Sloth

North Fork Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
Jamesport Meeting House
March 10, 2013
The Reverend Dr. Linda Anderson

I hate a Roman named Status Quo!” he said to me. “Stuff your eyes with wonder,” he said, “live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask no guarantees, ask for no security, there never was such an animal. And if there were, it would be related to the great sloth which hangs upside down in a tree all day every day, sleeping its life away. (Ray Bradbury)

(by Erika Hewitt – adapted)
As we enter into (this special hour), put away the pressures of the world
that ask us to perform, to take up masks, to put on brave fronts.
Silence the voices that ask you to be perfect.

This is a community of compassion and welcoming.
You do not have to do anything to earn the love
contained within these walls.

You do not have to be braver, smarter, stronger, better
than you are in this moment
to belong here, with us.

You only have to bring the gift of your body,
no matter how able;
your seeking mind,
no matter how busy;
your animal heart,
no matter how broken.

Bring all that you are, and all that you love, to this hour together.
Let us (gather) together.

Hymn #360 Here We Have Gathered

Not for Children Only —
In Indian lore, among the spirits, Coyote has forever been considered the clever one. The trickster, a bit lazy, but always depended upon to lead a lost warrior home. Around the campfires and in the lodges, the story of Coyote and the Rock was told. And so the story goes….

Many moons ago, It was Coyote who decided that fishing for salmon was taking up entirely too much of his time, and besides, it was hard work. So Coyote thought and thought. How could he catch his salmon without working so hard? Coyote considered the situation for a long time, and at last it came to him. Build a dam! He could build the dam right across the river and the salmon wouldn’t, couldn’t get out. And so that’s just exactly what he did.

He started out with the biggest boulders he could find. Setting them in place, he piled rock after rock on top. It took most of the first day and tired him out so much that Coyote slept very well that night until he heard a gruff and mighty voice calling from the bay, “Who builds across the river? The salmon belong to me.” “Huh, I don’t care what Sea Lion says,” said Coyote, as he continued to build his dam across the river. Tired from all his efforts, he fell asleep on the second night. And again, Sea Lion called in his deep gruff voice “Who builds across the river? The salmon belong to me.” Still unconcerned, Coyote steadily worked on his dam for the third day.

The dam was almost across the river nearly touching the other side when he fell asleep that third night. With the hills rumbling with the echo of his voice, Sea Lion came that night and roared at Coyote, “You cannot stop the salmon from going on their journey to the sea! You cannot stop the salmon from their spawning, you cannot keep the salmon from me!” And with that he raised up and smashed Coyote’s dam, destroying it all except for the part that is called Coyote Rock to this very day.

Actually there is a basis in fact for the legend of Coyote Rock. Every fall when the salmon come into the Siletz on their way to spawn way up river, they seem to stop and wait just around Coyote Rock until the October rains come to tell them it is time to go, and in which tributaries they should spawn.
(Welcome to Coyote Rock from Ed and Lenora Walter)

Sermon: Seven Deadly Sins: Emphasis on Sloth
The Rev Dr Linda Anderson

I have a fascination with the seven deadly, or cardinal, sins. Remember what they are? Anger, pride, envy, greed, sloth, lust and gluttony. I must admit, the seven cardinal virtues interest me far less. Do you know what they are? Prudence, justice, temperance, courage, faith, hope, charity. The virtues come from two sources: Plato and Aristotle gave us prudence, justice, temperance, and courage. Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, gave us faith, hope and charity. The Church Fathers put them together as the seven cardinal virtues. Where did the deadly sins come from? The bible gives us several sin lists. The Book of Proverbs, (6:16-19), in the Hebrew Bible gives us these seven: A proud look, A lying tongue, Hands that shed innocent blood, A heart that devises wicked plots, Feet that are swift to run into mischief, A deceitful witness that utters lies, The one that soweth discord among others. Paul, again, in his letter to the Galatians, (5:19-21), has another list: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, “and such like.” It was Dante, in his Divine Comedy, and in particular the second part, Purgatory, who popularized the seven deadly sins as we know them now. They continue to fascinate us. Did you see the movie Se7en with Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman? It’s about a serial killer who uses the seven deadly sins as his modes operandi. How many of you watched the television series Lost? Various characters in the show exemplify each of the seven deadly sins. For better or worse, the seven deadlies provide an ethical benchmark in our culture.

But are they sins? It occurs to me that each one of these deadlies is double-edged, can function as both a strength and a weakness. Pride, envy and greed are born of a core response to the insecurities and insufficiencies of life. While they can serve as positive motivators for the individual, they can harm that individual, as well as the community, when exercised at the expense of others. Lust and gluttony have as their roots basic needs and evolutionary desires for species survival. When they get out of balance they harm the very survival they arose to protect. I do not consider that anger is a sin, per se, but rather that the consequences of anger can do great damage and might be called sinful. Calming our anger and not responding out of its energy can help us to choose either to express it or not. Either way we can learn to let it go effectively.

