Liking God

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Pascha 2022

I write this blog anonymously. It is time to reveal my identity. I am actually quite famous. Perhaps you have heard of me.  Many have written about me.  Rembrandt painted me.  Jesus Himself described my journey.  I am the Prodigal Son.

If you know the story, then you know that when I was old enough, I grabbed all that was due me and left, leaving both my real home and my real Father.  I went to a far-off land seeking fun and adventure.

I spent many years in that far-away place living what felt like the good life, reaching for and mostly finding the “American dream.”  By all common metrics, I was at least moderately successful; certainly I was above average in my accomplishments.  I left all that I was behind.  I never called my Father.  I never even texted Him.

Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son

As the years went by, something in my life began to seem amiss.  I was beginning to experience a deep sense that there was something more to life than my American, upper middle-class existence.  The foreign land in which I was living was beginning to feel very foreign indeed.  I was mostly empty inside.  The stuff of life, accomplishments and material things began to lose their interest for me.  The banquet that the world was throwing began to taste like “food given to swine.”  Looking back, I was “coming to myself.”  That is the way Jesus tells it.

As the sparkle of the foreign land was diminishing, the thought of returning home began to increase.  I had begun to realize what I was missing by being away all these years.  Increasingly, I felt drawn back to my home and my Father.  One day, I simply knew I had to go back.  With the decision made, I didn’t hesitate; I started out for home.  I was both eager and afraid.  How would my Father respond?  Along the way I planned what I would say when I got there.  I would stand up straight and look Him in the eye as he had taught me to do.  “Father,” I would say, “I have sinned against heaven, and in Your sight;I am no longer worthy to be called Your son; treat me as one of Your hired laborers.”  Certainly that would soften Him toward me.  All I knew is that I would do anything to be home again.

As I drew close to home so much looked familiar; it felt comfortable…and not.  I had spent my youth here, but I had been gone for a long time.  And, you know what they say about never being able to go home again.

I could see my house in the distance.  And then I saw something else: I saw a figure running toward me.  I couldn’t make out who it was.  Was it someone sent to warn me to stay away?  After all, I was an ungrateful son.  Was it someone sent by my Father to test my motives for returning, to make sure I was properly humiliated by my actions?  The figure drew closer.  No!  It couldn’t be!  It was my Father!  I had never seen Him run before!  I stood frozen; He was on me in an instant.  And then…He embraced me and kissed me!  I stammered out my practiced lines, “Father, I…I…I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight;I am no longer worthy…”  He wasn’t listening; rather, He was calling to have me fitted with His finest clothes; He put His ring on my finger; then, He started planning a welcome-home banquet.  I could only stand there, dumbfounded.  There was no hint of anger in Him; He did not say, “I knew you would be a failure.  I tried to tell you this would happen.”  He did not tell me I had to earn my place back into His good graces.  There was none of that.  Only His tears of joy.

It was as though He had been waiting for me all these many years, each day standing at the window hoping that this would be the day I returned.  What kind of love is that?  It is unworldly love, the kind I had never known.  Had He always loved me like that?  I couldn’t recall…

Slowly, my life began to settle down again.  I had time to reflect on this most remarkable turn of events.  Rather than suffering through the humiliation and toil to earn my right to be called the son of my Father, I had been joyously welcomed back into the family with full privileges, no questions asked.  It was as though I had never left.  And I realized that before leaving home I had never thought much about my Father; I had certainly taken Him for granted.

Coming back, I wanted to get to know Him, to really know Him.  The accepted way for a son to know His Father was through sermons, reading, study, podcasts, and conversation (prayer).  What I learned was not so much about my Father.  I learned instead that Jesus loves me and that I needed to work on my personal relationship with Him.  After all, I was told, it is only because of Jesus that my Father welcomed me home.  I was told that through the love of Jesus and His blood shed upon the cross, I was now shielded from the wrath of God, my Father.  God-my-Father had welcomed me as a worthy son only because Jesus paid the price I cannot pay for my sins of leaving home.  When I walked out, I was told, I had offended the honor of my Father and only Jesus’ punishing death on the cross could restore the honor of my Father.  Another image was given to me: I’m in a courtroom.  My Father sits in judgment of me.  He sentences me to eternal torment for my offense to Him.  Jesus steps up to take my punishment.  Then, my Father-the-judge steps down from the Bench and hugs me.  Welcome home, son.

So I worked at my relationship with Jesus.  Hard.  After all, I was so thankful to be back home.  I didn’t want to ever again disappoint my Father.

I have to admit, though, that as the days, months, and years passed, I began to experience stress and worry at being home again.  You see, in Church I was told to love God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  It had become easy for me to be attracted to Jesus.  He died for me.  The Holy Spirit was also attractive, who doesn’t appreciate and grow to love a “helper.”  But, my Father…

Ever so slowly I began to realize that I didn’t know how to feel about my Father.   Almost everything in Church was centered on Jesus and His love for me, and on the Holy Spirit, Who was sent to help me.  Mostly, mention of my Father was limited to a prayer to “Our Father” as Jesus had taught.

Our Father, Who art in Heaven…

Anything else that was said about my Father was usually about His anger and wrath directed toward people like I had been: one of those other Prodigal people who had left their homes.  I began to notice that whenever I thought of my Father my only real concern was with keeping Jesus between Him and me.

It has dawned on me that during that time I loved my Father but I didn’t really like Him.  Truthfully, I had learned to be afraid of my Father’s wrath.  To me, He had become very much like the “Angry God” of preacher Jonathan Edwards; a Father Who, according to Edwards, views the other Prodigal children as “objects”of His wrath; objects, not persons.  Edwards says:

[Prodigal children] are now the objects of that very same anger and wrath of God, that is expressed in the torments of hell.

I was always afraid of again failing my Father.  I was afraid that my Father, in His anger and wrath toward me in a moment of my weakness, would say to me, “Enough!” and kick me out of the house.  And I was afraid for others.  Many of those “lost” people—other Prodigals—about which I was hearing had been my friends when I lived in the foreign land; many remain my friends even after I returned home.  Had my Father felt that anger toward me when I was away?  I had always thought He had been daily watching at the window for my return.

So, I began to wonder, who really welcomed me home?  Who was it that every day watched for me and then, when finally seeing me, ran out to greet me?  Who was it who clothed me in His finest garments, put His ring on my finger, and threw me a barbecue of His fatted calf, inviting all of the neighbors to welcome me home?  That just didn’t sound like the wrathful Father of whom I was now afraid.

Just before Jesus died on the cross He said, “The one who has seen Me has seen the Father.”  He went on to say, as He had said earlier, that He and His Father were one.  How could it be, then, that there is a wrathful God (Father) and a loving Son (Jesus)?  After all, it is foundational Christian theology that here is only one God.  It sounded more and more that I was being taught that God was bifurcated God, not One, that there was one wrathful God (Father) of the Old Testament and then a second, loving God (Jesus) of the New Testament.  The Father demands obedience; the Son freely gives love.

I began to dig deeper as the question burned within.  Which God was it Who welcomed me home?

I found that the early Church had a viewpoint of God that differed from that which was formulated by Augustine, refined by Anselm, and through the influential preaching of men like Edwards, had become accepted in much of Western Christianity.  It is a viewpoint that was common in the Church in the early years following Jesus’ death and is still widely accepted in Eastern Christianity.  Rather than a wrathful Father appeased by the sacrifice of His Son on our behalf, God the Father is a loving God who longs for our salvation.  Jesus died to defeat death, humankind’s great enemy, not to appease an angry God or to ransom us from Satan.

One of the greatest preachers the Church has known, Saint John Chrysostom (c. AD 347-407) said this:

Enter into the Church and wash away your sins. For there is a hospital for sinners and not a court of law.

This was a very different Father than I had been taught about upon my return.  But, it was the Father whom I had experienced, the Father I was coming to know.  This is my Father, the one who watched and waited for me, who ran out to greet me and rejoiced upon my return.  This Father of the early Church is not a wrathful Father; rather, God the Father, like His Son, is the great physician who desires to “bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:14-21)  This is not a Father who demands my punishment and the punishment of the other Prodigals so that His honor might be restored.  Rather, this is the Father to all, whether His sons and daughters or whether the Prodigals.  This Father, and His Son, Jesus, want nothing more than for all of us to return and remain home and share in their lives, just as you would expect of a Father.  (Ez 18:23, 2Peter 3:9)

Father Michael Pomazansky captures well our Father’s love for us:

God is concerned more for our salvation than even for His own glory. A testimony to this is the fact that He sent His only-begotten Son into the world for suffering and death, solely to reveal to us the path of salvation and eternal life.

Setting aside His own glory…Interested more in my salvation than in His own honor.  That is indeed perfect, sacrificial, other-worldly love.  It is the only love worthy of a God Who “so loved the world…”  This is my Father who ran to welcome me home.  It is our Father who daily waits and watches for the return of all Prodigals.  Father and Son both give love, freely, fully, and unconditionally.

