Archive for May, 2008

IN THE TUMBLER: or how I attain salvation (Thanks alot, St. John of the Ladder)

May 23, 2008



There used to be a saying: “He is a well-rounded person.” This was a compliment and meant that a person had many good qualities and a lot of knowledge and experience. Basically, you didn’t detect any “rough edges” on them, like ignorance, or crudeness, rudeness, or prejudice.

I tend to think of salvation as a matter of losing my rough edges. God knows I’ve had many of them. In fact, most of them I honed myself into razor sharpness. My dad often told me that to make it in this world, a man had to be sharp. But instead of making a success of myself because of my sharpness, I often cut people, even people that I love.

Sin creates many rough and sharp edges. Pride, ego, lust, fear, anxiety-all of these sinful passions erode my soul. Unchecked, these passions would turn me into a rock- a hardheaded and hardhearted man with many rough and sharp edges.

How then do we attain salvation? How do we become well rounded? Believe it or not, but an ancient monastic, St. John of the Ladder, knows the way.

St. John said that life is like stones placed in a tumbler. The stones may be hard and have sharp edges, but as the tumbler is turned, the stones became smoother and rounder as they tumble and bump into each other.

Oh no! Tell me you don’t mean it, Saint John!

If this is true, then my entire life is the tumbler and God has placed me in it with a bunch of rocks. This means that it’s in the rough and tumble of life that God will save me, smoothing out my rough edges. Family, Church, work – everywhere I go, I’m going to be in the tumbler.

This is how God is going to save me? Really? I had something more dramatic in mind. You know-queue the background music (a piece by John Williams would be good); bring the cameras in for a closeup of me as I stand on  a rock on top of the mountain obviously emaciated from months if not years of prayer and fasting; the sun breaks through the clouds and a beam hits me as I suddenly come into full enlightenment. Ah…yes.!  (I’m sorry, St. Seraphim. I’m not worthy to even tie your shoes.)

Well, then, I need to get a different perspective about the so-called hassles in my life. Bumping into other rocks is not about being punished, but about being saved. So, there will be hassles: stop lights and taxes and flat tires and dead batteries, and burnt toast. There will be hassles from people: mean bosses and obnoxious church members and inconsiderate spouses and indifferent priests. Yes, it’s a real tumble in here.

Does God really expect me enjoy the tumble? Probably not, but I’ve got to quit railing against the rocks. Does the stoplight change when I yell at it for catching me once again? No, it doesn’t seem to hear me, but in fact seems to stay red just a little longer than before. And what about the people who just seemed determined to bump me? Well, they are rocks just like me. They are in the tumbler with me being saved. When we bump, its forgiveness and humility that will smooth the edges.

Maybe this is why the saints were so peaceful in the tumbler of life. They didn’t see their hassles as random and meaningless (or as the Bard said, “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”) They saw it all is God’s attempt to save them.

Bishop Nikolai Velimirovic was a man who had been in the tumbler. Listen to his words!

“Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Enemies have driven me into Your embrace more than friends have. friends have bound me to earth, enemies have loosed me from earth and have demolished all my aspirations in the world.

Enemies have made me a stranger in worldly realms and an extraneous inhabitant of the world. Just as a hunted animal finds safer shelter than an unhunted animal does, so have I, persecuted by enemies, found the safest sanctuary, having ensconced myself beneath Your tabernacle, where neither friends nor enemies can slay my soul.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

They, rather than I, have confessed my sins before the world. They have punished me, whenever I have hesitated to punish myself. They have tormented me, whenever I have tried flee torments. They have scolded me, whenever I have flattered myself They have spat upon me, whenever I have filled myself with arrogance.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Whenever I have made myself wise, they have called me foolish. Whenever I have made myself mighty, they have mocked me as though I were a dwarf. Whenever I have wanted to lead people, they have shoved me in to the background. Whenever I have rushed to enrich myself, they have prevented me with an iron hand. Whenever I thought that I would sleep peacefully, they have wakened me from sleep. Whenever I have tried to build a home for a long and tranquil life, they have demolished it and driven me out. Truly, enemies have cut me loose from the world and have stretched out my hands to the hem of Your garment.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Bless them and multiply them; multiply them and make them even more bitterly against me: so that my fleeing to You may have no return; so that all hope in men may be scattered like cobwebs; so that absolute serenity may begin to reign in my soul; so that my heart may become the grave of my two evil twins: arrogance and anger, so that I might amass all my treasure in heaven; so that I may for once be freed from self-deception, which has entangled me in the dreadful web of illusory life.

Enemies have taught me to know what hardly anyone knows, that a person has no enemies in the world except himself. One hates his enemies only when he fails to realize that they are not enemies, but cruel friends. It is truly difficult for me to say who has done me more good and who has done me more evil in the world: friends or enemies.

Therefore bless, O Lord, both my friends and my enemies. A slave curses enemies, for he does not understand. But a son blesses them, for he understands. For a son knows that his enemies cannot touch his life. Therefore he lively steps among them and prays to God for them.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.”

Now that’s a well-rounded man!

Smoking or non-smoking

May 23, 2008

Some time ago, I heard a protestant minister talk about the Old Testament story of the three youths who were cast into the furnace. I had read the story many times, but this minister pointed to something that I had never considered.

