Psalm 94: Let us Rejoice in the Lord

Come, let us greatly rejoice in the Lord; Let us shout aloud to God our savior; 2 Let us come before His face with thanksgiving, And let us shout aloud to Him with psalms. 3 For the Lord is a great God, A great King over all the gods;

4 For in His hand are the ends of the earth, And the heights of the mountains are His;

5 For the sea is His, and He made it, And His hands formed the dry land.

6 Come, let us worship and fall down before Him, And let us weep before the Lord who made us; 7 For He is our God, And we are the people of His pasture And the sheep of His hand. Today, if you hear His voice, 8 “Do not harden your hearts as in the Rebellion, During the day of testing in the desert, 9 Where your fathers tempted Me; They tested Me, and saw My works. 10 For forty years I was treated with contempt by that generation, And I said, ‘They always go astray in their heart, And they do not know My ways’; 11 So I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest.’ ”

(Psalm 94)

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Be An Example in Virtue

“For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”  (John 13:15)

Many in religious leadership positions think they lead by giving direction and commandments to others.  But the desert fathers noted that the Christian way is to lead by example, which is so much more difficult.  We are to be models of virtue so that others can follow our example.   “… set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12).

An old man asked Abba Poemen, saying, “Some brethren dwell with me; does thou wish me to give them commandments?” And he said unto him, “No, but thou thyself must first do work, and if they wish to live, they will observe it and do it.” The old man said unto him, “Ought they also to wish me to govern them?” And Abba Poemen said unto him, “No, be unto them an example, and not a lawgiver.” (E. Wallis Budge, The Paradise of the Holy Fathers, p. 108)

The Struggle to Keep the Fast

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom offers us some thoughts about how we can be a Christian even if we are imperfect.  His thinking applies to anything we do as Christians such as prayer and fasting.  We fail if we hold to a black and white, all or nothing thinking.  We can see Christ and still fall short of what we are to be – yet we can persist in following Him.  We are to thirst for righteousness even if our desire is not slaked.  

And so, there is a tension between the absoluteness of the vision–the perfect and only true Man, Christ–and the imperfect creatures that we are. In what way then can we say that we relate to Christ? I think we relate to Christ if we are open to his action; we relate to Christ if we long for him; we relate to Christ if we are in motion towards him.

And this is a very important thing. There is a passage in the writings of Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk, who says, we do not reach the Kingdom of God from victory to victory; more often from defeat to defeat. But, he says, it is those people–who after each defeat, instead of sitting down to bewail their misery, stand up and walk–that arrive.

And this a tension in which we all find ourselves. Unless we have a vision of the absolute, we cannot tend towards it. At the same time we must not despair of what we are, because we cannot judge our own condition; we can judge only one thing: the degree to which we long for fulfillment, the degree to which we long to be worthy of God, worthy of love, worthy of compassion–and worthy not because of any achievement of ours, but because of the longing, the hunger, and the trust that we can give to the Lord.”   (Churchianity vs. Christianity, p. 41, 43)

Prayer: Standing in God’s Presence

The Gospel lesson for the 4th Sunday of Great Lent, Mark 9:17-31, should be a message of hope for many of us.

Often, in the face of tragedy or problems, we feel hopeless, wringing our hands and worriedly asking, “what went wrong?”  and “What should I do?” or “why me?”

We see the disciples in this condition in the Gospel lesson.  A man brought his sick child to the disciples and asked them to heal his son.  But try as they might, the disciples were not able to heal the boy.  Jesus had given the disciples the power to exorcise demons (Mark 3:15), and they had had some success (Mark 6:7-13), but in this case they failed.   Later, away from the prying ears of the crowd, they privately ask Jesus to explain to them why they couldn’t heal the boy but Jesus was able.

Jesus tells them fasting and prayer are the activities needed to remedy the situation.   But note Jesus does not tell them it was their lack of faith that led to their failure.    Rather Jesus reminds them how to consciously stand in God’s presence – through prayer and fasting.