Epilogue

I’ve been back at home for many years now.  In many ways, I’m still that young kid looking over the fence at the grass that looks greener; there’s still a lot of Prodigal Son in me.  I remain much too inattentive to my Father Who loves me unconditionally.  All too often I put myself above Him and my neighbor.  I remain much too full of pride and self love.  I still feel the pull back to the foreign land and the taste of the food of pigs.  I tell myself that I wish I could stop longing for that place, so full of grays and blacks, but the pull is strong and I too often justify a quick trip back.  Sometimes it is a very quick trip manifested in something like a burst of anger.  Other times, it is a longer trip if, for example, I get caught in the despair of the news of the world.  However long my excursion, when once again I “come to myself” I once again tell myself this is my last trip to this place.  Then, once again I turn to home.  Once again my Father runs to greet me.  Once again, with a contrite heart, I say, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”  And, once again, the barbecue is laid out.  Each “welcome home” is like the first. 

“Forgive me, Father” is, after all, the only thing I have to offer back to my Father; after all, He owns everything else.  So, it is here in the fire of my struggle against the pull of the foreign land where my Father is forging in me a new heart, a humble and contrite heart with the help of His spirit, His angels, and a “cloud of witnesses” who have gone before me.  A contrite heart, it is all He has ever wanted from me.  And it is everything I have to give.  I long to love God and neighbor much because I have been forgiven much. (Luke 7:36-7:50)

So, finally, all these many years later, I finally have the answer to my question, “Who ran out to meet me?”  God did.  All of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  All of God loves me and has welcomed me home, and all of Heaven rejoices over my return.  I love my Father, in His perfect love there is no room for fear…and I really like Him. 

But, to know Him, to really know Him, will take me all of eternity.

If you don’t know this Father, come and meet Him.  You might find you like Him, too.

Additional reading:
1) “Saint Athanasius and the ‘Penal Substitutionary’ Atonement Doctrine.” 
2) Bailey, Father Spyridon. The Ancient Path.

The Story of God and the Mud

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Christian Orthodox Icon–The Creation of the World

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness…”  And the Lord God formed man of the mud of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being…and He put them in Paradise.  God said, “It is very good.”

Genesis 1:26, 31; 2:7-8

There is a story that is told of a visitor to an Orthodox monastery on the famous Mt. Athos in Greece.  Out for a walk, the visitor encounters a monk. Wanting to be friendly, the man says, “Hi, my name is Joe.  I’m visiting from America.”  Stopping, the monk raises his eyes, and, looking at the visitor, replies, “My name is Sin.  I come from mud.”  The visitor is left with his mouth agape.

Mud.  We rarely give it much thought unless we get it on ourselves, our clothes, or our shoes.  Mud comes in various types…some is as slippery as grease, another is as sticky as glue.  Mud isn’t good for much.  Kids make pies with it, play in it, and throw it at each other.  Once we outgrow childhood, we find mud has some limited use; however, mostly we try to avoid it.  By and large, mud is only a nuisance.

Where we see nuisance, God saw the possibility of sharing Himself.

God brought a pile of mud to life; He gave “non-being” mud the gift of “being.”

It is hard to imagine why God would animate a pile of mud by breathing the life into it.  What’s more, He gave the mud not just simple life, but He breathed the life of His Spirit into it.  He made the mud into His image and likeness by giving the mud the ability to create unimaginable beauty, the capability of engaging in complex reasoning, and the desire for selfless love and sacrifice for other lumps of mud.  He gave the mud the ability to contemplate and love God Himself, to become one with God as lovers do.  And He put the mud in a Garden and walked with the mud.

There is another group to whom God gave the gift of being: the angels.  We are never told whether they, too, came from mud, from something else, or were made out of nothing.  Despite being in the presence of God and enjoying the gifts of God, some angels wanted more.  But, surely they must have known they could never overthrow God.  Perhaps they thought they could get at God another way: by throwing mud at Him. 

These demon-angels were able to convince the animated mud that it could have “being” on its own, without God.  So encouraged, the mud seemed eager to strike out on its own, beholding to no other being, to stand on its own two feet, to pull itself up by its own bootstraps, to become its own man or woman.  So, the mud turned away from God, and God allowed mud to act as mud.

Throughout the centuries, the mud has made remarkable progress.  The mud has advanced from existing as hunter-gathering mud to gaining the knowledge and ability to put mud on the moon.

However, the rebellion against God came at a cost to the mud. 

Everything became harder for the mud.  It was harder for the mud to survive; the earth, of which the mud was once a part, did not yield its fruits and grains easily to the mud.  In fact, the earth itself often rebels against the mud as the mud tries to subdue it.  And, mud throws mud at mud, sometimes causing mass destruction of other mud.  What began as a paradise for the mud became, well, a muddy mess.  You see, when the mud decided to go it alone, without God, the mud turned its back to God.  This gives great pleasure to the demon-angels who continue to whisper to the mud, “You don’t need God.”

But, the mud has never really been apart from God.  What the mud doesn’t know is that even in rebellion against God, it is God that sustains the mud, preventing it from returning to inanimate mud, to “non-being.”

Something else the mud does not know: there can be no status quo.  Over the centuries the consequences of the rebellion are slowly hardening into stone the hearts of the mud; the mud is slowly returning to its original non-being existence.  With no intervention, the mud will once again become just mud.  But because God so loved the mud, He has refused to allow that to happen.  Something had to be done to restore the relationship between God and the mud.  And it can only be done by God.

So, like a comic book superhero, God came to the mud’s rescue, swooping in to offer the mud a way to be saved.

Here is what the Church tells us about the rebellion: God knows that the mud’s rebellion was inaugurated by a trick of the demon-angels.  He knows it was not a rebellion perpetrated and sustained by mud law-breakers.  Further, God knows that the mud was and remains badly wounded by the rebellion and continue to live in a world deeply scarred by the rebellion.  Therefore, God knows that the mud does not need a lawyer but a physician.

So, God sent us a physician.  His Son.  Who became mud.  The God-mud.  the God-mud lived among the mud and told the mud why He came:

[My Father] has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.

Jesus, Luke 4:18-19

But, sending His son, the Great Physician, came at a cost, a sacrifice, to God.

No, God’s sacrifice was not a sacrifice where God substituted Himself (His son) and took the punishment due the mud because of the mud’s rebellious act.  The mud’s rebellion wasn’t an act that required the punishment of someone, either the mud or God’s Son.  Remember, the mud are not law-breaking criminals.

And, no, neither has God viewed the mud’s rebellion as an insult to His honor requiring “satisfaction” like the olden days in which people dueled over matters of honor.  The God-mud Jesus was not sent to substitute for the mud to give God “satisfaction” and restore God’s honor by dying on the cross.  Remember, God is humble.

In fact, Jesus’ sacrifice was not something required of the mud by God but a gift to the mud from God.

God’s sacrifice was the sacrifice of a lover for the beloved, for without sacrifice between lovers there can be no love at all.  Jesus, the God-mud, showed God’s True Love for the mud.

The God-mud gave up the prerogatives of being God and came to live in the mud and among the mud, experiencing heat and cold, love and hate, joy and sadness, pain and delight…all that mud experiences.  And then the God-mud died as mud dies.  In fact, the God-mud so loved the mud He allowed the mud to kill Him so that the mud might know the depth of God’s True Love.

And then…

After three days the God-mud returned to life.  Death, which has held the mud captive was defeated.

This is the sacrifice of Jesus (to paraphrase St. Athanasius, from over 1700 years ago): God became mud so that by His grace the mud could become like God.  Jesus was born as mud, lived, died, and resurrected in order to defeat the mud’s greatest enemy: death.  Jesus freed all mud-kind to enter into a loving relationship with Him.  This is God’s great gift to all mud-kind.  Jesus the God-man is the prototype and the “telos” of all mud.

Curiously, though, when Jesus’ closest mud companions first saw Him again, they scarcely recognized Him.  He looked somehow…different.  It seems that although the mud was originally made in God’s image, when the mud first rebelled against God all those years ago the mud’s appearance changed, the mud began to look more mud-like than God-like.  The companions struggled to recognize the God-mud because when the God-mud returned to life He was no longer the God-mud; no, He is now the God-man.  The God-mud, now God-man,  is now the first “fully human” being: a human properly joined in oneness with God.  And that is how the mud was always meant to be.

The glory of God is a human being fully alive!

—St Irenaeus, c. 1st century

A fully human being is a being whom will one day emerge from the mud.  In this life all we can do is strive toward the fullness of being human; however, we remain mud, but  infused with God’s Spirt, who striving moment-by-moment to love God, to be one with Him and with other human beings.

Our hope is that one day we will be resurrected as fully human beings.  And this is eternal life in  Paradise, which is not so much a location but a state of relationship, of being one with God and other fully humans beings.

