The Committed Life
Mt. 19:13-15; Mk. 1:4-11
Who doesn’t love Christmas? Warm, fuzzy birth… presents all around, egg nog, sweet treats, delicious meals, my scotch after the midnight service is over next to the fire. There is nothing not to like. Even my grandsons are angels for a while. It is wonderful.
You may not know that in our earliest versions of the gospel, there is actually no mention of the birth of the baby Jesus. No choirs of Angels, no couple traveling to a stable. The gospel of Mark, the oldest written document about Jesus, begins with his baptism.
We love to tell the story of God’s unmerited favor towards us, but the truth is nothing much is significant about our lives until we make a commitment. We don’t stand for anything until we do. And commitment is difficult isn’t it?
How are you doing with your New Years resolutions now that we have just passed a week. The gym that I occasionally visit has a picture of the staff gathered around a big calendar with February 12th circled in this big red circle. Inside it says ‘liberation day’. I walked by it a couple days before I asked the staff what is ‘liberation day’. ‘That’ the staff grinned ‘is the day that almost all of you tire of your resolutions and we can get our gym back for the rest of the year.’
Most of us are aware that we need self-discipline in our lives more than ever. We live in a world of increasing choice, where almost anything we can think about is available on the internet and we can get it with just a few clicks of the mouse, delivered to our door.
And most of us recognize that we are personally falling farther and farther behind in the department of self-control. The grandfather in me appreciated the cartoon in the New Yorker this week that featured a Dad with his 3 year old in an ice cream shop. He was looking at the sign that said “Flavors”. Underneath the flavors listed were: “Bribe, placate, pacify, reward, distract, and shut up.”
So, we come to a text like this one this morning and it reminds us of one of the reasons we so admire Jesus. Jesus stood for something. He knew what he was about. He was committed and when the going got tough, he seemed to just get tougher himself. We know we need that in our life.
And the truth is we know it not really from the big stuff that is in front of us. It is the little stuff that daily reminds us of who we are and our short-comings. One of my fraternity brothers, a physician, is fond of saying, ‘It is easy to quit smoking. I’ve done it dozens of times.’ What is it about us that can say, “I really need to go on a diet and tomorrow I’m going to do just that, so before this night is over, I might as well go have one more of those wonderful chocolate mousse thingies with the raspberry drizzle on top.” We can look straight in the mirror say, ‘but tomorrow, I’m going to start.”
Neurologists are starting to discover that we actually have three different parts of our brain, one that can voice these longer term goals and structures that we would like to build into our lives because we know that they are good for us.
One part keeps prohibitions and prevents us from doing certain things that we know are bad and bad for us.
And another part that is completely susceptible to short-term pleasures.
We will. We won’t. And we want. We want trumps the other two.
Furthermore, we have this amazing ability to partially fool ourselves and we really want to fool ourselves into believing that we are stronger than we really are.
It should be called the “Manana Syndrome”.[i] Tomorrow will be different. Researchers at Yale University ran an experiment on the over-worked laboratory rat, the undergraduates at Yale who were walking across campus to class. They offered the students a choice between a low-fat yogurt cup and a big old Mrs. Fields chocolate chip cookie.
This was interesting, when they told the students that this was a one-time opportunity, about 57% of them chose the cookie. But when they told the students that next week, at the very same time in the very same place, they would be offering the same options, 83% of the students chose a big old chocolate chip cookie. Apparently the prospect of being virtuous in the future allowed them a wider latitude in the choices that they would make for today.
And here is what is really curious. The researchers asked the students what they would pick next week when they were offered the same choices. 67% of them confidently predicted that they would make a more virtuous choice, that they would choose the yogurt over the cookie.
But when they got there and actually had the choice and had to make a choice, only 36% of them actually made the better choice. A full third of them, having made the lazy choice the first time, having pledged to make a better choice the second time, actually made the same lazy choice again.
Manana will be miraculously different, except that when we get there, it is crammed with all the conflicts that we have today, we are tired like we are today, we don’t have enough time, like we don’t have today. But the beautiful thing is that tomorrow, just like today, there will always be tomorrow. We are inveterate in our optimism about tomorrow, even as we simply must cut ourselves quite a wide latitude of slack about today.
It turns out we are very poor predictors of tomorrow. I was amused to read about a study that was prompted by researchers wondering why so many people buy a treadmill that costs a whole lot of money only to see it collect dust in the basement gym.
They started off by asking people, ‘how many times did you go to the gym this week.’ And the people answered. The average was something like 1.25 times.
Then they divided the group in half. They asked on half, ‘how many times will you go to the gym next week?’ And they answered confidently “3 times” on average, despite the fact that this week, they hadn’t actually done that.
Just to compare, they asked the other group, “In an ideal world” how many times will you go to the gym next week? Curiously, the second group answered the question just the same, “3 times”.
So in the future, the only future we imagine, is our ideal future, not the actual future we really think will happen. Tomorrow is always an ideal, an optimistic hope.
The researchers thought they had done something wrong, so they went back to them one more time with a question that was clearer. “How many times will you actually go to the gym next week? Please do not provide an idealistic prediction but the most realistic prediction of your behavior that you can?” And the control group responded? Something like 3.1 times on average. When asked to be more realistic, they were actually more idealistically optimistic.
There is something deep seated about our Manana syndrome that thinks that tomorrow we will yield choices that are qualitatively different than today, despite the fact that every day for us looks pretty much like every other day.
As it turns out, researchers have discovered that Christians have been pretty accurate in their depiction of human nature all along. St. Paul used to say of himself, “I am at war with myself… that which I should do, I cannot seem to do and what I actually do is the very thing that I don’t want to do.” Anyone who has ever tried to lose weight, quit smoking, quit drinking knows exactly what he is talking about.