The disciples had in fact on another occasion requested that Jesus teach them to pray (Luke 11:1-4).  Jesus complied to their request and taught them the Lord’s prayer.

The disciples didn’t ever ask – “teach us to do miracles” – nor did they ask “teach us how to pray so that we get everything we want”  NOR even “teach us how to pray so prayer works for us.”

Prayer always puts us in God’s presence.   And being in God’s presence it turns out is the goal of the spiritual life.  The goal is not getting all our prayers answered – we are not trying to turn God into our personal Amazon.com so that He delivers to our doorstep everything we request.

Prayer puts us into God’s presence, and makes God present to us, which makes union with God possible.   We are not just asking for gifts, we are asking to be with the giver of life.   St. Paul says:   “I seek not what is yours but you”  (2 Corinthians 12:14).  That precisely should be our attitude toward God – don’t seek what He can give you, seek God the giver of every good and perfect gift.

There are plenty of things in our lives that come between us and God – our worries, our problems, our temptations, our disbeliefs, our selfishness, our lusts – all of these personal demons.

Prayer and fasting cut through all of those things and put us back in the presence of God.  The goal is to be not only mindful of God but united to God.  We can only begin that journey by prayer and fasting.   We have to lay aside all earthly cares and truly believe that the most important thing is to be in God’s presence.  And that is true whether things are going good or bad, whether we are in a time of prosperity or poverty, whether experiencing a blessing or a curse.   Being in God’s presence is the goal no matter what else is going on around us.  Even if it is the moment of  our death, if we are in God’s presence, we are where we need to be.

Remember Satan does not tremble because the church has wonderful fellowship hours, or at church dinners, nor at church fund raisers, nor at church schedules.

But Satan is crushed by humble, heart felt prayer – by our standing in God’s presence, by our submitting our lives to God’s will.

As we move into these last two weeks of Great Lent, make Christ Jesus the center of your life so that you always follow Him and you keep Him near you.

One last thing to remember, in ancient Israel, King Hezekiah when he launched his reforms to restore proper religion told the Levites:  “My sons, do not now be negligent, for the LORD has chosen you to stand in his presence, to minister to him, and to be his ministers and burn incense to him.”   (2 Chronicles 29:11)

The task the priests of Israel were chosen for was to stand in God’s presence!  Now we come to the New Testament where the priesthood has been expanded to all believers.  The Apostle Peter tells us:

Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.  (1 Peter 2:4-5)

Now it is the task of each of us and all of us – not just the priests – to stand in God’s presence and to offer spiritual sacrifices.   We all are to “liturgize” together to the glory of God.  We are to make God present in every moment of our lives.

The Sin of Envy

“The Christian concept of envy is twofold. It is the resentment experienced by one person when another person is perceived to have some good that he or she lacks, coupled with the strong desire that the other person be deprived of it.

Rather like vultures and flies, which gravitate toward stenches and festering sores, envious persons glory in the faults and failings of others, relishing the opportunity to broadcast such misdeeds to tarnish reputations.

Thus the healing of the illness of envy requires re-educating the mind as to what constitutes true good (i.e., virtue) and redirecting our fundamental, ambitious impulse away from the noxiousness of envy to this healthy end.”

(St. Basil the Great, On Christian Doctrine and Practice, p. 122, 129, 126)

Christian: What Does It Mean to Be Successful?

 The cross of Christ is central to our spiritual lives and to the glory we will obtain from God.

Taking up the cross to follow Christ is essential to our discipleship.  We cannot be Christians unless we do what Christ commanded:  Take up our cross and follow Him.

This week as you fast, pray and prepare yourself to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ, focus on the cross bearing we are called to do.

It is not easy to follow Christ – every day in the most mundane and simple ways we see how hard it is to do the right thing.  We struggle with patience, sloth, forgetfulness, greed, envy, jealousy, anger, being thankful, not getting our way, with disappointment, with having to share the world with others.   And all of that can occur just in the morning before we go to church!

