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

Advertisements

The Music of God

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

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

Tags

, , ,

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

Land of the Free

O! say does that star-spangled banner yet waveimage
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
“Star Spangled Banner”

As a country, we just celebrated our 240th anniversary. And, during these centuries, as a country we have upheld personal freedom as a primary value.

As a “child of the 60’s,” I remember the freedom movements driven by our desire to throw off authority and live more freely (“Tune in, turn on, and drop out”; “Don’t trust anyone over 30”). In our country today, we are seeing the logical extension of that youthful drive for freedom in that not only can one marry regardless of gender, but one can now self-determine one’s gender.

From that beginning in my formative years, personal freedom has remained a big part of my life. Growing up believing I could be anything I wanted to be, I have had four different “career” types of jobs. I have lived in nine different states. I even eschewed having kids believing they would only inhibit my personal freedom.

The Church herself has not been exempt from our human drive for this kind of freedom. In the 11th century, the Patriarch of Rome broke away from the other Patriarchs of the One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church over a disagreement regarding the nature of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the Great Schism separated what we now call the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. Five hundred years later, Luther and Zwingli sought additional freedoms and turned their backs on the authority of Rome and the Traditions of the both the Roman Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, and Protestantism was born. Now, there are thousands of denominations within Protestantism.

No Freedom in Freedom
Jazz great Branford Marsalis has been quoted as saying about playing Jazz: “You don’t play what you feel. There’s only freedom in structure, my man. There’s no freedom in freedom.”

As I look back over my life, now being closer to the end than the beginning, I can see the effect of my avoiding some of the traditional structure of life and trying to find “freedom in freedom.” As I have flittered about trying this and that, I now find I have few generational “family traditions” and no one to pass them on to. I have no life-long friends. What I had always thought was “personal freedom” now appears to me more like self-induced slavery.

I see a parallel in my journey with God, as well. I worked for a time as a pastor of a small, but mainstream Protestant denomination. I felt as though I was working hard for God, but my relationship with Him was stagnated. After a time I found myself in physical and emotional anguish, longing for a deeper relationship with Him. I didn’t know how to pursue such a relationship. I knew to engage in some of the ancient practices, such as fasting, but I was unsure how. For example, I knew it is biblically important to fast, but I often wondered how much fasting was enough. Was it just up to me to decide how much and when to fast? I began to read various authors, but I couldn’t understand what made this author or that author the expert on a fasting rule? Some simply said to “let the the Holy Spirit guide you.” I discovered that the “voice of the Spirit” can sound an awful lot like mine!

Then I found others with a similar longing for God. Before long I was deeply engaged in the Protestant spiritual formation and spiritual direction movements. These were–and still are–wonderful movements based on practices of the ancient Church. Their intent is to help participants move toward a deeper relationship with Christ.

As part of this work, I was meeting regularly with a couple of groups of local pastors and lay leaders from various Protestant denominations. We were trying to develop the path toward a deeper relationship with God that we could offer to churches. Reading books, developing spiritual community, meetings with a spiritual director, a deepening prayer life, engaging in the spiritual disciplines, and spiritual retreats were all part of the path we developed.

At the same time I became trained as a Spiritual Director. I would meet one-on-one with others who were seeking a deeper relationship with God. I would offer them the path my colleagues and I were discovering. I was helping to lead spiritual retreats across the country, introducing others to this path we had found.

Wandering in a Desert
After a few years, my work with these groups and my attempts to spiritually guide others left me feeling even more lost. In my research, I discovered that a number of organizations were publishing books on the path they had discovered. It felt just like the rise of “denominationalism” all over again! Ours was just one more path among many.

I began to wonder whether the freedom to worship God as I wanted was not freedom at all. I found Marsalis’ words true; there was no freedom in my personal freedom to follow the worship path I had found with others. There were too many choices, too many authors, too many individual ways to worship. What made me think my way was God’s way?

Worse yet, I was discovering that I could no longer give guidance to those I was supposed to be directing toward a deeper relationship with God…all I could offer was the smorgasbord of choices I had found myself. Without knowing why, I began to feel like I was operating outside of the Church. You know the church, that Spirit-filled body of Christ Paul talks about. Did it even exist anymore in that sense, I wondered.

I stopped giving spiritual guidance. I stopped leading retreats. I stopped blogging.

