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January 21, 2018

“Cold Shower Therapy and a Whale of a Change”

Rev. Dr. David A. Kaden

>>Breathe through us. Sit with us. Move among us. And splash us with the cold water of your spirit. Amen.<<

If you Google “cold showers,” 10.6 million hits will pop up in .41 seconds. Why one might engage in such a search is anyone’s guess. (Perhaps they heard about cold showers in some random news story and were procrastinating on writing their sermon.) Cold showers were in the news this week. On Monday night, the NBA’s Golden State Warriors beat the Cleveland Cavaliers. Instead of being rewarded for their victory with steamy showers, the Warriors, according to The Daily News , had to take cold showers because the hot water wasn’t working in their locker room.[1] “That’s just cold,” wrote Brett Bodner of The Daily News .

They’re uncomfortable, but cold showers actually have many health benefits. The first two hits on a “cold showers” Google search prove it. Hit #1 is titled “The Benefits of Cold Showers,” according to Men’s Health magazine. Hit #2 is titled “16 Benefits of Cold Showers That Will Blow Your Mind.” In fact, every hit on the first page of my Google search lauded the health benefits of cold showers; and if the internet says cold showers are good for you, then it must be true. Provided you’re in decent health, there’s actually good research to back up the claim that they can be good for you. In October, Sara Faye Green of Women’s Health magazine listed several studies. A study at Virginia Commonwealth University found “that cold showers” “alleviate depressive symptoms by sending electrical nerve impulses to the brain, resulting in an uplifting effect … .” “One French study … found various types of hydrotherapy (including cold) to be helpful in relieving anxiety. A recent article in The North American Journal of Medical Sciences found that cold water produced documented relief for everything from pain and inflammation to aiding and abetting almost every system in the body. In the Netherlands, a study found cold showers to increase productivity and reduce sick days.”[2] Good for the skin; good for the circulation; they stimulate weight-loss; they jolt you awake; and they decrease anxiety. Rumor has it that Katharine Hepburn used to take cold showers. Ian Fleming’s hero James Bond would take the so-called “Scottish shower” – start hot and then turn the dial to ice cold. Apparently, the warriors of ancient Sparta insisted on taking only cold water baths.[3] And there are tales of ascetic Celtic monks who kept vigil in ice-cold water up to their necks.[4]

Carl Richards of The New York Times says he takes a cold shower every morning not because of the health benefits or because 007 does it, but because turning the dial to ice cold first thing in the morning is “really hard to do.”[5] Richards likens a morning cold shower to that Mark Twain saying about the frog. “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning,” said Twain, “and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” Richards writes that “the point [of cold showers] is [to start] your morning by tackling [a] challeng[e] head-on … [to] encourage similar behavior throughout the day.”

I first heard about the benefits of cold showers from a TEDx Talk by Joel Runyon back in 2013.[6] Runyon says cold showers can change your life. He calls it “cold shower therapy.” “As soon as you get up,” says Runyon. “Jump in the shower. Close your eyes and turn the temperature to cold. Not just cold. Not ice cold. Try we-just-piped-this-water-in-from-Antarctica-because-the-penguins-won’t-swim-in-it-cold. Do this for thirty days in a row. I call it Cold Shower Therapy,” [he says]. “The big change happens after you decide to actually do it,” says Runyon. “As you immerse yourself in the water, … [y]ou might yell out a few Tarzan screams, but, once you decide to do it, … you’re not afraid of it anymore.” It will change you, says Runyon. “After you’ve stared at the shower head and conquered the cold,” he says, you establish a pattern of overcoming your fears and hesitations when it comes to other things like projects, diets, working out, writing. “You realize you’ve already beaten [your apprehension] once that day,” he says, and you know you can do it again.

…After reading all of this stuff about cold showers – from the NBA to 007 to Joel Runyon’s TED Talk – I can’t help but think that if the prophet Jonah in today’s Old Testament reading had gone through Cold Shower Therapy, we may not have a book of Jonah in our Bible. The book of Jonah is premised on the prophet being asked by God to do something he didn’t want to do – something he feared and balked at, something, perhaps, a few cold showers might’ve fixed. God asked Jonah to head for Nineveh and preach; Jonah instead hitchhiked on a ship and headed in the opposite direction. God then sent a storm to crush the ship. Jonah told the crewmembers to hurl him into the sea to calm the storm. God then sent a great fish – a whale, according to our Sunday School stories – to swallow the wayward prophet and give him time to have a change of heart. Pondering his state in the belly of the whale, Jonah capitulated. The whale then spit Jonah onto the shore, and he went to Nineveh to preach. His words were wildly successful, and the people and the animals – the animals are a curious detail in the story – all fasted and wore sackcloth as a sign of their change of heart.

