Archive for November, 2008

Take Care How You Hear!

November 25, 2008


My mom used to tell me that I wasn’t a good listener and she wasn’t the only one to say it. Women often complain that men never really listen to them, and while this may be true, I don’t think its just limited to men. In my years of ministry, I’ve had a number of couples in my office with marital problems. At the root of most of them was a failure of communication. Folks argue over many things, but they never really hear each other. If you don’t hear, then there has been no real communication.  When a spouse or opponent speaks, we are often thinking about how we can respond to prove them wrong or defend ourselves.  At least, we are so distracted we don’t really hear what is being said. There are now companies and educational organizations that teach the techniques of communication. Marital counselors spend a lot of team teaching listening skills. Obviously, though we talk a lot, good communication doesn’t come naturally.

Jesus warned about ears being filled with wax. I’ve come to think that the wax in our spiritual ears is the noise of life that occupy most of our time; or it is that internal voice that strives for self-justification. This noise fills our ears even when we pray, read the Bible, or attend Church. There is an important reason why this is critical.  We plead with God that our faith is small and we wonder how we can get more faith. The Bible makes it very simple: “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” The way we get faith is through our ears, and if our ears are dull, our faith is small. How we hear makes all the difference.

We hear something that convinces us that Orthodoxy is truth. We say, “YES, this is the truth,” but we don’t act upon what we have heard. The next we hear the same thing we say, “Yes, this is the truth,” but again, we do nothing about it. Finally, we hear the same truth but now our response is, “Yawn! So what?” On the  other hand, if we act upon what we hear, then St. James says that we will be blessed in everything that we do. Imagine that – blessed in everything we do. We must be doers and well as hearers.

It’s hard to hear when you are emotional. Have you ever tried to speak to someone who is very angry, or very sad, or even very happy? They hardly hear what you say and you do not hear them. We are such a rollercoaster of emotions, it’s a wonder we hear anything at all. We need emotional sobriety. We need Jesus to command us as he did the storm and the waves –“Peace, be still.”

Finally, we don’t often hear because our brains aren’t fully engaged. Women are right that men only listen with 10% of their brain while the rest of the brain is somewhere else. Do we do the same in Church? Do we listen with divided attention? I often wonder if people hear the sermon that I preach, or if their minds are elsewhere. There’s a simple way to find out. About an hour later, just ask someone, “Well, what was the sermon about?” The answers are usually quite amusing if not somewhat sad. I remember that St. John Chrysostom noticed that his congregation was not listening. So, he stopped and said that he wanted to read a letter from a parishioner that would outline the failings and sins of some of the members. Suddenly, all eyes were on St. John with rapt attention. The Saint said to them that it was sad that they could not focus on the Word of God, but were ready to hear the latest gossip.

I know that not everything that I say in a sermon is straight from God. Some priests are skilled at sermons, and some are not. When it is a poor sermon, is it just a waste of time?  Jeremiah, the Prophet, said that God’s Word is like chaff to wheat. They would beat the wheat on the threshing floor and then it would be thrown into the air so that the chaff would blow away, and the heavier wheat will fall back to the floor. Maybe my sermons and blogs are 95% chaff and only 5% wheat. If so, the 5% of wheat is worth keeping. If something you hear in the reading or the sermon impresses you as the truth, then God has just spoken to you. Realize that this is being impressed upon you as the truth because it is something that you are meant not only to hear, but to do as well.

If we have really heard a word from God, we have done well yet hearing is only one side of the coin.  We need to become active listeners, doers of the Word. St. James says, “Be doers of the word and not hearers only. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who sees his face in a mirror, but when he turns away, he forgets what he looks like.” St. James uses a very human experience to illustrate this fact. You can spend a lot of time bathing and grooming until all is “perfection.” You check the bathroom mirror several times to be sure.  Then, even though there has been no windstorm raging through the house as you walk down the hall, you check yourself again when you pass the hall mirror. Its almost like you have forgotten what you look like.  In the same way, we can hear something, but if we do not put it into practice, it will soon be forgotten.

I have some “radical” suggestions for good listening. First, read the relevant scriptures for each Sunday, and if you have time, read an orthodox commentary on the passage. Study the Saints who are to be commemorated and come with an awareness of the theme of the service. Let Father know that you come to Church prepared to listen. He will knock himself out to write the best sermons possible. To come prepared – my, that is radical.

Jesus said, “Take care how you hear. For whoever has, to him more will be given; and whoever does not have, even what he seems to have will be taken from him.” It is a blessing to stand in the Holy Orthodox Church and hear the word of God. However, just standing in the service, but with your ears closed, will not accomplish much. Some said that standing in an Orthodox Church doesn’t make you anymore Orthodox  than standing in a garage makes you a automobile. If we are not doers of the Word, then even our Orthodoxy can be taken from us. Is this hard to believe?  I have seen some come to the Faith with great enthusiasm and piety, but they later leave the Faith.  Sadly, like the seed sown on bad ground, the Word did not take root.

