Learning the language of Faith

September 18, 2016

learning-a-language

A child developmental psychologist once stated that if you don’t believe that a baby is a genius, then try learning a language. Having worked on Spanish for many years, I know this to be true. One of the first things you learn are commands – come, sit, sleep, eat – just to mention a few. Babies begin to learn language in much the same way. I think dogs learn from commands as well.

In I Corinthians 16, St. Paul gives us some simple commands. By these, we might begin to learn the language of Faith. The commands he gives are watch, stand, have courage, be strong, and love.

Watch

This might seem like an odd command to start with, but in fact it is very important. The Lord taught that the servant of the house should watch for the master’s return, and not fall asleep. He also said that if we know that someone is coming to rob us in our home, we would watch for them so that we could catch them. So, are we awake and watching, or are we asleep? What are we to watch? We are to watch and guard the mind so that thoughts do not steal our minds from us. We are to watch and guard our senses so that our passions do not use our bodies against us. We are to watch and guard the heart so that it doesn’t become hard and unfeeling. We are to watch and guard our soul so that the devil doesn’t steal it from us. We are to watch the world, so that we know what is coming. Finally, we are to watch for the coming of the Lord, so that we never lose hope. Yes, to watch is a very important command.

Stand in the Faith

Even if we are watchful, we know that the unexpected happens and we cannot escape it. It is surprising then that when it happens, we are shocked. Depending on what happens, we can lose faith. Let me give you an example. The Fathers teach us that we should keep before us the remembrance of death. This remembrance is not meant to depress us, but it helps us to be free from fear and from foolishness. Death should not surprise Orthodox people. Yet, I have seen Orthodox people lose faith when they lose a loved one. It is at the very moment of death that we should stand strong in the Faith. We certainly weep and mourn, but we do not mourn like those who have no faith. St. Paul knew what was coming for the Christians of his time, so he commanded them to stand in the Faith.

 Courage

Courage is a theme that you find in many movies old and new. What is taught in these movies is that courage does not mean a lack of fear. In fact, courage is at its best when something is done despite the presence of overwhelming fear. The courage of the martyrs of the past inspire us, but they make us wonder how they faced such hatred, pain, and terror. Did they feel fear? I think they did, but it did not make them deny Christ. We witness courage in the martyrs of the Islamic yoke and we marvel at it. Could you and I have such courage? I think we could, but we don’t have to wait for martyrdom to know it. We need courage to live as a Christian where we are. We need the courage to witness to our faith in a way that is loving, but does not compromise the truth. We need the courage to live this witness in a way that others can see a Faith that is genuine. If the world becomes more secular, it will take courage to do this.

Be Strong

St. Paul commands us to be strong and I don’t think he meant for the Corinthians to go to the nearest YMCA. Of course, physical strength and good health are a wonderful gift, but I think St. Paul is talking about spiritual strength. If we feel weak and lacking in spiritual strength, how do we get it? The answer is the same as it is for the body – we must exercise. Scientists tell us that if we don’t get off the couch and exercise, our physical future is grim. Spiritual laziness will also kill us. The Church has given us exercises to do, not to make God love us, but so that we might get spiritual muscles. Our exercises are fasting, prayer, studying the scriptures, attending services, doing good deeds, etc. Failure to exercise spiritually means that we will have no strength when the time of struggle comes to us.

Love

The last command is love without which all the rest is fruitless. It is love that compels me to watch. It is love that makes to stand. It is love that gives me courage. It is love that gives me strength. It is love that makes me study. It is love that moves me to pray. It is love that gets me to Church. It is love that moves me to fast. It is love shows me the needs of others and moves me to help them. Love teaches me the language of Faith because faith works through love.  Love is the beginning and the end of it all.

And with that, I will end.

 

In God we trust – all others pay cash.

July 24, 2016

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I find myself amused and a little irritated when it is suggested that clergy and/or churches and/or Christians should be “apolitical.” Usually this is not clearly defined, but you get the idea that (wink, wink) we all know what that term means. In fact to be alive is to be political. Now if I leave this without further explanation, then I am guilty of doing what has always irritated me. So, let me expound on the idea.

