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.

What If…

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In the beginning of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series (Fellowship of the Ring), we read of the Hobbits living their everyday lives in a way we would consider normal: there is juicy gossip, a party with fireworks, mischievous kids…the things of normal life we all would recognize.  However, we are soon introduced to an enchanted world with Elves and other beings, and the Dark Lord Sauron.  Tolkien opens our eyes to a larger reality: against the background of the normalcy of the Hobbit’s lives, there is a battle underway for all of Middle-earth.

What if this were true for us.  Like Hobbits, we go about our daily lives concerned about our families, our jobs, our personal finances, the stuff we own or desire to own, politics, sports, the weather, etc.  What if, as in Tolkien’s Middle-earth, our world is actually enchanted, good and sinister beings exist, and there is a battle, of which we are largely unaware, underway.

To switch stories, in C.S. Lewis’ book, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, the wicked White Witch introduces Edmund to the addictive treat, Turkish Delight.  With it, she is able to distract Edmund from her true intentions to rule over Narnia as a cold and snowy land and to entice him to join with her.

What if this were true for us.  In the United States and the Western world we are easily distracted: our high standard of living, the internet, social media, the entertainment industry, sports, the never-ending news cycle, toys we have or want, computers, phones, tablets…it is a long list.  What if, as in Narnia,these things are given to us as Turkish Delight, used by an enemy to distract us and to entice us to acquiesce to or outright join the dark forces in the battle.

In the Bible’s New Testament, St Paul says this:
…we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

There is a indeed a battle raging.  However, it is not a battle for a geographical kingdom, such as Middle-earth or Narnia.  Rather, it is a battle for the Kingdom of God that exists within us.  In this battle, we are both the battleground and the prize!  The battle is for our very being and the battleground is raging right now around us and within us.

In Tolkien’s and Lewis’ fictional fights beings suffer wounds or delusion as a result of the battle.  It is true for us in our battle.  But what if each of us is born into our enchanted world with a wound, an illness that darkens our soul and blinds us to our enchanted reality and the battle around us and within us.

Each of us has a part of our being called a NousNous is an uncommon word to us modern people.  In classical philosophy, nous “is a term for the faculty of the human mind necessary for understanding what is true or real” (Wikipedia).  It is often believed to be the center of “reason.”  However, centuries ago, Orthodox Christianity re-purposed the word to mean “the eye of the soul, which some Church Fathers also call the heart, [it] is the center of man and is where true (spiritual) knowledge is validated” (Orthodoxwiki).  It is much more than “reason,” it is the faculty that allows us access to the immaterial world around us and to know things that are beyond our reason.  Most importantly, our nous allows us to know God.  (“The Limits of Human Reason” podcast)

Each and every one of us was born with and suffers from an illness of our nous.  This part of our being, originally given to us to know God, to “see” the enchanted reality all around us, and to recognize good and evil, has been darkened and blinded; we were born with this condition.  Consequently, we go through life focused on ourselves, we engage in survival of the fittest, just like all of the plants and animals of nature.

But God doesn’t leave us in this wounded state, He reaches out to each person to awaken us to the battle around us and within us.  And how He tries to awaken us is unique to each of us.  To one He speaks directly, to another He sends a messenger, to yet another He speaks through the circumstances of our lives.

Once awakened to the reality of the battle, we may choose to ignore it and try to live in a safe world of our own making, continuing to gather and feast on Turkish Delight.  Or perhaps we will choose to join the  rulers of darkness who are continually at work around us and within us to win us as their prize.  After all, joining the dark powers may bring us power, prosperity, and sensual pleasure, albeit only in this life on Earth; however, the price is the continued darkening of our nous.  

God longs for us to choose Him.  He longs to heal our wounded nous.  God has a hospital and a cure for us.  It is the Church.

You may strongly disagree.  Perhaps you have been to a church and found no help; rather, you have found only judgement because you don’t meet some standard of behavior.  That is like waking up one morning realizing you are very sick.  You go to the hospital only to be told you cannot enter until you are well.  That is not the true Church.

All too often a church focuses only on the “rules” for our spiritual life.  When the goal of a church is only on the “formulation” of man’s character, his ethical propriety, and his becoming a ‘good’ person and a ‘good’ citizen” then it is acting like a courtroom rather than a hospital.  In the Church-courtroom we experience only “empty moralism…a superficiality” rather than finding the love of God and His healing.  Sadly, many have experienced this Church-courtroom and revolted against God; but, who can blame them?  Why would anyone want to worship a God like that.

Sick people don’t need a courtroom.  Sick people don’t need to be told they aren’t acting like healed people.  Sick people need a hospital.  And, sick people need a cure.

The true Church has always been a hospital that exists to offer a cure for our illness, our woundedness, our spiritual blindness—our darkened nous.  The goal of Christianity has never been about making us into “good” people.  The world is full of “good” people who are still dead people.  The goal of Christianity has always been to make dead people alive!  The path to life is the path of the healing for our nous so that we can see God and join Him in His life.

