Strengthening Will — Charles Rush (3/9/14)

My fraternity brothers are sending their kids to college and mine are out. It is so enjoyable to watch them fret and whine about the debauched state of campus life. It started off with laments that when we were in college we called the cafeteria, “The Pit” as in horrible. No longer. Little Joey and Buffy can choose from a variety of food courts that are now open all day and night.
Someone opined that casual sex seems to abound at his kids campus. Gone were the days when you actually had to date. Another reminded us of a serious reprimand we got from the Dean for a gambling party that got a little too large but now gambling is legal in most every state. Another one noted that his son probably went to college in Colorado for the legalized pot.

I finally noted the obvious. “Hey, isn't this the world that you longed for when you were in college?” “Sure, but I never would have graduated.” I love it and it is endlessly amusing.

It has always been available. But years ago, you had to go to Greenwich Village or the Chelsea Piers on the West Side to find it. Today, you just type in your question on Google. Chances are, all the wiles of urban eccentricity are just a click away.

We've raised our children in a world of near infinite choice and possibility. Part of that is wonderful. Limited choice we've done for many generations and it wasn't so great. But in a world of nearly infinite choice, the virtue of self-control become infinitely more important.

In fact, there is some initial research that suggests that our era is experiencing an increase in anxiety and stress precisely because the range of choice and the immediacy of our ability to fulfill our desires creates for us an increased sense that we are always on, that we always have to make wise choices. Just this week, I happened to see an article that got picked up in an on-line magazine where a woman is bartending, notices a famous author that she's read, tells him she is a great fan. He's had too many drinks, makes a loutish pass at her. In ye olden days, it was just a bad night. But with a cell phone photo of him loaded and a review, someone is pretty likely to pick up the story and blast it around the globe so that your family gets to be embarrassed along with you from now on.

We are more ‘on' than we need to be as I am always reminded standing in the building lobby looking up at all the cameras, sitting at a traffic light with a camera, going through the toll booth with a camera. With time and money, we can re-create your day in 15 minute segments now with amazing accuracy if we want to. We are astonishingly public.

And self-control is only going to become more important since we have teams of people whose full-time job is trying to figure out exactly the right measurements of say, salt and sugar, to create cravings in support of better marketing. We have teams of people figuring out complex alogrithms for no other purpose than to predict from a few things you buy, what your tastes are and to surround you with things that you would find appealing. We have committees that design our every mall and supermarket so that you have smells and presentation that make you weak kneed and purchase stuff that you never intended to actually buy when you went out for a gallon of milk and some strawberries. They are so much better than we are, and getting better every month that self-control is sure to become a much bigger virtue in a decade.

I was interested to read of one recent study on ‘delayed gratification' that finally put on the screen what St. Paul was so articulate about in the passage we read from Romans. St. Paul speaks eloquently about being of ‘two minds' when he is trying to change something in himself. He says, “I cannot seem to do what I know is good for me but instead to the very thing I would like to change”. Or in Corinthians he makes the remark, “I seem to be at war with myself”.

Just recently, we started watching this on screen as we can see the brain operate better in real time. In this study, people were trying to lose weight and so they were given a diet of fresh fruit and vegetables, and they were all encouraged to develop a plan to get to their goals. They were able to talk about their goals, about the principles for their actions, and the rational part of the brain lit up. You can see it on the screen.

During the course of the day, they introduced temptations that had immediate gratification like an ice cream bar or a mini-cinabon treat with the luscious wafting aroma of sugar, what researchers now call ‘super-saturated' or ‘supernormal' stimuli. And you can have it right now, just a little cheat to get you through.

It turns out that when this happens, a whole other part of the brain actually lights up. It is not the newer part of the brain that is rational but part of the limbic brain, the seat of our emotions. The rational part lights up too but it has competition from the emotional part of the brain.

I love the way our researchers describe this phenomenon. Said one at Harvard, “Our emotional brain has a hard time imagining the future, even though our logical brain clearly sees the future consequences of our current actions. Our emotional brain wants to max out the credit card, order dessert and smoke a cigarette. Our logical brain knows we should save for retirement, go for a jog and quit smoking. To better understand why we feel internally conflicted, it will help to know how our myopic and forward looking brain systems values rewards and how these systems talk to one another.”[i]

As St. Paul says, “I am at war with myself” we used to say from our spiritual tradition. Today, our researchers describe the same anecdote with reference to our evolutionary history. You can trace most of all civilization up to the past 100 to 150 years with one set of choices.

Contrast that with today where we have incredibly appealing stimuli- like those Caramel Machiato's at Starbucks, computer games that are almost 3D, super sized breast implants, even gasoline that makes possible instant speed our ancestors literally couldn't imagine. Our ability to manufacture stimuli has way, way outstripped our ability to evolve and make changes to self-regulate.