It is an easy transition from being mud to becoming a fully human being, but one that will be the hardest thing you have ever done.  You will spend the rest of your life wallowing in and battling your muddy nature as you cooperate with God Whom will transform your mud into the fullness of humanity.

If you want to start, just say to God, “I no longer want to be mud.  Make me a fully human.”  Then, hold on…God will say to you, “Let us make a human, it is very good.”

Love and Trust

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A number of years ago, my wife and I had cause to be at an orphanage in Kenya, just outside of Nairobi.  While there, we had become friends with the pastor of the local Anglican church, and, being a Protestant pastor myself at the time, he asked me to deliver the sermon at the upcoming Sunday service.

Oh my.

A number of years ago, my wife and I had cause to be at an orphanage in Kenya, just outside of Nairobi.  While there, we had become friends with the pastor of the local Anglican church, and, being a Protestant pastor myself at the time, he asked me to deliver the sermon at the upcoming Sunday service.

Oh my.

At my home church, I knew the people and their struggles.  I knew the culture of our country and our local community.  Because of that comfort with my “audience,” it seemed easier to believe that the Holy Spirit would speak through me whenever I delivered a sermon.  To deliver a sermon to an unfamiliar church in an unfamiliar culture is daunting.  Sure, fundamentally we are all humans with the same basic problems and hopes.  My greatest worry was to come across as an out of touch or arrogant American.  “What could I say to them?” I wondered.  

The Kenyans I knew believed that America was a Christian country (“It’s on your money!”) and wanted desperately to imitate us.  They watched our TV reruns.  They were a materially poor people and wanted the opportunities available to the average American.  They seemed eager to hear from me.

After a lot of prayer and contemplation, and a few restless nights, that Sunday I did the only thing I knew to do: I asked them to pray for us in America.

Our experience in this small village was of a people that moved more slowly and more in concert with the rhythm of nature.  Few people had cars or even electricity.  When night fell, it was time for bed.  When the sun arose, it was time to get up.  They were far more relational as a village. My pastor friend used to introduce me by saying, “This is my friend; we walk together.”  We walk together…what a remarkable phrase to describe a relationship.

From the locals we heard a few stories of people being raised from the dead in answer to prayer.  There were other stories of remarkable healings.  I watched the repeated “miracle” of Samuel who each day picked a bunch of bananas, walked a few miles to the market, sold them for just enough to buy what he needed for that day.  Not all of our Kenyan friends prayers were answered, but they continued on in life, relying on God for what they needed.  It was like watching the Psalms played out in real life: sometimes joy, sometimes wailing, sometimes pleading…but always in relationship with God.  It seemed like their lives said about God, “This is my God; we walk together.”

So, in my sermon I asked the Kenyans to pray for us.

I remember saying to them that in our American abundance, we have come to believe that we didn’t really need God.  The words, “Give us this day our daily bread,” are often just that, words.  After all, my refrigerator is full and so are the grocery store shelves.  Through my hard work or government programs, I have access to the necessities of food, healthcare, transportation, and housing.  A great many of us Americans spend lavishly, at least by our Kenyan friends’ standards, on travel, entertainment, clothes, hobbies, etc.Rarely do we (me, most of all) in America have to really trust God for our very survival.  I told them we needed their prayers to realize just how much we are reliant on God—for everything, actually.  And pray that once we realize that, we learn to actually trust Him to provide what we need each day (again, me, most of all).  Then we returned to America and over the course of a few months I had returned to my American lifestyle.

Fast forward to last year.  We had a major deep freeze for which the state-wide utility system was woefully unprepared.  Many thousands lost power and water.  Nearly three hundred died from hypothermia.  Afterward, when life was returning to normal, I heard someone comment that they had been blessed by God because they had not lost power during the storm.  We had been similarly “blessed”; however, the word troubled me.  I noticed that I didn’t hear anyone who lost power say they were blessed by God.  I thought of my Kenyan friends and I wondered whether had we lost power and water I would have been able to say, and mean, “We were blessed by God.”

I used to say easily, too easily, that I love and trust God.  I had the fearlessness of youth.  Now that I am older, I have seen and experienced much more of the suffering of life.  Why is it this way?  It is a question that still haunts me.  I remain convinced that I love God, but I have begun to examine whether I really trust Him.

God created humankind to be in relationship with Him, to share in His life.  Jesus tells us that eternal life is to know God (not just know about Him), to have the deepest sort of relationship with God that is possible between two beings. (John 17:3)

It is my sinfulness that separates me from God.  Thankfully, the Church provides me with tools to help me battle the sins that separate me from experiencing a fuller relationship with God.  Prayer, fasting and giving are the classic three methods of ascesis, the self-disciplined “training” to help me control and overcome the broken passions that run amok in my life.  And in my effort, God (the Holy Spirit) is with me helping in each step.  However, as necessary as these are, they are voluntary forms of ascesis.  In other words, I can control them: sometimes I do them and other times not.

Trust in God, real trust, begins when I turn my life over to Him, when I let go of all control.  I is actually nothing but accepting the real reality: that little of my life is under my control.  But it is more: real trust begins when I can believe that everything in my life—especially those things outside of my control like loss of power and water during a dangerous ice storm—offers the opportunity for healing my broken passions and drawing me closer to God.  Can I actually trust God like that?

I came across this quote the other day from a Christian Orthodox monk.  I find it sobering:

Are we patient during…trials and difficulties? Do we consider these things necessary on account of our sins? This is referred to as involuntary ascesis. We can say to God, “My God, I didn’t do any voluntary ascesis; however, I patiently endured the involuntary ascesis that You sent me in Your wisdom. I was ill, I became widowed, I was ridiculed, I was wronged, and I endured everything for Your love.” Then Christ will respond, “Very well. What did I do for you? Look at My hands and feet: they have holes. Look at My side: it is pierced. Look at My head: it is full of blood from the thorns. Look at My forehead: it is covered in sweat. Look at My back: it is full of scourges and lashes. My entire body and soul suffered for you. I also accept what you did for Me.”
—Elder Ephraim. The Art of Salvation. Saint Nektarios Greek Orthodox Monastery. Kindle Edition. Location 2589.

Involuntary ascesis, I had never thought of the “trials and difficulties” of life in quite this way.  Does God really love me so much that everything in my life—everything, both joyful and sorrowful—comes from Him, directly or indirectly, with the sole potential of healing me and drawing me to Him?

And not just for me, but for all of us?  Does God so love the world that everything that happens in the world is a manifestation of His love for us and is an invitation to healing and relationship with God  Death entering the world through Adam and Eve; God kicking them out of the Garden; the plagues upon Egypt; the beauty of a sunset; the wonder of a bird singing; the death of thousands from a tsunami; Jesus’ birth death, and resurrection; the COVID pandemic; the love of another person, the magnificence of music, literature, and art; the death of a beloved neighbor, the smell of a flower, the suffering of a child, the trumpets and bowls of the end times…everything, everything, EVERYTHING!!

Can I trust in Him in His love for me and all of us without knowing why He created this world, this reality, with the beauty and the pain and the suffering as He has?

If I answer, “Yes,” then my joy and suffering has meaning in this world.  It is all redeemed by God as I heal and draw deeper into relationship with Him.  If I answer, “No,” then for me the suffering becomes meaningless and I slowly lose myself in fear, anger, and despair, living a life seeking both control and distraction from reality.

It is our choice, yours and mine, to walk with God in complete trust.  It is a choice to be made every moment of every day of our lives.

It is not easy.

Love God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength
—Luke 10:27

AND

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
And lean not on your own understanding;
In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He shall direct your paths.

—Proverbs 3:5-6

Too Easy

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Life seems too easy.

I had asked a friend how he was enjoying being retired.  His words were both a response and a lament.  His work life, he told me, had been one of planning and executing plans for large and complex projects.  Since retiring, he had done volunteer work, engaged his hobbies, played golf, travelled…the usual things retirees do.  However, it all seemed too easy to him; there was no struggle, no challenge as he had experienced in his work life.

I am seventeen months into my own retirement.  I confess to having had the same thought on occasion: my life seems too easy.  I have a wonderful marriage, a comfortable retirement income, my health is good, I have good friends, hobbies, and a good church.  In my work life I had great responsibility: literally holding people’s lives in my hands.  Now, I just have to make sure the dog is fed twice a day.

And, isn’t that the point…to have an easy life?  Growing up I was told that I should work hard all of my life to retire—and retire early, if possible—so that I can enjoy myself in relative physical and material comfort.  And the goal of an easy life in retirement is certainly the main focus of millions of advertising dollars spent on American TV by the financial planning and pharmaceutical industries.

Of course while still in the work force I remember the not-so-subtle shift in the message, that the easy life is no longer just for those retired folks.  I now hear that if I become properly educated in a S.T.E.M. profession, have the latest cell phone, am a member of the right social networks, subscribe to the correct kind of shame-cancelling morality, and am properly woke, then I deserve and should expect to have an easy life with perhaps hundreds, thousands, or millions of virtual “friends.”  Soma for all!

