Friday, July 02, 2010

Feeling Stronger Every Day!

Another nap and a longer walk today. Took a nice walk yesterday evening and then we were surprised by good friends (you know who you are), who took us for a ride in their jeep. Fun! Lots of reading and praying, too.  Feeling stronger every day!

"Christian" in More Than Name Only


Acts 11:19-26

Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, and they spoke the word to no one except Jews. But among them were some men of Cyprus and Cyrene who, on coming to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists also, proclaiming the Lord Jesus. The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord. News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were brought to the Lord. Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for an entire year they met with the church and taught a great many people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called “Christians.”

Luther on "Opposing Evil"

This comes from Faith Alone, a daily devotional composed of Martin Luther's essays, sermons, and table talks:
But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. (Matthew 5:39-40)
Getting involved in secular matters isn't a sin for Christians. Believers are simply carrying out the responsibilities that all citizens have--whether Christian or non-Christian. Yet believers have to consciously avoid sin and do what Christ expects of them. In contrast, the people of the world don't do what Christ requires.

That's why when Christians fight in a war, file a lawsuit, or impose a punishment, they are functioning in their role as soldier, lawyer, or judge. But within these roles, Christians will want to keep their consciences clear and their motives pure. They don't want to hurt anyone. So they live simultaneously as Christians and as secular people. They live as Christians in all situations, enduring hardships in this world. They live as secular people obeying all national laws, community regulations, and domestic rules.

In summary, Christians don't live for visible things in this life. These things fall under the authority of secular government, which Christ doesn't intend to abolish. Outwardly and physically, Christ doesn't want us to evade governmental authority or expect us to abandon our civic duties. Instead he wants us to submit to and make use of the organizational and regulatory powers of the government which keep society intact. But inwardly and spiritually, we live under Christ's authority. His kingdom isn't concerned with governmental authority and doesn't interfere with it but is willing to accept it. So as Christians and as individuals, we shouldn't resist an evil person. On the other hand, as citizens with responsibilities in society, we should oppose evil to the full extent of our authority.

[UPDATE: In the comments, Bob asked what might be meant by "secular." I tried to answer that. Here's what I wrote (fixed a bit, since I initially wrote it on the fly):

Thank you for your kind comments. I am feeling better and in fact, in a short while, intend to do a little dusting here in the house while my wife handles lawn-mowing duties.

As Luther uses the term, secular, in this citation, I believe that he's referring to offices and functions other than Christian "offices," whether those filled by clergy or laity.

What underlays these remarks is Luther's understanding that God operates in two kingdoms here on earth: the kingdom of the right and the kingdom of the left. The kingdom of the right is composed of those persons who voluntarily and by faith, live under the reign of Christ. They remain sinners as well as saints, but they seek by daily repentance and renewal to live out the new life given to them by Jesus Christ. Their intention to live in accordance with God's will is something they offer up freely out of gratitude for Christ and is not coerced.

However, because we still live in a fallen world, God has also established the kingdom of the left. This is composed of the governments, laws, and regulations, whose coercion is necessary to keep unrepentant humanity in check. Christians voluntarily live under such secular authority out of love for their neighbor. [Luther also says that if there were no kingdom of the left, we Christians would live in a world like lambs among ravenous wolves.]

Accordingly, Luther argues that Christians may, with clear consciences, provide services to governments. He would argue, I'm sure, as the Augsburg Confession states emphatically, that the Church and those holding Church offices, in their capacities as officers of the Church should refrain from taking secular authority, lest voluntary acquiescence to Christ's authority become coercion; lest too, those pastors, priests, or bishops speak and act on their own authority rather than that springing from the Church's true power: the Word and the Sacraments.

There is good reason to be critical of some of what Luther reasons from Scripture. There were too many Lutheran clergy--Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a notable and blessed exception--who felt that acceptance of secular authority meant they needed to go along with Nazism. There were also Lutheran apologists for slavery in the antebellum US.

But this may not be an inherent flaw in Luther's two kingdoms thinking. There must be exceptions when Christians break with secular authority.
A Mennonite theologian, John Howard Yoder, provides a useful gauge by which we can judge whether Christians are free to break with secular authorities. Yoder puts two passages of Romans in tension. First is Romans 13: 1:

"Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God."

The other is Romans 12:2:

"Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect."