Old Testament and New Worship
Our God is a God of order and structure. Reading through the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch), one easily sees that God gave the Jews a structure for worship. In these books He is attentive to the smallest detail in the order and manner of worship of Him. The Jews were not free to worship Him as they saw fit. God new there was no freedom in freedom, so He gave them plenty of structure.

On that first Sunday morning after Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was given to the Church, the Apostles and earliest Church members did not create a worship experience from a blank page. After all, they were Jews. Instead, they began to modify the structured worship of their Jewish tradition based on God’s revelation of Jesus, the God-man. Psalms were still sung. Scripture was still read and interpreted, but from the perspective of the revealed Christ. Sacrifice still continued, but no longer animal sacrifice. Instead, they partook of the sacrifice of Jesus, the Lamb of God: the Eucharist. In short, they maintained the long traditions of the original Jewish “Church” but now modified and interpreted through the revelation of Christ.

The Ancient Path
Thus says the Lord: “Stand in the ways and see, and ask about the eternal pathways of the Lord. See what the good way is and walk in it. Here you will find purification for your souls.” (Jeremiah 6:16)

Over time, the Church, that Spirit-filled body of Christ made up of monastics, ordained clergy, and laity, have been led by God onto the path toward oneness with Him. And that path is a way life. It is a life of prayer, fasting, and alms giving, a life of participating in the sacraments of the Church, and a life of liturgical worship. It is not a path on which one picks and chooses as one individually desires; there is no freedom in that kind of freedom. Rather, as Marsalis suggests, it is a path of freedom within structure, a structure provided by 2000 years of the Spirit-indwelled Church.

After years of searching, I have finally found freedom in worship. It came not from pursuing my own path to communion with God; rather, it came from beginning to give up my personal freedom and worshipping God from within the structure of the “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church,” as we say in the Nicene Creed. No longer do I need to try and decide how I think is best to worship God.

It is a very new path for me. I’ve only been on it for a few years. I still do not give spiritual guidance. I still do not lead retreats.  But, I may blog a little if only, and this has always been the primary reason for this blog, to help me think.

The Way of Christ: Bearing a Little Shame and Finding Christ’s Joy

Tags

, , ,

Wretched man that I am! Who will save me from this body of death?
–St Paul

I have been on this earth for 6 decades. I just experienced a recent job change and move to a new state—another wearying “new beginning.” It caused me to reflect deeply on my life over the period of many months. In times of past reflection, I have always remembered the things I have accomplished and the adventures I have had. The nature of this change caused me to reflect on the person that I am. Images began to come into my mind, images would not stop—and they linger still—faces of the people I have hurt in no small way because of my radical self-centeredness. Some names I know, some I no longer remember or never knew. The overriding image in my mind is that of my life as a boat moving through a narrow canal, the wake of my life swamping all who are near the shore.

It is a remarkably painful image, that boat. During some late nights I wonder how I can continue to bear it. I see faces from my past as the waves of my life roll over them. I want to beg them for forgiveness. I have deeply hurt these people.. I want to hide myself from the world. I feel so deeply guilty for what I have done, but the guilt is familiar. What is new to me is that I have begun to feel deeply, deeply ashamed of who I am: a wretched man.

Jesus ‘…endured the cross, despising the shame…’

St. Paul says that Jesus “…endured the cross, despising the shame…” (Hebrews 12:1-3). Jesus unjustly endured the humiliation and shame of a criminal’s death, which He didn’t deserve. The Way of Christ for me, therefore, is the way of bearing the shame of who I am: a distorted human who deserves the cross of death and eternity in hell…and I must admit that fact to the God whom I love. It is the shame that I deserve and the cross of pain I must bear daily. And it puts me in the Way of Jesus, the path of salvation.

But, bearing my cross is not living a life of despair, or so I am learning. In the midst of the pain of my shame before God, a curious thing is beginning to happen. A very tiny point of light is appearing amidst the grayness of my shame. When I allow it to do so, that tiniest pinpoint of light illuminates those around me in such a way that I cannot help but love them and pray for them; they are me and I am them. Words fail to explain this mystery; perhaps the prayer of St. Nikolai Velimirovic will help: “For all the history of mankind from Adam to me, I repent; for all history is in my blood. For I am in Adam and Adam is in me.”