Shadrach, Mesach, and Abednego came out of the furnace and the Bible says that they were not even singed by the fire. Even more, they did not smell of smoke.

The protestant minister pointed out that we all go into the furnace of tribulation This story teaches us that the Son of God will be there in the midst of the fire to protect us from destruction.

Yet, even with this wonderful experience of Gods help and protection, many of us come out of the furnace reeking of smoke. In other words, we come out of trials and tribulations with the stink of bitterness, resentment, irritation, and a remembrance of wrongs.

Well, we understand how this can happen. It seems most natural that we would respond in this way. After all, in most cases, we feel that the tribulation was uncalled for, we didnt deserve it, what purpose did it really serve, etc. As the Bard says, we feel that we have suffered “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Where is God in that?

Beyond this bit of self-pity, we need to consider the impact of bitterness and resentment on our spiritual life, upon others, and upon the Church. Older readers will remember the song that includes the line “smoke gets in your eyes.” Forgive my shameless use the idea.

The problem with smoke is that it causes tears and blurs your vision. And so it is with those who come through tribulation and reek with the smoke of bitterness and resentment. They cannot see anything very clearly. For example, those who stink of bitterness cant see that they repel people who truly want to love them. They dont know that it is their own bitterness that is causing their isolation and loneliness.

Above all, bitter and resentful people cant see God clearly. Even though He met them in the midst of their trials, bitterness and resentment now make them question if God was ever with them. They begin to think of God as hard, cruel, vindictive, and capricious.

We also need to consider what a spirit of bitterness and resentment does to the fellowship of the Church. Simply, it creates small currents of discontent that eventually swell up like a tidal wave that can destroy us all. Instead of “building up one another in love”, our bitterness, remembrance of wrongs, and petty resentments only tear down and destroy. People drawn to the Faith will come to visit, but the smell of “smoke” (not incense), will be apparent to them. If they have any sense, they will not return.

While I will have much to answer for when I stand before the judgment seat of Christ, I determined that I would do my best to build up the Church. I prayed that I would never have to answer for schism or for dividing the Body of Christ. That meant, above other things, that I would have to come out of any trials or tribulations free of smoke.

Sometimes, tribulations came by my own foolishness. Sometimes, trials came from family. Often, tribulation came from someone in the Church that I loved and had tried to serve. My first human response was to be bitter. How I longed to go over and “tell them off” so that I could avenge my “honor” and demonstrate how right I had been in the matter (a wrong assumption, most times). But the Lord constantly reminded me of my promise to put His Church and His honor above my own. And so by His Grace, I wiped the smoke from my eyes.

How are you doing? Are you a smoke-free Orthodox Christian? One way to tell is to observe if others smell it when you are around. Ive never been a smoker, but most of my family smoked tobacco. I never realized the pervasive odor of smoke until I would be away from home for a while. When I returned home, the house would literally stink. I would try to explain it, but the smokers would always deny it. They just couldnt smell it. In later years, when I would send the wife and kids home to visit, upon their return, their clothes and suitcases reeked of smoke.

Smelling the smoke is an important piece of self-discovery. I am sure that you dont want to answer for it when you stand before the Lord. Being free of smoke is both a gift of God and an act of will. Which is greater, the honor of God or your honor; your being “right”, or the peace of the Church; your vengeance, or the well being of your brother/sister in Christ?

Smoking, or non-smoking?

(A little side note – when someone asks if I smoke, I now say, “only in church!” Its an inside Orthodox joke!)

Here’s Mud in your Eye

May 23, 2008

In my party days, I sometimes heard the phrase “Here’s mud in your eye.” (OK, I’m showing my age) Where did this phrase come from? Like a a good “scholar,” I went to the Internet and checked on Google – the source of all knowledge and wisdom! (sic) It may be a farming phrase, a way of wishing your neighbor a good and prosperous year. After all, plow horses could kick up a bit of mud. The phrase may come from the story of the man born blind in the Gospel of John. I don’t know how it came to be attached to the consumption of alcohol since drinking doesn’t open your eyes but usually closes them.

The Sundays after  Pascha give us different responses to Good News of the Resurrection of Christ. St. Thomas Sunday brings up the possibility of doubt which is a universal response to the Resurrection. Then, the Sunday of the Myrrhbearers tells of women who came to anoint the body of Christ despite the sorrow and anxiety that they felt. We too are called to serve the Body of Christ.  The Sunday of the Samaritan Woman demonstrates that some respond to the reality of the Resurrection by engaging in theological discussions when what is needed is the water that quenches all thirst.  The Sunday of the Paralytic shows that we can hear the Good News and believe it, but we are not able to respond because something paralyzes us. In each situation, Jesus meets each need and  brings healing.

There was a man born blind. Clearly, sinful actions can cause illness, but does all illness come from sin? If it does then in this case who sinned? A new born baby doesn’t commit sin, so maybe the parents are at fault?   Jesus dismisses this idea. Blindness is not a matter of genetics. There is something else at work.