If by the term “apolitical” we mean to say that we should not align to one candidate or party, or demand that the Faith adhere to only one party, then I would agree that we should be apolitical. However, it seems to me that what is often meant when the term is used is that we should remove ourselves from the political realm and never be involved, but be ready to stand with any victims. If this is what is meant, then I disagree with the idea.

Some parts of the Book of Revelation are difficult to unpack, but one thing seems to be clear. Since, according to St. Paul the spirit of Antichrist is in the world, Revelation points out that this spirit seeks to incarnate itself in political systems. These systems then persecute the Church.The history of the Church is rife with examples of what happens when the political system becomes anti-Christ and oppresses the Faith. Revelation then serves as a textbook of how this evil incarnates itself and how God brings judgment upon it. Every time the spirit of Antichrist incarnates in political systems, we are again in “end times.”

The ancient Church recognized that it existed in “the fullness of time” and this meant among other things that while the Roman state was a persecutor, the Pax Romanum allowed the Church to grow and spread throughout the empire. In like manner, the civil religion of America, begun by our Founding Fathers, provided a type of Pax Americana, a political state that allowed Christianity to spread and grow (and not Christianity alone). This reality should not be taken to mean that America was free of error, stupidity, hubris, persecution, racism, and other moral evils. Far from it.

Though critics and scholars will argue about it,  it is the feeling of many that beginning in the 1950s,  the erosion of this American civil religion began. During the time of the Obama administration,  talk about the end of American Christianity has increased and it is maintained that we are in a post-Christian era. This may be true if the civil religion has become more antichrist. Today, fighting against this new civil religion seems ever more hopeless. One reason is that the power behind it uses terms that are  hard to argue with – inclusion, equality, fairness, equal protection, liberty, etc. Who can debate with such ideas especially since they were the foundation of the original civil religion? In the hands of the spirit of antichrist, these ideas now leverage God from the public sphere.  Laws have developed that muzzle free speech by upholding political correctness.

This trend bodes ill for the Church. The time has come where some already walk  a martyrs path  (recent Supreme Court decisions as an example). So far the martyrdom is financial lawsuits, and  we should remember Lyndon Johnson’s law that threatened the loss of tax exemption for churches if ministers spoke politically from the pulpit.  This law has been challenged unsuccessfully as a violation of the First Amendment and it seems unlikely that the law will be overturned. This process continues with law suits against individuals who refuse to serve those whose lifestyles are opposed to their Faith.

I am sure that the martyrs of the Communist yoke, the patriot saints of Greece, the victims of the Holocaust, etc. would advise us to be anything but apolitical.  I agree that concerning the upcoming election,  it is unbelievable that with millions of American citizens, these are the only two candidates that we could find.  However, I tend to ignore personality traits as a key to my choice of candidate. This can be difficult because in the political arena, character assassination is paramount over substantive issues. What I try to discern is who will further the spirit of antichrist (even unknowingly) and who will not.

Though it sounds pessimistic, I do concede that given what I have said, there may be little or no difference between the two candidates. Both may be equally compromised by the political machinery. A saying in the Liturgy makes this point: “Put not your trust in men in whom there is no salvation.”  Think of that before you pull the lever in the voting booth.

I am not telling you how to vote. I am telling you to drop the illusion that you or any of us can be “apolitical.”  As an old professor use to say, “You pays your money and makes your choice.”  Just realize that after the choice, there will be more to pay, and the payment may be great.

Like Solomon, pray for wisdom and vote wisely.

Working Man

July 17, 2016

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We recently had another record Power Ball lottery. I believe the cash prize was almost half a billion dollars. With that kind of money at stake, many people who never buy a ticket are greatly tempted to do so. It’s easy to dream of how nice it would be to pay off all of our bills, help family and friends, and never ever worry about money again. On the negative side, you discover that winning the lottery often did not result in a fairy tale life of financial freedom. You read stories of divorce, murder, drug abuse, broken families and even poverty.  We are sure that such things would never happen to us, since we are kind, generous, and loving Orthodox people. This feeling flies in the face of the many warnings that our Lord gave about wealth –something about a camel.

Which is better – a paycheck or a lottery cash prize? I’m not talking about the amount of money I earn versus the money that the lottery offers. I could never earn that much in several lifetimes. What I mean is how you obtain the money. A paycheck is the result of your labor. A lottery cash prize is the result of other people’s labor.

