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.

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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.

Questions for God (and it is my right to have answers)

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It seems as though the virus has given rise to many new questions.  So, I’ve been thinking a lot about questions…and answers.

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There are new, virus-related questions, of course: When can we get back to normal life? Will a vaccine be forthcoming? Are masks effective? What will life be like post pandemic?  Somebody answer me!

Sometimes the questions are more urgent: How will I pay my rent?  Where will my next meal come from?  When can I visit my hospitalized loved one?  Somebody answer me!

And then there are really big questions, such as: What does it mean to be human?  Why am I here?  How can there be a good God who would allow such worldly horror?  Somebody answer me!

About my own questions, I remember saying years ago, When I get to Heaven I will have a lot of questions for God.  I said it with humor, but if I am honest I had the sincere expectation that God would submit to my demand once I stood face-to-face with him…and what I really meant was, God, you’ve got some explaining to do, and I‘m willing to listen to Your side before I judge You.

About questioning God, the curious thing for me is this: there is a written, historical record of quite a number of people who actually got to ask questions of God!  In the biblical Gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) of Jesus, who is the God-man, when He walked the earth, people did ask Him  questions, and quite a lot of them according to Martin B. Copenhaver (Jesus is the Question).  During three-year period covered in the Gospels, the four writers record that people asked Jesus 183 questions.  He answered only 3.  ONLY 3! Worse yet, Jesus asked the people 307 questions.  

Yikes!…the thought of being questioned by God brings back my old “test anxiety” in a big way.  Seriously, though, the Gospel accounts seem to squash my idea of putting my most pressing questions to God and expecting answers.

Yet, does that mean I should have no questions for God?  Am I supposed to just have some sort of mindless “faith” in Him, afraid to ask anything for fear that He will turn the tables on me?

Here is a story.  In the Bible’s Old Testament, there was a wealthy family man named Job (rhymes with “robe”).  He had a wife, ten kids, and owned a very large ranch with thousands of head of livestock.  And, he was one of God’s favorite people.  In a single, tragic day rustlers stole all of his livestock and killed many of his herdsmen, and then a wind storm collapsed the house of one of his children killing all ten of them.  If that weren’t enough, Job himself was infected with painful boils.  In the days and weeks that followed, and as the shock of his loss began to wear off, Job had questions for God.  In page after page of the story, Job defends himself from friends who accuse him of having offended God and thus reaping due punishment.  Job continued to claim his innocence and began to insist in asking why this had happened to him.

Eventually, God appears before Job, but not to defend Himself from or explain Himself to Job.  You see, before Job can even open his mouth with his first question, God says, I will question you and you shall answer Me.  Then, like machine gun fire, God rattles off 67 questions for Job.  Questions like:

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements? Surely you know. Or who stretched the line upon it? To what were its foundations fastened, Or who laid its cornerstone, When the stars were made And all My angels praised Me in a loud voice?

On it goes.  Questions interspersed with sarcasm and facts.  I image Job cowering before God like Dorothy before the Wizard of Oz.

When God stops talking, Job has a sudden realization…I regard myself as dust and ashes, he says to God, please teach me.  Job’s questions are gone and he is beginning to be healed of his trauma.

But, how can he have such a rapid change of heart after enduring such trauma?  How could 67 questions bring that about?

Honestly, for a long while Job’s response struck me as remarkable to the point of incredulity. Had God simply responded to my questions with 67 of His own, I would have felt like I had been slapped down by a Bully.  My questions would metastasize into deep resentment toward or even hatred of God.  After all, I would silently rage, I didn’t ask to be born!  I didn’t ask for any of this!  I am tired of the unending battle against myself!  I am tired of living in this world!

Humanity’s questions are manifold and legitimate, they echo in the ears of my soul: Why was I…born into slavery, thrust into the horror of war, abused as a child, abused as a woman, subjected to repressive discrimination, falsely accused,?  Why did I…lose a child, lose a spouse, get this disease, have my dreams dashed, lose my life savings, become addicted, endure mental illness, lose my job, lose my home?  Why am I…so lonely, such a misfit, bullied, too different, trapped in a bad marriage, trapped in a dead-end job?  

More questions: Why did you bring me into this world, God?!  If you are everywhere and are all knowing, all powerful, and all loving, then why don’t you rescue me and fix this stupid world and those in it?!

Whether screaming, in laughter, in normal conversation tones, or in whispered weariness I have asked my own questions of God. 