We take nothing away from the miracle of healing if the story reminds us that many dwell in spiritual darkness. We have eyes but we cannot see.  What keeps us blind?  The Faith instructs us on the issue. Basically, it is our passions that keep us blind.  We set up habits of the heart that keep us in the dark. We have so much pride that we are basically unteachable. We are lazy and will hardly open a book, even though our salvation depends on it. Even religion can blind us because we would rather follow a form or ritual than try to truly know God.  Pharisees exist in every religion. They are people who have the form of religion but do not know the power of it.

Jesus heals the man born blind, but how does he do it? He takes dirt and spit and  and makes mud which he puts on the blind man’s eyes.  Isn’t this odd? How many times did Jesus heal with a touch or even by simply speaking a word? Why mud?  One answer may come from the book of Genesis. There the Lord took earth, breathed his breath into it, and created man. The divine and the physical were joined together. In the dirt and spit, the physical and the divine are joined together again.

This is a great mystery. In Greek, the word “musterion” means “sacrament.” The Sacraments of the Church are great mysteries, for in them the physical and the divine are joined together. Most importantly, in the Holy Eucharist, bread and wine become the Body and blood of Christ as the Holy Spirit descends upon them.

God can use many ways to heal us of our blindness, but we must not neglect being anointed with mud. When we partake of the mysteries of Christ where the Lord joins his spit with the clay of the earth, we find healing indeed. Even in Christ,  human clay (an archaic word seldom used these days) was mixed with the divine Essence.  Mud and spit-God and man-this is how God works in us and for us.

I found this following list on the Orthodox England site. It expresses the power of this mixture.

“Clay cannot heal the blind and yet with the breath of God, it becomes the container for the healing grace of God.

Water cannot heal and yet the water of baptism heals because the blessed water bears the Holy Spirit.

Oil cannot heal and yet the oil of chrismation and unction heal because they are filled with  the grace of God.

A piece of cloth cannot heal and yet a priests stole can heal through the grace of Christ at the sincere confession of sins and the repentant intention not to sin again.

Bread and wine cannot heal and yet bread and wine transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ heal through the Holy Spirit.

Wood and paint cannot heal and yet icons can heal by the Holy Spirit Who penetrates into their material essence and radiates grace from them.

Smoke cannot heal and yet incense burnt brings healing through the blessing of Christ.

Christ teaches us then that all things can be used for our healing and benefit and salvation, but that they must first be touched by His grace.”  (

Jesus told the blind man to go to a particular pool and wash. This was harder to do than it seems. After all, he was still blind and there would be many obstacles in the way. It would take quite an effort to get to this exact pool. Why not stop at a pool closer by?  I mean water is water, right?  And if he had made excuses because of his infirmity, would the blind man have been healed if he had taken the easy way?

Obedience turns things like water, oil, and even mud into a means of God’s grace. This story teaches us that you cannot separate faith from obedience (or works). Faith, if it is really faith, always brings about a response, and the best response is obedience. This may explain why even though I have received the mysteries of God, I still stumble. Taking the easier road of disobedience, I wonder why there has been no complete healing of my sight. I continue to stumble around in the haze and complain that God must not really love me, or that He is incapable of healing me.

Those who come to clearly see the full Light of Christ  we call saints. How did they become saints? Was special grace given to them?  Did they have some kind of religious genius? Maybe they were just born that way? No, they were sinners just like me and they needed mud in their eyes to gain their sight. The difference between us is that they were obedient and washed where they were told. I make excuses and do what is convenient.

Samuel said to King Saul, “Obedience is better than sacrifice.”

As the old hymn says, “I once was blind, but now I see…”

Well then, here’s mud your eye. What you do next is up to you.


Sky Cap

May 23, 2008

Sometimes, an invention meant to bring comfort and ease to life can have unforeseen consequences. I remember reading a article on how the culture of the South had changed. Among the many influences, the author listed air-conditioning close to the top of the list. He stated that in former times, people would sit on the porch and greet neighbors as they passed by. Now, everyone had moved indoors to his or her private air-conditioned entertainment centers. They now drove to work alone in their air-conditioned cars to sit alone at their desks in air-conditioned cubicles.

Technology can do more than make life easier. It can also impact the way that we think about ourselves and relate to others. I got to thinking about this because I noticed how another invention was having an impact.

Anyone who travels on airplanes appreciates having luggage with wheels. I can remember the old days of hauling luggage through an airport without wheels. What a drag it was. Of course, the airport had Sky Caps, men who for a fee would take your luggage at the curb and see that it was checked to your plane. I rarely used them because I was too tight to give them five dollars for their efforts.

Now, because of the convenience of wheeled luggage, there are few Sky Caps left. Those that remain seem to stand around waiting for work. You can spot them around the baggage claim. They often wear colored caps and hold an empty luggage cart.

I’ve never learned the lesson that you should travel light, so when I became older, I used a Sky Cap once or twice. It certainly was a pleasure to hand that heavy luggage over to them. I felt light on my feet and travel seemed less of a chore. I could go get a diet coke and check out the magazines and relax until boarding time.

Spiritually speaking, I never learned to travel light. I carry a lot of emotional baggage. It’s a heavy load but over the years, I learned to put wheels on it. Even so, there are times when I wonder if my strength will give out. Do I really have to carry this stuff until I die?

