Archive for February, 2009

In the closet

February 28, 2009

As Americans, we have the “right to privacy.” Given the electronic media and all of the surveillance that goes on, you wonder how much privacy there is. Still, when you read about nations where there was no private life at all, you understand how precious privacy can be.

Orthodox Christians do not have a right to privacy.Privacy is not a right; it is both our obligation and our way of life. Jesus spoke of this way of life in the Sermon on the Mount:“When you fast, don’t show it on your face;Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing;Put your treasure in heaven; When you pray, enter into your closet; Don’t give alms before men.”We are to live secret lives where all that we do is hidden from the eyes of men.

There is one simple reason why we live secret lives – it is in secret that we meet the Father.Jesus said, “Pray to thy Father Who is in secret” and “the Kingdom of God is within you.” It is in this secret place that we commune with the Father in prayer.The more we know the Father and the more intimate the relationship becomes, the more we find that we want no one’s approval but our Father’s approval. The only “well done” that we care to hear is from our Father. Then all that we do in public, all that we do for others, we do for our Father’s approval alone.

It doesn’t take much then to figure out if you have a private life with the Father or not. One sure test is when no one says “Thank you.”When this happens, we usually feel angry or sad that our good work went unnoticed.We wonder if we should continue our work since no one bothered to say “thanks.”Another gauge is how quickly we take offense and become angry whenever someone opposes our plans or work.

In the beginning, a secret life was not necessary. We lived in the Garden, where God was pleased to walk with us. We could do our good works and there was no mixture of vanity or false pride. When our Parents were expelled from the Garden, then the private life became necessary.Now, vanity and pride would be mixed into everything that we do.Everything, even acts of self-denial and heroism could be tainted with pride and vanity.Even worse, our very piety and service to the Church can become the work of Pharisees where we do all not to please our Father in Heaven, but to be well thought of and acclaimed by our brothers and sisters.

The Lord said, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. We are Orthodox in name only if we have no secret life with the Father. It is from that closet, that secret place that we find our heart’s true treasure.Without it, we believe that we are people of good will doing good things. In truth, what we treasure is praise, acclaim, and reward. Such things will pass away, and rust, and thieves will break in and steal them. I think of so many in my lifetime who sought fame and notoriety, and having gained it, found that the thief came and took it away.

Did Jesus have a secret place? Yes. Matthew wrote that when the Lord dismissed his disciples, “he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone.” You see, the only treasure that lasts for all eternity is the relationship we have with our Father. Then, if we have our secret place, our right hand won’t know what our left hand is doing, and we won’t care at all. Our so-called reputation will be like a filthy rag and we will be glad of it.

The private life is our lifestyle and our obligation. It is also our greatest treasure. If our heart is in the closet, then no moth, no rust, no thief will ever be able to take our treasure from us.

Do you have a secret place?Without it, Ecclesiastes is correct! “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and indeed, all is vanity and grasping for the wind.”Yet, with our hearts in the closet with our Father, we will walk in the Garden again with God. Then whatever we do will be free from vanity.

Goat Boy

February 22, 2009

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Be honest! Do you really think about the second coming of Christ? After all, it’s been about 2,000 years, so why worry now? Maybe, we don’t think about judgment because we hate to be accountable to anyone. I sometimes wish that God would follow His own advice: don’t judge lest you be judged. God should be so loving and forgiving that he will just pass over all of our sins, passions, and mistakes.

The Bible portrays the end of all things and usually, its not a pretty picture. You only have to read the book of Revelation to find some rather disturbing images. The Church has never taught that it’ll be all warm fuzzies and bright lights, and then Jesus speaks of the last judgment and said it would be a sheep and goat kind of experience. Sheep and goats? Compare to other images about the end, this seems a bit…pastoral.

In his parable of the Judgment, the Master separates the two with the sheep on the right and the goats on the left.  Is there something, some mark or characteristic, by which he tells the difference?  Is it how pure they were in this life? No. Is by how much they prayed and fasted? No. Is it by how much they read the Bible or how well versed they were in theology? No. Is it by how often they attended Church and went to confession and communion? No. Well then, what is the distinguishing mark that divides them? It is compassion. Compassion? Oh, I wish he hadn’t of said that. Why can’t it at least be some of the other things like  how well I followed the rules, or kept the fast, or prayed, or how well I avoided gossip or conquered my lustful thoughts?