I may have my personal opinions about the actions of secular authorities. As a Christian individual, I am free to vote as a please, write to members of government expressing my views, etc.

But I dare not invoke the name of Christ, nor may my Church, speak out on political issues unless a secular authority asks me or other Christians to live in ways that conform to the fallenness of the world rather than the will of Christ.

Keep in mind that Paul wrote these words during the Roman Empire. He did not, in his office as an apostle of the Gospel, speak out on political issues. The Church of today should show similar reticence, I think. We have bigger fish to fry--making disciples.
If the Church will be about the business of making disciples, those living under the kingdom of the right--Christ's kingdom--will change the world without political power plays, social statements, wars, or coercion. The power of the Holy Spirit to woo people to faith and true righteousness is infinitely greater than the secular world's capacity to coerce what Luther called a "civil righteousness" from resentful citizens. The Church is crazy to go for secular power or to cozy up to politicians when it already has more power at its disposal--through the Word and the Sacraments and prayer--than any government or empire in the history of the world.

That's my windy response, Bob. I hope that it helps.]

Fourth of July, the Declaration, Rights, Responsibilities

Historian Garry Wills, in his wonderful book on Lincoln at Gettysburg, rightly points out that for the first eighty-nine years of their history, citizens of the United States saw the Constitution, that document which forged the disparate and unruly original states into a single nation, as their birth certificate. Washington and the other Framers saw the Constitution as the document that completed the American Revolution, because liberty without mutual accountability is tyranny and chaos. It was Lincoln at Gettysburg who gave the Declaration of Independence the significance it retains to this day.

Though the Declaration lacks the force of law, its significance for our country and for the history of freedom around the world cannot be underestimated.

As a Christian who strives to pay heed to the Bible, I question the entire concept of "unalienable rights" on which the Declaration is predicated. But I do acknowledge that in the civil realm in which theists and secularists live and govern themselves together, it is a useful fiction, the content of which we can collectively decide. (Certainly, our notion of what constitutes a right and who--which has come to include the unpropertied, blacks, women in the intervening centuries--might stake a claim a right, has expanded over the years.)

For me though, it's personally more useful to think in terms of Jesus' "golden rule": Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I think more of my "unalienable responsibilities" to love my neighbor as I love myself, the second part of Jesus' great commandment, than I do of my rights. (The first part of Jesus' great commandment is to love God with all one's heart.)

Of course, not all voluntarily live by this ethic--even we Christians who, on earth, remain saints as well as sinners. That's why government remains what Martin Luther calls "an emergency measure," necessary until the return of Jesus and the final establishment of His kingdom. Government exists to coerce us into consideration of our neighbor when we fail to offer it voluntarily.

Winston Churchill once observed that democracy is the worst form of government...except for every other form of government. He's right, I think, which is why I feel so blessed to live in the cradle of modern democracy, the United States.

Take some time to listen to the hosts, reporters, and contributors of National Public Radio read again this year, the entire text of the Declaration of Independence, here. May God bless the United States of America and may the United States of America always bless God!

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Learning to Relax

One of the hardest things for me to do is relax.

There are many factors that no doubt have contributed to my being so relax-averse. One is my work ethic. Growing up, one of the worst things that could be said about someone was that they were lazy or that they lacked initiative. Because my interests--other than sports--were more sedentary, things like reading, writing, creating, and other things not mechanical, I always feared that I might deserve the label of "lazy." I'm sure that, at some level, to disprove this epithet, I've been a harder worker than many.

Don't misunderstand, I love to work and I love the work to which God has called me. But there has to be a shutdown time, a point at which we agree with Jesus to let the day's troubles be enough for that day. Clearly, one of the reasons that God established a sabbath is so that we would set aside a day on which we could rest, recharge, and pay particular heed to God's Word. Martin Luther talks about this in his explanation to the Third Commandment:
The Third Commandment.
Thou shalt sanctify the holy-day.
What does this mean?--Answer.
We should fear and love God that we may not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred, and gladly hear and learn it.
Another factor in my relaxation-aversion may be the nature of my work. While of course, I can't visit with shut-ins or the hospitalized at all hours of the night, I can work on a sermon, send a note, compose an email, or write a press release at any time. Because I've always been a night owl anyway, the temptation to do "just one more thing" is probably greater for me in the evening hours than it might be for others and when you're dealing with work that is never done (won't be done until Jesus comes back), the temptation is magnified. In recent months, I've even found it difficult to justify sitting to watch movies with my family because of a sense that I had something more to get done.