Most importantly, in my deep shame and pain I am finding budding joy. Jesus, “…for the JOY set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame…” Joy, the same joy of Christ given to you by Him (John 15:11) comes to you only through bearing your cross of shame and pain. The joy of Christ out of the pain of my cross. It is a mystery to me.

This is the Way of Jesus. You must face yourself and bear the pain of shame for your wretchedness to experience the joy of Christ. Four considerations:

  • Shame can be painful beyond your capacity to bear it. Pray that the Spirit will reveal to you the things about which you must feel shame. Do not simply reflect on your own life judging yourself by your standards. This is false shame.
  • Do not run from the shame God reveals to you. It may feel like it is beyond your capacity to bear, but it is not. Pray for tears of repentance. God is with you, weeping, too, and in answer to St. Paul’s question, above, God, through Jesus, will save you from your wretchedness.
  • Pray for a very wise, mature Christian man or woman—a spiritual father or mother—with whom you can share your shame…someone who will not try to “fix” you; rather, someone who will silently bear witness to your confession of shame before God.
  • Bear only a little of your shame. How much shame should you bear before God? St. Silouan, about whom I wrote last time, put it his way: “Stand at the brink of the abyss of despair, and when you see that you cannot bear it any more, draw back a little and have a cup of tea.”

In your bearing of your cross of the pain of your shame you will begin to experience the promised fullness of the joy that is Christ’s. This is the Way of Jesus. It is mysterious, indeed.

The Way of Christ–Descent into Humility

Tags

, ,

If anyone is still out there following this blog…a friend of mine asked me to say a few words on his blog, which I have gladly done.

You can find my meager contribution here:

The Uncommon Journey

I may periodically post to his blog site, and I will let you know when I have done so.  I encourage you to visit this other site and to subscribe to Keith’s blog.

Christ is in our midst.

Deeper into the Desert

Tags

,

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

“Little Giddings”
(No. 4 of “Four Quartets”)
T.S. Eliot

I started this blog nearly three years ago as a way of publicly recording my wanderings in the desert with God. I fancied myself as a western Poustinik…one called into the desert by God and whom would then periodically return with a message for the village. Being a Poustinik felt like my role in the church in which I was an associate pastor.

There have been significant changes in my life since I started writing here, changes which have included two major job changes and a move to another state. Perhaps you notice from the dates of the blog entries that I have only posted twice in the last year. Circumstances in my life have brought me to a point of working out of the vocational pastorate. But, that is not why my blogging has greatly decreased.

Over the past couple of years I have been discovering Eastern Orthodoxy. That journey has culminated (can one use that word with a journey that is really just beginning?) with me and my wife being received into the Church on Holy Saturday. We have finally come home.

We have seen the true light! We have received the heavenly Spirit! We have found the true Faith! Worshipping the undivided Trinity, who has saved us.

This is from a prayer sung during the Liturgy. The Orthodox believe the fullness of the faith–the fullness of God–is found by participating in the ancient Church. I’m not going to try to defend that statement; I don’t feel a need to. I simply believe it is true because the Church Herself proclaims it. I am experiencing it.

The Orthodox also believe that God is incomprehensible, but that you have the know Him to know that. Like Eliot’s poem, I have been exploring God for many years now, including sixty hours of formal, post graduate study. With Eliot’s traveller, I feel like I have arrived back at the beginning of my exploration: an infant in Christ.

The Orthodox Divine Liturgy is the very real journey from this world into the kingdom of God itself worshipping the Trinity with all the heavenly hosts, and then returning to this world. In my participation in this journey I have realized that I am only beginning to glimpse the incomprehensibility of God, only beginning to realize just how little I know Him and His revealed nature.

Before Him, before the men and women past and present who have given their lives to Him in a way that is so far beyond anything I have done I simply have nothing to say. Rather, I need to be quiet and listen and experience God through Him and His worldly saints.

I pray God draws me deeper into the desert, deeper into Him. Perhaps I’ll write here again here one day. Only God knows.

Journey Into Humility

Tags

, , ,

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. -Apostle Paul, Philippians 2:5-8

I know a man, once at the top of his profession.  He has a long list of credentials. He travelled the world as a representative of the world’s largest company in his industry. He worked with other companies and governments on matters of international regulation.  At times he had individual’s lives in his hands.  Now, he works in what most consider as an entry level job in his profession.

