Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Gula – The Sin of Gluttony

(This is the second in my sermon series on the 7 Deadly Sins preached at Rivermont Avenue Baptist Church on February 17, 2013.)

My name is Glen and I’m a glutton. 

I know of no single activity that is as clearly defined as sinful in Scripture yet is given so little attention from the pulpit than the sin of gluttony.  To account for this obvious avoidance I suggest three possible explanations.

First, there is the notion that gluttony is really only a "minor" sin—more like a misdemeanor than a felony.  Why waste valuable pulpit time on the trivial?  This disregards the fact that for most of Christian history the church has listed gluttony as one of the seven deadly sins, in the company of such sins as lust, avarice and pride.

Second, compared to the other seven deadly sins, the outward physical evidence of gluttony is often difficult or impossible to hide.  The preacher fears that people will think he is preaching at an unlucky few instead of preaching to the entire congregation.

Third, gluttony is a sin that haunts many parsonages, pastor's studies and convention offices.  Scan the crowd at any denominational gathering and it is apparent that most of us would fail to meet the International Mission Board’s criteria for missionary appointment, requiring a body mass index level under 30.0 (the low end of the obesity range).  We have chosen to allow our unbridled appetites to limit our usefulness to the Kingdom of God.
Need further evidence of the problem?  In December of 2000 I attended a meeting of North American Mission Board and state convention leaders.  An Annuity Board representative informed us that health insurance rates were going up again.  In the explanation that followed I learned something that shocked me.  I’d long known that for some years the Board had underwritten the cost of its own health insurance.  What I never before realized was that the decision to do so was forced upon it.  No major insurance company would continue to cover Southern Baptist ministers for less than an exorbitant fee.  As a group we were too high a risk.  I challenged this claim.  “You mean to tell me that a group made up entirely of non-smokers and non-drinkers is still regarded as a bad health risk?  That doesn’t make sense!”  The speaker assured me it was true.  There were three factors that made Southern Baptist ministers bad risks:
·         High stress jobs and lifestyles for the ministers and their families.
·         Lack of exercise and sedentary habits.
·         Obesity.  In overwhelming numbers we are overweight, often at dangerous levels.

This means that we are at much higher risk for heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, and a host of other illnesses than is true for the general population.  Insurance companies will not touch Baptist ministers because we engage in such unhealthy lifestyles.  We preachers ought to be ashamed of ourselves.  Our church members probably are.

Then again, maybe the people in the pew would rather not bring up the subject. Recent statistics show that among American adults 20 and older, 149.3 million are overweight or obese. Half of these—75 million—are clinically obese. And the really scary part is that childhood obesity, something almost unheard of when I was a kid, is now commonplace and growing. We were not satisfied with merely slowly killing ourselves. Now we are killing our children and grandchildren.

Gluttony—A misunderstood sin
Though closely associated, gluttony is not obesity.  Obesity is a condition of the body.  Gluttony is an attitude of the heart.  One is a physical state; the other, a spiritual condition.  Obesity is not necessarily the result of gluttony, though gluttony is frequently a factor.  Obesity can have a number of causes.  About 2% of the obese suffer from some medical condition such as a thyroid or pituitary disorder that caused excessive weight gain.  Some prescription medications can lead to weight gain. The poor are more likely to be obese than more the affluent. Healthy food choices tend to be more expensive. But for the vast majority of us, our weight can be controlled with varying degrees of effort and success.  Dieting cannot cure gluttony.  Dieting is an approach, seldom if ever successful by itself, for dealing with obesity.  It does not address the root causes of the sin of gluttony. In fact, you can be skinny and still be a glutton. 