And yet, our early research suggests that self-regulation may actually be a critical foundational virtue that we have woefully underestimated. One study that caught my eye as a parent and the wife of a school teacher who works in a failing school district was the role that self-regulation plays in school achievement.

When Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman did a study of 8th graders from a racially and economically diverse group of students, they were somewhat surprised that IQ didn't correlate very well with any known measure of academic success. Fortunately, the added a piece on self-discipline that asked teachers, parents, and the student's themselves to assess their self-discipline by rating how hard it was for them to break bad habits or to make choices on what should come first in their priorities. It turns out that self-discipline correlated with actual success well enough that they repeated the experiment and added another piece on delayed gratification.

It won't sound like rocket science to parents that strengthening our will around delayed gratification would help junior do better in school since school requires steady work, prioritizing homework over video games and chipping away at a longer term goal.

These studies are in their early stages, but this is what these noted psychologists concluded early on. “Underachievement among American youth is often blamed on inadequate teachers, boring text books and large classes. We suggest another reason for students falling short of their intellectual potential: their failure to exercise self-discipline… We believe that may of America's children have trouble making choices that require them to sacrifice short-term pleasure for long-term gain, and that programs that build self-discipline may be the royal road to building academic achievement.” [ii]

Likewise, another study identified thirty-two personality variables and they tried to correlate them with academic success. As you probably already know, despite all of the time and energy we put into having our students do well on the SAT test, there is alarmingly scant correlation between how well you do on the SAT and how well you do in college. There is even less correlation between how well you do on the SAT and how well you do in your career. Of the personality variables, the only one that was a reliable predictor of success in college was that of self-control. In fact, the authors of that study suggested that colleges figure out a way to assess an applicants ability to self-regulate and that this should be used as a critical component for admissions.[iii]

The early returns on this line of research has led some experts in the field to wonder if perhaps we shouldn't structure more research in the future in world-wide studies. It may well explain what others have been unable to explain, which is why certain countries in the Advanced world, like the United States, don't compete that well with other countries. Likewise, other researchers have noted that Americans have been quick to respond to our supposed rise in cases of ADHD among our youth with medication. In fact, what we may need to be doing is strengthening our children in areas of self-discipline and delayed gratification.

Again, this insight will not come as rocket science to parents of adolescent boys as motivating them to focus and develop consistency seems to be the daily drill. Here is the hopeful part about our will. It works pretty much like a muscle, the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets. More than that, we have pretty good evidence that when you develop good habits in one area of your life, they spill over into other areas of your life.

So our parents have not been wrong in encouraging our kids to participate in sports, for example. Two researchers in Australia did a study on a group of adults that were self-professed couch potatoes. They enrolled them in a fitness program that got them to the gym every day and the program very slowly built up their routines so that they were exercising more and more will power and getting into better and better shape. Just like you might expect, the more people got into shape, the less they smoked, the less they drank, the less junk food and coffee they consumed. Likewise, when they interviewed them, they started spending less time watching TV and more time in active pursuits. Finally, they reported being less depressed. Part of it is simply replacing negative stuff with positive stuff. But maybe that was just a result of exercise?

So they did a follow up experiment with money management. They got this group to set savings goals and these goals required them to actually make choices. In order to reach the savings goals, they had to choose not to go out to eat, not to take a vacation they wanted to go on, not to take in entertainment on the weekend that they might normally indulge.

Furthermore, they had to keep detailed logs about various aspects of their daily life that caused them unconsciously to become more reflective and intentional about what they were doing. In other words, they were engaging the rational part of the brain routinely where they might have only been engaging the emotional mind before. [iv]

Lo, behold, they discovered similar spill over in other areas of their lives. They drank less, smoked less, ate less junk food, and focused more productively at work. The point being that when we develop strength of will in one area of our life, it spills over into other areas of our life.

“When you force yourself to change… part of what is happening is you are changing how you think” says Todd Heatherton at Dartmouth. “People get better at regulating their impulses. They learn how to distract themselves from temptations. And once you've gotten that willpower groove, yur brain is practiced at helping you to focus on a goal.”[v]

As Christians have noted for a couple thousand years, this is fundamentally a spiritual exercise, to intentionally interrupt your habitual pattern of doing things, to re-focus ourselves, and to spend a season engaged in strengthening our will.

We follow after the practice of Jesus, who seemed to know that the mission that he was engaged in was difficult enough and dangerous enough that he had to have a pronounced clarification of his will. We are told that right at the beginning of his ministry, he withdrew to the desert for 40 days of fasting and prayer. By the way, it just turns out that this is about the minimum of time you need to actually break a bad habit and replace it with a new one.