Why, God?  It is the ultimate question.  I have come to know it is also a prayer.

So, how do I get to the point of beginning the healing that Job experienced? 

The late Catholic priest and writer Henry Nouwen (Spiritual Formation: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith) says this of our questions for God:

More often, as our questions and issues are tested and mature in [our] solitude [with God], the questions simply dissolve…God does not solve [all] our problems or answer all our questions, but [he] leads us closer to the mystery of our own existence where all questions cease. 

So, is that it?  Should I expect my questions to simply dissolve away with time and maturity as Nouwen suggests?  What about the hardship or trauma I may have experienced in this life that caused the questions…will that also simply dissolve, too?  No, something else must have happened to Job in his encounter with God to find the kind of contentment he confesses.

Back to Job’s story.  After God ends the questioning, Job says:

I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You.

Job says he had heard of God.  That does not help me.  Who among us hasn’t heard of God.  But, what was different here is that Job also saw God.  Christian Orthodox tradition says that Job saw Christ Jesus.  Did he see the transfigured Jesus whose face shone like the sun? Or did he see the crucified Jesus hanging on the cross bearing Job’s pain and sin and the sin and pain of the world?  Whichever Jesus Job saw…God revealed Himself in the way Job needed to see so his questions would dissolve and he would began to be healed from the trauma.

In their encounter, God certainly gave Job truth: 67 questions and many statements of truth of who He is as God.  But, it wasn’t the hearing truth—God beating him about the head and shoulders with questions sarcasm—that dissolved Job’s questions and began his healing; rather, it was Job seeing the Beauty of God (Jesus) that helped him.  Truth by itself is like a sword that cuts us apart; only seeing Beauty—seeing God—can start us on the path of healing (Timothy G. Patatsis, The Ethics of Beauty).  Falling in love with God then becomes the path along which we journey to be healed.  

How do we see God like Job did?  He is all around us.  He may reveal Himself in a direct vision as He did with Job, the apostle Paul, and many, many others.  He may be seen as the Artist while sitting on that mountain top overlooking a scene that is too breathtaking to describe.  He may be seen as the crucified Christ in the healthcare worker sacrificing their safety during the pandemic.  He may be seen as the resurrected Jesus in the kindness of a friend who comforts.  He may be seen as the humble Jesus in the poor or in a visit to someone in prison.  He is all around us.

So, don’t be afraid of asking God questions.  Jesus was always gentle with honest questioners.  

The journey to dissolved questions is the journey of falling evermore deeply in love with God.  It is a matter for another time.  For now, be watchful.  Look for Beauty.  Look for God.

Yet, God

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YET, adverb

  • Still; the state remaining the same.
  • Still; in a new degree.

(Websters Dictionary—1828)

Yet. It’s a good, little word. Webster says it can be used as two different forms: as a conjunction (joining thoughts) or as an adverb (modifier). As an adverb, it can have eight different meanings, according to Mr Webster. Two are listed, above.

In Psalm 74 (Greek Septuagint—73) the writer laments the absence of God. “Oh God, why have You rejected us forever?” The hyperbole emphasizes the anguish to follow. The enemy, we read, has destroyed the sanctuary of God, defiling all the Jews held sacred. The enemy intends to subdue the chosen people of God. Into the seeming void shouts the writer, “Where are You, God?”

And then, in the midst of his crumbling world, he says something remarkable: “Yet, God is my King from old.”

  • The bad guys have overrun us…yet, God…
  • The enemy has burned down the Temple…yet, God…
  • We are to be enslaved…yet, God…
  • There is no sign of You, Lord…yet, God…

Faith and trust in God when all around is crumbling.

Fast forward hundreds of years.

He said He was God. They saw Him perform miracles, so many miracles: the blind see, the deaf hear, demons cast out, nature tamed, and dead people brought back to life. Then, He was hanging on a cross, then dead, then laid in the tomb. His followers huddled together, afraid. It seemed as though evil had won. Did they shout into the seeming void, “Where are You, God?”

  • The bad guys captured Jesus…yet, God….
  • The enemy killed Him…yet, God…
  • He is in the tomb and in Hades…yet, God…

Faith and trust in God when all around us is crumbling.

Two thousand years later.

A virus is running amok among us. States, once United, are now Red or Blue. Lives don’t matter: Black, unborn, or old. There are too many #MeToos to count. Politicians seek the upper hand rather than solutions. Russia, China, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, the Middle East, Central and South America, Africa—all hot spots of challenge or unrest or both. Do you shout into the seeming void, “where are You, God?”

