It’s time once again for guest blogger and advice columnist Pious Petunia to provide savvy answers to the pressing dilemmas readers present in their letters. This week, Miss P tackles summer’s special challenges to the faithful life.
Dear Miss Petunia: My husband and I bicker every summer about his preference for golf over worship services on sunny Sunday mornings. “I worship God so much better on the golf course!” he claims. I think he’s just being lazy about the spiritual life. Either that, or I’m jealous. What should I do?
PP: Ah yes, summer Sundays, when worship means sundresses and sandals, guest preachers, and the soporific drone of fans cooling the sanctuary—or the unearthly chill of the air conditioner, if your church managed a capital campaign. How tempting to forego that routine and instead feel the grass beneath your spikes and the breeze on your cheek as your gaze follows the ball into the rough—yet again.
Actually, Miss P has nothing against the “I see God in nature” principle. Many a Christian summer camp and retreat center makes outdoor worship a centerpiece of their programming. Arrange the campers on rustic benches in a “cathedral in the pines,” strum a guitar in three-chord fashion, and promise a “mountain top experience.” No problem. It’s all good. People really do feel closer to God in nature—but notice that “nature” here usually refers to pleasant groves in the summer and not freezing rain in October. And those pleasant groves must be visited at times other than dawn and dusk, when mosquitoes tend to remind one of the curse of Adam rather than the glory of the Creator. Even so, it’s probably true that we all need a Sabbath from the Sabbath routine once in a while, and I’m all for campfire singing, trail meditations, and rustic benches.
I would suggest keeping two things in mind, though. First, even Moses had to come down from the mountain. In fact, even Jesus did. It’s easy to feel close to God in nature because there are no church committee meetings there, or budget squabbles, or people who arrive earlier than you and steal your usual seat. In other words, eventually you have to come back down to the banal realities of life in community. General revelation only gets you so far on the path to sanctification.
Second, golf is probably not a good substitute for worship. It tends to promote cursing. So I would suggest that if your husband wants to golf on Sunday, he should get a very early tee time and be back for regular worship, where he can repent of whatever he shouted after shanking with his three-iron. As a further strategy, while he’s on the links, you can hit the driving range and prepare to out-golf him. If you then insist on going along for those sunrise Sunday rounds, and you beat his score on a regular basis, he’ll probably start preferring church.
Dear Miss Petunia: Now that the weather is so warm, people’s clothes seems to be disappearing! Young ladies, especially, seem to believe they can expose any body part they please in public. Young men jog around the neighborhood in nothing but skimpy shorts and a sheen of sweat. Is there no modesty anymore? How is anyone supposed to avoid lusts of the flesh?
PP: I hear your pain on this one. Miss P does not consider herself prudish, but even we wise-as-serpents/innocent-as-doves types have our limits, and I do long for the days of greater modesty. I notice that this year the style calls for dress lengths so short that it seems young ladies stepped out the door wearing only a tunic, having forgotten to slip on any bottom-half outer garment at all. I suppose this serves the interests of capitalism by necessitating the purchase of pretty underpants, because one must surely plan on the entire world catching a glimpse of one’s dainties.
What to do about this? Announcements of an imminent apocalypse, I’m afraid, will have no effect. So I suppose we must shrug it off, taking the line that constant exposure to skin tends to deaden any arousing effect. Indeed, as my friend Jason Lief points out, often enough, the exposures in question stir up not so much the storms of lust as the gags of horror. Perhaps we could all take the opportunity this summer to become very matter-of-fact about the body, meditating on weakness, aging, weight gain, sagging, and the inevitable truth that “all flesh is grass.” For those who find this difficult, I recommend a stint in the hospital following a nurse on his or her rounds. A few days of this, and the only thing bodies will make you think of is odiferous bodily fluids. Pregnancy and birth have a similar effect.
As for the lusts of the flesh, those in the throes of youth hardly need near-nakedness as a precondition for temptation. I’m sure parka-clad young people in the dead of an Arctic winter have their struggles. For the rest of us, summer is a time for practical good humor about the body. I would simply recommend avoiding water parks, which force you to jostle about all day in close proximity to nubile, nearly naked teenagers in wet swimsuits. No one can survive that, not even if you resolve to focus your gaze only on the tattoos.
Dear Miss Petunia: I’m dreading the day when the kids are finished with school and home for the summer. Am I a bad parent?
PP: Be gentle with yourself, dear. Summer can be hard for everyone, including the kids. Do you imagine they’re sitting in school in early June, thinking “Oh boy, I can’t wait to spend all day every day for ten to thirteen weeks with my beloved Mummy and Daddy”? Right, they’re already thinking up strategies to avoid you, especially if they are older than age nine.
I’m a firm believer in summer plans that balance structure with freedom. No need to schedule soccer camp followed by swim lessons followed by intensive Latin camp. Kids need things to do, but they also need lazy days and the valuable lessons of boredom. Besides, those camp fees add up. Which is why churches invented Vacation Bible School.
Miss P also advises that parents follow the wise tradition of deliberately arranging summer experiences that induce suffering and thereby make everyone appreciate their regular lives. This is exactly the purpose of backpacking, family road trips, and sleepaway camps.
Dear Miss Petunia: Is it OK for Christians to eat hot dogs? I worry about this every year starting on Memorial Day, and the question plagues me right through Labor Day.
PP: What an intriguing theological problem! One could consider hot dogs an example of good stewardship, since they make use of the less, shall we say, prime parts of the animal carcass, avoiding waste and applying the principle of I Corinthians 12: 22-23: “those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor.” Hot dogs, a most improbable and imaginative food invention, are also an example of human creativity and could be said, therefore, to help us reflect the image of God.
On the other hand, those who object to eating meat have sound arguments, and those uncomfortable with mystery will definitely want to avoid them. I would refer you to Matthew 15:16-18, Acts 11, and Romans 14. Then, if you are still worried, get in touch with covenant theology and choose Hebrew National brand kosher franks—enjoy.
Perhaps next time we should consider a careful theological analysis of that other summer staple: the marshmallow.