In God’s Church-hospital, all are welcome.  The Church is filled with people who range from those who do not yet know the extent of their sickness and seriousness of their wounds to those who are well along the path to being healed.

What if you actually believed in the reality that an epic battle is raging, that your very being is both the battleground and the prize.  What if you believe that you can choose which side to be on in the battle.  What if you believe there is a hospital offering you both care and cure for your wounds.  And, most importantly, what if you believethis hospital’s Physician loves you more than you can ever imagine.

What if you believed all of these things…would it change your life?

Beauty

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Brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.
—St Paul, Philippians 4:8

The concept of beauty has been on my mind for quite awhile. Beauty is of one of the three classical virtues, the others being Goodness and Truth. Dr. Timothy G. Patitsas, in his new book, The Ethics of Beauty, advocates that we must first look to Beauty (rather than Goodness or Truth) to fill us with life. Beauty is life-giving.

Patitsas argues from “St Dionysius the Areopagite and the Fathers that followed him” that as “the beautiful appearing of God” hovered over the deep (Genesis 1:1-2), non-being became inflamed with love of God’s beauty and willingly left its non-being, becoming “gloriously alive.” (Pg 45) Patitsas goes on to argue that if we first get caught up in the intellectual pursuit of Goodness and Truth without first allowing ourselves to fall in love with God’s Beauty, we will become “imprisoned in the self.”

My thinking on Beauty has intersected with my thinking about Luck, Life, and God (my previous post). In that post, I said I have come to believe that while God does not cause the tragic events in our lives, He does permit them and He meets us in them. If being in love with beauty draws us toward life and away from non-being, then how can I learn to not just see the tragedy and become cynical about life and God? How can I learn to see beyond the ugly and find Beauty—God—in the midst of tragedy?

Certainly I can find beauty in nature. Recall a sunset that has been like a fire setting the sky ablaze. We know the physics: nuclear fission combines hydrogen atoms into helium; the Earth’s atmosphere filters out the blue spectrum; the Earth orbits the sun and turns on its axis. However, knowing these rational things about the sunset are not what stops our breath and fill us with wonder and awe; rather, the beauty of the sunset transcends the natural and reveals to us something more, something unseen.

The same thing can occur in art. Here is a photograph of Michelangelo’s masterpiece, “Pieta.” It depicts the dead Jesus laying across the lap of His mother, Mary. Regardless of your beliefs, the sight of a dead child in the arms of the mother is as a tragic a sight as there can be. As a man, I cannot grasp the depth of the pain that a mother would experience.

The same thing can occur in art. Here is a photograph of Michelangelo’s masterpiece, “Pieta.” It depicts the dead Jesus laying across the lap of His mother, Mary. Regardless of your beliefs, the sight of a dead child in the arms of the mother is as a tragic a sight as there can be. As a man, I cannot grasp the depth of the pain that a mother would experience.

Michelangelo’s “Pieta”

And yet, this work is considered to be one of the great works of art. Through it, we witness a great tragedy while at the same time experiencing its overwhelming beauty. How can this be?

The tragedy of the scene is manifold. For the Christian, we see God dead at our hands. All of us, Christian or not, see a man in his early 30s, dead, a life cut short. We also see the grieving mother. While we may not have experienced the loss of a child, likely each of us knows the pain of a life cut short; or, we have experienced loss due to death. Most know what is like to feel the pain and emptiness when someone we love dies: the extraordinary pain of grief that feels as though it is crushing the very life out of us as we struggle simply to take our next breath. Viewing this statue, we relive our own pain as memories flood in; we are filled with empathy for Mary.

And, we see more. In the tragedy of Jesus’ death and Mary’s loss we also see the very essence of what makes us human: love. Without love there is no grief. Mother Mary’s pain is a window into the depth of love. Too, without love, there is no self-sacrifice. Jesus willingly gave up His life for us, that we might be saved from death. Mary would have willingly traded places with her Son. “There is no greater love than to give your life for another,” said Jesus.

Michelangelo speaks to us in the universal language of life, pain, joy, suffering, and death. In this work he shows us the beauty of love is its rawest form. It is as though his work is a portal through which we can see through the tragedy and glimpse true reality beyond this world. And isn’t that the function of true art, whether sculpture, painting, literature, poetry, music…? True art has the power to transform both the tragic and the ordinary into the extraordinary, to give us a glimpse into true reality; it lifts the veil separating the natural from the rest of reality. When art does this, when it succeeds in opening the portal to reveal all of true reality, then it is truly beautiful.