  • Unemployment is high…yet, God…
  • National elections are coming…yet, God…
  • Western culture has dis-invited God…yet, God…

Yet, God. Two words. Six letters. One comma.

Yet, God is my king from old.

Faith and trust in God when all around us is crumbling.

Healing of Soul and Body

Remember me, O Lord, in Thy Kingdom not unto judgment or condemnation be my partaking of Thy holy mysteries, O Lord, but unto healing of soul and body.

From the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom

20130207-013139.jpgWe are a country at war.  We have been at war many years now, fighting terrorism overseas.   Before this war on terrorism, there was a war on communism, a war on fascism, a war over territory, a war over slavery, a war against “Indians,” and a war for independence.  These are just some of the “big” wars in the history of our country.  But is not a blog about war, you can find many of those elsewhere written by others much more qualified than I.

Rather, this is my thinking about moral injury: the mostly hidden wound of war on combatants and the similarity to our own moral injury as sinful humans.

Many of us old enough to remember Vietnam can recall the soldiers returning to a society hostile to them.  For some number of them, it was a devastating re-entry.  We are tempted to blame it on their participation in a “bad” war.

Compare Vietnam to today’s “good” war where recruits enlist with fanfare and return as heroes (“Thank you for your service”).  Nowadays, veterans (I was in the Air Force years ago) are asked to stand to applause on Veterans Day.

And yet…

In his book, Killing From the Inside Out, in which he effectively dismantles Augustine’s/Aquines’ Just War Doctrine, Meagher cites Pentagon statistics indicating a “runaway suicide rate in the military, averaging thirty-three suicides per month in 2012, roughly one every seventeen hours.”  One every seventeen hours.  This is not unique to our current war.  Grossmann (On Killing: The Psychology Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society) notes that there were periods during the “Good War,” (WWII) where US soldiers were being discharged (“shellshocked” was the old term) at a rate equal to that of incoming recruits.

But, aren’t these, WWII and the war on terrorism, the “good wars,” the Just Wars?  If so, why the devastating effect on so many soldiers?

In his interview in the magazine Road to Emmaus, (“The Opposite of War is Not Peace”), Dr Timothy Patitsas refers to post World War II research that indicated eighty-five percent (85%!!) of US combatants in combat would either not fire their weapons or they would aim to miss.  Similar, albeit limited, research conducted on our opposing armies yielded the same result.  After the release of these findings, the US Military devised a new way to train soldiers by having them shoot at human-like shapes.  Patitsas notes that after this change, “the post-traumatic stress in Vietnam skyrocketed and hasn’t stopped yet.”

I an not expert in treating combatants, but I’d like to bring out some important points by some who are.

Many of those specializing in the treatment of combat veterans have made some important discoveries.  It seems that despite our best theological and moral efforts to differentiate between murder and killing, a human being who takes a life makes no such distinction in the depths of their soul.  Taking a life of another kills something within many who take that life.  Meagher refers to this a “moral injury.”  Labeling a returning soldier as a “hero” only deepens the moral injury, causing the soldier to retreat within themselves and further from community.  It seems, according to these authors, that many, upon returning from war, view themselves as criminals unfit for society and undeserving of a hero’s welcome.

Here is the image in my mind that has sparked my thinking on this: the juxtaposition of a hero’s welcome parade thrown in honor of someone who views one’s self as a criminal, the one who feels they have committed the crime of killing another human being celebrated by society.  Imagine what must be going through this person’s mind, the energy it must take to play the role of the returning hero.  This is an image I’ll return to shortly.

Cognitive therapy, “talking it out” only seems to make the isolation worse for returning combatants.    Suicide can be a final escape from this hidden, moral injury, the dissonance between being society’s hero, yet feeling irredeemable.  Therapists are looking for another way to help.  Shay, in Achilles in Vietnam, believes that help for soldiers can be found in the ancient past.  His assertion, now widely accepted, is that Homer’s Iliad was written to help Greek soldiers, morally injured by war, cope with this hidden injury and to eventually re-enter society.  As I understand it, there is a new form of therapy, based on Shay’s work, emerging to help soldiers returning from combat.

As I said above, the point of my thinking here is not to focus on war.  I hope I’ve said enough to now turn to what is really on my mind.  And I hope you are still with me.

