A Little Wicked–Ecclesiastes 7:18

It is good that you grasp the one and do not let the other slip from your hand. For the one who fears God will end up with both of them.

Ecclesiastes 7:18

I know that it has been a couple of weeks since I wrote about the preceding verses, probably the most challenging ones in the entire book for a contemporary Christian. I’m talking about the ones that tell you not to be too wicked (which we would expect) but also not too righteous. Really? And as we ponder those directions, if you’re like me, you’ll find yourself saying, “Not too wicked? So I can be a little bit wicked?”

A little over a week ago, I found myself walking through the crowded sidewalks around Times Square headed to a sixth-row seat at, of all musicals, Wicked. As we navigated the Friday-night press of people, we encountered some rather awkward street evangelists. They might have been aiming to be too righteous, but that’s not what puts them in my mind today.

I heard a voice in that crowd, although I never saw the speaker, who quite distinctly said, “The people of this world have chosen their god!” Looking around, I could see that this man was correct. The gods of Times Square include thinly veiled sexuality, alcohol, food, material possessions, overhyped celebrities, and endless entertainment. And here I was walking to a musical that had filled a nearly 2,000-seat hall for 16 years with people falling all over themselves to pay a hundred dollars and more per ticket.

Should I have turned my back on the Gershwin Theatre as soon as I heard those words? Should I have taken my ticket out and ripped it up, since giving it away would have been tempting someone else into the iniquity of the world? In short, was I wallowing in idolatry as I listened to singing about “Defying Gravity”?

Those thoughts crossed my mind quickly and just as quickly gave way. After all, we were on the sixth row, nearly close enough to be spit upon.

What the verse today suggests to me is that we do not have to utterly abandon the pleasures of this world in order to remain in God’s good graces. If I’m reading this correctly, then I can be a little bit wicked without utterly letting go of righteousness. I can enjoy a musical, provided I’m neither obsessed by it nor indulging in something truly ungodly. I can enjoy secular music, rich food, an indulgent vacation, and the other pleasures of this world without letting go of righteousness.

I know that even as I say this, I’m getting into slippery slope territory. As a bright and sin-inclined human, I can rationalize anything once I start deciding that a little wickedness is okay. But if I remain in touch with the Holy Spirit, the God that I have truly chosen, then I’m going to find myself pulled back when I move into dangerous territory.

And when that happens, as the closing song of Wicked says, “I’ll be changed for good.”

10,000 Reasons Not to Be Disappointed

Last Sunday morning–a week late due to a winter-weather delay–the West Bottoms of Kansas City saw the arrival of about 750 runners for the KC version of the Great Plains 10K. I signed up for that race in order to give myself an intermediate goal before the April 11 Rock the Parkway half marathon.

Pointed the wrong way at the starting line of the 2015 Great Plains 10K.
Pointed the wrong way at the starting line of the 2015 Great Plains 10K.

The goal was simple: finish the 10K course in less than 54 minutes. A time of 53:39 would have been great. That’s a pace of about 8:45 per mile. I knew I could do it. In reality, I had done it with a fair margin to spare the previous week on a treadmill. Sure, a treadmill is not a city street, but I believed that the thrill of the race would make up for whatever advantage the machine gave.

After three miles, I was fairly certain that I would not make my goal, but I pressed on. When I passed the five-mile marker, I had something like 8:30 to complete the last 1.2 miles. It wasn’t going to happen. I wound up crossing the finish line at 55:59, two minutes late to my party.

It bummed me out, I must confess. I went to church and sat through service, but my heart was out on the streets of Kansas City, trying to understand why I had failed.  Unlike my failed attempt to achieve a personal best in the 5K, I had not gone out too fast. I covered the first mile in 8:30, which was just about perfect. On Monday, I went out for an easy recovery run. The first mile of that route–that easy paced route–I finished in 8:15. In fact, on that Monday, I did a mixed run and walk of five miles at a pace just slightly slower than my Sunday morning disappointment.

As I turned this riddle over in my mind, blaming bad fueling, insufficient or excessive sleep, a headwind, or–every runner’s favorite–my shoes, I realized the folly of the entire affair. In fact, as I thought about that aggravating 10K, it occurred to me that I had 10,000 reasons not to be aggravated.

Do you have that Matt Redman song playing in your head yet? “Bless the Lord, O my soul. O my soul, worship His holy name.” That’s the song that played for me as I started to put these thoughts together. The first verse of that song seems especially pertinent.

The sun comes up, it’s a new day dawning
It’s time to sing Your song again
Whatever may pass, and whatever lies before me
Let me be singing when the evening comes

Do I believe those things?  If I can allow a poor run to dampen my spirit, then I don’t believe I’m actually paying much attention to God’s holy name. “Whatever may pass,” the song says. That means that no matter how much I wanted to achieve that goal, I still should have been singing when the evening came.