It sounds idyllic, doesn’t it, being the captain of my own ship, the king of my own castle, in full control of my own destiny.  Clear skies, calm seas, and flat terrain ahead!  Who wouldn’t want that life.

Then why does this idea of an “easy life” bother me so much?  After all, by many common measures I was successful in my career and life.  I should feel somewhat proud of myself and blessed by God that I did enough “right” things and made enough “right” choices that God rewarded me with an “easy life” in my retirement years.  Right?  Shouldn’t I?

Then what is wrong with me.

Now I do have to admit to you that some of my angst comes from guilt.  From within my “easy life” I see so many others living life that is not so easy.  I admit to experiencing a form of survivor’s guilt: why do I have it easy and not them.  But there’s more to my angst than guilt.

What if there’s nothing wrong with me.  What if thinking that my life is too easy is a giant red flag waving at me.  What if I should understand these thoughts as moments when I recognize, even sub-consciously, that the culture is winning within me.  What if these are moments in which I am standing at an abyss I don’t recognize, having forgotten that my life is only found in relationship with God.

I was recently reading a book about how the Christian Orthodox Church views salvation, participating in life with God.  In it, the author recounts a conversation he had as a young man with St. Sophrony (Sakarov) of Essex in which he was lamenting to Sophrony how difficult his school exams were.  Sophrony acknowledged that school exams are indeed difficult, then added:

In this world there is nothing more difficult than to be saved.

This is not the Christian message I grew up hearing.  I recall hearing, “say the ‘sinner’s prayer,’ go to church, pray some, give some, and try to be a good person to those around you.  God sees you through the blood of Jesus.  You are saved.”  No one in my Christian world would have talked about it being hard to be saved.

I have been praying, and it can be a tricky thing.  You’ve probably heard the old joke about not praying for patience because God will put you in a place where you have to learn it.  Well, I have been praying for God to do whatever it takes in my life to draw me closer to Him.  So, He opened my eyes and led me to the abyss in my own soul.

Abyss.  It seems like such a perfect word for what it is intended to convey, doesn’t it.  Hearing the word brings to my mind a chasm of unknown depth.  A pit of blackness—blacker than the darkest night.  A place of demons and despair; a hole into which were I to fall there would be only falling.  Forever.  

God has brought me to the abyss within me.  It is the place in my heart where my radical self-love and my self-serving passions exist.  It is the place where there is little or no thought of loving God…or you.  It is the place of Solzhenitsyn‘s line of evil within my own heart.  It is where the goats of St Matthew’s gospel graze within me.

It is hard enough to stand at the edge and look into it.  One has to bear the shame of admitting that kind of darkness exist within one’s own soul.  Standing at the edge is looking at one’s past self-centered behavior and facing it, owning it.  Sophrony again says that we should only stand at the edge of the abyss until we can take it no longer, then we must step back and have some tea.  It is while drinking tea that I am able to talk to myself about the abyss, coolly offering advice and encouragement and remembering the promises of Jesus and repenting of my thoughts and deeds.

As hard as it is to stand at the abyss and peer in, it is quite another thing to recognize real-time that I am in the abyss.  It is being in the darkness and terror of the storm itself.  In these times I can feel myself awash in self-serving self-love manifested by one or more extreme passions of pride, anger, lust, envy, gluttony, avarice, and slothfulness—the seven deadly sins.  The demons toss me shackles to bind myself to them and I gladly put them on.  I experience myself being overwhelmed by my own desires and wanting more while being horrified that I find so much pleasure in it.  I may even hear my inner self shouting faintly to me that what I am doing pushes God and those I love most away from me.  Still I go on.

As the moment subsides, I am convinced that I am not saved because I have no love for God or neighbor within me.  The shame of who I am and the pain of my very existence washes over me.

Accepting the shame without turning from it nor letting it crush me is the most difficult thing.  Recognizing that I am falling into the abyss and trying not to let my passions rule me every time is the most difficult thing.  Remembering and calling upon God’s mercy in my life is the most difficult thing.

Thinking that my life is too easy should indeed be a giant red flag waving at me.  I can and should be thankful for the abundance God has provided. But thinking life is too easy, well, they are the moments of blindness when I no longer see the abyss in my soul.  It is the time of greatest danger to my soul.

There are two roads.  The road of the easy life is wide and comfortable.  The road of sharing life with God is narrow and perilous.

Fierce is the war we rage, yet it is a wise war and a simple one.  If the soul grows to love humility, then all the snares of our enemies are undone and his fortress captured.  In this spiritual warfare of ours we must see to the state of our ammunition and our provender.  Our ammunition is our humility; our provender—the grace of God.  If we lose these, the enemy will defeat us…

Here is the easiest and quickest way to salvation: Be obedient and sober, do not find fault, and keep mind and heart from evil thoughts.  Think that all men are good and beloved of the Lord.  For such humility the grace of the Holy Spirit will dwell in you, and cause you to exclaim, “How merciful is the Lord!”

But if you find fault and are querulous, if you want your own way, even if you pray much your soul will fail, and you will cry out, “The Lord has forgotten me!”  But it is not that the Lord has forgotten you—it is you that have forgotten that you must humble yourself, and so the grace of God abides not in your soul.
—St Silouan the Athonite

Lord have mercy.

Never Forget—In Two Acts

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Only take heed to yourself, and diligently keep yourself, lest you forget the things your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life.
—Moses, Deuteronomy 4:9
Act I
Scene 1
It was a beautiful Tuesday morning.  The sky was clear blue, Colorado blue, if you know what I mean.  At 8:46 am the first airplane appeared.  It was flying low and fast.  It hit the North Tower (1 WTC) at 8:46:40 am.  Explosions, fire, and chaos ensued.  Then, a second plane hit the South Tower.  A third plane hit the Pentagon.  A fourth crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.  By 10:03:11 am the attack was over.  There was death and there was heroism.  2,977 people lost their lives in the attack known as 9/11, September 11, 2001.

President Bush swore that the U.S. would hit back and never forget.

Memorials were erected at the site of the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and in the field in Pennsylvania.
A few weeks ago was the 20th anniversary of 9/11.  There were public and private events around the country where many gathered.  The slogan for the gatherings was, “Never Forget.”  In fact, most of us went about our daily lives.
Scene 2
It was early Sunday morning.  The sky was blue with only low, scattered clouds, a typically beautiful day in the Hawaiian Islands.  Just before 8 am the first airplanes appeared.  They were flying low and fast.  Explosions, fire, and chaos ensued.  By 9:50 am the attack was over.  There was death and and there was heroism.  2,403 military and civilian personnel lost their lives in the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

President Roosevelt called it “a date that will live in infamy.”  He swore the U.S. would hit back and never forget.

In Pearl Harbor, the USS Arizona remains as a memorial to the many dead from that infamous day.  It reminds us, Never Forget.

I remember the 20th anniversary events held in 1961.  The attack was still fresh in the collective memory of the country.  On December 7th of this year, there will be an 80th anniversary event.  I suspect it will be muted, attended only by history buffs and those few remaining whose lives were directly effected by the attack.

Scene 3
It was a Wednesday when British troops marched to Washington D.C. That night, they set fire to the White House and Capitol building. August 24th, 2021 marked the 207th anniversary of the “burning of Washington D.C., an important event in the War of 1812–the only theme in history a foreign army has occupied the capitol of the U.S.

There are numerous memorial plaques scattered around the country commemorating various battles of this War.  They quietly exhort us, Never Forget.

207 years ago…does anyone remember?

Intermission

On September 11, 2081, what will the 80th anniversary of the 9/11 attack be like?  Will it become as muted as will be the next Pearl Harbor anniversary?  And, September 11, 2208 will be the 207th anniversary of the 9/11 attack.  Will it be long forgotten as is the burning of Washington D.C.?

There are hundreds of monuments, memorials, and plaques commemorating important people and events in Washington D.C.  Many thousands more are in parks and on buildings across the U.S.  If you are attentive when you drive the roads, you will often see a sign pointing you to a historical marker, usually in an obscure location and hard to find.  “Never Forget,” they whisper.  Why do we still forget?
Act II
Scene 1
It is sometime in the 1,400s BCE, about 3,500 years ago.  For 400 years, God had been creating a new nation for Himself, incubating them as slaves in Egypt.  They were to be set apart to worship Him, to be His people.
On a mountain top in a nearby country, God approached an old man, a has been.  The man was once a Prince of Egypt, the greatest nation on Earth.  He had it all.  Now, he tended sheep in obscurity.  Moses was his name.  You may have heard of him.  God gave Moses and his brother Aaron a job to do: lead God’s new people, Israel, out of Egypt.  With God doing the heavy lifting to convince the most powerful man in the world, Egypt’s Pharaoh, to let His people go, Moses led Israel out of Egypt.
Over the next 40 years, God sustained them in the desert while He formed this wandering band of hundreds of thousands into a nation.  He gave them an annual celebration to commemorate His work in freeing them from Egypt—it is called Passover.  He showed them how to cleanse themselves from their sins so as to be able to be in His presence without harm to them.  He gave them the plans for a worship tent (they were nomadic, after all), and taught the priests how to dress.  He taught them how to worship Him.
In his farewell address to Israel and as they stood at the edge of the land promised to them by God, Moses reminded them of all God had done for them over the past 40 years.  And, he warned them of the danger of prosperity.  “Never Forget,” he said.  "He delivered you out of slavery; you are His people." Then he died.

