“Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit.” Ephesians 5: 18
I always knew that debauchery wasn’t a quality to which one should aspire, but it wasn’t until I focused on this text that I actually took the time to get a clearer definition. “Debauchery—excessive indulgence in sensual pleasures.”
It was ironic that on the same day that I read this lectionary text from Ephesians that my morning meditation was from St. Teresa of Avila, a Christian mystic. The last stanza of her poem “The Sky’s Sheets” reads, “Any real ecstasy is a sign you are moving in the right direction. Don’t let any prude tell you otherwise.”
Oh, Teresa! Those words can get you in trouble! Speaking of ecstasy in the church and calling those who raise their eyebrows at such juicy words, a prude? Eek! Those are fighting words in a denomination often teasingly referred to as the “Frozen Chosen.”
I almost wondered if St. Teresa was targeting the author of Ephesians, possibly even the apostle Paul himself, as being somewhat prudish. We all know that he has a reputation for warning people about the consequences of engaging in the “things of the flesh.” But I don’t think that St. Teresa was targeting Paul or whoever the author of Ephesians was.
At first blush, Ephesian’s reference to “being filled with the Spirit” may sound a bit tamer than St. Teresa’s pursuit of ecstasy, but I have a feeling that they are referring to the same intoxicating experience that comes with having a life-long love affair with God. I have a feeling that the unspoken assumption in Ephesians is that if you are going to act like a let-everything-hang-out-drunk, let it be because you are intoxicated with God’s Spirit rather than the spirits behind the bar.
I want to tease this out because I believe that St. Teresa of Avila is speaking to a modern sensibility—that is, that religious devotion isn’t about reigning in one’s passions (in order to avoid debauchery), but is about trusting and following one’s passions on the path to deep religious communion, connection and, yes, even ecstasy.
In recent years, I have found my own spiritual life shifting more toward the experience of the mystics. St. Teresa captures well the source of this shift. At one time, my faith was built on a sense of moral obligation to do what was right. Today, my faith is built more on the fruit of following my passions, listening to what my soul most deeply craves, and doing what I most want to do (I know this sounds rather selfish, but all creatures who are created in the image of God should trust a few selfish desires!).
This shift could be captured best by saying that I used follow the commandment to love God but now I have followed my heart and fallen in love with God. That latter description mirrors the language and experience of our tradition’s Christian mystics. It’s a simple little shift in words, but a seismic shift in how one approaches faith.
This last Sunday I saw these two worlds almost collide. I felt some obligation to attend one of the churches in our presbytery as part of my role as the presbyter, but the truth is, what my soul really craved was to be out on my bicycle touring the beautiful country roads along the Willamette River south of Corvallis.
I toyed with the idea of just riding and not going to church. It didn’t feel right. Then I toyed with the idea of going to church and not riding. That definitely didn’t feel right. It wasn’t until I discovered the mystical source of both that I had my answer. I knew that I wanted to ride my bike as I experience so much of God’s goodness while churning the pedals over hills, coasting through fields of alfalfa and hay, and gliding along the riverbanks as herons take flight. But I also found myself deeply wanting to join “my people” in church on Sunday as we journey together through life. I had to find my way beyond the language of obligation to the language of desire to find my answer.
With my new found discovery, I got up at 6 a.m., rode to Starbucks for a quick cup of coffee and breakfast, churned out a brisk forty miles on the bike and arrived at the 9:30 a.m. service all sweaty, stinky and dripping wet in my skin-tight Lycra shorts and fluorescent orange jersey. But I had done it. I had honored what my soul most deeply desired—to enjoy God’s goodness out on the isolated country roads on a cool morning AND to worship with my Presbyterian family (even if most kept a safe distance from this stinky worshiper!).
The author of Ephesians warns us not to get drunk on wine, but to be filled with the Spirit. I think what he is saying is, “Get drunk on life. Get drunk on God. Drink from the well of love. Follow your passion. Seek ecstasy. Do what your soul most deeply desires.”
In other words, “Don’t be a prude!