 pm – take kids to French and fencing lessons, while on a conference call in the car; 5:00 pm – gourmet cooking class; 6:30 pm – drive through Chik-fil-a while on the way to scouts….. And so it goes.
The distracted life is a wasted life and not only do we not care, but we are glad. Secretly, we love our busy-ness because it distracts us from the need to look for God working in the world or to think about how we might invest in the work of the Kingdom.
In the end we have the perfect recipe for purposeless, unfulfilling, unredeeming “life.” We waste our lives on things that don’t matter. We ignore the greater calling of life, lest it demand something of us. Yet, we are bored with it all and not care. As ancient Christians pointed out: we despair of it, but we don’t care enough to repent of it.
Such a life is acedia and such a life is sin, precisely because of its waste and because it is self centered and ignores God. Sloth is not just a sin of an imagined lazy member of of the welfare class; rather it is the sin of all who waste their lives on loves that are too small and causes that are not worthy of our devotion, but serve to protect us from having to respond to the impulse of the Spirit to love God with all our hearts, all our souls, and with all our might. The fact we don’t care enough to do anything about it is just a further indictment that the sins ours.
Here are a few quotes that related to acedia:
The word “boredom” does not exist in any ancient language. It first appears in the 17th century. No one knows its origin.
Peter Kreft in Christianity for Modern Pagans, p. 187
The Church name the sixth Deadly Sin as Sloth. It is the sin which believes nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for.
Dorothy Sayers in Creed or Chaos?, p. 108
The religion that costs nothing, that demands no hard sacrifices of other things, that does not lift the life out of low-level motives, is worth little and makes little difference to the life. The type of religion on the other hand, which costs the all, which makes the cross the central fact that dominates the life as its one driving power, becomes an incalculable force and turns many to salvation.
Rufus Jones in The World Within, p. 43
From The Seven Deadly Sins, Wilson Angus, editor:
The malice of sloth lies not merely in the neglect of duty, but in the refusal of joy. It is allied to despair. p. 58.
Fiction and non-fiction alike are full of characters who fail to do what they should because of the effort involved. p. 19
Sloth is the background radiation of the day. It is the easy listening station of the culture. It is everywhere and no longer noticed. p. 20
Google gives me information about the content which people read on The Substance of Faith. The most commonly searched subject that brings people here is “the substance of faith.” I edited the ABOUT page to provide additional information in order to be helpful to anyone looking for help on that search. Google hides other helpful information because they want me to pay for it.
For instance, I know that the second most read page is Quotes on the Lord’s Prayer – Thy Kingdom come, but I don’t know why. Are you searching for quotes on the Lord’s Prayer, or are you searching for help with “the kingdom of God?” No matter. Below is my favorite quote about the kingdom. I find it inspiring and it will serve either purpose. And at the bottom is a prayer I wrote to go with a sermon I preached on the phrase “Thy Kingdom come.” I hope both the quote and prayer are helpful.
What kind of kingdom will this be?
It will be a kingdom where, in accordance with Jesus’ prayer, God’s name is truly hallowed, his will is done on earth, men will have everything in abundance, all sin will be forgiven and all evil overcome.
It will be a kingdom where, in accordance with Jesus’ promises, the poor, the hungry, those who weep and those who are downtrodden will finally come into their own; where pain, suffering, and death will have an end.
It will be a kingdom that cannot be described, but only made known in metaphors: as the new covenant, the seed springing up, the ripe harvest, the great banquet, the royal feast.
It will, therefore, be a kingdom—wholly as the prophets foretold—of absolute righteousness, of unsurpassable freedom, of dauntless love, of universal reconciliation, of everlasting peace. In this sense, therefore, it will be the time of salvation, of fulfillment, of consummation, of God’s presence: the absolute future. –From On Being A Christian by Hans Küng, p. 21
A Prayer for the Kingdom of God:
O God, we openly acknowledge that we believe in your son’s miracles. We believe that the lame walked, that the blind were granted sight, and that hardened hearts were softened by his word. We pray that you would work a miracle in our hearts, too. Work a miracle and change our will to desire nothing but your will. Change these cold hearts of ours into flaming torches of desire for you. If there is complacency within us, remove it as far as east is from west. Destroy the apathy that slows our hands from doing what our hearts know to be just. Move us by Your Spirit to participate in the work of your kingdom so that the lonely might be visited, that the fallen might be raised, that those who seek might find, and that the world might know that you are a good and great God. We pray these things for we know that if you will empower our living to do them, then our prayers would be answered and that your kingdom will come in us. All we ask is to labor in the kingdom. And to know the blessing of your pleasure as we work. Remind us that you are indeed king and that we are your servants. May our obedience be perfect in this day. In the name of Christ we ask it. Amen.
One of the ways I develop sermon ideas is to create a file folder where I collect notes to myself, items torn out of magazines, or quotations. Newer folders are digital and contain links. Scraps of paper and index cards fill the oldest folders.
Years ago I wrote “Christ and Our Thoughts” on a folder that has never become a sermon. This week the folder has finally proved useful, with Sunday’s sermon addressing how we love God with all our mind (Mark 12:30). The quotes below have proven helpful for the sermon. Not all of them will make it into the sermon, but they all show wisdom about cultivating the way we think about life and God.
Here are some of my favorites for the Stewardship Season. Be sure to check the Archives for more on Generosity and Gratitude.