All art is not created equal. Contrast Michelangelo’s work with this photograph of Salvador Dali’s painting of Jesus’ crucifixion (“Corpus Hypercubus”). That is Dali’s wife looking on. Francis Schaefer (Art and the Bible) argues that modern artists no longer use a language common to us all; therefore, he says, without help we cannot know what the artist is trying to say to us. I find this to be true of Dali’s work. I view it and I experience a sense of “wow” at the artwork itself, but I do not experience awe in the depths of my soul that I feel when seeing Michelangelo’s statue.

Dali’s “Corpus Hypercubus”

And this is the problem with art that “wows” us. So much of modern art, for me, either speaks a language I don’t understand without explanation, or seeks to shock me with the tragedy and absurdity of life. “Wow” is like a drug; we constantly need more. It seems like so much of modern art is left to try become increasingly abstract or shocking to satisfy our desire for more “wow.” Too often it is meant to inspire in the viewer anger, cynicism, or despair. Rarely does modern art inspire awe by revealing the beauty often hidden in reality.

For 2000 years the Christian Church has been filled with icons. These icons are not intended to be photo realistic depictions of people or historical events. Icons are a way we can see through the portal and experience God’s Kingdom now. In worship, surrounded by icons, we enter into the reality of the Kingdom of God with Jesus, the angels, and all the saints praying for us and awaiting us. We know we are worshiping God with all of creation. Icons are always beautiful.

What about our day-to-day life?

We each know that life is difficult and it is relentless. Life is too often filled with seemingly senseless tragedy, ours or that of others. I began this blog with Patitsas’ (The Ethics of Beauty) claim that we must find transformative beauty to endure tragedy around us or heal from tragedy that has happened to us. Recall too, above, that St Dionysius said creation willingly left its non-being for being when encountering the love of God, the ultimate Beauty.

For us, we can find beauty in nature and in true art. And, perhaps most importantly we can find it in another place.

Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is within us. Each human, is made in the image of God; therefore, each of us has the potential to be an icon of Jesus, the God-man. When you weep with me in my suffering, laugh with me in my happiness, rejoice with me in my joy, smile at me, offer a kind word, help me when I need help…when you do these things for me, in you I see the Beauty of Christ; in your beauty I see beyond the natural, survival-of-the-fittest world and experience through you the Beauty of Christ’s selflessness toward all of humanity. Through you I experience the Kingdom of God. If I am able to do these things for you, then you, too, can experience God’s Beauty and Kingdom in this life.

The gift of Christ’s Beauty is our greatest gift to each other; this is why we are to told by God to love our neighbor. Through our giving and receiving love we each offer the other the opportunity to gaze upon the Beauty of God and to experience His Kingdom; we remind each other of our moment-by-moment choice to willingly move away from the non-being of our self-centeredness and toward the healing of our soul and body and have fullness of life in the love of God.

St Paul exhorts us to always strive toward Beauty:

I consider [the things I have obtained as] garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him…Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
—Philippian’s 3:8-9, 12-14

Let’s choose Beauty. Choose love. Choose life.

______________________________________________________________________

The Ethics of BeautyTimothy Patitsas

“Why Beauty Matters”—Roger Scruton

Naturally—Rick Mylander’s reflections on creation and Christian spirituality

Life, Luck, and God

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I read a novel recently in which one of the characters, a man in his twenties, was rightly imprisoned for sexually abusing his thirteen year old sister.  Taking revenge, he used his prison connections and his wealth to have his sister kidnapped, drugged, and sold into sexual slavery where she died after a few years.

This was troubling to me because it caused me to think about the seemingly lucky or unlucky circumstances of our lives.  There are real-life children sold into sexual slavery.  Some people have lost family and homes to war.  Natural disasters disrupt lives and cause widespread death and destruction.  Children are born with mental and physical disabilities.  Random accidents maim and take lives.  Some people are born into poverty, others into great health and wealth.

Life certainly doesn’t seem fair.  So, I find myself wondering what should I, as a Christian, think about the role of luck and God in my life.

Luck, in its most common definition, is the description we use for the things that happen to us that seem to be beyond our control. Philosophers and ethicists speak about the concept of luck.  There is no agreement among them whether luck exists, and if it does, to what degree are we each accountable for the events of our lives.

Authors such as scholar C.S. Lewis and sociologist Max Weber have written about how the modern world has become “disenchanted.”   In the ancient world there was once room for “enchantment”: people believed in gods, spirits, demons, fairies, elves, dragons, and such.  When seemingly unexplainable things happened around people and to people, they created explanations for the mysteries they experienced.  For example, if you make one of the god’s mad and you may experience a fire or an earthquake.  Over the centuries, Christianity vanquished “the gods” and now modern scientism has vanquished the Christian God.  So, in our modern world there is now little room for an enchanted world in the minds of “serious” people; they exclude the possibility of mysterious things “beyond the veil” of the natural world, including God, angels, and miracles.