We must die with Christ in order to live with Him.  As St. Paul writes:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him.   (Romans 6:3-8)

But we do have to die with Him if we want to live with Him. This dying to self is hard because we so want to get our way always.

To be a Christian is to live for the kingdom of God, which means denying ourselves in this world.  We are not Christians in order to become more prosperous in this world, for as Christians we claim citizenship in God’s Kingdom.  We may experience blessings in this world, but we aren’t to live for them, but must live with a willingness to give up the things of this world for life in the world to come.  We receive blessings from God so that we might share those blessings with others.

There is an account in the lives of the Orthodox missionaries to Alaska of an event that happened in 1796.  There was a certain Aleut Indian chief who was notorious for his bad behavior – drunkenness, fighting, stealing, rape and adultery.  His villagers sought out an Orthodox missionary to try to convert their chief to Christianity as they wanted to improve his behavior.  The missionary priest came to the village and saw the evil going on and did his best to present the Gospel to all the people in the village.  Surprisingly the chief demanded to be baptized at once, threatening harm to the priest if he refused. The priest reluctantly baptized him.   The chief however did not undergo any conversion and continued his evil ways.  The villagers were furious at the priest for having failed them.  They told the missionary priest: “You lied to us.  You told us that if we or the chief converted to Christianity that we would be better people.  Our chief was baptized and is as bad as ever.”  In a rage they took the priest and killed him on the spot.  This is the story of St. Juvenaly, whose icon we have in our church.

My point in telling you this story is that those Aleuts only thought of Christianity as making their life on earth better.  They wanted to improve their material lot in life.  They did not accept the Gospel as a call to set aright their own lives with God, nor did they intend to follow Christ in suffering for truth and righteousness.  They in fact rejected the Gospel and in bitter disappointment became murderers.  They were not able to see beyond life in this world.

We follow Christ not for material gain in this world but in order to give our life to Him.

What does it profit someone to gain the whole world but to lose their life?  (Mark 8:36)

In the Service for Receiving Converts into the Faith, one of the petitions we say in the litany for the new convert is this:

That grace may be given to him/her through anointing with the all-holy Chrism, so that boldly, without fear and unashamed, he/she may confess before all people the Name of Christ our God, and that he/she may be always ready for Christ’s sake to lovingly suffer and to die, let us pray to the Lord.

Yes, as Christians we commit ourselves to always be ready to lovingly suffer and die for Christ!

To follow Christ is to take a new look at the questions: “What does it mean to be successful?”   and   How do I measure success?

For Christians success can only be measured in terms of whether or not we are following Christ.

In the Gospel lesson today, we could paraphrase Jesus as saying: “If any wants to be my disciple  and enter into eternal life, then say no to your self, say no to your desires, say no to your self interest, say no to your self preservation.”

We live in a country full of over weight people, people with porn addictions, binge drinkers, and drug addiction partly because we refuse ever to say no to our selves.  We confusedly think abundance means over indulgence is blessed.  Great Lent says precisely because there is such abundance we need to learn self control and how to say no to all that abundance which surrounds us so that we don’t literally become buried in over indulgence.

You want to be a Christian?  Then take up your cross and deny yourself and follow Christ.  Great Lent is given to you and me as a gift – an opportunity for us to seriously and literally fulfill the teaching of Jesus Christ our Lord.

 

The Icon of the Crucifixion

“The icon encourages us to reflect on this climax to our Lord’s earthly life; his work has been accomplished, and he commends himself to the Father. The following verses come to mind: ‘I glorified thee on earth, having accomplished the work that thou gavest me to do’ (John 17:4); ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30); ‘Father, into thy hands, I commit my spirit’ (Luke 23:46). And these verses from the letter to the Hebrews seem equally appropriate: ‘Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith’ (Hebrews 12:1-2); ‘So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go forth to him outside the camp, bearing abuse for him. For here we have no abiding city, but we seek the city which is to come’ (Hebrews 13:12-14).

