Monday, July 29, 2013

Lead Us Not Into Temptation, But...

I have always been bothered by the "but" in the Lord's Prayer. I have wanted to say, "and deliver us from the evil one." However, the "but" is firmly fixed in the original. We are told to pray this way, to ask the Father not to lead us into temptation--with one exception. Temptation might be necessary to deliver us from the evil one.

It has been said by some of the Church Fathers that all vices, all sins, are not equal. Some sins are of the flesh. They are manifestations of the animal nature out of control, of natural desires run amok. Examples of these sorts of sins are gluttony, thievery, fornication and even anger and murder. These are sins, and they are certainly evidence of spiritual sickness, but they are sins of the flesh. If they are not attended to, they can cause serious problems in one's relationship with God (and others), but they are not the worst sins.

The worst sins are the demonic sins. Demons don't eat or fornicate, steal things or even murder (directly), but they are full of pride, hatred of God, vanity, envy and self esteem (that is, they think too highly of themselves). These are some of the demonic sins, and perhaps these are the kind of "spiritual" sins that sometimes require a fall for us to recognize in ourselves. Perhaps sometimes a fall in the flesh is just the thing needed to make clear to us that we have nothing to be proud of, and that our vain presenting of ourselves and our high self esteem are nothing more than play acting, thin veneer over rotted wood. After all, Jesus came to save sinners, and if we cannot see the sin in our heart, perhaps we need to see it in our flesh to learn that it has really been in our heart all along.

Even if we look at how things played out in the Garden of Eden, we can see that the fall into a sin of the flesh makes evident and perhaps even saves Eve and Adam from a deeper, demonic sin. Before Eve is tempted by the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, before she "saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise," before this happened, Eve had engaged in a demonic conversation with the evil one. Eve had begun to question God's love, to doubt God's word; she had begun to entertain a demonic thought: the thought that one could be like God without God. In a sense, the temptation and fall into gluttony (and it's consequences) make evident to Eve and Adam the certainty that God indeed loves them, keeps His word, and that God Himself is the only pathway to growth in godlikeness. The sin of the flesh makes evident the sin in the heart.

I say the Lord's Prayer with trepidation. I strive to examine myself, to see the poverty of my spirit, the hunger of my soul for righteousness (one is hungry for what one doesn't have). How easily I engage the evil one in conversation. How easily, like my first mother Eve, I doubt God's word and God's love. How easily I begin to think I've got this or that person or situation figured out. But I don't. My sins make that evident to me. But when I am aware of my sins and my sinful tendency, the passions that rage in my mind and body, then I pray in peace. It's an irony. It's the divine irony. Jesus came to save sinners, and seeing my sin, I am delivered from it. When I am not acutely aware of my weakness, however, that's when I fall into it.

O Lord, lead us not into temptation, but....

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Experiencing Houston

I went to a Houston Astros baseball game.  Foot-long chilli-cheese dog with all the toppings and a Miller-Lite.
They have mounted police officers riding down the middle of the busy downtown streets.  Here's one giving someone a ticket.

Row after row of Church "Supplies"  Anyone need a $300. censer?

The morning Bible studies are led by Bishop Anthony, and they are worth the whole trip.  He has been speaking Prophet, Priest and King theme from creation, through the Old Testament, King David, Christ, and in the Church today.  I have been very encouraged by his talks.  The daily Liturgy has also been prayerful and peaceful.  The big clergy meeting was without fireworks (a gift from above). Tomorrow is the general assembly, then home and no more trips for a long time.  

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

All Is Grace

I'm taking a mini-vacation with Bonnie at the Franklin house in Vernon, BC.  I'm up here to celebrate a Liturgy for a few families who live in the area, but staying with the Franklins is always like being on vacation.  

Last time I was here, I started one of Kim's books, "All is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day," by Jim Forest.  This visit, I hope to finish it.  

Dorothy Day was the founder of the Catholic Worker magazine and the Christian social activism that is associated with that magazine.  Nowadays, many consider Dorothy a saint, but for most of her life she was generally considered a trouble maker or basically ignored by both church and government.  Her work for the poor flew largely under everyone's radar.  Her voice calling for pacifism (even during the Second World War and the Cold War that followed) was too small to be anything but slightly annoying to the powerful, and her devout Roman Catholic faith combined with her intense practical and political concern for the disenfranchised was a nonsequitor in an America that equated (and largely still equates) religious devotion with political conservatism.  

