Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me. —Jesus (Matthew 25:40)
A few months ago I was walking toward a store in a downtown area. About a block from my destination was a homeless young man. He was very much the stereotypical: ragged, dirty, worldly possessions in a shopping cart, and holding a cardboard sign asking for any help. I stopped and asked him his name. He gave it and the manner of his reply led me to think that mentally he was not quite “all there.” I told him I’d be praying for him and gave him $20. As I did, I told him my name and asked that he pray for me. He assured me he would.
When Jesus’ mother and step-father presented Him in the Temple shortly after His birth, as was the Jewish custom of the day, a man, Simeon, was there waiting. God had promised Simeon he would see the One who would be the salvation of all humankind. Upon seeing Jesus, Simeon said:
Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and…[through Him] the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. (Luke 2:34-35)
The judgment of God is a mysterious thing. He doesn’t pronounce judgement like a human magistrate based on some Book of Regulations and sentencing guidelines; rather, God’s judgement is as Simeon says it is: God revealing our hearts to ourselves in the light of His reality. This is what Jesus did during His so-called earthly ministry. In the words of Fr Stephen Freeman:
As [Jesus] is increasingly revealed, everything around Him is revealed as well. Things are shown to be more clearly what they are. Those who hate Him, begin to be revealed as plotters and murderers. What was once only thoughts and feelings of envy become plots and perjury. The power of Rome is unmasked for its injustice, mere people-pleasing. The High Priest is revealed to believe that the destruction of God is good for his nation. The weakness of the disciples and the empty boasting of Peter and the rest are shown for their true emptiness. The sin of the world is revealed in the death of God…But the righteous are revealed as well. The steadfast love of the Mother of God never wavered before the Cross. Her faithfulness is revealed. The kindness of Joseph of Arimathea is forever marked by an empty tomb. The tears of a harlot reveal the nature of love, even hidden beneath the deeds of her life. In the judgment of God, all things are simply shown to be what they truly are. Sin is seen to be sin. Love is seen to be love. There is clarity. And in the judgment of God, His own love is shown to be what it truly is—self-sacrificing, forgiving, relentless in its mercy.
In the quote at opening of this post, Jesus tells us that what I do, or fail to do, for my neighbor reveals my heart’s attitude toward Jesus. By loving and responding to the needs of the poor, the downtrodden, those in prison, the widows, the orphans, and, yes, even my enemies, my love of God is revealed for what it truly is. As one saint said, “If I do not love my neighbor and my enemy, I do not love God.” Sometimes, God is even more direct with us by giving us the opportunity to be hospitable, or not, to an angel without our knowing. (Hebrews 13:2).
I have often wondered what it will be like when I stand before God under His judgment. I am certain God will reveal that my heart contains both sheep—my meager love of God and my neighbor and goat—my self-centered love of me. How can I be so certain? Because my encounter with this homeless man was such a moment of God’s judgment in my life.
When I first approached the young man, my mind was filled with rapid-fire throughs like: It’s my money…The kid might use this cash for drugs, alcohol, etc…He should get himself together and make something of himself as I did…Lord, have mercy on Your child…How good a guy am I for helping out this poor fellow…I’ll show him my humility by asking for his prayers, too….He needs to know someone sees him as a person.
These warring thoughts were a mixture of genuine compassion for this human, made in the image of God, along with my love of money, my judgmentalism, and my pride. I could clearly recognize bleating of sheep and goats coexisting in my heart.
St Paul says:
…each one’s work [love for neighbor and God] will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each one’s work. If anyone’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet only so as through fire. ( 1Corinthians 3:13-15)
God’s love is fire. It is experienced by sheep as a comforting, loving embrace and by goats as a consuming inferno.
A couple of hours later I was headed back toward my car. The homeless young man was still sitting by the tree. He saw me coming and his countenance brightened. In his stilted speech, he said “Hey, Mr. Mike! How are you doing! I’ll be sure and pray for you.”
I had forgotten his name.
The embarrassment of the moment was God’s gift to me. He gave me a brief, albeit painful glimpse into the smallness of my own heart as I was once again blistered by the fire of God’s transforming love for me as it burned away a bit of my broken self.
St John Chrysostom said, “The rich exist for the sake of the poor. The poor exist for the salvation of the rich.” I need people like this homeless man in my life; I need everyone in my life. How I respond to those whose paths I cross affords God the opportunity to reveal to me my inner sheep and goat. If I am willing for God to show me the state of my true heart, and if I will endure the resulting shame, repent for it, and accept God’s unfathomable forgiveness and love for me…well, this is the path to salvation, isn’t it: to descend with Jesus into the hell of my own heart where, I pray, He will raise me up to eternal life with Him.
The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there. —St. Macarius
I can only imagineWhat it will be like
When I walk by Your side
I can only imagine
What my eyes would see
When Your face is before me
I can only imagine
Surrounded by Your glory
What will my heart feel?
Will I dance for You Jesus
Or in awe of You be still?
Will I stand in Your presence
Or to my knees, will I fall?
Will I sing hallelujah?
Will I be able to speak at all?
I can only imagine
I can only imagine“I Can Only Imagine,” Mercy Me
If you’ve listened to Christian radio since 2002 you have undoubtably heard this song, “I Can Only Imagine,” by Mercy Me. It was the most popular Christian song played in 2002 and even cracked the mainstream chart Top 100 in 2003. As a matter is full disclosure, I have seen the band twice, and each time they have performed this song. It is a great song.
For all humans, it captures our deepest longing, as Augustine famously said, “Our hearts are restless until it rests with [God].” For the Christian, the lyric is particularly powerful. It provides a magnificent vision of what it will be like when we are finally face-to-face with our greatest love…Jesus. The song’s words express our deepest emotions and longing in a way that most of us cannot formulate.
I’d like to be able to tell you that the imagery certainly captures what I hope to experience: the overwhelming relief of a good finish to my life, a race well run, a battle well fought, along with the overwhelming sense of wonder and worship at finally being in the presence of ineffable glory of Jesus Himself. To finally find true rest in God free from the weariness of this world.
I’d like to be able to tell you that…but I can’t.
The Divine Liturgy celebrated in the Orthodox church (“Eastern Orthodox”) has been an enigma to my western, enlightened mind. A mystery would be a better description…and a “mystery” in the truest sense. From the opening words of the Liturgy, “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit now and forever unto ages of ages” to the final “Amen,” the Church has always assumed that during the Divine Liturgy the worshippers are actually(!) in the Kingdom that is both at hand and is to come, the place where all time exists in the present moment: Christ, the lamb slain before creation; the promise to Abraham; the Passover meal, the Last Supper, and the final Wedding Banquet; the giving of the Law to Moses; the birth, death, resurrection, and second coming of Jesus…all moments present in the moment. Further, in the Kingdom, where every knee now bows, we are worshipping God with all those who were, are, and will yet be, and with the tens of thousands of angelic beings. During the Liturgy we are in the very presence of the Most Holy Trinity, which means Jesus is also there, and Jesus is most literally fully present in bodily form in the transfigured bread and wine.
Honestly, though, during the Liturgy it is usually hard for me to feel like I am actually in the Kingdom and in the presence God, but it is not about “feeling” a particular way; rather it is about my faith, believing it to be true.
I can only image…Given this mystery of the Divine Liturgy, I don’t have to image what it will be like in God’s presence as though it is some future event. I can dare say I am in His presence during every Liturgy. And the body and blood of Jesus literally become part of me as I ingest Him from the Eucharist chalice. However, for me, being in Jesus’ presence it bears no resemblance to the song, above. Often, my feet and back ache from standing and I’m quite distracted by kids or others moving about or by my own mind wandering to the events of yesterday and tomorrow.
In those moments when I am able to tame the distractions, I do become aware of the Kingdom and I am overcome by the words of the Liturgy: “It is meet and right to hymn Thee, to bless Thee, to praise Thee, to give thanks unto Thee, and to worship Thee in every place of Thy dominion; for Thou art God ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever-existing, and eternally the same…”
And then I am immediately aware how far I am from God in my expression of love for Him and my neighbor. Sometimes I do have the urge to fall to my knees, as the song imagines, but it is in repentance for my failure to be able to love Him and you, dear reader, as He loves both of us.
Such is being in the actual presence of the consuming fire that is God.
Being in the presence of God brings me pain and shame from my Pride, Anger, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Avarice, Slothfulness…each of these is at work within me to lead me away from Life Himself. I feel the shame. And, I experience the pain of His all-consuming fire that is His love for me as the Spirit slowly, so slowly, works in me to burn away the goat in my heart. I pray there will be found some sheep in me and that I will be saved through the His loving fire.