The story of Jonah is one of my favorites in the whole Bible. It’s certainly one of scripture’s most entertaining stories, one that many of us learned as children in Sunday School, and one that many of our children and grandchildren have learned from watching that cartoon VeggieTales film where all the characters in the story are played by talking vegetables. When I was in seminary, my prophets professor made us translate the entire book of Jonah from Hebrew to English. It was a brutal assignment, but the day it was due he lightened the mood by saying: I’ve studied the book of Jonah for years, and thought I’d seen everything until last night when my kids put on the VeggieTales film, and I saw Jonah being played by a talking asparagus. “I believe I’ve seen everything now,” he said.

The book of Jonah is a parable – a moral tale. And like any great parable, the story aims at a theological or ethical target beyond itself. And in Jonah there are many. There’s the theme of God’s concern for animals. When the Ninevites heed Jonah’s warning, they don sackcloth and they fast food and water, and they make the animals do it too. The last word in the Hebrew text of the entire book is “animals.” “Should I not care … about the animals?,” says God to Jonah. And the great fish – the whale, the “animal” – is the instrument God uses to change Jonah’s heart. Another theme is God’s unending patience and mercy. God waits patiently for the Ninevites to respond to Jonah’s message. God is patient with Jonah, who, after preaching his message, leaves the city to sit on a hill and look for fire to fall from the sky. And there as if with popcorn and soda in hand, looking for and even hoping for a showcase of God’s wrath, Jonah instead finds himself baking in the sun. He complains to God, wishes to die, complains that the Ninevites repented, grumbles that his shade plant has withered. Yet, still God is patient, never judging this wayward prophet despite his silliness.

God’s inclusive love is still another theme. God sends this Israelite prophet to Nineveh – that “great city,” as the text says – the capital city of Assyria, the superpower of the day, full of people, as God says in the story, “who don’t know their left hand from their right.” Assyria was especially hated by the people of Israel, because its armies had toppled Israel’s northern kingdom and wiped out the people, save for a remnant that would become “Samaritans” – key players in later Bible stories. Assyrians were gentiles – hated gentiles – who worshiped Ashur and Ishtar and Tiamat and a host of other deities that were foreign to the Israelites. There is no reason for Jonah – an Israelite prophet – to be going to Nineveh except to make a theological point that God loves all people. God even changes God’s name to cater to these Ninevites. When Jonah speaks to God, in the various asides in the book, the Hebrew name of God is “Yahweh,” the God of Israel, the God who spoke from the burning bush to Moses. But when the Ninevites repent, they believe in “Elohim” in Hebrew. Elohim is a generic name for “God” in the ancient near east, a bit like “Allah” in the Arab world of today. God sends an Israelite prophet to a gentile people, and God goes under an alias so the Ninevites would learn of God’s inclusive love.

And finally, the theme of change – of cold-shower-type-change, to return to where I began this sermon – is everywhere in this story. The story offers one of scripture’s most powerful testimonies that anyone – no matter who they are, where they’ve been, what they’ve done, what political perspective they may have, no matter how barbaric or evil they may seem – anyone can change. It’s a story that insists on seeing possibility in people – seeing the best in people, even when they seem backwards or wayward. The wayward Jonah changes in the story. The backwards Ninevites change from not knowing their left hand from their right to learning the ways of God. Even God changes in this story, from planning destruction to offering blessing: God changed God’s mind, says the text. The book of Jonah is like an ancient TED Talk about change – cold-shower-type-change. Throughout scripture this word “change” is called “repentance.” Literally in Hebrew, “repentance” means “turning around.” It’s an about-face. A 180 degree turn. A change in direction, what writer Malcolm Gladwell calls “the tipping point.” A change that yesterday’s Women’s March called for. Hebrew prophets like Jonah called for change – personal change, change in national policy, change in military policy, change from, what the prophet Amos called “the trampling of the poor” to abiding by the ways of justice. Jesus called for change. His first sermon in Mark’s gospel is “repent and believe the gospel,” or, in today’s language: turn around, and entrust yourself to the ways of God, the ways of peace and justice and inclusive love. This is cold-shower change, not just something we hope will happen in the hearts of those we might disagree with, or, in the halls of congress, but something that begins within each of us. It’s a change that takes effort, like willing ourselves to turn the dial to ice cold each morning.

