The Terrible Temptation for the United Methodist Pastor

Last week, I preached on Sloth. Or, as the ancient Christians referred to it, Acedia.  I shared a personal testimony that of the Seven Deadening Sins, this one has affected me the most in recent days, weeks, and even years.  I believe it also affects many of my brothers and sisters who are in ministry in the United Methodist Church as we have been battling over the issue of human sexuality.

I have heard it said that many United Methodist pastors are going through the stages of grief.  Others are dealing with naturally occurring depression triggered by this difficult event.  But for me, Acedia/Sloth is my struggle.  Acedia was always thought to be linked to vocation and it was considered the monk’s (pastor’s) most dangerous temptation.  The vows we take to proclaim the Gospel and make disciples are foolishness to the world.  We have given our lives to this vocational calling.  We put all our chips in the UMC/Wesleyan basket.  We bet everything we have on this and we are uncertain of the future.  I truly believe that this “fight” in our denomination has led many pastors to lose focus, become listless, and find themselves spiritually sluggish.

We must do all we can to stay focused on the main thing.  However, that is easier said than done.

Kathleen Norris writes this about Sloth/Acedia: “At its Greek root, the word acedia means the absence of care.  The person struggling with acedia refuses to care or is incapable of caring.  When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding, acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, yet can’t rouse yourself to give a damn.” (from Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life)

Thomas Aquinas thought of Sloth as a “paralysis of the will to continue,” which begins with dissatisfaction and ends in desperation.  He went on to say that the slothful person loses sight of the goal of life.  Sloth is a fundamentally spiritual issue – a sadness in relation to belief and practice.  Aquinas thought that joy and charity were the opposites to Sloth. After all, we should find joy in following Christ and that joy should generate love!

John Cassian believed that the spiritual person’s Acedia/Sloth could be disguised as good deeds, or even fighting the good fight.  When we help others and fight for a cause, we can distract from the interior work we need to do.  Cassian said the religious person beset by the “foul mist of acedia decides that he/she should pay their respects to others and visit the sick.”  The hidden good work is of value here.

William May wrote, “The soul in the state of sloth is beyond sadness and melancholy.  It has removed itself from the rise and fall of feelings; the very root of its feelings in desire is dead.  That is why, for the medieval moralist, sloth was…the most terrifying of sins.  It is sin at its utter most limit.  To be human is to desire.  The good person desires God and other things in God.  The sinful person desires things in the place of God, but they are still recognizably human inasmuch as they have known desire.  The slothful person, however, is a dead person, an arid waste…their desire itself has dried up.” (from Sinning Like a Christian)

I shared these steps on Sunday that I am using to battle Acedia/Sloth, and I wanted to share them again:

  1. Make a firm intention to keep on keeping on.  Take the next right step.
  2. Bite off small spiritual disciplines and tackle humble activities.
  3. Care for others (this causes us to stop turning inward)
  4. Pay attention to your inner life.
  5. Make a vow of stability (the Benedictines make this vow so they are forced to deal with interior issues in the face of difficult situations/locations)
  6. Look for joy.  It is all around, but acedia/sloth blinds us.

 

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