Seeing the Sinner: Yourself

…The only way in which you know the seriousness of separation from God is in your own experience of yourself. Moses writes to Poeman,

‘If you have sin enough in your own life and your own home, you have no need to go searching for it elsewhere’.

And, more graphically, from Moses again,

‘If you have a corpse laid out in your own front room, you wont have leisure to go to a neighbor’s funeral.’

This is not about minimizing sin; it is about learning how to recognize it from seeing the cost in yourself. If it can’t be addressed by you in terms of your own needs, it can’t be addressed anywhere – however seductive it is to say, ‘I know how to deal with this problem in your life – and never mind about mine.’ The inattention and harshness that shows we have not grasped this is from so many of the desert monks and nuns the major way in which we fail in winning the neighbor. Poeman goes so far to say that it is the one thing about which we can justly get angry with each other.

A brother asked Abbas Poeman, ‘What does it mean to be angry with your brother without a cause? [The reference is obviously to Matt. 5:21]. He said, ‘If your brother hurts you by his arrogance and you are angry with him because of this, that is getting angry without a cause. If he pulls out your right eye and cuts off your right hand and you get angry with him, that is getting angry without a cause. But if he cuts you off  from God – then you have every right to be angry with him.’

To assume the right to judge, or to assume that you have arrived at  a settled spiritual maturity which entitles you to prescribe confidently at a distance for another’s sickness is in fact to leave them without the therapy they need for their souls; it is to cut them off from God, to leave them in their spiritual slavery – while reinforcing your own slavery. Neither you nor they have access to life. As in the words of Jesus, you have shut up heaven for others and for yourself. But the plain acknowledgement of your solidarity in need and failure opens a door: it shows that it is possible to live in the truth and go forward in hope. It is in such a moment that God gives himself through you, and you become by God’s gift a means of connection another with God. You have done the job you were created to do.” (Rowan Williams, Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the Desert, pp 30-31)

 

Strengthening Hope

“Hope:

The means to confirm and strengthen Christian hope are

prayer, especially frequent and sincere prayer,

confession of our sins,

frequent reading of the Word of God, and above all,

frequent communion of the holy and life giving Sacraments of the Body and Blood of Christ.

If you indeed call God your Father, then trust and hope in Him, as a Father most merciful, all powerful, most wise, ever-loving, ever perfect. Trust in Him in respect of the blessings of this temporal life, but above all in respect of the future blessing which shall be granted you in Christ Jesus.”     (St. John of Kronstadt in Through the Year With the Church Fathers, p 53)

 

Love: The Power of Christian Leadership

popeIn Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” from his book, THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, we encounter contrasting and conflicting images of religious power.  There is Archbishop who is the Grand Inquisitor, with his majestic robes which inspire terror  in the population.  He and his entourage armed with all the legal power of the state cause the people to cower and kowtow before him because they know he has power over their lives – to rule and to even take life from them.

On the other hand, Jesus comes humbly and unassuming, no threatening retinue around him.  He is almost unrecognizable (at least as God the Lord) and blends into the crowd of the poor and powerless.  He raises to life a little girl who has died.  His power is love and life.  Yet, He submits to the authority of the Inquisitor who casts Him into prison.    There it is the Inquisitor who does all the talking to explain and justify his power on earth.  Jesus remains totally silent in the face of all accusations but reveals His power – that of love.

This contrast played out in Jesus’ own lifetime, as Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor where Pilate seems to be the one who is trapped and forced to act, while Jesus the condemned man seems to speak with power.

The Jews answered Pilate, “We have a law, and by that law he ought to die, because he has made himself the Son of God.” When Pilate heard these words, he was the more afraid; he entered the praetorium again and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave no answer. Pilate therefore said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore he who delivered me to you has the greater sin.” Upon this Pilate sought to release him…”  (John 19:7-12)

Christian leadership involves power, but it should be the power of Christ and the Holy Spirit, not that of Pilate or the Grand Inquisitor.  The Church’s power is not that of an empire’s army or police, but of love.  Henri J.M. Nouwen says:

“I am speaking of a leadership in which power is constantly abandoned in favor of love. It is a true spiritual leadership. Powerless and humility in the spiritual life do not refer to people who have no spine and who let everyone else make decisions for them. They refer to people who are so deeply in love with Jesus that they are ready to follow him wherever he guides them, always trusting that, with him, they will find life and find it abundantly.”

(In the Name of Jesus , pp 63-64)

 

Following Christ: Living Beyond Ritual

“We became Christians by the grace of God; let us take care to have true Christianity within ourselves. We were baptized in the one Tri-hypostatic God and have received the gift of holiness and justification; let us take care to guard this heavenly treasure to the end.

We believe in Jesus Christ crucified ; let us take care to follow Him with faith, and having each one taken up on his cross let us go after Him. We confess and call upon the heavenly God; let us take care to please Him with a heavenly character.

We hear the word of God; let us take care and live just as it teaches us. ‘We await the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come’; let us take care to conduct ourselves in this world worthily of the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come; and having turned away from the vanities of this world, let us strive only for everlasting blessedness.