It seems to me, then, in a disenchanted world, luck is all we have to account for disparities and tragedies of life: Born into or encounter bad things in life? Bad luck.  Born as a “healthy, well adjusted, hard working” person and into a good life?  Good luck.  The examples of good and bad “luck” are manifold as there are lives.  

However, the Christian knows that all of reality is indeed enchanted: there is a God, angels, demons, and the souls of the departed.  So, what about the role of God, luck, and my own free will in my life?

Christians usually avoid reliance on luck.  To explain the events around us, we generally appeal to God’s plan (providence), that usually say that everything comes from God.  Tragedies can occur, we may say, as punishment for the wicked. Or, sometimes we offer that suffering is given to us because it is good for our soul.  We may appeal to God’s love by saying that God wanted a dead loved one more than the family did.  Other times we may appeal to God’s predestination, that these are the events God has for our lives.  We may claim to know the intent of God, that this world is the best He could do given our free will.  We may try to excuse God, claiming that, while He knows how it will end, He doesn’t know how we will get there, again, due to our free will.  Unfortunately, each of these explanations in some way holds God responsible for the tragedy.

God’s plan seems simple: He created humans to enter into a union with Him, for us to participate in His life.  Here is what is in store for those who chose God:

Eye has not seen, nor ear heard,
Nor have entered into the heart of man
The things which God has prepared for those who love Him.

—1Corinthians 2:9

It does seem that God’s plan requires that we have free will to choose Him, and His plan for us is so extraordinary that apparently He is willing to risk that we choose otherwise and bring about terrible tragedy and the fall of the cosmos itself.

The hard thing for us is the accepting the paradox that God does have a plan that will not be thwarted and that we do have free will to act.  The problem for us is that exactly how it works itself out in our lives is a mystery.  And herein is an important point: with our western mindset, we want to turn this into a problem we can solve.  We modern people do not like mysteries because they take away our control.  You see, a problem implies a solution that brings the problem under our control.  Mysteries, however, cannot be brought under our control; rather, they must simply be inhabited. Said differently, an enchanted world contains mystery.

While God’s plan mixed with our free will is a mystery, we can know some things about it.

First, God doesn’t need us at all.  Nor does He need evil and tragedy to bring about His plan.  Unfortunately, the first humans, Adam and Eve, exercised their free will poorly; we and all of creations now live in the aftermath of that first decision.  And, through our own actions, we each, too, often reaffirm that fateful decision by also choosing other than God and turning toward the Prince of this world.  The consequences of our choices is death: the continued sin perpetuated by humans and the natural disasters evident in the world.

Because of our free will, not all events in our lives is willed by God: we make choices and all of the cosmos is fallen, which include the weather, earthquakes, fires, etc.  While it may give us some comfort to believe that God wills all things, the cost of that belief is that we must then also believe God wills all of the tragedy around us from the death of a child to the slaughter of millions. 

So, while God does permit good and bad to occur as a result of our free will choices, this does not mean that He simply sits back and watches as history unfolds.  The Christian God is not the god of life and death we see in the natural world; rather, He is the God of love and life found only in true reality, the enchanted world of all of creation.  As such, God does not leave us alone to meaninglessly suffer and death in this natural world, He acts always for our salvation.  Jesus, the innocent God-man, died to defeat the death that enslaves us and to transform the otherwise meaningless suffering and death of those who choose to turn to Him.   Christ on the cross is the ultimate act of love and life: His death also was not a necessary part of God’s plan; rather, it was a completely free, self-less act of love to save us from our free will choice to bind ourselves and the world to someone other than God—to Satan.

In Jesus’ own words, He came—

To preach the gospel to the poor;
[God the Father] 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.

—Luke 4:18

Perhaps it comes down to this.  While we can argue about the role of God’s plan, our free will, and luck, God has created humankind and willed that we freely choose to be in a loving relationship with Him.  He permits us to choose poorly and Christ has given His life to redeem that choice.  God has something extraordinary in store for us that was worth the risk of the fall of all creation and the horrific tragedies around us.  That brings us to another choice: either we embrace that reality or we decide we cannot turn to that God because we believe that certainly there is a better way to run the universe.

Christians need not feel we must defend God or justify His actions in tragedy.  The radical good news of Christianity is that death is not something to be explained by religion; rather, it is an enemy that has been defeated by Christ.  So, when we look into the lifeless eyes of “the old, the young, the needy, the orphans and the widows, and on all that are in sickness and sorrow, in distress and affliction, in oppression and captivity, in prison and confinement,” or even the dead, we should not see “bad luck” or God’s hand; rather, we must see only the defeated enemy.  Then we must turn our minds and hearts toward God, the God of salvation Who has rescued us from death and Who redeems our suffering and, giving Him thanks, offer to others the love Christ has first shown us. 

I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live…

—Moses (Deuteronomy 30:19)

For more on this, I recommend The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? by David Bentley Hart.