I know a woman, considered an expert in her field.  She held a prominent position in one of the largest organizations of its kind in the world.  She knows state and federal law applicable to her field.  She has spoken at national conventions and has consulted across the country. She has coached and influenced the lives of hundreds.  Now it is hard for her to be accepted into an occasional volunteer position in her field.

I know a man, once a spiritual leader of hundreds, ordained by his denomination.  He has years of advanced study behind him.  He has taught at the university level and led spiritual retreats across the country.  He now attends a beginners class with other new believers in his own faith.

Humility is a curious thing.  Someone once said that the moment we think we are humble we have lost it.  We often think of a humble person as one who does not seek to be noticed and if noticed is quick to deflect praise and give credit to another.  The humble person might say, “I didn’t do anything special,” or “I didn’t do anything anyone else would’t have done,” or “I didn’t really contribute anything, Jane did much more than I did.”

I think this is humility, but that it is so much more.

Let’s go a little deeper and consider cleaning toilets.  I have cleaned toilets for Christ.  In my zeal to help another, I have cleaned toilets on occasion.  And I have come to see the pride in that: “Look at me, everyone, I am such a good Christian that I clean toilets.”  There is no humility in that attitude!  But, what if the only job you could get is cleaning toilets?  What if, despite all of your years of schooling, your vast experience and expertise, your accumulated wisdom, etc., what if all anyone would hire you to do is to clean toilets?  This is a different level of humility.  Would you take the job or would you consider it beneath you?  If you took the job, would you do it daily as though you were doing it for God?

Deeper.  Imagine a private screening of your life story, but you see your actions through the eyes of others.    You see and hear the real story behind the story, how hurtful your actions have been, how self-centered your life really is…the lasting pain you have caused another.  My first response would be to quickly look around to ensure no one else was watching my movie.  Could you stand to watch as the all scenes unfolded or would you hide your eyes during the painful moments and relish the joyful ones?  Would you have the courage to not rationalize away all that you saw, but to face who you are?

Still deeper.  Think of what it would be like to reveal to another human the darkest side of yourself through the stories of the deeds and thoughts you have just witnessed.  Facing the shame of who we are is hard enough in the privacy of our own minds; however, would you have the courage to reveal it to another?  Not just to reveal the things you could bear revealing, but to reveal the deepest, darkest part of you?  What would it do to us?  Would we feel crushed?    Or…would we feel sorrow in the depths of our soul?

It is here, I believe, that humility and repentance become one.

But this is the one to whom I [God] will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at My word.

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart— These, O God, You will not despise.

True humility is an emptiness of self so that one can turn to and be filled with God (repentance).  It is realizing that we are nothing but dust with the life-giving breath of the Holy Spirit in us making us into the image of God Himself.  It is realizing that, as dust, we cannot even fully grasp the fulness of our own wretchedness.  However, it is not, ultimately, self-abuse.

St Gregory of Sanai says it well:

…true humility does not say humble words, nor does it assume humble looks, it does not force oneself either to think humbly of oneself, or to abuse oneself in self-belittlement. Although all such things are the beginning, the manifestations and the various aspects of humility, humility itself is grace, given from above. There are two kinds of humility, as the holy fathers teach: to deem oneself the lowest of all beings and to ascribe to God all one’s good actions. The first is the beginning, the second the end.

Image and Likeness

Tags

, , , , , ,

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness…”
From the story of creation, Genesis 1:26

I’m sitting in a small beach house on the Gulf of Mexico and calling it work. Really, I am working…you will have to trust me on that. It is just that right now the work involves waiting on a client.

While I’m waiting I have these few minutes to enjoy God’s creation and to ponder what it means that we are made in God’s image and likeness.

Some biblical commentators have suggested that image and likeness are the same, that the writer of Genesis says the same thing twice and in two different ways to make the strong point of our value as humans.

I recently came across another explanation that I find more theologically satisfying.

“In the beginning…” as the Book says, God and the first humans were united; humankind was by Grace what God is by nature. All was “good” until our first parents fell for a lie. The consequence of their disobedience of God changed humanity; our respective natures, God’s and man’s, were no longer united. Without God’s Spirit within us we became bound to the dust out of which we were created rather than bound to our Creator. To speak like the late Carl Sagan, we became the stuff of the creation rather than the stuff of the Creator.

