Friday, February 28, 2014

How Do I Become Poor In Spirit?

Recently one of my parishioners wrote to me asking the following question. With her permission, I’d like to share with you the question and my response because I think it is a question that many of us ask at various seasons of our lives.
She wrote: 
I've been wondering how to become poor in spirit. I seem to swing between pride and hopeless self-criticism and negativity. I want to know myself and see myself honestly - see all the many ways that I am a mess, but usually I don't. Rather than recognizing those things, I either think of them as strengths and pridefully embrace them, or I see them as weakness and beat myself up over them thinking (again pridefully) that I could and ought to fix them myself. How can I be real and humble in my brokenness, before God?
Sometimes, when I recognize certain sins, I say 'Lord, have mercy' or 'God, I am a mess, but I am your mess' ... but it doesn't come as readily as I would like it to. Often I don't recognize my sin (e.g., anger) when I am in the middle of it. Or I don't want to stop being angry.
I want - or I think I want - my sin to 'always be before my eyes' (or however it says it in the Psalms - I'm sure I'm misquoting). How can I get there?
This is approximately my response:
Hopeless self-criticism is only pride in different clothing. Someone who is poor in spirit accepts who they are. Getting to this place, however, for some Protestant converts often is experienced as a kind of see-saw. This is because most Protestants have inbred in them a theology that God loves and accepts them when they are good--i.e. first you repent (change) then God loves and accepts you. 

It takes a long time to reorient oneself in the Church. God's love and acceptance never, ever, ever, ever changes because God never changes. We only hurt ourselves and create obstacles in ourselves when we misbehave. For many people, sin functions a lot like a stress induced headache. The more you think about how to fix the headache, the worse the headache gets. Actually, asthma also functions that way in some people (like me for example). For me, the trick was to teach myself not to become anxious when I felt an asthma attack coming on. I had to accept that this undesired phenomenon was happening to me and peacefully put myself in a situation away from what seemed to be causing the irritation and where I could calmly focus on relaxing and breathing regularly until the worst of the asthma attack passed.

In the same way, some sins sneak up on us and take us by surprise. Sometimes we are well into "sinning" before we realize what we are doing. When that happens, when we realize that we are in the middle of sinning (in the way we are thinking or talking or acting), then we must calmly and peacefully withdraw as much as we can from the situation (even if the withdraw is merely to stop talking or to busy ourselves with other things). We do not need to become angry with ourselves--it doesn't help. We need merely to recognize that we are poor, sick, and spiritually lame. We can pray, Lord have mercy.  

However, for some, Protestant training has taught them that sin is a choice, in the same way that making a left or a right turn is a choice. But sin is very seldom that way. Those who do not want to sin are most often tricked into it (you might say) by mechanisms that are mostly subconscious. Learning to recognize those mechanisms in ourselves is a life-long process.

And while we are learning, we must never despair of the love of God. In fact, it is God Himself, the Holy Spirit within us, that is enabling us to see our sin. Were it not for the Love of God and the Grace of God already at work in us, we wouldn't even notice that we sin. So that you notice is evidence of God's love for you.

Humility, or poverty of spirit, requires that we hold these two things in our heart at the same time: on the one hand, God's unchanging and unfailing love and acceptance; and on the other hand, our chronic sickness which will not be fully healed until the age to come. And this sickness is sin. 
Spiritual disciplines, loosely categorized under the three headings of Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving, help us learn to manage this sickness and to begin to see its root in ourselves. This helps us recognize the development or evolution of sin within ourselves while it is still just a thought and learn to deal with it there, in our minds and hearts, before it becomes a determined thought effecting our feelings, words and actions. But just like any disciplines that can bear good fruit in our lives, spiritual disciplines require practice over time and bear fruit slowly.

So, to return you your original question, "how can I become poor in spirit," you become poor in spirit by owning your poverty without despairing of God's love and acceptance. But this will require time and a certain amount of retraining yourself not to think of your sins merely as failures of choice (failures you could remedy if you worked harder); but rather to think of your sins as manifestations of a deeper sickness that you are just beginning to learn how to manage.