Blessed Augustine said that we should not resist the first coming of Christ so that we will not dread the second. By first coming, does he mean Nativity? No, it is when Christ comes to us in the poor, the imprisoned, the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the depressed, the lonely, the desperate, etc.

Is compassion difficult? Not really.  It doesn’t take intelligence or wisdom to be compassionate. I don’t have to be rich or beautiful. What does it take? Heart.

“Ever let mercy outweigh all else in you. Let our compassion be a mirror where we may see in ourselves that likeness and that true image which belong to the Divine nature and Divine essence. A heart hard and unmerciful will never be pure.”   —St. Isaac of Syria

Seeing that compassion is easy for all of us to do, how then do I explain the poverty of my own compassion? When I take an honest look at my so called achievements, they aren’t so great really. Most of what I think I have accomplished  will fade into obscurity and be remembered no more. What will last in the memory of God is the mercy and compassion I have shown, or not.

At the moment, as I see it, I’m pretty much a goat boy. Yet, if I could get a sheep-like heart, it might even change every thing I do. For example, when I fast, instead of fretting over how “kosher” it is,  I can eat more simply and then take the extra money I save and support the food bank. Maybe I could empty my closet of clothes I haven’t worn in years and give them to the local mission. The possibilities are endless, if I could get a sheep’s heart.

Goat boy would rather not do any of this.  He would rather prove his love for God with piety. Of course, piety is important but the Judge said, “Forgive and you will be forgive, show mercy, and mercy will be shown to you. I was hungry and you fed me, naked and you clothed me, thirsty and you gave me water to drink.” Goat boy wishes that he would hear something like, “Good job. You didn’t eat that burger during Lent”, or “Way to go! You really nailed that prayer rule.” Of course, a heart that is “broken and humbled God will not despise.”

The last word is from the Prophet.

5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying on sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD ?

6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?

7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness a]”>[a] will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.

9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,

10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.”

The mouth of the Lord has spoken it!

Baby Kisser

February 20, 2009

 

 

I don’t follow the presidential campaign closely enough to know if it always  happens, but I suspect that it does. Usually, it’s a regular part of the campaign and you see lots of pictures taken when it occurs. Someone will hand the candidate their baby, and the candidate will duly kiss the baby. Now, I’m not sure about exactly what this means. Is it a blessing for the baby? Will the baby’s life be forever changed because this particular person kissed it? It’s funny to me that people want to hand their babies to famous people.

In Luke 2, the situation is turned around. The time of purification had passed and Mary and Joseph brought the Child to the Temple to offer the prescribed sacrifice. They weren’t there because they heard that someone famous was there. In fact, if they had handed the Baby to the famous and the powerful in the Temple, the elite wouldn’t have kissed this baby anyway. Joseph and Mary were poor people and would hardly be noticed. How do we know they were poor? Well, the law allowed the poor to offer two birds instead of two sheep or two cows.

The elite of the Temple did not understand that the history of the Old Testament had come to completion that day. For in this baby, God had returned the Temple. If they had known this, all of them would have lined up to kiss the baby. Yet, the significance of the moment was not lost on everyone. There were two people there who kissed the baby. One was an old man and the other was an old woman. Why is it that they, among all the people who were there, were able to kiss the baby?

It says that Symeon was a just and pious man. Well, I’m sure that there were many pious people in the Temple that day. Yet, Symeon was a man who came to the Temple each day with an expectation and hope. Each day he came to see “the consolation of Israel.” He believed, in fact he had been promised, that he would not die before he had seen the Christ. A lot of people believed in a Messiah, but how many believed that they would see him before they died?

What is life without hope? For that matter, what is faith without hope? Do I come to the Temple thinking that today, yes even today, I will kiss the Baby? See, I believe in God and I believe in Christ. Yet, is there any conviction in me that before I die, my eyes will actually see God’s salvation fulfilled in my life? Another way to say this is do I really believe that holiness is possible for me, that what God started in me He will actually finish? Is today the day that this will be done? I know that he did this for the Saints, but they were saints after all. For me personally, I am very skeptical because I am no saint. After all,  the times was so different then. Everything today is weak and watered down and compromised. Holiness is a slim possibility.