But Jesus mission, let's be clear, was a lot more profound than just losing weight or saving money. He actively asked God to fill his whole life, something we should all be praying. He knew, but he couldn't really know, just how dangerous his calling would actually be. None of us wants to go through torture or the loneliness of being betrayed by your friends or the self-doubt that comes from the injustice supported by the mob that calls for you to die. None of us wants to lead like that. In fact, none of us really even want to contemplate our own death, let alone standing for something that is moral and spiritual enough that we might have to die for it. None of us wants to, but we know that we just might have to. And we would like to think that we have the character strength to persevere with integrity.

Jesus prayed a prayer at the very end of his life, just before he died that I find haunting. I wonder if it isn't one of those prayers that he prayed every single morning and every single evening of his life because that is what his life was about. It is what he became. He said, “not my will but thine”. He said that just before he knew he would be unjustly arrested, unjustly tried and crucified until he died an agonizing death.

That kind of inhuman degradation requires superhuman strength. And we are told that he withdrew periodically from public view and went into a time of prayer to be away from the crowds and to re-center, re-focus, remember what was important, what his life-plan was, what his mission was. I wonder if he wasn't every day, every week, getting spiritually stronger, developing will power to face bigger difficulty, arbitrariness, inhumanity and evil.

I hope in this season that you lay claim to the freedom with which God has so wonderfully made you. I hope that you will purposely turn towards your nobler spiritual calling. I hope you become filled with the Spirit that you would sense God's purpose for your life. And piece by piece, little by little, may you build a bedrock of meaning. Transcendent peace be with you. Amen.

[i] The quote is from David Laibson, an economist that was working on the study. I got it from Daniel Akst's book “We Have Met the Enemy” on p. 152. Mr. Akst's book is a good introductory read on the subject. He does a nice job of giving you the results of our early research without boring you with the lingo or statistics.

[ii] Ibid from Akst chapter “The Marshmallow Test”, p. 106.

[iii] The authors of the study were Raymond Wolfe and Scott Johnson. Ibid. p. 107.

[iv] The researchers were Megan Oaten and Ken Chang. I got the insight from Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit, p. 138.

[v] Ibid. p. 139.

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Once, when Jesus was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord if you choose, you can make me clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him. And he ordered him to tell no one. “Go,” he said, “and show yourself to the priest, and as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing as a testimony to them.” But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, An Altar in the World, tells a story about a time when she was guest preaching at an Episcopal church in the south. She arrives early to check out the sanctuary & get settled in. She immediately noticed that behind the altar there was a striking mural of the resurrected Jesus, stepping out of the tomb. After greeting a member of the altar guild, a manicured and proper southern lady, Barbara walks up behind the altar to get a closer look at the mural. She says that Jesus looked “as limber as a ballet dancer with his arms raised in blessing…except for the white cloth swaddling his waist, Jesus was naked. His skin was the color of a pink rose. His limbs were flooded with light.”
Barbara felt protective over Jesus with so much skin showing, he is all exposed in such a public place. She recognized the beauty in this painting that in Jesus' moment of transcendence, he remained human, he came back wearing skin. But then she also quickly noticed that something was missing, the wounds in his hands and feet were apparent – though not grotesque. His arms were thin but strong, but then staring at his underarms, she noticed - that Jesus had no body hair! “Beautiful, isn't it?” asked the woman who was polishing the silver. “It surely is that,” Barbara said, “ but did you ever notice that he has no body hair? He has the underarms of a six-year-old and his chest is a smooth as a peach.” And the woman shrank in awkwardness. “Uh, no, um, wow…” she said.

This may or may not have sent me on a Google hunt to find a picture of a hairy Jesus, but alas, in the collective Christian imagination, Jesus is really into hygiene. Seriously though in a majority of these portraits, Jesus skin is silky and “rosey” and white and “hair free.”

And this perfectly manicured Jesus is problematic especially when I imagine Jesus in our gospel reading today. First of all - let's get something straight up front, Jesus was not fair-skinned, which is another sermon for another day. Second of all Jesus most certainly did not have access to spa treatments, sunscreen, or a personal trainer. I mean seriously though it looks like he baths in milk and does mint julep masks every day! And yes, Jesus was crucified, but he looked damn good doing it! The reality is that Jesus was a poor drifter teacher who trudged around in dirt and grim and touched lepers. And who knows, Jesus may have even been uglier or fatter or shorter or grey-haired or balding than our perfect-bodied Jesus! Why would that be such a scandal?

It would be a scandal - because we are generally uncomfortable with our own bodies – we decided to manicure Jesus' body and make it perfect to make us feel a little more at ease about the imperfections and struggles in our own bodies.

