If you are a citizen of the U.S.A., you have pledged your allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, AND to the Republic for which that flag stands, a single, united nation, under God, a nation which is indivisible, and a nation which assures liberty and justice for all. Man, when you break it down like that, it sounds pretty serious, right?
A pledge is serious. Matt Talbot’s mother knew this. Born in 1856, Matt grew to be what we would call “an alcoholic”. He could not stay away from the drink. Every bit of money he earned went for liquor, and when that ran out he turned to theft in order to have money to buy wine, liquor, whatever would get the job done. Some might say it was because his first job was in a wine bottling store, because it was there that he started drinking to excess. People will say anything. Excuses are not out of the ordinary. Maybe it was because he was the next-to-the-oldest of a family with twelve children. That, some would say, would drive anyone to drink. Matt did not have a very stable home life or youth; he was not compelled to attend school, and he didn’t…maybe that is why.
Often we know more about how alcoholism stops than how it starts. An alcoholic can usually recall what happened when he or she was drinking, except those times when a blackout occurred. But an alcoholic can almost always recall, much more vividly, what happened to intervene at just the right moment and in just the right circumstances with just the right degree of desperation. What happened?
For Matt Talbot, one night something happened. He was nearing thirty years of age, and he decided to go to confession. After meeting with the priest, he returned home with an “abstinence pledge”. He told his mother that he was going to take the pledge. His mother reminded him of the seriousness of a pledge — that if he took it he must be prepared to persist. Who knows if her concern was doubt or encouragement? What we DO know is that the “three-month pledge” seemed a very steep hill to climb. Many days he felt as if he would never make it. “You can’t coast uphill,” they say. And Matt did not coast. He climbed. He climbed daily. That was what the pledge required.
He kept on climbing, and before the year was out he had reaffirmed the pledge and then renewed the pledge for life. For more than four decades, Matt never touched alcohol again.
Co-laborers (on the job) reported that he would invite them to church with him, that he would arrive at the morning mass before the doors of the church were open, that he would use his breaks at work to pray — many, many time being found on his knees in prayer when a friend would remind him that the break was over — and that he would return to church after the workday was over.
But Matt never took a break from abstinence. Matt made it. He took the pledge and he never gave up on it. He abstained. And while his life was not necessarily easy, it was far better than it had ever been when he was drinking. He never gave up.
We know that it was not the on pledge only that he never gave up; Matt never gave up on himself, and more importantly, as his pledge was to God, he never gave up on God. A pledge to God is different from a pledge to one’s flag. It is different from a pledge to one’s country, or to one’s fraternity, or to one’s lodge. Of course, when one keeps his or her pledge, it is because he or she has not turned away. And not turning away is admirable, regardless of the object of one’s pledge. But it is God who gives the power to keep from turning away, to avoid the pitfalls along the path.
“Matt Talbot collapsed and died of heart failure on June 7, 1925.” (Wikipedia). He was almost seventy years of age. He wore many penitential medals and chains to remind him of his pledge; and while he was thought to be illiterate due to no formal schooling, his room contained many books which were of the genre one would read for spiritual formation and religious instruction.
Probably the most difficult pledge any of us will ever take is the one which is our confession of Jesus Christ as Savior of the World and as our personal Lord and Savior. When He is our Lord, our allegiance is sealed. Are we like Matt Talbot in our persistence? You can’t coast uphill. Faithfulness to God requires daily penance because we fail daily. Not only are we faced each day with our own sinfulness — our inclination to choose that which is a sin against God– but we are faced with our sin-nature. It is both our nature and our inclination to choose sin over holiness, bad over good, evil over right.
Sin – the lifelong struggle over wrong; or, stated another way, the lifelong attraction to sin. One whose sin leads to drink, like Matt Talbot, may choose to “drown their sorrows”, not realizing that “sorrows know how to swim.” One whose sin leads him or her to certain kinds of environments and with certain associates can keep the person in the vicious circle which is characteristic of sin (some call these “playgrounds and playmates” because they recognize the fundamental immaturity of the alcoholic.)
While there is no verification that this is a Cherokee legend, it is often presented as such. It goes like this:
A grandfather is talking with his grandson and he says there are two wolves inside of us which are always at war with each other. One of them is a good wolf which represents things like kindness, bravery and love. The other is a bad wolf, which represents things like greed, hatred and fear.
The grandson stops and thinks about it for a second then he looks up at his grandfather and says, “Grandfather, which one wins?” The grandfather quietly replies, “the one you feed.”
What do we feed this life which is pledged to Christ, this life which is tempted each and every day to choose that which would compromise — tempted to sin? To withstand temptation requires daily action, a daily diet of prayer, devotion to that which is good, practice of that which is right, rejection of evil, healthy spiritual friendships, and some self-denial. It requires a daily enrichment of one’s personal life, or one’s family life, and even of one’s social life through healthy relationships and conduct. We need to ask God for virtue to stand strong against our fallen, sinful nature. We need to pray for the gifts of faith and hope and charity.
St. Augustine wrote that the burdens of life will oppress and crush you; but Christ, he reminded us, takes the weight off of us. Burdens weigh us down, he said, but Christ gives us wings.
Christ gives us wings. Christ gives us wings to rise above the fallen condition of the world in which we live. Christ gives us the strength to be “in the world, but not of the world.” A pledge — or a good confession — is serious. Christ gives us the power to persist with the pledge we have taken.
If you, the reader, would like to grow in your spiritual formation or service, you may find that what we offer, through the Disciples College and the Mission for Biblical Literacy can be helpful. You may want to start with a course to study. We recommend http://www.biblicaltraining.org/lp/thedisciplescollege
President of The Disciples College (Christian College of Georgia) and The Mission for Biblical Literacy. Engaged in Bible-based education for disciples -- congregants, leaders, clergy -- and Bible-based mission for children and families in Russia, Armenia and Haiti.
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