Anna, daughter of Phanuel, got to kiss the baby. What made her so special? Well, she never left the Temple and she worshipped God with fasting and prayers. You know, it never occurred to me that I worship God by fasting. I thought fasting was just one of those disciplines that we do to constrain our flesh.Yet, Anna had learned to worship God with her piety and so she gained the spirit of a prophetess. When the Baby came into the Temple, she knew who this Baby was and she spoke to people many about him.

Each time I come to the Temple, I can kiss the Baby. I kiss him when I embrace my brothers and sisters. I kiss him when I kiss the hand of the priest.I kiss him in the icons. Above all, I kiss him in the holy Eucharist. Do I have the eyes to see it? Having prepared myself with prayer and fasting, do I come with hope and expectation that today, in this very hour, I will see the salvation prepared before the face of all the people. Hope and piety-with these two things, I can kiss the Baby. Then, when I leave the Temple, or when God sends his angel to take my soul from the temple of my body, I will be able to say, “Now let your servant depart in peace.”

I wish I was a Pharisee

February 7, 2009

I wish I was a Pharisee and had a church filled with Pharisees.

Oh, I know. In the minds of so many, the word Pharisee means either hypocrite or a mindless follower of the rules. Yet, think of these words from the Lord Jesus: “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20)

What?

Consider the righteousness of the Pharisees. Like the Orthodox, they believed not only in the written Torah, but also in oral tradition.They sought to bring the Torah into life and to understand how it could apply to the business of daily living. The Pharisees believed in social justice, in the brotherhood of man,and that above all, they were to love God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength.This love was to find its expression in understanding the Torah and living by its principles. They sought holiness above all things.

I wish I was a Pharisee and had a church filled with Pharisees.

But what about all the negative images we find in the Gospels. Well, it seems that Jesus had friends who were Pharisees. He often dined with them and seemed quite at home with them. You see, the Pharisees believed that there were many kinds of Pharisees. The best Pharisee was one who, loving God sincerely, sought to do God’s will. The worst Pharisee was one who did all for show, to gain the esteem of those around him, and who sought to use his righteousness as a means to gain money or power. Certainly, it is the lowest kind of Pharisee that Jesus railed against.

Yet, imagine a Church filled with good Pharisees dedicated to the study of Scripture, to attendance at worship, who pray and fast devoutly, and who believe that faith is life and life is faith. It would be perfect, wouldn’t it? Well, maybe not. It seems that study, prayer, fasting, and even trying to make faith the center of all things is not enough. There is one thing that is essential, and without it, all the spiritual discipline in the world is but vanity. That essential element is repentance.

Jesus tells the story. The Pharisee is in the Temple. He is a man of piety, a man of faith, who fasts and tithes of all that he has. Yet, he never realized that spiritual discipline was meant to produce humility and repentance. Yet, his spiritual discipline had produced pride and not humility. How is it possible that a good tree can produce rotten fruit?

Then, we see the publican, a tax collector, and tax collectors were not known for their piety. Yet, with little or no piety (as the Pharisees understood it), he found repentance and humility and left the Temple justified.

We too must learn that all of our spiritual effort, all of our Orthodox disciplines-fasting, prayer, tithing, attending services is meant to create in us a broken heart. Then, having no illusions about who we are, like the publican, we will cry out for mercy and find holiness.

I wish I was a publican and had a church filled with publicans.

Rest

February 1, 2009

A group of people who had entered into hell were taken to a beautiful dining room. It was finely apportioned with the best furniture, silverware, and glassware. On the table, every possible food was present and it was all of the highest quality. They were told to take a seat. Their punishment would be that they could eat all they wanted and they would never get sick or tire of the food.

