There is Hope: We Can Change


For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.”  (Isaiah 55:10-11)

“Let no one, therefore, who is living in vice despair of himself, know that, as agriculture changes the properties of plants, so the diligence of the soul in the pursuit of virtue can triumph over all sorts of infirmities.”  (St. Basil, The Fathers of the Church, p. 78)

Romans 12:9-21

In Romans 12:9-21, St Paul lists a variety of attitudes, feelings and behaviors which he believes are genuinely Christian, and thus to be put into practice by all who follow Christ.  The list is simple and straightforward, so no commentary is needed.  We only need to put them into practice in our hearts, minds and lives to demonstrate our own desire to be disciples of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ.

Let love be genuine;

hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good;

love one another with brotherly affection;

outdo one another in showing honor.

Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord.

Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.

Contribute to the needs of the saints, practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

Live in harmony with one another;

do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; never be conceited.

Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.

If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all.

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

No, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Vacation and Recreation

One might get the impression from the monastic tradition of the Church that the life of a Christian is all work and no play.  Yet, the monastic tradition is nothing if not brutally honest about what it means to be human – our limits, our foibles, our weaknesses.  So, it shouldn’t be surprising that even in the strict spiritual tradition of the desert fathers we find a story (in several variations) of the human need for rest and relaxation.  The stories of the desert fathers often contain humor in them, or the humor is obvious in the story.  Here is one story where Abba Antony realizes he and the monks are being observed by a layman who is scandalized to see the Abbot jesting with the monks.  The Abbot realizes he needs to soothe the ruffled feathers of the scandalized layman.

There was somebody in the desert hunting wild animals and he saw Abba Antony jesting with the brothers. The elder wanted to convince the hunter that he had to come down to the level  the brothers from time to time. He said to him: “Put an arrow to your bow and draw it.” He did so. He said to him: “Draw again,” and he drew. Again he said: “Draw.” The hunter said to him: “If I draw beyond its capacity my bow will break.”

Said the elder to him: “So is it too with the work of God. If we draw on the brothers beyond their capacity, they will quickly break. So it is necessary to come down to the level of the brothers from time to time.” The hunter was conscience-stricken when he heard this and went his way greatly benefitted by the elder. The brothers withdrew to their place strengthened. (Give Me a Word, pp. 33-34)

While we enter into our summer vacation season, we can appreciate the gift that God gives us to enjoy life, to recreate our hearts and minds.  While it is true we are to continue practicing our faith in every circumstance, we also are to pray, give thanks and rejoice as part of our Christian life (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).  It is true that we cannot take a vacation from God, we still can take a vacation to renew our gratitude to our Creator.

The Dangers of Discipleship

At the same time, he [Jesus] emphasizes from the start the controversial nature of this mission, which would be fulfilled in spite of the longstanding laws of both the Jewish and Gentile worlds, which would provoke anger, rejection, and malice, and which would be the cause of family strife. He does not behave at all as a Jewish rabbi of his time would, who probably would promise his disciples various blessings, predict success in other undertakings, and teach them how to achieve it. Jesus says nothing of the sort. He does not promise his disciples success, happiness in their personal life, material prosperity, or spiritual comfort. He does not promise them acceptance from their compatriots, the Gentiles, or even their close relatives.

We can only guess what sort of reaction such predictions elicited from the disciples. As John Chrysostom writes:

For indeed we have great cause to marvel, how they did not straightway dart away from Him on hearing these things, apt as they were to be startled at every sound, and such as had never gone further than that lake, around which they used to fish; and how they did not reflect, and say to themselves, “And wither after all this are we to flee? The courts of justice against us, the kings against us, the governors, the synagogues of the Jews, the nations of the Gentiles, the rulers and the ruled.”

(Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, Jesus Christ: His Life and Teaching, p. 425)

The Lord Approaches to Enter Our Hearts

The Lord said to my Lord:

‘Sit at My right hand, until I make Your enemies,

a footstool for Your feet.’  (Psalm 110:1)

“… let us consider the way in which the psalmist speaks about the divinity of Christ.  He does not try to coerce us into belief.  What we believe is a matter of indifference to him.  He simply announces a fact:  the one addressed in the psalm is a priest, a king, and my God (cf Ps 145:1).  There is no need of any further  explanation.  If you so wish, believe in Him; if not, don’t believe.  In either case, He remains the Eternal King, seated upon His throne.  If you so wish, offer Him your heart, for we encounter God in faith, in the spacious freedom of the heart.  The Lord does not approach us in order to sway us with arguments and theories.  He approaches us in order to enter our hearts.”