Scene 2 Israel entered the land promised to them by God. Over the next 1,400 years, Israel struggled to remember. There were 400 years of oppression and peace, then “three generations of the united monarchy (Saul, David, Solomon), nineteen kings of Israel (up to 722 bc) and twenty kings of Judah (up to 587 bc), [and a] hosts of the prophets and priests.” Israel conquered, was conquered and exiled, then restored to their land. They build a permanent building, a Temple, in which to worship God…and then it was destroyed…and then rebuilt…and then destroyed.

At one point during those 1,400 years, the number of those who remembered God and that they were His people dwindled to a mere remnant: only 7,000.  The ritual acts continued.  They never forgot.

Scene 3
It was night when the angels announced the birth of a baby boy to small group of shepherds huddled in a field.  Jesus, the Son of God, was born in a small town in a country on the edge of the Roman Empire.  Few noticed.  For 30 years He lived in obscurity.  During His last three years, He was…well…God incarnate walking the Earth.  He didn’t come, He said, to change the rituals that had gone on before; rather, He said, He came to fulfill them.  Then He was killed.  Then resurrected.  Then He ascended into heaven.
After His ascent into heaven, those who had known and followed Him remained His people, now known as His Church; they continued the ancient Jewish rituals, but in a changed way, a way that recognized and celebrated His death and resurrection.  For 2,000 years, ancient Church has continued to participate in the 3,500 year old ritual of the Passover—we call it Easter, or Pascha (in Greek).  Too, the Sunday worship (Divine Liturgy) continues the 3,500 year old worship of the ancient Church as given by God to the Israeli’s and fulfilled by Jesus.
Epilogue
How have the people of God remembered the events of the past for more than 3,500 years when we barely remember horrific events of only 80 years ago.  Why do the people of God still identify themselves as such after more than 3,500 years when individual nations come and go?
Monuments and memorials seem to be important to help us remember a person or an event date.  But there is more than just remembering famous people or events.  To truly remember, we need to know who we are as a people.  To Never Forget we cannot, as individuals, only gaze at a monument to know who we are.  Each of us must find our individual identity in community with others.  For that, we need traditions, sometimes called rituals.  We have many: weddings, funerals, school graduations, tail-gate parties, thanksgiving dinners…each tradition helps us find our identity in a community of others and with those who came before us and will come after us.  In the rituals we find ourselves and remember who we are as a “people.”
To truly remember God and to join Him in His life we need a communal practice that connects us together, that reminds us of who we each are and of our joined humanity, and that joins us to reality and to God.  Ritual is required  God saves us together.  Alone we may perish.

Ritual.  The ancient path.  We cannot invent new, exciting ways to worship God.  We need the 3,500 years of unbroken ritual given to us by God.  Changed but unchanging.  It is why we “Never Forget.”  It is why we remember who we are in Christ.

This is what the Lord says:
“Stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; then you will find a resting place for your souls.”
—Prophet Jeremiah

Humanity and Humans

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 In 2001, Al-Qaeda operatives hijacked four US commercial airliners.  Thousands died that day and later, as a result of the attack.  In October of that same year, the US staged a retaliatory invasion of Afghanistan.  In 2003, the “war on terrorism” was expanded to include Iraq.  As a result, uncounted more combatants have died.  And then there are the “unintended consequences”: the individual Afghani’s and Iraqi’s who were killed or otherwise had their lives upended.

One writer, tracing the history of the United States, says the US has been at war for all but 21 years of her existence.  The US has been warring for 224 out of 245 years.  That’s 91%.  Oh my.

Over the course of human history, there have been civil wars, religious wars, wars of liberation, cultural wars, territorial wars, and now cyber wars.  The list is long.  And, even when not in an actual war with another country, we use the language of war; the US continues to wage the war on drugs and the war on poverty.

And, it is not just actual shooting wars in which we engage.

Last week in Texas there was a 4-day march to the capital called the “Moral March.”  The main focus of the march was to emphasize the need to protect our democracy by ensuring voting rights for all (against what is seen by some as the Texas legislature’s move to restrict voting rights).  Famed civil rights advocate Jesse Jackson was involved as was someone from the “Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival” and an organization called “Repairers of the Breach.”  The name of God was invoked to justify the march.  The organizers also used powerful imagery from the US  Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and even the biblical Old Testament story of Moses and the Red Sea.  They use the language of war: “choose a side”; “stop attacks on democracy.”  I’m sure their opponents use similar war language.

Wars, marches, programs, movements…many seem well intentioned to stamp out some real or perceived injustice in the world; they all have one thing in common: humans are involved.  Sadly, it seems, we are the cause of the very injustice we seek to eradicate.

Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, while addressing the 1978 graduating class at Harvard, said this:

This tilt of freedom toward evil has come about gradually, but it evidently stems from a humanistic and benevolent concept according to which man—the master of the world—does not bear any evil within himself, and all the defects of life are caused by misguided social systems, which must therefore be corrected.

In his book, The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky’s Father Zossima says:

[T]hrowing your own indolence and impotence on others you will end by sharing the pride of Satan and murmuring against God.  Of the pride of Satan what I think is this: it is hard for us on earth to comprehend it, and therefore it is so easy to fall into error and to share it, even imagining that we are doing something grand and fine.

What if the entire so-called “modern project,” which tells us that the evil is not in us, but that we must make social programs or governments better to improve all areas of our humanity is one of simply joining in the “pride of Satan.”  What if Satan is simply encouraging us toward doing “grand and fine” things to fix humanity by such ways as wars of liberation, marches for morality, nationwide programs for the poor and afflicted, renewing urban areas, and on and on.

Perhaps there is a different way, a different sort of progress available to us.

Again, Father Zossima:

There is only one means of salvation, take yourself and make yourself responsible for all men’s sins, that is the truth, you know, friends, for as soon as you sincerely make yourself responsible for everything and for all men, you will see at once that it is really so, and that you are to blame for every one and for all things.

There is a popular story told of theologian G.K. Chesterton.  According to the story, in the early 1900s, the London times asked Chesterton to contribute to a series of articles explaining what is wrong with the world.  Chesterton is said to have replied on a post card with the words, “What is wrong with the world today: I am.”

Chesterton was not being contrite.  The Christian Apostle James, writes:

Where do wars and fights come from among you?  Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members?  You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask.  You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures. (James 4:1-3)

I am the problem with the world.

That is a profoundly counter-cultural statement in a world that blames the ills of humanity on political and social systems (and their proponents).  It is a statement that runs counter to my deeply-held belief that the world would be a better place if everyone were just more like me.

I am the problem with the world.

Returning to Solzhenitsyn, who said elsewhere:

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts.

If the “modern project” is indeed really just a shell game and that the real need is not for better social programs or political systems, what can I do?  If I am the world’s problem, then how now shall I live?

Imagine spending less time anxious over “causes for humanity” and more time trying to acquire the fullness of the Holy Spirt of the Christian God so that I might better love God and my neighbor.  What if I were to primarily focus on doing the next good thing that confronts me, not for “humanity,” but for the human being standing before me.  For my neighbor.  One Orthodox saint said that we love God only as well as we love our neighbor.  Another says that a good Christian life consists of helping 5 or 6 people you encounter.  Neither of these saints, nor does Jesus, speak to helping “humanity”; rather, they talk about helping and loving humans.  Loving formless, faceless “humanity” is easy; loving a single human being is very hard work.

This kind of life and love is only truly possible with help from God.  Acquiring this help, the help of the Holy Spirit, is the main goal of our lives.  In his book, On Acquisition of the Holy Spirit, Orthodox St. Seraphim of Sarov says:

Acquiring the Spirit of God is the true aim of our Christian life, while prayer, fasting, almsgiving and other good works done for Christ’s sake are merely means for acquiring the Spirit of God.

Working to acquire the Holy Spirit is a way to begin to quiet the passions raging within my own soul, the passions that cause so much trouble for me, for those around me, and for the world; it is the way toward gaining that peace that passes understanding that the Apostle Paul writes about.

Returning to the 9/11 attacks back in 2001.  Rather than starting another war, the “war on terrorism,” I have often wondered what would have happened had the US simply turned the other cheek.