Photini was just like me. She carried a lot of baggage to the well that day. One big weight was her inability to have a successful relationship. She had been through five marriages and now was, as we say in the south, “shacking up.” Apparently, this resulted in another burden: she had no friends. She came to well at the sixth hour. That wasnt the time when all of the other women of the village would come to get water. Photini was shunned and so she came when the other women wouldn’t be there. Being a Samaritan, she was shunned by the Jews as unclean. Soon she would learn that she carried the burden of some bad theology.

Photini found it impossible to travel light. She needed someone to take her baggage. What she needed was a Sky Cap. She went to the well that day and met one who took away all of her baggage. From that day forward, she traveled light and free. In fact, freed from her baggage, she became such an evangelist for Christ that the Church called her “Equal to the Apostles.”

Though I am weary of my baggage, I refuse to give it to the Sky Cap. I’d rather put wheels on it and continue to carry it myself. Because of this, I may never be an effective Orthodox Christian. Certainly, I will never be called “equal to the Apostles.” It isn’t a matter of unworthiness. To be an Apostle, you have to be able to travel light. I’m too weighed down for that.

The Lord said once, “Cast your cares and burdens on me”. He wants my baggage so that I can travel light and free. And if I do, then I too can become a Sky Cap. Without my own baggage, I can carry the burdens of others. St. Paul said that if I do this, I will “fulfill the law of Christ.”

The Sky Cap stands and waits patiently for me to give him all of my baggage. It must make him sad to see me struggle so. I can continue to travel weary and heavy-laden, or I can travel light and free.

So, the Sky Cap asks, “May I check you luggage?”

Its my choice.


May 23, 2008



I live close to the Blue Ridge Parkway, a two-lane road that goes along the top of the mountains from my hometown, Waynesboro, to the Cherokee Indian Reservation in North Carolina. One of my favorite spots on the Parkway is Humpback Rocks. From the parking lot, it’s a two mile trek to the top. At the top, the Blue Ridge Mountain range and the Shenandoah Valley spreads before you and what a view it is.

I use to go up there on a regular basis. I was a young man then and in much better shape. There was a time when I began to be pleased with how quickly I could go up to the top without stopping. Well, pride goes before a fall. One day I was going along at a nice pace when I heard a sound behind me. A soft voice said, “Pardon me, sonny.” I turned around and a little gray haired lady with a walking stick passed by me like I was in walking in reverse. Even worse, she was carrying a nicely loaded backpack.  Watching her move off down the trail, I found a bench and sat down. Obviously, this was one girl who was dedicated to walking the path. That was almost 40 years ago. I imagine she’s up there still.

Living in the mountains, spiritual life has always seemed like traveling to the top of Humpback Rocks.  It takes a lot of effort to reach the top. Since it takes effort, I’m usually content to just admire from the bottom of the mountain.

At almost every Liturgy, we read or make reference to the Beatitudes. We love to hear about things like meekness, and purity. But what we see is a path that leads to the top of the mountain, and knowing the effort required, we are loathe to begin the journey.

How I admire the saints, but I only admire them. It seems to me that it takes too much effort to get to where they are. Obviously, they had something that I just don’t have. They must have been religious geniuses or spiritual athletes and there’s no way that I can ever be like them.

Some years ago, there was a pop christian song out called “Grand Canyon.” The lyrics proposed that when looking at the Lord, its like standing at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and looking one mile up to someone at the top of the ridge. Well, I dont need to try to look for the Lord at the top, I just look at  my patron, St. John Maximovitch. Theres a grand canyon between us and he’s at the top. So, the saints just must have had something special.

Actually no!  They simply refused to stop repenting until they reached the top of the mountain. I heard this definition the other day. A saint is one who always gets up when he falls. Once on the path, they would not stop climbing.  I climb a little and get out of breath. I fall and wallow in despair. I repent a little and then give up. So, it’s become so much easier to just to admire the saints than try to be like them.

Though your leg muscles may strain and you find yourself out of breath, walk the path. Even if you must walk slowly and occasionally stop to catch your breath, don’t give up.  It’s enough that you are on the path. As the book of Hebrews says, God loves a “pilgrim people.”  Pilgrims are people who haven’t arrived yet, but are dedicated to the journey. They are confessors.

Let me remind you that if you’ve been walking the path to holiness and your feeling pretty fit, don’t be surprised if you find yourself being passed by a sweet old girl with a backpack. Don’t give up; keep going because when you reach the top  – man, what a view! Then you can have a nice chat and a cup of  tea with the sweet old lady!


May 23, 2008



“The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is single, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness! No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.  Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life” (Matthew 6)

If you take time to think about, vision is a remarkable thing. It is a difficult thing to be born blind, but how terrible it must be to have had sight and then lose it. Jesus said it- if the eye is bad then there is darkness and how great and terrible is that darkness.

The animal world is filled with all kind of vision. From insects to fish to man, the arrangement of eyes is remarkable. We humans have stereoscopic vision: that is we have two eyes, but because they are placed as they are, we experience vision as if we had one eye. If fact, if we lose one eye, our experience of vision is still the same as before. The stereoscopic nature of our vision allows us many advantages like depth perception and peripheral vision. As I said, it is truly remarkable.

But what happens if we cross our eyes, or if due to a physical ailment or accident, our eyes wander. Suddenly our vision is double or blurred. It is so distracting and troublesome that we try desperately to get back to singleness of vision.

