Archive for June, 2009

Abandon Despair!

June 29, 2009

If the light in you is darkness, how great is that darkness. Matthew 6:23

The Fathers say that it is a great danger to spiritual life. Once you fall into it, it is very difficult to climb out. It frequently comes up in confession, and as a spiritual advisor, it is one of the most difficult spiritual states to cure. The Fathers called it “acedia.” (Pronounced “ah see dee ah”) Today, we call this passion “despair.” Truly, when the only light in you is despair, how great is that darkness.

Despair attacks the will and this is how this passion gains its power. With the will weakened, it is difficult to be healed. After all, to pray requires will; to fast requires will; to read or study requires will. It is a bad situation when “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”, but when both the spirit and the flesh are weak, it is a dire situation. Despair begins to strengthen as it feeds upon itself. When despair is strongest, hope is lost. We feel separated from God and begin to wonder if God even exists. We are dead and lying in the darkness of the grave. Life without hope is hell on earth, and a foretaste of eternal life apart from God. It is with great insight that Dante wrote about the sign that hangs over the entrance to hell: Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

How does this passion work in us? The first temptation is disappointment -we feel with certainty that nothing has gone as we wanted. The second temptation is irritation and anger- we wonder why has God done this to me? Disappointment comes upon us and turns to a sorrow that deepens into despair. This entire process is fueled by an inner voice that says, “I deserved better. If God really loved me, he would not have let this happen. ” Profound sadness convinces us that there is no hope. When hope is gone, there is only despair.

I have rarely met anyone who, once they came to know Orthodoxy fully, abandoned it because their theological studies proved the Faith to be wrong. However, I have known Orthodox people who have lost their faith in God because they felt cheated of the things that they had wanted. In their despair, they quit their spiritual disciplines and soon the light of faith and hope was gone, and they left the church. Somehow, they forgot the old joke – If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.

Obviously, the cure for despair is hope. Hope and despair cannot exist in the same space. Yet, you might protest: “How can I have hope? After all, I’ve been profoundly disappointed and how can I believe that it will be any different in the future? Hope has to be based on something, so what assurances do I have?”

The best assurance we have is love. Let me ask you, how do you know when someone really, truly loves you? Would it be in what they say to you, or by the things they give you? Suppose that someone dies for you, would you believe it then? Most of us would die for someone we really loved. We might even die for a good person. But who would willingly die for an evil man? Would you die for Hitler, or Stalin, or Pol Pot?

Here’s the thing! Jesus died for Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot. He died for you and me, even though we lived as God’s enemies. Do you understand this? Do you see the mystery of this love? Isn’t this the ground upon which all hope stands? No matter how you feel, and especially if you feel despair, you must be convinced of God’s love. It is only when you are convinced that you have a solid place to stand, a place that no passion can move or destroy.This solid conviction is called faith and faith is the energy of hope.

With faith and hope, something wonderful happens. The dynamic of life begins to change. Failures and tribulations are no longer meaningless events. Hope doesn’t mean that troubles will end, but when failures and tribulations come, instead of disappointment, hope creates patience. With patience, we begin to gain experience, so that new problems do not move us to disappointment. Hope is strengthened until we reach a level of hopefulness that will never make us ashamed. Hope is so powerful that we even hope to see the glory of God. (Romans 5)

Hope is one aspect of the presence of the life of Christ in our hearts. Consider this: if His death did so much for us, how much will his life accomplish for us? His death reconciled us to God and His life will save us. Honestly, I haven’t progressed so far in 15 years. Of course, I see improvements, buy I also see the passions that remain in me. I could despair, but I don’t because I have hope that His life will save me. After all, He brought me to faith, and He will finish me! His life has saved millions before me, and it will save millions after me. What makes me think that I’m such a hard case that God will disdain me and abandon me? I may be a wretch but my wretchedness is not beyond recovery. My sin is great, but His love and mercy is like an ocean that I cannot fathom.

