Winter Storms and God’s Presence

We in the church today like to think of the glorious and triumphant apostles spreading the Christian faith throughout the world.  Without recourse to violence or a military and with virtually no funding, they overcame the political might and wealth of the Roman Empire, transforming it from pagan polytheism to a Christian realm recognizing the Lordship of the Holy Trinity.

St. Paul in his Epistle to the Corinthians gives us a very different picture as to what it is like to be an apostle or disciple of Christ (1 Corinthians 4:9-16):

I think that God has displayed us, the apostles, last, as men condemned to death; for we have been made a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are distinguished, but we are dishonored! Even to the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed, and beaten, and homeless. And we labor, working with our own hands. Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure it; being defamed, we entreat. We have been made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things until now. I do not write these things to shame you, but as my beloved children I warn you. For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. Therefore I urge you, imitate me.

St. Paul gives us a pretty dismal image of what it is to be a Christian leader and the suffering and disgrace involved in the position.  Then he tells us: “imitate me.”  And for the saints of the Church, they did understand they weren’t Christians or witnesses in order to be praised by good people and painted into heavenly icons to be gloriously hung on the walls of church buildings.  Following Christ will necessitate self denial.  Being a Christian is not about becoming financially wealthy and seeking pleasure while enjoying the good life.   Being a disciple of Christ means taking up our cross to follow Him.  It may  mean not just discomfort in this world, but martyrdom.   As Christians we are living for the Kingdom of God, not for American prosperity, however alluring that prosperity is.  Of course we most often believe we can pursue and have both: American prosperity and the ability to love God and neighbor.  Jesus did warn:

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”  (Matthew 6:24)

CANNOT serve God and mammon.”    Cannot.  Can’t.  Not possible.  A choice between the two is required.   Christians are supposed to have a different set of values than atheists, agnostics, secularists and materialists.  We are to see the American “pursuit of happiness” in a way different from non-believers.

Following Christ, pursuing the Kingdom of Heaven, certainly involves joy and peace, but it also means seeking the Kingdom first.

“Amma Theodora said, ‘Let us strive to enter by the narrow gate. Just as the trees, if they have not stood before the winter’s storms cannot bear fruit, so it is with us; this present age is a storm and it is only through many trials and temptations that we can obtain an inheritance in the kingdom of heaven.’ Desert ascetics lived closely with nature, often at its mercy. This shaped much of their self-understanding and God-understanding. They lived intimately with the rhythm of harsh winters and fruitful springs. God can use all of our experiences to deepen our growth and transformation. A ‘winters storm’ is no indication that God has deserted us.” (Laura Swan, The Forgotten Desert Mothers, pgs. 64-65)

In the course of what is one of the hottest summers on record in these parts, it may seem strange to bring up a winter’s storm.  But then the Kingdom of God requires us to think in a new way.

For What Should we Pray? (IV)

This is the 29th blog in a series exploring various aspects of “prayer.”  The first blog is “Why Pray?” and the previous blog is For What Should we Pray (III).

Christ the High Priest

Prayer is an act of love: for God and His gracious blessings, for our neighbors as well as our enemies, and for all of creation.  We humans were created by God to be priests, to offer up ourselves, each other and all of creation to God in thanksgiving.  We were brought into existence to be mediators between creation and Creator: that is the very role we humans were to have in creation from the beginning.  That is what our dominion over creation was to be – before the Fall caused separation and enmity between ourselves and God, between male and female, between ourselves and others, between ourselves and the rest of creation.

To pray for others is to return to our original God-given purpose as human beings.

“Let us therefore supplicate Him . . . let us assist the needy with prayers of intercession.  The community of the Church can do much, if with a repented soul and contrite spirit, we offer up our prayers!  It is unnecessary to cross the ocean, or to undertake a long journey.  Let every man and woman and child, whether meeting together in Church, or remaining at home, call upon God with much earnestness, and He will doubtless accede to our petitions.”  (St. John Chrysostom – d. 407AD – in THROUGH THE YEAR WITH THE CHURCH FATHERS, p 179-180)

To pray for others, to intercede before God for them, is to reclaim our natural position as relational beings, rather than as alienated and autonomous ones.  Intercessory prayer is the restoration of love in our souls as we accept our God-given relationship to the Creator and to His creation.   The monastics who formed communities for the express purpose of prayer and who arose prominently in Christianity in the 4th Century took upon themselves the ministry of intercession for the world.  It was a way in which they tried to restore humanity and humaneness to all people, the fallen, in the world.

“In Christianity, from the 4th century onwards, this ministry of intercession tended to be concentrated in the prayers of the monks.  An Egyptian bishop of the time wrote to the hermits; ‘The universe is saved by your prayers; thanks to your supplications, the rain descends on the earth, the earth is covered in green, the trees are laden with fruit’ (Serapion of Thmuis – 4th C AD…).”     (Olivier Clement, ON HUMAN BEING, p 94)

Monasticism in this way is an effort to recapture what it meant to be human for our ancestors Adam and Eve in the Garden of Paradise.

“The Church has always taught that Christians, by their active presence and their intercession, safeguard cosmic order and human society, and raise them to the status of offerings.  The most ancient ‘apology’ for Christianity that we know, that of Aristides (2nd C. AD), composed at the time of the first persecutions, plainly states, ‘Of this there is no doubt, that it is because of the intercession of Christians that the world continues to exist’ (XVI.6).  This notion has its roots in the Old Testament, where Abraham, by prodigious bargaining, secured the preservation of Sodom, provided there should be found in it only ten righteous men.  Christians are called to supply the righteous who were lacking Sodom.”  (Olivier Clement, ON HUMAN BEING, p 93)

Praying for others, intercessory prayer, is an act of love and is a way to fulfill Christ’s command that we love one another as He loved us.

“If you make a habit of praying for the salvation of others, God will give you an abundance of spiritual gifts, the gift of the Holy Spirit, who loves the soul that cares for the salvation of others, because He Himself wishes to save us all by every possible means, if only we do not oppose Him and do not harden our hearts.

Prayer for others is very beneficial to the man himself who prays; it purifies the heart, strengthens faith and hope in God, and arouses love for God and our neighbor.”    ( St. John of Kronstadt – d. 1908AD – in THROUGH THE YEAR WITH THE CHURCH FATHERS, p 178)

Next:  Intercessory Prayer