Being in the presence of God brings me fear. I too often believe the words of the serpent telling me that I can’t trust God. I want retain control of just enough of my own life so I can salvage it in the event I find I can’t really trust God. I’m like the character in the C.S. Lewis novel, The Great Divorce, who has a lizard-parasite on his shoulder. He is afraid for it to be removed; he doesn’t believe he will become truly himself without it. Like him, I’m comfortable with my demons; removing them is to give up control, to move toward the unknown—in trusting faith. I pray I would have the faith of Christ and come to fully trust God.
Despite the pain, shame, and fear I experience in His presence, I can’t seem to stop walking deeper into His fire. Where else would I go? Jesus has the words of eternal life. His refining fire draws me like a moth. What God most wants from me is no more than He has already offered to me: Himself. He has first offered me a gift that cost Him the death of His Son; it is His gift to me of immeasurable cost and value. What He wants from me is a gift of similar value: all of me. But God’s refining fire still burns me—this is the suffering of becoming one with God. Yet God doesn’t want my fear and pain and shame; He is not a wrathful God. Rather, me bearing my fear, shame, and pain is the cost I to me to give the gift of myself to Him. And when I can no longer bear it, God offers me rest along the way.
While there have been many article written and movies made that focus on Jesus’ agony of His scourging and subsequent death on the cross, the biblical writers actually have little to say about it. Rather, they focus on God’s gift to us in the person of Jesus and the joy of Christ as He faced the cross…His gift to us. This should inform how we think of sacrificial gift-giving.
Rather than me focusing on my suffering, my pain, my shame, and my fear, I should focus on the gift I want to give God—the all-of-me-I-am-able-to-give gift. It is by focusing on the gift and not the cost where we find the peace and joy of Christ. This, after all, is His promise: “Come to Me and I will give you rest.” There is no need to imagine. We can experience it now.
With the stories of anger and violence in the world, this question has been on my mind: “How far am I willing to go to defend myself?”
Let me set side the question of facing a life-threatening self-defense. Rather, I’d like to focus on self-threatening (ego-threatening) scenarios that arise for us every day in any of many ways: An impatient driver curses another driver who was doing nothing wrong; a woman in a checkout line fumbles with her credit card while trying to manage three unruly kids as the man behind her grumbles loudly about her poor parenting; a man sends an email to a coworker who badly misconstrues its intent and responds with angry accusations. You get the idea.
I think it is a human tendency to want to respond when falsely accused; at least it is my strong tendency. It seems to be my “natural” impulse to get my feelings hurt and want to set the record straight when wronged. And, most sadly, I often want to respond in such a way that hurts the feelings of the offender just as they hurt me (an eye for an eye). Aristotle thought this way, too. He went so far as to make the resenting of someone who offends us a measure of our “manhood.” From his work The Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes: “Not to resent offenses is the mark of a base and slavish man.” And there can be an upside to responding publicly: having a witty social media response to an affront can gain one followers and boost one’s own ego.
But then there is Jesus:
The chief priests accused [Jesus] of many things. So again Pilate asked him, “Aren’t you going to answer? See how many things they are accusing you of.” But Jesus still made no reply, and Pilate was amazed. (Mark 15:3-5)
Jesus was on trial for His life and made no effort to refute the false accusations against Him. Given our “natural” impulses to right the wrong offenses against us, Jesus’ silence is most extraordinary. But, I find it remarkable for still another reason. Jesus was about to be the victim of a horrible injustice, perhaps the worst of injustices: to be tortured and executed for something of which He was innocent. It’s not only that Jesus was an innocent victim, He was the only “pure victim” who ever existed. That is to say, not only was Jesus innocent of what He was being accused, Jesus had never committed any wrongful act that added to the overall sinfulness in the world.
Let’s talk about this.
When unjustly wronged or offended, I am quick to pronounce my innocence, even if only to myself. However, in truth I am never a pure victim. An example: Out of my impatience I cut off another driver in traffic. That driver takes home his anger at me and is critical of an action of his wife. In her hurt, she fails to recognize her daughter has had a bad day at school. On it goes. My sinful thoughts and actions radiate outward from me into the world. I bear some responsibility for all the evil that happens because my sin contributes to the overall condition of the world.
There is a story about the writer/theologian G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936). It is said that he was asked to contribute to an article explaining what was wrong with the world of his day. He responded with two words on a postcard: “I am.”
This is not to say that I deserve whatever bad things might befall me; I am only asserting that I am never a pure victim in my own circumstances. Consequently, because of my sinfulness I must take some responsibility for all sin in the world.
So, how should I live in this world and bear some responsibility for the evil around me? Accept the responsibility. Below are radically counter-cultural approaches by two saints:
If a murderer somewhere murders, it is my fault for not being a saint and not having prayed effectually for his repentance, the murderer’s “nature/nurture” background makes him blameless, and mine actually makes me blameworthy. —St Paisios the Athonite
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
In his classic novel, The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky’s Father Zossima says,
There is only one salvation for you: take yourself up, and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men. For indeed it is so, my friend, and the moment you make yourself sincerely responsible for everything and everyone, you will see at once that it is really so, that it is you who are guilty on behalf of all and for all.
I don’t do any of this very well. Here is an ancient “test” I came across (based on St John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent):1
What is your reaction when you are insulted? 1) I restrain my heart not to answer back, then I have put my feet on the first rung of the ladder; 2) I restrain my heart and I pray for the one who has offended me; then I am on the second step of divine ascent; 3) I not only pray for, but I feel sorry that my offender has suffered harm to his soul by insulting me and I feel compassion toward him. My feet are on the third rung; 4) I rejoice that I have been humiliated for the Lord’s sake. this is the fourth rung of the ladder.
Applying this test to myself, I admit that my feet are usually firmly anchored to the ground; I feel unable to lift even one foot to the lowest rung.
To again quote St Paul, “Who will save me from my wretchedness?” Jesus, of course.2
In an often quoted passage from the Bible, Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through me.”3 We Christians often use this as proof that the gate into Heaven is belief in Jesus. However, it is easy to overlook the first part: “I am the Way.”
As mentioned above, the Way of Jesus was silence before His accusers. It was facing (with joy!) the shame of the humiliation of executioner’s cross; it was descending into Hades to draw everyone who had already died to Him; only then did He ascend into Heaven.
His way must be our way: to go down into Hell with Jesus before we go up with Him into Heaven. To go down is to strive for the humility of Jesus Who could stand silent before His accusers. To voluntarily go down into Hell with Jesus is to become immune to the accusations of Satan who wants us full of pride.
In other words, I must work at becoming humble. I must strive to literally put myself in the Way of Jesus (think of being in the way of someone on a narrow mountain trail). Of course my attempts at finding humility will be puny, but I must try. Being in Jesus’ Way attracts the Grace of God, which is my only hope for true, transformative humility.4
Here is a concrete example of stepping in Jesus’ Way:
St Paul claimed to be the chief of all sinners. It is a statement repeated by each Orthodox Christian during the Divine Liturgy during the communal pre-communion prayer of St John Chrysostom. Only by repeating this prayer and through by the Grace of God can we begin to actually see ourselves as the chief of all sinners. We begin to recognize that others are as wounded as we are, and, as such, it slowly becomes possible for us to begin to truly love our neighbor and our enemy as commanded by Jesus.
Defending myself against offense comes from my pride; I want to be right, or to be acceptable, or to have my way…the list of consequences of my pride is long. Our pride, however, is in direct opposition to the humility of God Who willingly gave up His “rights” as God to become man and live among us and to be killed by us, His creation, so that He might offer us the Way to eternal life with Him.
On the night Jesus was betrayed, his disciple Peter tried to defend Jesus from the mob sent to capture Him. With a sword, Peter sliced off the ear of a servant. Jesus rebuked Peter for his violent resistance and miraculously restored the ear of the servant. In the words of one commentator, our resistance to an offense simply makes our “enemy” deaf to the message of Jesus. When I defend myself, I am cutting off the ear of my offender; in my angry reaction they cannot hear the love of Jesus.
So, what is the proper response to an unfounded accusation or insult against me? Here is what St Isaac the Syrian (7th century) says:
Let yourself be persecuted, but do not persecute others. Be crucified, but do not crucify others. Be slandered, but do not slander others. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep: such is the sign of purity. Suffer with the sick. Be afflicted with sinners. Rebuke no one, revile no one, not even those who live very wickedly. Spread your cloak over those who fall into sin, each and every one, and shield them. And if you cannot take the fault on yourself and accept punishment in their place, do not destroy their character.
