Re-Evangelizing the Believer – Lessons in Dumpsters

One of the things my older two kids (17 and 15 yrs.) sometimes say they don’t like about going to youth groups and Christian camps is that they get re-evangelized over and over again. “There isn’t much for those who already believe,” they comment. They tell me, “Okay, so I’ve heard the four spiritual laws. I’m a believer. Now help me grow. Do I have to go??”

Of course that is not always the case and I am not making reference to any ministry in particular. But, it is the case often enough to render them bored stiff on more occasions than I would like to admit. They end up going to “Church” for growth in socialization and not for growth in Christ-likeness. (Now, parenthetically, let me share that my daughter has finally found a youth group where she says, “they are really teaching me something.” So, it is not all bad news)

Then, there are the kids who have grown up in the faith of their parents but it is not THEIR faith. It was parroted back, obediently, to their parents. They told their parents what they desired to hear until they left home and then…. Watch out!! They exploded and burnt out. They became disenfranchised toward the faith. It took years for them to come back around to Christ and find a way of living “the Way” with integrity.

Am I overstating it in both cases? To be sure… But, it is for the purpose of making a point.

I use those stories to point out a syndrome that is not just true for kids but true for adults as well. I have many people to say to me, “I have come to the end of my tradition’s offering of growth. Isn’t there anything more?! I want to go deeper. I want steak, I’m tired of oatmeal.”

That syndrome could be termed “the dumpster syndrome.” Let me explain.

A person enters the front door of the Church through Holy Baptism or saying the “sinner’s prayer.” They get all excited about their faith and begin to open doors of growth deeper and deeper into the heart of the denomination’s tradition and therefore into relationship with Christ Jesus. All is well for a while. Then, one day, with expectancy and excitement they come to a door. They joyfully expect to open it and enter into even greater depth in Christ Jesus. When they open it they are shocked to find that they have exited out the back door of the denomination’s tradition into the back parking lot next to the dumpster! Now what?! Go back?! Settle for the last room they were in?!

As Peggy Lee sang, they wonder “Is that all there is?” Surely, this cannot be the extent of the Good News – being re-evangelized over and over again or helping to evangelize or re-evangelize others over and over again. What about growth? Is evangelizing others the same thing as growth in maturity? Are they interchangeable? Aren’t there anymore doors to open that lead deeper and deeper into the life which is union with the living Christ Jesus and bear the fruit of legitimate evangelization? Is re-evangelizing the believer what “making disciples” means?

Now there are all kinds of ways to end up at the dumpster. Some are not the Church’s fault. I get that…

But nonetheless, it is true. It is true more and more these days.

I tend to hang out at the dumpster. There are a lot of amazing people hanging out bewildered and confused and yet still yearning for Christ-likeness. There are also some pretty fantastic people who hang out there for the sake of those who have found themselves at the dumpster – the dumpster community.

The dumpster, to mix my metaphors, is a crossroads. Folks have come to the crossroads – the dumpster – and are asking for directions to the ancient path. Are you walking in the ancient way? Can you give them directions?

I came across a quote from Origen regarding the importance of not just “rehashing” the same “altar call” for those who have already come to the faith.

First, I share a couple of passages of Scripture and then Origen’s reflection on the real danger of leading people to the “dumpster.”

Hebrews 5.8—6.12 [8] Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; [9] and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, [10] being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchiz’edek.  [11] About this we have much to say which is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing.  [12] For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need some one to teach you again the first principles of God’s word. You need milk, not solid food;  [13] for every one who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a child. [14] But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their faculties trained by practice to distinguish good from evil. [1] Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God,  [2] with instruction about ablutions, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. [3] And this we will do if God permits.  [4] For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit,  [5] and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come,  [6] if they then commit apostasy, since they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt.  [7] For land which has drunk the rain that often falls upon it, and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. [8] But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed; its end is to be burned.  [9] Though we speak thus, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things that belong to salvation. [10] For God is not so unjust as to overlook your work and the love which you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do.  [11] And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness in realizing the full assurance of hope until the end, [12] so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.

Ephesians 4.11-16 [11] And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, [12] to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,  [13] until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ;  [14] so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles. [15] Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,  [16] from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love.

2 Timothy 2.1-15 [1] You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, [2] and what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. [3] Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. [4] No soldier on service gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to satisfy the one who enlisted him. [5] An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. [6] It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops.  [7] Think over what I say, for the Lord will grant you understanding in everything.  [8] Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, descended from David, as preached in my gospel,  [9] the gospel for which I am suffering and wearing fetters like a criminal. But the word of God is not fettered.  [10] Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain salvation in Christ Jesus with its eternal glory.  [11] The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we shall also live with him; [12] if we endure, we shall also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; [13] if we are faithless, he remains faithful– for he cannot deny himself.  [14] Remind them of this, and charge them before the Lord to avoid disputing about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers.  [15] Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.

Origen’s Reflection: “It is not the same thing to call men who are sick in their souls to be cured, as it is to call healthy men to a knowledge and understanding of deeper spiritual truths. We take account of both of these. At the beginning, when we call men to be cured, we encourage sinners to come and hear words which teach them not to sin; the unwise are taught to hear words which will implant in them understanding, children are taught to advance towards a manly character, and those who are in a wretched state are led to happiness, or, to use a more appropriate word, to blessedness. But when some of those who have been thus encouraged make progress and show that they have been purified by the Logos, and do all in their power to live better lives, then we call them to our mysteries. For we speak wisdom among the perfect.

As we teach that, into a malicious soul wisdom shall not enter, nor dwell in the body that is subject to sin, we say: Let anyone come to us who has pure hands and so lifts up holy hands to God; anyone who, because he offers sublime and heavenly sacrifices, can say, The lifting up of my hands is an evening sacrifice; anyone who has a wise tongue because he studies the Law of the Lord day and night, and has his senses exercised to discern good and evil. Such a man should not
fear to go on to solid, rational food, which is suited to athletes of piety and every virtue. And since the grace of God is with all who love the teacher of the doctrines of immortality, let anyone who is pure not only from all defilement, but also from what are regarded as minor sins, be boldly initiated into the mysteries of the religion of Jesus which are delivered only to the holy and pure.

Celsus’ priest says: Anyone whose soul knows nothing of evil, let him come. But according to Jesus’ teaching the one who leads to God initiates who have been purified in soul will say: Anyone whose soul has for a long time known nothing of evil, and especially since he came to be healed by the Logos, let him hear even those doctrines which were privately revealed by Jesus to his genuine disciples. Accor­dingly, in his contrast between the exhortations of those who initiate men among the Greeks and those who teach the doctrines of Jesus, he does not know the difference between calling bad men to be cured and calling those already pure to more mystical doctrines.