Be ye doers of the Word and not hearers only. Take care how you hear!

Type II Orthodoxy

November 17, 2008


I am a type II diabetic and have been so for 30 years. It’s not as bad as Type I, but Type II has its peculiar challenges. You can be Type II for a long time and not even know it. Of course, once you have the diagnosis, the greatest challenge is indifference. Unlike Type I, you can eat things that are inappropriate and you may not feel any adverse effects at all. What you don’t realize is the damage that is being done, the slow attrition that is affecting your arteries and internal organs. Even after the diagnosis, you can play the game of  taking enough medicine to get by while you continue to eat the way you want. You can use a blood tester, but after a while you don’t even know where it is. You foolishly believe you have plenty of time to get it right.

I am also Type II Orthodox. I have a chronic condition, but I am indifferent to it and what it is doing to me. I go on day after day, week after week, doing the same and being the same while throwing in enough piety to get by. When you are Type II Orthodox, you look good to everyone else. No one can tell that you have a chronic illness.  As St. Paul said, you have the form of godliness, but not the power of it.

Here is a great description of Type II Orthodoxy.

I am worthless but think much of myself. At church banquets I act pompously and seek honor. Yet, I do not want to honor those to whom honor is due. I never tire myself with work, but if someone doesn’t work for me, I become very angry. I avoid those who are ill, but if I become ill, I want everyone to serve me and feel sorry for me. I lie constantly, but become angry when someone lies to me.

I appear to have scorned worldly pleasures, but in fact I have not abandoned my desire for them. I defile the temple of my spirit with wanton thoughts. I strive to appear pleasing to women and if I see a woman, I go into raptures. I seem not to be acquisitive, but I have a lust for gadgets. I walk around in black robes, but I like nice clothing. I long for gifts, but I keep my wallet closed for others.

During church services I let my mind wander to vain memories. I appear to be poor, but I dream of wealth. During meal times I talk about foolish things and try to impress others with my humor and wit. I appear to have forsaken the world, but I talk about worldly things all the time. I want all to forgive me, but if offended, I dream of revenge. I condemn anyone who is a thief or who slanders others, but I am both a slanderer and a thief. I live in sin, but I strive for others to see me as a righteous man. The list endless: corrupt thoughts , fits of selfishness, gluttony, sensuality, vainglory, arrogance, lust, gossiping, fast breaking, wallowing in despondency, rivalry, indignation, and so on. If you peel away my veneer of piety, you would find worms inside. If the whitewashed cover is removed, everyone will see what lies in the grave. Sadly, I spend one day repenting and two offending. (This is a paraphrase of a confession by a monastic!)**

It usually takes some physical infirmity for the light to dawn on Type II diabetics so that they change their diet, monitor  blood levels, and take the appropriate medicine. In like fashion, it often takes a tragedy or great sorrow to wake us up to the fact that our Type II Orthodoxy has weakened or numbed our souls and damaged our faith.  If we can wake up to the situation, we can go on a spiritual diet that will restore spiritual health.

There is no getting around it, the diet is the same: for Type II diabetics – low carb; for Type II Orthodox -prayer, fasting, attending services, doing alms, study. The medication is powerful -the Eucharist. A doctor has us make regular appointments to check our progress. I hate to go because I will have to be accountable for what I have done or failed to do. Likewise, the Church calls us to regular confession. Confession can be a time of accountability or we can cancel the appointment because we just can’t face the shame. The real shame is hiding our condition.  Like any doctor, the Great Physician does not diagnose us to condemn or shame us. He works like any good physician. If I hide my symptoms from my physician, I can’t complain if I remain ill. My doctor loves me, but I remain ill. What is not acknowledged cannot be healed.

My first acknowledgement is that I am type II Orthodox. I regret that I am this way, but is this regret enough to seek healing? My spiritual Father always asked me if I am sorry for what I had done. I would reply that I am sorry, but not sorry enough to change. I guess that it will take a tragedy to turn me around. What an idiot.  The time is short to get it right. The alternative is not a pleasant thing to think about.

There is healing for Type II Orthodoxy. The Physician invites me. Will I make the appointment? Will I take the cure, or once again convince myself that there is plenty of time? How long has it been since you made an appointment, and kept it?

** Taken from A Spiritual Psalter, or reflections on God, by St. Ephaim, the Syrian, published by the St. John of Kronstadt Press, Liberty, Tennessee, 1990. The particular section is the Eight Kathisma, The First Stasis, number 55, entitled, “How to scrutinize and reproach yourself.” Even though it is St. Ephrem’s confession, it is mine as well.

Rinse and Repeat

November 17, 2008


I haven’t looked at my shampoo bottle lately, but I remember sometime back in my youth, I looked at the label for instructions. One thing that it said was to “rinse and repeat.” Does anybody shampoo their hair twice? Once seemed like it did the job very nicely so I never did rinse and repeat. My hair would get dirty and greasy very quickly, and so I’d have to shampoo the next day anyway. Maybe I should have followed the directions to rinse and repeat and my hair would have stayed clean longer.