The reason that I bring this up is that in Romans 6, St. Paul uses this idea of wage and free gifts to talk about salvation. He says that sin pays a wage and the payment is death, but that eternal life in Christ Jesus is a free gift. This turns things upside down. I thought that I had to work for eternal life, now I hear that it is a free gift. Quite the opposite, I am working for sin, and all that I will get for it is death. This is foolishness! Why in the world would anyone work and sweat and toil for death, when there is a free gift of eternal life? Well, look around and take notice. Most of the human race is working and toiling and fretting to receive a reward. Little do we know that we work for sin and will be paid the wage of death. Like all work, wages are paid often, and death comes to us, but only in part. Full payment will come later.

How is the gift of salvation free? Well, a true gift is given simply out of love for the one to whom it is given. If there is any sense of obligation, then it is not truly a gift. Jesus Christ was a pure and absolute gift, given because God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. You and I did nothing to deserve it. In fact there is nothing that we could have done to be worthy of such a gift. All we have to do is receive the gift and eternal life is ours.

I realize that for the Orthodox, this may sound a bit like Protestant theology which is sometimes characterized as “believe and receive.” How is salvation free, when we talk a about the importance of prayer, fasting, study and church attendance as essential for the attainment of holiness? The Bible says, “Without holiness, no one will see the Lord,” and holiness seems to take a lot of work.

Let’s review.  We work for sin and receive death as payment. Fair enough because what else could sin give us really? On the other hand, we receive a free gift of salvation in Christ Jesus, but we have to work for it.  Clear as mud?

It’s simple really. If someone gives me a gift, no matter how wonderful it is or how thankful I am, it will not change who or what I am. I did nothing to earn the gift and other than gratitude, nothing more is expected. For the gift of salvation, I could not pray enough, fast enough or come to church often enough to deserve it. This is what is meant by the idea that we are not saved by our works. The Father loves us freely and gives good gifts to His children. Yet, with such a gift, is nothing expected of me? I am grateful for the gift of salvation, but is that all that is required?

The gift of salvation is not one to be placed on a shelf or even in a place of honor. This gift is meant to be actualized and put into operation. When we unpack this free gift, we find wonderful things. We find forgiveness and everlasting love. We find the power and the grace of the Holy Spirit. We find truth. All the things needed are there to free us from our slavery to sin and death. To attain this freedom, we must place these spiritual tools in our souls and bodies, and use them to attain holiness.

The Orthodox call this “theosis.”  It is a pilgrimage of transformation and it is a journey that we must not stop. The journey begins with a free gift, but the giving is just the first step. The Master said, “I am the Way….”  and those who have received the gift walk in that way.  As we walk, freedom becomes ever more powerful until we reach the end. What is the end of it?  Paul puts it this way: ” the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life.  Sanctification is another way to speak of the journey to holiness and the end of holiness is eternal life.

A wage or a gift.  When it comes to money, I think I prefer a wage over the lottery. When it comes to salvation, I think I’ll take the gift. Then I’ll be a working man for holiness.

For the peace from above: Liberty and freedom

July 3, 2016

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Every July 4, we are reminded of the history of this country and its struggle for freedom. We hear the music, see the parades and fireworks, and watch our fellow citizens celebrate. The Orthodox appreciate the freedom that this nation offers for the practice of our Faith. Certainly, the saints of Russia, especially those who suffered under the communist yoke, would have felt blessed to have the religious freedom that we have. We appreciate that our freedom was obtained by the blood of many heroic martyrs whose sacrifice lifted the hand of tyrants and enemies from us. Every Orthodox, if they are able, should visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and spend a few moments in silent respect for their sacrifice. We should all celebrate the 4th of July (in our Orthodox fashion).

July 4 is also challenges the Orthodox to question the role of the Faith in American society. What is it that we have to offer?

Before I offer an answer, I want to say that nothing in Orthodoxy is opposed to the ideas of liberty and freedom. The American people are diverse and so equal treatment under the law is an important American virtue. As American Orthodox, we would never infringe upon the rights of others. However, we also ask that our right to live as we see fit should also be respected. It can be a complex legal issue on a national scale, but it is important that we stand by our principles and strive to prevent the law from being used against us.