People who get type 1 diabetes as teenagers have to learn to pay attention to their bodies. They cannot get mad at themselves for feeling dizzy. They have to learn to recognize imbalance in their system and what to do about it before it becomes dizziness. Similarly, through prayer, confession, and other spiritual disciplines, we begin to recognize in our souls the beginning of sin and through experience learn what to do to "nip it in the bud." The fruit of this growing understanding and inner work of "nipping in the bud" (aka repentance) is the beatitudes, or the fruit of the Spirit.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

What To Do About Corruption In The Church

In the Orthodox Church, when someone moves from one parish to another, it is expected that he will bring a letter from the priest or bishop of the former parish introducing him and assuring the priest or bishop in the new parish that he is an Orthodox Christian in good standing. Although this practice is often overlooked by the laity nowadays, it is a practice still strictly adhered to by clergy. This is an ancient practice. In fact, many of the letters (epistles) of the New Testament were originally written for this very purpose: to introduce someone to a new community, sending greetings from the leader of the former community, and assuring the new leader that the bearer of the letter is a faithful Orthodox believer. St. John’s third epistle is the simplest example of this kind of letter in the New Testament and, like all of the epistles, provides wonderful insight into the real-life problems that the Church had to deal with at the time—problems just like the ones the Church faces today.

St. John’s third epistle is written to Gaius, who is one of the leaders of the Church in a certain area (probably a home church leader). The letter begins with St. John praying for Gaius and then encouraging him in the good work of helping both brethren and strangers, and particularly those whom we might today call missionaries: those who “went forth for His Name’s sake, taking nothing from the Gentiles.” St. John commends Gaius because he sends “them forward on their journeys in a manner worthy of God.” In other words, Gaius treats those who come to him as though they were God, as Jesus Christ Himself, giving them concrete physical assistance (food, money, shelter, etc.) as best as he was able. Of this activity of materially helping those who “go forth for His Name’s sake," St. John says that doing so makes one a fellow worker in the Truth. [I find it interesting, by the way, that St. John is assuming a norm in which, although only a few actually go out preaching, those who support the one’s “going forth,” become fellow workers. Thus, without those who stay home and work, it would not be possible for those called to go forth to do so. The proclamation of the Gospel is a team effort.]

Towards the end of the letter, St. John recommends the one who is carrying it, Demetrius. He is a man with a good testimony. Finally, St. John gives some farewell greetings.  It is the middle part of the letter, however, that I want to focus on today. In this part, St. John speaks of a problem in the larger Churches in the area where Gaius lives. One of the leaders of the Church in that area, Diotrephes, is someone who loves to be first. Diotrephes sees himself as the leader of the leaders and will not accept or give hospitality to those whom St. John sends. In His letter, St. John says, “I wrote to the Church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us.” In fact, in his position as preeminent among the leaders of the Church in his area, Diotrephes has gone so far as to excommunicate some who, like Gaius, continue to receive those whom St. John sends even though Diotrephes doesn’t.

What a messy problem to have in the Church: a leader, perhaps a bishop, who loves being preeminent so much that he refuses to show hospitality to those who come to him, even those bearing a letter from the Apostle John, the Beloved Apostle, himself. And even worse, throwing his authority around, he excommunicates those who do show hospitality to those who come from the Apostle. What a terrible situation for any Church to find itself in: to have an overbearing bishop, throwing his weight around, excommunicating those who disagree with him and refusing to accept apostolic authority. You might think such a letter was written in our time, but it wasn’t. It was written in the first century, while the Apostle John was still living—in fact, he writes the letter!

So what are we to do when we encounter such corruption in the the Church? Should we protest? Should we just leave the Church? Should we post all of our accusations on the internet? What does St. John recommend? St. John says that he, himself, will come and deal with Diotrephes. But what should Gaius do in the mean time? St. John gives Gaius these instructions: “Do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. He who does good is of God, but he who does evil has not seen God.” That’s it. Those are the instructions.  

