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January 9, 2016

Feeding Angels or Dragons

Speaker: John McLarty

Audio Recording:


Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church. Sabbath, January 9, 2016

Sunday morning I pulled on my snowshoes and headed up the Palisades Trail. There was about a foot and a half of snow, but for the first couple of miles the trail was nicely trampled so I didn’t sink much. But there were obstacles. There was blow down on the trail, large trees, too big to step over. In places the weight of snow had bent brush and vine maples into and across the trail. Navigating these obstacles was tricky with snow shoes on my feet. It was cold.
I tramped up and up. It was slow going—a lot slower than I had planned on. I usually do this trail in shorts and running shoes. Carrying a pack and wearing boots and snow shoes made for a very different experience. After a couple of miles, I came to the end of the trampled track. I could still make out the trail beneath the blanket of snow but my pace was even slower in the soft snow. Another mile or so and suddenly I could no longer see the course of the trail. I thought I knew the way, but I could not see even the slightest hint of the trail. The area around me was forest, with not a single landmark visible. As I had climbed the air had become even colder. I had not bothered to bring a map or compass since I know the trail so well. I hesitated. I wanted to make it to the next overlook which was probably about a mile away, if I was where I thought I was, but without at least a hint of trail, I worried about getting lost. Snow was falling and potentially covering my tracks I decided it was time to turn around.
That was a smart decision.
Then I made another smart decision. I found a log, knocked the snow off, spread my pad and sat down for the sweetest part of the trip. Lunch! I pulled out my stove and heated water for hot chocolate. I pulled out a sandwich—Havarti cheese on Bonnie’s homemade bread. Yum. Even with wind howling and snow swirling, the hot chocolate and my sandwich were heaven.
One of the various obvious facts about food is that it is good to eat it with some regularity, especially when you’re engaged in strenuous activity. On ordinary days, when I’m riding around in my car, working on the computer, talking on the phone, visiting with people, food can seem optional. I skip meals and scarcely notice. I can go all day without eating. No problem. Eventually, it will catch up with me, of course. Sooner or later I’ll get around to eating, but it’s not critical. I can keep functioning on the memory of eating.
But when I’m engaged in strenuous activity, when I’m plowing up a mountain trail on snow shoes, when I’m burning miles running, eating regularly is absolutely essential. If I don’t I will experience the embarrassment of collapse. Or slowness.
I remember one time hiking with a friend in the desert. It was getting late. The sun had already set, but there was still some light and we were pushing along a dry wash with a very sandy bottom. The soft sand made progress difficult. My pack felt like it weighed a hundred pounds and getting heavier. My friend, Kevin, got farther and farther ahead. I couldn’t understand it. Usually I’m faster than he is. But this evening no matter how hard I tried, I just went slower and slower and slower. Then suddenly the light bulb came on. It was six hours since lunch. Back in those days I had not learned to eat on the trail. So it had been six hours since I had anything to eat. Lunch had been lentils. It had tasted good at the time. But it was long gone. My body was informing me that without food it was not going to keep hiking.
I finally shouted to Kevin. He came back. I apologized and explained I had to eat. We dropped our packs.
That’s the way it is with food. Sometimes you just have to do it.
And if you’re attempting some major physical activity, you’re REALLY going to have to do it. And if you do, it will be a very lovely experience. After eating lunch sitting in the snow on Sunday, I headed back down the mountain. With food in my belly and gravity on my side, I jogged when the trail was smooth and clear enough. I felt almost like a bird.
That’s the joy of eating regularly.
Which brings us to spiritual life. If you have any spiritual ambitions, part of your strategy must be spiritual nutrition.
Do you ever find yourself wishing you had more patience? More compassion? More self-control? Are you working to forgive someone who has wounded you deeply? Do you wish you had a greater sense of the presence and reality of God?
One answer to all these desires is “miracle.” Ask God to make you more compassionate, self-controlled, and forgiving. You can’t do it. So just ask God.
The problem with this advice is that usually the person receiving this advice has already prayed at least once for the desired blessing. And the miracle didn’t happen.
So the question naturally arises, what next?
The best answer is a daily habit. Develop a daily habit that feeds you, a daily habit that will fuel your spiritual success. Every day engage in a habit that feeds your desire for compassion, self-control and forgiveness. Every day engage in a habit that feeds patience and generosity, holiness and kindness. Every day do something that enhances your awareness of the goodness and nobility of God.
Pursuing holiness, goodness, nobility, a forgiving spirit is strenuous. Success requires regular spiritual nutrition to sustain the effort. So do it.
Let me be very specific. Every day, devote some time to giving intense attention to words or pictures or ideas or people that inspire you and encourage goodness.