Goals are worthwhile. Working toward a goal is a solid of making the most of our opportunities on this earth, but allowing a goal to separate me from the Creator of the Universe is just as surely an act of idolatry as is bowing down before a statue.

The Work of Our Hands

working hands“And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away.” Surely Jesus’ admonition in Matthew 5:30 is meant as hyperbole. Still I must confess that my hands (and the rest of my body) can get me into a great deal of trouble.

Why did God save you from the sins of your flesh only to leave you inhabiting that flesh for the rest of your life, abandoning you, so it would seem, to an endless parade of temptations and inevitable failures? That’s a curious question, one of those when-I-get-to-heaven-I’m-gonna-ask sort of questions.

While I don’t have an absolute answer for that question, I do assume that God did this not by oversight but on purpose. The question we can answer is how to live in that flesh. Do I succumb to gluttony or pride when I consider my body? Do I invest too much attention into my work or too little, yielding to sloth? Marshall Segal has written persuasively on how we are to properly navigate this problem (although the title of his essay seems misleading to me).

Our tendency toward idolatry in our work is no indictment against work (just like pornography is no indictment against sex (in the context of marriage), and drunk driving is no indictment against the automobile). Even before sin entered into the world, God wanted us to work (Genesis 2:15). In fact, he made us to work (Psalm 8:6). It was woven into the goodness of God’s perfect creation. All work is God’s, and it serves as a brilliant shadow of his own sovereign, just, creative, and sustaining work (Hebrews 1:10Psalm 143:5).

It’s so easy to become enamored with the work that these hands can do. It’s so easy to lapse into idolatry. Yet it’s just as easy to fold my hands (and all the rest of my flesh) and ignore it. While I cannot answer with certainly why God saved me from my flesh and then left me in it, I can discern directions in how I am to live out those flesh-bound years. Perhaps that’s enough.

Betty Draper Indulges Her Cravings

Betty DraperI will confess that I am writing this out of a measure of ignorance, having not watched all of the Mad Men episodes released to date. However, with the first five and one- third seasons under my belt, I feel confident in claiming that Betty Draper Francis is a woman living in the flesh.

Certainly I could have just as easily laid that charge against her ex-husband, the complicated Don Draper, but since Betty seems to drag a great deal less baggage in her wake her flesh-focused life seems less justified and more lamentable.

Somewhere, in the years before Betty found herself swept away by Don, in the murky prehistory before Season 1, Betty would have seemed to have it all: Bryn Mawr education, a sturdy (if not wealthy) family, dazzling good looks, and, upon Don’s entrance on the scene, a dashing husband going places. What more could this  fifties woman want? Yet it wasn’t enough.

By the time we meet Betty, she, like her husband, is self-medicating with nicotene. Don might have been in the majority–something like 54% of American men smoked in the early 1960s–but Betty belonged to the roughly one-third of women who indulged in that habit. Betty also drinks, sometimes to excess. Yet tobacco and alcohol do not sooth the pains that this woman feels. During Season 1, she visits a psychiatrist, ostensibly because of psychosomatic numbness in her hands.

While Betty fantasizes at least a couple of times about being sexually unfaithful, her indulgence in this area seems decidedly amateurish compared with Don’s continual transgressions. Still, at the end of Season 2, she picks up a complete stranger in a bar and retires with him to a back room. This, unsurprisingly, does not satisfy her.

After divorcing Don and marrying the enigmatic (and somewhat dull) Henry Francis, she seems for a moment to be satisfied. But her misery continues, visited on her ex, her children, and husband number two. Eventually, the show inflicts the ultimate indignity on the lovely actress and presents us with “Fat Betty.” Food, though, fails to satisfy this woman. I dread to see what the remaining run of the show will drag her into. Betty the junky?

You wouldn’t know it from looking at me, but I am Betty Draper–or at least I have been. At one time or another, we are all Betty Draper, vaguely unhappy in the flesh and convinced that the right combination of fleshly stimuli will scratch that itch. We might try food or liquor, smoke or sex. We might think that the right clothes upon this body, the right car in which to move it, or the right house for it to call home will do the trick.

More to the point of my interests, we might seek to sooth that bodily dissatisfaction with actions that seem like absolutely positive things. “If I can lose ten more pounds and get my six-pack abs… If I could only eat organic, free-range, humanely raised food… If I can get just my golf handicap down or my bench press up… If I can only run a longer race or a faster time, then everything will be great.” The fleshly idols of today are different from those Betty worshiped, but they can be idols nonetheless.

If I could counsel Betty, I would advise her that cigarettes or booze are poor choices. (We might differ on the latter, but that’s a matter for another day.) But her other wants are, in moderation and, especially, with the right outlook,  positives. It is the same for us. The inclination to eat right, to exercise, and to pursue other matters of the flesh can glorify God or they can simply be what they are for Betty: an attempt to fix a spiritual ache with a physical medication.