Evangelical writers are largely silent on the sin of gluttony.  It was the Catholic Encyclopedia that provided this definition: 

Gluttony - (From the Latin gluttire, to swallow, to gulp down), the excessive indulgence in food and drink. The moral deformity discernible in this vice lies in its defiance of the order postulated by reason, which prescribes necessity as the measure of indulgence in eating and drinking. This may happen in five ways which are set forth in this English rendering of the Latin scholastic verse: “too soon, too expensively, too much, too eagerly, too daintily.” Clearly one who uses food or drink in such a way as to injure his health or impair the mental equipment needed for the discharge of his duties, is guilty of the sin of gluttony. - The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VI 

·         Gluttony is the sin of elevating the pleasures of the palate to the level of sinful sensuality until disobedience to God is the result.  It is Satan's response to the natural and healthy desire for food and drink.  The definition can be broadened to include excesses in all areas of appetite.  In this expanded sense gluttony merges with the sins of greed, envy and lust.
·         Gluttony is appetite without temperance.  Temperance is not abstinence from alcohol.  It is the practice of moderation.  To be temperate is to go the right length and no further.  Temperance is the governor that God gave us to keep our natural drives under control.  The sex drive without temperance leads to lust.  The acquisition of possessions without temperance leads to greed. Hunger and thirst without temperance leads to gluttony.
·         Gluttony may be manifested as excess quantity and/or excess quality.  The demand for the very best of food and drink is just as much a mark of gluttony as the demand for unlimited quantity. The fictional detective, Nero Wolfe, exemplified both forms of excess. He demanded that he be served only the finest foods and in excessive amounts.
·         Gluttony is ultimately a form of idolatry.  As Paul expressed it in Philippians 3:19 - "...their god is their stomach..." 

There are at least three forms of gluttony
1.      Seeking more pleasure from something than it was made for
2.      Wanting it exactly our way (delicacy)
3.      Demanding too much from people (excessive desire for other people's time or presence). 

More Pleasure Than It Was Made For
The world is full of good things, from the beauty of the stars to the fragrant aroma of baking bread to the pleasure of human company. We are free to enjoy these things so long as we don’t become focused on any one of them to the exclusion of all else. But we can become so caught up in a pleasure, whether food or fun, that we can no longer enjoy anything else and are willing to sacrifice other pleasures for the one.  After years of gluttony we can so destroy our health that even the simple pleasure of taking a walk through the woods on a spring day is denied us. 

We enter into gluttony when we demand more pleasure from something than it was made for. Normally, we can only eat so much food and then we’re stuffed. But some people in Ancient Rome wanted more pleasures of the palate than their bloated stomachs could accommodate. So after a heavy meal they would gag themselves with a feather, making themselves throw up and thus enabling them to go back and eat and drink some more until they finally passed out drunk. A footnote is needed at this point. Contrary to popular belief, the Latin term vomitorium did not describe a special room where this disgusting act was carried out. Vomitoria were actually the wide passageways that allowed crowds of Romans—hungry or otherwise—to quickly exit an amphitheater. The Roman place of puking didn’t get its own special name. 

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis describes that particular form of gluttony known as delicacy as a desire to have things exactly our way. Food, for example, has to be prepared just so, or in just the right amount.  But delicacy isn't limited to food. We might complain about unimportant defects in a product, the temperature in the room, or the color of a laundry basket. There is a certain amount of discomfort and dissatisfaction to be expected in life, but the delicacy glutton will have none of it. When faced by the minor inconveniences of life, the glutton insists on being pampered and indulged. A friend in the Christian music industry has worked for some big name performers.  Some of the folks he’s met are really nice people.  Then there was the singer who made one his assistants pick out the green M&Ms because he didn’t like the color… 

Generally speaking—and with notable exceptions—women seem to be more susceptible to this variety of gluttony than men. For us guys our gluttony is usually measured with a butcher’s scale. Did you ever suffer the embarrassment of dining out with a group of friends only to discover that some woman in the crowd was so blessed picky that she would recite a set of instructions to some poor overworked and underpaid waitress on just exactly how her salad or chicken or whatever was to be prepared and then ran the legs off the poor girl sending the plate back until it finally met her unreasonable standards? 

Demanding Too Much From Others
It is healthy and natural to enjoy time with friends but some people just can't get enough. They make demands until the other person moves away or explodes in anger. Most of us have suffered through the smothering attention of someone who demanded more of us than we were willing to give. These two-legged leeches attach themselves and proceed to suck you dry if you let them. This, too, is a form of gluttony. 

