John Donne: All Times are God’s Seasons

John Donne writing in the 17th Century offers a wonderful reflection on seasons and time as related to God’s own love for His Creation. The version below was adapted to conform to 21st Century spellings and grammar.

“God made sun and moon to distinguish seasons, and day and night, and we cannot have the fruits of the earth but in their seasons.

But God made no decree to distinguish the seasons of his mercies.  In paradise, the fruits were ripe, the first minute, and in heaven it is always Autumn: his mercies are ever in their maturity.

We ask panem quotidianum, our daily bread, and God never says you should have come yesterday.  He never says you must [come] again tomorrow, but today if you will hear his voice, today he will hear you.

  If some king of the earth has so large an extent of dominion in north and south, as that he has winter and summer together in his dominions, so large an extent east and west as that he has day and night together in his dominions, much more has God mercy and judgment together.

He brought light out of darkness, not out of a lesser light.   He can bring your summer out of winter, though you have no spring.

 Though in the ways of fortune, or understanding, or conscience, you have been benighted until now, winter and frozen, clouded and eclipsed, damped and benumbed, smothered and stupefied until now,

now God comes to  you, not as in the dawning of the day, not as in the bud of spring, but as the sun at noon to illustrate all shadows, as the sheaves in harvest to fill all penuries, all occasions invite his mercies, and all times are his seasons. ” (LXXX Sermons; Sermon II)

A Greatly Troubled Heart

And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. (Genesis 6:6)

The Scriptures and Orthodox theology are clear that God is not just a super human being – God is not merely an omnipotent and omniscient human writ large.  God is totally other, and whatever words we might apply to us humans – being, nature, person, existing – cannot then rightfully be applied to God.  Or, conversely, if we use words like being, existence, nature for God, then we can’t also use them for humans or any part of creation.  God is clearly a transcendent being, not limited by space and time, but rather we all exist within God (Acts 17:28).

And yet . . . Scriptures also contain images of God which are quite anthropomorphic – in which God is quite humanized.  Or, at least our experience of God and our description of the encounter with God is put purely in human terms.  For the transcendent God is also immanent and in God’s closeness to us we experience God in ways we understand – as Father and mother, as love and lover.   We come to realize that when God says that we humans are made in God’s image and likeness, we are closer to God than we imagine, and God is much closer to us than dogmatic theology can ever reveal.

The LORD is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:18)

Praise the LORD! For it is good to sing praises to our God; for he is gracious . . .   He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds. He determines the number of the stars, he gives to all of them their names.  (Psalm 147:1-4)

The same God who creates the heavens and the earth, the stars and the entire universe, is also near the brokenhearted.  And, there may be good reason for God’s being near the brokenhearted, as we see in the opening Scripture verse of this blog: for God experienced grief from, through and in the humans God had created.

Some probably are not much impressed with a God whose reaction to human sin and violence is inner grief and brokenheartedness.   “Why doesn’t God just fix what’s wrong with humans and creation!?!”

The God who not only loves creation but Who is love, suffers because of and with and in creation.  The transcendent God who lives in all eternity who is incomprehensible, ineffable and indescribable, still reveals Himself in terms that we can relate to and experience.   This is all part of the great mystery of God.  God doesn’t have blood vessels or a stomach or a throat or a blood-pumping heart, and yet God’s reaction to fallen creation is described in visceral terms.   God knows our pain and still loves us.  God is willing to suffer pain because of us and with us and for us.  Jesus, the incarnate God, experiences this pain and brokenheartedness.

And they went to a place which was called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I pray.” And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. And he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch.” And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt.” And he came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mark 14:32-38)

Jesus wished that the hour of His death might be avoided and was troubled to the heart of His being.  Yet in love, He knew He would endure such heartbreak to deliver humanity from slavery to sin and death.  He took upon Himself the sin of the world, and suffered.  Yet, He said to His disciples:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.  (John 14:27)

Even though Christ experienced pain in His own heart, brokenheartedness, grief and distress, He tells us not to let our hearts be troubled.   We are to trust in Him . . . which we find on a daily level to be very difficult to do because we do not see how that trust will alleviate the pain and suffering and problems we must endure.  Christ did not tell us that our lives would be trouble free.  Rather, He promised us tribulation – that tribulation which grieved God at the beginning of creation and which distressed Christ in the garden of Gethsemane.