It is not, therefore, to mysteries and to share in wisdom hidden in a mystery which God foreordained before the ages to the glory of his saints that we call the dishonest man, the thief, the burglar, the poisoner, the grave-robber, and any others whom Celsus might name for rhetorical effect, but it is for healing. There are some characteristics in the divine nature of the Logos which help to cure those who are sick, of whom the Logos says: They who are strong need no physician, but they who are sick. But there are other characteristics of the Logos which show to those who are pure in soul and body, the revelation of the mystery which has been kept in silence through times eternal, but is now manifested, both by the prophetic scrip­tures and by the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ; this is made clear to each one of the perfect, and illuminates the mind so that it grasps the true knowledge of reality. (Origen, Contra Celsum III” 59-61; tr. Chadwick (1953).)

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Let’s strive with all diligence to offer folks of all ages who we have taught to desire to walk through door after door, deeper and deeper into Christ Jesus, the Living Holy Tradition that was designed by the Holy Spirit for exactly that purpose. There is a way that doesn’t lead to the dumpster – “the ancient way,” and we need to walk in it. We need to not only walk in it ourselves but invite others at the dumpster/crossroads to join us “on the Living Way.”

Jeremiah 6.16

“Thus saith the LORD, ‘Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls.’” (KJV)

“Thus says the Lord: ‘Stand by the roads and look; and ask for the eternal paths, where the good, old way is; then walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.’” (Amplified Bible)

“Thus says the LORD, ‘Stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; and you will find rest for your souls.’” (NASB)

“Go stand at the crossroads and look around. Ask for directions to the old road, the tried and true road. Then take it. Discover the right route for your souls.” (The Message)

Fr. Thomas

Unseen Warfare: “One should never believe in oneself or trust oneself in anything” – Chapter Two

We have been exhorted, for the sake of victory in the unseen warfare, to invest our energy as disciples in four dispositions and spiritual activities:

“…if you really desire to be victorious in this unseen warfare and be rewarded with a crown, you must plant in your heart the following four dispositions and spiritual activities, as it were arming yourself with invisible weapons, the most trustworthy and unconquerable of all, namely: (a) never rely on yourself in anything; (b) bear always in your heart a perfect and all-daring trust in God alone; (c) strive without ceasing; and (d) remain constantly in prayer.”

It is worth reflecting on the fact that each of these four is BOTH a disposition AND an activity. Attaining perfection and victory in the unseen warfare is not just having the right ideas or information about Christianity. It is about LIVING what we profess with our lips and hold to be true in our minds and hearts. Two of my favorite prayers from The Book of Common Prayer make this point very clear:

“And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days…” (“General Thanksgiving” at Morning Prayer)

“Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.” (Collect for the Second Sunday of Easter)

Salvation is a synergy of wills and effort – the Divine in union with the human by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Our identifiable response in everyday life is essential to victory. But herein lies a problem. While it is true that human effort is essential to spiritual transformation, trusting in ourselves is a hindrance to that transformation.

The author(s) now spend time in Chapter 2, instructing us in the meaning and operation of the first disposition and activity: “never rely on yourself in anything.”

We trust ourselves on a regular basis. We think very highly of ourselves. This truth is, in fact, the basis for most of our dispositions and activities. Now, of course, we will never proclaim that that is the case. We profess that we base our dispositions and activities on our “trust in the Lord” – His wisdom and provision. After all, do we not quote Psalm 125.1 and Isaiah 40.31 with great gusto?

“Those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides for ever.” (Psalm 125.1)

“…they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40.31)

But, do we believe what we are saying? Do we live what we profess? If so, then why are we so often unable to withstand the smallest attack of the enemy in a wide variety of areas in our life? We are so easily overcome. This is exactly the question asked at the beginning of chapter 2. With regard to our need to “never rely on [ourselves] in anything,” the author(s) exhort us, “engrave this deeply in your mind and heart.” Sounds a lot like Deuteronomy 6.1-12 doesn’t it?

“Our daily experience,” our guide(s) remind us, “very effectively proves to us the falseness of this [high] opinion of ourselves; in our incomprehensible self-deception we do not cease to believe that we are something, and something not unimportant.” Well, here we are again… The whole issue of actions. Our actions prove that we do have a high opinion of ourselves and it is depriving us of the fruit of the Spirit – of abundant life.

Let me put a blunt point on it. We are deceiving ourselves. It is not others who are leading us into the snare of the fowler (Psalm 91). No, it is we ourselves! There is a reason it is called self-deception. This passion is a powerful subtle one – “hard to perceive and acknowledge.” It is an inner contradiction between what we profess (and really believe intellectually to our credit) but fail to live.

The cost is great. We cannot recite Psalm 91 with integrity. By continuing to live in self-deception regarding our trustworthiness and abilities we slam the door to grace. For, as our guide(s) say, “…how can grace, which comes to help and enlighten us, enter that man, who thinks of himself that he is something great, that he himself knows everything and needs no outside help?”

What is the response of God to this destructive “vainglory and self-esteem?” First, there is the reprimand of God. He warns us in whatever way He can, hoping to save us from our own destructive tendency to “think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think” (Romans 12.3 & 16). God seeks to impress upon us His abhorrence of narcissism in any form.

Any yet, as always we continue to be reminded through the Divine Liturgy and other means that God is a “good and loving God.” For the sake of our salvation:

“…there is nothing He loves and desires to see in us more than a sincere consciousness of our nothingness and a firm and deep-felt conviction that any good we may have in our nature and our life comes from Him, alone since He is the source of all good, and that nothing truly good can ever come from ourselves, whether a good thought or a good action.”

Remember my brother or sister in the Lord; you are the beloved of God. In view of this it is not surprising that the reprimand of the Lord is one that is filled with loving-care. How does He plant and nurture this seed of saving wisdom in our hearts?

“Sometimes He does this through the action of grace and inner illumination, or sometimes through external blows and tribulations, sometimes through unexpected and almost unconquerable temptations, and sometimes by other means, not always comprehensible to us.”

The “action of grace and inner illumination” sounds pretty good. But, the rest sounds really painful and costly. Sometimes the only cure is extremely painful and costly. I believe that is the reason we continue in our self-deception. We want to be cured but not if it is going to be painful and costly. We want our life of discipleship to be painless and fairly costless. Our self-deception tells us that the cure could NEVER include  “…external blows and tribulations, sometimes through unexpected and almost unconquerable temptations…” We cannot bring ourselves to embrace such a God as one who “is good and loves mankind.” The result? Continued defeat and delusional living.

Self-deception is subtle and not easily acknowledged. Self-deception is fueled by the noble and high sounding lies that we continue to tell ourselves.

But, nonetheless, we must struggle against this insidious villain within us! It is never too late.

“… although expecting no good from ourselves and not relying on ourselves is the work of God in us, we on our side must make every effort to acquire this disposition, doing all we can, all within our power.”

Though subtle and hard for us to acknowledge, self-deception and self-trusting is conquerable. Grace is always available to join itself to our smallest effort, our “bruised reed” and dimly burning wick” of effort. What is the form of this all important effort? It comes in the form of four activities with which God unites and fills with His grace.