St. John said that Christ is the true light and Jesus spoke of himself as the light of the world.  To see this uncreated light, our vision must be single. The Fathers tell us that the eye that Jesus is referring to is not our physical eyes, but our inner eye, that is the soul. The soul can see God with absolute clarity, or it can become warped so that no light passes through it.

St. Paul spoke of “singleness of heart” and warned us that a “double minded man is unstable in all his ways.” Double-mindedness is a blurring of spiritual vision, and when the eye of the soul is blurred, how terrible is the darkness that follows.

Why do we have so little singleness of heart? What is it that blurs our vision and makes us so cross-eyed? The Master speaks about it.

“You cannot serve two masters.” Serving two masters makes you cross-eyed. A slave has to watch to be ready to respond when called. How can you keep an eye on two people at once?  Of course, the way life is today, we feel fortunate if we only have two masters. With so many commitments and demands, it’s hard to know where our priorities and commitments truly rest. We have to keep an anxious eye on everything. If we had a hundred eyes, like a fly, we still couldn’t keep an eye on everything that concerns us.

Jesus names these two masters as God and mammon.  The word “mammon” is used in the Bible to describe riches, avarice, and worldly gain. I know this idea makes us anxious, but I have said many times that Jesus knows that we must work and need money to get by. It was God who said that we must earn our living “by the sweat of our brow.” Remember, its not money that’s the root of all evil, it’s the LOVE of money that is the problem. When the desire for security and comfort dominate life, then we become slaves to it. God is jealous God, and we find ourselves between two masters. Our eyes cross and the light of soul begins to dim.

I think I can honestly say that I have no intention to get rich nor do I strive for it. All I want are the basics. But wait a minute. No so fast! Its so easy for my wants to quickly become my needs. My basics get more complicated every day. So though I am not rich, I  strive like a slave for things. I am such easy prey for Master Mammon.

There is a hook that mammon uses to catch us.  Jesus said, “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life.” Worry and anxiety lead us to slavery. Well, really, how can I keep from not worrying? I mean have you seen the price of gasoline? Who can afford to buy a steak anymore? Will I have enough money to retire?  What about the medical bills? Will there be any social security when I finally hit retirement age?  Oh, the list or worries just goes on and on! You may insert your own worries to the list.

Actually, these fears speak to legitimate concerns and God knows that we must deal with them. But its the power of the fear behind these concerns that binds us with shackles of iron. Fear and anxiety blur my vision and I am filled with darkness.

If I made God my only master, all these things, for which I am so anxious, would be given to me. Sounds nice, but 2hat proof do we have of this? Jesus tells us to consider the lilies of the field or the birds of the air. The point isn’t that we will live like birds or flowers. The point is whether we can trust God or not. Trust and fear do not exist together, and trust restores vision to unity and singleness.

Even with a clear eye, problems will continue. The cost of living will only go up. There will be tribulations and sorrows. Yet with trust and hope, these things will not bind us through fear to another master.  Listen again to the words of St. Paul:  “rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but glory in tribulations, because tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope never disappoints because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” (Romans 5)

Singleness of heart is a gift, and it transforms life because it keeps the eye of the soul single so that light will pour into our being.  With this light, we know that nothing will separate us from God and nothing will be able to destroy us.

It is good to live without fear, but this can only happen when light fills the body. And light only fills the body when the eye is single. Strive, my friends for singleness of heart.

I bear false witness

May 23, 2008



For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.   -Romans 10:10

I am sure that many of you have met a certain type of human being that we refer to as “professor.”  There are many types: math professors, history professors, science professors, and so on.  I’ve known many professors in my long educational career, but some of the ones that I have found most curious are religion professors.

While some religion professors confessed some kind of faith, there were some that puzzled me. I wanted to ask them, “Well, you are a professor, but what do you profess?” From the way they taught, I couldn’t tell what their “profession” was, despite the fact that they might be teaching the New Testament, church history, or Christian Theology. Perhaps they were experts in their field, but what they professed in class, they never seemed to confess in life.  I often longed for the moment when they would confess that what they professed was not the truth at all.

I have to ask myself the same question: Is my profession the same as my confession?

I’ve noticed quite often, and with great sadness, that what I profess is I rarely what I confess. Most of the time, I bear false witness about myself. The words of St. Ephraim the Syrian describe me so well:

“I am worthless, but think much of myself. I lie constantly but get angry with liars. I condemn those who fall, but myself fall constantly. I condemn slanderers and thieves, but am myself both a thief and a slanderer. I walk with bright countenance, although I am altogether impure. In churches and at banquets I always want to take the place of honor. I see hermits and act dignified; I see monks and I become pompous.  I strive to appear pleasing to women, dignified to strangers, intelligent and reasonable to my neighbors, superior to intellectuals. I do not want to know those who are higher than I, and I scorn those who are lower. If I refrain from eating, I drown in pride and arrogance. If I am wakeful in prayer, I am vanquished by irritability and wrath. To all appearances I am wise in humility, but in my soul I am haughty. I seem not to be acquisitive, but in reality I suffer from a mania for possessions. I appear to have forsaken the world, but if fact I still think about worldly things all the time. Such is my life! With what vileness do I obstruct my own salvation!”

I’m such a liar about myself. I put up such a front to everyone. I truly bear false witness about who I am.