In answer to the question of what Orthodoxy has to offer, I could talk about many things. However I think that there is one thing that is fundamental. It is an insight – the essence of true liberty and freedom is peace. If peace is absent, then freedom and liberty are fake. Peace is more than the absence of adversity and trouble. Jesus said, “My peace I give to you,” and St. Paul said that there is a peace that passes all understanding.  The people to whom these words were said would be people who would face torture and death, but they would face it with peace.

I did a word search of the Divine Liturgy of St. John. The word “peace” appears 41 times in the litanies and prayers. This shouldn’t be surprising since in the Bible (depending on the version you read) the word appears from 200 to over 400 times. What is this peace that passes all understanding and is the essence of liberty and freedom?

Jesus said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin.” A slave is never free unless he/she is able to break the chains of servitude. Many today think that they are free because the can do whatever pleases them. They do not understand until it is too late that they are really slaves to something that will ultimately kill them. How many stars, musicians, and trend setters have to die before we understand this? “Whoever commits sin is a slave of sin.”  As Orthodox, we are challenged to show to slaves what real freedom is.

How is true freedom realized? The Master instructs us: “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed.  And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” It is His truth that frees us. Our personal license is not real freedom if we are still slaves. The teachings of the Lord free us from the power of sin, so that we might experience real freedom. It is not enough to hear the words, we must abide in them. The words must live in us and we must live in them.

When we hear the Beatitudes, I am afraid that the words fall upon our deaf ears. What the Lord says seems so foreign to us. It may be because we are still slaves. All of the virtues that the Lord invokes – meekness, poverty of spirit, hunger for what is right, purity, etc. – are the living reality of someone who has been set free from the slavery of sin. Slaves to sin will not be meek or merciful. Slaves will not seek what is right or strive for purity.

This is what we have to offer to America – real freedom and liberty. They are virtues that go down to the very core of our being and frees us from a slave master that would destroy the world through us and lead us all to death. We offer Jesus Christ, the real Jesus, to America. It is not the Jesus of TV preachers and prosperity hustlers. It is not an American Jesus, but One who died to free us all from sin, and calls us all to follow Him.

It is a high calling that we Orthodox must answer. Surely, it is a narrow road but the Orthodox must strive to walk this narrow road of the Faith. Maybe then, being free from the slavery of sin, we will be able heal the great multitudes as the Lord did.

May every 4th of July remind us of true liberty and freedom!

“He who the Son sets free is free indeed.”

Happy 4th of July!

 

Stumbling into Zion

May 8, 2016

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Please check out the website at:

http://journeytoorthodoxy.com/category/clergy/

It is an autobiography in three parts.

Comments are most welcome.

Grace and Peace,

Fr. John

An adulterous and sinful generation

April 2, 2016

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Beatnik, hippie, baby boomer, yuppie, Generation X, millennial – these are terms used to describe the generations that have come into existence since I was born in the 1950s. Sometimes a generation would accept the title and wear it as a badge of honor. Other times, the title was rejected. Jesus used a title to describe his generation – adulterous and sinful. Could this description be applied to the generations that exist today?

Jesus wasn’t simply describing the sexual ethic of his day when he uses the title “adulterous.” Adultery was a reality  (as illustrated by the woman that the people wanted to stone because of adultery), but I think the Lord was also using the term in a much broader sense. To understand this, we need to look to the prophets.

God said to Hosea, “Go, take yourself a wife of harlotry and children of harlotry, for the land has committed great harlotry by departing from the Lord.”  Note that God defines harlotry or adultery as “departing from the Lord.”  Sexual adultery is surely condemned, but it is spiritual adultery that concerns us. If it is true that departing from the Lord is spiritual adultery, then this present generation is most certainly adulterous and I am an adulterer too.

What does it mean to depart from the Lord? The sad way of adultery gives us a clue. Adultery is not solely driven by physical lust. It is not just a reality when physically consummated. While desire is involved, adultery begins as “an affair of the heart.” In these days of social media, married men and women check into websites where they can engage with someone. In this forum, they share thoughts and feelings that should only be shared with their spouse. If they still have any love for their spouse, the result is a divided heart.