First, we must “realize our nothingness” and be ever mindful of it. Our father St. John Chrysostom says, “He alone knows himself in the best way possible who thinks of himself as being nothing.”

Second, we must “ask for God’s help in this with warm and humble prayers” for this gift. We must ask with the full conviction that what we will receive is not ours by right but as a GIFT. This is huge!! Self-deception attempts to creep in again in this exact spot. We cry out for help with the underlying conviction that it is somehow our RIGHT to receive it or that God is somehow BOUND to provide it. Subtle… And yet we must be bold in our asking. Here is the key; our boldness does not FORCE God to provide. It rather, expects God in His freedom to meet our trust and boldness with His free offering of grace. The manner of His provision is His to choose but we KNOW we shall receive it. God is freely faithful.

Third, attentiveness or mindfulness is key to the victory. We must be every wary and sober regarding the enemy’s strategies. Our enemy has had lots of experience with human beings. More experience than we have to be sure. They are adept at ambushes and disguise of numerous kinds (Psalm 31.4 & 35.7 & 2Corinthians 11.14-15).

Fourth, we must confess our sins quickly in our heart and then to our confessor (be it a priest or trusted friend). The longer we delay the more likely we are to rationalize away our sin and fall more deeply into self-deception. If we do not wish to reaffirm our distrust of self and our utter nothingness, we will not quickly turn from our sin. We will save a portion of what we consider our “dignity” or “ability.” In reality it is likely to not be our dignity we are protecting but the root of self-deception and need to still reserve a place to stand on our own as a person.

If there is some area where we trust in our own strength or capabilities, considering ourselves to be reliable, trustworthy, talented, and strong it will be in that very area where God will allow the downfall will take place. It will be in that place and not some other that God will desire the realization that we cannot trust in ourselves to take place. This is an extreme measure on God’s part as our teacher(s) indicate:

“This method, although very effective, is also not without danger, and God does not always use it, but only when all the other means we have mentioned, which are easier and more natural, fail to lead a man to self-knowledge. Only then does He finally let a man fall into sin, great or small, in accordance with the degree of his pride, conceit and self-reliance. So that where conceit and self-reliance are absent, instructive failures do not occur.”

Please let me parenthetically note that I do not believe the author(s) are talking about rejoicing in the gifts of God in our life (capabilities, reliability, talent, etc). In as much as they are recognized and celebrated as God’s gifts, all is well. They are talking about attributing these to ourselves.

It must be reaffirmed that God’s intention is that suffering bear the fruit of self-knowledge by His grace and our cooperation. This knowledge is of our weakness not to needlessly humiliate us but to humble us.  The motivation is salvation not condemnation. As St. Paul says,

“For we do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Why, we felt that we had received the sentence of death; but that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead; he delivered us from so deadly a peril, and he will deliver us; on him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. (2Corinthians 1.8-10)

A searching and fearless inventory of our thoughts, words, and actions over the course of just one day will affirm our weakness and the futility of trusting in our own strength and capabilities. But, as was established by our author(s) at the beginning of this chapter, without such an inventory, self-deception will deepen and ultimately destroy us. The warfare is unseen but real. The enemy we battle is so very often ourselves.

Let me reiterate the point I made earlier. I do not believe that the intention of the author(s) is to encourage self-loathing or self-hatred. If there is loathing and hatred to be exercised, it is against the false self. The false self is destructive. Self deception builds self-hatred not self-love in the true sense. The tricky thing about self-deception is that it can never be satisfied. Just as sure as we have our sense of self-reliance affirmed and satisfied, it is almost immediately followed by the need of more and more assurance. We end up needing an endless supply of self-assurance of our ability to rely on ourselves. The downward spiral is debilitating and filled with endless restlessness and dissatisfaction.

Fr. Jack Sparks, in his book Victory in the Unseen Warfare, which is his re-presentation of the material in Unseen Warfare in modern language speaks on the subject of the possible misunderstanding of what the author(s) meant:

“We are all of infinite worth in the eyes of God. He values eachof us. Thus, we do not consider ourselves worthless. At the same time there is a self-esteem which is full of pride and arrogance, a self-reliance which is conceited and haughty… In addition, there is a certain sort of pride sometimes taught my modern psychology which also takes our eyes off God and makes us think we are ‘okay’ just as we are. God accepts us as we are, that He might change and remake us according to His will.” (Victory in the Unseen Warfare, pg. 141-142)

The true self is to be affirmed and encouraged and established. Self-reliance is not a characteristic of the true self in Christ. Radical reliance on the Holy Spirit is characteristic of the true self and of the peace of Christ that can perfectly guard and guide us.

This distinction calls for an environment of Godly direction and fellowship. But, once again, when I find myself getting the wrong idea about the deep truths communicated in a chapter like this one, it is often just another example of my seemingly endless ability to deceive myself and refuse to move deeper into the mystery of Christ’s love…

So, what can we take away from this chapter that is of benefit?

  • I really am created to be the receiver of everything good and perfect from God, and not the initiator of it.
  • I need, in a positive way to adically and joyfully cast all my burdens on the Lord rather than deceiving myself into believing that I can trust in my own strength or ability apart from God.
  • I am not intended to beself-producing individual or the member of a self-producing community.
  • I need to be honest about my tendency to deceive myself and enlist the help of others to do so.
  • God desires to use any and all means to save me from my false self. I need to look for Him at work in all
    circumstances and encounters and His invitation in each encounter to die to my own self-importance and self-reliance.
  • I need to engage in self-examination on a regular basis, keeping a short list of sin and responding more quickly in my heart when I realize that I am trusting in my own strength. As Johnny Cashsays, “I keep a close watch on this heart of mine. I keep my eyes wide open all the time.”

We will investigate the “other side of the coin” in the Chapter 3. If we should not “never rely on [ourselves] in anything” then it stands to reason that we should rely in everything on God.

Fr. Thomas

The Sunday of the Cross — Take Up Your Cross

The Sunday of the Cross

“Repent and Take Up Your Cross”

and

“Abide in Me”

The essence of prayer as seeing and taking up our cross

We cannot see the Kingdom of God come with power unless we follow the way of the cross.

Mark 8:34-9:1

Apart from Christ we can be and do nothing. This is most importantly the truth of prayer.

John 15.1-5

This was the third Sunday of Great Lent. As the Synaxarion reminded us:

“On this third Sunday of the Great Fast we celebrate the Veneration of the precious and life-giving Cross. Since during the forty days of the Fast we are also in a way crucified, mortified to the passions, contrite, abased and despondent, the precious and life-giving Cross is offered to us as refreshment and confirmation, calling to mind the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ and comforting us… Also, as those who have traveled a long hard road, weighed down by the labors of their journey, in finding a shady tree, take their ease for a moment and then continue their journey rejuvenated, so now in this time of the Fast, this sorrowful and laborious journey, the Holy Fathers have planted the life-giving Cross, for our relief and refreshment, to encourage and make easier the labors that lie ahead. The first action that bears the fruit of all other actions in the Christian life is prayer.” (The whole text can be found here.)