Another element of my personality working against relaxation is that I'm a widget man. A widget, in the days before computer techs took over the term, was simply a euphemism for any means of keeping score: How many transistors or hood ornaments a factory produced; How many battles a general won; How many words you got right on the spelling test. Widgets can affirm your productivity and, at a sick level, your value or worth as a human being.

Although I was an indifferent student, I always prided myself on the "widgets" I acquired in areas that mattered to me. I never got less than an A in History, Social Studies, English, or Spelling when I was growing up. I loved flaunting my supposed "mastery" of these subjects.

My first love was politics, in part I suppose, because on election night, voters deliver a score. The more votes you get, the more affirmed you are.

A close second to politics as I was growing up was sports. I was never a good athlete. But I was an earnest one. A small fry, I nonetheless loved to play basketball. Winning was so important to me that I tried to find subtle and not-so-subtle ways to compensate for my deficiencies. "Watch out," Steve, a friend of mine told another friend with a smile as we got ready to play some hoops, after we had all reached our thirties, "Mark's a dirty player."

In my twenties, two of my very best friends--Jerry and Tom--worked hard with me on my softball skills. I was the only guy on our team who hadn't played varsity baseball at least at the junior high level. (Most had played high school ball and several had played in college.) I became obsessed with my batting average and five years into our stint in an industrial league, loved showing people the stats I meticulously kept which demonstrated that I had the highest average on the team.

I even carried this silliness over into my years as a pastor. Once, I was invited to a conference for pastors of congregations in small towns or in rural areas. I was serving at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in rural Okolona, amid the corn and soybean fields of northwest Ohio. To start out, the convener asked us to give a ballpark estimate of our weekly worship attendance. The other pastors sitting around the circle said things like, "Around...," "About...," "Somewhere around...." Just before the meeting, I had gone through my weekly ritual of confirming the Sunday attendance and figuring out what that number did to the average for the year. "About 282," I said. The place erupted in laughter. "About 282?" someone asked.

When I took a call to establish a new congregation in the Cincinnati area, what became Friendship Lutheran Church, my tendency to obsess over numbers was encouraged. There are thresholds to be met by so-called "mission churches": attendance figures, membership numbers, congregational giving. These, in turn, decide whether the mission church meeting in temporary facilities, will be able to erect its own first building unit.

All of that is important, of course. I agree with the maxim of Rick Warren: We count people because people count. There is no sure way to measure how many disciples, followers of Christ, a church is making. But any pastor who doesn't care about seeing more people exposed to the Gospel should think about going into some other line of work. Jesus has given His Church a great commission, to reach people with the good news of new life as a free gift for all who repent and believe in Him. The Church is called to "make disciples."

But pastors and congregations must avoid overestimating our role in the disciple-making process. Jesus says, "I will build My Church." He didn't say, "Mark will build the Church." (Although in the passage from which that line is taken, Jesus is saying that He will use the confession of Him as Savior, like the one made by His follower, Peter, to build His Church. God's people are the central means by whom Jesus builds His Church.)

Furthermore, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians, it's only by the power of the Holy Spirit that a person can confess, "Jesus is Lord." For a recovering control freak like myself, it's tough to simply share Christ by word and deed and leave the rest to the Spirit.

My heart attack has taught me what I should already have known as a Christian:
  • I'm not in charge.
  • "Successful" or not, God loves me.
  • I don't deserve the gifts of God's grace, but without personal merit, I can appropriate forgiveness and new life through faith in Jesus Christ.
Those are important facts for me to remember if I'm to learn to relax.