I often meet devout Orthodox believers who are distraught by the corruption, immorality, arrogance or greed that is occasionally encountered here or there in the Orthodox Church, as though brokenness should not be found in the True Church. However, St. John’s letter to Gaius (as do the letters of St. Paul and St. Peter) make it abundantly clear to us that sexual immorality, greed, arrogance and corruption of all sorts has been present in the Church even from its earliest days. Why should we be surprised? Do we think that we should be or are any better than they were?

What did Jesus say about this matter? He said that the Kingdom of God was like a farmer who sowed good seed, but while he was sleeping, an enemy came and sowed tares. The wheat and the tares, Jesus says, are allowed to grow up together in the same field. They are not separated except by the angels at the End of the Age. Of course there is corruption in the Church—Jesus told us it would be this way. “Offences must come,” Jesus said, “but woe to the one through which they come.” I think we often drive ourselves to distraction asking the wrong question. We want to know why God allows such tares to grow among the wheat, why God allows those who offend to come to positions of authority in the Church? Jesus does not tell us why—at least not directly. Rather than asking why, the question we need to be asking, and the question St. John answers for Gaius is this: What should we do when we are confronted by worldly behaviour in the Church?

St. John tells Gaius, and us, that we are to imitate what is good and not imitate what is evil.

He does not tell us to judge or condemn. He does not tell us to protest or leave the Church. He tells us to imitate what is good, not what is evil. Now this does not mean that we should not speak the truth. We should never call evil, good. We should always communicate our concerns to our clergy—whether or not they listen is another matter. And there are also canonically established ways of dealing with corruption in the Church. Certainly, these should be followed, even though the processes are generally painfully slow and sometimes unresponsive. I am not saying that we should be silent. I am saying what the Apostle is saying: we should imitate what is good, not what is evil.  

In St. John's first letter, he tells us not to love the world.  Unfortunately, many of us have the false notion that “the world” refers to something outside ourselves, as though the world were something “out there.” No, St. John makes it clear by describing what He means by “in the world” - that the world is inside each one of us. He says, “All that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” All of these things reside in each person.  Each person must struggle within his or herself not to be of the world.  

Why do I bring this up?  I bring it up because it is very common when we see weakness and corruption in those whom we had expected to be pillars of morality and virtue, to begin pointing fingers. “There’s the problem,” we say. “Something must be done about it,” we demand. And in our zeal to eradicate the bit of the world we see manifest in someone else in the Church, we ourselves fall prey to worldly attitudes and actions ourselves. Instead of imitating good, we end up imitating evil. We lose our peace; we become angry and fight; we resort to political and deceptive means to gain a supposedly good end. “Brothers and Sisters, this ought not to be!” to borrow the words of St. Paul.

If I cannot speak the truth without becoming angry, then I need to keep my mouth shut. If I am so disturbed that I cannot pray, then I need to reexamine my faith. Do I really believe in God or not? Is Christ the Head of the Church or not? Do I believe the Gospel—the very words of Jesus telling me that it would be this way—or not? If Jesus told us that impostors would come, if St. John said that many antichrists have already come, and if St. Paul told us that in the last days perilous times would come for men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers…rather than lovers of God, if we are warned so many times, why then are we still so surprised. Do we think God doesn’t see what’s going on?

I have a theory about why we are so easily offended by the failings of others that is based on my own inner experience. I don’t know what happens in others, but I notice in myself a certain phenomenon. When I am offended by worldly behaviour manifested by others, I am not paying attention to the worldly impulses in myself. And the more I focus on the brokenness of others, the more depression or anger and less peace I experience. I can become almost fixated on the evil in someone else that is so offensive, that I fail to focus on the evil in my own heart and my own repentance. And thus, perhaps, being offended becomes a distraction that keeps me from repentance and peaceful prayer, and keeps me from imitating what is good.

It is always painful when those we trust fail, when those who should know better, obviously don’t. Jesus doesn’t tell us why it is this way, why it is that men after God’s own heart, like King David, turn into murderous adulterers. Nor does God tell us why some, like David, find repentance and others apparently do not. But what are we told?  We are told that it will be this way, that tares will grow along with the wheat, that false apostles and false brethren will be among us. And we are told what we should do when we, like Gaius of old, encounter corruption in the Church: above all else, we are to imitate what is good, not what is evil.  We are to attend to the salvation of our soul, not using offence of any kind as an excuse to imitate what is evil.