Christians often recall Jesus’ words as, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” (in Leviticus). However, Fr Thomas Hopko relates that it cannot possibly be translated this way. Rather, it says, “You shall love your neighbor as being your own self.” In other words, your neighbor is your true self. You have no self in yourself.5
On the cross, Jesus prayed for the forgiveness of all. May we, too, be able to forgive everyone for everything. We will fail, but we try again. This is how we are saved.
It came to me that every time I lose a dog they take a piece of my heart with them, and every new dog who comes into my life gifts me will a piece of their heart. If I live long enough all the components of my heart will be dog, and will become loving as they are. -Anonymous
Leroy, our dog of more than 10 years died last month. He was a little guy with feet too big for his body; something upon which everyone who met him commented. Those big feet have left enormous footprints in our lives.
He was part of our family. As a Caviler King Charles Spaniel, I think Leroy knew his breed contained the word “king.” As the “king,” he demanded our attention, usually in the best of ways. While he was happy to be fed, walked, and have his ear scratched, his greatest delight seemed to come from simply being near us.
Anyone who has had a dog knows of the unconditional love they can show. Leroy didn’t care about how we looked, how we dressed, how we spoke, our politics, our morality, our economic status, our jobs, our education, the color of our skin, our country of origin…I don’t ever recall an argument with him or getting a lecture from him on any of those subjects. Instead, whenever our eyes would meet, his tail would wag, which made me smile.
I think their hearts are what first attracts us to our dogs and makes us fall in love with them. Leroy’s heart was always open to me, inviting me in, and, despite its small physical size, his heart was big enough to hold without judgment all that was me.
Looking back on the moments we shared together, I am aware that Leroy was simply always fully present in the moment; he was never lost in his past or worried about his future. Sadly, I was rarely fully present with him. Too often I was elsewhere, “anywhere but here, anytime but now.” My mind was too noisy and my heart was too small for his 25 pounds. Even so, with his big eyes, big feet, and his heart bigger than mine, Leroy always accepted from me without complaint the little or the much I could offer him in that moment. It is a remarkable offering of love.
Why could I not be as fully present in our moments together as Leroy was with me? Why is my heart too small for even a little dog?
Well, it seems to be a hallmark of humanity to live in our heads and to be anywhere but “now.” While the mind is not evil, its needs and desires are endless. So are its fears…Analysis [which can be good] is achieved by the mind…the mind does not have an “off” switch. When we are not actually using it, it carries on under its own power behaving as if it were in charge and issuing a constant stream of comments and challenges, almost all of which are of a negative character…The stream of thoughts is negative because the mind dwells in a land of unrelenting desire and boundless fear, and it attempts to influence us to experience these two areas as our rightful home…The mind prefers to work in the past or future, since these dimensions are both actually constructs of the mind’s own workings and thus the mind controls them. The present moment, however, is completely outside its control and therefore ignored.1
The human mind races; we learn to do that from the youngest age. We look at everything and render analysis and judgment: safe or dangerous, tasty or sickening, beautiful or ugly, good or bad. We need analysis and judgment; however, if your head is like mine, it too often runs amok in ways that are not relationally or psychologically or spiritually helpful.
And even my morality—which comes from my Christianity and, admittedly, sometimes from my culture—encourages judgment: Are you one of us or one of them? Sinner or saint? Woke or not? Progressive or conservative? Pro-choice or pro-life? Noise, always noise.
The noise in my head can be deafening. How I long to have the large heart of little Leroy that was fully present to me and fully accepting of me; like him, I want to have room in my heart for the person in front of me, simply taking in all that they are.
The dark storm-clouds of life bring no terror to those in whose hearts Your fire is burning brightly. Outside [i.e., in the mind] is the darkness of the whirlwind, the terror and howling of the storm, but in the heart, in the presence of Christ, there is light and peace, silence. The heart sings, Alleluia!2
Silence is the language of the heart, silence is the language of Heaven, silence is the language of God. The Church has always known of this “silence.” In fact, the very purpose of the ascetical practices (“spiritual disciplines”) of the ancient Church are to give us a way, working in synergy with God, to quiet our thoughts (control our disordered passions) so that our “minds will descend into our hearts” where Christ dwells within us. It is the way find to St Paul’s “peace from God that passes understanding.”
Rather than dwelling in our hearts in the moment, experiencing God by contemplating whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—anything that is excellent or praiseworthy (Phil 4:8), we focus on the voice of Satan and stay in our minds dwelling on the thoughts, emotions, and feelings of gluttony, lust or fornication, avarice or love of money, dejection or sadness, anger, despondency or listlessness, vainglory, and pride.3
The Church warns us about these unchecked “deadly thoughts”—this constant noise in our heads—because the language of God is silence; not silence of emptying my head of all the “noise”; rather, it is the silence that comes from filling my mind with God so that I let my mind descend into my heart where Jesus dwells.
You, me, God…we are not things to be judged, items to be sorted, categorized, and labelled; rather, we are persons to be experienced, beings to share life together. I don’t want to judge you (though I do); there is already too much of that. And God knows there is good and bad in me—my heart contains both sheep and goats—so that you could very easily judge me.
Life is is not about being “right” it’s about being together, sharing life with each other and with God. Interestingly enough, Jesus never once suggested to His disciples that they be right. What He did demand is that they be righteous.4 To be “righteous” is to share in the life of God, which is to be on the journey to becoming “fully human” in which I see myself as part of humanity—all of us “in Him”—and not as an isolated being.
The past is gone and the future is not here. The only reality is the present moment. It is the only place God exists.
In the madness of this world and in the noise in my head, being fully in the moment where, in the presence of Christ, I will find Christ’s light and peace, silence. And my heart will sing, Alleluia!
Join me in learning from Leroy. Try to inhabit the present in the silence of Christ, so that with Him you might be fully with someone today. Please pray for me that I might, as well.
Webber, Metetios. Bread & Water, Wine & Oil: An Orthodox Christian Experience of God. 17-19.
“Akathist to the Glory of God.” Ode 5.
Called Logismoi, early Church Father Evagrius’ grouped them into eight deadly thoughts. These later became the “seven deadly sins” of Roman Catholicism.
You have heard, perhaps, a horrible scream in the dead of night. You may have heard the last shriek of a drowning man before he went down into his watery grave. You may have been shocked in passing a madhouse, to hear the wild shout of a madman…But listen now—listen to the tremendous, the horrible uproar of millions and millions and millions of tormented creatures mad with the fury of hell. Oh, the screams of fear, the groanings of horror, the yells of rage, the cries of pain, the shouts of agony, the shrieks of despair of millions on millions…Little child, it is better to cry one tear of repentance now than to cry millions of tears in hell. But what is that dreadful sickening smell? —Rev. John Furniss1
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about eternal damnation: the fires of Hell. Why? Two reasons, really. First, for 2,000 years the Christian Orthodox Church (“Eastern Orthodoxy”) has not believed in “once saved always saved.” While we believe in the grace and mercy of God, we do not presume to know our eternal destination or that of any other; rather, we are encouraged to focus on working out our own salvation with God’s help. Second, and relatedly, we are encouraged to think of the “consequences” given in the Bible as only applying to ourselves…to me. After all, I am the chief of sinners. We witness to the world and pray for all; however, the eternal destiny of me and all others is ultimately up to God.
So, from that context, I’ve been thinking about the various images of Hell. The one above is obviously terrifying. Others express the terror in other ways, such as “people will be tied back-to-back, never seeing the face of another.” But that, it seems to me, is just a slow descent into eternal madness.
Here is a thought I recently had: Certainly anyone who actually believes in eternal torment—eon upon eon of unending agony and screaming that is beyond anything we can conceive—also doesn’t believe they might actually be there one day. How could one live in such fear of what may come?
To manage my own fear, I have tried a couple of things that may sound familiar: I have assured myself that having said the “sinner’s prayer” I am no longer under threat of eternal agony; I have also worked to tip the moral scale in my favor just in case God judges like America’s Lady Justice; and, I have compared myself with that “other guy” to find assurance that I’m not so bad…a “nice” guy. Still…
But, really, though, if I seriously believe that God may indeed pour out His eternal wrath on me, then I should be doing more, working frenetically(!), in fact, to ensure I don’t end up in screaming torment while the clock never moves.
And more, if I really love you, my neighbor, as Jesus says, then I should be willing to do anything for you…or to you…to ensure you don’t end up there. In the name of my true love for you, then, I should be willing to do anything , including horribly torturing you now, if necessary, until you accept Jesus, rather than allow you to experience eternal torture.