We adulterers love God with a divided heart. Speaking to the prophet Isaiah, the Lord said “…these people draw near with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, but have removed their hearts far from Me.” We remove or divide our hearts from God to pursue other lovers. God is a jealous God who wants us to love Him with will all of our heart. It always has been and always will be a matter of the heart. The Master described it when he said that all of the Law and the Prophets rested upon this – that you love the Lord your God with all your heart.

Don’t be confused about this. Does it mean that if I love my spouse, I am not loving God with all of my heart? Does it mean that if I love my friends that I am not loving God with all my heart? Does it mean that if I love the beauty of creation or of art or music that I am not loving God with all of my heart?  The answer to all is no. After all, Jesus also said that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. He did not see this as a division of love. Here is the point: only when I love God with all of my heart can I love others fully with no sense of divided loyalties. There is no division or competition in true love. However, when I love God with only part of my heart, then all other loves are adulterous.

The Greek language is helpful here because while we have one word for love, Greek has many words. The word that applies here is “agape.” It means unselfish and sacrificial love and it best describes the love of God. God is love and creation was an act of love. The giving of the law was an act of love. The sending of the Prophets was an act of love. The Cross was an act of love. The creation of the Church and the Scriptures was an act of love. Surely, in the face of this kind of love, we should love God with our whole heart.

Given how we think of love, there is a possible problem. Is love a matter of how we feel, so love for God is also a matter of feeling? It is wonderful to feel love, but it has to be more than that.

In his teachings and life, the Lord shows us what agape is and how it is to be expressed.  It can be felt but it is more than feelings. Three times, Jesus asked Peter if he loved him. Each time, after Peter replied that he did love him, the Lord said “feed my sheep.” If you love me, do something!!!Agape was supremely displayed on the Cross. It was shown in the martyrs, apostles and prophets.  It is unselfish love shown not just by words and feelings but by deeds.

How do we live in this adulterous and sinful generation? We stop being adulterers. We no longer live with divided hearts and loyalties. We must regain an undivided heart. How is this done? Since the Cross was an act of love, the Lord invites to share in this love. It means we must do something: pick up your cross, deny yourself and follow Christ. This command seems burdensome and hopeless to a divided and adulterous heart. To an undivided heart, it is a call to love itself.

May the God of love draw us to the Cross for it is the only cure for an adulterous and sinful heart.

a sharp dressed man

January 31, 2016

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You’ve heard it said that “clothes make the man.”  If that is true then I am an unmade man. Fashion and I have never been friends although there  have been times when I tried to warm up to it. In the past, I have enjoyed the feel of new and well made clothing, but I rarely had anything that was very expensive, at least by worldly standards. Whatever attempt I made to be fashionable, I simply could not sustain any momentum.  The rule of my childhood was to look my best with what I had and if my clothing was poor, that did not excuse me to live shabbily, my clothes dirty or wrinkled.

For me, its not much of a concern anymore. Besides the fact that I am getting older and my eyesight is fading, I am an Orthodox priest. My ensemble is either black or grey. This saves a lot of time and money, and the decision making process is quite simple. Of course, I don’t wear my cassock all the time, but my other clothes are far from GQ.

I do believe that Christians shouldn’t be bothered with the fashions of the world. This doesn’t mean that we have to live in sackcloth or go about barefooted, but we shouldn’t be dominated by the rules of fashion of this present age. However, we should be sharply dressed, and St. Paul is our best consultant.  He has a wardrobe picked out for you and if you put it on, you will stand out from all the rest.

Put on tender mercy and kindness.  Since we will know mercy in the same manner that we have shown it, we should show mercy with tenderness. Kindness is a beautiful garment for a heart to wear.  A kind person commits random acts of kindness, without some hidden plan or agenda. It is just who they are and it is just what they do.

Put on humility and meekness. These are most unusual garments in these proud and boastful days. If it is true that the meek will inherit the earth, then there are very few who will inherit anything .

Put on long-suffering.  No one has any patience anymore. We run at the first sign of trouble, or we don’t hang in for very long. A person who wears long-suffering is a rare soul indeed.

There is one article that binds all the pieces together and makes you a sharp dressed man or woman.

Put on love which is the bond of perfection.  Love is like a belt and without it, all the other pieces fall away.  This shouldn’t surprise us since it is love that makes us merciful and kind; it is love that slays our ego so that we might have humility and meekness; it is love that helps us to keep on going even when the way before us is uncertain.