If you are in despair, realize that your despair is based on untruth. Your situation is not hopeless, no matter how you feel. The way out begins with trust in the One who died for you. Trust is the essence of faith, and the evidence of what we cannot see. It is not about how you feel, but what you believe. It isn’t that you will never know sorrow again, but by faith and hope, your sorrow will be turned into joy. Jesus said that the storms of life will beat against everyone’s house. The house that does not fall before the storm is the one built on the right foundation.

After all, if God so clothes the grass of the field and feeds the birds of the air, will he not do even more for you? As Jesus said, “your heavenly Father knows that you have need of all these things.” Aren’t you worth so much more than grass or birds? And what do you accomplish by projecting your fears into the future? You Father knows what you need, so let you mind rest on today and forget tomorrow. (Matthew 5-7)

I have a suggestion. Let’s put a new sign over the door of our Churches. Let it say, “Abandon all despair, you who enter here.

Nobody Bothers Me!

June 16, 2009

Several weeks ago, my son and I went to see several friends test for their black belt in Taekwondo. On the testing floor were about 30 people of all shapes and sizes, ages and genders. I was amazed at the energy and dedication displayed. I wondered at the many hours spent in instruction and the hours spent at home practicing. It was truly inspiring. Even more, I surprised to see Jhoon Rhee arrive for the test. Considered the “Father of American Taekwondo” and now in his late 80s, I first saw him on a television commercial in the 1960s. He is a truly impressive man who teaches the Bible and believes in the human capacity to excel and overcome all obstacles. Of course, I was very impressed when I saw him do a flexibility move that three-fourths of the class could not do. I got to chat with him during the break (well, being in my cassock, I drew his attention and he was curious). I remarked about his commercial and that I remember that at the end, two cute little kids winked at the TV audience and said, “Nobody bothers me.” He laughed and said that those kids were now 50 years old. Oh no!

As I sat there watching the test, it all seemed a bit odd to me. After all, what did these people get for of all of this blood, sweat and tears? Practically, they got a piece of black cloth to wear around their middle. Now, this black cloth certainly signifies a great accomplishment, but it also signifies a rather odd arrangement. Black belts have mastered a skill, but it is a skill they have vowed to never use, except to maintain the right. I don’t mean to minimize the accomplishment at all, but on the surface, it did seem like a lot for a little. Well, thus saith the couch potato.

Then it hit me! What we need are belts for Orthodoxy. Think of all of the money that these people had spent, the hours in training, the exercising, the pain, and the fatigue – all so that they could wear colored
cloth around their middles. Then take the Orthodox – little money to give, poor in training, lax in exercising,
little focus, avoidance of pain, and only fatigued at the length of the service. By comparison, what would the Orthodox gain for their effort? Why only the Kingdom of God and life eternal, but what is that compared to a colored cloth around the middle?

Yet, maybe, if we began to measure our progress and awarded belts in the Church, things would change. Priests would need to be like Jhoon Rhee and inspire the group by instilling in their minds that we believe absolutely in the realization of their perfection. They would  let folks know that they demanded commitment and effort and perfect attendance. We would put them through difficult exercises to strengthen their hearts with spiritual discipline. We would focus their minds with prayer.  Becoming breathless from the effort, they would return for more and say that they actually enjoyed it! As Orthodox people advanced in their spiritual life, we could award them with colored cloth. Finally, the day would come when we would give them the big test, and if they passed, we could award them the Orthodox black belt. What do you think?

Though this piece is a bit of ironic humor, there is in the heart of most Orthodox priests that I know a longing for the day when people will advance in their spiritual life. At the moment, most of us are white belts, and mere beginners.  Priests hear of how they are being beaten up by the world, the flesh, and the devil. Sadly, though some of them have been white belts and have been coming to the “dojo” for a long time, they just don’t seem to be able to defend themselves or advance to the next belt level. Priests long for the day when they can award people with a different colored belt and say to them, “well done – now strive for the next level.” Most of all, we work and strive and pray for the day when we will put a black belt around them. Then they can say with blessed assurance, “No body bothers me!”

I wish I had a church filled with such black belt Orthodox warriors! (I noticed that monks wear black belts. Hmmmm…)