You Can't Always Get What You Want

March 15, 2009
Stuart Twite

Reading:

"These Bad Times a Product of Bad Morals"
Samuel J. May (from a sermon given in this church on My 21st 1837, a year in which an economic Panic brought on by excessive speculation had launched America into a depression with many bank closings, a restriction of credit, and high unemployment.)

"...let any one go to our cities, and he will see in almost every face the expression of anxiety, and hear from almost every lip the language of lamentation and alarm. Thousands, who a few weeks ago were at ease in their possessions, were accounted by others and believed themselves to be rich, have suddenly been waked up from their dream of prosperity, and find themselves stricken with poverty. And thousands more, who have been honestly earning a comfortable livelihood by the labor of their hands are now-as it were at a stroke-thrown out of employment, and know not where or how to get their daily bread.

I do not presume to think that I am wise enough to understand all the proximate causes of the present disasters of our merchant people...I trust, indeed I have no doubt, that great good will issue from this present evil, but the benefit will extend only so far as the people are brought to see the errors of their ways, and to amend them...

I long to see rational, moral, immortal beings earnestly engaged in endeavors to lay up those treasures, which moth and rust cannot corrupt...treasures of knowledge and virtue and piety, which cannot be shipwrecked, but will float with them, ay, bear them up over the waves of trouble, through all the storms of adversity, to the haven of eternal safety...

My heart's desire and prayer for my fellow citizens is, that they may have a happy issue out of their affliction - Seek happiness, I beseech you, where alone the happiness of rational and moral beings can be found-in the treasures of knowledge, virtue and piety...They shall endure when all else shall fail."

THE SERMON

I begin this morning with a confession. This is not easy for me to say but the time has come. I love Mr. Rogers. There. It's out there and I can't take it back so I better explain. 

Some years ago I read of a study that looked at how rapidly images on our television screens change in order to keep the attention of the audience. It began in the early days of television when images changed every several seconds. You won't be surprised to hear that images now change several times per second. It seems clear that it is part of an endless and vicious, cycle.  Images change at faster and faster rates to keep up with ever shrinking attention spans, that shrink ever more as they are exposed to ever more rapidly increasing images - You would expect this to be true of children's television, and it is.  Most shows for young people today are very, very fast, manic and loud. And the commercials?  They are even faster and louder.

But the phenomena is hardly limited to children's programming. Think about television news channels for a minute.  Stories are reported before any kind of corroboration in the effort to get it out fast and first. The old reassuring talking head has been replaced by two or three people spitting out partisan sound bites punctuated by audio and video and, if that weren't enough, at the top of the screen is a steady stream of other news, while a ticker tape of financial or coming news runs at the bottom. We must have our entertainment, we must have our information right now. 

And again the commercials. It is no exaggeration to say that the dominant message of our culture is that with the proper car, vacation, beauty product, or breakfast cereal, all manner of things will be well.  Our troubles can be forgotten with a trip to the store or a click of the mouse on our computer. To a really staggering degree, we are used to getting a great deal of what we want, when we want it. 

How many of us have seen something advertised and bought it online only to forget that we had even ordered it by the time it came to the house? I speak not of great luxury or dreams of living in self-indulgent splendor. I am talking more of the day to day elements of living life. We live in a culture of instant gratification and our young people have known no other culture. The spiritual and moral effects of this condition are staggering and they are my subject this morning.

All of which brings me back to Mr. Rogers. He was most assuredly not fast and furious.  In fact he was the antithesis of fast and furious. He moved slowly, spoke gently, and the biggest action moment in his show was tossing his shoe from one hand to the other and changing into his sweater while singing "It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood." (I worked in Washington DC for a time and the first things I went to see at the gargantuan Smithsonian Institution were Archie Bunker's chair and, you guessed it, Mr. Roger's sweater, made by his mother.)

His message was basic and gentle.  Its good to learn about things, do one thing at a time, be present for you own life, know yourself and love yourself, and, most especially, remember that you live in a neighborhood. And his delivery was - very, slow and deliberate.  No instant gratification here. 

Looked at in a certain way, the message of Mr. Rogers is much the message of Lent. We are today at about the midpoint of the Christian season of lent, the 40 days preceding Easter. Lent commemorates the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness following his baptism by John in the Jordan river. 

This story in the life of Jesus has always been, for me, one of the most compelling in all of scripture. It follows the story of a poor carpenter's son from the dusty no account town of Nazareth who seems to have a special sense of mission. He decides to go to a radical apocalyptic prophet, John the Baptizer, who, dressed in camel hair and existing on a diet consisting of locusts and honey, wanders the desert baptizing people in the Jordan River and calling for a life of repentance. John would later be beheaded by the secular authorities allegedly because of his criticism of the governor and fears that he was fomenting revolt. Jesus is baptized by John and then, in preparation for his great life of teaching and healing, spends 40 days fasting in the wilderness where he is beset by various temptations. 

Those 40 days of preparation are the heart of what lent is about. It is a season of renewal, re-commitment and service to others. For some, it is like a forty day New Year's resolution or weight loss plan and the diet is trotted out or a particular vice or even a serious addiction is railed against yet again.  When, almost inevitably, the diet is broken, or the object of addiction is returned to, the spirit is wounded. In the words of Rev. Weinstein, lent becomes "a 40 day carnival of self-loathing."