As I mentioned yesterday, over the past few days, I've been re-reading Dr. Keith Sehnert's Stress/Unstress, published in 1981. In a section I read last evening, Sehnert mentions Dr. Herbert Benson's book, The Relaxation Response. Benson looked at relaxation techniques from different cultures and noted that they have four elements in common:
1. Quiet environment
2. Mental device such as a sound or word
3. Passive attitude to help one rest and relax
4. Comfortable position to reduce muscular effort to a minimum
Benson then developed a method described in his book. I adapted it for myself last evening and found it deeply relaxing. After doing it, I was definitely ready to hit the sack. Here (with my adaptations in italics), is Benson's relaxation response:
1. In a quiet environment, sit in a comfortable position. (I used my Ikea office chair, extremely comfortable.)
2. Close your eyes.
3. Relax all your muscles, beginning with your feet and progressing to calves, thighs, lower torso, chest, shoulders, neck, head. Allow them to remain deeply relaxed. (I had forgotten how easy it is to relax parts of my body in this way. Keeping them relaxed is a challenge, but not insurmountable. You just have to give yourself the time and the silence.)
4. Breathe through your nose. Become aware of your breathing. Say the word 'one' silently to yourself as you breathe in; repeat it when you breathe out. (The breathing was fine with me. But in my mind to myself, I recalled promises from Scripture, prayed in Jesus' Name, and visualized and prayed for the Holy Spirit to fill and heal my body.)
5. Continue the practice for 20 minutes. You may open your eyes to check the time, but do not use an alarm clock. When you finish, sit quietly for several more minutes, at first with your eyes closed, then later with your eyes open. (I was able to keep my eyes closed for the entire 20 minutes and found it deeply refreshing.)
I understand that for many people, finding the time to do this exercise just once a day may prove impossible. For you, other modes of relaxation may work. If so, let me know. Recent events have made me very open to learning other methods.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Pre- and Post-Procedure Psalms

On Monday, when I underwent my heart catheterization and stent implant, I asked that two psalms be read aloud by my family before and after the procedure. My wife read Psalm 46 in the morning and in the evening, my son read Psalm 139. My wife and I were able to pray before I was wheeled in for my cath. I was, once upon a time, an atheist; but I can't imagine life without the God Who has ultimately revealed Himself to us in Jesus Christ. Here are the two psalms.

Psalm 46

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.
“Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah

Psalm 139

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.
O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—
those who speak of you maliciously, and lift themselves up against you for evil!
Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.
Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

Sheer Heart Attack Update

Up to this point, I've really only felt like putting updates on Facebook on my condition, something my family also did. But here is the latest on my health situation.

On Thursday of last week, as a follow-up to my stop at the Logan hospital on June 11, I was scheduled for a heart stress test at Mid Ohio Cardivascular in Columbus. During that appointment, prior to the test, a tech did an extensive ultrasound examination. Something alarmed her, though she didn't let on at the time. However, there was a significant delay between the end of her exam and the arrival of the tech who was to do the stress test. So much time passed, in fact, that the tech brought in a few magazines for me to read. I suspected nothing. Later, one of the cardiologists came to see me and told me that I had had a heart attack and that there was significant damage to my heart.

My doctor was as shocked as I was. Except for a weakness for pretzels (a really bad thing), I eat healthfully. I exercise one-half hour each day, usually. There is also no family history of heart disease, my cholesterol levels have been good, my blood pressure perfect. Without these factors in my favor, my cardiologist, physician, and cardiac care nurses all emphasized, the heart attack I suffered would have killed me.

On Monday morning, I underwent heart catheterization at the McConnell Center of Riverside Methodist Hospital in Columbus. I can't compliment enough the staff for the care I received, from the admission folks to the care nurses and to the doctors. They were incredible!

If you've never undergone a heart cath before, it's truly amazing. I remained awake throughout the procedure. The doctor, nurses, and surgical assistants and I spoke together throughout, even spending a lot of time talking about baseball as we were finishing up.

The catheter was inserted via an artery in the groin area, the only place I'm bruised...and that bruise is a doozy! The cath was run up into my heart. The doctor said that the left coronary artery was blocked just below its intersection with the circumflex artery. It was 100% blocked. Dr. Kander told me, "I'm going to try to put a stent through." Fortunately, the blockage formed relatively recently and was soft, making it easier to push the stent through. "We got it, buddy," the doctor said. "Thank You, God!" I said, "and thanks to all of you." "No," Dr. Kander told me, "just thank God."

My family reported that my color was already 100% better than it had been when I emerged from recovery.

The only setback I had that first day was what's known as a vegal episode. That was quickly and thoroughly dealt with.

On Monday night, our son, Phil, stayed with me at Riverside and the nurses were kind enough to move us to a suite where Phil could have a cot. We watched the Reds beat the Phillies. Yeah!