If you want to join a war, a movement, or a cause, here is the place to start: fight the battle within, the one we each face against our own disordered passions.  Ask God to help.  He is faithful.

A final work from St Seraphim:

Aquire the peace of the Holy Spirit and a thousand souls around you will be saved.

The Noonday Demon

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There is a digital clock on my desk.  The clock tells me it is Thursday.  May 6th.  4:28.  pm.  Central daylight time.  The temperature at my desk is 78 degrees Fahrenheit. The clock read 3:12 when I first sat down.  Now it is 4:29.  On the upper left hand corner of the clock is a map of the United States and the Central Time Zone is highlighted.  I know it is the Central Time Zone because of the letter C below the map.  I know it is the afternoon because above the map are the letters “pm.”  Now 4:32.  The small letters “DST” tells me it is daylight savings time; curiously, “DST” blinks at me silently, the electronic equivalent of the ticking of a clock, I suppose.  Blink.  Blink.  Blink.  It is now 4:34.  Other symbols on the clock face tell me the clock is receiving a signal from station WWVB, which broadcasts a signal from the US National Institute of Standards and Technology in Colorado.  A built-in thermometer tells me the room temperature.  4:41.  Blink.  Blink.  Blink.

4:48.  The demon stopped by again today.  He (do demons have gender?) and I are old acquaintances.   He is very old now but he seems well for his age.  He used to be quite famous, you know.  There have been many, many pages written about him throughout history, though I believe him to be widely unknown today.  After all, we are too smart to believe in demons.  Too bad for us.  However, I think that’s a good thing for a demon.  It is better for them to work in anonymity, they are much more effective.   Blink.  Blink.  Blink.  Blink.  4:56.

This demon has a name.  No, not from me.  He has been named for at least 3,000 years:

You shall not be frightened by fear at night, Nor from an arrow that flies by day, Nor by a thing moving in darkness, Nor by mishap and a demon of noonday.
-Psalm 90:6 (King David.  Septuagint, The Orthodox Study Bible)

He was so named “noonday demon” because of when he generally comes to visit.  Eighteen hundred years ago, many Christian monks moved to the desert caves of the Middle East seeking a life focused on God alone.  Boredom was a constant companion.  For some, the noonday sun seemed to stop in the sky.  This was when the demon would come visit them.

5:02.

Now 5:17.  Early desert-dwelling Christians (Church Fathers and Mother’s of the 4th century and beyond) recognized the noonday demon as “a dangerous and frequent foe” (St John Cassian).  The monk’s day would drag on and on.  And on.  Many would eat and drink as a distraction.  Others would sleep.  Or pace.  Or stand in the mouth of their cave, trying to will the sun to move.  Still others would visit neighboring monks for idle conversation.  Anything to find distraction from the attack of the demon, the pain of the boredom.  5:38.  Blink.  Blink.

The Greeks have a word for the effect this demon’s visit has on us: acedia.  Apparently, it doesn’t translate well.  The English word was sloth, but that word has taken on a different emphasis these days.  Now it is more commonly called “desolation,” not to be confused with depression.  Desolation, as used in the spiritual context, has been described as a sickness—weariness—of the soul.  Father Alexander Schmemann says it is “the suicide of the soul because when a man is possessed by it, he is absolutely unable to see the light and desire it.”  Strong words.  5:52.  Blink.  Blink.  Blink.  Blink.

 It is the apparent futility of living and dying that, more than any other factor, invites the apathy of despondency. 
–Nicole Roccas (Time and Despondency).

Fundamentally, despondency is a sense of futility resulting in hopelessness; one’s soul is sick.   One suffering the demon’s attack seeks to escape by giving in to the apathy (no activity) or by busyness (much activity).  Whether lazy or busy, one has the overwhelming desire to be “anywhere but here, anytime but now.”  Looking back, I now know this demon I first met many years ago when I was a kid.  Futility is part of my early and ongoing  awareness and distraction; a lifelong way of living for me.  (Why is it so rare to see a number change on a digital clock?)  6:44.  6:45.  6:46.  Blink.  Blink.  Blink.  Blink.  Blink.  Even as I write I wonder whether it matters.  Will it change anything?   6:48.

Sun set.  Sun rise.

The clock tells me it is Friday.  May 7th.  4:57.  pm.  Central daylight time.  It is 76 degrees in my office.  Since I was last here I’ve visited friends, walked the dog, slept, ate, bought groceries, and played golf.  Feels like activity without importance.  The letters on my clock continue to blink.  Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink.

Space is exposed to our will; we may shape and change the things in space as we please.  Time, however, is beyond our reach, beyond our power. … It belongs exclusively to God.
Abraham Joshua Herschel. The Sabbath.

5:35.  In 1985, Neil Postman wrote a book entitled Amusing Ourselves to Death.  He believed Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) was the better prophet than George Orwell (1984).  To each of us the noonday demon whispers, “You will live and you will die.  There is no hope.”  If you don’t believe in life after death, then the demon whispers, “Ultimately, nothing matters.  The universe will one day grow cold and die.  All you hold dear will be gone.”  If you believe in life after death, the demon whispers, “You will be as Stepford Wives: perfect people doing perfect things.  There will be nothing new or challenging…for eternity.  How boring.”  5:50.  Blink.  Blink.  Blink.  Blink.  Blink. 

Huxley and Postman saw a future of humanity with humans self-medicating to dull the pain of hopelessness.  These modern two prophets say we will set aside the deep things of life, wonder and awe; rather, we will strive after “wow!”  They say we will not notice that “wow” begets the need for more “wow.”  We will live our lives seeking Huxley’s Soma and CS Lewis’ Turkish Delight: Bigger, faster, newer, more features, more excitement, more challenge, more pleasure.  More.  More.  Still more.  It is hopelessness masked by distraction.

It is more serious to lose hope than to sin.
–St John of Karpathos

6:00.  At around 6pm we have happy hour at our house.  I always look forward to a glass of wine.  Usually only one glass for me, though.  I fear if I have another there will be another still.  I find red wine goes best with futility.

Sun set.

The clock tells me it is Saturday.  May 8.  12:43.  am.  Central daylight time.  It is 77 degrees in my office.  I can’t sleep.

History, at least in the West, is on the side of Huxley and Postman.  In 1949, with the carnage of World War II still fresh in the world’s collective memory, Elton Trueblood (Alternative to Futility) wrote this:

Actually most of us like war better than we like peace.  We like it because it saves us from boredom, from mediocrity, from dullness.  It is instructive to note that great numbers of people in Britain say openly that they look back to 1940-41 with nostalgia.  Those were the days in which they really lived!  There was the constant danger of invasion and all the resultant horror; there was the bombing; but there was more.  People stood shoulder to shoulder, united by a common pride.  They were sustained by great rhetoric and great deeds.  Life had significance.  Now all is different.  Now there is no danger, but only a constant round of petty restrictions; life has become commonplace and humdrum.

12:55. am.  Blink.  Blink.  Blink.  Blink.  Apparently we prefer immediate danger and death over the pain of a slow death by the sense of futility of a commonplace and humdrum life.  The demon whispers.

1:17. am.

With the passage of the years, I have found that the cross Jesus tells me to bear daily is heavy; my soul has grown weary from the struggle.  It is easier to just lay on the ground under my cross than to carry it. 

And the three men I admire most,br. The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died.
Don McLean, “American Pie”

Where is God?  He said His burden is light and His yoke is easy

When the demon comes and I begin to lose hope, I struggle pray.  Going to church becomes a wearisome chore. 1:38.  am.  Blink.  Blink.  Blink.  Blink.  Blink.  Blink.  Blink.

Sun rise.

The clock tells me it is Sunday.  May 9th.  2:24pm.  It is 78 degrees in my office.  Blink.  Blink.  Blink.

Some Christians tell me to shout back at the demon, “Get behind me Satan.”  

2:50.

The ancient Church warns me not to take on a demon, for I am not strong enough to take on a demon.

Stay in your cell and it will teach you everything.
–Abba Moses (4th c.)

Those who have been in their cave and faced the demon tell me, “Don’t fight the demon.  Neither should you mask the weariness with distraction.  Cry out to Jesus.  Look to Him and at Him alone.  It is the path to purification.”

They tell me that if I can say nothing else, to pray “Jesus help.”  They tell me prayer is vital.  Father Thomas Hopko says to pray as I can, not as I think I should (“55 Maxims for the Christian Life”).  They tell me I am in need of the Church, the hospital for the soul, where I will find healing.  I know they are right, but the weariness presses in. Where is the rest Jesus promises?

3:08.