St. Paul spoke of both heart and mouth and I prefer his order of sequence. The inner reality comes before the outward reality. With the heart we believe unto righteousness and then we confess unto salvation. What we believe must come right from the core of our being and it must be the truth. How truth or untruth lives in us will determine if we live in righteousness or unrighteousness.

In other words, what we confess, that is, what we truly believe will determine what we profess, that is, how we live.  When I look at my actions and behavior, it is clear that I have not “believed unto righteousness” and therefore my profession is a lie. Of course, rather than fix this problem, it is so much easier to put on a front.

The only answer is repentance. In fact, repentance must be my only confession. I should become a professor of confession and an expert in repentance. The Fathers always said that a true theologian is one who prays and one who prays is a true theologian.  What I should pray for is a heart that believes unto righteousness so that the mouth will confess unto salvation.

Let me end with the words of St. Ephraim:

“Awesome indeed is the miracle! How the Lord has tolerated my sins! How is it that He has not conveyed me who am miserable to the depths of hell while still alive!   Without doubt, thou, O Lady, hast granted me life by thine intercessions. Thou seekest my repentance- O All-good Virgin, give it to me, Thy servant – for thou art my wall, my harbor and my rampart.”

I bear false witness. Lord, I repent. Help Thou my unrepentant heart.


NOTE: The quotes are excerpts from A Spiritual Psalter, from the works of our Holy Father, Ephraim the Syrian, translated by Br. Isaac E. Lambertson, published by the St. John of Kronstadt Press, 1997, Liberty, Tennessee.

Rebel without a clue

May 23, 2008


Land of the free?

For just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness. (Romans 6)

The year was 1964.  I lived in a small Virginia town, and like all children, I was filled with all of angst that plagues that age. The fact that I came from the wrong side of the tracks didn’t help. I didn’t excel in sports; I didn’t excel in my studies; I certainly didn’t excel in fashion. And, like you find in most schools, there was a group of kids who seemed to have it all; they didn’t swim in the city pool but at the country club, and they wore the best clothes, ran the fastest race, played tennis and rode horses, and seemed to have the brightest futures. I wasn’t sure about where I fit in to this social hierarchy. Frankly, I didn’t have a clue and it worried me.

Then, a new cultural wave hit us. It was a wave of youthful rebellion with new music, new styles, new clothes, and new art. This revolution formed around four young men from Liverpool, England, and it felt like liberation. These four lads weren’t athletes or scholars, but they became our heroes because they gave many of us who didn’t fit in a new sense of empowerment. We grew our hair, and wore new clothes, and played the music. We struggled with parents and principals and local authorities. Add to that the dissent against the Vietnam War, and it was counter-cultural and revolutionary chic. Even some of the kids from the right side of the track began to copy us.

We were rebels, but I must say again that we really didn’t have a clue. We didn’t know that our attitude about freedom was very immature. We didn’t know that lawlessness only leads to more lawlessness. We were tired of people telling us what to do, how to act, and how to dress. However, as time passed, the downward spiral to death and destruction become more powerful. It became more and more difficult to feel or look unique. So, ever more outlandish behavior was needed to stay chic. We began to smoke and drink and practice a “liberated” morality. The mantra was “sex, drugs, and rock and roll.”

In the end, we became slaves to the dark side of rebellion. Some paid a heavy price early on, but for the rest of us, it fixed in us an immature attitude that has remained with us even to this day. We still don’t like anyone telling us what to do. We believe that we are free and slaves to no one, not even God.

After all, doesn’t the Bible say that Christ came to set us free? Why then should we submit to any religion or discipline that impinges on our freedom?  We agree with St. Paul that we don’t want to be slaves to sin because we know it will kill us, but we don’t want to be slaves to righteousness either. Slavery is slavery no matter who the master is.

Years ago, Bob Dylan sang the following verse:  “It might the devil, or it might be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.”  It is difficult for us rebellious children to hear the truth that you cannot live in this world without serving something.  We are fooling ourselves if we think otherwise. If we look closely, we see that our neutral ground is not neutral at all.

Believing ourselves to be free, we have become slaves. Need proof? How often do you confess the same sins? Our sins have become habits and our habits have become our master. We avoid confession because we might have to admit to the priest and to ourselves that we are in fact slaves to sin, and not as free as we think. We are like smokers who justify their bondage to tobacco by saying, “Well, I can quit anytime I want.” The fact is that they are slaves and couldn’t quit if they tried. We too believe in our basic goodness and that we can be change “anytime we want to.” What we have are not sins unto death, but “personality quirks.” We commit minor “picadillos”, not mortal sins. Mourn for our sins? Hardly.

If you read St. Paul carefully, you will notice that while sin pays a wage-death-eternal life is not a wage but a gift. Slavery to God is in fact true freedom, Jesus spoke of yokes and that we all labor under them. Yet, he said that his yoke was easy and his burden was light. He said that he came to give life and in abundance. He said that He came so that our joy might be full.

Sounds good, so why don’t we take up His yoke? Well, we “free people” don’t need any yoke at all. What Jesus proposes seems more like slavery than freedom. Attending church is fine, but I don’t want anyone telling me that I have to come. The same applies to all those disciplines like fasting and prayer and study. I’ll certainly do them when and if I feel like I need to. But my time is my time, and I don’t want anyone telling me how to spend it. And you can forget charity because I don’t want anyone telling me what to do with my money.