God’s words from Genesis 3:16–

For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.

Our union with God now broken, there was no way for us to remain in the Garden of Eden, the garden of perfect harmony with our Creator. We had to leave. It remained that way for us for untold years, and, left to our own devices, there was no way to return, no way to reunite human nature with Divine nature. Separation of our nature from God’s, and being nothing but dust, would have been our eternal fate had God chosen not to act on our behalf.

At the moment of our separation from Him he announced that He had a plan for our restoration to Him, a plan to rescue us from being bound to the dust which is the world. Then one day, over two thousand years ago, Jesus was born and God’s rescue operation was made evident in the person of a baby.

One of the central beliefs of Christianity is that Jesus was both God and man, both human and Divine. I think we so often focus on Jesus’ death that we forget the significance of His birth. At the moment of His conception and manifest in His birth, human nature and Divine nature were reunited. Jesus became, as the Bible tells us, the second Adam. This has the most profound implication for us! Because of His birth it became possible for each of us to be reunited with God. With the birth of Jesus, the potential now existed for us to return home.

This potential is how the early Church Fathers came to understand our being made in the “image” of God: it is the potential for our “sanctification,” for our two natures, God’s and ours, to be united (called Theosis). And it is this potential that gives us value as humans over any other living thing: we are created in the image of God. Each of us humans has the potential to have our individual nature united with God’s nature. There are some who would try to confer “personhood” on apes or dolphins or other creatures based on intelligence, language use, etc.; however, no other creature has the potential to be united with God; humans alone are created in the image of God.

With this understanding of “image,” here is a great quote from the late Archbishop Dimitri of Dallas I want to throw in at this point:

The greatest danger in the modern world is the attack on man as the image of God. That God became man in order to unite man to God is the only sure Divine underwriting of human worth. We have value because of the image we bear.

If this potential of united natures is “image of God,” then what is “likeness?” It is simple, really. If “image” is the potential of union with God, then “likeness” is the actualization of that union. To actualize the potential, we must do two things. First, we must give God permission to begin drawing us into His life.

There are a lot of fancy theological words bandied about regarding Christianity. The bottom line is that God wants to invite us into His life, an unimaginable life of unconditional love. The ancients characterized this communal life of God the Father, God the Son (Jesus), and God the Holy Spirit, as a Divine Dance (perichoresis). God draws us into His life and wants desperately to teach us the steps of the dance.

This, then, is the second thing we must do: we must learn to cooperate with Him as He teaches us how to live life with Him, to dance the Divine Dance. And He is a gracious and patient dance instructor.

The most remarkable thing is that God wants this for each of us. After all, it is God’s desire that no one should spend an eternity dancing alone, disunited from Him. However, not everyone wants that sort of union with God.

So, look around you. Every human being you see bears the image of God. From the most kind person to the most hated terrorist, every one of us is an icon, an image of the living God. Every human being has inestimable value to God. Imagine a world in which we treated each other that way. Better yet, imagine a world in which this potential is fully realized. One day we won’t have to imagine this actualized world…it is God’s promised kingdom come. I pray that by God’s Grace within me, I will see you there.

Not Willing that Any should Perish

Tags

, , , ,

The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is long suffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.
  –From Peter’s second letter; 2Peter 3:9

I’ve been wondering lately about my view of my life and my sense of time.  More specifically, I’m coming to believe that my view of my life is too narrow and my sense of time too linear.

For a while, and in this blog you have read it, I have believed that the ultimate goal of life is relational union with God.  “Union with God” can be said differently: to know Him, where “know” is the most intimate knowing of another person; or, to be one with Him; or, to participate in the life of the Trinity; or, to partake of His Divine nature; or, to join the Divine Dance (Gr. perichoresis) with the Trinity.  We struggle to put words to it because it is a mystery.  Not a mystery in the sense that we must puzzle it out; rather, a genuine mystery in that no human really knows how it happens, only that it does and is the goal of our existence.

Over the past few years I have been pretty good at noticing God at work in the circumstances of my current life as He works to draw me into relational union with Him; I try to notice and cooperate as moment-by-moment he teaches me the steps of the Divine Dance with Him.

But, what if the “moment” is more than I have previously thought?

