The deck outside our kitchen window is newly finished, and it aches for teak furniture of some sort, and striped cotton pillows, and iced buckets of chardonnay and the barbecue simmer of steak and green peppers in olive oil. Music would be nice–and friends, of course–and one of those well-buttered conversations that sizzles on into the dark, peppered with gentle insults and unspoken love. My wife, reading my mind yesterday evening, proposed new tomato plants, and I was taken with the thought of a tomato, fresh-picked, improbably cold, sprinkled with salt. I could almost taste it.
I call all of this “pleasure.”
Or, picture this: it’s been a rough day, but you didn’t know how rough, because when your wife holds your shoulders, and you feel each of her fingers pressing into the aching web of muscle around your neck, every molecule under her touch becomes a micro-bead of pure, evangelizing pleasure. It’s so overpowering, you can’t quite tell her to stop.
And so then you finally buy yourself a new car. And this car, unlike all your other cars, works. You don’t need to tinker with the ignition in a special, rattling motion. It’s just as solid as a New York bank vault. Click. Purrr… Vroom. You drive off to work with premium engineering all around you: heat, light, audio, power. You even have a dial to adjust the lumbar support. In truth, you could just drive today. You don’t have to go to work. Thinking about this car, (and it doesn’t even have to be expensive), you conclude that someone made it just for you.
I call that small happiness pleasure too.
Okay, all of that is more or less what we call “wholesome” pleasure, and with the exception of the chardonnay, even the ardent pietists might approve, but there’s a kind of pleasure someone has rushed to call sin, and it might be just something you could ignore, but you take sin seriously. Suddenly your roof top barbecue begins to feel suspect, vain, “in the flesh,” maybe even “idolatrous.”
I think of my mother as a little girl — a little Mormon girl — wandering the streets of Logan, Utah, where her father taught at the university. She took in the aroma of brewing coffee, and that deep, burnt, carbon exhilaration just kept her breathing it in, even though she had been taught it was all utterly wrong. And yet she loved the aroma so much, she would stand next to the coffee shop and just inhale. Many years later, she laughed about it, taking a secret sip, but only when no one else was looking, because she didn’t want others to “stumble.”
For those of us who grew up in the company of the spiritually zealous, I wonder how many of God’s good gifts have been blemished beyond praise, and enjoyment, because someone decided they were in the “taste not, touch not” category. My own grandmother, (completely unlike my own mother in so many ways), was, I regret to say, a relentless, grinding boor on this front. I can recall wanting to gain weight in 7th grade. I was fearfully thin, so thin, in fact that I can remember an older sister of a friend yelling out, at a poolside party, “that kid is so skinny, he’s making me sick.” Well, I was going to do something about it. I was going to eat, and there was grandmother Winsor, taking in my tray full of bread and peanut butter, lecturing me on gluttony. It might have been different, I suppose, if there had been real love in the reproof — but there wasn’t. She was going to war against the extra spoonful, and there I was with several extra plate fulls.
Don’t tempt yourself into thinking this is the problem of one denomination or one sect or even one age of the church. The book of Galatians was written for a reason — a divine reason. Men are always substituting the rules they have mastered, for the ones God actually commands, and then they are beating each over the head with their own victories.
Of course, at the outset, we must acknowledge that those who “love pleasure, rather than God” are in dire straits. That would be something like hanging up Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” on the wall, bragging about it, silently worshiping it, and then kicking its creator out the door. How much better is it, to celebrate both the painting and the painter? How foolish is it to honor a piece of canvas, that rots with time, over the one who has a billion more such paintings at the ready?
If I write about creation, about pleasure, about God’s good gifts, and I do it too much, you should know this — in each of these great gifts I praise God. His genius, His Brilliance, His stunning light floors me, makes me weep. I praise Him in the savory warmth of a good bowl of soup on a cold day. I praise him in the innocent wonder of a grandchild tearing apart the pantry, out of sheer curiosity. I praise him in the good-natured kidding of a friend. I praise Him the glow of a glass of wine, or a well made film. I praise Him in the twinkle of a beautiful woman’s eyes. I praise Him in the memory of Miriam, and the women of Israel dancing, in celebration of their delivery. They must have been gorgeous. The Red Sea must have shimmered — and I praise Him for that too.
I praise Him in the pleasure He affords me..
How precious is Your lovingkindness, O God! Therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of Your wings. They are abundantly satisfied with the fullness of Your house, And You give them drink from the river of Your pleasures. For with You is the fountain of life; In Your light we see light.