February 17, 2010
William G. Carter
“For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” (Psalm 51:3)
Writing from the confines of a monastery nearly fifty years ago, Thomas Merton was shocked to hear about how casinos had changed:
I’ve heard tales, he wrote, “of the sedate gambling places on Lake Tahoe, the ones that are prim and country-clubbed, and which cater to decent people, with dealerettes in prim black dresses, and soft Muzak, and nary a drink on the premises, and the nice old ladies coming up to gamble in buses from the cities of the Plain. I am utterly disheartened. What has happened to good old sin? Here I am behind these walls, doing my bit and counting on the world to do its bit, with barrelhouse piano and the walleyes guys in eyeshades, with long cigars, raking in the pieces of eight, and the incandescent floozies lolling over the roulette wheels. Tell me - - am I wasting my time?”
Merton wasn’t wasting a minute of his time, of course. He was a Trappist monk. He had dedicated his life to contemplation and prayer, to see both God and the world more clearly.
What he saw, if only from his imagination, was how respectable sin had become. The casino was no longer a frontier watering hole, where cowboys threw knives at one another and the blackjack dealer with an ace up his sleeve. No, the excitement and waste of gambling had been scrubbed up. The casino was redefined as a legitimate business.
Fifty years ago, the widespread view of gambling was still shaped by straight-backed Protestantism. Gambling was something seedy, something illicit, something that immoral people did to perpetuate their immorality. But the report coming to Merton’s monastery was how the modern casino was becoming a nice night out, with world-class entertainment, bright lights, and good-hearted clientele.
“What has happened to good old sin?” he asked with a twinkle in his eye. It’s not as obvious to spot anymore. What our church-going grandparents would have clearly rejected has now been repackaged as something for us to enjoy. The advertisements declare, “Everything is for our delight, as long as it’s in moderation.”
Those of us who pay attention know that “delight” is an empty promise of so many of the world’s goodies. Moderation is hard to maintain if something should hook us. A despondent man recently gambled away his children’s college savings. He will return next weekend to see if he can win it back. If he can’t, he may have to tell his wife.
What I suggest we talk about this Lent is not gambling, but sharpening our view of how sin works. There is a long-honored spiritual tradition of discernment, by which Christian people survey their lives and pay increasing attention to the snares that threaten to destroy our lives. We look at ourselves honestly. We take note of how sin has become our good old friend, and ask how Jesus might be a better friend. We take note of the quiet forces at work in our lives, which, if left unchecked by the grace of Christ, could wrap around our legs and pull us into hell.
The people of God have worked hard to see these destructive forces, and to give them a name. By the fourth century after Jesus, an Egyptian monk named Evagrius had identified the Eight Deadly Thoughts. These were notions that get into our heads, become habits, and begin to take over. For the next four hundred years, the church began to talk about this list, refine it, add to it, edit it, and struggle with it. In time the Eight Deadly Thoughts became the Seven Deadly Sins: pride, greed, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth.
I need to say from the outset: this is a slippery list. Each is an attitude, a perspective of the spirit. They might be re-described as attributes. They seem so ordinary. What St. Evagrius once called “pride” may look like what we call “self-esteem.” Taking time for yourself and buying that vacation get-away can quickly degenerate into sloth. Envy is the engine that drives much modern advertising, telling us that it’s OK to have what our neighbors have. Greed will appear obvious and distant in the scandalous bonuses on Wall Street, but I have seen entire families destroyed as siblings pounce on one another after the attorney reads Mama’s will.
We have to pay attention to these quiet, destructive forces, and learn to resist them, for they stay with us our entire lives. That’s going to be my work during this season of Lent, and I invite you to make it your work as well. With seven opportunities to preach until Easter, I will be considering the Seven Deadly Sins. We will try to name each one, consider its enticement, and explore how to resist it. It will not be easy, for preacher or pew, because these deadly sins will do whatever they can to charm us like a Lake Tahoe casino. They will lie and tell us how respectable they are. They will make false promises that “a little bit won’t hurt.” They will do everything they can to distort or hide the great saving love that God for each one of us.
My hope is that, at the end of Lent, we can admit with the Psalmist, “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” There is nothing frightening about that. It is a blessing to know ourselves deeply, and to specify where we are tempted to be something other than what God created us to be. If we can be honest with how we stumble and fall, we will be open to the greater blessing to know God; for God is the One who promises to create clean hearts within us, who offers to replace our sin-weary souls with new and right spirits.
This is our Lenten journey. These forty days, as the stories and poems of scripture take us toward the cross, we will watch for Jesus Christ who travels with us. He is a more faithful companion than the sins that constantly nip at our heels. Beyond any of our temporary achievements, it will be his grace that saves us.
(c) William G. Carter
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