Orthodox piety is a lot about “rinse and repeat.” Let me set the stage.

Long ago, the Church faced a major decision. Should those who deny Christ during times of persecution be allowed back into the Church? After all, there were the martyrs-those who had shed their blood and died rather than deny Christ. Then, sitting in the Church were men and women with no tongue, blind, scarred, or missing an ear or a limb. They were the Confessors and though they were not killed, they had been tortured but refused to deny Christ. Why should those who denied Jesus be allowed to enter the door even if they were sorry for what they had done? Those who took the hard line were called “Donatists.” Those who had denied Christ were called the “lapsi.” Fortunately, the Church decided against the Donatists, and for mercy for those who had lapsed.

Most of us will never face the kind of severe persecution that could result in our death or disfigurement, yet, every day we find ourselves denying Christ in one way or another. After all, habitual sin is a denial of the healing power of the death and resurrection of the Lord. I am sure that most of us are painfully aware of sins that, at least to this point in time, simply will not go away. I begin to wonder if I should just stop going to confession because after all, I confessed last week and my soul is dirty and greasy again with the same old sins.

The reality of persistent and habitual sin can cause despair. I become more pessimistic about human nature than optimistic about God’s grace. Maybe it’s really true that a leopard can’t change his spots, or maybe you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Since my sins won’t go away, I begin to believe that God has had enough of my weakness. I am a dirty lapsi and therefore, I shouldn’t sit next to the faithful Confessors of God.

Yet, I don’t despair because God directed the Church to proclaim His mercy to the lapsed. This mercy is to be repeated again and again and again. You see, I can wallow in a pig pen all day long and become so dirty and stinky that you wouldn’t want to be within 50 feet of me. Yet, if I jump in the ocean, the ocean cleans me and I don’t change the ocean at all. So it is with the mercy of God. No matter how dirty I become, God’s mercy is infinite.

Do you realize that the Lord made a wonderful covenant with us at our baptism? He promised that He would never leave or forsake us. He promised that the waters of baptism would wash away all sins and that whenever we come to confession, our baptism is renewed and our sins are forgiven. The Lord puts his seal upon this by giving us his Body and Blood after we go to confession. This is truly “rinse and repeat.”

Think about it. Every sin that we confess will not be mentioned or remembered on the Day of Judgment because our baptism has washed them away. The Lord God said so in the Old Testament when he said that we would be made whiter than snow and our sins would no longer be remembered. With such a wonderful promise of so much mercy, it makes you wonder why the Church is empty at every Saturday night Vigil, the time when many confessions are heard. You would think that such an expression of love would pack the Church. I wonder what we will say to the Lord when we try to explain why we refused to use this grace because other things were of greater value. Actually, I do more than wonder; I tremble at scene.

This explains why there is so much pressure from the devil and world to stay away from confession. The devil tempts us to sin and then shames us for the sin, hoping that shame will keep us away from God’ s mercy.The world keeps us away by making sure that we are always too busy or too tired to make it to confession. By allowing ourselves to be absent, our soul only becomes dirtier and greasier until we are convinced that God doesn’t want us in the House!

I also believe that deep down inside, we like to believe that we are basically good people and good people don’t have to confess very often. While we might get a little angry at times, or have a lustful thought or two, such things are only human. We believe that what we deal with is not mortal sin, but just a few personality quirks and kinks that a loving God would surely never notice. This is why it shocks us when read of the death scene of some great saint and we hear him or her say that they are not ready to die because they have not repented enough. If they think this way, then my belief that I am basically all right is a lie.

Then, I think we are playing a lottery with God. There’s a story about this. The devil was worried because hell (kind of like church these days) was poorly attended. So he called in his three best demons and told them to go into the world and get recruits. The first went out and later a few new souls appeared in hell. When the demon returned, the devil asked what temptation he had used. The demon replied that he had told people not to worry because there is no God. The devil laughed and said that the demon was a fool. Few would believe such a lie and the demon was dismissed. The second demon went up and this time more souls came to hell but not enough. The devil asked the second demon what temptation he had used. The demon replied that he told people that their sins didn’t matter because after all, God was love, so why worry. The devil said that it was a good thought but not good enough and so the second demon was dismissed. The third demon went up and this time great multitudes of damned souls came to hell. The devil was thrilled and so He asked the third demon what temptation he had used. He replied that he told people to not worry because they had plenty of time to repent. “Wait until tomorrow” was his simple plea. This slogan became the new theme of demons everywhere.

Are you sure you know what tomorrow will bring? If not, are you playing the lottery with God? You don’t have to. Why go about with a dirty soul?Rinse and repeat – baptism and confession –and there’s no waiting because usually the line to confession is not very long.

Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat. It’s the way to keep your soul squeaky clean. Shampoo anyone? It’s specially formulated for the lapsi.