Those who are my age or older will remember a famous Adventist preacher named Morris Venden. Every sermon had essentially the same punch line. Read your Bible every day. And pray.
I first heard him preach when I was a college student. I remember thinking it was a good idea, but I didn’t have time. Then I heard other students talking about their habits of spending a half hour or even an hour every day reading their Bibles or other devotional literature, and I thought, hey, if they can do it I can. So I started. In the forty five years since then, most of the time, I’ve had a habit of spending daily time cultivating spiritual life. The content of that time has varied. I’ve followed Bible reading plans that took me through the Bible in a year. I’ve tried journaling my way through the New Testament. I’ve tried paraphrasing. I’ve read books other than the Bible. I have practiced meditation and contemplation.
There is no one specific approach that works for every person. And many people will find that no one approach works for them all the time. Just as you might not want to eat oatmeal every breakfast of your life, so you may find it helpful to vary the content of your devotional time. But if you aim for spiritual excellence, you cannot ignore spiritual nutrition.
Allow me to take a few minutes to draw a sharp contrast. I titled my sermon, “Feeding Angels or Dragons.” The title is a mash up of the Book of Revelation and the story I’ve heard told in several different versions about fighting dogs. The way the story goes, a man owns two dogs. Periodically he stages dog fights and his two dogs fight each other. Sometimes he bets on one dog, other times he bets on the other. But always, the dog he bets on wins. When a friend finally persuades the old man to explain how he can always know which dog is going to win, the old man laughs and says, “Well, the dog I feed that week always wins.
If we picture the forces of good and evil as angels and dragons and ask the question, in our lives who is going to win, the angel or the dragon, the answer is which one are we feeding? Are we feasting on angel food or dragon kibble? If you want the angel to win, it makes sense to eat angel food.
Thursday morning I sat down in Peets Coffee a couple of blocks from here to work on my sermon. I logged onto Peet’s wireless internet service to access the internet Bible site that I use. When I accepted the terms of service, the next screen was a news site. My screen was filled with headlines:
10 Outrageous Police Chases
Occupiers under siege from PETA and tribe
Trump to pull $1B from UK
George Soros predicts the 2008 crisis all over again.
Father outraged by TSA pat down of his ten-year-old daughter
The diseases doctors most often misdiagnose.
Somebody famous “rips American Idol in brutal tirade”
I didn’t click on any of these headlines. I read nothing except the headlines themselves. Even without reading I knew where the articles would take me if I had clicked. The more I read the angrier and more worried I would have become.
If I had read through those articles, then moved into my day, I would have been primed to see evil everywhere. When someone cut me off on the freeway, it would be natural to react with outrage and anger. What a jerk! If my kid was slow getting ready for school or if he spilled his cereal, I would be ready to explode. In short, reading these news articles would have fed the dragon inside.
If you listen to Rush Limbaugh regularly you will be primed to be outraged and angry. While you may think of this as merely politics, it’s not. His scorn and ridicule will shape the totality of your life. It will not feed your angels. The same is probably true for all sorts of other people who are famous now as champions of various political views—Rachel Maddow, Glenn Beck. If your goal is wisdom and compassion, you must eat more angel food. And you must limit your intake of dragon food. Fill your mind with words and images that inspire and encourage.
Our OT reading was Psalm 1. This Psalm pictures a good person as a tree planted by a river. The tree takes constant nourishment from the rich, moist soil. Let’s plant our souls in places that are consistently nourishing.
I was visiting with the manager at the Starbucks near my house. She’s a runner and sometimes we compare notes. I told her I was reading a book on running and it had given me a new inspiration. The author talked about running every day. He described his practice and he talked about why he thought it was indispensable if he was going to run as well as he wanted.
Kara confessed she struggled with consistency. I laughed and acknowledged I did, too. Often I would run only once a week. After reading the book I was aiming at five days a week. She said that sounded pretty good. That was her goal too, for the new year. But life—kids, work, parents—made it hard. Consistency was really hard.
I laughed and said inconsistent running was better than consistently not running. We laughed together.
I think this is a good picture for us in thinking about daily devotions. Many of us have tried to spend time daily nourishing our souls. Then life happens. Kids get sick. Emergencies interrupt. There is a crisis at work. Or we just get tired and we go days or weeks or months without any regular time with God.
It’s not the end of the world. Just begin again. An inconsistent devotional life is way better than a consistent non-devotional life.
Plant yourself in a nourishing place. Feed your soul. Take time daily to feast on angel food—words of faith, hope, and love. The world will become a better place.
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