Consequences of Gluttony are Physical, Social, and Spiritual
·         Physical Manifestations – The physical side effects of gluttony run the gamut from heart disease to hemorrhoids—from a decline in self-esteem to a diminished sex life.  Heartburn, ulcers, high blood pressure, diabetes, chronic skin rashes, arthritis…the list goes on and on.  A church member in a former pastorate of mine was many months recovering from serious complications after prostate surgery—all because he was morbidly obese. Gluttony is certainly not the only cause of these ailments, but it frequently contributes to their development or adds to their severity.
·         Social Manifestations – Our culture places a premium on youth and health.  We can be most unkind to those who do not measure up to the physical ideal.  Of course, some of the pressure is self-imposed.  I always loved to swim but find I avoid pools and beaches anymore.  I’m just embarrassed to be seen in public in my swimsuit with my gut hanging over the waistband.
·         Spiritual Manifestations – If Jesus were to walk by one day and say to me, as he said to the fishermen along the Sea of Galilee, “Come, follow me,” I’d have to say, “Thanks for the invitation, but I’m afraid I couldn’t keep up.”  But the problem is more than physical.  I have come to realize that I was already a glutton back when I could still wear size 30-30 Levi’s.  For uncontrolled appetite is a problem of the heart and it affects far more than your waistline. 

Victory over Gluttony
Because gluttony is a sin of the flesh, the flesh tends to limit it. If we consume too much food or drink, our body (usually) lets us know, either by gaining weight or illness. If we are too fussy about things (delicacy), people will tell us to do it ourselves. And if we demand too much from people, they will fly from us and we will be alone more often. So, we usually get a view of the problem, and a chance to change. 

Gluttony’s cure lies in confessing it as sin and repenting of it by deliberately reducing our use of pleasurable things, not by eliminating them. When eating, quit before feeling stuffed. When snacking, don't just keep stuffing, but quit before over-indulging. With people, allow some quiet time together, and also get some time alone.  Don’t smother your friends.  And if the toast is a bit too brown for your preference, eat it anyway. 

We Need Confession (with accountability)
For those of us in vocational ministry, one of the dangers of our calling is that we often live our lives with too little accountability.  When I am eating at home Joyce exercises some measure of control over what I eat.  She is careful about limiting the fat and empty calories in our diets: a concern that quite frankly I seldom shared or encouraged.  But when I worked for the Minnesota-Wisconsin Baptist Convention I was on the road a lot. No one saw or cared what I consumed.  Of course later the consequences are all too apparent to everyone. I gained ten pounds in my first six months on the job. 

In some ways I was taught to be a glutton.  Gluttony is almost a Land family tradition.  When I was a kid we attacked the dinner table like a pack of wild dogs.  This was also the environment that my Dad grew up in.  Mom recalled her first meal at my Grandma and Grandpa Land’s home many years ago: “…I sat in amazement as we ate.  I had never seen people eat like that, so fast and everyone reaching until I thought someone would get a fork in his hand.  It was a Jeff Foxworthy experience.”  If the Land family had a coat of arms I think it would feature a growling wolf standing over the carcass of a dead elk. The motto in Latin emblazoned across it would be, “Succederem super illud et vox leaenae.” (“Step on it and growl.”)  One of the reasons that obesity tends to run in some families is a shared culture that places too high a value on food. Cleaning your plate is not, regardless of what you may have been taught, an ultimate good. 

But we need not be the captives of our past.  If you want to lose weight and exercise it greatly helps to have a small group of friends to whom you will hold yourself accountable.  They know what the problem is, they know your plan to deal with it and they have your permission to hold your feet to the fire.  This is not unlike the way AA deals with recovering alcoholics.  This is also the way of discipleship.  For believers, it is necessary that we deal with the underlying spiritual component of our weight control problems—the sin issue—if we are to have lasting victory.  Make getting your body in better condition for God’s service a regular focus of your prayers.  The goal should not simply be to look and feel better.  Becoming a more useful and versatile tool in the hand of the Father is what this is ultimately all about. 

As is the case with any sin, the starting point is confession and repentance. We must admit to ourselves and to our God that we are guilty of gluttony. And we are all experienced masters at avoiding that painful confrontation with our selves. Outside a funhouse, the mirror doesn’t lie. Neither does the camera. The evidence of this particular sin is hard to hide. I stand before you this morning easily 20 pounds overweight. Thank God I’ve never crossed the line into outright clinical obesity but at times I have flirted dangerously close to that threshold. So what am I to do? 