So, to the Lord’s offer of His yoke, we politely refuse. We continue under our own heavy yoke; but that doesn’t bother us because believing ourselves to be free, we don’t feel the weight of it. Tragically,  we miss the chance to be truly free and someday the wage of our foolishness will be paid.

We truly are rebels without a clue.

Southern Hospitality

May 23, 2008

Being born and raised in the south (Virginia, to be exact), there are things that I like to believe about myself as a southerner and about southern culture. One of these is that we southerners are a most hospitable folk. Why you can’t even say “The South” and not imply genteel hospitality. We believe that when you come into our homes, you will be made most welcome and we will see to your every need.

Oh really?

In my 30-plus years of ministry, I have seen southern hospitality die of the vine. In the past, clergy were often invited to dinner. In fact, it happened so often that it became the source of many humorous stories. My friend Bill Skye use to play a song about having the preacher over for Sunday lunch.  Of course, the Reverend could really put away the chicken.  While plaing the song, Bill’s daughter Laurie would make fast clacking noises with spoons to emphasize how quick the preacher could eat.

Well, I can almost count on one hand the number of times we’ve been invited to dinner by members of the congregation. Oh, there have been a few souls who knew how to be hospitable, but as a matter of culture, I found the English did a much better job at it. Anytime that I would visit an English home, the host or hostess made sure that I was comfortable, that I had a cup of tea, and then they would bring out the scones or cucumber sandwiches. We would sit by the coal fire and talk about life and sip our tea. By contrast, if I visited a home in the South on a really hot day, they wouldn’t even offer a glass of water. Sometimes, they didn’t even turn off the television.

Well, I don’t want you to pity the poor clergy, because it isn’t about the clergy.  As a matter of culture, hospitality is almost dead. We can, on special occasions, do a nice job of throwing a party, but hospitality is no longer a lifestyle. A simple test to prove the point:  when is the last time someone from church invited you over for a cup of tea? When is the last time you invited someone over for a cucumber sandwich?

Frankly, it isn’t that we don’t care. It’s just that we are too busy and being hospitable means a lot of work, time, money, and sacrifice. Though we fantasize a lot about being in a house by the side of the road, when we total up the bill, being a friend to man is a bit too costly. It’s a pity really because we miss the chance to meet some fantastic people. St. Paul said that we should never stop showing hospitality because like our father Abraham, we might entertain angels and not know it.

Is this is just a lot of longing for the “good old days?” After all, times have changed and we just have to accept it. Wasn’t it Ben Franklin who said, “Fish and friends stink after two days?” Yes, times have changed, but the loss of hospitality goes deeper than social niceties. It expresses a corruption of the soul that harms our spiritual life.

In St. Luke, chapter seven, we read the story that as Jesus sat in the house of Simon, the Pharisee, a woman came and weeping, knelt at His feet and wiped them with her hair. Simon, being a good Pharisee, was offended that Jesus would let such a woman even touch him. The Jesus then said something that made me stop and ponder: “Simon, do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has washed My feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head.  You gave Me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss My feet since the time I came in. You did not anoint My head with oil, but this woman has anointed My feet with fragrant oil.”

If you know anything about the ancient Near East, you realize how unusual it is that a man would not show his guest hospitality. Yet, Simon did not. How in the world could Simon have the Lord Jesus Himself at his table and not show proper hospitality. Why if Jesus were to come to my house, I would do it right. I would prepare and have everything ready and when Jesus came by, I would see to His every need!

Oh really?

When Jesus enters into my house do I was his feet? I don’t remember ever doing that and certainly not with my tears.  Do I give Him a kiss of recognition and welcome? No, usually it’s more of a Judas kiss. Did I ever place oil on His head to ease His weariness? No, and I certainly have never been low enough to wipe His feet with my own hair.  I invite Him in and never offer Him a glass of water. I ask Him over, and don’t even cut off the TV.  I am worse than Simon.

It’s no wonder that I am so inhospitable to people because I can’t even show a little to my Lord, my Savior, and my God.  Because I do little or nothing to prepare for His visit, I have little to offer Him when He comes. He is willing to enter the humblest of dwellings and is pleased to do so, but my house isn’t humble at all. I’m quite proud of how I’ve furnished the place. But when Jesus comes to see me He will have to fend for Himself. Surely, by now, He ought to know where the Fridge is. If He wants something, why He’s welcome to it. There’s the kitchen!!

Like I said, hospitality is dead.

Little Pigs

May 23, 2008


“For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.”

Is there any fable that has lasted as long as the story of “The Three Little Pigs?” It is a great analogy that can apply to spiritual life. Like these little pigs, each of us must build a secure dwelling place or we will not  survive.  Another truth comes through- the Wolf is out there and he’s quite a windbag. The pigs know this very well, so we might wonder why two of them built so poorly and used such bad material? Apparently,  despite the reality of the Wolf, they were diverted by other “occupations.” They did enough to get by and lived in a bit of denial that the Wolf would never come.

