I’m a member of Faith United Methodist Church in South Burlington, Vermont. It’s a good church — not the largest church in the area, not the best attended, but generally supportive and full of a sense of community spirit. Each year we have a spring ham dinner and silent auction to raise funds for the church, and the last couple of years our minister has auctioned off a sermon. (For all I know, this has been going on for centuries, or at least since the church was founded in the 1960s.)
For some strange reason that I can’t really put my finger on, I decided this year that I was going to be the winning bidder on the sermon. Seriously, I have no idea why. I’m a big fan of our minister, Krista Beth Atwood. She’s a few years younger than I am, very brainy, and always does a very good, thought-provoking sermon. But I don’t particularly know why the idea of getting to choose the sermon topic struck my fancy.
I spent years as a member of Toastmasters International, starting in the late 1980s and continuing until the mid 1990s. I got to be reasonably good at public speaking along the way; perhaps that’s why I’ve spent the last 18 years working as a professional software trainer. One of my favorite parts of a Toastmasters meeting was the section called “Table Topics”, in which the “Topicmaster” of the meeting assigned topics to other members for short, off-the-cuff, one-to-two minute speeches. Some people absolutely hated Table Topics: the only way they could stand to speak in public was with weeks of rehearsal and preparation, and being forced to speak off the cuff took them into deep water. Other people loved Table Topics and delighted in taking the topic in a direction that the Topicmaster could never have imagined. When it was my turn to be Topicmaster, I probably spent more time thinking of fun, whimsical, borderline-cruel topics to assign than the participants actually did delivering them.
So maybe that’s involved in my desire to call the tune for an entire sermon. Or maybe not. But in any event, come the night of the spring banquet, Carole and I were on hand helping run the thing; Carole was selling tickets and I was taking the tickets and assigning people bid numbers for the silent auction. I took a few minutes during a lull to wander around and look at all the donated goods and services that were up for auction and, frankly, didn’t see much of anything I wanted. Carole and I are trying to watch our spending; she’s been unemployed or marginally employed for quite a few weeks now and we really can’t afford to blow $100 on something we don’t need, even if the money does go to the church and could be considered a charitable donation. The one item I kept drifting back to was the sermon.
I put down an initial bid of $25. A few minutes later, I’d been outbid by bidder #40. I upped the bid by $5 and sat back down at my table. Every few minutes, I’d wander back over to check, find that I’d been outbid again — by bidder #40 each time — and I’d up the bid again. I checked my notes to see who bidder #40 actually was, and oddly, the name didn’t ring a bell at all. Carole and I have been members of Faith UMC for about three years now and there are still some members whose names I’m not entirely sure of; hardly anyone in our congregation actually wears their name tags. I assumed that bidder #40 was one of the people who comes at Christmas and Easter and odd Sundays in between but wasn’t otherwise super-active in the church.
Whomever they were, they were persistent: each time I upped my bid, they upped theirs. I was there to the end, right up until the “last bids” call at 7:30 pm sharp, having put in one more bid that raised the going price to $85, and was expecting our mystery bidder to come up at the last possible moment to bid over me. But they didn’t. I’d outlasted them.
$85 for a sermon isn’t exactly “me practicing financial discipline”, but in a sense, it’s like a very very targeted offering. Unlike the items that actually bore tangible value, I’m pretty sure 100% of the $85 can be considered a charitable donation.
The people there wrapping up the auction — my fellow churchmembers and family members who were cashing people out and setting aside things that had been won by people who hadn’t stayed to the end — asked me what I was going to ask Krista Beth to preach on.
That might have seemed weird and off-the-wall to most people, but as I said, I’ve been a member of the church for three years or so now and most of them have worked out that I have a strange, pointless, and fairly inane sense of humor. So they didn’t press me for details.
But truth to tell, that is what I want her to preach on. Or, to be more precise, on what cheese represents to me.
You see, I have a problem with cheese. I can eat virtually unlimited amounts of it. I can spend a day watching my calories and exercising and taking all things in moderation, but if there’s cheese in the refrigerator, the odds are high that I’m going to shamble out of bed in the middle of the night and have some. And not just a little. A lot. I’m with cheese the same way a lot of people are with chocolate. Or alcohol.
G.K. Chesterton was the same way: in his essay “Cheese” he begins with the immortal phrase “Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese” and continues, noting “If all the trees were bread and cheese there would be considerable deforestation in any part of England where I was living.”
But cheese isn’t my only problem. I have lofty ideals for how I should live my life. For how I should get the most out of my time and avoid things that are wastes of time. Unfortunately, just as I vow to avoid overindulging in cheese, and fail completely, I fail almost every time I resolve to do more with my life.