(Archimandrite Aimilianos, PSALMS AND THE LIFE OF FAITH, p 70)

God Provides What We Need

We ought all of us always to give thanks to God for both the universal and the particular gifts of soul and body that He bestows on us. The universal gifts consist of the four elements and all that comes into being through them, as well as all the marvelous works of God mentioned in the divine Scriptures. The particular gifts consist of all that God has given to each individual.

These include wealth so that one can perform acts of charity; poverty, so that one can endure it with patience and gratitude; authority, so that one can exercise righteous judgment and establish virtue; obedience & service, so that one can more readily attain salvation of soul; health, so that one can assist those in need and undertake work worthy of God, sickness, so that one may earn the crown of patience; spiritual knowledge & strength, so that one may acquire virtue; weakness & ignorance, so that, turning one’s back on worldly things, one may be under obedience in stillness and humility;

unsought loss of goods and possessions, so that one may deliberately seek to be saved and may be helped when incapable of shedding all one’s possessions or even of giving alms; ease & prosperity, so that one may voluntarily struggle and suffer to attain the virtues and thus become dispassionate and fit to save other souls; trials and hardship – so that those who cannot eradicate their own will may be saved in spite of themselves, and those capable of joyful endurance may attain perfection. All these things, even if they are opposed to each other, are nevertheless good when used correctly; but when misused, they are not good, but are harmful for both soul and body.

(St Peter of DamascusThe Philokalia: Vol. 3, p. 172)

What If You Planned a Party and No One Showed Up?

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. This I command you, to love one another.  (John 15:16-17)

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The Gospel lesson in  Luke 14:16-24 (**the text of the parable is at the bottom of this post) offers us  the parable of the man who planned a formal supper and sent invitations to those he really wanted to attend.  This lesson occurs at a time when Jesus offers some practical advice to His followers about proper behavior.

In 14:7, the Gospel says Jesus told them a parable, yet what follows in 14:8-14 isn’t a parable at all, but direct advice in vs. 8-11 about how to behave humbly when invited to a wedding reception: not to sit down at the head table and then be asked to move because you don’t belong there, but rather to make oneself obscure and let the host invite you in front of everyone else to sit at an honored place.  The humble will be exalted, but the prideful will be brought low.   The text reads like an Emily Post etiquette manual.

Next, in 14:12-14, Jesus advises his followers not to plan dinner parties with a guest list of people to whom you are indebted or people you want to make indebted to yourself.  Don’t invite friends and families who will then reciprocate and invite you to their dinner parties.  Rather, invite people who cannot repay you – the poor, needy, the homeless, the unemployed.  Here, Jesus is teaching from the point of view of the up-side-down Kingdom of Heaven.  You will be blessed by offering hospitality to those who can’t repay you in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Immediately upon hearing Jesus teaching, someone shouted out: “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!”   Perhaps it was one of the poor who realized that they would certainly benefit if the values of the Kingdom were lived in this world.  If we did on earth what is done in heaven, God’s will would be done.   Maybe most of those listening to Jesus just sighed, thinking that you can’t really invite all these unwanted people to your dinners, because you are obligated to invite those who invite you.  We all go to such events, we put them on our calendars, even if we don’t really want to go because we feel the social or familial obligation.  Of course, then we are really being hypocrites but we don’t want that exposed either and usually force ourselves to go thinking it is politically correct.

46294599282_89faf533fe_nIt is only at that point that Jesus tells the parable already mentioned in 14:7.  The parable tells about a man who sent invitations to those he wanted to attend his special dinner party.  The supper is not open to just anyone, but is by invitation only.  What kinds of people do we invite to such parties?  Usually we invite friends and family members who have invited us to their dinners.  We owe them.  We also invite special friends and family members who we feel particularly honored to have them in our homes.  We feel some indebtedness to them when they grace us with their presence.  Perhaps we want to impress others with who is willing to attend our dinners.  We also may invite some we want to be indebted to us – people we hope will then feel obligated to reciprocate our invitation and will have to invite us to their parties.    The system of invitation to dinners becomes largely an exchange of paying off debts or indebting others to us.  It is all mutually self-serving.