I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world. (John 16:33)

When we grieve and are brokenhearted because of the world, God is near to us.  And God’s promise is that the pain and sorrow of this world are not the last word, for God promises us Good News.

And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isaiah 35:10)

“Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”  (Revelations 21:3-4)

The Sun – Serving God and Humans

“… the sun knows its time for setting.
You make darkness, and it is night,

when all the animals of the forest come creeping out.

The young lions roar for their prey,
seeking their food from God.

When the sun rises, they withdraw

and lie down in their dens.

People go out to their work
and to their labor until the evening.

O LORD, how manifold are your works!

In wisdom you have made them all;

the earth is full of your creatures.

(Psalm 104:19-24)

Recreating the Blind Man

Fr. John Behr notes that St Irenaeus of Lyons sees in the healing of the man born blind (John 9), Christ by whom all things were made, bringing to completion that which was lacking in this creature – his eyes were unformed.  Jesus shows Himself to be the Creator in giving sight to the blind man by recreating His eyes.

“That this is indeed the work of God is shown, for Irenaeus, by the manner in which Christ healed the man blind from birth (John 9). It was not merely by a word that he was healed, but ‘by an outward action, doing this not without purpose or by chance, but that he might show forth the Hand of God that had at the beginning moulded the human being’ (haer. 5.15.2). So, just as ‘the Lord took mud from the earth and formed the human being’ (Gen. 2:7), Christ spat on the ground and made mud, smeared it upon his eyes, ‘pointing out the original fashioning, how it was effected, and manifesting the Hand of God to those who can understand by what [Hand] the human being was formed out of the dust’ (haer. 5.15.2). As, in Christ’s words, the man was born blind not because of his own sin or that of his parents, ‘but that the works of God should be manifest in him’ (John 9:3), so Irenaeus sets this particular work within the intentionality of the economy as a whole:

‘For that which the artificer, the Word, had omitted to form in the womb, he then supplied in public that the works of God might be manifested in him, in order that we might not seek out another hand by which the human being is fashioned, nor another Father, knowing that this Hand of God which formed us in the beginning, and which does form us in the womb, has in the last times sought us out who were lost, winning us back to his own, and taking up the lost sheep upon his shoulders, and with joy, restoring it to the fold of life. (haer. 5.15.2; cf. Luke 19:10, 15:4-6).’

If all of this was done so that ‘the works of God should be manifest in him’, Irenaus concludes that ‘the work of God is fashioning the human being’. (Irenaeus of Lyons: Identifying Christianity, pp. 162-163

Springing to Life

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It has been pretty chilly in this part of the world lately.  We had some warmer days in February!  Above a wild Dwarf Iris.  Outstandingly beautiful.

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Above, another view of the Dwarf Iris.  A marvelous wild flower, which like many flowers can be viewed for only a short time before the flowers disappear.  Generally in the Bible the flower is a symbol of fading or temporary beauty.

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Peonies are cultivated and have flowers that do last a short while.

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The center of the Peony – the purpose of flowers is to produce seeds, not just beauty.  We cultivate flowers for their colors, shapes and fragrances.  In nature those attributes are needed more to attract pollinators.

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I was totally enamored by the color of the cones of the Weeping Blue Spruce above.

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Looking down on the Spring Larkspur it had a geodesic dome shape.

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Dogwoods were still in bloom the day I did my short walk at the Cox Arboretum.  You can see all my photos at Cox Arboretum, April 2017.

 

Awareness of God’s Presence

The sense of the presence of God.  Something I pray everyone I know may have.  I wish everyone in the world could have it.