In reading some of the above material, the idea of a soldier feeling like a criminal and suffering moral injury due to his or her actions resonated deeply within me.  Not because I was in combat—I was enlisted during one of the short periods of time our country was not at war—rather, the idea of suffering moral injury, receiving a hero’s welcome, and the typical therapies that have been employed for healing brought to my mind my experience in the churches I have attended and the Christian books I have read as I battled my own sin.

Meagher notes that “moral injury,” doing something we know is wrong, has an older name, one with which we are much less familiar with in today’s society: sin.  Our modern society has tried to do away with sin by redefining right and wrong.  It seems almost everything can be justified.  If I cut off someone in traffic, they deserved it for driving like an idiot or because my needs exceed theirs. If I’m angry at another, they are keeping me from what I want and my worth is justified.  We now use nature, nurture, rights, genes, parenting, lineage…on and on it goes, to justify almost any action that fits the social norm (which is ever changing, but that’s a different blog).

The idea of feeling like a criminal, feeling separated from other humanity, and feeling unworthy of a hero’s accolade has also caught my attention.  It is more than feeling guilt over a wrong action, over sin, to use the old word.  As described, it is a realization of the kind of person I am: I am someone who can actually perform such sinful acts.  This realization also goes by another, old fashioned name: shame.  Like sin, shame is a concept mostly foreign to modern society (at least as attributed to one’s self; however, we have weaponized shame against others who disagree with us).  If sin is reasoned away in my own life, then there can be no shame; my actions are acceptable and I am acceptable.

Finally, I get to the point of this blog.

I have encountered Christian messages wherein I was encouraged to rejoice in God’s forgiveness of me, to be filled with the joy of being saved as the result of praying a certain prayer.  I was told I had victory over sin.  I was told that if I acted more morally or performed some philanthropic act, I should be happy that God was acting in me; I should be joy-filled.  After saying the “sinner’s prayer,” I was given something akin to a “hero’s welcome” given to the returning combatant.  When facing continued sin, I was told, “Just stop it.  You are a child of God.”  Perhaps you have had the same experience.

But this sense of victory never squared with my own inner certainty of my sinfulness and shame, that while I repented of my past sins and God did forgive me, I did not feel victorious, nor did I experience any sort of self-satisfaction from being saved.  Fr Alexander Schmemann gives voice to my sense of moral injury better than I:

Baptism is the forgiveness of sins, not their removal.  It introduces the sword of Christ into our life and makes it the real conflict, the inescapable pain and suffering of growth.  It is indeed after baptism and because of it, that the reality of sin can be recognized in all of its sadness…

So, back to the image I described above: the combat veteran returning to a hero’s welcome while feeling like a criminal.  All around me were Christians rejoicing and telling me my salvation was a certainty while inside I felt like a pretender.  I was (am) overwhelmed by the anguish of my own shame that I am the kind of person who still most often desires things other than God; I am filled with self love, not love for God and neighbor.  Consequently, rather than experiencing healing, I experienced a deepening separation from these other Christians.

But, the Church has, throughout her history, been a “hospital for the broken,” a place for healing.  How does this healing take place?  In very simplistic terms, the Enlightenment gave us a focus on intellectual truth.  Therapeutic healing, in the light of Enlightenment thinking, is that I learn Truth, and from there I find Goodness in me (or at least rationalize my behavior) and move past my moral injury.  Focus on the intellect, learn truth, and healing follows, I was told.  Like the soldier told that killing in war is okay, that the war is Just, this way of approaching healing did not work for me either.  It only deepened my sense of separation, of isolation.

But this way of using intellect first is a relatively new idea in Christianity; it forsakes Beauty, the third of the classical virtues and the one most neglected in Western thought.

The Eastern Church has always held that to be healed I should seek Beauty first: the Beauty of God.  By dwelling on God I dwell on Beauty; I fall in love with God. In time, loving the Beauty allows me to find the Goodness in the Cross of Christ, and thereby find the goodness in my own cross: my own moral injury.  Finally, the knowledge of the Truth of God, which is intertwined with Beauty and Goodness, begins to emerge.

Sin and the resulting shame (moral injury) drives us from beauty and toward ugliness.  It teaches us lies.  It separates us from others.  Beauty, on the other hand, heals by replacing the ugliness of our moral injury with Beauty.  Beauty brings us into re-entry with community.  Beauty allows us begin to see Goodness, to “embrace Goodness and to become good.”  Then Truth comes, the truth of the Cross; and we can see the humiliation of our being—our shame—in the Light of God and rejoice in His love of us.