I would like to define sin, even if just for today, according to Process Theology as a choice, a voluntary failure to fulfill our best selves. Sin, then, estranges people from one another, does harm to the individual and/or the community, and obstructs the exercise of justice and love. We all fall into it at one time or another. It doesn’t mean we are bad or evil. We are imperfect people, works in progress. We can choose justice and love and when we do not we can look into ourselves to discover what factors led us away from our best selves. It’s important to examine ourselves in order to find, not how many of the seven deadly sins we carry around, but the unhelpful ways in which we express them. The deadlies are not sins because they exist in us, but rather because of the ways they come out of us. So today I want to spend some time with sloth. Are you ready?

What has three toes and two or sometimes three fingers? Nocturnal and solitary, what lives in the rain forests of South and Central America? What hangs from trees, even sleeping upside down? What goes to the bathroom but once a week? What is one of the slowest mammals, covering only thirteen feet per hour? Have you guessed yet? It’s a sloth.

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Sloth: another of the seven deadly sins. Sloth–the disinclination to exert oneself. I suppose the sloth is called so because it shows a definite disinclination to move. Perhaps it seems lazy. Does it’s continuous hanging out, literally, mean that the sloth is slothful? That the seven deadly sins apply to animals as well as humans? I hope not. Is it sinful to have laziness? In Plum Village, a Buddhist community in the south of France, Mondays are called Lazy Days. Days of nowhere to be and nothing to do. I remember one Lazy Day during which I did nothing but read and write, moving only for meditation and meals. Slothful? Perhaps. Sinful? No. Restful, refreshing, renewing. Creative. Important. Take a day off, just to do nothing. Sit and relax. Watch the waves from the ocean. Listen to music. Sleep. Lazy days are wonderful days and I would guess that many here do not get nearly enough of them. Sloth has a side that renews and each one of us needs regular renewal.

So what about sloth could be sinful, that is: destructive, estranging, preventing justice and love from thriving? Of course if everyday were Lazy Day the community would not flourish. Of course if we were slothful all the time nothing would get accomplished. But sloth would not appear among the seven deadly sins if it only meant the disinclination to exert oneself; if it only meant laziness. Notions of work and leisure are cultural constructs. In some countries workers have a month off. In some countries people take a siesta break in the middle of the day. In some countries children and adults both work twelve hour shifts. There is no universal context for sloth. What is slothful in our society may not be so in another. Sloth is not simply laziness. Actually, sloth has a number of different dimensions, from the social to the psychological to the moral.

20th century poet T. S. Eliot suggested that sloth is a condition of social consciousness in a spiritual and political sense. Observing events of the century past: World War I, Hitler, World War II, the Cold War, existentialism, surrealism, he wrote “Do I dare disturb the universe? In a minute there is time for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.” (The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock) Sloth, he said, is part of our response to the futility and anarchy of the times. It becomes a picture of the varieties of spiritual despair prevalent in that violent, killing century. It becomes a picture of the varieties of political apathy also prevalent, so very prevalent. Mental attitudes such as boredom and lassitude imply an orientation to a world beyond our control. Now, we live in another century, but we also have a form of social sloth born out of disappointment with the failure of religious beliefs, political ideologies and economic systems to address the real issues of our times, to bring about a more just world. There’s plenty of spiritual despair and political apathy to go around and it results in a reluctance to exert ourselves. A reluctance born of hopelessness. A reluctance that breeds sloth, which then only feeds our despair and apathy. Around and around it goes.

Is it an ethical issue to exhibit social sloth? The socially apathetic soul, is it sinful, then? It certainly, in its withdrawal, abandons the ship to other hands, which can result in much damage. It certainly does not seem to be a particularly helpful response, either for the individual or for society at large. Psychologist Susan Robbins asserts that sloth is “a culpable deficiency of care for one’s own moral character, beliefs, aspirations and actions. Not taking good seriously results in also not taking evil seriously.” You know, the Greek philosopher Socrates said that evil was ignorance of what is good. He thought that if we only knew the good, we would move toward it willingly. It seems not that simple. It’s understandable, though. How many times have we heard someone say, or perhaps even said ourselves: “Why vote, what difference does it make? Democrat-republican–they’re all the same anyway. My participation in this march, or through letter writing, or lobbying and so forth, will not change anything.” We know how much effort it takes not to fall into spiritual and political sloth, but to keep going. We know that sometimes we don’t have the strength to combat sloth. To keep our spirits up, our courage high, changing the world one person at a time, one step at a time. We know how alluring sloth can be as a response to our world. It’s understandable. So to all of you who work so hard to make the world a better and more beautiful place, I say bravo, and thank you. Thank you. I know it isn’t easy. Sloth is powerful.