Them and Us

Pogo–Walt Kelly

“Those” people.  We each have “them” in our lives.  You know who “they” are.  “Those” people. “They” are not us.

“They” are the ones that disagree with us politically: “they” are red and we are blue, or we are blue and “they” red.  Perhaps “they“ are religious or a particular kind of religious that we find offensive.  Maybe “they” are irreligious.  Have you noticed that “they” rarely drive as well as we do.  “Those” people are the ones who have different ideas from us about sex and relationships and marriage, and “they “ are so blasted insistent on the correctness of “their” views.  Often, “they” refuse to live and let live; rather, “they” prefer to tell us what to do or to shove “their” lifestyle down our throats.  If only “they” would listen to us and our own good advice for “their” lives.  

Sometimes those people are entire people groups.  “Their” culture is different: “they” have different music from ours, “they” like different food.  Maybe “their” skin is a different color than ours or “their” accent is strange, if “they” even speak our language at all.   “They” often don’t look or dress like us.  Perhaps “they” are younger than us, or older.

Those people.  “They” are all around us, aren’t “they.”  Certainly our lives would be better if it weren’t for “them.”  Wouldn’t the world be a better place if it weren’t for “them”?  If only “they” would listen to us, we could fix “them.”  If only “they” were more like us. 

C.S. Lewis was a British writer who lived during the first two-thirds of the 1900s.  You might know him from the Chronicles of Narnia movies released over the past fifteen years.  During a talk in 1942, he said this:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.

—C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”

Lewis says we have never met a “mere mortal.”  Of course!  Each of us is made in the image of God and through our cooperation with the work of the Holy Spirit in us, each can be transformed into the likeness of God (Genesis ref).  This has been the view of the Christian Church since the beginning.  However, Lewis says something else that shouldn’t be overlooked:

All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.

The destinations to which he refers is Heaven or Hell: our experience the eternal loving presence of God or the eternal torment of the loving presence of God whom we have rejected all of our lives.

Back to “those” people.  Lewis is saying to me that I have a hand in making “them” into “those” people.  How can that possibly be?  In our post-Enlightenment, modernist world, individualism is the governing philosophy.  I am autonomous and responsible for me alone.  My rational choices determine my life, is the current thinking.  So, if you are one of “them,” it is entirely your responsibility, right?

Wrong.

That has never been the case, regardless of what modern philosophers say.  And, it has never been the position of the Christian Church.  

Take, for example, our current experience of racism in this country.  Each of us is influenced and effected by the issue.  And, it is not entirely of our making; it is a largely product of our ancestors actions and was handed down to us. While we are not guilty of their sins, not one of us can be fully autonomous and unaffected by the actions of those before us (and around us).

As a Christian, when considering “those” people I must come to grips with the reality that by my sin I have helped make “them” into “those” people, as Lewis said and the Church has known all along.

Remember one of the early examples of Chaos Theory: the minute wind currents created by a butterfly flapping its wings in the southern hemisphere could cause a hurricane in the northern hemisphere.  Similarly, my sin against you could start a chain of events that results in a catastrophic event.  But, even if it doesn’t, my sin against you adds to the general fallenness of the world in which you and I both live, and it makes life harder for you, even if only in a small way.

What a curious and uncomfortable thing it is to look at one of “them” and think I bear at least some responsibility for their thoughts and actions.  It is quite disconcerting, actually.

For many years, the Christian Orthodox Church has held an annual forgiveness service (Forgiveness Vespers).  During this service, lines form.  The person on the outside says, “Forgive me, a sinner.” The person on the inside replies, “God forgives, and so do I.” Then she asks for forgiveness in turn.  The end result of the ceremony is that every person asks forgiveness from every other person present. 

This service usually begins with nervous laughter and ends with tears and an overwhelming sense of God’s mercy on us all. There is a powerful sense of spiritual cleanliness.

From a Christian Orthodox prayer book:

For all the sins of men I repent before You, O Most Merciful Lord. Indeed, the seed of all sins flows in my blood! With my effort and Your mercy I choke this wicked crop of weeds day and night, so that no tare may sprout in the field of the Lord, but only pure wheat…For all the history of mankind from Adam to me, a sinner, I repent; for all history is in my blood. For I am in Adam and Adam is in me.

St. Nikolai Velimirovic, Prayers by the Lake

The next time you encounter one of “them,” or even one of “us,” remember this prayer.  And remember, as C.S. Lewis said, above, no one, them or us, is a mere mortal.

Forgive me, a sinner.

I Am Number One

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This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.
—Apostle Paul in a letter to St Timothy (1Timothy 1:15)

I believe, O Lord, and I confess that You are truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.
—From a Christian (Eastern) Orthodox Pre-Communion Prayer

Prior to receiving communion, many Christians pray the pre-communion prayer, above, in which each pray-er claims to be “the chief of all sinners.” In other words, as I pray this prayer, I claim that “I am the number one sinner of all time.” That is saying a lot; it is quite a claim for one’s self.