Of course healing is not this neatly linear, but it must begin with contemplating Beauty.  Perhaps healing begins with someone who is filled with Christ (a friend, pastor, therapist, etc.) who crosses my path and “absorbs some of my moral injury,” and I see God’s beauty in them.  Eventually, I am able to begin to find the goodness in my shame, for my suffering marks me—they are the marks of the suffering of Christ upon my body.

Healing is a long process.

No one can put together what has crumbled into dust, but You can restore a conscience turned to ashes; You can restore to its former beauty a soul lost and without hope. With You, there is nothing that cannot be redeemed. You are Love; You are Creator and Redeemer. We praise You, singing: Alleluia!

Akathist to the Glory of God, Ode 10

The Music of God

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Inspired by the metaphor of another writer

MusicWhen I first heard the music of God, I was tone deaf.  Later in life, circumstances caused me to listen again.  This time, something in the music caught my ear…I continued listening.  Once I finally gave myself over to it, I was captivated by its beauty, goodness, and truth.  It spoke to the depths of my soul in a way that only music can.  I played it over and over.  I began to study the sheet music and to sing along.  I longed for others to hear it, to sing, too.

After awhile, I became a Pastor so that I might help others hear for the first time or to hear more deeply.

One day, I noticed a note out of place.  It was a small thing, one note in a grand score, but there it was.  Then, I began to hear other wrong notes. And, parts of the arrangement itself seemed somehow off.  I was becoming aware of the very faint echo of a more complete orchestration playing in my soul.

I sought silence in my life to try to hear more clearly what was so faint within.  The occasional mis-played note and the sections of poor arrangement were becoming an irritant in the music I once loved.  How could this be?

I joined with a group of pastors who were studying the Catholic mystics.  The music was set aright; beauty, goodness, and truth returned.  But over time, the music that continued to play within grew louder and more distinct.  The music I was hearing with my pastor friends was still off in some way I did not understand…it did not harmonize with the music within.  What I did know, however, was that I could no longer be content with the music surrounding me, I had to hear the music within.

When I first attended a Christian Orthodox Church, I knew immediately that I was hearing the music I was longing to hear, the music that had once been so faint within me.  I’ve been listening to it for several years now, letting it wash over me and permeate my heart and mind.  Slowly, I am hearing nuances previously unnoticed.  I try to hum along, but my voice seems croaked in comparison to the glory of the music.  I look forward to the day when I might sing along with the voices of the angels and the saints.  I have a long way to go.

It has been said that God is unknowable, but you have to know Him to know that.  This is the fundamental Christian paradox.

To know an unknowable God, to learn to sing along with the fullness of the music of God, to fully partake of the divine nature of the Source of the music…that will take an eternity.

Come and see…and hear the music.

The Role of Tradition

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My job recently had me in a hotel at the location of “the big game” of the college football weekend.  Both schools have a long tradition in college football.  Both schools are ranked in the Top 10. Both schools are undefeated.  This game has implications for the images-1eventual college national championship.

The town is full of supporters from both schools and there is quite a palpable energy in everyone I meet who is associated with either school.  In each camp there is a shared experience among alumni that transcends age, gender, race, and ethnicity.  Strangers become friends as they share in something bigger than they each are.

My Dad attended one of the schools, so I have a favorite in the game; however, I am not really vested in the game.  In fact, I’m quite outside of the experience of those around me, unable to really connect even were I to wear the team logo.  I am outside the experience because I never shared the experience of the traditions of my Dad’s school; I am not part of its history and its history is not in me.  I am not a continuation of the stories of the people who attended, the heroes and anti-heroes and just plain folk.  It is the shared experience of the tradition makes the community and the community passes on the traditions.

Every strong culture has its long-held traditions.  These cultures can be as diverse as ethnic groups, religious groups, colleges, military branches or units, and even gangs…each, if it is a strong community, has traditions that are kept by the community and passed on to willing participants by the community. One’s participation in the established cultural tradition is the way one becomes part of the community.

In 1943, C.S.Lewis published a book entitled The Abolition of Man in which he critiqued the English educational system breaking from passing on tradition.  He said:

[Previous generations of educators] did not cut men to some pattern they had chosen. They handed on what they had received: they initiated the young neophyte into the mystery of humanity which over-arched him and them alike. It was but old birds teaching young birds to fly.