Evagrius Ponticus (4th c) was one of the earliest Christian cave-dwelling monks to write extensively about acedia.  He believed the thoughts of desolation were the most debilitating of the eight evil thoughts that assail humankind.  His advice is to pray this simple prayer from the Psalms:

Why are you so sad, O my soul? And why do you trouble me? Hope in God, for I will give thanks to Him; My God is the salvation of my countenance.
–Psalm 41:6 (Septuagint, The Orthodox Study Bible)

The clock tells me it is Sunday, May 9th, 3:17 pm.  Central daylight time.  The temperature at my desk is 79 degrees Fahrenheit.  The letters, “DST,” blink as the ticking of an electronic clock.  Blink.  Blink.  Blink.  Blink.  Blink.  Blink.  Blink.  Blink.  Blink.  Blink.  Blink.

The Bird and the World

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It is Spring and a bird has moved into the large holly bush near our home.  The bush is large and lush, the leaves a deep green.  The bird is rather ordinary looking; it wears black, white, and shades of gray.  Its song is extraordinary.  I can not help but smile when I hear it’s music.

One particular day, we left the house to walk our dog.  It was a lovely morning: the sky was blue, the sun bright and warm, and the breeze was light.  I stopped at the bush and talked to the bird.  “Good morning, bird,” I said.  The bird looked at me and cocked its head.  I continued. “A pandemic is sweeping the planet.  What shall we do?”  The bird responded with its beautiful song.

Another day I stop at the bush.  “Good morning, bird.  The politicians are ruining the country.  What shall we do?”  The bird sang its song.

Each day I asked the bird a question.  “Healthcare costs are out of control.  What shall we do?”     “Our country is at odds with Russia and China.  What shall we do?”  “There are racist attacks against blacks and Asians.”  “There is civil war in Mali.”   The bird sings its song.  I, with the growing fury of a plodding brute, slash at the bird with broadsword problems.  One slash, healthcare.  Another,  Russia and China.  A third, racism.  A fourth, civil war.  One, healthcare.  Two, Russia and China.  Three, racism.  Four, civil war.  Slash, slash, slash, slash. Healthcare, Russia and China, racism, civil war.  With each grunt and swing of my broadsword, the bird, with the grace and ease of an expert fencer, parries my attack with its song.  Women’s rights, song.  Poverty, immigration.  Song, song.  Refugee camps, healthcare, starvation, terrorism.  Song, song, song, song.  Slice, parry.  Thrust, parry.  Slash, parry.  Problem, song.  Problem, song.  Problem, song.  National debt, human trafficking, immigration.  Song, song, song. Pandemic, politicians, war, racism, debt, starvation.  Song, song, song, song, song, song.  My strength is fading.  Russia and China, women’s rights.  Perry and now riposte: song, song, song, song, song, song, song, song, song.  Pandemic, I croak.  Song, still the song. 

From my exhaustion, “The bird does not understand that these are serious problems and that they must be fixed.”  I make one more attempt.  I explain to the bird, “These problems will destroy us.  We need a task force,” I say.  “The task force needs funding to study each problem and develop plans. It needs the authority to create departments and to hire people.  We need these people to act on the plans and collect data.  We must have more laws.  We must regain control.”

Song.

“You do not care about the problems of the world, bird.”  To my ears, the bird’s once exquisite song has become the noise of uncaring.  I no longer smile at its song.  “Stupid bird.”

I want the bird to care more about the world, to share in my frustration and anxiety, to join in my cry, “We must do something!”  The bird only sings its song.

I want the bird to be more like me.

Jesus wants me to be more like the bird.

See the birds of the sky: they do not sow, or reap, or gather into barns.  Your Heavenly Father feeds them!  Are you not much more value than they?1

I want a task force.  Jesus says to first seek Him.  I want action.  Jesus says to love God and my neighbor.  I want to control events.  Jesus says that He has overcome the world.

Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.  Each day has enough troubles of its own.2

God became man and dwelt among us for perhaps 33 years.  For the first 30 years, He lived in obscurity.  Infant, child, teen, apprentice, adult, carpenter.  For three years of His public work He moved slowly and deliberately.  No horseback, no chariot, no Facebook friends, or Zoom seminars.  No planes, trains, or automobiles.  He did not blog.  Jesus moved slowly and deliberately.  Jesus walked.  A person who walks can see the eyes of another.  A person who walks can hear the words of another.  And at the most profound moment in human history He could not move; nailed to a cross, no action at all.3

The song of the bird is the song of Jesus.  What do I hear?  An exquisite song or the noise or uncaring?  I cry out to Jesus, “You must fix these problems!”  He continues to sing.  The verses are simple: “Love your God.  Love your neighbor.”  The chorus repeats: “Prayer, fasting, alms giving”; “Prayer, fasting, alms giving.”

It is Spring and a bird has moved into the large holly bush near our home.  The bush is large and lush, the leaves a deep green.  The bird is rather ordinary looking; it wears black, white, and shades of gray.  Its song is extraordinary.  I can not help but smile when I hear it’s music.

Sing the song of Jesus and the bird.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

1 Matthew 6:26-27; EOB: The Eastern / Greek Orthodox New Testament.

2 Matthew 6:33-34; ibid.

3 Kosuke, Koyama.  (1979).  Three Mile an Hour God.  Orbis Books.  3-7.

With a tip of the hat to the writing styles of Father John Oliver and Ray Bradbury.

How Does My Life Mean?

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The Resurrection—Eastern Orthodox Icon

Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself.
—Jean-Paul Sartre

I have come that people may have life, and that they may have it abundantly.
—Jesus

I have been obsessed with the meaning of life since I was a kid. Early on, I remember reading obituaries in the local newspaper. I noticed that some during their lives had done extraordinary things, accounting for significant advances in science, math, engineering, the arts. Others had led large companies to unprecedented prosperity, providing many jobs and making a lot of money for themselves and others. Yet others lived more modest lives, working hard and raising families. Still others had hard lives marred by poor decisions, struggle, and loss.

There are culturally accepted ways to assign meaning to life and we label and reward accordingly. The “great” person affects humanity and gets public honor: a star named for them (or a star on Hollywood Boulevard), or a monument dedicated to them, or a statue built in their honor, or a street or park named after them An “expert” is widely recognized in their field of expertise and have a wall or a shelf in their home filled with their achievement awards. The “average Jane or Joe” lives a generally nondescript life, invisible to all but those closest to them. About another life we use the word “wasted” or “shameful,” particularly when addiction is involved. If one dies young, then we say their life was “tragically cut short” presumable lamenting that they did not have time to do the things that would have given their life greater meaning.

But even the highest reward for a meaningful life can be fleeting. We have a short collective memory. Have you ever stopped at a statue of a person and wondered who the person was and what they did to have a statue erected for them? I think these questions can be asked of any memorial we come across. I try to stop and read the usual plaque, then say something like, “Hmmmm, that’s interesting” before moving on.

My mom and dad were quite prominent people in our small, midwestern-America town. My dad was mayor for awhile, and when he died there was quite a celebration of his life and accomplishments; the town even named a street after him. Now, thirty years later, I’m sure most people driving down his street wonder who he was. Honestly, if anyone even thinks of him at all it is probably only to wish his street had a shorter name. And I’m sure that now only us, his kids, could find his, or my mom’s, grave site at the local cemetery.

I, too, have accomplished things in my life and have had my own achievement awards; however, even in the midst of the work I always had that small voice chiding me, “One day,” it would say, “this accomplishment will just be a line in your own obituary that will soon be forgotten.”

I am very aware that the day I die my toys and precious belongings will become just troublesome stuff for my kid to dispose of. In two generations, likely no one will know where I am buried. The best I can hope for is that I appear in some future progeny’s web search on an “ancestor” archive.

On my deathbed, if I am able to reflect back on my life, what is it that will have given it meaning? Will I be graded on a scale based on things that can measured, such as philanthropy or adventure or personal achievement? If so, against whose scale will I be judged? And who will grade me? Family? Friends? Society? If no one ultimately remembers me, then why should I really care how I am graded?

So, how does life mean? Wait! That is too big a question. What I really want to know is this: How does my life mean?

This I know: God created humankind—me—to participate in His very life, to be “one” with him and with other Christians. By His graciousness I am invited to become like He is by nature. Therefore, my life’s meaning doesn’t come from a collection of material things or accomplishments but by my movement into relationship with Him. My life begins to have meaning when I am awakened to the Beauty of God and I begin to “come out of myself and move toward Him,” to “run toward God without any regard for myself” (Patitsas)…like lovers do. Here is one way the Bible describes it:

My beloved is a shining and fiery light, Chosen from countless thousands. His head is like refined gold; His locks of hair are shiny and black, Like a raven’s feathers. His eyes are like those of doves Sitting by pools of water, Having eyes bathed in milk and fitly set. His cheeks are like bowls of spices Pouring forth perfumes. His lips are lilies dripping choice myrrh. His hands are like elaborate gold Set with precious stones. (Song of Songs, The Bible)

Isn’t that great imagery! Too often we are hit over the head with the threat of an angry God who is judging our every action and keeping score. That is not really true. It is much more like the paragraph, above. Elsewhere in the Bible it says that God is singing over us. Imagine that…God singing over me, the mess that I am.