Imagine with me that we have “made it” and are in Heaven. What about those we love who didn’t make it? Jesus knew His friends upon His resurrection. Besides, it is the people we have known who make us who we are. So, it seems unlikely that God will perform a “blessed lobotomy” on us so that we forget those we love. Won’t that spoil our bliss?
Continuing, then, imagine we are in Heaven, and somehow looking over the railing at those suffering in Hell. Perhaps we can satisfy ourselves that “they” had their chance and that “they” are getting what they deserve (I pray I don’t get what I so rightly deserve!). One way that this has been defended over the centuries is exampled by this quote from Puritan preacher Johnathon Edwards:
The view of the misery of the damned will double the ardor of the love and gratitude in heaven. —Jonathan Edwards2
Edwards, and others before and since, have believed that seeing the agony of those who “chose poorly” or were “predestined for God’s wrath” would actually increase the joy of those in Paradise with God.
Approaching it differently, however, George MacDonald wrote this:
Who, in the midst of the golden harps and the white wings, knowing that one of his kind, one miserable brother in the old-world-time when men were taught to love their neighbor as themselves , was howling unheeded far below in the vaults of creation, who, I say, would not feel the need that he must arise, that he had no choice, that, as awful as it was, he must gird his loins, and go down into the smoke and darkness and the fire, traveling the weary and fearful road into the far country to find his brother?—who, I mean, that had the mind of Christ, that had the love of the Father?3
Perhaps you can see why this has been on my mind. In light of God Who “so loved the world” as to send His Son, Jesus, to be born, live, and die for the sake of the world so that death and sin might be defeated, it is hard for me to reconcile this with the belief that most of humanity (Matt 7:13-14) will spend eternity screaming in tortured agony. MacDonald’s version, not Edwards’ seems Christ-like.
I am in no way suggesting that someone, say a Hitler, be given a “free pass to Paradise” after death. Life comes with consequences. However, to imagine that the consequence for turning from God in this “short” life is an eternal existence of agony seems counter to the love of God. Perhaps there may well be some age of unknown length for the resurrected unrepentant to have a change of heart. After all, God is infinite, not evil. God, we read in the Scriptures, will destroy sin, not relegate it to a corner of creation.
Of course I can see from my own life and my life’s experience that the threat of “consequences” is necessary to correct me and restore me to the right path. However, the threat of eternal punishment sounds like retributive punishment, since there is no possibility of restoration for the one punished. In fact, the idea of eternal, retributive punishment may do more harm than good. This, from a priest who has heard a lifetime of confessions:
The dogma of hell, except in the rarest of cases, did no moral good. It never affected the right persons. It tortured innocent young women and virtuous boys. It appealed to the lowest motives and the lowest characters. It never, except in the rarest instances, deterred from the commission of sin. It caused unceasing mental and moral difficulties…It always influenced the wrong people, and in the wrong way. It caused infidelity to some, temptation to others, and misery without virtue to most. —Rev Rudolph Suffield (1873)4
I may well be wrong in my thinking. One day I may find that God’s love for all mankind does include some kind of eternal existence in the darkness with teeth gnashing–Satan and the unrepentant continuing to exist in some corner of creation. I pray not because I am the chief of all sinners and my repentance is so poor. Please don’t wish eternal punishment on anyone, even your worst enemy. Don’t say, “I hope there’s a special place in Hell for that person” as I once used to say. Rather, pray for everyone, forgive everyone for everything. Repent for everything and everyone. To hope another goes to “Hell” is to risk your own salvation; after all, we only love God as much as we love others. (1John 2:8-11)
The possibility of an alternate view of life after death–a larger hope–has been around a very, very long time. Summarizing the Orthodox Church’s general doctrine, Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev writes:
The [Orthodox Church’s] teaching on [Christ’s] descent into Hades, as set forth in 1 Peter 3:18-21, however, brings an entirely new perspective into our understanding of the mystery of salvation. The death sentence passed by God does not mean that human beings are deprived of hopeful salvation because, failing to turn to God during their lifetimes, people could turn to Him in the afterlife, having heard Christ’s preaching in hell.5
Whether or not all followed Christ out of Hades is not held doctrinally by the Orthodox Church.6
If you are interested in reading more on a hopeful view of life after death, you can start with this list—click here. In light of the fact that there is good reason—argued for by many saints and scholars over the centuries—to have hope for the eventual salvation of all after death, why would anybody fight for the view of eternal punishment even for a single human?
We should have but one thought: that all should be saved. —St. Silouan the Athonite
I’ll close with this story I recently read (paraphrased, as I cannot remember the source):
Imagine all of the “saved”—either by God’s election or man’s freewill choice, whichever you prefer—gathered expectantly before the gates of Heaven, all eagerly awaiting admittance. Amid the joy, the singing, the fist-bumping, the congratulations, and the tears, a rumor begins to spread, slowly at first, but quickly gathering speed. “Hey, I just heard that everyone who ever lived will be admitted!” Song turns to shouting: “No way would God allow that!”…“Not fair!”…”I worked hard for this!”…”Who do they think they are!”…”Where are their years of sacrifice like I had to endure!”…”Keep ‘em out, this is our place; we love God!” The joyous gathering becomes an angry mob at the injustice of it. And, in an instant, the mob finds itself in hellfire. And that was the Last Judgment of God.
1 Furniss, John. The Sight of Hell. Ch XI-X. A book written for young children. Published 1874.
2 Quoted in Allin, Thomas. Christ Triumphant. 45. From Edwards’ 1739 sermon entitled, “The Eternity of Hell Torments.”
3 MacDonald, George. Unspoken Sermons, Series I: “Love Thy Neighbor.” Quoted in Hart, David Bentley, That All Shall Be Saved. 156.
4 Allin, Thomas. Christ Triumphant. 7.
5 Alfeyev, Hilerion. Christ the Conquerer of Hell. 212.
I write this blog anonymously. It is time to reveal my identity. I am actually quite famous. Perhaps you have heard of me. Many have written about me. Rembrandt painted me. Jesus Himself described my journey. I am the Prodigal Son.
If you know the story, then you know that when I was old enough, I grabbed all that was due me and left, leaving both my real home and my real Father. I went to a far-off land seeking fun and adventure.
I spent many years in that far-away place living what felt like the good life, reaching for and mostly finding the “American dream.” By all common metrics, I was at least moderately successful; certainly I was above average in my accomplishments. I left all that I was behind. I never called my Father. I never even texted Him.
As the years went by, something in my life began to seem amiss. I was beginning to experience a deep sense that there was something more to life than my American, upper middle-class existence. The foreign land in which I was living was beginning to feel very foreign indeed. I was mostly empty inside. The stuff of life, accomplishments and material things began to lose their interest for me. The banquet that the world was throwing began to taste like “food given to swine.” Looking back, I was “coming to myself.” That is the way Jesus tells it.
As the sparkle of the foreign land was diminishing, the thought of returning home began to increase. I had begun to realize what I was missing by being away all these years. Increasingly, I felt drawn back to my home and my Father. One day, I simply knew I had to go back. With the decision made, I didn’t hesitate; I started out for home. I was both eager and afraid. How would my Father respond? Along the way I planned what I would say when I got there. I would stand up straight and look Him in the eye as he had taught me to do. “Father,” I would say, “I have sinned against heaven, and in Your sight;I am no longer worthy to be called Your son; treat me as one of Your hired laborers.” Certainly that would soften Him toward me. All I knew is that I would do anything to be home again.
As I drew close to home so much looked familiar; it felt comfortable…and not. I had spent my youth here, but I had been gone for a long time. And, you know what they say about never being able to go home again.
I could see my house in the distance. And then I saw something else: I saw a figure running toward me. I couldn’t make out who it was. Was it someone sent to warn me to stay away? After all, I was an ungrateful son. Was it someone sent by my Father to test my motives for returning, to make sure I was properly humiliated by my actions? The figure drew closer. No! It couldn’t be! It was my Father! I had never seen Him run before! I stood frozen; He was on me in an instant. And then…He embraced me and kissed me! I stammered out my practiced lines, “Father, I…I…I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight;I am no longer worthy…” He wasn’t listening; rather, He was calling to have me fitted with His finest clothes; He put His ring on my finger; then, He started planning a welcome-home banquet. I could only stand there, dumbfounded. There was no hint of anger in Him; He did not say, “I knew you would be a failure. I tried to tell you this would happen.” He did not tell me I had to earn my place back into His good graces. There was none of that. Only His tears of joy.