In our culture, parties and gift exchanges are often about maintaining a balance, everyone “owes” everyone else and you keep the peace and the balance by doing your part to equally pay back everyone else for their efforts.  Everyone is held indebted to everyone else by the feelings of reciprocal payments.   If we have a wedding, often the guest list is at least partially based on who invited us to their wedding.    Jesus challenges this system of social payback.  Even sinners know enough to do this for their friends and family (Luke 6:32-34), but the Kingdom people are to live by the values of the Kingdom not the social values of this world.  Just as Christ came to call the sick and sinners to Himself, we could do the same.

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Remember in Luke 14:12-14, Jesus has already given the direct teaching not to engage in this social mutual exchange, but rather to give freely to those who cannot repay you.  Give and expect to get nothing in return (Luke 6:35).  The blessedness of the Kingdom comes not in repaying others for the kindnesses they do to you, but to extending hospitality and grace and goodness to those who could never repay you.  Here Jesus is clearly saying, don’t behave just like everyone else.  Your behavior as citizens of the Kingdom has to be better than what any sinner would do.  Sinners will repay sinners expecting the same again.

Now, the unexpected happens in Jesus’ parable.  The man carefully plans his invitation list, and invites only those he wants at this dinner – no doubt those he wants to impress or be impressed and those to whom he is socially indebted or whom he wants socially indebted to him.  But on the day of the big party, no one shows up. NOT ONE!  All have excuses about other things they would rather do (though claiming they needed to do them).    So, what do you do if you plan a dinner party and not one of the invited guests decides to come?

Of course there is an initial reaction of anger, because you would feel betrayed, or dissed or embarrassed.    You wouldn’t want anyone else to know that absolutely no one showed up to your party.   The message is clear – no one wants to be indebted to you, no one wants reciprocal payment from you for what they gave you.

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For this man in the parable, there is a sudden realization that the whole system of mutual invitations which keeps the social structure together and keeps people at peace with one another because of mutual indebtedness has collapsed.  And though he initially feels angry, he doesn’t directly act against those who have offended him.  Instead he is moved to do what Jesus had taught we should do – he opens his party to the poor, the homeless, the unemployed, the undesirable.   He even goes further, just  to have every seat at the party filled, he drags in the dregs of the earth to feed them.  Whereas he wouldn’t have done that voluntarily, he does it  to show his invitees that he cares nothing about indebtedness to them or their indebtedness to him.    He won’t be held hostage by the values of the world but rather will live by the values of a different Kingdom.   Their rejection of his invitation has freed him to act according to totally different set of values.  And though God loves the cheerful giver, God can bless and accept our gifts to the poor even when our motives are muddied by our emotions.

Or maybe he recognizes that all the proper social protocol of “gift exchanges” is ridiculous.  People on the high social plane keep repaying each other by attending their events even when they have no interest in them.  Social obligation becomes a burden which we hate.   The man is freed of such social obligations, now he can feed people who can’t provide food for themselves.  Instead of buying more gifts for people who already have everything they want, we give to those who really need something.

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Of course nothing that he did would endear him to those who rejected his invitation.  Perhaps they would even stop inviting him to their events if he was going to behave in such a crazy manner.

The man in the  parable comes to understand what his wealth is for – not for feeding other wealthy people, not for giving to those who can easily provide for themselves, but for feeding those who have no access food and nowhere to go.  Those without money or social status, those who cannot repay him with more invitations to rich banquets.  He suddenly realizes what it is to be like God.  For God invites to His messianic banquet exactly those who cannot repay Him.

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**Luke 14:16-24 –
Then He said to him, “A certain man gave a great supper and invited many, and sent his servant at supper time to say to those who were invited, ‘Come, for all things are now ready.’ But they all with one accord began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of ground, and I must go and see it. I ask you to have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to test them. I ask you to have me excused.’ Still another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’ So that servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house, being angry, said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in here the poor and the maimed and the lame and the blind.’ And the servant said, ‘Master, it is done as you commanded, and still there is room.’ Then the master said to the servant, ‘Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled. ’For I say to you that none of those men who were invited shall taste my supper.’”

