Forty Day Fitness Program for Love

February 14, 2016—Nancy Bancroft
Readings: Psalm 136: 1-9, 23-26, I Corinthians 13: 4-7

Because today is Valentine’s Day our scripture readings focus on love: God’s undying love for us and what that love, the love that we are called to imitate, is supposed to be like. The Gospel reading that is traditionally used on the first Sunday in Lent is about Jesus spending forty days in the dessert and being tempted. In this story Jesus, who has just been baptized by John the Baptist, full of the Holy Spirit, is led into the wilderness where for forty days,” writes Luke, “he was tempted by the devil.

The first temptation Jesus faced was to give in to his physical desires: “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”(Lk 4: 4)

The second temptation was a two-for one sale. Jesus was lured to personal power and at the same time, enticed to take an easier, softer way to accomplish his mission; If Jesus sold his soul, like Doctor Faustus in Goethe’s opera, he could be recognized as the Messiah and avoid the cross. “I will give you the glory of these kingdoms and authority over them,” the devil said, “because they are mine to give to anyone I please. I will give it all to you if you will worship me.” (Luke 4:7)

Satan’s third temptation that Luke records plays on his ego. “And he led Him to Jerusalem and had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” (Lk 4: 9 – 11)

If you think about it, aren’t these the very things that get in the way of us loving ourselves and others: Desire for immediate gratification, power, taking the easier, softer way, and protecting our ego?

Let’s start with ourselves. Yes, we are called to love ourselves. In Matthew 22, Jesus is asked, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment?” Jesus replies: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.” We’re taught that really it’s one commandment; two sides of the same coin. : “The second is like it”. The directive to love our neighbor as ourselves is part of the greatest commandment. Please notice that this mandate is a challenge not only to love others, but also to love ourselves well. However loving others like ourselves can be a low bar.

How many of us have had to struggle with loving ourselves; even liking ourselves? Maybe it was because of our upbringing, or bad choices that we made earlier in our lives, but it’s very common that individuals have had to, as someone put it to me recently, “dig myself out of a hole of self-hate”. And for many of us, we’re not fully out of it. Under stress we tend to regress. That regression could include self-doubt about our preciousness or poor self-care.

Sometime long-held false messages in the back of our minds keep us from being good to ourselves. One message says that we aren’t supposed to think kindly of ourselves because that would be pride. Another tells us that we should not give ourselves much attention or be too good to ourselves because that would be selfish.

Perhaps we feel fine about ourselves. We acknowledge that we’re not perfect, yet at the same time recognize that no human being is. So we’re okay with ourselves. But even so, maybe there are ways that we still don’t treat ourselves in a loving way. Don’t we sometimes treat ourselves rather shabbily?

Maybe we regularly give in to the first temptation Jesus was given. In theory I love myself but how and what I eat, or drink, or smoke is not treating myself in a loving way. Maybe giving in to immediate gratification keeps me from exercising regularly, resting enough, or playing frequently. Maybe I overwork and get stressed, omit prayer in my day, forget to affirm or be grateful for my personal gifts. The list could go on and on. Jesus’ commandment assumes that I love myself and that I am good to myself. On this basis, I am to be good to others.

So when we are commanded to love others as we love ourselves, we may have to start by making adjustments to just how well we love ourselves.

Doing what we want when we want it is not only a threat to healthy self-care; it can also be an obstacle to loving others.

So can giving in to Jesus’ second temptation; that of power. “Power to” is a good thing. “Power over” on the other hand is contrary to the love that Paul describes as patient and never rude, always ready to excuse, and to trust.

Jesus’ second temptation seems very understandable. He is shown all the kingdoms of the world. They are offered to him. He can become the Messiah without the work of teaching, without having to mentor disciples, without experiencing ridicule, rejection, condemnation, suffering and death as a common criminal. He was offered the easier, softer way. How often does giving into that temptation compromise our loving as described in the Gospel Jen read today; kind, never selfish, and willing to endure whatever comes?

In the devil’s third attempt to trick Jesus, he entices Him by playing on his ego. Protecting our ego, how well we look to others, is felt as necessary to the extent that we have self-doubt about our valuableness. To the degree that we accept that we each have immeasurable worth, we need not defend our image or status, we need never be jealous, and never be boastful or conceited. An over developed ego is the antithesis of love that does not take offence, is not resentful and does not put others down in order to feel better about oneself.

The temptations that Jesus experienced while he was in the desert preparing himself for ministry, though clothed in a different cultural setting are enticements that lure us continuously: physical pleasures, power, laziness and ego. This is normal every-day stuff. But also, these are attitudes and behaviors that prevent us from growing in imitation of Jesus and our loving God.

Jesus went to the wilderness and practiced for forty days to strengthen the Spirit in Himself. Love requires self-denial. We can’t live a life of love and at the same time always do what we want when we want to.

In some Christian communities it was very common practice in the past for individuals to give up a favorite treat during Lent. This has lost favor in recent years, but I still see the value in it. For me it’s like spiritual weight lifting. A prolonged period of self-denial prepares us, readies us to more easily put our own desires aside when we are called to act lovingly towards another. Self-denial can also take the form of performing some positive act.