My heart function was significantly diminished by the blockage and subsequent heart attack. There's a number known as Ejection Fraction that measures, basically, the efficiency of the heart. An EF of 35% is considered dangerously low. On entering the hospital, mine was 25%. With medication, diet, and exercise, the goal is to build the heart muscle and get up to something more like 60 to 70% in the next year.

Wally Taylor, one of my seminary professors, suffered from a heart attack in 2002 and was at 18% EF and has done very well since. As part of the follow-up, I will be enrolled in the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program at Fairfield Medical Center in Lancaster. That may start between two to six weeks from now.

I will come back to work next week, but I will take naps regularly, per my doctor's orders.

I have follow-up appointments with my GP and my heart doc in July.

My guess is that two factors really contributed to my heart attack more than anything else: pretzels (salt is a major contributor to heart problems) and the sustained stress I put on myself. No one is more critical of me and no one has higher expectations of me than I do. In his book, Stress/Unstress, Dr. Keith Sehnert says that sustained stress triggers the fight-or-flight response, which includes the introduction of sugars and fats into the bloodstream.

I need to learn the truth of which my high school classmate, Marceile Tagart Redmon, reminded me the other day: Don't sweat the small stuff; and it's all small stuff. The only truly important things in life are God and the people for whom God died and rose on the cross in Jesus Christ. With God's help (and that of my family, friends, and church), I intend to try to remember that the next time I try to tell myself to get one more task done today. Jesus says, "Let today's troubles be sufficient for today." That's good to remember!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Life in the Spirit

[This was prepared for delivery during worship at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

Galatians 5:1, 13-25
In one of his helpful books written for laypeople as well as pastors, New Testament scholar N.T. Wright tells the story of a building that houses a library at Oxford University in England. It’s evidently a gorgeous building and people come long distances to admire it, take pictures of it, and even to paint images of it on canvas.

The grassy area around the building used to be enclosed by high railings, railings so high that, unless you were tall, you really couldn’t see the building. During World War 2, the British government commandeered the iron works and melted them down to make armaments. With that, people could take in the beauty of the building.

In the 1950s and 1960s, there were little signs posted near the library, asking people not to walk on the grass surrounding it. For the most part, people obeyed. At least they did until the 1970s and 1980s. It was then that people began ignoring the signs: holding parties on the library lawn, some hanging out to drink and threaten passersby. Things got so bad out on the lawn that people in the library couldn’t get any work done for all the noise. The grass lawn was trampled to dirt. The place began to look messy and unpresentable. In the late 1980s, the university decided to erect new railings, not as high as the old ones that had been there before. “Now,” says Wright, “once again, the grass and building are beautiful.”

That story, Wright points out, is a parable about the use and abuse of freedom. “It is one thing to be set free…[as library visitors became, once the old railings had been taken down]…and quite another to decide what to do with your freedom when you’ve got it.”

Freedom, of course, is the major theme of the New Testament book of Galatians on which we’ve been focused the past few weeks. Galatians, as you’ll remember, is a letter written by the apostle Paul in about 53AD, to the Gentile Christians in a region of Asia Minor known as Galatia. Through their faith in Jesus Christ, Paul reminded them, they had been set free from sin and death, free from the crushing demands the world puts (and that we ourselves, often put) on us: demands that we be perfect, successful, flawless. (If you don’t believe that such demands exist, spend five minutes on an elementary school play ground or watch a session of Congress on CSPAN.) All with faith in Jesus and in what Jesus did for us on the cross are set free from these demands, free, with the power of God’s Holy Spirit, to become the people God made us to be. “For freedom, Christ has set us free,” Paul says at the beginning of today’s lesson. We can breathe easy: God loves and redeems imperfect people like you and me. The cross and empty tomb of Jesus demonstrate that God wants nothing more than to be reconciled and living with us now and in eternity.

But as Paul moves toward the end of his letter to the Galatians, in the verses that make up most of our lesson, he wants to underscore something important about our freedom in Christ. Through Christ and our faith in Christ, you and I aren’t just freed from things—things like sin, death, and an often unforgiving world. Christ also sets us free to start living our lives differently, away from the sinful impulses and orientations we inherit from Adam and Eve at birth, and toward lives marked by the wholeness, forgiveness, joy, and courage God gives to those who dare to trust their lives to Jesus.