As Evelyn Underhill says in her classic work “Abba”, “prayer is the substance of eternal life” (pg.137).

In The Way of a Pilgrim, the elder says to the pilgrim in response to his inquiry on the nature and practice of prayer:

“…St. Paul clearly states that prayer should precede all actions” ‘First of all, thee should be prayers offered’ (1 Tim. 2:1). The Apostle’s directive indicates that the act of prayer comes first; it comes before everything else. The Christian is expected to perform many good works, but the act of prayer is fundamental because without prayer it is not possible to do good. Without frequent prayer it is not possible to find one’s way to God, to understand truth, and to crucify the lusts of the flesh. Only fidelity to prayer will lead a person to enlightenment and union with Christ… The Spirit comes to help us in our weakness when we do not know how to pray (Rom. 8:26). Consequently, our only contribution toward perfection in prayer, the mother of all spiritual good, is regularity and constancy.” pg.8

Underhill affirms this when she says, “prayer must precede action… But we have come to believe that we can ignore the
spiritual imperative, have the shoot without the root; Christian action without Christian contemplation, the fruitful ideology without contact with the Idea” (pg. 139).

Prayer, in its essence is the union of revelation and repentance. To quote Underhill, prayer as the union of divine revelation (the holy God) and human repentance (the sinful man):

“… sets going, deepens, and at last perfects that mutual indwelling of two orders which redeems us from unreality. And in which the creative process reaches its goal… It … awaits … the intercourse of the Transcendent God with the fugitive man, and of fugitive man with the Transcendent God… It eludes definition, refuses to be caught in the meshes of the mind… There, beyond thought, the pressure and invitation of God, is experienced by the creature, and thence there filters into consciousness some response to the Unseen; an act of loving attention, a submission, a supplication.” “Abba”, pg. 137-138

When divine revelation occurs, repentance is the faithful human first response.

“Thy Kingdom come. Here man’s most sacred birthright, his deep longing for perfection, and with it his bitter consciousness of imperfection, break out with power. We want to bring the God whom we worship, His beauty, His sovereignty, His order, into the very texture of our life; and the fundamental human need for action into the radius of our prayer… We have had a glimpse of the mystery of the Holy, have worshiped before the veils of beauty and sacrifice; and that throws into vivid relief the poverty, the anarchy, the unreality in which we live – the resistance of the world, the creature, to God, and its awful need of God.” “Abba”, pg. 167 (see also the two paragraphs that follow on pgs. 167-168; “In the first part…” pg. 191)

Prayer is, therefore, in its essence is the union of two wills by the transformation of one will, the human will – “not
my will but Thine be done”. And, it must be added, this change of will is not a passive resignation or coercion of the human will, but an active change welling up from the deepest realm of human integrity and fullness.

What is more, the dynamic union of revelation and repentance is ongoing:

“In the Church too this process of renovation from within, this fresh invasion of Reality, must constantly be repeated if she is to escape the ever-present danger of stagnation. She is not a static institution, but the living Body of the living Christ – the nucleus of the Kingdom in this world. Thus loyalty to her supernatural calling will mean flexibility to its pressures and demands, and also a constant adjustment to that changing world to which she brings the unchanging gifts. But only insofar as her life is based on prayer and self-offering will she distinguish rightly between these implicits of her vocation and the suggestions of impatience or self-will.” “Abba”, pg.173-174

“To look with real desire for the coming of the Kingdom means crossing over to God’s side; dedicating our powers, whatever they may be, to the triumph of His purpose. The Bible is full of a stern insistence on that action which is ever the corollary of true contemplation. It is here that the praying spirit accepts its most sacred privilege: active and costly cooperation with God – first in respect of its own purification, and then in respect of His creative and redeeming action upon life. Our attitude here must be wide open toward God, exhibiting quite simply our poverty and impurity, acknowledging our second-ratedness, but still offering ourselves such as we are.” “Abba”, pg. 175

Prayer is the union of God and man.

“Here for the first time they (the disciples) say prayer, not as an ordered action, or a religious duty, not even an experience; but as a vital relation between man in his wholeness and the Being of God.” “Abba”, pg. 140

The God-man union is Christ Jesus. Therefore, to pray is to “put on Christ” or “enter into” – the very life of Christ Jesus. It is to live the reality that “in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17.28). To pray is to abide in Christ and have Christ abide in us.

It involves, as both the elder in The Way of the Pilgrim and Underhill testify, the peaceful fruit of righteousness
from God “insofar as he (man) is willing to live to capacity … to give love and suffer pain.” That is to say, as long as man is willing to cooperate actively with God’s initiative in “regularity and constancy” as the elder says to the pilgrim.

It is exemplified for us, in its most practical form in the ancient practice of the Jesus Prayer – “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Here we have the union of divine revelation and human repentance. Here we have the union of divinity and humanity. Here we have Christ Jesus.

The Lord’s Prayer is, perhaps, best described as an expansion of prayer in its essence found in the Jesus Prayer. In the Lord’s Prayer we have the prayer which IS Christ Jesus in a mysterious manner of speaking. The union of divinity and humanity:

“First, four clauses entirely concerned with our relation to God; then three concerned with our human situation and needs. Four hinge on the First Commandment, three hinge on the Second. Man’s twisted, thwarted, and embittered nature, his state of sin, his sufferings, helplessness, and need, do not stand in the foreground; but the splendor and beauty of God, demanding a self-oblivion so complete that it transforms suffering, and blots out even the memory of sin. We begin with a sublime yet intimate invocation of Reality … we end by the abject confession of our dependence and need of guidance.” “Abba”, pg. 145-146

The character of the Holy Spirit’s work, the “touch of Pentecost” – the work of prayer – can be portrayed in this way:

  • Revelation of the Glory of God
  • Revelation and personal conviction of human sin and death or a need to relinquish one’s own agenda or pre-conceived notions

[“Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see (hear) God” (Matthew 5.8)]

  • Helplessness in the face of such revelation
  • Crying out inconfession for the mercy of God – the way of the cross and taking up the cross (Luke 11.14-28 –readiness to hear and keep the word/truth I hear)
  • Divine response to acknowledged (confessed) sin or letting go – forgiveness, release, and healing
  • Filling and empowering with God’s message and authority
    • Prayer
    • Word
  • Proclaiming/ministering the message with God’s power – reaching out in mission
    • God’s desire is for His truth (revelation) to reside within us and radiate out into the world
      transformatively (expansively)
  • Returning to God

The two characteristic passages that typify prayer as the dynamic union of revelation and repentance are Psalm 51 and Isaiah 6.1-8.

Psalm 51 [6] Behold, thou desirest truth
in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
[7] Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
[8] Fill me with joy and gladness;
let the bones which thou hast broken rejoice.
[9] Hide thy face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
[10] Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
[11] Cast me not away from thy presence,
and take not thy holy Spirit from me.
[12] Restore to me the joy of thy salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.
[13] Then I will teach transgressors thy ways,
and sinners will return to thee.
[14] Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,
thou God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of thy deliverance.
[15] O Lord, open thou my lips,
and my mouth shall show forth thy praise.