I’d like to end with a saying of the desert fathers. I don’t remember which father said this, but the saying goes something like this. “You shouldn’t be paying attention to the funeral at your neighbour’s house when there is a corpse in your own living room.”  

The True Church is a Church full of men and women striving for salvation, and men and women who are not, and men and women who are wavering between the two. Following St. John’s advice, let’s strive for our own salvation imitating what is good even when others do not seem to be doing the same. It is, after all, Christ’s Church; and he knows better than we do how to care for it.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Spiritual Swords

Every morning at the end of matins, the Church prays the last three Psalms of the Psalter, which include the following verses.  

Psalm 149:6-9 Let the high praises of God be in their mouth, And a two-edged sword in their hand, To execute vengeance on the nations, And punishments on the peoples; To bind their kings with chains, And their nobles with fetters of iron; To execute on them the written judgment—This honour have all His saints. Praise the Lord! 

How are Christians to understand these verses?  Almost certainly they were originally written to be read literally. In the Old Covenant, resurrection had not yet been revealed except in the vaguest types and shadows. With the exception of a few prophets and holy men and women, the promise of God was understood exclusively as a promise of land--land taken away from the ungodly by the force of arms. The blessing of God was understood exclusively in terms of abundant harvests, secure borders, long life and many children. Death was the end: "For in death who can praise you?" the Psalmist asks.   

However, in Christ all of this changes. The Church reads the Old Testament in the light of Christ, or through the lens of Christ's life, teaching, death and resurrection. In my Protestant days, we sometimes referred derisively to this Christ-ized reading of the biblical text as "spiritualizing the text." We thought that reading the Old Testament this way was a kind of bastardization of the text--a sort of free-for-all that made room for anyone to imagine the text to mean anything they wanted it to mean. Yet even pre-Christian Jews in their interpretation of the Old Testament texts often spiritualized their readings, and from the earliest days of the Christian reading of the Old Testament--heck, throughout the entire New Testament itself--the Old Testament is Christ-ized.  As Jesus says to the Pharisees, "You search the scriptures because in them you think you will find eternal life, but it is these that speak of me." 

So, to return to the Psalm that we pray every morning, how do we understand the two-edged sword in the hand of God's holy ones executing vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples?  I do not pretend to speak for the whole Church, but it seems to me that one way these verses can be understood within the Orthodox Christian Tradition is the following.

In the light of Christ's teaching, life, death, resurrection and the experience of Christians from the beginning, it seems obvious to me that the blessing of God is not to be understood in terms of material blessing. Blessed are you poor, Jesus says in Luke's Gospel. Similarly, if the blessings of the Kingdom of God are not material, neither then are its judgements: the vengeance and the punishments.  

Many of the hymns of the Church speak of the martyrs putting to flight the demons and defeating the tyrants by not being terrified of fire or sword. In these hymns, we have an interesting play on both the spiritual (Christ-ized)  and literal use of military language. The martyrs (in a spiritual sense) put to flight the demons and defeated the tyrants by not being terrified of (literal) fire and sword. For the martyrs, the Kingdom of God had become so real that spiritual reality was substantial, was really real, while the temporal reality was like a dream, a vision that passes away. 

And so in the martyrs, the demons are put to flight in their attempt to drive the saints out of the "land" of their spiritual inheritance, which is manifest in them as the knowledge of a reality that transcends the temporal, and that judges the temporal. That is, the demons through the fear of death cannot drive the saints to abandon what they have come to know of the Age to Come.  For the saints, all that is right and true of the temporal age gets its alignment from the Kingdom of God which in now known only (or primarily) through inner perception. Those wielding the weapons of this age, in their attempt to control and manipulate those whose hearts are anchored in the Kingdom of Heaven, are put to flight because temporal sufferings cannot dislodge the certain inner knowledge of the Kingdom of God. And this is the judgement on those who wield temporal power.  