It was as though He had been waiting for me all these many years, each day standing at the window hoping that this would be the day I returned. What kind of love is that? It is unworldly love, the kind I had never known. Had He always loved me like that? I couldn’t recall…
Slowly, my life began to settle down again. I had time to reflect on this most remarkable turn of events. Rather than suffering through the humiliation and toil to earn my right to be called the son of my Father, I had been joyously welcomed back into the family with full privileges, no questions asked. It was as though I had never left. And I realized that before leaving home I had never thought much about my Father; I had certainly taken Him for granted.
Coming back, I wanted to get to know Him, to really know Him. The accepted way for a son to know His Father was through sermons, reading, study, podcasts, and conversation (prayer). What I learned was not so much about my Father. I learned instead that Jesus loves me and that I needed to work on my personal relationship with Him. After all, I was told, it is only because of Jesus that my Father welcomed me home. I was told that through the love of Jesus and His blood shed upon the cross, I was now shielded from the wrath of God, my Father. God-my-Father had welcomed me as a worthy son only because Jesus paid the price I cannot pay for my sins of leaving home. When I walked out, I was told, I had offended the honor of my Father and only Jesus’ punishing death on the cross could restore the honor of my Father. Another image was given to me: I’m in a courtroom. My Father sits in judgment of me. He sentences me to eternal torment for my offense to Him. Jesus steps up to take my punishment. Then, my Father-the-judge steps down from the Bench and hugs me. Welcome home, son.
So I worked at my relationship with Jesus. Hard. After all, I was so thankful to be back home. I didn’t want to ever again disappoint my Father.
I have to admit, though, that as the days, months, and years passed, I began to experience stress and worry at being home again. You see, in Church I was told to love God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It had become easy for me to be attracted to Jesus. He died for me. The Holy Spirit was also attractive, who doesn’t appreciate and grow to love a “helper.” But, my Father…
Ever so slowly I began to realize that I didn’t know how to feel about my Father. Almost everything in Church was centered on Jesus and His love for me, and on the Holy Spirit, Who was sent to help me. Mostly, mention of my Father was limited to a prayer to “Our Father” as Jesus had taught.
Our Father, Who art in Heaven…
Anything else that was said about my Father was usually about His anger and wrath directed toward people like I had been: one of those other Prodigal people who had left their homes. I began to notice that whenever I thought of my Father my only real concern was with keeping Jesus between Him and me.
It has dawned on me that during that time I loved my Father but I didn’t really like Him. Truthfully, I had learned to be afraid of my Father’s wrath. To me, He had become very much like the “Angry God” of preacher Jonathan Edwards; a Father Who, according to Edwards, views the other Prodigal children as “objects”of His wrath; objects, not persons. Edwards says:
[Prodigal children] are now the objects of that very same anger and wrath of God, that is expressed in the torments of hell.
I was always afraid of again failing my Father. I was afraid that my Father, in His anger and wrath toward me in a moment of my weakness, would say to me, “Enough!” and kick me out of the house. And I was afraid for others. Many of those “lost” people—other Prodigals—about which I was hearing had been my friends when I lived in the foreign land; many remain my friends even after I returned home. Had my Father felt that anger toward me when I was away? I had always thought He had been daily watching at the window for my return.
So, I began to wonder, who really welcomed me home? Who was it that every day watched for me and then, when finally seeing me, ran out to greet me? Who was it who clothed me in His finest garments, put His ring on my finger, and threw me a barbecue of His fatted calf, inviting all of the neighbors to welcome me home? That just didn’t sound like the wrathful Father of whom I was now afraid.
Just before Jesus died on the cross He said, “The one who has seen Me has seen the Father.” He went on to say, as He had said earlier, that He and His Father were one. How could it be, then, that there is a wrathful God (Father) and a loving Son (Jesus)? After all, it is foundational Christian theology that here is only one God. It sounded more and more that I was being taught that God was bifurcated God, not One, that there was one wrathful God (Father) of the Old Testament and then a second, loving God (Jesus) of the New Testament. The Father demands obedience; the Son freely gives love.
I began to dig deeper as the question burned within. Which God was it Who welcomed me home?
I found that the early Church had a viewpoint of God that differed from that which was formulated by Augustine, refined by Anselm, and through the influential preaching of men like Edwards, had become accepted in much of Western Christianity. It is a viewpoint that was common in the Church in the early years following Jesus’ death and is still widely accepted in Eastern Christianity. Rather than a wrathful Father appeased by the sacrifice of His Son on our behalf, God the Father is a loving God who longs for our salvation. Jesus died to defeat death, humankind’s great enemy, not to appease an angry God or to ransom us from Satan.
One of the greatest preachers the Church has known, Saint John Chrysostom (c. AD 347-407) said this:
Enter into the Church and wash away your sins. For there is a hospital for sinners and not a court of law.
This was a very different Father than I had been taught about upon my return. But, it was the Father whom I had experienced, the Father I was coming to know. This is my Father, the one who watched and waited for me, who ran out to greet me and rejoiced upon my return. This Father of the early Church is not a wrathful Father; rather, God the Father, like His Son, is the great physician who desires to “bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:14-21) This is not a Father who demands my punishment and the punishment of the other Prodigals so that His honor might be restored. Rather, this is the Father to all, whether His sons and daughters or whether the Prodigals. This Father, and His Son, Jesus, want nothing more than for all of us to return and remain home and share in their lives, just as you would expect of a Father. (Ez 18:23, 2Peter 3:9)
Father Michael Pomazansky captures well our Father’s love for us:
God is concerned more for our salvation than even for His own glory. A testimony to this is the fact that He sent His only-begotten Son into the world for suffering and death, solely to reveal to us the path of salvation and eternal life.
Setting aside His own glory…Interested more in my salvation than in His own honor. That is indeed perfect, sacrificial, other-worldly love. It is the only love worthy of a God Who “so loved the world…” This is my Father who ran to welcome me home. It is our Father who daily waits and watches for the return of all Prodigals. Father and Son both give love, freely, fully, and unconditionally.
I’ve been back at home for many years now. In many ways, I’m still that young kid looking over the fence at the grass that looks greener; there’s still a lot of Prodigal Son in me. I remain much too inattentive to my Father Who loves me unconditionally. All too often I put myself above Him and my neighbor. I remain much too full of pride and self love. I still feel the pull back to the foreign land and the taste of the food of pigs. I tell myself that I wish I could stop longing for that place, so full of grays and blacks, but the pull is strong and I too often justify a quick trip back. Sometimes it is a very quick trip manifested in something like a burst of anger. Other times, it is a longer trip if, for example, I get caught in the despair of the news of the world. However long my excursion, when once again I “come to myself” I once again tell myself this is my last trip to this place. Then, once again I turn to home. Once again my Father runs to greet me. Once again, with a contrite heart, I say, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” And, once again, the barbecue is laid out. Each “welcome home” is like the first.
“Forgive me, Father” is, after all, the only thing I have to offer back to my Father; after all, He owns everything else. So, it is here in the fire of my struggle against the pull of the foreign land where my Father is forging in me a new heart, a humble and contrite heart with the help of His spirit, His angels, and a “cloud of witnesses” who have gone before me. A contrite heart, it is all He has ever wanted from me. And it is everything I have to give. I long to love God and neighbor much because I have been forgiven much. (Luke 7:36-7:50)
So, finally, all these many years later, I finally have the answer to my question, “Who ran out to meet me?” God did. All of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. All of God loves me and has welcomed me home, and all of Heaven rejoices over my return. I love my Father, in His perfect love there is no room for fear…and I really like Him.
But, to know Him, to really know Him, will take me all of eternity.
If you don’t know this Father, come and meet Him. You might find you like Him, too.
There is a story that is told of a visitor to an Orthodox monastery on the famous Mt. Athos in Greece. Out for a walk, the visitor encounters a monk. Wanting to be friendly, the man says, “Hi, my name is Joe. I’m visiting from America.” Stopping, the monk raises his eyes, and, looking at the visitor, replies, “My name is Sin. I come from mud.” The visitor is left with his mouth agape.
Mud. We rarely give it much thought unless we get it on ourselves, our clothes, or our shoes. Mud comes in various types…some is as slippery as grease, another is as sticky as glue. Mud isn’t good for much. Kids make pies with it, play in it, and throw it at each other. Once we outgrow childhood, we find mud has some limited use; however, mostly we try to avoid it. By and large, mud is only a nuisance.
Where we see nuisance, God saw the possibility of sharing Himself.
God brought a pile of mud to life; He gave “non-being” mud the gift of “being.”
It is hard to imagine why God would animate a pile of mud by breathing the life into it. What’s more, He gave the mud not just simple life, but He breathed the life of His Spirit into it. He made the mud into His image and likeness by giving the mud the ability to create unimaginable beauty, the capability of engaging in complex reasoning, and the desire for selfless love and sacrifice for other lumps of mud. He gave the mud the ability to contemplate and love God Himself, to become one with God as lovers do. And He put the mud in a Garden and walked with the mud.