Isaiah 6 [1] In the year that King Uzzi’ah
died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train
filled the temple.
[2] Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he
covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.
[3] And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the
LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
[4] And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who
called, and the house was filled with smoke.
[5] And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of
unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes
have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
[6] Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning
coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar.
[7] And he touched my mouth, and said: “Behold, this has touched your
lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.”
[8] And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send,
and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.”

Reflection:

Jesus invites/command us, to repent and promises that we will receive forgiveness, release from sin and death, and new life – via baptism in which we die with Him and be raised with Him. But He also invites/commands us to take up our cross and follow Him on a daily basis after our baptism. The promise is that as we do so we will work out our salvation – mature in Christ by living out the grace of baptism. Both are essential to our salvation and its fruits – prayer, our encounter with Scripture, ministry, fellowship, and ministry. The expansion of the Kingdom of God depends on our “yes” in them form of taking up our cross daily.

The cross we are to take up is a circumstance around us or area inside us where God desires for His victory to become manifest. It is many times directly associated with the area of our repentance and release from sin. But not always. Sometimes the repentance and release we need is in the “inner man.” The Holy Spirit’s grace is activated as we cooperate in the “unseen warfare.”  We progressively experience victory over the passions (pride, vainglory, and self-love – narcissism, pragmatism, and restlessness – obsession with power, relevance, and the spectacular. The more we take up our cross, the more our blindness regarding the cross we need to take ups is healed.

The cross usually takes the form of some kind of “dying” or “letting go” or “facing the thing that terrifies and
immobilizes us” or “suffering” or “sacrifice” or “ruthless trust” in Him and His strength versus our own strength.

It can also be identified by the looking for the area in our life where there is a need for humility. If there is an area in our life where we are feeling “in control” and believe we “have it together” or believe ourselves to be superior to others; triumphalism; or thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought to think, it is probably the area where our cross is located.

  • Where, in your life, is God currently revealing Himself to you? What is the character and content of that revelation to the best of your knowledge (both head and heart)? Regarding what do you need to repent, confess, and receive the mercy of God? Be as specific as possible instead of getting yourself off the hook with a vague
    answer.
  • Where is the cross located in your life? How can you carry this cross in a practical way? Once
    again, be as specific as you can.

The Four Questions of the desert pilgrim when he/she enters the desert for a time of retreat and discernment. These are based on and adapted from questions found in Crossing the Desert, by Robert J. Wicks.

PLEASE NOTE: These questions are by no means answerable in one sitting. They speak of and invite us into the journey of transfiguration in Christ. However, as they are consistently asked and addressed, transformation does occur.

  1. What am I carrying (filled with) now which holds me captive? Where am I not free now? What is hindering the expression of God’s glory in me / through me? Where in my life is “that which holds me captive” located (body, intellect, heart, undisciplined passions, relationship, circumstance, etc.)?
  2. What prevents me from letting go of that which fills me / hinders me? What is the resistance / “pay off” that this continues to offer that is shockingly more valuable than the release of God’s glory?
  3. How do I deliberately address that which fills and holds me captive?
  4. How do I need to live to stay free of what I am letting go? (How do I empty myself consistently? What would it
    look like to let go on a practical basis?) What/who will satisfy me yet leave me open and yearning for more – serve to enlarge my heart? What practices and/or relationships can I embrace which will foster a relationship with God
    that has this character?

Fr. Thomas

Change

“If nothing can change, then nothing will change.”

The Gospel for last Sunday, March 13th was the story of the encounter between Nathanael and Jesus (John 1.43-51). Here is the text including vs. 35-42 which contains the first occurrence of the invitation “come and see.”

John 1.35-51
[35] The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples;
[36] and he looked at Jesus as he walked, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!”
[37] The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.
[38] Jesus turned, and saw them following, and said to them, “What do you seek?” And they said to him, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?”
[39] He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying; and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour.
[40] One of the two who heard John speak, and followed him, was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother.
[41] He first found his brother Simon, and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ).
[42] He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him, and said, “So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter).
[43] The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. And he found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.”
[44] Now Philip was from Beth-sa’ida, the city of Andrew and Peter.
[45] Philip found Nathan’a-el, and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
[46] Nathan’a-el said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”
[47] Jesus saw Nathan’a-el coming to him, and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!”
[48] Nathan’a-el said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”
[49] Nathan’a-el answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
[50] Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You shall see greater things than these.”
[51] And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.”

There is a wonderful homily on this text by Fr. Seraphim Holland that can be found here. A copy of my adaptation of that homily for my own use is available from me upon request.

What can we take away from this passage to apply in our lives during Lent and beyond?

The invitation, “come and see,” was first by Jesus to two disciples of John the Forerunner – Andrew and Philip. This invitation is then repeated by both Andrew and Philip to those who inhabited their everyday life – Simon and Nathanael.

We need to learn and integrate into our life the truth that we have the authority and responsibility to issue the same invitation as Jesus, “come and see,” to those who inhabit our everyday life.

But with that invitation comes the challenge to offer a real encounter with the living Christ!! What does that require?! Change. Our lives must be changed just like Andrew’s and Philip’s were, so Christ Jesus can make His direct appeal (encounter) through us to the “Simon(s)” and “Nathanael(s)” of our daily life. The Good News is that things, circumstances, and people CAN change. There IS hope. That hope for others begins with us — our initial and ongoing change (transformation).

Let me leave you with some challenging questions that I have been asking myself as a result of letting this Gospel story touch me:

• Are you willing to accept a deeper (more mature) way of living your new life in Christ Jesus? Are you willing to change?
• Are you willing to place into the hands of Christ Jesus your “Nazareth” of impossibility and hopelessness like Nathanael?
• Are you willing to give up your answer to the “Nazareth dilemma” or your way of responding to it and receive the one offered by Christ Jesus?
• Are you willing to conceive of the possibility that “good things can come out of Nazareth?” Are you willing to see Christ Jesus step out of your Nazareth, walk toward you and touch you and others in ways that are beyond what you could ever ask or imagine?!!

The key is to be ready and willing and obedient. And the key is to be both Andrew/Philip and Nathanael.

Be Andrew/Philip – having a hunger and thirst (desire) to follow the signs of LIFE. Ready and willing and obedient to be pointed toward a deeper relationship with the Lord and ready to issue the invitation in a manner that is of God’s design (timing, content, and form). Be ever becoming the person whose life says, “come and see.”