I’ve begun thinking about my linear view of time within the specific context of the ultimate goal of my life.  And, I’m thinking about this for a reason: I’m in the middle of a radical life change of direction.  So, within the context of the ultimate goal for my life and my immediate, upcoming change, here is what I’m thinking…

For a number years I’ve been praying along with the ancient Israeli King, David, that God would do whatever He needed to in my life in order to rid me of the distortions and attachments and wounds within me that hinder my relationship with Him.  Or, as a past writer, Julian of Norwich, would have put it, I pray that I might be “oned” with God.  It is a dangerous prayer, but I have meant it, at least as I have understood what it meant.

I have been alive nearly two score and eighteen years.  All this time I have viewed my life as a linear journey through time which has brought me to this point.  But, what if time collapses to a single moment, a moment which contains my birth, my lived life, and my death, all simultaneously?  And, what if God, aware of my later life prayer to do with me whatever is necessary to bring me into relational oneness with Him, actually began to answer that prayer from the moment of my birth?  Wouldn’t that change how I view my path through life?

This is not as preposterous as it might first sound.  For at least the first thousand years, the Christian Church believed this.  Even today, when celebrating the resurrection of Jesus at Easter, we say, “Christ is risen,” not “Christ has risen.”

Today, the Eastern Orthodox Church believes that as we participate in the Divine Liturgy, what the Western Church might refer to as Sunday morning worship, all of time collapses into the present moment.  All that was, is, and is yet to be is fully present in the moment…all of past history and future events are occurring simultaneously in the present.  Another mystery, to say the least.

I have occasionally said this about important moments in my life: “All the events of my life have brought me to this point.”  But I have meant that in an autonomous sense.  Let me try  to give an example.  I say about my meeting my wife that I had to take the path through life that I did so that our paths would cross on that day more than 27 years ago.  She had nothing to do with any of my life decisions that ultimately brought us together prior to our meeting; it was all me.  She played no role in it, it was all me up to that wonderful day.  Sometimes we attribute such things to “fate.”

I believe that this autonomous living is how I have thought of God’s involvement in my life prior to my turning to Him fifteen years ago.  I now realize that I have believed I moved through life making choices until I finally made a choice for Him, and there He was waiting for me.  Not too different from the way I would say I met my wife.  Whether fate, dumb luck—whatever the mechanism—I have generally thought of my life-before-God as life-with-no-God-involvement-until-I-turned-to-Him.  It is a common enough teaching of the Church.  I have taught it!

But, what if at the moment of my birth (actually, from the moment of all creation) God knew that in my fifties I would be desperately praying for Him to rid me of the junk in my life that keeps me from being oned with Him?  The implication is this: rather than God sitting back waiting for me to turn to Him, I now believe that from the moment of my birth He was active in my life answering the prayer He knew I would pray more than fifty years later.

For there is not a word on my tongue,
But behold, O Lord, You know it altogether…
Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed.
And in Your book they all were written,
The days fashioned for me,
When as yet there were none of them.
–A Psalm of King David

In other words, I’m moving toward believing that God began answering my prayer of oneness with Him the moment I prayed it; but because all moments exist together, His answer included all of my life before I prayed the prayer.

Yeah, I know…this brings up all kinds of questions of my free will and God’s will for me…a debate with a long history within Christianity.  But the intertwining of two free wills, God’s and mine, is nothing if not also a mystery.  Goodness, the intertwining of mine and my wife’s respective free wills is mysterious enough!!

So, what’s the point of all this?  Well, as I look back over my life at the decisions I’ve made, good and bad, at least from my perspective, and the resulting path I’ve taken, I have a choice of how to assess it.  On the one hand I can believe that I was slogging through life alone until I finally turned to God.  On the other hand I can believe God was in my life always, working at answering my “future” prayer to be oned with Him.

If I believe the former, then I can easily fall into regret for decisions made and the path I took.  Then I make myself feel better by saying that God will “redeem it” for some future use.

However, if I believe the latter, that God was at work all of my life answering my prayer, then my entire life is an answered prayer. Because of my own free will and my refusal to acknowledge Him for more than 40 years, He answered my “future” prayer the only way He could, which is the path of life I have lived.  Therefore, my life path is not something to be regretted and “redeemed”; rather, it is something for which to be utterly thankful.