One man whose children traditionally gave up something like candy for Lent urged them to go beyond that to giving up some habit that they knew was bad for them. About halfway through Lent he asked the children how they were doing with their Lenten promise. His youngest son had promised to give up fighting with his brothers and sisters during Lent. When his father asked him how it was going, the boy replied, “I’m doing pretty good, Dad–but boy, I can’t wait until Easter!”

The practice of self-denial will only be effective if we recognize it as a forty-day fitness program to develop our facility to love ourselves and others in an ongoing way. And whether it’s giving up alcohol or smoking for forty days, or completing all of the unpleasant household tasks that need doing during Lent, or suspending a fun activity for six weeks and replacing it with some volunteer work, we can apply what we’ve learned from sports. Whether its hitting a long straight drive down the fairway, or throwing a long pass, it’s important not to pay too much attention on our behavior, but rather, to focus on our goal. Our first reading gave us that goal: our gracious God, whose love is everlasting!

I would like to invite you now to spend a few minutes reflecting on self-love. How might you meaningfully and consistently be more loving to yourself? It might be changing some behavior that helps you to be more healthy physically. Perhaps it involves some action that nurtures you emotionally or spiritually. For me, it’s connecting more regularly with my closest friends who are scattered all over and whom I rarely see. With today’s communication aides there’s no excuse. I just need to make the effort, and take the time.

Once you’ve decided what would be a positive change leading to you becoming more loving of yourself the next step is to ask, now what are am I willing to promise to myself? I caution you to be realistic. It’s better to take a small step and follow through over time than to develop unreachable goals that will only get you discouraged.

Once you have decided on what you are willing to promise yourself, I will invite you all to stand and together, quietly, but verbally so that you can hear yourself, make that promise. Wiley will play music while you are speaking to help protect your privacy. This is a commitment of love to yourself.

I start your reflection with a prayer taken from Inviting God In by Joyce Rupp:
Love Yourself
Loving Creator, you have made me in your own image and likeness.
My deepest being reflects your goodness.
Nudge me to be kind to myself and to take good care of the gift that I am.

Celebration of the Love and Commitment
Individuals are invited to stand and quietly voice a self-love/self-care commitment.

Blessing: Please bow your heads for God’s blessing:
It is often said that it is love that makes the world go round. However, without doubt, it is friendship that keeps our spinning existence on an even keel. True friendship provides so many of the essentials for a happy life-it is the foundation on which to build an enduring relationship. It is the mortar which bonds us together in harmony, and it is the calm, warm protection we sometimes need when the world outside seems cold and chaotic. May you be such a friend to yourself; a true friend who holds a mirror to your foibles and failings, without destroying your sense of worthiness. May you be a true friend who nurtures your hopes, supports healthy choices, and encourages you to grow to your best potential. May God bless you as you pledge healthy self-love and the promise of true friendship.

– Couples: Last week and again in the February update I invited couples in a committed relationship to think about and talk with each other about renewing their vows this morning. Hopefully you’ve taken the time to do this.

Two years ago Tom and I had the good fortune to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary in Australia and New Zealand. We were in the outback on the actual day of our anniversary. We renewed our vows at Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock. It’s the largest rock in the world and because it’s made up primarily of iron when the sun sets on it, changes from one beautiful color to another. Crowds gather together at sunset to view the spectacle. Because it’s very hot, Tom was dressed in a t-shirt printed like a tuxedo top. Because as you know I love hats, I had made a short poufy veil, and wore white capris and a white t-shirt with the word LOVE printed large and colorfully on the front, and under in much smaller letters, Old Orchard Beach. Though we had written our vows forty years before, and they had been meaningful then, we had changed. We now realized that we had spent more yesterdays together than we had tomorrows. We knew that in less time that we had spent together one of us would leave the other in death, one of us or both would likely get seriously ill. We both have strong family histories of Alzheimer’s. There’s a better than average chance that one of us will develop this form of dementia. So what we wanted to commit to each other, the way we wanted to share our love at this stage of our lives was different than what we envisioned when we first married.

Today, Valentine’s day, you are invited to recommit your life and your love to each other. You’re invited to open yourselves up to God’s loving wisdom and identify how you are called to live your committed love at this time.

We’ll have some time of quiet now and then I’ll invite you to share your vows with each other.

Couples in committed relationships are invited to face each other and quietly renew their vows of love.

Blessing: Please bow your heads for God’s blessing: May your relationship bring you all the exquisite joy that a committed relationship should bring, and may life grant you also patience, tolerance, and understanding. May you always need one another — not so much to fill your emptiness as to help you to know your fullness. May you need one another, but not out of weakness. May you want one another, but not out of lack. May you entice one another, but not compel one another. May you embrace one another, but not stifle one another. May you succeed in all-important ways with one another, and not fail in the little graces. May you look for things to praise, often say, “I love you!” and take no notice of small faults. If you have quarrels that push you apart, may both of you have good sense enough to take the first step back towards the other. May God grant you the deep happiness that comes from making one another happy.