What has impressed me most about her life was how mundane her saintliness was.  She continually loved difficult people.  Loving difficult people can only be done by human choice and divine Grace.  Love, for Dorothy, was a command of Jesus, something to be obeyed.  She loved until she couldn't take it any more, and then would retreat for a few days, only to return and love some more.  And those difficult ones she loved were not necessarily the street people and disenfranchised.  The difficult ones to love were often her volunteers, coworkers and all those many who had a better idea, a different perspective, or a better insight.

I told someone today that I do not have two percent of the love and commitment to Christ and neighbor as was manifest in Dorothy Day's life.  May Holy Dorothy pray for us sinners.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Pain into Love

Someone wrote me recently about a problem he was having.  He often felt invisible.  He didn't mean that people couldn't see him, he meant that people wouldn't see him.  The example he gave was at a church coffee hour.  He was talking to someone and another person came up and started talking to the person he was talking to as though he were not there at all.  Apparently, that happens to him often and it bothers him.  This is what I wrote back.

There seems to be two issues here—at least two that I recognize and can address.
First is the general lack of manners common in a church setting.  I'm certainly not Mr. Manners.  I perform many a social faux pas.  Nevertheless, it seems many people treat others as invisible unless they are "important" to them at that moment.  It's just basic rudeness.  At Holy Nativity I am important, so everyone notices me; but in other settings (with lots of priests), I am a nobody, so I am often ignored—especially if I do not have anything to contribute to the conversation.  I hate small talk, I'm terrible at it.  I talk about what is important or not at all.  I say what I think about the topic under discussion—except when I suspect that my contribution will cause more headache (to me or others) than blessing; then when I am done, I say nothing.  I often just say nothing.  I just stand there until I can graciously escape.  

The second issue is your discomfort with being invisible.  Actually, it is an answer to prayer.  God is giving you a chance to look for the outcast and lonely.  When we feel left out, that is a signal to us that others need us and we must find them.  I suggest that you let that feeling of rejection or loneliness or invisibleness (however you feel it) be a kind of guide to help you find and engage others whom you suspect might be having similar feelings.  Look around the room: Who is sitting by him/her self, who is on the edge of a group but not participating, who looks like they are feeling awkward.  Go to them and be friendly—mostly listen because that is a huge gift to others.  That's how you help others feel "normal."  Even when you don't feel quite right, you can give to others the gift of feeling OK about themselves.  

Be at peace.  There is nothing wrong with you.  We just live in a rude age, and you (and I) are still learning how to turn the discomfort (or even pain) you (and I) experience into love.  This is an essential Christian calling.  Our bodies and our whole lives are great transformers.  Like Christ, we take the rejection and pain that the world gives us and use it to help us attend to those suffering around us. Thus pain is transformed into love.  Death becomes Resurrection.  Sin becomes Grace.  What else could it mean to be the Body of Christ except to do and be what He did and was in the world?

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Turning The Four Spiritual Laws On Their Head

Like many who came to Christ in the days of the Jesus Movement, I was taught and came to believe that the Gospel was summarized by the Four Spiritual Laws.  These laws in order are the following:
1) God Loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life
2) You and all humanity have sinned and turned your back on God
3) God sent His Son, Jesus, to make a way back to God through the cross
4) If you accept Jesus as your personal saviour, you will be saved
There are many slightly different versions of this, but basically they all begin with acknowledging that one is a sinner and separated from God, and end with some kind of acceptance of Christ accompanied by assurance of salvation. 

But what if we got this backwards?

What if, as in the life of St. Paul, we begin with encountering Christ and becoming assured of our salvation, and then grow to accept and know the depth of our sin?  Before St. Paul encounters Christ, he describes himself as righteous concerning the Law.  It is only later in his life that he comes to see himself as the chief of sinners.  

I think many devout Evangelical Christians who have been raised in the theological paradigm summarized by the Four Spiritual Laws find their actual experience in Christ to be quite different from what their theology tells them it should be.  Instead of becoming more sure of their salvation as they grow in Christ, they become more aware of their weakness, failure and inability to love and serve Christ and neighbour as they genuinely desire.  Burnout, depression, moral failure, and just plain giving up are the inevitable outcomes.  