To run toward God I have to try to get over myself, specifically to get over my love of myself, so that I might love Him. That is what it means to participate in God’s life.

In my human relationships I know that loving another is never easy for me. I don’t really want to put you first, at least not for very long. Setting aside my desires, my self-love, is often a sacrifice for me, and all too often it is too much of a sacrifice, so I don’t do it. If I’m honest with you, all the evidence in my life points to the fact that I love myself way too much, so that I want any relationship I’m in—with you or with God—to be on my terms.

But, love does require sacrifice. It all sounds so counter-cultural, doesn’t it. And it is, but this is what we were made for: to be in a loving relationship with God and others.

There’s hope for me, mired as I am in self love! Here is the little secret of Christianity that I have discovered: God knows I’ll never do “relationship” very well. Because of how much I want what I want, I’ll spend my life struggling to love you and God more than I love myself. Mostly I will fail at it. And then with God’s help I will get up and try again. And I will fail. And I will try again. And I will fail. And I will try again. For all of my life. With every fall I try to cry out to God Who helps me to get up again. Any successes I have will be entirely God’s doing.

But—and this is the final answer to my question—the only thing that gives my life meaning, eternal meaning, is whether I stayed in the struggle to try and love God and you more than I love myself. There are no monuments or achievement awards given for a life lived like this. There is only eternal life with God…life’s ultimate meaning.

And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.
—Jesus

Oh, and that little word, “know” means the knowing God in the same way found only in the most intimate of relationship between lovers. Me knowing God (God already knows me)—it is both the meaning and reward of my life.

So, now when I read an obituary I appreciate the person’s accomplishments, but I also wonder how their life meant to them and to God, and I pray for them as I, too, struggle to live my life as one filled with eternal meaning.

Choosing Sides

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Christian Orthodox Icon–Ladder of Divine Ascent

In a recent blog, Father Stephen Freeman described faith as loyalty, perhaps as a simple as choosing sides. I found that to be a wonderful pragmatic definition of faith, one that tied in so nicely with my other, recent reading and writing.

In my own previous musing on the reality of the spiritual battle between good and evil, I mentioned that we must choose a side in the battle. As I continue to contemplate the true nature of reality, I am convinced that there is no middle ground available for us, no neutral territory for us to inhabit. One may claim to be agnostic; however, that, too, is to choose a side. There is only a binary choice available to us.

How can this be?

To be human is to be made for worship. It is how we were created. Throughout history, humans have worshipped many things. We have and continue to worship a god or gods or other people. We can worship immaterial things, such as knowledge, feelings, security, science, and religion. We can worship money. We can worship any number of material things: clothes, cars, hobbies, boats, jewelry, books, etc. (this could be a very long list!).

What does it mean to worship something?

Our common understanding of worship someone or some thing means that we offer a sacrifice to that which we worship. Historically, sacrifices have consisted of such things as blood—human or animal—crops, prepared food or drink, jewels, and money. Over time, we humans have offered as a sacrifice anything we consider precious—that which we treasure most—to some one or some thing we have worshipped.

As modern humans, we typically no longer think in this way. We believe that worship and sacrifice are for primitive people, that we are well beyond those silly, unscientific things. Yet, to us modern people, the most precious thing we have is our time and our money. To what, then, do we offer our time and money? Just look at your calendar or your checkbook or your screen time (phone, tablet, computer, or television). Find where you spend your time and money and you will know who or what it is that you worship.

This is not an original thought from me. Jesus said it first: “Where your treasure is, there is your heart.”

If, then, to be human is to be a worshiping being, then so also to be human is to choose that which we will worship. And, choosing who or what we worship constitutes choosing sides in the battle. So, find where you put what you treasure and you will find who or what side you have chosen by knowing who or what you worship.

Why choose? Isn’t it enough to just do good things and to be kind to others?

St Gregory Palamas said, “If God does not act in us everything done by us is sin.” To our modern ears, that sounds like such a harsh, judgmental statement. To use the modern language, Palamas’ statement sounds shaming and cancelling. But that’s only because Christianity, in many circles, has become a moral religion aimed at appeasing a wrathful God rather than an ongoing, relational existence with a loving God. It is fashionable to think that if I “do good” or am generally a “good person” (and how we define “good” is a subject for another blog), then God will not be mad at me and I will go to heaven or obtain whatever other reward I may imagine.

But, as someone said, Jesus didn’t come to make bad people good. He came to make dead people alive. Sin is rightly defined as our turning away from God, turning toward death rather than life. Sin—death—is our broken relationship with God, not the bad deed.

Here is a better image of reality. We are in a war zone, caught between two warring factions: God and His angels vs. the fallen angels (demons). Like when the Allied forces began marching across Europe in WWII, God is advancing on His enemies. God’s victory in the spiritual war is inevitable; however, also like WWII, the battles will continue to the very end. And here is a most important point. We, humankind, are not God’s enemies. Et me say that again. Humankind are not Enemies of God. We are caught in the crossfire and God is trying to save us. We have been enslaved by the enemy and God offers all of us the path to freedom. The choice is ours. Each of us can choose either to turn to God or to remain with God’s enemy.

The decision to choose God brings the battle to us. More literally, it ignites the battle within us. The sin that has infected us and is within us is a powerful enemy. The Apostle, St Paul, admits of his own, ongoing struggle against sin: “..the good that I want to do, I do not do; but the evil I want not to do, that I practice.” Choosing God is not a one-time decision, even for a saint like Paul. We choose God day-by-day, sometimes moment-by-moment. The great St Anthony once said, “Each day I arise from bed and say to myself, ‘Today I begin again’.”

So, what does it look like to choose God moment-by-moment?

Below are 55 practical ways to choose the Christian God in everyday life; they are ways we can offer our worship to Him. Before you read them, remember two things. First, this is not a “to do” list. Recall Palamas’ words, above…without God, doing all of these things is still sin because Christianity is primarily about relationship. Second, Christianity is not about becoming a “better” human. It is about turning to God and joining in His life. These 55 things are simply things that help us to join in with God’s life. But here’s the catch: you will fail at them. Often. In this life you can actually expect very little “improvement” in yourself. So, when you fail, turn back to God, confess your failure, ask Him for forgiveness, then get back in the battle.

Choose God. You are not alone in the battle.

55 Maxims for Christian Living
Father Thomas Hopko

  1. Be always with Christ.
  2. Pray as you can, not as you want.
  3. Have a keepable rule of prayer that you do by discipline.
  4. Say the Lord’s Prayer several times a day.
  5. Have a short prayer that you constantly repeat when your mind is not occupied with other things.
  6. Make some prostrations when you pray.
  7. Eat good foods in moderation.
  8. Keep the Church’s fasting rules.
  9. Spend some time in silence every day.
  10. Do acts of mercy in secret.
  11. Go to liturgical church services regularly.
  12. Go to confession and communion regularly.
  13. Do not engage intrusive thoughts and feelings. Cut them off at the start.
  14. Reveal all your thoughts and feelings regularly to a trusted person.
  15. Read the scriptures regularly.
  16. Read good books a little at a time.
  17. Cultivate communion with the saints.
  18. Be an ordinary person.
  19. Be polite with everyone.
  20. Maintain cleanliness and order in your home.
  21. Have a healthy, wholesome hobby.
  22. Exercise regularly.
  23. Live a day, and a part of a day, at a time.
  24. Be totally honest, first of all, with yourself.
  25. Be faithful in little things.
  26. Do your work, and then forget it.
  27. Do the most difficult and painful things first.
  28. Face reality.
  29. Be grateful in all things.
  30. Be cheerful.
  31. Be simple, hidden, quiet and small.
  32. Never bring attention to yourself.
  33. Listen when people talk to you.
  34. Be awake and be attentive.
  35. Think and talk about things no more than necessary.
  36. When we speak, speak simply, clearly, firmly and directly.
  37. Flee imagination, analysis, figuring things out.
  38. Flee carnal, sexual things at their first appearance.
  39. Don’t complain, mumble, murmur or whine.
  40. Don’t compare yourself with anyone.
  41. Don’t seek or expect praise or pity from anyone.
  42. Don’t judge anyone for anything.
  43. Don’t try to convince anyone of anything.
  44. Don’t defend or justify yourself.
  45. Be defined and bound by God alone.
  46. Accept criticism gratefully but test it critically.
  47. Give advice to others only when asked or obligated to do so.
  48. Do nothing for anyone that they can and should do for themselves.
  49. Have a daily schedule of activities, avoiding whim and caprice.
  50. Be merciful with yourself and with others.
  51. Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last breath.
  52. Focus exclusively on God and light, not on sin and darkness.
  53. Endure the trial of yourself and your own faults and sins peacefully, serenely, because you know that God’s mercy is greater than your wretchedness.
  54. When we fall, get up immediately and start over.
  55. Get help when you need it, without fear and without shame.