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The Missing Fruits (Enthusiasm)

When I was a kid growing up in the Catholic church I learned all these obscure teachings that caused me, at the age of 16, to prefer the simplicity of Quakerism. For instance, as a child, I was repeatedly cautioned about the seven deadly sins, and was told if I committed them, I would spend eternity in hell with the Protestants. Naturally, this was of some concern to me, since I wanted to spend eternity with my Catholic family. So when Father McLaughlin warned us about the seven deadly sins—lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride—I made sure to write them down in my Bible, so I wouldn’t inadvertently commit them and go to hell. This was before I learned that writing in the Bible was a sin, even if you wrote something like, “You can say that again.” or “Darn tootin’.”

Of the seven deadly sins, I was most intrigued with sloth, because it was also the name of an animal in South America that hung upside down in trees and was thought to be the world’s slowest mammal. It was also believed to be the only mammal with green fur by the first Europeans who saw it. Upon closer examination it was discovered the green was actually moss and algae, which grew on the sloth because they lived in wet environments and never moved. If moss and algae grow on you, it’s a pretty good indication you’re living an unproductive life.

I was thinking about sloth this week because we’ve been reflecting on the missing fruits, those fruits of the spirit the Apostle Paul didn’t mention when he wrote about the fruits of the spirit in his letter to the church in Galatia. We’ve identified those missing fruits as curiosity, knowing when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em, awe, courage and truthfulness. So this week I was thinking about sloth, more specifically its opposite, as a spiritual fruit Paul might have mentioned if he’d had more time to think about it.

If we define sloth as lazy indifference, inertia, sluggishness, and apathy, then I would say its opposite is enthusiasm. Enthusiasm as a spiritual fruit, which makes a great deal of sense, because the root word of enthusiasm is enthousiasmos, which comes from the Greeks, who gave us many wonderful things including Windex, if the movie My Big, Fat Greek Wedding can be believed. Enthousiasmos simply meant “to be possessed by a god, or inspired.” Originally, it was a pejorative term, meant to describe someone who had gone off the deep end, religion-wise, as in “That preacher up there speaking in tongues and handling snakes is sure enthusiastic.”  But now the word simply means having great excitement or joy in doing something you love.  So we can go through life with enthusiasm, excited and joyful about the pursuits and people we love, or we can be a sloth and not feel anything or do anything except sit around and watch TV and have moss grow on us.

Our ancestors believed sloth was a sin, insofar as it was a denial of life’s wonder, beauty, and possibilities.

Years ago, Joan and I were driving through the mountains out west. Joan was driving and I was sitting in the passenger seat reading a book.

“Look at those mountains,” Joan said, “Aren’t they stunning!”

I glanced up from my book for a quick look and said, “Yeah, sure, whatever.” Then went back to reading.

That’s sloth.

Sloth is being on Facebook at a family reunion, not saying a word to your grandfather sitting across the table from you, who grew up during the Depression and fought in World War II.

Sloth is driving down a country road, past dogwoods and redbuds in bloom, and complaining about the pollen.

That’s sloth. It’s spiritual opposite is enthusiasm.

Do you want to know something ironic? Early Quakers, when depicted in art and literature, were often portrayed as complacent, innocuous, rather boring people, whose idea of a good time was holding a quilting bee. You’d never know, by looking at the pictures, that our founder, George Fox traveled across Europe, then sailed to the West Indies and America, narrowly escaping being murdered on several occasions by persons who took exception to his theology.

Imprisoned at least eight times for heresy, blasphemy and refusing to remove his hat in court, he was on one occasion jailed in Doomsdale dungeon, the SuperMax prison of Cromwell’s England, where most prisoners were guilty for murder and carried out dead. But Fox survived, and not only survived, but left a message behind, etched on the walls of his cell, “I was never in prison that it was not the means of bringing multitudes out of their prisons.” You might remember that the next time someone suggests Quakers were passive.

You know, now that I think about it, that’s as fine a definition of Quakerism as I’ve ever heard—bringing others out of their prisons. Right now, I know folks imprisoned by alcohol and drugs, imprisoned by mental illness, imprisoned by narcissism and greed, imprisoned by nationalism and racism and fear. Right now, there are folks imprisoned by ignorance, intolerance and hatred. Wouldn’t it be something if a group of Quakers were so enthusiastic about life and joy and peace that they went out and brought multitudes out of their prisons? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

But first we’d have to get around sloth. It’s always there, like a seductress, turning our heads, telling us we’ve earned our rest, we’ve done our part, it’s someone else’s turn, we’ve done all we can. That’s what so evil about sloth, it acts like it’s doing us a favor, while all the while it’s tightening the chains.

Today, we celebrate our graduates. We honor their enthusiasm for the future, their dreams, their passion. We remember when our hearts were similarly aflame, and we invite God’s spirit to enliven us again. Today, we unite our prayers to their passions, asking the enthusiasm of God to possess and bless their lives.