We approach the holy and heavenly table of the Mysteries of Christ; let us take care that this heavenly and life-creating Bread brings life, sanctification, illumination, renewal, joy and spiritual consolation.”

(St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, Journey to Heaven, pp 57-58)

The Evil of Despair

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.   (2 Corinthians 4:8-10)

Christ's temptation in the wilderness
Christ’s temptation in the wilderness

“In the growth of despair the devil plays a particularly important role and by means of this condition can provoke in the soul catastrophic consequences. ‘The devil’, St John Chrysostom tells us, ‘has no greater weapon in his hands than despair; we also give him less pleasure in sinning than in despairing.’ In this condition the individual basically despairs of God and cuts himself off from Him. As a result he leaves the field free for the devil’s action, and, bound hand and foot, yields to his power and is given up to spiritual death. As St Paul teaches ‘the sadness of the world worketh death’ (2 Cor. 7:10). Under the effect of despair (and sometimes even simply from sadness), man often comes to embrace corrupt passions, thinking that they might bring him a remedy for his condition. Thus the Apostle states, ‘having lost all hope they are free to embrace licentiousness, unto the working of all uncleanness; plunged in impurity’ (Eph. 4:19). Following him St. Gregory the Great tells us that the end result of sadness is ‘the straying of the spirit towards forbidden things.’ (Jean Claude Larchet, Mental Disorders and Spiritual Healing, pp 98-99)

While despair can be a temptation of the devil, it is possible to bring ourselves to despair – to bring our selves into the wilderness where Satan will meet and tempt us.  Some despair we experience is situational, we react to events going on over which we have no control.  Time and patience can at times bring us out of this funk.  Some despair is the result of body chemistry, which can be treated by psychiatry and/or psychological counseling.  Some despair is demonic and torments us, needing spiritual, physical and mental healing.   Some despair is chosen – the sadness of self-pity, which Chrysostom thought worse than sin.  We choose not to get out of it.

We often need help when in despair, whether from a supporting community of family, friends, parishioners, or from the mental health and medical community, or from our Lord Himself.

“… tribulation produces perseverance;and perseverance, character; and character, hope.Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5)

The Gospel is Good News

Gospel, then, means words about the Word of God. Reflecting on the mystery of the Lord’s Incarnation and all the gifts arising from it, St. John Chrysostom explains why the account of it was called ‘Good News’:

‘What could ever be compared to these joyful tidings?

God on earth, man in heaven.

All became one: angels joined in singing with humans, humans communicated with the angels and the other heavenly powers.

You could truly see the end of the protracted war, reconciliation made between God and our nature, the Devil put to shame, demons in the headlong flight, death abolished.

You could see Paradise being opened, the curse wiped out, sin banished, delusion being hunted down.

Still more, you saw truth returning, the word of Christian faith sown everywhere bringing forth abundant fruit, the life of heaven planted on earth.’

That is why the evangelist called the account of Christ’s life ‘good news.’”

(Hieromonk Gregorios, The Divine Liturgy, p 168)

Be Nourished by the Eucharist of Love

“For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.”  (J0hn 6:55-58)

[St.] Isaac’s use of the symbolism of wine and inebriation is sometimes transformed into a Eucharistic symbolism which is characteristic of the Syriac tradition from [St.] Ephrem onwards. According to Isaac, love is food and drink, bread and wine, and these are at every hour given to those who love God:

“When we find love, we partake of heavenly bread and are made strong without labor and toil. The heavenly bread is Christ, who came down from heaven and gave life to the world. This is the nourishment of the angels. The person who has found love eats and drinks Christ every day and every hour and is thereby made immortal. ’He that eateth of this bread,’ he says, ’which I will give him, shall not see death unto eternity.’ Blessed is he who consumes the bread of love which is Jesus! He who eats love eats Christ, the God over all, as John bears witness saying, ’God is love’…Love is the kingdom where the Lord mystically promises his disciples [they will] eat in his kingdom.

For when we hear him say, ’Ye shall eat and drink at the table of  my kingdom,” what do we suppose we shall eat, if not love? Love, rather than food and drink, is sufficient to nourish a man. This is the wine ’which maketh glad the heart of a man.’ Blessed is he who partakes of this wine!

Licentious men have drunk this wine and become chaste;

sinners have drunk it and have forgotten the pathways of stumbling;

drunkards have drunk this wine, and become fasters;

the rich have drunk it and desired poverty;

the poor have drunk it and been enriched with hope;

the sick have drunk it and become strong;

the unlearned have taken it and become wise.”

(Hilarion AlfeyevThe Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian, page 255-256)

The Joy of the Gospel Commandments

In Yesterday’s post, Enmity and Discernment, I mentioned the icon at the front entrance of our church, which I must pass every day that I’m in the building.  I cannot get to my office or to the sanctuary without  passing by my Lord who is telling me:

“I give to you a new commandment, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” (John 13:34)

Loving others is a command, not just an appropriate reaction to others.  It is to be a conscious choice of how we treat others, not an emotional response to how we feel about them.  The love we show them is not based upon how they treat us, or what they think about us – if it is, then we are behaving just like any sinner, but not like a Christian (Luke 6:32).