Lewis’ point: without the educators “handing on what they had received,” our understanding of what it is to be human would diminish to the point abolishment.

In the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia and tried to remake the Cambodian culture with mass killings.  They instituted Zero Year in which they determined to destroy or discard all Cambodian tradition and begin anew (beginning with year zero) from scratch.  Like the communist re-education camps, their aim was to remake culture by abolishing the old.

The central pole in the Christian tent is that of our becoming.  We are to partake of God’s divine nature, to become one with Him as the Three, Father, Son and Spirit, are one.  An early saying of the Church was that we are becoming by Grace what God is by nature.  To be a Christian is not just to have a “personal relationship with Christ” but to become part of the body of Christ, which is the Church.  The Church must be a faithful keeper and transmitter of the tradition of the community.  To be part of this community and to experience its fullness, you must experience life within the community.  There is no other way to “become” like Christ.  From within our engagement with the Church, the Way, the Truth, and the Life is transmitted to us.

In western Protestant Christianity, tradition has gotten a bad rap.  I grew up in a small Midwestern town.  There was one “parochial” school, a Catholic elementary school.  Some of my friends had to eat fish on Fridays (this was in the days prior to Vatican II).  In my Protestant Church I learned about the heroes of the Reformation and how they rescued the faith from “those Catholics” who, among other things, held to tradition.

And yet, Protestant Churches have their own traditions.  Alter calls, the “sinners prayer,” Sunday worship as a song followed by a time of greeting then two more songs then a forty minute sermon and a closing song…all tradition.   We simply cannot “become” without tradition even if we have to reform them.

Now, imagine following Jesus around during His time of ministry.  Think of what you would have seen, learned, and experienced about what it was to live as a Christian.  Imagine seeing Jesus’ mother, Mary, to observe up close the day-to-day life of the one “highly favored” and chosen by God.  “Arghhh,” we might says we looked at our own lives, “that is what it looks like to live as a highly favored one of God!”  Imagine following Peter or Paul…wouldn’t you be immersed so much more in the ways of living a life of Christ than had they simply tossed you a book to read!

The cry of the Reformers was Sola Scriptura, Scripture alone.  And yet from Scripture alone the reformers, Luther, Zwingli, then Calvin, could not agree on a central dogma of Christianity: the Eucharist.  Something more than Scripture must be needed.

Scripture itself is a product of tradition and is foremost among the traditions.  Scripture we have today was finally determined because the Churches of the 300s were all generally reading the same writings.  In other words, the canon of Scripture we now have simply came from the Church leaders recognition that these were the traditional books being read.  And, the Church members agreed to keep reading them.

Now some will argue that Jesus was angered by tradition.  He is sometimes referred to as a rebel because He was no fan of some of the Jewish tradition of His day.  “Woe to you…hypocrites…” were His words to those who had created tradition in the name of religion that they might enhance their own power and stature.  But He also followed tradition, engaging in the manner of worship common during His time.

Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  His life is the way of Christian life in as much as we are able to follow Him in our fallenness.  The Apostles received this life of the Father from Christ through the Spirit.  They who succeeded the Apostles passed on this way of life to the next generation (Paul: “I give to you what I received by tradition…”), and they to the next, to the next, to the next…down to us.  We inherit a way of life from within the Church: a community formed by Tradition, that keeps the Tradition, and passes on the Tradition.

Andrew Louth, in his book, Discerning the Mystery, suggest this:

…ultimately the tradition of the Church is the Spirit, that what is passed on from age to age in the bosom of the Church is the Spirit, making us sons in the Son, enabling us to call on the Father, and thus share in the communion of the Trinity.

By distancing ourselves from Tradition we have lost our way.  There are tens of thousands of Christian denominations in the world, each claiming to have the right interpretation of Scripture.  We are not the “one, holy, apostolic church” of our early creed and I don’t think we can reformulate the meaning into a spiritual oneness rather than a physical oneness.  I believe Jesus meant what He said when He told us we were one.  Paul, too, said we were to be one Church, one body of Christ.  How can we hope to show others the truth of God if we cannot settle on it ourselves.

From Tevye (Fiddler on the Roof):

But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask ‘Why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous?’ Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition! 

Tens of thousands of denominations, the Church is indeed losing her balance.  What is the path forward?  Tevye says it: Holy Tradition.  That which was received by the Apostles and passed on is still in practice today.  Come home and see.

If you want to read more, you might enjoy these articles:

Scripture and Tradition

Teaching the Tradition