Today, we can actually picture it for you in real time. We have a part of our brain that is filled with our long-term plans. It is the area of the brain that filled with our ‘do’s and don’ts’. But this part of the brain can be overridden by a more primitive part of the brain that is the center of our desire. You experience it every week, almost all of experienced it two weeks ago. You know that you want to look good which is why you watch what you eat all day long and just before going to bed, you find yourself wandering through the house with no one around and you impulsively just open the fridge and get a big old scoop of Aunt Virginia’s magnificent chocolate mousse, hoping your family won’t notice.
What is that and why is it so hard to control? The good news is that we have discovered that you really can strengthen your will and make it stronger. You can corral your desires and addictions. And all of us know that this is more important than ever. Our retailers and marketing people have gotten much better at stimulating our desire center. We can now even sense that we are being manipulated towards making purchases that we never intended to make, almost like we can’t help ourselves. I remember when they opened the Krispy Kreme donught shop right in the main thoroughfare at Penn Station, I thought to myself, ‘this isn’t fair’. Walking past the smell of hot donughts twice a day on your daily commute, somehow just gooses everyone to want to buy something. All they have to do is wait for that percentage of us that are tired, that have our guard down, like fishing in a barrel. And now we have the research to prove it to be true.
The subject is important enough that I want to look at it in detail in the coming weeks, but today I only have time to lift up the importance of commitment itself. Descartes was only half right, spiritually speaking. He said “Cogito ergo sum”, I think, therefore I am. He was taken by the human rational capacity that makes us more transcendent than other species of animal on this earth.
The other have is “Amo ergo sum”, I love, therefore I am. It is not simply our rational capacity that is transcendent but the fidelity that we know in real love. It is the profounder way to be that Jesus taught us about.
I think of Darlene Lewis who was interviewed for storycorps recently.[ii] Darlene lives in Little Rock, Arkansas and had a son that was arrested as a teenager. That record hobbled her son, making it very difficult for him to find a job and get on with his life once he had served his time. Rather than just help her son, she set up a group that selected former inmates, agreed to work with them and advocate for them so that they weren’t completely defined by being prisoners and that they could develop a life after parole.
They interviewed a man named James Taylor that she had helped. James described his frustration at having made bad decisions as a teenager, of doing his time, of changing his life. But he felt stuck, trapped because his potential employers only viewed him for what he had been, but not who he was or who he was becoming.
Darlene would help get him an interview. And she also reined him in, making sure he was presenting himself in a positive way, doing the things that he needed to do make himself presentable. He was so grateful to her for getting him a job and another job and for believing in him.
He was describing all of this in her presence and at one point, she asked him, “Did you ever think I was too hard on you?” “Oh yes”, he answered. “But when that happened I remembered my time in prison. Because you cared about me. You wanted the best for me to come to the surface. They were hard on me in prison but they didn’t care.
You became a mother for me and you gave me something that I couldn’t replace any other way even if I wanted to. You believed in me and I’ll always be grateful for that.”
She was quiet for a moment and then she said, “Well, we made a good team”. That is what humble people say who have lived well by loving strong.
And our profound love can be healing for each other like that. It blooms us like nothing else can so that we genuinely feel like we have been blessed by God. And we have. It is the committed nature of love that sees things through over many years, that supports us day in and day out, that inspires us to become extraordinary.
Jesus lived his life like that. And we gather in our spiritual community, the great experiment that is the Church, to live our lives together, guided by that profound love. I keeps us in the higher way. It develops what is best in us about our lives.
We are a people that believe in committing ourselves to one another, to access all that God wants for us to become. And sometimes that is actually somewhat profound. We are going to close today with Ann Marie and Eunice renewing their vows to one another, just the shortened version, simply because they can now. It is finally legal.
15 years ago, Christ Church became Open and Affirming, blessing gay and lesbian unions in committed, loving relationships just like marriages. I remember hearing a gay couple exchange vows probably 20 years ago. Their vows were just like the vows that I made when I got married, except they had one more dimension to them that my vows didn’t have, that got my attention when they said them.
They said something like “I promise to be there for you when people discriminate against you, to help you through the hurt of being rejected and misunderstood.” I didn’t have to say that when I got married and didn’t need to. And the Minister asked all of us in the congregation to also make a pledge to be there for this gay couple, to stand with them in the season of persecution and discrimination”. Because at that time, it was sure to come. We aren’t over it yet.
But I think about what we do through the church. We pray for the day to come where our gay and lesbian family members will be accepted for who they are. We act. We pray. We pray some more. We act. We pray. And then one day, the world changes. And one day, our prayers are fulfilled and it is legal, normal and gay people can enjoy the same miseries of marriage we’ve been kvetching about for centuries now.
And what a great day. We tried repression for a couple thousand years. That didn’t work so well. Why don’t we try normalization and see what happens next. And we don’t know what comes next, but it feels promising doesn’t it.
So, for our closing, we are going to ask for God’s blessing on Ann Marie and Eunice. They’ve already committed themselves to one another in love. But today, they can make it legal and so I’m going to ask Rev. Julie to come forward and have them just exchange their vows, re-pledging themselves to that faithful love and we’ll close with all of us gathering to bless them, gathering the strength of God’s love that courses through us and focusing it through our bonds with each other, to them.
[i] What follows is from chapter 4 of Kelly McGonigal’s book “The Willpower Instinct” (New York: Penguin, 2012) pp. 88 ff. The book is a good overview of the present state of research. It is not real easy to read but there is a lot of material in it that you would profit from. Kelly has taken the best research on the subject and used it to develop ‘how to’ classes on self-discipline at Stanford, so there is a practical quality to the book that is quite helpful. I recommend the book and will be using portions of it in the coming weeks.