At this point you may be wondering what all this has to do with instant gratification. It's my contention that the psychological, social, and spiritual effects of our culture of instant gratification are numerous.  The story of Jesus in the desert, however, illuminates two of the more pernicious ones. 

The first lies in our increasing inability to take the long view. I have told before of how just a couple of weeks after the dramatic beginnings of our current economic downturn, I heard some young stock brokers in a television interview wondering in amazement  "How long can this go on." Our instant culture has made us much less able to see past our current condition whether that condition be happy, sad, boring or indifferent. This might not be so bad if we were actually living in each of those minutes but, more likely, we are looking to either escape, prolong, deaden, or intensify the moments of our lives thereby missing most of them completely. 

Psychologists have extolled the virtues of delayed gratification and the long view.  This from an ABC News report: 

One characteristic of many of today's young people, children and parents, is the need for instant pleasure, and little patience with any need for ‘delay of gratification'.

Psychologist Walter Mischel and many others have shown that the ability to self-regulate and to delay gratification or to wait for rewards is a very good predictor of many aspects of psycho-social health and wellbeing in childhood, and in later life.' ‘Poor capacity to regulate oneself, on the other hand, is a predictor of psycho-social difficulties in the longer term, including problems in attending to, or persisting with a task, adapting to changing environments, and considering the perspectives and the needs and feelings of people around them." All a somewhat technical way of saying "Good things come to those who wait."

The world's great faith traditions are nearly unanimous concerning the virtues of delayed gratification and I think the reason is basic. Instant gratification leads to self absorption-I want what I want and I want it now. 

Religion itself is not immune. We are blessed and cursed with a virtual cornucopia of religious options in this country. Religion is very big business. As churches strive to stay "competitive" in today's marketplace, they promote the very short-sightedness that their founding tenets argue against.  

Virtues like perseverance, empathy, and an awareness that we live in a neighborhood slowly deteriorate and the worst part is it happens so gradually that we don't even realize it.

And it is that self awareness that is at the heart of the second great casualty of our culture of instant gratification. As Jesus began his ministry I imagine him full of passion and a burning desire to spread his message while at the same time, nervous and unsure that he was up to the very word he brought.  His solution was to pause, spend some time alone, to fast, to face the temptations straight away that plague all of us, and, finally, to get to know himself, for in self-knowledge would he find strength and perseverance. 

It has never been easy to really examine ourselves and in our culture today, it is ever more difficult.  We are encouraged to indulge ourselves, anesthetize ourselves, promote ourselves, justify ourselves and glorify ourselves, but true self-knowledge?  Self-knowledge could lead to pain. What if we don't much like what we find out?  We are bombarded with images, stuff, and even myriad self-help methods all of which make promises that they can't in themselves possibly keep. It is all the more ironic that we create a great deal of these things in the hopes of solving the very problem that they end up intensifying. 

Have you ever seen the old episode of the Andy Griffith show where a visiting New York Preacher comes through Mayberry and give a sermon on slowing down and appreciating the quieter joys of life.  As an example of this pastoral existence, he speaks of how towns had once had band concerts in the park every summer. Well the people of Mayberry decide its time to revive that tradition and commence on an odyssey that includes digging out and repairing old uniforms, building a stage, preparing for picnics and much else.  By the end of the day they have exhausted themselves. In their desire to recreate an image of peace and contentment, they produced the exact opposite. Does that sound familiar to anyone?

Self examination also makes us admit that we have great needs. We are often unwilling to admit to this, thinking it evidence of weakness when in reality, our needs grow from our many capacities. The Unitarian thinker and minister Cyrus Bartol made this point in a sermon published in 1850. "Our restless and changeful wishes," wrote Bartol,  "are ever roaming abroad for something new, something better, something greater. We are uneasy, we are needy, we are craving and discontented still.  It is because our faculties are so many and so great, because our desires are so ardent and so infinite, that our supplies must be manifold and huge. Is there, then, no satisfaction…Are we made to be thus uneasy and discontented, like peevish children wanting what we cannot have and crying for what is beyond our reach?"

"The mistake" answers Bartol, "is in trying to gratify fully our nature with such outward things, neglecting the spiritual."

"There is," he concludes, "food that satisfies. There are riches of goodness for the heart. There is a wedding-garment of purity for the soul, which shall never fade or crumble away."

What then is the answer? How, in this culture of instant gratification, can we find the "food that satisfies?" I think the first step lies in a deep acceptance of the reality that we can't always get what we want. And that it is just at that point that we start getting what we need. It is here that I find the greatest silver lining in the dark cloud that is our present economy. We human creatures often come only by necessity to great truths that have been accessible all along. This economy has already forced a reexamination of priorities in the lives of individuals, families, business, and yes even churches, and that kind of examination can only be for the good. 

In the sermon excerpt read by Linda Goodwin this morning, Samuel J. May, from this spot in 183, expresses much the same hope that good will come out of economic hard times. "But the benefit," he wrote, "will extend only so far as the people are brought to see the errors of their ways, and to amend them...I long to see rational, moral, immortal beings earnestly engaged in endeavors to lay up those treasures, which moth and rust cannot corrupt...treasures of knowledge and virtue and piety, which cannot be shipwrecked, but will float with them, bear them up over the waves of trouble, through all the storms of adversity, to the haven of eternal safety..." 

And the way we lay up those treasures is to take the long view, take the time to get to know ourselves, and to recognize that we live in a beautiful neighborhood. Amen