In Paradise, Adam and Eve lived in the presence of God, they would consciously have to ignore God, intentionally block God from their hearts/minds, not to be aware of God. Literally, they  lived in His presence, in the Paradise in which God was the gardener.  They were protected by God and so nothing could hurt them.  And yet Eve, and Adam chose to banish God from their thinking.  They expelled God from their lives in order to experience the world without God’s presence.  They felt they could think more clearly if not living in that bright cloud in which God speaks (see Psalm 99:7; Matthew 17:5). [Note – in Paradise, Satan knew he could not harm God’s creatures; they were protected by the Almighty Creator.    Humans could be harmed only if they did it to themselves by choosing to wean themselves away from God.  Satan does not make Eve or Adam do anything.  In Genesis 3, Satan only hints and suggests, he never even tells Eve or Adam what to do.  They make those choices of their own free will and to their own demise.  Satan has no power over Adam and Eve, and if we Orthodox would follow our own prayers at the baptismal exorcism, we would realize that like Adam and Eve in Paradise, Satan has no power over any sealed, enlisted warrior for Christ.]

How was it possible to exile God their Creator from the world which God had made?  And yet the first humans did just that – they created some kind of limit to God, blocking God from their own sensory experience, so they could chose for themselves apart from God.   Amazing!  Yet, we all – every human being – have that same power: each of us can put God out of mind, can function as if God does not exist, can forget God completely in our daily lives.

God for God’s part has chosen to limit His own omnipotence.  When God created human beings with free will, the Almighty chose to limit divine power.   God allowed creatures to think apart from divinity and to make choices against God’s own will.   Clearly in Scriptures, God limited His own powers – in the burning bush for example.   God reveals that being all powerful means even being able to limit that power.   The burning bush was simply a foreshadowing of the real intention of God’s limits –  the incarnation in the womb of Mary in which the uncontainable God limits His presence and powers. One of the powers of the almighty God is to limit His own omnipotence!  Mary as Theotokos is both the mystery of God limiting His own omnipotence as well as the miracle of a human being able to contain divinity.

If we want to live in a world in which God’s power is limited – which we chose when we chose like Eve and Adam to follow our own will rather than God’s – God is willing to be at work in that world as well since it is still part of God’s own creation.  The Old Testament in which God appears in shadows and is veiled in mystery is the history of God limiting His almighty self in order to deal with us on our terms.  In giving us free will, God decided to deal with us on our terms for He certainly did not predestine our choices.  Just look at Genesis 2:19 –  “So out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.”  God even waits to see what Adam will call each species of animal.  God doesn’t predetermine even such a simple thing as the names of the animals He creates.  Humans have a creative role to play and they do choose and determine many things for themselves and for all creation.  [At least in Genesis of the Jews and Christians.  In the Quran, conversely, God determines everything, even the names of the animals.  Adam’s task is simply to memorize what God has predetermined the names of the animals to be.  Adam is not a creative being, but merely an obedient one in Islam’s creation story.  God tests Adam to see if he has in fact memorized what God has done.  Unlike in Islam, in Judaism and Christianity, humans have clear free will from the beginning and God observes what the humans choose – God’s love means the almighty God exercises restraint over God’s own omnipotence.]

Adam naming the animals in Paradise

The world of the Fall is a world in which God has limited His omnipotence, in which we do not always or automatically sense God’s presence.  We are not guaranteed His protection either, for example,  God does not protect us from the consequences of our own behavior.

And yet, God continues to love us and care for us and to work out His plan for our salvation.  Law, prophets, promises, saints, miracles – all were given to us to help us be aware of God’s presence.  The Old Testament is the witness to God’s continual and uninterrupted love for us humans.

Today, we also have Holy Communion for those united to Christ in baptism and chrismation.  The Eucharist is God’s gift to us to enable to further experience God’s own presence in our world, in our lives, as God works out His plan for the salvation of the world.