Rationalization is always an option.  I could do nothing.  I am, after all, well into middle-age.  Middle-aged spread is common.  One might even argue that it’s normal.  Most people reach a point in life where they succumb to the inevitable and just decide to let aging take its toll.  It’s about the same time that they quit caring if their ties are out of date or that their hairstyle went out of style with polyester leisure suits.  Graying hair shading a receding hairline, wrinkles, reading glasses, some hearing loss, the early hints of arthritis pain soon to come, teeth breaking off in my food—all the signs are there.  Youth has fled and old age is looming.  Why fight it? 

I have two problems with this line of reasoning. 

First is a memory from childhood of my father’s thinly veiled disgust with fat (which he equated with lazy) men in general and fat preachers in particular.  Most of what I learned about what it means to be a man I learned from my father.  I am not too old to still want his respect. 

Second is the memory of what the Apostle Paul had to say about unbridled appetite: 

Philippians 3:18-19
18For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 

Romans 16:17-18
17I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. 18For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive. 

The challenge is one of self-confession—admitting to myself why I’m fat.  I’m not fat because I frequently eat in restaurants where portion size is completely out of control, though that certainly contributes.  I’m not fat because I’m no longer a young man, though a slowing metabolic rate plays a role.  And I’m not fat because of problems with my thyroid or any other medical condition that can cause obesity. I can’t even plead depression or a psychological need for “comfort food” or the like.  I don’t dispute that this is a real issue for some people, but I don’t eat because I’m depressed or bored or in need of comfort.  I eat, quite simply, because I like food and I would rather eat a lot than a little.  And as my longsuffering wife has pointed out to me on several occasions, I have the uncanny ability to pick up a menu and zero in—radar like—on the least healthy offering.  Why pick a salad if I can get a well-marbled steak?  Why select a lean chicken breast if I can get barbequed ribs?  And why get four ribs if I can order a full slab?  The clinical term for my condition is gluttony.  My name is Glen and I am fat and getting fatter because I am a glutton. 

Spending the rest of your life on a diet is not what this is all about.  Nor am I suggesting that we exchange undisciplined eating for a life of obsessing over some illusive physical ideal. We gain nothing by trading shame for pride. The real work begins once you reach your long-term weight goal.  For then you must develop and maintain lifelong habits that will enable you to sustain that new weight. You see, I’ve been down this trail before. I’ve lost and found and lost again that same 15-20 pounds numerous times. On one occasion I dropped close to 30 pounds. First I lost the Cheese Whiz and Velveeta—fat easily gained and easily lost. Then I lost the Brie and the soft, mild Colby. Finally I started whittling away at that sharp, old, aged Cheddar that I’d been carrying around since shortly after I got out of college. Hard fat. Resilient fat. Fat that had successfully resisted all earlier attacks. Then I quit the diet, went back to my old bad habits and regained most of what I’d lost. 

One of the new habits that is essential to defeating the sin of gluttony is learning to balance feast days with fast days.  Both were a part of the life of the ancient Israelites.  There is nothing wrong with enjoying a feast so long as you don’t expect every meal to be a banquet and every day a feast day.  We fret and worry about gaining weight over the holidays. But the problem is not what we eat between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. The problem is what we eat the other 10 ½ months of the year. We must develop and nurture the spiritual discipline of temperance. And unlike an alcoholic, just swearing off food really isn’t an option. For true temperance isn’t about abstinence. It’s about moderation. It is giving Jesus Christ Lordship over your mouth, your tongue, your teeth, and your belly. It is recognizing gluttony for what it is: a sin—an area of our lives that we have withheld from Christ and over which we maintain our own lordship. And the evidence that we are doing a really lousy job of managing these little fiefdoms is all too evident. 

A second essential habit is to sustain and increase a daily exercise regimen.  Muscles burn calories.  The better your physical condition the more your metabolic system serves as your partner in maintaining a healthy body. I’ve lost weight without exercise many times. But I’ve concluded that I’ll never keep it off without adopting a lifestyle that burns more calories. 

Wednesday was the first day of Lent. For my Lenten sacrifice in 2013, this chubby preacher boy is giving up that old, aged, hard cheddar. I’m seeking the healthy body trapped inside. Until those goals are met, I will be living off of the fat of the Land. 