There is another group to whom God gave the gift of being: the angels. We are never told whether they, too, came from mud, from something else, or were made out of nothing. Despite being in the presence of God and enjoying the gifts of God, some angels wanted more. But, surely they must have known they could never overthrow God. Perhaps they thought they could get at God another way: by throwing mud at Him.
These demon-angels were able to convince the animated mud that it could have “being” on its own, without God. So encouraged, the mud seemed eager to strike out on its own, beholding to no other being, to stand on its own two feet, to pull itself up by its own bootstraps, to become its own man or woman. So, the mud turned away from God, and God allowed mud to act as mud.
Throughout the centuries, the mud has made remarkable progress. The mud has advanced from existing as hunter-gathering mud to gaining the knowledge and ability to put mud on the moon.
However, the rebellion against God came at a cost to the mud.
Everything became harder for the mud. It was harder for the mud to survive; the earth, of which the mud was once a part, did not yield its fruits and grains easily to the mud. In fact, the earth itself often rebels against the mud as the mud tries to subdue it. And, mud throws mud at mud, sometimes causing mass destruction of other mud. What began as a paradise for the mud became, well, a muddy mess. You see, when the mud decided to go it alone, without God, the mud turned its back to God. This gives great pleasure to the demon-angels who continue to whisper to the mud, “You don’t need God.”
But, the mud has never really been apart from God. What the mud doesn’t know is that even in rebellion against God, it is God that sustains the mud, preventing it from returning to inanimate mud, to “non-being.”
Something else the mud does not know: there can be no status quo. Over the centuries the consequences of the rebellion are slowly hardening into stone the hearts of the mud; the mud is slowly returning to its original non-being existence. With no intervention, the mud will once again become just mud. But because God so loved the mud, He has refused to allow that to happen. Something had to be done to restore the relationship between God and the mud. And it can only be done by God.
So, like a comic book superhero, God came to the mud’s rescue, swooping in to offer the mud a way to be saved.
Here is what the Church tells us about the rebellion: God knows that the mud’s rebellion was inaugurated by a trick of the demon-angels. He knows it was not a rebellion perpetrated and sustained by mud law-breakers. Further, God knows that the mud was and remains badly wounded by the rebellion and continue to live in a world deeply scarred by the rebellion. Therefore, God knows that the mud does not need a lawyer but a physician.
So, God sent us a physician. His Son. Who became mud. The God-mud. the God-mud lived among the mud and told the mud why He came:
[My Father] has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.
But, sending His son, the Great Physician, came at a cost, a sacrifice, to God.
No, God’s sacrifice was not a sacrifice where God substituted Himself (His son) and took the punishment due the mud because of the mud’s rebellious act. The mud’s rebellion wasn’t an act that required the punishment of someone, either the mud or God’s Son. Remember, the mud are not law-breaking criminals.
And, no, neither has God viewed the mud’s rebellion as an insult to His honor requiring “satisfaction” like the olden days in which people dueled over matters of honor. The God-mud Jesus was not sent to substitute for the mud to give God “satisfaction” and restore God’s honor by dying on the cross. Remember, God is humble.
In fact, Jesus’ sacrifice was not something required of the mud by God but a gift to the mud from God.
God’s sacrifice was the sacrifice of a lover for the beloved, for without sacrifice between lovers there can be no love at all. Jesus, the God-mud, showed God’s True Love for the mud.
The God-mud gave up the prerogatives of being God and came to live in the mud and among the mud, experiencing heat and cold, love and hate, joy and sadness, pain and delight…all that mud experiences. And then the God-mud died as mud dies. In fact, the God-mud so loved the mud He allowed the mud to kill Him so that the mud might know the depth of God’s True Love.
After three days the God-mud returned to life. Death, which has held the mud captive was defeated.
This is the sacrifice of Jesus (to paraphrase St. Athanasius, from over 1700 years ago): God became mud so that by His grace the mud could become like God. Jesus was born as mud, lived, died, and resurrected in order to defeat the mud’s greatest enemy: death. Jesus freed all mud-kind to enter into a loving relationship with Him. This is God’s great gift to all mud-kind. Jesus the God-man is the prototype and the “telos” of all mud.
Curiously, though, when Jesus’ closest mud companions first saw Him again, they scarcely recognized Him. He looked somehow…different. It seems that although the mud was originally made in God’s image, when the mud first rebelled against God all those years ago the mud’s appearance changed, the mud began to look more mud-like than God-like. The companions struggled to recognize the God-mud because when the God-mud returned to life He was no longer the God-mud; no, He is now the God-man. The God-mud, now God-man, is now the first “fully human” being: a human properly joined in oneness with God. And that is how the mud was always meant to be.
A fully human being is a being whom will one day emerge from the mud. In this life all we can do is strive toward the fullness of being human; however, we remain mud, but infused with God’s Spirt, who striving moment-by-moment to love God, to be one with Him and with other human beings.
Our hope is that one day we will be resurrected as fully human beings. And this is eternal life in Paradise, which is not so much a location but a state of relationship, of being one with God and other fully humans beings.
It is an easy transition from being mud to becoming a fully human being, but one that will be the hardest thing you have ever done. You will spend the rest of your life wallowing in and battling your muddy nature as you cooperate with God Whom will transform your mud into the fullness of humanity.
If you want to start, just say to God, “I no longer want to be mud. Make me a fully human.” Then, hold on…God will say to you, “Let us make a human, it is very good.”
A number of years ago, my wife and I had cause to be at an orphanage in Kenya, just outside of Nairobi. While there, we had become friends with the pastor of the local Anglican church, and, being a Protestant pastor myself at the time, he asked me to deliver the sermon at the upcoming Sunday service.
A number of years ago, my wife and I had cause to be at an orphanage in Kenya, just outside of Nairobi. While there, we had become friends with the pastor of the local Anglican church, and, being a Protestant pastor myself at the time, he asked me to deliver the sermon at the upcoming Sunday service.
At my home church, I knew the people and their struggles. I knew the culture of our country and our local community. Because of that comfort with my “audience,” it seemed easier to believe that the Holy Spirit would speak through me whenever I delivered a sermon. To deliver a sermon to an unfamiliar church in an unfamiliar culture is daunting. Sure, fundamentally we are all humans with the same basic problems and hopes. My greatest worry was to come across as an out of touch or arrogant American. “What could I say to them?” I wondered.
The Kenyans I knew believed that America was a Christian country (“It’s on your money!”) and wanted desperately to imitate us. They watched our TV reruns. They were a materially poor people and wanted the opportunities available to the average American. They seemed eager to hear from me.
After a lot of prayer and contemplation, and a few restless nights, that Sunday I did the only thing I knew to do: I asked them to pray for us in America.
Our experience in this small village was of a people that moved more slowly and more in concert with the rhythm of nature. Few people had cars or even electricity. When night fell, it was time for bed. When the sun arose, it was time to get up. They were far more relational as a village. My pastor friend used to introduce me by saying, “This is my friend; we walk together.” We walk together…what a remarkable phrase to describe a relationship.
From the locals we heard a few stories of people being raised from the dead in answer to prayer. There were other stories of remarkable healings. I watched the repeated “miracle” of Samuel who each day picked a bunch of bananas, walked a few miles to the market, sold them for just enough to buy what he needed for that day. Not all of our Kenyan friends prayers were answered, but they continued on in life, relying on God for what they needed. It was like watching the Psalms played out in real life: sometimes joy, sometimes wailing, sometimes pleading…but always in relationship with God. It seemed like their lives said about God, “This is my God; we walk together.”
So, in my sermon I asked the Kenyans to pray for us.
I remember saying to them that in our American abundance, we have come to believe that we didn’t really need God. The words, “Give us this day our daily bread,” are often just that, words. After all, my refrigerator is full and so are the grocery store shelves. Through my hard work or government programs, I have access to the necessities of food, healthcare, transportation, and housing. A great many of us Americans spend lavishly, at least by our Kenyan friends’ standards, on travel, entertainment, clothes, hobbies, etc.Rarely do we (me, most of all) in America have to really trust God for our very survival. I told them we needed their prayers to realize just how much we are reliant on God—for everything, actually. And pray that once we realize that, we learn to actually trust Him to provide what we need each day (again, me, most of all). Then we returned to America and over the course of a few months I had returned to my American lifestyle.