Christ tells us that in the Age to Come, the Apostles will sit on twelve thrones judging Israel (the people of God, specifically and perhaps all mankind, generally). But how will this judgement take place? It will not be like the judges of this temporal age who refer to books and laws and do their best to determine how much one did or didn't deviate from what was written. No, not at all. The judgement of the age to come will not be like that at all. Yes, the books will be opened, but only to reveal what has been actual and true for every living thing--nothing will be hidden. 

The judgement itself, however, will not require books. The judgement will be the judgement of a plumbline, as the prophets of the Old Testament say. Our own conscience will be the prosecutor--nothing will be hidden, not even from ourselves. In that moment, we will see the Apostles and all of those who in this life did not fear death in its various forms, and then we will know that they are the true ones, while we are crooked. They lived in accordance with reality, while we only talked about it, while we didn't even think it was possible to live according to the eternal spark that glowed faintly in our hearts. They were the ones who saw clearly, who loved in spite of temporal loss, while we refused to see--then it will be clear to us that our blindness was chosen--while we preferred to save our temporal life rather than to lose even a little of what's perishing anyway for the sake of love.  And that is the judgement: our twisted and perverted life against the plumbline of the saints.

That's when the two-edged sword will slay the nations. That's when God's holy ones (that's what the word "saint" means), that's when God's holy ones will execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the people. The two-edged sword in their hand is the life they have led. It is the Word of God incarnate in a life lived--not words in a book, but love shown; tears shed; and kindness, patience and gentleness manifest in a thousand daily, often unconscious acts. This is the judgement written, this is the honour all of His saints have. 

So when we read of the hueing down of enemies in the Old Testament

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Thank You Tree

One of my parishioners tells the story of how, when she was a university student, God helped her keep her relationship with God alive through a sacramental encounter with God through a tree.  As many young people do when they go off to university, this young woman stopped going to church.  It wasn’t as though she was running away from God, but the Pentecostal church culture she had grown up in just wasn’t doing it for her.  

One morning as she was walking to class, she turned a corner and saw the sun shining behind a tree glistening with droplets.  The site was so overwhelmingly beautiful that she had to stop and pray.  Right there on the path, she had a sacramental encounter with God through the beauty of the sun shining and refracting through the thousands of drops of water hanging from the edges of the leaves on a tree.  When she came out of her reverie and realized that she had to hurry on to her class, as she passed under the tree, she reached out to one leaf and took a drop of water that hung from it and anointed herself with it saying Thank you.  

Every morning after that, when she passed that way to go to class, she reached out to one of the leaves of that same tree and took a drop of water to anoint herself with and say, thank you.  She began to call the tree the Thank You Tree.  And she was amazed that every morning, the tree had a drop of water for her—which would probably be even more amazing most other places in the world, but on the Pacific Coast of Canada, wet trees are rather the rule than the exception.  But more to the point, her daily encounter with the Thank You Tree became a sacramental encounter for her, a means by which she kept her faith in God alive.

Many years later, this young woman encountered the Holy Orthodox Church.  She was drawn to the the mystical theology the Church and sacramental nature of its worship.  For the past several years, the memory of the Thank You Tree had sustained her and taught her to look for God everywhere, to encounter God sacramentally in as many places as she could.  In fact, as she stood at the doors of the Church one of her serious concerns was this: Would the veneration of specific sacramental objects (specifically icons) lessen her encounter with God through beauty in nature, music and in other often unexpected places?  

Of course, what she has found is the opposite of what she feared.  Learning to encounter God in specific liturgical objects, has helped her more and more to encounter God in beauty everywhere.  It is as though worship in the Church has attuned her worship anywhere. 

Others have had a similar experience with prayer.  That is, before encountering Holy Orthodoxy, they have had genuine encounters with God through prayer in the form of speaking their thoughts to God.  For them, real prayer consisted of telling God what the problem was and how they would like God to fix it.  And for those used to praying this way, the set prayers of the Orthodox Church seemed to be a hinderance to real prayer rather than a help.  However, what they find is that praying set prayers actually teaches one to pray.  