So Jesus' messy body – with smelly feet and bad breath and hunger and pain and a couple grey hairs – one day in his travels encounters a man who's body is covered in leprosy. And the man's frail and weak body covered with open wounds throws himself on the dirt ground at Jesus' feet in desperation. And Jesus heals him and restores him to his community. And I need Jesus to have a messy, real body in this scene. Because imagining the rosy pink flesh that is unblemished and perfect touching the broken body of the leper with open wounds just doesn't do it for me. “Rosey-skinned”

And perfect bodied Jesus doesn't fit in this story for two reasons:

1) Jesus' body certainly stands in contrast to our leper friend. The leper's flesh is rotting and open to infection, while Jesus' skin is shiny and new. If Jesus' body in our cultural imagination is perfect, unblemished, without warts or bad breath or hangnails, then we can hold his body at a bit of a distance. And the reverse is also true, Jesus can hold our bodies at a bit of a distance – and he would hold the body of a man with leprosy at a distance.

2) Leprosy is contagious, physically and socially – by touching this man, Jesus risks, pain, brokenness, loss of feeling, loss of limb, being socially ostracized. So when Jesus' body touches this leper – he risks being contaminated with this curse – this social and physical death. He puts his body on the line. And to top it off Jesus risks his own religious authority – if he contracts leprosy, everyone will think that it is his fault- that he deserves this suffering because he has sinned.

And so rosey-skinned-unblemished-no-body-hair-Jesus just doesn't do it for me in this scene. He is too ethereal, too perfect to risk touching a leper. The rosey-skinned Jesus has a special body and he can stand apart from us – he doesn't really get what it's like to be human. The Jesus with body hair, he is on our team, he is vulnerable, he touches lepers. He has skin in the game. He is moved with pity to touch a man who is untouchable.

But here is where the rubber hits the road, (START SLIDESHOW) just like the portrait of Jesus' perfect body we idealize the perfect human body now more than ever, and our relationships with our bodies are so complicated and loaded that we often cope by ignoring our bodies until they scream at us for attention.

Think about the struggles that land in our bodies: Struggles in our sex lives, with body image, with our relationship to food, our ability to balance rest and work, our relationship with other people's bodies, bodies that don't fit quite so easily into nice categories. We have an insidious cultural habit of demeaning and objectifying bodies in order to sell perfume. And don't get me wrong the Christian church has been the worst, trying to control our sexuality, and creating negative images of our bodies to suppress and oppress certain people with shame.

All of these complications and struggles divorce us from our bodies. Like the leper our bodies are fraught with illness – we are the most addicted, overweight, prescribed adult cohort in human history. These sacred vessels created in God's image are at risk of being subsumed by the quest for the “perfect body.” This dichotomy between our own body and the perfect body - divorce us from our bodies – suppress the beauty that we already are for some ideal or we ignore our bodies because they are loaded with shame

So here's the deal – This leper story is a story about isolation. This man is divorced from his own body, and kicked out of his religious, social and familial support system to battle this disease alone. And to top it off he is isolated from God, in their cultural context, this disease is proof that he has sinned before God and is therefore paying penance for his sins in suffering. So this man is left utterly isolated.

Jesus' miracle here is that he restores this man to his own body. When you have leprosy you lose sensation – you lose your connection to your nerves, which can eventually cause loss of limb. And so when Jesus heals him – he now is restored to his own body. This man is also restored unto his community, and they can now begin tending to the wounds of his soul from the pain of social isolation.

Like the leper we need Jesus to restore us to our own bodies and to restore us to authentic communities that can help us heal.

Why are people cast out in our society because of their bodies? Maybe they are too fat, too thin, too old or too young. Maybe they happen to love the “wrong body.” People are isolated because they are differently-abled, or their bodies carry the weight of illness or chronic struggles. We carry shame around in our bodies, not just eating disorders and a distorted idea of what “healthy” bodies look like but the general feeling that we are unaware of our bodies and our connection to God through them.

When we affirm Jesus' imperfect skin, we also need to affirm our own sacred skin. How does our culture try to divorce us from our own bodies? How do we lose touch with the sacred goodness of each unique body that is created in God's image, with one uniform and oppressive definition of “healthy” and “beautiful?”

Here me now when I say, “you are a person of beauty and worth, created in God's image.” How does that mantra change us? How can we develop rituals to remind ourselves of the sacred connection of our bodies and souls and minds? What does cherishing and affirming your body look like for you? Is it a yoga practice or a sport? A good bath, a long walk? Is it a nap or a morning routine?

Jesus says, “This is my body – broken for you”

Jesus body was broken

Our bodies are broken

And yet we celebrate them today as a place of sacredness – that God calls “GOOD.”

A beautiful miraculous gift – these things that we walk around in

These bodies that heal and breathe and walk and sing and dance

These bodies are our spiritual homes

May we gather in communion today with this mantra

“I am a person of beauty and worth – created in God's image”

And may that mantra heal us and draw us into communion with God and each other.