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

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

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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.