…Conservative political commentator Erick Erickson wrote an op-ed back in September about this kind of cold-shower-type change, a change that takes effort:[7] “A year ago my life [was turned upside down],” writes Erickson. “[After taking a stand against the Republican nominee for president,] three protesters showed up on my front porch. They did not threaten physical harm. But … for the next three months, we had armed guards parked outside our house. People called my radio station demanding I be fired. My children [would come] home from school in tears [after facing ridicule from classmates] … . A woman in my wife’s Bible study group said that she and her friends [hated me]. For a while we stopped going to church. At the grocery store, my children were accosted by a stranger yelling that their father was destroying their lives and the country. And in the middle of this I found it harder and harder to breathe. But it wasn’t the stress of the situation causing it. In April 2016, with my blood oxygen level below 90 percent, doctors rushed me into a cardiac intensive care unit when they discovered blood clots in my lungs. … As I lay in a CT machine getting scanned that day, the Mayo Clinic called my wife to inform her that doctors thought she had lung cancer. Less than six months later they confirmed she has a genetic, incurable form of the disease. Fortunately, she can take an oral chemotherapy pill that keeps her cancer at bay.
The cancer cells will eventually mutate so they can’t be suppressed by the medicine, and we can only pray new drugs are developed before each mutation. Our family life is now focused on three-month windows of normalcy between my wife’s CT scans. Contemplating these things, last November I posted a short essay on my website of things I would want my children to know if their mother and I died before they woke. … I want them to do what is right, not what is popular, and I want them to measure their self-worth by being ethical individuals, not by the applause they receive on social media. As we have moved more of our lives onto the internet,” writes Erickson, “we have stopped living in actual communities. Instead we have created virtual communities where everyone thinks the same. We do not have to worry about the homeless man under the bridge because he is no longer part of our community. He is someone else’s problem. … We have social-media tribes and our self-esteem is based on likes and retweets. … Social-media interactions have replaced the value of character. The truth, though, is that our Facebook friends are probably not going to water our flowers while we are on vacation and our Twitter followers will not bring us a meal if we are sick. But the actual human being next door might do both if we meet [them]. This is what I want my children to know if I should die before they wake. [I want them to know, writes Erickson, that] the kitchen table is the most important tool [people] have to reshape [and change] their community. Preparing a home-cooked meal and inviting people over, both those we know and those we want to know, forces us to find common ground [forces us to change]. … Every person has an interesting story to tell. I want my children to know my story. But I also want them to know that the stranger next door has one, too, and that even if they disagree on much, they can still be friends. … [Maybe] a little more grace among us all would go a long way toward healing [and changing] the nation.”

…I don’t hear that story as a call to accept the unacceptable in our society. I don’t hear it as a justification for what we know is wrong and wrong-headed in our culture and in our political class. I hear it as an invitation to take a cold shower. To will ourselves to step out of what is comfortable and familiar – to step out of the boat as the disciples do in today’s gospel reading, to turn the dial to ice cold – and ready ourselves to be changed by our encounters with others. Or, to use the words Jesus uses, to go out and “fish for people” and then invite them into our lives. Amen.

1 http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/basketball/kevin-durant-warriors-cold-showers-call-lebron-article-1.3759843

2 https://www.womenshealthmag.com/health/benefits-of-cold-showers/slide/1

3 https://www.artofmanliness.com/2010/01/18/the-james-bond-shower-a-shot-of-cold-water-for-health-and-vitality/

4 http://individual.utoronto.ca/power/Celtic/ch4a.html

5 https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/15/business/the-benefits-of-getting-an-icy-start-to-the-day.html?_r=0

6 https://impossiblehq.com/tedxluc-cold-shower-therapy/ ; and https://impossiblehq.com/cold-shower-therapy/

7 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/30/opinion/erick-erickson-common-ground.html