Long ago I came up with a Grand Theory of Time Classification. Setting aside time spent in the course of doing one’s job and looking only at discretionary time, all time can be divided into four categories:
- Category X: Meaningful and necessary chores. Unloading the dishwasher, shopping for groceries, mowing the lawn, cleaning the gutters, paying bills, etcetera, etcetera. Things that have to be done but that aren’t necessarily enjoyable.
- Category Y: Meaningful and useful self-development. Running, walking, bicycling, kayaking, making tie-dyed shirts, practicing music, etcetera, etcetera. If you bake because you enjoy it and because you learn something each time you bake, then that’s definitely Category Y.
- Category Z: General recreation: watching a TV show that you particularly like and enjoy, going to a movie that you really want to see, reading a good book, spending quality time with a friend or friends, etcetera, etcetera. ”Appointment TV” falls into this category.
- Category W: W is for waste. W is watching hours and hours of television, watching shows you don’t even like, just to avoid having to stand up, get off autopilot, turn your brain on, and do something with your day. W is sitting at a computer surfing the net for hours, not in order to learn something specific or shop for something you actually need or something else that’s actually productive. but just aimlessly following links. W is playing endless games of Spider Solitaire or Freecell. W is going to out to the garden to weed and somehow losing track of time in an obsessive-compulsive nightmare and suddenly realizing that it’s six hours later and the sun’s going down.
One of the big problems with my life (and, if I may be so bold, with the life of a lot of people I know) is that things that might appear to be safely located in categories X, Y, or Z can ooze into Category W. Playing one game of online backgammon on your cell phone after work might be relaxing or even fun. Definitely Category Z material. But if you leave work and you pull out your Droid and start playing backgammon and suddenly it’s 10 o’clock at night and you have no idea where the time went… you’re in the Category W zone.
It’s like the way that a very small dose of a poison may have a therapeutic effect, but the same substance is deadly in larger quantities. Heck, even oxygen can be toxic at high enough pressures. Something that might be good for you, pleasurable, relaxing, and enjoyable ceases to be “good” when you take it to an extreme.
It’s bad if a workaholic stays at work late every night and neglects his family. X becomes W.
Visiting quaint little antique stores in search of furniture to restore might be category Y. Until you’re spending all your time in quaint little antique stores but never actually buy anything and never restore anything. Then it’s just an unhealthy obsession.
Watching a favorite TV show is fine. Watching TV for hours and hours every day, using it like a drug… at that point Z becomes W.
What falls into Category X, Y, and Z for each person varies from person to person. I can go weeks without watching a minute of TV. It just doesn’t fall into any of my categories as a good and enjoyable way to spend time. And I don’t judge someone who does like four or five (or six or seven) programs and can’t imagine going a week without watching them. But when TV watching becomes compulsive and takes up so much time that categories X, Y, and Z are neglected… that’s when you have a problem.
There are all manner of things I would like to do with my life. Running is high up there. Writing is up there too. But ask me how many nights I’ve told myself “I’ll go running tomorrow for sure” and stayed at my computer, just browsing the web and watching the minutes tick by.
I want to be a kinder, more considerate, less judgmental person. I need to spend more time working on that as well. But far too often, I let my temper get the better of me and I say mean, thoughtless, dumb, or cruel things. I should be working on meditation and reflection: classic Category Y stuff. I should be volunteering more in my community and doing what I can to be the kind of person I want to be. But I don’t.
And there I am at 3:00 am, standing in front of the refrigerator, eyes glowing with a fiendish lust, rummaging in the deli drawer for the last half of a block of Cabot Seriously Sharp Cheddar. But tomorrow I’ll stop binge eating. Tomorrow I’ll use my time well and go for a run after work.
St. Paul, in his epistle to the Romans, put it this way: “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.”
I can’t stand the way I watch my life flit away on garbage. On waste. On pointless pursuits and useless endeavors. And I’m not equating “time not spent on actual work” as “wasted.” Not all “fun” is Category W.
Pointless effort, mindless effort, directionless effort — that’s what takes us into Category W. And while it’s easy to blame the Imp of the Perverse for my tendency to fritter and fribble my life away, ultimately, I have to take responsibility for what I do with it.
Is it sinful to waste the lives we’ve been given? I don’t know. Consider the Parable of the Talents. I’ve been given great gifts. And yet I do so little with them. Not in the celebration and service of God. Not in the service of my fellow man, or of myself. In many cases, not at all. And I constantly set goals for myself that I fall short of, not by trying and failing, but too often, by simply failing to try.
“Cheese” is just a metaphor for my constant failure to live up to my goals and promises. I have a feeling though, that if I ever developed the strength of character to resist the siren call of cheese in the refrigerator, all my other problems would evaporate as well.
“Cheese As a Metaphor for Personal Weakness and Failings” may be one weird sermon topic, let alone as a Toastmasters “Table Topic”, but … we all have our angels and demons that we wrestle with. This one just happens to be mine.