These garments- tenderness, mercy, kindness, humility, meekness and love- make you look just like Jesus. This is a most unusual style and you won’t find it on the clothing runways of Paris.

Yes, Christians should be sharply dressed. Sadly I think I look pretty good when in fact, I dress in dirty rags.

My mother would be ashamed of me.

 

Colossians 3.12-14  KJV

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Party Etiquette

December 27, 2015

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I am sure that you have heard of the TV series “Downton Abbey.”  If you haven’t, I won’t take the time to explain it all to you. Among the many interesting things about the series is how much care is taken to hold elaborate dinner parties. The servants took great care to make sure that everything was done precisely. They even measured how far the fork, knife and spoon was spaced from the plate. They used a ruler and checked every setting. The invited guests were appropriately dressed and each one was assigned a place to sit. During the dinner, there were rules of etiquette that were rarely broken. Those who broke these rules would either be highly embarrassed or later shunned as being boorish.

There have only been a few times  when I have been invited to a party that required correct conduct. One stands out in my memory. Mrs. Woods was my  English teacher. She was strict  but she seemed more interested in talking about Emily Post and proper manners than teaching English. Towards the end of the semester, she surprised us with the news that we would practice our manners at a dinner at a fine local restaurant. We were to dress up and we would be assigned a place at the table. She arranged for each boy to sit next to a girl and while that alone was enough to scare me to death, the fact that I had to act like a gentleman with proper manners created a lot of anxiety. By the way, the evening went very well and being a perfect gentleman, I made a passing grade for the semester.

Jesus spoke of proper etiquette. Suppose you were invited to wedding banquet.  If no seats had been assigned, where do you sit? Now, its human nature to consider your relationship to the host. If you were a family member or a close friend, you’d expect to sit close to the wedding party. So, you take what you consider to be a seat. Imagine your shame when the host asked that you sit farther away. No, Jesus says, it is better to sit far back so that when the host sees you, he will call you forward.

Jesus was invited to dinner and he saw the Pharisees taking the best rooms and the best seats. So, the Master told this parable and summed it up: “For whosoever exalts himself shall be abased; and he that humbles himself shall be exalted.”  (Or if you put yourself above others, you will be put down)  I don’t think Jesus would be invited to many Hollywood parties, do you?

We generally don’t think of ourselves as exalted or above others. We will never be invited to Downton Abbey, and we will never be called to dine with kings or presidents. The parties I attend have no rules of etiquette or dress. Everything has become very informal and casual. Of course, we do take pride in our possessions and our accomplishments. So,  what does this parable mean to me?

The Lord explained that the issue is humility and pride. These two things will determine where we sit in the Great Banquet.  Let me give a few examples of the balance between humility and pride.

Even though the Bible says that my answer should just be “yes or no,” I dare not make a commitment. After all, I may have more important things to do that day. Even if you send out an invitation and include a stamped return envelope for an RSVP,  many people will not respond.  Even though they could say no, they want to hedge their bets. Maybe there won’t be anything else better to do that day and it would be shame to miss a good party. How does one plan to cater such a lack of commitment? Well, isn’t this exalting needs over others?  No humility here.

Consider the “plastic fuzzy.”  Someone says, “Let’s get together for dinner.”  The right response: “I would love to…when?; or “I’m sorry but I can’t.”  The plastic fuzzy response?- “Well, I’d love to just as soon as I finish some work and get my life in order and take care of the grandchildren and…etc..etc.”   I give you a plastic fuzzy because my needs are above you. No humility here.

The same plastic fuzzy lack of commitment can affect our relationship to God.  I know I should read the Bible, study, fast, pray, attend Church, contribute my money and do good works. I promise I will..I will..just as soon as I get my life in order, pay off my debts, stop smoking,  get up earlier, go to bed later, the children get older, my life gets less complicated, etc.  Again, I must give a plastic fuzzy response because my needs are exalted above my commitment to God. No humility here.