Fast forward to last year. We had a major deep freeze for which the state-wide utility system was woefully unprepared. Many thousands lost power and water. Nearly three hundred died from hypothermia. Afterward, when life was returning to normal, I heard someone comment that they had been blessed by God because they had not lost power during the storm. We had been similarly “blessed”; however, the word troubled me. I noticed that I didn’t hear anyone who lost power say they were blessed by God. I thought of my Kenyan friends and I wondered whether had we lost power and water I would have been able to say, and mean, “We were blessed by God.”
I used to say easily, too easily, that I love and trust God. I had the fearlessness of youth. Now that I am older, I have seen and experienced much more of the suffering of life. Why is it this way? It is a question that still haunts me. I remain convinced that I love God, but I have begun to examine whether I really trust Him.
God created humankind to be in relationship with Him, to share in His life. Jesus tells us that eternal life is to know God (not just know about Him), to have the deepest sort of relationship with God that is possible between two beings. (John 17:3)
It is my sinfulness that separates me from God. Thankfully, the Church provides me with tools to help me battle the sins that separate me from experiencing a fuller relationship with God. Prayer, fasting and giving are the classic three methods of ascesis, the self-disciplined “training” to help me control and overcome the broken passions that run amok in my life. And in my effort, God (the Holy Spirit) is with me helping in each step. However, as necessary as these are, they are voluntary forms of ascesis. In other words, I can control them: sometimes I do them and other times not.
Trust in God, real trust, begins when I turn my life over to Him, when I let go of all control. I is actually nothing but accepting the real reality: that little of my life is under my control. But it is more: real trust begins when I can believe that everything in my life—especially those things outside of my control like loss of power and water during a dangerous ice storm—offers the opportunity for healing my broken passions and drawing me closer to God. Can I actually trust God like that?
I came across this quote the other day from a Christian Orthodox monk. I find it sobering:
Are we patient during…trials and difficulties? Do we consider these things necessary on account of our sins? This is referred to as involuntary ascesis. We can say to God, “My God, I didn’t do any voluntary ascesis; however, I patiently endured the involuntary ascesis that You sent me in Your wisdom. I was ill, I became widowed, I was ridiculed, I was wronged, and I endured everything for Your love.” Then Christ will respond, “Very well. What did I do for you? Look at My hands and feet: they have holes. Look at My side: it is pierced. Look at My head: it is full of blood from the thorns. Look at My forehead: it is covered in sweat. Look at My back: it is full of scourges and lashes. My entire body and soul suffered for you. I also accept what you did for Me.” —Elder Ephraim. The Art of Salvation. Saint Nektarios Greek Orthodox Monastery. Kindle Edition. Location 2589.
Involuntary ascesis, I had never thought of the “trials and difficulties” of life in quite this way. Does God really love me so much that everything in my life—everything, both joyful and sorrowful—comes from Him, directly or indirectly, with the sole potential of healing me and drawing me to Him?
And not just for me, but for all of us? Does God so love the world that everything that happens in the world is a manifestation of His love for us and is an invitation to healing and relationship with God Death entering the world through Adam and Eve; God kicking them out of the Garden; the plagues upon Egypt; the beauty of a sunset; the wonder of a bird singing; the death of thousands from a tsunami; Jesus’ birth death, and resurrection; the COVID pandemic; the love of another person, the magnificence of music, literature, and art; the death of a beloved neighbor, the smell of a flower, the suffering of a child, the trumpets and bowls of the end times…everything, everything, EVERYTHING!!
Can I trust in Him in His love for me and all of us without knowing why He created this world, this reality, with the beauty and the pain and the suffering as He has?
If I answer, “Yes,” then my joy and suffering has meaning in this world. It is all redeemed by God as I heal and draw deeper into relationship with Him. If I answer, “No,” then for me the suffering becomes meaningless and I slowly lose myself in fear, anger, and despair, living a life seeking both control and distraction from reality.
It is our choice, yours and mine, to walk with God in complete trust. It is a choice to be made every moment of every day of our lives.
It is not easy.
Love God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength… —Luke 10:27
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, And lean not on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He shall direct your paths. —Proverbs 3:5-6
I had asked a friend how he was enjoying being retired. His words were both a response and a lament. His work life, he told me, had been one of planning and executing plans for large and complex projects. Since retiring, he had done volunteer work, engaged his hobbies, played golf, travelled…the usual things retirees do. However, it all seemed too easy to him; there was no struggle, no challenge as he had experienced in his work life.
I am seventeen months into my own retirement. I confess to having had the same thought on occasion: my life seems too easy. I have a wonderful marriage, a comfortable retirement income, my health is good, I have good friends, hobbies, and a good church. In my work life I had great responsibility: literally holding people’s lives in my hands. Now, I just have to make sure the dog is fed twice a day.
And, isn’t that the point…to have an easy life? Growing up I was told that I should work hard all of my life to retire—and retire early, if possible—so that I can enjoy myself in relative physical and material comfort. And the goal of an easy life in retirement is certainly the main focus of millions of advertising dollars spent on American TV by the financial planning and pharmaceutical industries.
Of course while still in the work force I remember the not-so-subtle shift in the message, that the easy life is no longer just for those retired folks. I now hear that if I become properly educated in a S.T.E.M. profession, have the latest cell phone, am a member of the right social networks, subscribe to the correct kind of shame-cancelling morality, and am properly woke, then I deserve and should expect to have an easy life with perhaps hundreds, thousands, or millions of virtual “friends.” Soma for all!
It sounds idyllic, doesn’t it, being the captain of my own ship, the king of my own castle, in full control of my own destiny. Clear skies, calm seas, and flat terrain ahead! Who wouldn’t want that life.
Then why does this idea of an “easy life” bother me so much? After all, by many common measures I was successful in my career and life. I should feel somewhat proud of myself and blessed by God that I did enough “right” things and made enough “right” choices that God rewarded me with an “easy life” in my retirement years. Right? Shouldn’t I?
Then what is wrong with me.
Now I do have to admit to you that some of my angst comes from guilt. From within my “easy life” I see so many others living life that is not so easy. I admit to experiencing a form of survivor’s guilt: why do I have it easy and not them. But there’s more to my angst than guilt.
What if there’s nothing wrong with me. What if thinking that my life is too easy is a giant red flag waving at me. What if I should understand these thoughts as moments when I recognize, even sub-consciously, that the culture is winning within me. What if these are moments in which I am standing at an abyss I don’t recognize, having forgotten that my life is only found in relationship with God.
I was recently reading a book about how the Christian Orthodox Church views salvation, participating in life with God. In it, the author recounts a conversation he had as a young man with St. Sophrony (Sakarov) of Essex in which he was lamenting to Sophrony how difficult his school exams were. Sophrony acknowledged that school exams are indeed difficult, then added:
In this world there is nothing more difficult than to be saved.
This is not the Christian message I grew up hearing. I recall hearing, “say the ‘sinner’s prayer,’ go to church, pray some, give some, and try to be a good person to those around you. God sees you through the blood of Jesus. You are saved.” No one in my Christian world would have talked about it being hard to be saved.
I have been praying, and it can be a tricky thing. You’ve probably heard the old joke about not praying for patience because God will put you in a place where you have to learn it. Well, I have been praying for God to do whatever it takes in my life to draw me closer to Him. So, He opened my eyes and led me to the abyss in my own soul.
Abyss. It seems like such a perfect word for what it is intended to convey, doesn’t it. Hearing the word brings to my mind a chasm of unknown depth. A pit of blackness—blacker than the darkest night. A place of demons and despair; a hole into which were I to fall there would be only falling. Forever.
God has brought me to the abyss within me. It is the place in my heart where my radical self-love and my self-serving passions exist. It is the place where there is little or no thought of loving God…or you. It is the place of Solzhenitsyn‘s line of evil within my own heart. It is where the goats of St Matthew’s gospel graze within me.
It is hard enough to stand at the edge and look into it. One has to bear the shame of admitting that kind of darkness exist within one’s own soul. Standing at the edge is looking at one’s past self-centered behavior and facing it, owning it. Sophrony again says that we should only stand at the edge of the abyss until we can take it no longer, then we must step back and have some tea. It is while drinking tea that I am able to talk to myself about the abyss, coolly offering advice and encouragement and remembering the promises of Jesus and repenting of my thoughts and deeds.
As hard as it is to stand at the abyss and peer in, it is quite another thing to recognize real-time that I am in the abyss. It is being in the darkness and terror of the storm itself. In these times I can feel myself awash in self-serving self-love manifested by one or more extreme passions of pride, anger, lust, envy, gluttony, avarice, and slothfulness—the seven deadly sins. The demons toss me shackles to bind myself to them and I gladly put them on. I experience myself being overwhelmed by my own desires and wanting more while being horrified that I find so much pleasure in it. I may even hear my inner self shouting faintly to me that what I am doing pushes God and those I love most away from me. Still I go on.