Along with its social and ethical identity, sloth also has a psychological component. Medieval Catholics described sloth as a sluggish and torpid soul. Sloth “lays the soul low with sultry fires at regular and fixed intervals.” (Cassian) How many here have familiarity with a soul laid low, and not just as a response to our religious-political-social worlds, but as a response to our personal lives? It sounds like the blues, or hard times, or even depression. That sluggishness and torpor that seems to drain the energy, drain the enthusiasm, but won’t let us rest. How many here recognize the feelings described by poet Jane Kenyon, in excerpts from Having It Out With Melancholy?

In and Out Credo
The dog searches until he finds me Pharmaceutical wonders are at work
upstairs, lies down with a clatter but I believe only in this moment
of elbows, puts his head on my foot. of well-being. Unholy ghost, you are certain to come again.
Sometimes the sound of his breathing
saves my life – in and out, in Coarse, mean, you’ll put your feet
and out; a pause, a long sigh . . . . on the coffee table, lean back,
and turn me into someone who can’t
take the trouble to speak; someone
who can’t sleep, or who does nothing
but sleep; can’t read, or call
for an appointment for help.

There is nothing I can do
against your coming.
When I awake, I am still with thee.

Depression. Sadness, melancholy, a shipwreck of the soul, to use William Styron’s phrase. The sluggish soul–is it sinful then? Are the blues immoral? Is depression a character flaw of some kind? Perhaps in Medieval times, when the seven sins were first catalogued, depression was neither recognized nor understood as the chemical imbalance we take it for today and so it might have seemed a willful mental attitude, disinclined to exertion. Thomas Aquinas wrote that sloth is a “sluggishness of the mind which neglects to begin good. . . (it) is evil in its effect, if it so oppresses (one) as to draw him (or her) away entirely from good.” I will not say today that psychological sloth is, per se, a sin or evil. Not at all. But psychological sloth is powerful and it can do harm to the person in its grip, as well as those around him or her. I don’t think we choose to have depression, or even the blues. We don’t choose not to sleep, not to eat, to feel tired and/or irritable all the time, unable to feel joy. Nor can we, by an act of will alone, simply snap out of it. Psychological sloth takes us in its hold and we are almost strangled by it until, with help and with time, it can loosen its power over us. Sloth is much more than laziness.

Sloth is a turning away: from each other and from ourselves. Whether we turn away in apathy and hopelessness, or in melancholy, our going leaves a void. To heal the wounds that cause this kind of sloth, we need each other. We need a re-turning, a turning toward rather than away from. “Here we have gathered, gathered side by side. Circle of kinship, come and step inside.” Once in the throes of sloth, it is very difficult to get through alone. And it is so very hard to re-turn, to reach out when in the throes of sloth. Medical intervention, therapy, twelve step groups, anti-depressants, a strong spiritual base, which means for some a belief and a relationship with god, however god is understood, address the psychological dimensions. Social activism, justice, equity and compassion in human relations, optimism fueled by clear spiritual springs address the social aspects.

All of the seven deadly sins are sins, not in themselves, but in the consequences of their acting out. Anger. Pride, envy, greed acted out at the expense of others damages community and the individual. Sloth, lust and gluttony, acted out at the expense of the actor him/herself, damages the actor and everyone close to him/her and ripples out to the wider community. We create harm, not by what we feel, but by how we show it, how we live it. And the harm we create, just as the good we create, touches us, touches those around us and moves out to touch people we don’t even know. Choose, therefore, to act for the good, if for no other reason than that it is in your own best interest. It is a way to happiness, peace and abundance.

Hear the words of the Koran, as revealed to the Prophet Muhammed by the angel Gabriel. “What actions are most excellent? To gladden the heart of a human being. To feed the hungry. To help the afflicted. To lighten the sorrow of the sorrowful. To remove the wrongs of the injured. That person is the most beloved of God who does most good to God’s creatures.” May we have our lazy days, days when we put down our busyness and burdens. Days that refresh us. But when sloth overtakes us and we find ourselves turning away into disappointment and despair, may we remember the words of the hymn we sang: “Life has its battles, sorrow, and regret: but in the shadows let us not forget: we who now gather know each other’s pain; kindness can heal us: as we give we gain. Sing now in friendship this, our hearts’ own song.” May it be so.

Hymn #16 Tis A Gift to be Simple

Closing words (Lindsay Bates – adapted)
With faith in the creative powers of life,
With hope for the future of life in this world,
With love for all others who share this life with us,
Let us go forward together in peace.
Our (gathering) has ended; let our service begin.

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