Proverbs 23:2 – "Put a knife to your throat if you are given to gluttony."

Saturday Night Live Unchained

First, I have to admit that it has been many, many years since I’ve watched SNL—we're talking Chevy Chase and Eddie Murphy days here. So I missed last week’s skit, a parody of Quentin Tarantino movies in general and his most recent, DJango Unchained, in particular. Granted, parody is Saturday Night Live’s bread and butter. Done well parody can be one of the funniest forms of humor. And some SNL parodies over the years have been hysterically funny. But it’s a delicate business, parody, and it’s easy to cross the line. SNL has crossed that line before, but never with the total abandon of this particular skit which featured the resurrected Christ as a bloodthirsty killer bent on revenge against the Romans. I was shocked when I read about this skit, shocked enough to go to http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/new-tarantino-movie/n32896/ and watch it for myself—something that I do not recommend unless you enjoy blasphemy, for that is the only word to describe this ill-conceived attempt at being funny. NBC can only take comfort in the fact that true followers of Christ are committed to a value system totally opposed to what is portrayed in this horrible skit. You may rest assured that the producers of SNL would never be so cavalier in making a comparable attack on the life and values of the founder of Islam. I doubt that Al Qaeda would rest at merely calling for a boycott.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Book Review: The Insanity of God

Ripken, Nik [pseud.] with Gregg Lewis. The Insanity of God: A True Story of Faith Resurrected. Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2013. Pb. 323 pp.

First, I need to alert the reader that I personally know the author behind the pseudonym, “Nik Ripken”. I’ve attended conferences he’s led on the persecuted church. I’ve met his wife. I actually went to seminary with his brother-in-law. I once even enjoyed a leisurely breakfast on the rooftop terrace of his home in east Africa. I first heard about Nik Ripken some ten years ago at a training conference for strategy coordinators led by representatives of the International Mission Board of the SBC. At an isolated conference center in the Oxfordshire countryside west of London, I listened in amazement to accounts of his research on the persecuted church. I was part of a select group of mission strategists privileged to actually read his report—a document so explosive—so sensitive in nature—that even now I dare not list its title in this review. And I have long been frustrated that those amazing stories of faith persevering and thriving in the teeth of brutal persecution could not be publically shared for fear of adding to the suffering of God’s people. The Insanity of God has finally relieved some of that frustration.

Nik Ripken conducted the most important and comprehensive research on the persecuted church ever attempted in 2,000 years of Christian history. Decades from now, when it is finally safe to publish that research in its entirety, future generation will place it alongside other mission classics such as the Journal of William Carey and Roland Allen’s Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? It will be required reading in seminaries. Missionary candidates will comb its pages for wisdom as they develop strategies for evangelizing the unreached. Until then, if you are not one of the few included in that very limited “need to know” group, may I heartily recommend The Insanity of God.

In its pages the author shares some of the more poignant stories of faith under persecution that were a part of his original research. To do this he has had to change names and some other identifying details in order to protect those involved from needless reprisals. In one particular case I happened to know the story told in considerable detail, so I can personally vouch for the fact that the thrust of what is told in The Insanity of God is absolutely accurate. And believe me, there is no exaggeration in these pages. What made it into print is an understatement of what actually happened. The full story is even more incredible than what you will read.

Even though I had studied the original research, I learned a great deal reading The Insanity of God. It was especially revealing about the background of Nik Ripken. This gave me a fuller appreciation of his life and work. Nik is not a physically imposing guy. He seems altogether ordinary when you meet him. But appearances can deceive. We’re talking Mr. Rogers here: with the valor and audacity of a Navy SEAL.

Reading that original research was an emotionally and spiritually shattering experience for me. Reading The Insanity of God will similarly affect you. It will inspire, horrify, and convict you. You will be amazed by what God is doing in some of the toughest mission fields on earth. You will be shaken by the relentlessness of the enemy. You will be moved to tears—both of sorrow and of joy. It will strengthen your faith. And it will shame you for the shallowness of your own discipleship when confronted by the incredible sacrifices of believers in these places of persecution. And just maybe—and I know this is the desire of the author—it will persuade you that the life of a missionary, be it on the other side of the street or on the other side of the world, is the life you need to be living. This is a dangerous book to read. Approach with caution.