Now, I can certainly say this prayer with a prideful heart and with false humility with the intent of garnering either praise from you for my remarkable piety (“Wow, you really are a very religious person!”), or to seek a compliment from you (“Awww, you really are a great person; don’t be so hard on yourself.”)

Presume for a moment, however, that I mean it sincerely, “I am the chief of all sinners.”  Can that really be true?  Let’s make a simple comparison.  Consider the following dictators and the deaths attributed to them and their respective regimes:

  • Mao Zedong (China): 31 million deaths
  • Adolf Hitler (Nazi Germany): 19 million deaths
  • Joseph Stalin (Russia): 9 million deaths

Does that seem an unfair comparison? Certainly I’m not that bad. Then how about an average mass murderer who might only kill tens of people. Am I really a worse sinner than that?

What about my friend who cheats on his taxes?  Am I worse than that?

At some point, as I compare my sins to the sins of others, likely I can find a place to rank myself among them, which means that I’m not really the chief of sinners; maybe I’m just an average sinner, no better or worse than most people I know.

Here’s another story from the Bible, a story Jesus tells of two men: one a religious leader and the other a hated tax collector (Luke 18:9-14).  The tax collector, realizing how sinful he is, won’t even look upwards to Heaven; rather, he cries out to God for mercy.  Nearby, the religious man thanks God that he is not as bad as those robbers and tax collectors because he does many good, religious things (praying, fasting, giving money, etc.).  Which man does Jesus praise?  The tax collector.

So, it strikes me that if I try to rank myself—I’m not as bad as Hitler but not as good as Mother Teresa—I am like the religious man in the story, above, the man that Jesus condemns.

Jesus wants me to be like the tax collector…so, in that light, what does it mean for me to say, “I’m the chief of all sinners”?  It means just that: I’m the worst of the lot…I’m the worst sinner of all humankind, past, present, and future.  

This doesn’t mean I’m a worse person than everyone else; no, we are all created equal and in the image of God.  However, I am the worse sinner of all.

Yes, God forgives sins for those who repent of them. Not only does He forgive, but He removes our sins from us “as far as the East is from the West” (Psalm 103:12).  So, for me to be the worst sinner must also mean I am the least repentant, which puts my eternal salvation in danger.  

Here is another story. Many years ago (~AD250-350) there lived a man who gave away his fortune to live in the desert of Egypt to seek God. Today, we know him as St. Anthony. One day, after living in the desert for many years, Anthony was in prayer when he heard a voice:
“Anthony! You have still not achieved the worth of the leather tanner who lives in Alexandria.” The next morning Anthony got himself to Alexandria and went to the leather tanner pointed out to him and said: “Tell me of your deeds, because I came here from the desert for this reason.” The leather tanner was greatly surprised at the saint’s request and answered him humbly: “I do not know about me, whether I did anything good. For this reason I get up early from bed, and rather than leaving for work, I say to myself: all the inhabitants of this city, from the greatest to the least, will enter the Kingdom of God for their virtuous deeds, but I alone will go unto eternal tortures for my sins. And these words I repeat in my heart before I go to sleep.” Upon hearing this, Anthony answered: “Truly, my son, you, a skilled craftsman sitting quietly in his home, have gained the Kingdom of God; but I, although I have spent my whole life in the desert, yet I have not gained spiritual wisdom, I have not reached the level of consciousness that you express with your words.”

From this story, not only am I the chief of all sinners, but I should believe that all of you will enter the Kingdom of God and only I will not because of my poor repentance. Or, in the words of other saints over the centuries, “All will be saved, only I will be lost.”

In a previous blog I wrote of our contemplating the Beauty of God. So, for me to say, “All will be saved, only I will be lost” is not to engage in unhealthy, self condemnation; rather, it is the natural result of seeing my own wretchedness in the light of God’s perfect Beauty. It is me recognizing that I have nothing to commend in and of myself. Therefore, I cannot see your sins, I cannot judge you because I become so aware of my own sin. I am the worst of all sinners. I can’t justify my thoughts or my behavior by comparing myself to you or anyone else because there is no one worse than me.

Let me be as practical as I can. It doesn’t matter what is the color of your skin. It doesn’t matter who or what you call your god. It doesn’t matter whether you are pro-life or pro-choice, whether you are Democrat, Republican, or something else. It doesn’t matter whether you are straight or one or more of the LGBTQ+ letters. It doesn’t matter whether you are in prison for a small crime or a heinous crime. It doesn’t matter your addiction of choice. It doesn’t matter how you treated your significant other or your kids or your friends today. It does’t matter what you are thinking of doing tomorrow. I am a worse sinner than you. I am THE worst sinner of all.