As the moment subsides, I am convinced that I am not saved because I have no love for God or neighbor within me. The shame of who I am and the pain of my very existence washes over me.
Accepting the shame without turning from it nor letting it crush me is the most difficult thing. Recognizing that I am falling into the abyss and trying not to let my passions rule me every time is the most difficult thing. Remembering and calling upon God’s mercy in my life is the most difficult thing.
Thinking that my life is too easy should indeed be a giant red flag waving at me. I can and should be thankful for the abundance God has provided. But thinking life is too easy, well, they are the moments of blindness when I no longer see the abyss in my soul. It is the time of greatest danger to my soul.
There are two roads. The road of the easy life is wide and comfortable. The road of sharing life with God is narrow and perilous.
Fierce is the war we rage, yet it is a wise war and a simple one. If the soul grows to love humility, then all the snares of our enemies are undone and his fortress captured. In this spiritual warfare of ours we must see to the state of our ammunition and our provender. Our ammunition is our humility; our provender—the grace of God. If we lose these, the enemy will defeat us…
Here is the easiest and quickest way to salvation: Be obedient and sober, do not find fault, and keep mind and heart from evil thoughts. Think that all men are good and beloved of the Lord. For such humility the grace of the Holy Spirit will dwell in you, and cause you to exclaim, “How merciful is the Lord!”
But if you find fault and are querulous, if you want your own way, even if you pray much your soul will fail, and you will cry out, “The Lord has forgotten me!” But it is not that the Lord has forgotten you—it is you that have forgotten that you must humble yourself, and so the grace of God abides not in your soul. —St Silouan the Athonite
Only take heed to yourself, and diligently keep yourself, lest you forget the things your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life.
—Moses, Deuteronomy 4:9
Act IScene 1
It was a beautiful Tuesday morning. The sky was clear blue, Colorado blue, if you know what I mean. At 8:46 am the first airplane appeared. It was flying low and fast. It hit the North Tower (1 WTC) at 8:46:40 am. Explosions, fire, and chaos ensued. Then, a second plane hit the South Tower. A third plane hit the Pentagon. A fourth crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. By 10:03:11 am the attack was over. There was death and there was heroism. 2,977 people lost their lives in the attack known as 9/11, September 11, 2001.
President Bush swore that the U.S. would hit back and never forget.
Memorials were erected at the site of the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and in the field in Pennsylvania.
A few weeks ago was the 20th anniversary of 9/11. There were public and private events around the country where many gathered. The slogan for the gatherings was, “Never Forget.” In fact, most of us went about our daily lives.
It was early Sunday morning. The sky was blue with only low, scattered clouds, a typically beautiful day in the Hawaiian Islands. Just before 8 am the first airplanes appeared. They were flying low and fast. Explosions, fire, and chaos ensued. By 9:50 am the attack was over. There was death and and there was heroism. 2,403 military and civilian personnel lost their lives in the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
President Roosevelt called it “a date that will live in infamy.” He swore the U.S. would hit back and never forget.
In Pearl Harbor, the USS Arizona remains as a memorial to the many dead from that infamous day. It reminds us, Never Forget.
I remember the 20th anniversary events held in 1961. The attack was still fresh in the collective memory of the country. On December 7th of this year, there will be an 80th anniversary event. I suspect it will be muted, attended only by history buffs and those few remaining whose lives were directly effected by the attack.
Scene 3 It was a Wednesday when British troops marched to Washington D.C. That night, they set fire to the White House and Capitol building. August 24th, 2021 marked the 207th anniversary of the “burning of Washington D.C., an important event in the War of 1812–the only theme in history a foreign army has occupied the capitol of the U.S.
There are numerous memorial plaques scattered around the country commemorating various battles of this War. They quietly exhort us, Never Forget.
207 years ago…does anyone remember?
On September 11, 2081, what will the 80th anniversary of the 9/11 attack be like? Will it become as muted as will be the next Pearl Harbor anniversary? And, September 11, 2208 will be the 207th anniversary of the 9/11 attack. Will it be long forgotten as is the burning of Washington D.C.?
There are hundreds of monuments, memorials, and plaques commemorating important people and events in Washington D.C. Many thousands more are in parks and on buildings across the U.S. If you are attentive when you drive the roads, you will often see a sign pointing you to a historical marker, usually in an obscure location and hard to find. “Never Forget,” they whisper. Why do we still forget?
Act IIScene 1
It is sometime in the 1,400s BCE, about 3,500 years ago. For 400 years, God had been creating a new nation for Himself, incubating them as slaves in Egypt. They were to be set apart to worship Him, to be His people.
On a mountain top in a nearby country, God approached an old man, a has been. The man was once a Prince of Egypt, the greatest nation on Earth. He had it all. Now, he tended sheep in obscurity. Moses was his name. You may have heard of him. God gave Moses and his brother Aaron a job to do: lead God’s new people, Israel, out of Egypt. With God doing the heavy lifting to convince the most powerful man in the world, Egypt’s Pharaoh, to let His people go, Moses led Israel out of Egypt.
Over the next 40 years, God sustained them in the desert while He formed this wandering band of hundreds of thousands into a nation. He gave them an annual celebration to commemorate His work in freeing them from Egypt—it is called Passover. He showed them how to cleanse themselves from their sins so as to be able to be in His presence without harm to them. He gave them the plans for a worship tent (they were nomadic, after all), and taught the priests how to dress. He taught them how to worship Him.
In his farewell address to Israel and as they stood at the edge of the land promised to them by God, Moses reminded them of all God had done for them over the past 40 years. And, he warned them of the danger of prosperity. “Never Forget,” he said. "He delivered you out of slavery; you are His people." Then he died.
Israel entered the land promised to them by God. Over the next 1,400 years, Israel struggled to remember. There were 400 years of oppression and peace, then “three generations of the united monarchy (Saul, David, Solomon), nineteen kings of Israel (up to 722 bc) and twenty kings of Judah (up to 587 bc), [and a] hosts of the prophets and priests.” Israel conquered, was conquered and exiled, then restored to their land. They build a permanent building, a Temple, in which to worship God…and then it was destroyed…and then rebuilt…and then destroyed.
At one point during those 1,400 years, the number of those who remembered God and that they were His people dwindled to a mere remnant: only 7,000. The ritual acts continued. They never forgot.
It was night when the angels announced the birth of a baby boy to small group of shepherds huddled in a field. Jesus, the Son of God, was born in a small town in a country on the edge of the Roman Empire. Few noticed. For 30 years He lived in obscurity. During His last three years, He was…well…God incarnate walking the Earth. He didn’t come, He said, to change the rituals that had gone on before; rather, He said, He came to fulfill them. Then He was killed. Then resurrected. Then He ascended into heaven.
After His ascent into heaven, those who had known and followed Him remained His people, now known as His Church; they continued the ancient Jewish rituals, but in a changed way, a way that recognized and celebrated His death and resurrection. For 2,000 years, ancient Church has continued to participate in the 3,500 year old ritual of the Passover—we call it Easter, or Pascha (in Greek). Too, the Sunday worship (Divine Liturgy) continues the 3,500 year old worship of the ancient Church as given by God to the Israeli’s and fulfilled by Jesus.
How have the people of God remembered the events of the past for more than 3,500 years when we barely remember horrific events of only 80 years ago. Why do the people of God still identify themselves as such after more than 3,500 years when individual nations come and go?
Monuments and memorials seem to be important to help us remember a person or an event date. But there is more than just remembering famous people or events. To truly remember, we need to know who we are as a people. To Never Forget we cannot, as individuals, only gaze at a monument to know who we are. Each of us must find our individual identity in community with others. For that, we need traditions, sometimes called rituals. We have many: weddings, funerals, school graduations, tail-gate parties, thanksgiving dinners…each tradition helps us find our identity in a community of others and with those who came before us and will come after us. In the rituals we find ourselves and remember who we are as a “people.”
To truly remember God and to join Him in His life we need a communal practice that connects us together, that reminds us of who we each are and of our joined humanity, and that joins us to reality and to God. Ritual is required God saves us together. Alone we may perish.
Ritual. The ancient path. We cannot invent new, exciting ways to worship God. We need the 3,500 years of unbroken ritual given to us by God. Changed but unchanging. It is why we “Never Forget.” It is why we remember who we are in Christ.
This is what the Lord says:“Stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; then you will find a resting place for your souls.”