Be Nathanael – having no guile. Ready and willing and obedient to be taught and changed by the Holy Spirit. Ready and willing to have God use your life to proclaim that Christ Jesus is “the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

I love what The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible says in its article about Nathanael:

“By describing Nathanael as a true, guileless, Israelite (1:47), Jesus meant, not that he was sinless, but that he was utterly sincere, enlightened, and completely dedicated to God… he was an Israelite at heart, not merely in outward appearance… Whoever he was, Nathanael serves in the Fourth Gospel as a symbol of the pious, God-fearing Israelite who, good as he is, stands incomplete, and who must be willing to pass beyond his intellectual difficulties concerning Jesus into saving faith in Him.” (Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible,  Volume 3, pg. 511)

I have to admit, that says a lot to me not just about coming into a saving relationship with Jesus and the beginning of a life of discipleship but about what being a disciple who is growing in his or her discipleship from one stage of maturity to another.

Come and see

Come and know

Come and change

Come and live Christ Jesus!!

God Bless,

Fr. Thomas

Lent and “Relentless Acts of Justice”

A friend of mine told me about some Lenten resource centered around the issue of faith and justice. It is sponsored by “ACT:S World Vision.” The group describes itself in this way:

“We are a network of young people continuing the living Book of Acts. We are joined together by our commitment to exploring what our faith says about justice and using creative activism to bring issues to life for our generation.”

“ACT:S is all about action. We are a network of young activists fighting to change the brokenness in this world, writing our own modern-day Book of Acts. But to truly understand the brokenness brought by global poverty and injustice, we need to take a step back. We need to experience and understand the world – just as Christ took human form to experience the struggles of man.”

Obviously, the target audience is youth – those in their teens and twenty’s. But, the study is totally applicable to older folks.

A weekly emphasis is provided for the six weeks of Lent, along with daily exercises that correspond to the emphasis for the week.  Those who desire to participate sign up here to receive a daily email message that serves to guide you through the study and discipline either solo or as part of a group.

Check it out…

Fr. Thomas

The Lenten Journey – The Salvation Journey

 Kallistos Ware begins his classic book, The Orthodox Way, by speaking of the Christian life as a journey. He says:

“I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” (John 14:6)

“The Church gives us not a system, but a key; not a plan of God’s City, but the means of entering it. Perhaps someone will lose his way because he has no plan. But all that he will see, he will see without a mediator, he will see it directly, it will be real for him; while he who has studied only the plan risks remaining outside and not really finding anything.” (Fr. Georges Florovsky)

One of the best known Desert Fathers of fourth century Egypt, St. Sarapion the Sindonite, traveled once on a pilgrimage to Rome. Here he was told of a celebrated recluse, a woman who lived always in one small room, never going out. Skeptical about her way of lie – for he was himself a great wanderer – Sarapion called on her and asked: “Why are you sitting here?” To this she replied: “I am not sitting. I am on a journey.”

I am not sitting. I am on a journey. Every Christian may apply these words to him or herself. To be a Christian is to be a traveler. Our situation, say the Greek Fathers, is like that of the Israelite people in the desert of the Sinai: we live in tents, not houses, for spiritually we are always on the move. We are on a journey through inward space of the heart, a journey not measured by the hours of our watch or the days of the calendar, for it is a journey out of time into eternity.

One of the most ancient names for Christianity is simply “the Way.” “About that time,” it is said in the Acts of the Apostles, “there arose no little stir concerning the Way” (19:23); Felix, the Roman governor of Caesarea, had “a rather accurate knowledge of the Way” (24:22). It is a name that emphasizes the practical character of the Christian faith. Christianity is more than teachings written down on paper; it is a path along which we journey – in the deepest and richest sense, the way of life.

There is only one means of discovering the true nature of Christianity. We must step out upon this path, commit ourselves to this way of life, and then we shall begin to see for ourselves. So long as we remain outside, we cannot properly understand. Certainly we need to be given directions before we start; we need to be told what signposts to look out for, and we need to have companions. Indeed, without guidance from others it is scarcely possible to begin the journey. But directions given by others can never convey to us what the way is actually like; they cannot be a substitute for direct, personal experience. Each is called to verify for himself what he has been taught, each is required to re-live the Tradition he has received. “The Creed,” said Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, “does not belong to you unless you have lived it.” No one can be an armchair traveler on this all-important journey. No one can be a Christian at second hand. God has children, but he has not grandchildren.

As a Christian of the Orthodox Church, I wish particularly to underline this need for living experience. To many in the twentieth century West, the Orthodox Church seems chiefly remarkable for its air of antiquity and conservatism; the message of the Orthodox to their Western brethren seems to be, “We are your past.” For the Orthodox themselves, however, loyalty to Tradition means not primarily the acceptance of formulae or customs from past generations, but rather the ever-new, personal and direct experience of the Holy Spirit in the present, here and now. (From the “Prologue” to The Orthodox Way, pg. 7- 8, SVS Press, 1993.)

The concept of  faith as “THE journey,” as contrasted as “A journey” is reiterated in both the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament could be summed up, using musical terminology, as “variations the theme of salvation in the key of ‘journey’.” Besides the obvious references from the Pentateuch, let me reference a couple from the wisdom literature. Listen for the journey language…

Psalm 84    1      How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts! *   My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of   the Lord; my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.

2      The sparrow has found her a house  and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young; *  by the side of your altars, O Lord of hosts,  my King and my God.

3      Happy are they who dwell in your house! * they will always be praising you.

4      Happy are the people whose strength is in you! * whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way.

5      Those who go through the desolate valley will find  it a place of springs, * for the early rains have covered it with pools of water.

6      They will climb from height to height, * and the God of gods will reveal himself in Zion.

7      Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer; * hearken, O God of Jacob.

8      Behold our defender, O God; * and look upon the face of your Anointed.

9      For one day in your courts is better than a thousand in my own room, * and to stand at the threshold of the house of my God than to dwell in the tents of the wicked.

10   For the Lord God is both sun and shield; * he will give grace and glory;

11   No good thing will the Lord withhold * from those who walk with integrity.

12   O Lord of hosts, * happy are they who put their trust in you! (from The Book of Common Prayer, 1979)

 Proverbs 2.1-22

1 My son, if you receive my words, And treasure my commands within you,
2 So that you incline your ear to wisdom, And apply your heart to understanding;
3 Yes, if you cry out for discernment, And lift up your voice for understanding,
4 If you seek her as silver, And search for her as for hidden treasures;
5 Then you will understand the fear of the Lord, And find the knowledge of God.
6 For the Lord gives wisdom; From His mouth come knowledge and understanding;
7 He stores up sound wisdom for the upright; He is a shield to those who walk uprightly;
8 He guards the paths of justice, And preserves the way of His saints.
9 Then you will understand righteousness and justice, Equity and every good path.
10 When wisdom enters your heart, And knowledge is pleasant to your soul,
11 Discretion will preserve you;
12 To deliver you from the way of evil, From the man who speaks perverse things,
13 From those who leave the paths of uprightness To walk in the ways of darkness;
14 Who rejoice in doing evil, And delight in the perversity of the wicked;
15 Whose ways are crooked, And who are devious in their paths;
16 To deliver you from the immoral woman, From the seductress who flatters with her words,
17 Who forsakes the companion of her youth, And forgets the covenant of her God.
18 For her house leads down to death, And her paths to the dead;
19 None who go to her return, Nor do they regain the paths of life—
20 So you may walk in the way of goodness, And keep to the paths of righteousness.
21 For the upright will dwell in the land, And the blameless will remain in it;
22

But the wicked will be cut off from the earth, And the unfaithful will be uprooted from it. (from The Orthodox Study Bible, Thomas Nelson, 2008)

But how shall we journey?! How shall we once again attain to Paradise from which Adam and Eve were banished?!