The following extract from St. Theodore the Studite’s On the Adoration of the Cross shows how the victorious nature of Christ’s death on the Cross was interpreted by a great teacher of Orthodox theology (759-826):

How precious is the gift of the cross! See, how beautiful it is to behold!…It is a tree which brings forth life, not death. It is the source of light, not darkness. It offers you a home in Eden. It does not cast you out. It is the tree which Christ mounted as a king his chariot, and so destroyed the devil, the lord of death, and rescued the human race from slavery to the tyrant. It is the tree on which the Lord, like a great warrior with his hands and feet and his divine side pierced in battle, healed the wounds of our sins, healed our nature that had been wounded by the evil serpent. Of old we were poisoned by a tree;  now we have found immortality through a tree.

…By the cross death was killed and Adam restored to life. In the cross every apostle has gloried; by it every martyr has been crowned and every saint made holy. We have put on the cross of Christ, and laid aside the old man. Through the cross we have joined Christ’s flock, and are granted a place in the sheepfold of heaven.”

(John Baggley, Festival Icons for the Christian Year, pp. 108-109)

The Way to Joy? Take Up Your Cross

“The kingdom of God cannot be imposed; if it is to be brought about we must be born again, and that supposes complete freedom of spirit. Christianity is the religion of the Cross, and it sees a meaning in suffering. Christ asks us to take up our own cross and carry it, to shoulder the load of a sinful world. In Christian consciousness the notion of attaining happiness, justice, and the kingdom of God on earth without cross or suffering is a huge lie: it is the temptation that Christ rejected in the wilderness when he was shown the kingdoms of the world and invited to fall down and worship. Christianity does not promise its own necessary realization and victory here below; Christ even questioned whether he will find any faith on earth when he comes again at the end of time, and foretold that love itself will have grown cold.

Tolstoy believed that Christ’s commands could be easily fulfilled simply by recognizing their truth. But that was a mistake of his over-rationalizing consciousness; the mysteries of freedom and of grace were beyond him, his optimism contradicted the tragic depths of life. “The good which I will I do not,” says the apostle Paul, “but the evil which I will not, that I do. Now if I do that which I will not it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.” This testimony of one of the greatest of all Christians unveils the innermost part of the human heart, and it teaches us that the “failure of Christianity” is a human failure and not a divine defeat.”

(Nicholas Berdiaev, Tradition Alive, pp. 96-97)

If Christ is Not Risen

A tremendous task faces us of correlating our theology with the gospel, for ‘If Christ is not risen, our faith is in vain (1 Cor 15:14).‘ The world was converted to Christianity not by the subtleties of the Palamite controversy, but by this impossible, unheard-of affirmation that ‘death has been trampled down by death.’  Whose death? Christ’s death. How could he? Because he is the Son of God. Why ‘Son of God’? Because he was obedient to his Father. We are back to the Trinity, to Christology.”   (Alexander Schmemman, The Liturgy of Death, pp. 153-154)

Your Friends May Never Read the Scriptures, But They are Always Reading You

Our Gospel lesson for the Second Sunday of Great Lent of Mark 2:1-12 might be summarized in this way:

8186046743_7c12364a5a_nOne day, 4 men carried their paralyzed friend to Jesus.  They labored hard to get their friend into the Lord’s presence. As any of you who have ever carried another human being know – the man is literally dead weight.  He is paralyzed and can’t help the others who are carrying him.   When Jesus saw the faith of the 4 men, he pronounced that the paralyzed man’s sins had been forgiven.

Note in the Gospel lesson that neither the paralyzed man nor his friends protest when Jesus forgives the paralyzed man – none of them say, “No, Lord, he’s a good guy, he never did anything wrong that’s why we’re bringing him to you.  He deserves to be healed because of all his good deeds.”   Instead they all seem to accept that the man is a sinner and needs God’s forgiveness.