In today’s lesson, Paul contrasts two different styles of life, each lived in the orbits of two contrasting realities. Like the visitors to that Oxford University library, we are free to choose which style of life we will live, to choose what reality around which we orbit. The two realities are life in the flesh, on the one hand, or life in the Spirit, on the other.

Now, we have to be careful not to misunderstand Paul when he speaks of life in the flesh. There are two things he emphatically does not mean. First: Paul doesn’t mean that our flesh or anything else that God has made is irretrievably bad. No matter how mired in sin and death this world may be, the whole universe that we know—including you and me—is the creation of the God Who, when He looked on it all, declared it to be very good. And this whole universe—including you and me—is precisely what Jesus came to die for, to rise for, to buy back from its imprisonment to sin, and to make new. So, Paul isn’t saying that sunrises, or intimacy between a husband and a wife, or the touch of a sea breeze on our faces, or the taste of strawberries fresh from the field or any other thing that gives pleasure to our senses are bad things. God made our senses and our love of all the things our senses relish.

Nor in speaking of life in the flesh or the desires of the flesh is Paul saying that all of our human desires are wrong. Desires for roofs over our heads, for love in our families, for satisfying jobs, and countless other things we might name are legitimate, God-given things.

Life in the flesh—what the Bible also calls sin—happens when we crave or take the blessings God gives in the wrong ways, to the wrong extent, at the wrong times, for the wrong purposes. God made the grape, for example, one of the uses of which is to be fermented and turned into wine. There’s nothing wrong with wine; Jesus likely drank it at every meal. But we have no record of Jesus ever becoming drunk. That would have been an abuse of the gift. Such abuse is an example of life in the flesh, the abuse of our freedom as Christians and as human beings.

Paul describes how life in the flesh may look, in verses 19 to 21. I like the way Eugene Peterson translates Paul’s description. Life in the flesh, he says, leads to “repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions.” If we misuse our freedom in Christ in these ways, Paul is telling us, we enslave ourselves to sin all over again.

But the life of faith in Jesus Christ is a call to live life in the Spirit, a life in which the Holy Spirit can empower us to live in the freedom to become the noble, liberated, humble, strong people God made us to be. Paul also describes what this life style looks like in our lesson. (Again, I’m using Peterson’s translation.) Life in the Spirit is characterized by “affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.” I don’t know about you, but that sounds like freedom to me.

Don’t suppose, though, that anyone this side of the grave experiences the full freedom of life in the Spirit. The ongoing challenge of the Christian life in this world is to continue being open to living life God’s way, to living in the Spirit. I came face to face with my own sometimes losing battle to stick with life in the Spirit this past Thursday in a medical examination room where a cardiologist told me, “You’ve had a heart attack. There’s been damage to the heart.” Neither my genetics, nor my medical history prepared me for hearing that. But my battle against the life in the flesh should have. You see, the lure of the life in the flesh is that it deludes us with the notion that we’re in charge, that, even if we recoil at such notions as Christians, we’re our own gods. The lure of life in the flesh is what makes some people decide that they’ll have sex when and with whom they like, no matter what God says. For others, life in the flesh may convince them that it’s OK to steal, cheat, fudge, lie, misuse God’s Name, despoil another’s reputation, hold a grudge, or turn away from someone’s need of a helping hand or a listening ear. For me, the temptation to life in the flesh has often gone something like this: I give God control of some decision or problem in my life and just as I’m getting off my knees, I take the decision or problem back. I’m a recovering control freak who finds it hard to let go and let God. I want to be in the Spirit’s orbit, but all too often, with words of surrender to God still on my lips, I start orbiting again around my puny abilities, my ego. The funny thing about life in the flesh is how it can put so much pressure on us that eventually, it harms the very flesh we spend so much time trying to protect. My heart attack is proof of that.

Now, here’s a funny thing about life in the Spirit. When we cede control of our lives to Jesus, the power of God enters us and empowers us to become the people we only pretend to be when we’re following the ways of the flesh. Unconcerned about what the world thinks of us, living in the acceptance and grace of Jesus, we have the confidence to become our best selves. I have known life in the Spirit, too. But, believe me, with God’s help, I intend to know more of the Holy Spirit and less of the flesh in the remainder of my life. Who wants to join me in doing that?