We have heard these words as we prepared for Lent:

“Open to me, O Giver of life, the doors of repentance: for early in the morning my spirit seeks Your holy temple, bearing a temple of the body all defiled.”

First, the “how” is repentance – the willingness and resolve of a changed mind and a mind that is being changed. The “how” is submission to the discipline of the Holy Spirit with an attitude of “joyful sorrow,” that bespeaks the same heartfelt desire as that of the thief on the cross: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” It is the desire to hear our Savior say to us in the midst of the struggle that is fueled by a faithful yearning for the courts of the Lord, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

During Vespers on Saturday evening before the Sunday of Forgiveness,  we heard these words:

“The arena of the virtues has been opened. Let all who wish to struggle for the prize now enter, girding themselves for the noble contest of the Fast; for those that strive lawfully are justly crowned.”

And yet again, at a latter point, these words:

“Adam was driven out of Paradise, because in disobedience he had eaten food; but Moses was granted the vision of God, because he had cleansed the eyes of his soul by fasting. If then we long to dwell in Paradise, let us abstain from all needless food; and if we desire to see God, let us like Moses fast for forty days… The time is now at hand for us to start upon the spiritual contest and to gain the victory over the demonic powers.”

During the Rite of Forgiveness at Forgiveness Sunday Vespers we hear these words:

“Let us humble the flesh by abstinence: As we follow the divine path of pure fasting… That passing through the Fast as through a great sea we may reach the Resurrection on the Third Day, of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour of our souls.” 

Again and again, we hear and speak the language of journey. The journey of salvation.

Second, the “how” is together. Alone we can do nothing. No only can we do nothing apart from the Lord, but we can do nothing apart from one another in the Lord. We have been made “members one of another” for the sake of our salvation. Our fellowship is not “icing on the cake,” of salvation, it is the cake of salvation!!

Romans 12.4-5 [4] For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, [5] so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.

1 Corinthians 12.19-27 [19] If all were a single organ, where would the body be?
[20] As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.
[21] The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”
[22] On the contrary, the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable,
[23] and those parts of the body which we think less honorable we invest with the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty,
[24] which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part,
[25] that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.
[26] If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
[27] Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

Thomas Merton drives home, at least by implication, the salvific character of fellowship in Christ with these words from No Man Is An Island:

“We learn to live by living together with others, and by living like them – a process which has disadvantages as well as blessings…  What every man looks for in life is his own salvation and the salvation of the men he lives with. By salvation I mean first of all the full discovery of who he himself really is. Then I mean something of the fulfillment of his own God-given powers, in the love of others and of God. I mean also the discovery that he cannot find himself in himself alone, but that he must find himself in and through others.  Ultimately, these propositions are summed up in tow lines of the Gospel: ‘If any man would save his life, he must lose it,’ and ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ It is also contained in another saying from St. Paul: ‘We are all members one of another.’…

This matter of ‘salvation’ is, when seen intuitively, a very simple thing. But when we analyze it, it turns into a complex tangle of paradoxes…. We cannot find ourselves within ourselves, but only in others, yet at the same time before we can go out to others we must first find ourselves. We must forget ourselves in order to become truly conscious of who we are. The best way to love ourselves is to love others, yet we cannot love others unless we love ourselves since it is written, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’…

The difficulty of this commandment lies in the paradox that it would have us love ourselves unselfishly, because even our love of ourselves is something we owe others… This truth never becomes clear as long as we assume that each one of us, individually, is the center of the universe. We do not exist for ourselves alone, and it is only when we are fully convinced of this fact that we begin to love ourselves properly and thus also love others… It is therefore of supreme importance that we consent to live not for ourselves but for others…. if we live for others, we will gradually discover that no one expects us to be ‘as gods.’ We will see that we are human, like everyone else, that we all have weaknesses and deficiencies, and that these limitations of ours play a most important part in all our lives. It is because of them that we need others and others need us. We are not all weak in the same spots, and so we supplement and complete one another, each one making up in himself for the lack in another.

Only when we see ourselves in our true human context, as members of a race which is intended to be one organism and ‘one body,’ will we begin to understand the positive importance not only of the successes but of the failures and accidents in our lives. My successes are not my own. The way to them was prepared by others. The fruit of my labors is not my own: for I am preparing the way for the achievements of another. Nor are my failures my own. They may spring from the failure of another, but they are also compensated for by another’s achievement. Therefore the meaning of life is not to be looked for merely in the sum total of my own achievements. It is seen only in the complete integration of my achievements and failure with the achievements and failures of my own generation, and society, and time. It is seen, above all, in my integration in the mystery of Christ….

Every other man is a piece of myself, for I am a part and a member of mankind. Every Christian is part of my own body, because we are members of Christ. What I do is also done for them and with them and by them.  What they do is done in me and by me and for me. But each one if us remains responsible for his own share in the life of the whole body…. Nothing at all makes sense, unless we admit, with John Donne, that: ‘No man is an island, entire of itself: every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.’” (from No Man Is An Island, pg. xi-xxiii, Shambhala Publications, 2005)

When the Brotherhood of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco resided at St. Eugene’s Hermitage in Inverness Park, I used to spend a lot of time with the brothers and fathers. They kept telling me, “My brother is my life.” I trivialized that statement for some time. I relegated it to metaphor. But now, I no longer hear it as a metaphor. I hear it as a statement like “This is my Body” and “This is my Blood.” I hear is as a statement of the Mysterious reality – “My brother is my life.”

The “how” of the salvation journey is going on the journey together. We go together or we do not go at all.

Third, the “how” of the journey is humility. The way up is down. If we humble ourselves (move downward) we will be exalted (move upward). This is fairly self-explanatory. But, some excerpts from Scripture and the saints will establish the truth:

“Holy Scripture, brethren, cries out to us, saying, ‘Everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled,
and he who humbles himself shall be exalted’ (Luke 14:11). In saying this it shows us that all exaltation is a kind of pride, against which the Prophet proves himself to be on guard when he says, ‘Lord, my heart is not exalted, nor are mine eyes lifted up; neither have I walked in great matters, nor in wonders above me’ (Ps. 130[131]:1) But how has he acted? ‘Rather have I been of humble mind than exalting myself; as a weaned child on its mother’s breast, so You solace my soul’ (Ps. 130[131]:2).