In the midst of a broken, fallen world, we experience grace in Holy Communion.  For in the Eucharist God is present in creation in a way which wasn’t even true in the Paradise of Adam and Eve.  We can become aware again of God’s abiding presence in His creation.  We can experience God directly and fully.  We are not alone in the world, we are not without divine help and protection.   Throughout Lent with our increased opportunities for receiving the Eucharist, we have ever more reason to be thankful and joyful and hopeful. We are not completely cut off from God, we are not orphans without a heavenly Father.  Every time we come to church, we are placing ourselves in the presence of God.  We can experience God in creation as well, but in Church we have the special gifts from God of the Body and Blood of Christ.  Christ in our midst and Christ in us.  As we pray at the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts [emphasis is mine and not in the text] :

Look upon us, Your unworthy servants who stand at this holy altar as the Cherubic throne, upon which rests Your only-begotten Son and our God, in the dread Mysteries that are set forth. Having freed us all and all Your faithful people from uncleanness, sanctify all our souls and bodies with the sanctification which cannot be taken away, that partaking with a clean conscience, with faces unashamed, with hearts illumined, of these divine, sanctified Things, and by them being given life, we may be united to Your Christ Himself, our true God, Who has said, “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him,” that by Your Word, O Lord, dwelling within us and sojourning among us, we may become a temple of Your all-holy and adorable Spirit, redeemed from every diabolical wile, wrought either by deed or word or thought, and may obtain the good things promised to us with all Your saints who have been well-pleasing to You.

O Give Thanks to the Lord

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“… we are led to give thanks to our Benefactor through the good things of this world, by which I mean

                                                     health,

                                                prosperity,

                                            strength,

                                        rest,

                                    joy,

                                light,

                            spiritual knowledge,

                        riches,

                    progress in all things,

                a peaceful life,

            the enjoyment of honors,

        authority,

   abundance and

all the other supposed blessings of this life.

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We are led to love Him and to do what good we can, because we feel we have a natural obligation to repay God for His gifts to us by performing good works. It is of course impossible to repay Him, for our debt always grows larger. On the other hand, through what are regarded as hardships we attain a state of patience, humility and hope of blessings in the age to be; and by these so-called hardships I mean such things as

illness,

discomfort,

       tribulation,

               weakness,  

          unsought distress,  

                             darkness,

                                 ignorance,

                                           poverty,

                               general misfortune,

                                            the fear of loss,

                                                           dishonor,

                                                                  affliction,

                                                                       indigence,

and so on. Indeed, not only in the age to be, but even in this present age these things are a source of great blessing to us.”  (St Peter of Damaskos, THE PHILOKALIA ,   Kindle Loc. 28948-67)

In the quote above, St. Peter of Damascus (whose Namesday it is today, February 9) gives us a long list of blessings which lead us to God.  These are blessings in this world and in this life – blessings even monastics, who are not supposed to live for this world alone, recognize and appreciate.  Even hardships (of which he also makes a long list, and monastics and non-monastics alike can agree they are things we want to avoid) become a blessing because they can increase certain virtues in us as we deal with them in faith, hope and love.

All of the above  was simply an introduction to the good news I can share about my own health.  First, let me thank all of your for your continued prayers as indeed the last 4 years have been difficult with 4 major surgeries plus chemotherapy for cancer.  This week I had both an oncology appointment and a 3-month post operative appointment with my neurosurgeon.    The good news in oncology is no news – labs continue to show no change (I continue to be anemic but that seems expected due to the surgeries and the on-going chemo).  I will have my next CT scan in about a month as they keep vigilant watch for any new tumors.  There have been none since the lung resection surgery in May of 2015.

The neurosurgeon is totally happy with the spinal fusion which seems to be holding in place.  I can walk without a cane and have none of the crippling back pain that led me to accept surgery.  I will have to live with a number of physical limits, but I no longer need the back brace (pictured above, in case you can’t recognize what it is).  That back brace first hugged me on November 8  and embraced me like a python 23.5/7 ever since.   My cane (pictured here) – I was able to lay aside immediately after surgery.   It now stands in a corner awaiting a new walking partner.  The good news is for the time being I need neither of those devices, though I have a handful of other tools and devices which help me pick up things, reach things, get my socks and shoes on and the like.   My back will never be what it was years ago, and will never be “normal” (though it is now a “new normal”) but I am able to continue to function, for which I am grateful daily.