If we obey the Gospel command, it will have an effect on our heart.  What effect might it have on us if I love others as Christ loves me?

The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul;

the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple;

the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart;

the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes;

the fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever;

the ordinances of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether.

More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover by them is thy servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.  (Psalm 19:7-11)

Fulfilling Christ’s commandment impacts my soul by reviving it; my mind be giving it wisdom; my heart by filling it with joy; and my eyes by giving me true vision.  Every aspect of my being is touched by Christ when I obey His command to love others.

Enmity, Discernment

Each day when I enter the church, I see these words on an icon:

John 13:34
John 13:34

Those words have been part of my life, week in and week out for 20 years.  I cannot get to my office without passing by them.  Some days they seem to jump out at me and cause me to stop in my tracks.  Sometimes if I mindlessly walk by them, they call me back and I have to stop in front of them and remember.

Jesus’ only new commandment is that we are to love one another as He loved us.  Christ commands me to love others as He loves me.  That is a tall order for sure.  And every day I struggle with what it means and how I might do it, or even if it is possible for me to do it.   Of course, I can find ways to make the text more palatable and doable.  Since Jesus speaks to us (in the plural) he means that when we are gathered with other like-minded Christians who are all committed to Christian love, then we are to love them in that context since they will equally be loving us back.  But then, of course, Christ taught us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44), so our Christian love isn’t limited to those who love us.  If it is, how are we any different than unbelievers?  (Luke 6:27, 35)

“We are commanded to have only one enemy, the devil. With him never be reconciled! But with a brother, never be at enmity in your heart.” – St. John Chrysostom

“Prayer for our enemies is the very highest summit of self-control.” – St. John Chrysostom”

“Praying against one’s personal enemies is a transgression of the law [of the Gospel].” – St. John Chrysostom

Christ’s Gospel commandments are hard.  Sometimes they seem obscure, for how can we do them?  Is it humanly possible?  Perhaps, Christ just was a utopian idealist, and some day, in heaven or paradise or some distant place, a pie-in-the-sky La La land, things would be so very nice and polite.

However, we live in this world, in which there really are enemies, and people we don’t particularly like or want to be around.  What are we to say to Christ when He commands us to do something that seems too hard, or maybe even not possible?

“Yes, sir!”

He is our Lord, God and Master, and we are His servants.  So before every service I light a candle before this icon which portrays Christ’s commandment, and I have to lay aside all excuses, and say, “Yes, Lord!”  Bowing my head in humility, I also have to say, “Forgive me.”  Forgive me for doubting it is possible, for not even trying, for not being willing to deny myself in order to follow You, for wanting to sit at your right hand but not being willing to stand with you at the Cross.

“It is a fearful thing to hate whom God has loved. To look upon another – his weaknesses, his sins, his faults, his defects – is to look upon one who is suffering. He is suffering from negative passions, from the same sinful human corruption from which you yourself suffer. This is very important; do not look upon him with the judgmental eyes of comparison, noting the sins you assume you would never commit. Rather, see him as a fellow sufferer, a fellow human being who is in the need of the very healing of which you are in need. Help him, love him, pray for him, do unto him as you would have him do unto you.” – St. Tikhon of Zadonsk

(Quotes of the saints are from For the Peace from Above: An Orthodox Resource Book on War, Peace, and Nationalism, pp 114-115)

 

Look at the Birds Whom the Heavenly Father Feeds

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A Red-bellied Woodpecker lands kicking up some newly fallen snow.  A beautiful bird, I must say.

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According to Matthew 6:26, we are to consider the birds:   “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” (Matthew 6:26)

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Having fed a little, the woodpecker takes off, true to the proverb.  He didn’t toil at all to cause the seed to grow, but he was able to feed on it.

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Lots of feathered friends join the feast.  The cardinal adds a little color.

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A Tufted Titmouse finds a seed, or maybe drops it for other birds who can’t hang on to the feeder, and wait below on the ground for the seeds to fall.  “… some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them”  (Matthew 13:4).

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The tiny Chickadees are usually first to arrive at the feeder.  Their chirping seems to be the all-clear signal for the other birds to follow.

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Feeding the birds allows me to imitate the Heavenly Father who also feeds them (Matthew 6:26)   I do it for the fun of it.  The Nuthatch can hold on even when up-side-down,

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All of the photos in this blog were taken from my bedroom window.  I put the birdfeeders out there to enjoy the birds.  The Hairy Woodpecker is a frequent visitor.  Though small, the other birds seem to give him lots of space.

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The snow doesn’t discourage visitors to the birdfeeder.  I on the other hand find myself more confined at home during such weather.  I continue my recovery from the spinal fusion surgery.  As mentioned several weeks ago, I no longer need a cane to walk, and the surgery has for the time being relieved the pain.  However, ice and snow put a freeze on my life and I avoid going out on it when possible.  I still have to wear my back brace, and have many activity restrictions.  The riskiest thing I do is picking up the camera to take photos from my window as the camera is near my weight lifting limit of 8 pounds.

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You can find the Bewick’s Wren other photos I’ve taken recently around my birdfeeders at Birdfeeder 12-2016  or  Birdfeeder 1-2017.

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