Would such waffling work at a wedding?  When asked before witnesses if it is your intent to wed, you respond with a plastic fuzzy response: Well, I will marry if my spouse behaves, doesn’t spend my money, is affectionate when I need it, cooks all my meals and cleans the house, etc. If he/she will do all of that, then I will make a complete commitment.  Of course, this is how many live today as couples. Before we make a commitment, let’s see how it goes. In other words, my needs are exalted above my commitment. No humility here.

I exalt myself when I laugh at the appearance or failings of others, fail to visit a sick friend, refuse to forgive someone for their mistakes or offense against me,  fail to give to the poor, or fail to make a commitment to the Church, the Body of Christ. These are but a few examples of how we exalt our needs above the needs of others, even above God.

If it is true that pride goes before a fall, then in this life we can look forward to being put down. I know I have been put down many times and my exalted dreams crashed to the ground. Thank God for it, but it was always painful. I hope that I have learned greater humility.  If not, of this I am sure -when I come to the Great Banquet, I will be asked to sit in the cheap seats far from the Host.

 

 

 

 

Where have all the Elders gone?

December 14, 2015

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When you  become Orthodox, or even when you are being attracted to it, you find many things to read. Among those things were stories of wonderful Elders, spirit bearing Fathers, who exhibited incredible humility, delivered people from illness and demonic influence, and who seemed to be able to read the hearts of men and women who came to them for advice.  Sometimes, their counsel was supportive and nurturing. Other times, their words could be challenging and corrective.

So, given my experience of the Faith thus far, I wonder where have all the Elders gone?  I know that events in history have had in impact. I have heard of some who live today though I haven’t met them personally. While these may be true Elders, compared to the past, they seem to be few and far between.  Maybe its just because I am an American convert living in the rural South, but I have another idea.

Maybe there are few Elders because we are no longer worthy of them. What I mean is that it has been my sad experience that no one wants to be corrected.  Years ago, as a young man, I was impressed with these words from Proverbs:
9:8  Reprove not a scorner, lest he hate thee: rebuke a wise man, and he will love thee.

12.1  Whoso loveth instruction loveth knowledge: but he that hateth reproof is brutish.

12.15  The way of a fool is right in his own eyes: but he that hearkeneth unto counsel is wise.

This is just a few verses among many that deal with true wisdom and foolishness. The King James version uses some harsh words: hate, rebuke, scorner, reproof, brutish. No one is mincing words here. But this may lay at the heart of the matter. We think much of those who speak kindly to us,  who mainly encourage us on the path we have chosen, or who simply give “helpful hints for hurtful habits.”  To give advice that comes to the level of reproof or instruction is to cause offense. People then go off in a snit and refuse to communicate because the one giving advice had hurt their feelings.  The voice of the watchman has been lost. We will hear no warning for what we do.

So, again, what would a group of Elders do with people like us? They wouldn’t have much to do. We don’t want correction, we don’t want instruction, and Lord knows we don’t want to be reproved or rebuked.  Its too embarrassing or  it just makes us angry. Our pride will not abide with contradiction.

Where have all the Elders gone? On Mt. Athos everyone? When will we ever learn…when will we learn?

 

Watchmen

October 18, 2015

LIFEGUARD

My apologies to the young people reading this, but perhaps there are some of us who will remember this song made popular by Ella Fitzgerald:

There’s a somebody I’m longin’ to see
I hope that he turns out to be
someone who’ll watch over me.

In these post-Watergate, Big Brother, electronic, computerized days of spying and lying, we know that the idea of personal privacy is an illusion. Yet we tend to block this out and live each day as if no one really knows what we are doing. We don’t want someone to watch over us. We want to live and not be accountable to anyone about how we spend our time or our money. With all the cases of domestic violence and stalking, the last thing we want is a spouse who is “watching” over us. Naturally, we want to be secure and safe from physical danger. We like to have someone who can protect us in this violent world, but we don’t want a watchman observing all that we say and do.

The 13th chapter of Hebrews speaks of watchmen:

Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves:
For they watch over your souls, as they that must give account,
That they may do it with joy, and not with grief:
For that is unprofitable to you.

Now here is a verse that falls hard on our modern, democratic ears: “Obey? them that rule? over you, and submit? yourselves?”  Hardly! I mean this writer obviously doesn’t know my priest, or my spouse, or my boss! This kind of language sounds like some kind of cult. Certainly, such ideas have been abused. Yet,  I want to propose that this idea of rule and obedience is crucial to living well, especially in religious life.