Hardly able to contain their joy and surprise, they sat down, placed the fine linen napkin on their lap, picked up a fork, and began to eat. The fork would pick up the food, but just before it got to their lips, it would fall from the fork. If they tried to take the food by hand, it would just slip between their fingers or disappear.Try as they might, no one could get a morsel in their mouth. This was truly suffering as they grew ever more hungry, angry and frustrated. This would be their lot for eternity.

It would seem that the solution to the problem would be obvious. All they had to do was to feed each other, but it never occurred to them. In life it never occurred to them to consider others before themselves. Hell has a way of enhancing the worst of our human traits.

I once took a class in seminary on evil, suffering, and the Christian faith. I remember one thing that the professor told us. Most of us are insulated from suffering. This may be a survival technique or even a gift from God, because if we experienced all the suffering that goes on in the world in just a small moment of time, the experience would kill us or drive us insane. Evil and suffering may be an inescapable part of human life, but all of want a break from it all. We want to rest.

Jesus said, “Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of Me, for I am meek and humble in heart; and ye shall find rest to your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden light.

The Lord makes it sound so simple and so inviting. Rest is found by taking His yoke and learning about Him. Why is it then that is so few are willing to do it? We seem almost like masochists who prefer to suffer instead of rest. Here is a way offered to us by God, a way to be at rest, but we would rather take upon ourselves the yoke of the worldliness and sin.  Why would we prefer a hard yoke to an easy one?

The answer is that we believe the yoke of the Lord is too heavy. It is too much to ask that we pray. It is too hard to fast. It is too much to ask that they spend 4 hours out their week to come to the liturgies of the church. It is too much to ask that they come to Sunday school or Bible Study. It is too much to ask that they confess regularly. The yoke is too heavy. Refusing the yoke of the Lord, we struggle and suffer under the yoke of life’s demands. Weakened by the yoke of the world, there is little defense against the devil, the world, and the flesh.

There’s so much suffering in families today, even Orthodox families. Many wives suffer because their husbands refuse to serve them as Christ serves the Church. Instead of taking the Lord’s yoke of service, men demand that they be served. When wives fail to serve them because of weakness or frustration,  they resort to anger and sullenness, mental and even physical abuse. Husbands suffer because while they serve as best they can, wives refuse to show them honor and love. Men feel belittled by the sharp words of criticism from their wives. Parents suffer because children will not be obedient to them, and children suffer because parents forget that they are not to “stir their children to wrath.”

There’s suffering the Church today. We are told to forgive each other, but often we hold grudges. We are called to bear each other’s burdens, but we are too busy sharing our burdens than to bear them. We are called to build each other up, but we tear each other down. We are supposed to speak the truth in love, but we whisper behind doors. We are to admonish each other “with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, making melody in our hearts to the Lord,” but we admonish with biting words and harsh criticisms, or show a cold shoulder to the offender. Instead of sitting with visitors or the elderly or the youth so that we might share our faith and build them up, we sit with friends who can match our sophistication and wit. Some of members of our church are lonely or hurting – do you know who they are? To the Church, the Lord says, “take my yoke.” We refuse and so there is much suffering at Church. As a result, the Church is not a place of rest.

Zacchaeus was man who carried a heavy yoke. He was a tax collector and thought of little else than financial gain. But for all of his money, he was hated and despised and rejected. How he must have suffered in his loneliness and isolation. Yet, when Jesus entered his house, Zacchaeus said with joy, “Lord, today, half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone, I restore to him fourfold.” Jesus said that at that very moment, salvation had entered the house, and Zacchaeus had become a true son of Abraham. Imagine giving away half of your possessions and then repaying all your debts fourfold. Zacchaeus did it with joy because he found it to be an easy thing to do. The yoke of Christ was light and Zacchaeus found rest, a rest that all the in the world could not buy him.

I invite you to take the Lord’s yoke. The result will be rest, not suffering. Learn of Him, and then do it his way. You will find that suffering will cease. I didn’t say that struggling would cease, for we live in a world that is not a place of rest. No, life will be a struggle, but if you struggle under the yoke of the Lord, you will find rest. Why is the yoke of Christ easier? The yoke of the world is a single one and you pull the plow alone. The yoke of Christ is a double yoke. The Lord will be in the yoke with you, helping you to pull the plow and break up the hard soil of life.