Jesus said that the only thing that marked the difference between a wise man and a foolish man is the foundation upon which he stood. The winds and waves will surely come and beat against every house without exception. The only house that would stand would be the one with the right foundation. This foundation is his teaching and we have heard these teachings through the witness of the Holy Apostles.  When asked what is the foundation of my life, Christ and the Apostles is my only answer.

In His wisdom,  God did not leave this foundation work to us. In our rush to build, we would go cheap on the foundation. After all, the foundation is not the most attractive part of the building. God has built a strong and level foundation and upon this foundation He is building His Church. It is upon this foundation all of us must build.

We might ask that if the foundation is there, why be in a rush to build? Well, we would think a person to be mighty foolish if, after building the foundation, he sat there in the open with no walls and a roof. This is the plight of many. They stand on the right foundation but they have not built the rest of the house. They will be saved, but it will be at a terrible price. The Wolf will not spare them at all.

I hear people say that they are not religious, but that they are spiritual (as if being spiritual is something that just happens). We fool ourselves if we think that we can build any kind of spiritual life without the right tools. The tools of spiritual building are prayer, fasting, and charity. I think that I would add another necessary tool: study. Failure to use these spiritual tools would be like showing up at a work site only to find that no one had any hammers or saws. We would fire the contractor!

Besides tools, you need the right materials. St. Paul speaks about the materials that we use in building our spiritual house.  Good materials would be faith, hope, love, kindness, goodness, gentleness, meekness, and self-control, etc. A house built with this material will withstand anything that comes against it. The wolf will always blow against the house. Count on it.  If we try to build with anything else, the structure will fall with the first puff of wind.

Like two of the pig brothers, we are often careless about how we  build our spiritual houses. We want to believe that  the wolf will never be at our door. This is a remarkable faith since we all have a history of disaster, testing, illness, hard times, and temptation.  It is the job of the Wolf to be at our door and he is persistent about it. Why does God allow this to happen? Is it because we are bad and God has to punish us? It may be that we are lazy pigs, but God doesn’t allow the wolf to come to punish us. St. Paul called this testing “fire.” When the fire comes, it tests what we have built. If we have built with wood, hay, or stubble, it will not stand the test. We will suffer loss, but maybe we will have learned something valuable.


The Fathers tell us that testing is proof of God’s love. God does not want us to live in substandard housing. How many times has my little house fallen to the ground and I am just shocked at how easily it crumbled. I thought I had done a much better job this time. Only testing proves whether it is sound or not.  Still, it is a grievous thing when I am shown again and again that I did not build very well.

Now I know why God didn’t allow me to lay the foundation.  Each time my building crumbled, the foundation was never destroyed. Thank God. This allowed me to clear away the debris and begin again. Did I learned my lesson? Will I do a better job this time?  I hope so.

St. Paul puts it this way: even if our entire spiritual house crumbles in the face of a test, we ourselves are not lost. As long as we stay on the foundation, we will be saved. So why worry about anything else?  St. John Chrysostom advises: “ Don’t just cling to the foundation, but build upon it, and be cemented to it. For if we ever stand apart from it, we shall surely perish.”  Imagine if you heard that my house burned down, and several weeks later you saw me sitting among the rubble watching TV as the rain came down. Upon inquiry, you discover that I plan to stay that way, since I believe that all I need is the foundation. Foolishness!! With or without walls, the wolf will come again. With no walls, he will try to blows us from the foundation, and it will be hard to hang on to the foundation because the wind can be fierce. Walls and a roof sure make it a lot easier to hang in there.

In the end, there is one test that we will all face. Death will test all of us to see how well we have built our spiritual house. Yet, even here, if our house falls as we pass through the gates of death, if we remain on the foundation of Christ our Lord, even then we will be saved.

Finally, this analogy can have a corporate application. The Church is built on the foundation of Christ and the Apostles. It is an ongoing work and St. Paul wrote that we are “laborers with God.” We need to build well in our own parishes and here we need the right tools and the right materials. The bonds of love, fellowship, and forgiveness must be strong between us. I have often seen the Wolf blow against a parish or even a jurisdiction. The resulting destruction was terrible to see. It became evident that that fellowship did not build well. However, at such times, we must not lose heart and remember that there is a foundation laid that cannot be moved. Standing upon it, let us begin to build again.

This analogy applies to marriage as well. In the Sacrament, we try to lay the foundation of the relationship. From there, a couple must build upon it. If a marriage is to last, it depends upon what materials the couple used, what tools are employed, and how well they built. Trouble will most certainly come and it comes to all couples. In fact, the way that the Wolf tries to destroy the Church is through marital discord and divorce.  Couples who go through difficult times need to cling the foundation of their marriage which is the abiding love and presence of Christ.

There was a good brother pig. He knew the value of a house well built. He also knew the Wolf would come. So he built with good bricks and mortar. Eventually, the foolish brothers had to run and take refuge with him. I would point out that even then, the Wolf did not give up. He tried to come down the chimney, but the wise pig brother was ready for him. He had the fireplace ready, and when he lit the fire, the Wolf perished.  For us, the fire in the fireplace is the Holy Spirit which burns within us.

Let us build well with good and sturdy material, so that even when the great wolf of death comes, our houses will stand before that mighty wind. Then we can join in the eternal chant of the Saints (even in tone 6) – “Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf.”

home safe