I go to my doctor and due to his knowledge and training, he rules over me. When he gives me a diagnosis and a course of treatment, I can obey and submit or not. So, when he tells me I need to keep my blood sugar down, I can obey, or I can eat Snicker bars every day. Such a thing does not bring him any joy.

I am pulled over by the State Trooper. In terms of the law, he rules over me.  He tells me that I am speeding or driving recklessly. He can give me a ticker or a warning that I must obey the speed limit. From there, I can obey his rule, or not. If not, I then appear before a judge who really rules over the law. Once again, I can submit and obey his rule or not (with dire consequences).

I go to work and there my boss has the rule over me. I can work in the way that he has laid out, or not. However, if I continue to do it my way, soon my way will be out the door to the unemployment line.

I want to go swimming in the ocean and I don’t want anyone to bother me. Yet, there’s that lifeguard watching over me. When he blows his whistle, do I listen or do I ignore him? If he shouts commands at me, do I obey or just go on my way? Of course, I may find myself in a riptide, or I might become a snack for a shark.

These are practical examples, but how does this idea of submission and obedience apply to spiritual life? St. Paul says that watchmen watch over our souls. This sounds interesting, but who does it and how do they do it?

The first person that comes to mind is the priest. Given how people feel today, can he watch over anyone’s soul? We want to love our priest, and to feel that he loves us. We want him to guide us as long as he does not ask too much and doesn’t dig too deeply. We hide most of who we are and what we are doing from him. There is confession, but it is often infrequent and in a rush on Sunday morning. When he pleads that we come to Church on Saturday night, we listen politely, but we will not obey. We are busy and Saturday is often our catch up day, or relaxing day, or fun day. After all, we are Americans and Americans don’t go to Church on Saturday nights.

Forgive me if it seems like I am “beating a dead horse”, as the proverb goes. Just understand this from the viewpoint of the priest. To watch over my soul is his task, one for which he will be held accountable. But what good does it do to watch if, when he sees a problem that must be addressed,  the person is offended or simply ignores what he says to them? You would think it odd if I was offended when my doctor told me I have Type II diabetes. I have had the experience that when I tried to lovingly tell someone the truth about their soul (not because I have great spiritual insight. I have simply spent time observing how they practice their faith), the end result was that they went away in a snit and never came back.  Of course, we are always free to disagree with what we hear, but if we constantly disagree, what good is it to be a watchman or to want one?

It would be wonderful to think that I have a spouse who watches over my soul. This doesn’t mean that shes tries to micromanage all that I do. It means that she watches for the spiritual enemies that come against me. It means that she prays for me and watches over me. Yet, she may have the same problem as the priest. Does she dare tell me what she sees for fear of how I will react? After all, it may hurt my pride and offend me and after all, who does she think she is telling me these things, etc. So, she holds her tongue and my soul remains in danger of loss.

It would be wonderful to think that my Orthodox brothers and sisters are watching over me and that they observe my conduct and speech. It would be nice to believe that if they see a serious flaw, they would come to me, not in a spirit of criticism or scorn, but with a heart to help heal my weakness. Like the priest and the spouse, they may keep silent because they fear how I will react. The result is the same. I remain weak or I tumble into a ditch of my own making.

God watches over us, but how is that going for you? Do you submit to His will and obey his rule over you? The Saints watch over you as well. Does your life bring them joy or grief? Thankfully, they continue to watch and pray for me no matter how often I fail to submit and obey.

The Bible speak clearly about this: “A wise man loves to be corrected;” but “a fool is wise in his own eyes;” and “obedience is better than sacrifice.” This being so, it is clear that there are few watchmen today. We simply refuse to be corrected by anyone. Anyone who seeks to do so had better beware, for we will accuse them of not caring about our feelings.

It was not always this way, but now, if anyone is a watchman on this earth, he  or she is practically unemployed.

What can we do?  Seek true humility and seek someone who is willing to tell us what we need to hear, no matter how much it challenges us or embarrasses us. We need to let our watchmen know that we will hear them and not retaliate emotionally, so that they can truly watch over us. Finally, we can ask God to give us a heart that is willing to obey those who watch over us for the sake of our souls.

Is there anyone watching over you?