In The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death, Fr. John Behr lays out an ancient Orthodox theology that turns the Four Spiritual Laws on its head.  I am still trying to wrap my head around what Fr. John is saying.  I can’t begin to summarize it at this point.  However, based on his lectures at the Parish Life Conference and the preface and first chapter of The Mystery of Christ, I am coming to see that perhaps it is normal to grow in the knowledge of one’s weakness.  Isn’t it St. Paul who states again and again “when I am weak, then I am strong”?  

In fact, I think it is not only normal to become more aware of one’s deep wretchedness as one continues in the Christian way, but it is the evidence par excellence that one is growing in Christ.  As I know more acutely the depths of my sin, I know also more intimately the heights of God’s love.  As the Grace of God shines more brightly, my darkness becomes more evident in contrast.  And although I might easily acknowledge the truth of such aphorisms, that I experience such darkness and sin in myself always seems to surprise me.  “Shouldn’t I be beyond this by now?  Shouldn’t I have outgrown this?  Haven’t I striven hard enough for Christ?” [This last thought leads many into burnout].

But what if we begin with assurance.  What if we begin with Baptism: we die with Christ and are raised in Him.  Christ died for the sins of the whole world--even the sins hidden deep within me that I will only come to know well after years and years of devotion to Christ.  I regularly eat and drink the Body and Blood of Christ.  This is where we begin.  Then as we grow in Christ, we come to know the heights of Christ’s love and forgiveness as we come to know ourselves better.  We need not fear our weakness, looking it in the face, admitting its power.  Christ’s love has already made us one of His Beloved.  We are already in the Church, by Grace, through Baptism and Holy Communion (and all of the other Divine Mysteries).  And because we are safely in the Church, we can see our weakness for what it is and cry out “Lord Have Mercy!”  We can confess our sin, our weakness, our doubts, and our struggles.  We can accept that we with the Apostle are the chief of sinners.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Asperger's, Compassion, and Pain

I'm waiting at the John Wayne airport. So many people. So many stories.  
I'm reading "Look Me In The Eye," a memoir by John Elder Robinson, a man with Asperger's syndrome.  My grandson apparently has Aspergers.  My daughter read it and said it helped her understand better what may be going on in her son's head.  
David is a great kid. We spent the day at Knott's Berry Farm (amusement park) riding roller coasters together. He gets lost in his own head a little bit sometimes and is socially awkward--but it seems to me that he is no stranger than I was as a kid.  I was often lost in my own reality.  It took lot's of life experience (pain and disappointment) to finally figure out what I was expected to do and say--and not do and not say. I still mostly feel like I'm faking it.  
However, unlike people with Asperger's, I have never been very interested in machines or math or music. Maybe I never got much of a chance. My unique weirdness--at least I was continually told it was weird and believed it was weird--was that I was emotionally sensitive. I cry embarrassingly easily.  
This sensitivity got me in lots of trouble with my military dad. The memory of his anger with me for crying through Lassie Come Home has never left me. Still today, I feel other people's pain so easily. When I'm hearing confession, I sometimes cry more than the one confessing.  
This emotional sensitivity has also gotten me in lots of trouble as an adult. It seems that I am cursed always to see and sympathize with all sides of an issue. On the one hand, I recognize that gay marriage is not the right way for society to help those who experience homosexual thoughts and feelings. On the other hand, I understand how those who feel this way would interpret gay marriage as a civil rights issue. I often find myself an outcast in all camps: like a Christian Palestinian, hated by Israel because I am an Arab, and hated by many Arabs because I am a Christian. I'm too liberal to be a conservative and too conservative to be a liberal. I identify with fundamentalists and unbelievers. The pain of one feels just like the pain of the other. I wonder if the angels can tell the difference between the tears of a lost and confused homosexual atheist and the tears of a lost and confused heterosexual Orthodox Christian? God knows. I can't seem to tell the difference.
Please don't misunderstand me. I am a devout Orthodox Christian. I believe all that the Church teaches. My problem is compassion--suffering-with. How am I, how are we, called to suffer with the world?  How do I, how do we, speak the truth with a heart full of co-suffering pain?  
As usual, I have no answers. I'm pretty sure that politics (left or right or middle) is not the answer. I'm also pretty sure that "it doesn't really matter" is not a good way to deal with sin. It does really matter, both in this life and the Life to come. Ancient wisdom became ancient wisdom because, well, it has proven to be wise for a long time. At the same time, I am pretty sure that being merely right is not the answer. The Pharisees were right.  Being right gives you just enough confidence to crucify Christ--and feel good about it.       
So pray for me. Pray for everyone. Christ is the answer. Pray that we can truly be the Body of Christ, that we can truly be an answer to those who hurt around us.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

What Weapons Has God Given The Church?