What do I do with this realization?  How do I cope with this understanding of myself?

Godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.

—St. Paul the Apostle; 2Corinthians 7:10

St. Porphyrious tells me I can respond to this realization in one of two ways. First, I can let it drive me into despondency. I can beat myself up for every failure to live up to God’s standard. I can become so self-critical that I become useless; worse, joyless. This is unhealthy shame. It is “worldly sorrow” (2Corinthians 7:10) and is from Satan. The second, better response is from God. It drives me to prayer and to deeper, continual repentance and confession. I don’t wallow in my sinful act, nor do I relive it; rather, I confess it, repent of it, and move past it trusting in God’s forgiveness (which means I must forgive myself!). This is healthy shame; it brings humility. It is the “Godly sorrow” (2Corinthians 7:10) which brings me to repentance and gives me the joy of Jesus. It drives me onward and upward toward God and His beauty.

Returning to St. Paul the Apostle and his claim to be the chief of all sinners. In another letter he goes on to say:
I do not count myself as have attained Jesus’ perfection; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:13-14).

This is the better way to which God exhorts us. By becoming our own harshest accusers, there is no more Satan can do to us. I accuse myself before God before Satan can. As the realization of me being the “chief of sinners” becomes part of who I am, as it was with St Paul and the leather tanner, above, I trust I will take on the humility of Christ. I trust I will begin to love and serve others who are my “betters.” I trust I will more readily cry out to God for His mercy, as did the tax collector and the leather tanner, which is the best prayer of all.

Lord Jesus Christ the Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

–The ancient “Jesus Prayer”

From Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion:
[This is] the one perspective by which the Christian is allowed to think of universal salvation [that all will go to Heaven]: “all will be saved, only I will perish.” It flows from the inner spiritual experience of a [person] deeply conscious of [one’s] sinfulness and brought to repentance for [one’s] own sins and imperfection. Such repentance necessarily includes thoughts of eternal torments, not for others, but for oneself, as well as the hope for salvation, not for oneself, but for everyone else.

It is our transformation into Christlikeness and His humility through the power of Holy Spirit and the Church that gives witness to our faith.

Social Justice and The Great Divide

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It seems like a trivially obvious observation to say that the US is a country divided.  Politics, religion, entertainment, racial issues, sports, poverty, fashion, taxation…and, of course, face masks…everywhere one turns there seems opportunity to express our disagreement with another.

For the purposes of this post, I am interested in the divide over social justice: how we treat others.  I want to think about the division at the national policy level and at the personal level.

I came across an interesting way to think of our division in the approach to social justice in Timothy Patitsas’ recent book, The Ethics of Beauty.  Patitsas claims that in the “old world” (pre-Enlightment period) it was widely accepted that there were two, competing methods of approaching social justice.

First, there is the “you get what you fairly deserve,” pull yourself up by our own bootstraps, meaning.  This is the equal opportunity meaning: everyone has the chance to make it, so what you fairly get in life is directly related to what you make of your opportunity.  This might be considered pure capitalism.

The second meaning is that the benefits and rewards of society should be distributed fairly among all, that “no one is left behind.”  This is the equal outcome meaning: everyone should fairly receive in the distribution of societal benefits and rewards based on needs regardless of their effort.  This might be considered pure socialism.

The first meaning, equal opportunity, is in fact built into the DNA of the USA.  Our Declaration of Independence says people are created equal and each has the unalienable right of liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  After all, the American narrative is that we are the land of the free where everyone has the opportunity to make it, to achieve the “American Dream.”

Yet, the Statue of Liberty says something about equal outcome, and that is also part of the DNA of the USA:

Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

The implication of this is that we are a country that throws open our borders and freely shares what we have with the less fortunate.

In reality, the ideal of “equal opportunity is just that, an ideal.  Philosophers talk of something called “moral luck.”  Whether we are born with physical or mental challenges, make decisions that turn out poorly,  born to bad parents, or are struck down by “accidents,” these are the kinds of things that effect our lives that are simply beyond our control.  This is what is meant by moral luck.  It is these things we refer to as our “baggage,” and we all have baggage!

So, we need both methods…each of us must pull our own weight as we can while realizing that because of moral luck all of us need some help and some of us will always need help.

Patitsas, drawing on the work of a number of other scholars, notes that these two conflicting methods of social justice have existed throughout human civilization.  Some of us are drawn to one method or the other and many of us are somewhere along the continuum between the two extremes.  While there can seem like an insurmountable divide between these two competing methods, in truth, both are needed.  Extreme “equal opportunity” is heartless and cruel.  Extreme “equal outcome” is mindless and enabling.

Throughout history a third, mediating force was sometimes present to bring these two competing views into balance: the Christian Church bringing the love of Christ.  At its historical best, the State and the Church worked together (e.g., symphonia in the Byzantine Empire) to let the love of Christ balance equal opportunity with equal outcome to approach Christ-like social justice.