The 4 men bear the burden of their friend’s sinfulness.  They are not bringing to Christ some upright and holy man who they think deserves God’s intervention, rather they are bringing to Christ a man whose sin apparently led to his paralysis.  His sin had a visible affect and all could see it.  His paralysis perhaps the result of the man’s own choices.  I visited such a man once – he was in his  mid-30s and paralyzed from the waist down.  He told me he had been in that condition for 15 years – the end result of being a young fool who was drinking and driving.  He regretted his condition and his past choices, and he blamed no one but himself for the fact that he was in a wheelchair and in a great deal of pain.

So we can even imagine that instead of bearing the burden of their friend’s sinfulness, that the men in the Gospel lesson could have been more like Job’s friends and telling hims: “you made your own bed, now sleep in it” or “you caused your own problems, so solve them yourself.”  Or even worse, “you were such an idiot, now you got what you deserved.”  Or maybe even reminding the paralyzed man, “We are doing all the work and you don’t even carry your own weight around here because you are the burden.”

But the 4 men aren’t complaining, they are fulfilling the Gospel commandment that we bear one another’s burdens.  (Galatians 6:2)  –  “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.

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We should have the same attitude when we do the work of God – not complaining about the burden we have to  bear nor to criticize those who don’t carry their own weight around the church.  We have a task to accomplish – to bring others to Christ, not just holy, deserving and good people, but even those who have made a mess of their lives.

We bear other people’s burdens not only in bringing them to church, but also when we decide to pray for them and when our hearts are moved by their problems and we fell the weight of their suffering.  We are called by Christ to help carry the burdens of others.

We are to lead by example.  It is Great Lent and some have rightfully set out to read Scripture during Lent, or to read more Scripture daily: God bless you for that.  Persevere!  We all know how our good intentions don’t always get fulfilled.  We start out with zeal, but then life intervenes and pretty soon we have forgotten what we promised to do.

Just remember that reading the bible is noble, but that is not the goal of the Christian life.  The real goal is to live the scriptures in your daily life.  St. Paul once said to his flock:

You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all men; and you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.   (2 Corinthians 3:1-3)

The goal is to live in such a way that others can read the scriptures written on our hearts.  We are to be the living word, a living temple of God.  If Christians keep the Gospel commandments, others will be able to see the Word of God active and alive in us.

The stories from the desert fathers or the lives of the saints are most effective when they illustrate how to live one of the Gospel commands.  I must admit that Orthodox lives of saints are often full of miracles and magic, which to me is all inimitable and not very inspiring.  But it is when I read something that is an illustration of how a person lived one of the Gospel teachings in daily life that the saint illumines the Gospel and shows me what it is to obey Christ.

You are to be the living word of God – with the Word written on your hearts and visible for all to see in your life and life style.  Of course you first have to know the Scriptures before they can be written on your hearts, but then you have to live that Word.   Your friends, family, neighbors, co-workers may never read the Bible, but they do read you – what you say, how you live, what you do.

Be an example to others, let them see in you Jesus Christ – may they experience from you the power of living the Gospel.  The only word from God they may ever experience is the one they see in you.

In the book, THE KEYS OF THE KINGDOM, Fr. Chisholm spends 30 years as a Catholic missionary in a town in China.  The day before he is to leave China, Mr Chia, the wealthy, powerful and leading man of the town says to Fr. Chisholm:  “When you first came to our town, I was not willing to be a Christian, but then I was unaware of the nature of your life . . . of its patience, quietness, and courage.  The goodness of a religion is best judged by the goodness of its adherents.  My friend . . .  you have conquered me by your example.”           Then Mr Chia asked Fr. Chisholm to baptize him.

Great Lent is sometimes called a school for us Orthodox.  It is a time for us to practice our faith, to be an example of what it is to be a Christian.

And what is the word that we should be an example of?  St. Paul says:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23)

May God bless your Lenten efforts and give growth to the seeds which are planted in your hearts so that you might bring forth spiritual fruit.