The topic of the Parish Life Conference this year was the Last Judgement.  The key note speaker was Fr. John Behr, Dean of St. Vladimir's seminary.  His lectures were excellent.  I can't even begin to summarize it.  As soon as the recordings are available I will let you know.  
The other hot topic of the convention, especially during the clergy meetings, was the U.S. Supreme Court's legalization of same-sex marriage.  The most vocal response to the matter was arguing for a political battle: Protests in Washington D.C. and strongly worded public statements.  This vocal group used lots of violence-laden language: "We have to fight for"... "the battle is about"... "we have to make our voice heard"... etc.  I must admit I was somewhat shell shocked (to continue in the battlefield metaphors).  I was confused.  My heart was breaking.  "Was this the weapon of peace?" I asked myself.  I could imagine a few hundred Orthodox clergy marching in a rally of thousands, only to have all of the media outlets quote the most outrageous gay-bashers in the group, but show only the Orthodox clergy in their TV footage.  
I wondered if I were alone in my feelings, but during the week, other clergy shared with me their reticence.  No one I spoke to thought same-sex marriage was a good thing.  However, some, like me, felt that an aggressive political response was only a recipe for misunderstanding and almost certainly guaranteed to alienate the very people whom only the Church can help.   
I don't know what the Church should do to respond to this new political reality.  I don't know what the Church should do except what Christ has called the Church always to do: to pray, serve, love, and speak the truth.  These seem to be the tools God has given the Church.  If the prophets of the Old Testament are any guide to us today, perhaps it is because the Church has not done very well what it is called to do that we are in the messy moral and political situation we find ourselves in.  Perhaps the best response is not to fight fire with fire.  Perhaps the best response is to return to our calling, to repent ourselves, and to funnel all of this indignant energy into a renewed emphasis on prayer, self-sacrifice and love of neighbour.  
May God help us find the right way through the darkness. 

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Societal Salvation

After my sober comments yesterday, I think some may wonder why they should work at all toward justice and goodness in this world.  Of course we should do all we can to promote justice, health, and moral and political sanity.  However, more important than what we work for is how we work.

In this world, there is very little clear vision.  One pious person's vision of a just society may differ radically from another's.  We may drink the Blood of Christ from the same Chalice, but when it comes to politics, have very different views.  We are all quite blind.

However, when we love those who disagree with us, we are beginning to manifest the justice "from above."  A great deal can be accomplished in this world, but it is not by everyone having the same opinions or the same politics.  Genuine societal change happens when we listen to those we disagree with, when we refuse to demonize our enemy.

Life in this world sucks, but the Kingdom God is manifest in and through us who live in this world. 

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

What Are You Looking For?

I made it to Orange County. The hotel is filling up with the clergy of churches from Arizona to Alaska. Lots of hugs. Lots of how's it going? One such greeting got me thinking.

When I asked how the Church he serves is doing, this clergyman responded with a knowing nod, "Well, you know, the devil never sleeps."  I don't know, so I smiled knowingly but said nothing.
It seems to me that, while the devil never sleeps, the Holy Spirit also never sleeps.  I guess it depends a great deal on what one is looking for.  "Where sin abounds," St. Paul said, "there does Grace much more abound." Or as I sometimes put it (albeit often with more earthly language), where the manure is piled highest, the garden grows best.
A monk friend of mine shared with me some of the principles that his spiritual father taught him. The first principle is: life sucks. What he meant by that is that so long as we are looking for justice, equity, fairness, health, faithfulness or love in this world, we will be disappointed. This disappointment is the manure.
However, where sin abounds....  When human beings are faithless, God is faithful. Where life is unfair, God's Grace is abundant. Joy is found in sorrow, Bright Sorrow it is often called in the Church. Mercy is found where you don't expect it. It all depends on what you are looking for, because once you accept that the bad news (often terribly bad news) is kind of like backgrond noise, then you see the Good News shining brightly through. The bright flowers of Grace and fruit of Life growing in the parts of the garden most fertilized by death.
We live in a broken world, a broken world inhabited by broken people, broken people made in the image of God, broken people who can still shine with the Grace of the Holy Spirit when you least expect it.  It all depends on what you are looking for.