At the national policy-making level in the USA, we have separated Church and State.  We have strayed from the intent of the country’s founders and moved away from a Judeo-Christian based value system (Oz Guinness, A Free People’s Suicide).  Hence, there is no third way readily available to help us find balance in our approach to social justice; rather, we are left with only a power based approach focused primarily on the either/or of equal opportunity and equal outcome.

Governments and Churches can seem like big, impersonal institutions.   Trying to solve the nation problem of unjust social justice can seem overwhelming.  National policies, while often necessary, are sweeping scope and take their aim at humanity rather than at individual humans.  So, I want to look at social justice from a personal perspective.

Join me in a “thought experiment”:  I am walking in the city and I come across a homeless person asking for money.  This person seems mostly like your average, normal, healthy person, just dirty and asking for money.  I notice they are standing near a storefront with a help wanted sign in the window.  What will I do?  I wonder to myself, “Do they really need a helping hand (equal outcome) or do they simply not want to work (equal opportunity)?”  The internal debate begins: Should I give them some money?  Should I exercise “tough love” and point at the storefront sign and say, “get a job”?  I am at war within myself.  I need the same third mediating force: the love of Christ.

There is no one-size-fits-all response to homeless people, to continue this example, even with public policy.  Here are two biblical stories to make my point.  In the first story, a woman is caught in adultery by Jewish leaders and brought to Jesus with the expectation that He will condemn her to death by stoning (John 8:1-11).  Note that the man was not brought to Jesus, only the woman.  Jesus first turns the table on her accusers and says, “Let the one of you with no sin throw the first stone at her.”  When the accusers sheepishly leave, Jesus turns to the woman and says, “Go and sin no more.”  That’s all He says.  He doesn’t offer her counseling, or console her over the injustice of the man being unaccused, or even give her a sympathetic shoulder.  No, He gives her an impossible command: “Go and sin no more” and sends her away. That is very tough love.

In the second story, Jesus meets a woman who in the heat of the day has come to the local well to get water (John 4:1-42).  She has two culturally shameful things against her: She is a Samaritan, a second class citizen in Jewish society; and she has been married five times and is now living with a guy, which is why she is getting water in the heat of the day…even her fellow Samaritan’s don’t want to have anything to do with her.  To her, Jesus speaks very kindly and offers her the path to eternal life; further, he tells her explicitly who He is (God!), which He rarely did with anyone.

Two women, both in the wrong, and both given very different responses from Jesus.  Because He is God (all knowing and loving), we must assume His responses were designed exactly to bring about the best for each woman.  There are many similar stories in the Bible…one answer to social justice clearly does not fit all circumstances. 

These stories of Jesus remind me of the great golf teacher, Harvey Penick.  He was a master at teaching someone the game of golf, not because he molded his students into a one-size-fits-all approach to golf, but because he saw and taught each student as an individual.  As evidence, he would not let another golfer observe the lesson he gave a student because what he told the student was designed exactly for them and no other.  He worried that the observer would take instruction not meant for them and try to apply it tho their game.  Penick, like Jesus in the stories above, told each person exactly what they individually needed to hear.

It is so easy for us to use the Bible or the sayings of the early church fathers or writings of saints to find a one-size-fits-all answer in the application of our approach to social justice.  However, to balance the right solutions between equal opportunity and equal outcome to the current problems of social justice requires that we see others around us as individual persons, not just as faceless “humanity.

Jesus walked everywhere.  He moved at 3 miles per hour, which means he saw the person in front of him.  Each of us needs to slow down and see the person in front of us, our “neighbor,” and to love them as Jesus does.  Me, one-on-one with you—there is no male or female, black or white, Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal or progressive—rather, there is only you and me, each made in the image of God and infinitely precious to Him.  But, to love you as God loves you means I have to love God and draw ever nearer to Him in a loving relationship.  Only in this way can I begin to love you like Christ does and offer you social justice as God would.

Drawing ever closer toward oneness with Jesus is the divine goal for humankind (John 17:3, 25-26; 2Peter 1:4).  It was Jesus’ goal for the two women.  We should want it for ourselves and for each other.  This is real social justice.  Oneness with God is what the Church calls, theosis.

So, my best response to the current problems of unjust social justice is to begin with me.  I must draw closer to Jesus.  If I do otherwise, then I only add to the problems in the world.  St. Seraphim of Sarov said, “Aquire the Spirit of Peace (Holy Spirit) and a thousand around you will be saved.”  Only by my putting forth some effort and myreceivingthe undeserved kindness of God can I acquire His Spirit.  And only then can I begin to see you and to respond to you, my neighbor, and to love you as an individual just as Jesus loves both of us.  God’s love is the only way to mediate between equal opportunity and equal outcome.

In reality there is no great divide on the issue of social justice, there is only the love of God for all of us.