I often tell converts who struggle with this that they should continue praying as they have always prayed, but to add to their prayers some of the morning and evening prayers of the Church.  As they faithfully say the prayers of the Church, they often experience a change in the way that they say “their own” prayers.  As the prayers of the Church teach us that God already knows what the problem is and how to fix it, and as we come to know this to be true through our actual experience in prayer, then less and less does it feel necessary to see prayer as a time in which we explain things to God.  More and more, prayer becomes a time of communion, often silent communion, as the words of the Church prayers become memorized and require less thought, and prayer becomes more about just being before God rather than talking to God.

People inquiring into the Orthodox Church are sometimes afraid that the Church might take away from them something very important to their relationship with God, something that has had great meaning to them and has helped them along the way.  But this is seldom the case.  Generally what people find is that the Church provides a context in which what was good before can become better, more deeply understood, and more sanely practice.  

For example, before I was Orthodox I was a Charismatic/Pentecostal Christian.  One aspect of that way of being a Christian that was very meaningful to me was what we called prophesy or word of knowledge.  It is a little embarrassing for me now to say these things, but at that time it all made sense.  If we had a dream or a thought or a picture in our mind and it turned out that what we had dreamed or thought or seen in our mind somehow helped us or someone else, we would say, “God told me this.”  This culture in which we encouraged one another to try to see or hear things that we thought were from God and say them to one another.  And sometimes, these words we gave to one another were amazingly bang on and brought a great deal of encouragement.  

Now I don’t want to try to parse out right now how much of what we were doing was merely psychological, how much was genuinely spiritual and how much was possibly demonic; but I do want to say that God was at least involved in enough of what we were doing to lead us to the door of the Holy Orthodox Church.  But standing at the door of the Church, we wondered (or at least I did), how would these “gifts of the Holy Spirit,” as we understood them, function in a Church setting were people do not lay hands on one another and prophesy and are not encouraged to give each other “words from God.”  Well, we did come into the Church, and with time we found answers to our questions.

At first, though, it was a kind of death.  We had to let go of some ways of doing things, committing them to God and trusting that what the Church had to offer would be enough.  And it was enough, more than enough.  We began to learn about stillness, holiness, and humility—topics that never seemed to come up much before we came into the Church.  We began to learn about the importance of not drawing attention to ourselves, of taking the lowest seat, and of praying in secret.  We began to learn about very holy men and women who do speak words from God, but never, ever called them that.  They just speak, humbly, peacefully and with love.  They are men and women whose holiness is manifest in peace, gentleness, and kindness, whose life is a disciplined cycle of prayer, work and self control.  There the word of knowledge and prophetic word has its place in the Orthodox Church: in the mouths of men and women who have been purified of their passions and who draw no attention to themselves.

We began to understand that God is interested in our sanctification, our transformation into His Image.  We began to understand that intimacy with God came through silence.  And we began to see that our confidence that the words we heard or saw in our minds were “from God” was rooted in a kind of pride born of insecurity.  Yes, God may indeed speak to us or show us things, but how much of what we hear or see in our minds is really of God or of the devil or of our own confused psyches we really could not know.  And that’s fine because if God wants to say something through me to someone, what I think about it is irrelevant.  In fact, I am better off if I do not know that someone is being encouraged by God through something I do or say.  It’s better for me to assume that my mind is too confused to hear anything clearly.  It’s better for me and others not to think of myself as one “being used by God” or to think of myself as one “who has a gift or a ministry.”  It’s best just to humbly be, to trust in God, but to doubt myself; to repent, to love and to leave the giving of words to those who through holiness have purged themselves of passions. 

This was my experience coming into the Holy Orthodox Church.  What was best and most meaningful of what I had before the Church was renewed and expanded and deepened in the sea of the Holy Orthodox Tradition.  Yes, some of the techniques and attitudes were left at the door.  Yes, there was a letting go, a little death into a glorious resurrection.  But when I think back I see that I have lost nothing.  I have lost nothing and gained so much.