Hence, brethren, if we wish to reach the very highest point of humility and to arrive speedily at that heavenly exaltation to which ascent is made through the humility of this present life, we must by our ascending actions erect the ladder Jacob saw in his dream, on which Angels appeared to him descending and ascending. By that descent and ascent we must surely understand nothing else than this, that we descend by self-exaltation and ascend by humility. And the ladder thus set up is our life in the world, which the Lord raises up to heaven if our heart is humbled. For we call our body and soul the sides of the ladder, and into these sides our divine vocation has inserted the different steps of humility and discipline we must climb.” (from The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 7, The Liturgical Press, 1982)

To his voice, let us add the voice of St. Bernard:

“What is that container into which grace chooses to pour itself? If trust has been made to receive mercy and patience to garner justice, what is the vessel we might put forward as apt to receive grace? A very pure ointment is concerned here, which requires a very sturdy container. Now what is more pure or more sturdy than humility of heart? That is why God ‘gives grace to the humble,’ (Jas 4.6; cf Prv 3.34; Jb 22.29); that is why it is entirely right he should have ‘looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness,’ (Lk 1.48). Right, because a humble heart does not allow itself to be preoccupied by human worth and because the fullness of grace can be poured  into it all the more freely…

Did you observe the Pharisee at prayer? He was neither thief, nor dishonest, nor an adulterer. Nor did he neglect to do penance. He fasted twice a week, he gave tithes of all he possessed… But he was not empty of himself; he had not stripped himself of himself (Phil 2.7); he was not humble but, rather, puffed up. That is to say, he was unconcerned to know what it was he still lacked but overestimated his worth; he was not full but puffed up. And so he went away empty for having put on a show of being full. The publican, on the other hand, because he humbled himself and took care to present himself like an empty vessel, could carry away with him an even more abundant grace.” (St.  Bernard (1091-1153), Sermon 3 on the Annunciation, 9-10)

James 4.6-9[6] But he gives more grace; therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”  [7] Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.
[8] Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you men of double mind.
[9] Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to dejection.
[10] Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you.

1 Peter 5.5-6 [5] Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
[6] Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you.

Philippians 2.5-11 [5] Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,
[6] who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
[7] but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.
[8] And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
[9] Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name,
[10] that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
[11] and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

The fourth “how” is mercy. God has shown mercy toward us; let us show His mercy toward others. Let mercy fill our Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

“My dear brethren, today we set out on the great Lenten journey. So let us take our food and drink along in our boat, putting onto the chest the abundant mercy we shall need. For our fasting is a hungry one, our fasting is a thirsty one if it isn’t sustained by goodness and refreshed by mercy. Our fasting will be cold, our fasting will flag if the fleece of almsgiving doesn’t clothe it, if the garment of compassion does not wrap it around.

Brethren, what spring is for the land, mercy is for fasting: the soft, spring winds cause all the buds on the plains to flower; the mercy of our fast causes all our seeds to grow until they blossom and bear fruit for the heavenly harvest. What oil is to the lamp, goodness is to our fast. As the oily fat sets the lamp alight and, in spite of so little to feed it, keeps it burning to our comfort all night long, so goodness makes our fasting shine: it casts its beams until it reaches the full brightness of self-restraint. What the sun is to the day, almsgiving is to our fast: the sun’s splendor increases the light of day, breaking through the dullness of the clouds; almsgiving together with fasting sanctifies its holiness and, thanks to the light of goodness, dispels from our desires anything that could petrify. In short, what the body is for the soul, generosity acts similarly for the fast: when the soul leaves the body it brings about death; if generosity abandons the fast, it is its death.” (Saint Peter Chrysologus [c.406-450], Sermon 8 – CCL 24, 59 ; PL 52, 208)

Matthew 5.7 [7] “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”

The fifth “how” is perseverance. I know what is like to begin and run out of steam. It is incredibly disappointing. We need to finish the race. We need to go the distance. Regularity and consistency are crucial if we desire to cross the finish line. But that is easier said than done. Experience has taught me to not trust even my most zealous resolutions.

You and I need the grace of the Holy Spirit – the very energy of God’s life. Apart from Him, we will grow weary and fail to finish. Let us count the cost and cry out to God for strength, knowing that no matter how carefully we plan and how hard we try we will never finish without the energy of God’s life in us. We need to settle it in our inner being – mind and heart – that the cost counting and price paying we must engage in is the distrust of our own strength and capabilities.  

Isaiah 40.28-31 [28] Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary,
his understanding is unsearchable.
[29] He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
[30] Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
[31] but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

Hebrews 12.1-6 [1] Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,
[2] looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
[3] Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.
[4] In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.
[5] And have you forgotten the exhortation which addresses you as sons? — “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor lose courage when you are punished by him.
[6] For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.”

Galatians 6.7-9 [7] Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.
[8] For he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.
[9] And let us not grow weary in well-doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart.

Philippians 3.7-14 [7] But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.
[8] Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ
[9] and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith;
[10] that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,
[11] that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
[12] Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.
[13] Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,
[14] I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

If our salvation is a journey, then Lent must be a journey. The journey through death to resurrection. Let us embark on this journey. The doors of repentance that lead to forgiveness, restoration, healing, and freedom have been opened. Let us cross over the threshold together.

Fr. Thomas

The Grain of Wheat

The Greeks (all men and women) seek wisdom, St. Paul said.

1 Corinthians 1.18-25

[18] For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
[19] For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart.”
[20] Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?
[21] For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.
[22] For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom,
[23] but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles,
[24] but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
[25] For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

T.S. Eliot reminds us that the wisdom the world offers to the desiring Greek has a destination — futility and a return to the dust.

The Eagle soars in the summit of Heaven,
The Hunter with his dogs pursues his circuit.
O perpetual revolution of configured stars,
O perpetual recurrence of determined seasons,
O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying!
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust. (“Choruses from The Rock”, T.S. Eliot)

The wisdom Jesus offers is a life poured out on behalf of others without measure and without conditions to the glory of God the Father. It also has a destination — fulfillment and a divine-human ascent to glory. 

John 12.20-32

[20] Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks.

Sheaves of Wheat in a Field - Van Gogh

[21] So these came to Philip, who was from Beth-sa’ida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”
[22] Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew went with Philip and they told Jesus.
[23] And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified.
[24] Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
[25] He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
[26] If any one serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also; if any one serves me, the Father will honor him.
[27] “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? `Father, save me from this hour’? No, for this purpose I have come to this hour.
[28] Father, glorify thy name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”
[29] The crowd standing by heard it and said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.”
[30] Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine.
[31] Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out;
[32] and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.”

It is this “poured out life” that is truly meaningful and fruitful. It is abundant life exquisitely defined and displayed.

What might such a life look like on an everyday basis?

Today I read a story of just such an example. The author told the story in a simple and deeply moving way. I was deeply touched and encouraged. He offered a poignant example and reminder that the love of Christ CAN be expressed in practical ways through the frail, yet strong, vessel of human life that was designed and fashioned by God for such a purpose and action.

The blog post can be read here. I hope you are as deeply touched and nourished as I was by the story.

Fr. Thomas