I have a confession: I spent four days on a cruise ship last week.  I have another confession: I totally enjoyed it.

Our extended family was together on a Carnival Cruise out of Long Beach that took us to Catalina and Ensenada.  As cruises go, it was pretty basic, but it still seemed very indulgent to me.  Then again, that’s what cruises are all about.

One of our party who spent quite a bit of time in the casino reported triumphantly toward the end of the cruise, “I broke even!”  Two nights before they had been crowing about winning big; the next night they went into a pretty big hole and were kind of depressed.  So, breaking even in the end seemed like a victory.

Maybe “breaking even” is the best we can hope for from the pleasures of this life.

Let’s talk about food.  Carnival Cruise Lines advertises “More flavors than your taste buds will know what to do with.”  That’s pretty accurate.  At the beginning, I toured the various eating options: dining rooms, buffets, dessert displays, 24-hour pizza, Mongolian Wok, custom-made omelets.  I set out to experience them all.  If our dinner menu listed two entrees that made my mouth water, I ordered them both.  The appetizer offerings included interesting options such as shrimp cocktail, calamari, ceviche, intriguing soups and salads.  In addition, each night there was a “Rare Find” appetizer; I ordered all of those, alligator fritters, frogs legs and escargot (snails).  I was determined to miss nothing.

On the last full day, I realized that my taste buds were a little bored.  While I was waiting in the buffet  line, I had the chance to look over at a table where a woman’s plate was particularly overloaded.  I noticed that the meats she had selected included  a pork chop, a piece of fried chicken and a hot dog.  It was the hot dog that got to me.  She didn’t want to miss anything, so she had to put that stupid old hot dog on her plate.  Then a light went on: all the flavors on her plate canceled each other out.  In the end, her taste buds would be lucky to “break even.”

In spite of my insightful observation of the woman’s plate, I went through the buffet line and selected things I didn’t need and didn’t really want.  Once they were on my plate, my post-Great Depression upbringing forced me to eat them.  On the day after the cruise, I timidly climbed on to the bathroom scale.  I was surprised to find that my weight was the same as before.  Calorifically, I had “broken even.”

Others on the cruise were dealing with other forms of overindulgence.  Some always had a  a drink in their hand.  Some seemed to have a compulsion to spend as much time laying in the sun as possible.  Either of these can lead to bad results, drunken stupor or severe sunburn.  The opportunity for indulgence has to be limited by self-control in order for a person to “break even.’

So for me the cruise was a parable (Can’t turn the preacher off). Jesus had some important things to say about our tendency to overindulge our appetites.  He criticized the religious leaders around him who seemed to be following upright rules of behavior, but “inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence” (Matthew 23:27).  He warned about the dangers of unbridled lustful thoughts (Matthew 5:28). He told a striking parable about a rich man who had it too good:

The land of a rich man produced abundantly.  And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said  to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’   (Luke 12:16-20)

The Apostle Paul warned Christians not to be like self-indulgent people, whose “god is the belly” whose “glory is in their shame” and whose “minds are set on earthly things” (Philippians 3:19).  There are many things to enjoy in this life, but we need to put limits around our enjoyment so that our souls  aren’t destroyed in the process.  Maybe on the physical level, “breaking even” is the best we should hope for.

So now that I’ve learned my lesson from the “Parable of the Cruise Ship,” I need to go again to put it into practice.  Anybody want to pay my way?

— Pastor George Van Alstine