I have learned to rejoice in the blessings of life and to see blessings in the hardships as well.   I have learned to admire those who cope with and even overcome disabilities.  I am ever thankful for those who have invented the medical devices that made my surgeries possible as well as those who improved them through engineering.  I am grateful for all of those who have learned to use technology in the medical sciences – doctors, nurses and technicians.

I give thanks to God that God has entrusted such wisdom in the sciences to help us all.  God has made it possible for us humans to remove all obstacles to our being healed by God.  Medical science removes the physical obstacles to our healing, and repentance removes the spiritual obstacles to our becoming whole and human.  Medicine and confession are thus both gifts from God which make healing possible.  Both require human help and intervention.

I have accepted that in this life there are trials and illness.  A few have asked me as to why instead of healing us, God doesn’t just prevent disease and injuries in the first place.  I can only speak about reality – in this world, we have sickness, sorrow and suffering.  Perhaps in some other world it doesn’t exist, but in our world it does, and it can serve a purpose, even be beneficial to us, though it doesn’t always seem so.    I can ask why is grass green instead of being orange or purple?  Maybe in some other world it is, but in this world, the only reality I know, it is green and must be so of necessity.  Photosynthesis requires it, we and animals depend on it for food and oxygen.  I also am reminded of a quote from St. John Cassian:

“Do not pray for the fulfillment of your wishes, for they may not accord with the will of God. But pray as you have been taught, saying: Thy will be done in me (cf. Luke 22:42). Always entreat Him in this way – that His will be done. For He desires what is good and profitable for you, whereas you do not always ask for this.”  ( THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 1326-29)

In the Beginning: God Created His Temple

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“Time! Jews in Jesus’s day and Jews in our own day have a very special sense of time. Time is moving forward in a linear fashion, with a beginning, a middle, and an end—unlike some other visions of time, in which everything is cyclical, going around and around and constantly returning to the same point. The Jewish view of time is part of the Jewish view of God and creation: God has a purpose for his good creation, a purpose to be worked out in time. Indeed, the Jewish people think of themselves as living within the long story of how that purpose is to be worked out.

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           But already, in the opening of the Bible, there is another feature. When God made the world, he “rested” on the seventh day. This doesn’t just mean that God took a day off. It means that in the previous six days God was making a world—heaven and earth together—for his own use. Like someone building a home, God finished the job and then went in to take up residence, to enjoy what he had built. Creation was itself a temple, the Temple, the heaven-and-earth structure built for God to live in. And the seventh-day “rest” was therefore a sign pointing forward into successive ages of time, a forward-looking signpost that said that one day, when God’s purposes for creation were accomplished, there would be a moment of ultimate completion, a moment when the word would finally be done, and God, with his people, would take his rest, would enjoy what he had accomplished. –N. T. Wright, Simply Jesus, p. 136

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And behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon, and this man was just and devout, waiting for the Consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.So he came by the Spirit into the temple. And when the parents brought in the Child Jesus, to do for Him according to the custom of the law,he took Him up in his arms and blessed God and said:
“Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace,
According to Your word;
For my eyes have seen Your salvation
Which You have prepared before the face of all peoples,
A light to bring revelation to the Gentiles,
And the glory of Your people Israel.”

(Luke 2:25-32)

Thanksgiving (2016)

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St. John of Kronstadt says, ‘Prayer is a state of continual gratitude.’ If I do not feel a sense of joy in God’s creation, if I forget to offer the world back to God with thankfulness, I have advanced very little upon the Way. I have not yet learnt to be truly human. For it is only through thanksgiving that I can become myself. Joyful thanksgiving, so far from being escapist or sentimental, is on the contrary entirely realistic – but with the realism of one who sees the world in God, as the divine creation.” (Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, p 55)

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