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Ambition

The desire of the righteous ends only in good; the expectation of the wicked in wrath.  (Proverbs 11:23)

From the fruit of his mouth a good man eats good, but the desire of the treacherous is for violence.  (Proverbs 13:2)

Desire is sometimes presented in spiritual writings as a root cause of humanity’s problems.  Certainly, in Buddhism, desire is the cause of suffering, and in fact in some forms of Buddhism, desire is what brought the world that we know into existence.  Christian Scriptures on the other hand present a far more nuanced view of desire.  There is evil desire and the desire for evil, but there is also good desire as well as the desire for the good.  Desire can motivate us to seek God, to seek that Beauty, Truth and Goodness which is beyond the limits of the self.  Desire, on the other hand, can be nothing more than sinful passion – a selfishness moving one away from God or even against one’s fellow human beings.   Thus desire can lead to love for God and for the good of others, or it can bring us to total self love with a disregard for all others.

If desire becomes strong enough it can motivate us to forgo immediate gratification and instead strive for long term goals.  That we sometimes term ambition and at least at one time was connected to being willing to work hard to achieve a goal.

Ambition: a strong desire to do or to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work.  (online Dictionary)

Today, however, ambition is often viewed more negatively and nefariously as self-serving:

Ambition: an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

We are warned in the New Testament about such ambition:

For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.   (James 3:16)

Perhaps because of the negative connotation of ambition, I was really struck by the Revised English Bible’s (REB) translation of 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12:

Let it be your ambition to live quietly and attend to your own business; and to work with your hands, as we told you, so that you may command the respect of those outside your own number, and at the same time never be in want.  

By contrast the Revised Standard Version (RSV) translates the text this way: “aspire to live quietly…”

I can desire or aspire to live quietly and attend to my own business.  It is easy for me personally as a person who is both an introvert and shy.  But to make it my ambition?  This is a challenge for me and maybe for all of us.  We might hope that somehow things will fall into place and be peaceful, but St. Paul says we are to make it our ambition to live quietly.  There is a seeming contradiction in terms, which is what makes the text stand out so in my mind.  We are to strive to live quietly and peacefully.  My ambition should be to live quietly!   The jarring nature of the phrase is exactly because for us ambition is viewed mostly as a self-serving pursuit of self-glorification.  It is the difference, as I heard someone say, between the explorers who were seeking knowledge about the world as versus the adventurers who are seeking fame and glory for their own name.

But ambition itself is not the sin or the problem.  The issue is what are we ambitious to do?

Our ambition as Christians is to live the values of the peaceable Kingdom.  Our ambition is to be peaceful, meek, patient, poor, humble, gentle, always putting the good of the other ahead of our own wants.

Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need.     (Acts 4:32-35)

Cultivating vs Chaos

“Woe to the road if no one walks along it nor hears in it the voice of man, because it has become the den of wild beasts!  Woe to the soul in which the Lord does not pass along its route and from which the Lord does not drive out by his voice the spiritual wild beasts of evil!

 Woe to the house where the master does not abide!

Woe to the earth which does not have a farmer to cultivate it!

Woe to the ship without a navigator, because it is carried along by the waves and by the heaving of the sea and is lost!

Woe to the soul which does not have the true navigator, Christ, in it, because finding itself on the sea of frightful darkness and tossed to and fro by the heaving of the passions and beaten by the winter storm of evil spirits, it finally gains perdition!

Woe to the soul when it does not have Christ, cultivating it with care so as to bring forth good fruits of the Spirit; because left sterile and filled with thorns and thistles, its fruit finally is burning in the fire.  Woe to the soul when it does not have Christ as its Master dwelling in it, because being abandoned and filled with the foul odor of passions, it finds itself a dwelling place of iniquity.

Just as the farmer, when he girds himself to cultivate the soil, must take the tools and clothing for cultivating, so Christ the King, the heavenly and true cultivator, when he came to humanity made barren by evil, put on the body and carried the cross as his tool and worked the barren soul and removed from it the thorns and thistles of evil spirits and pulled up the weeds of sin and burned up with fire every weed of its sins.

And in this way he cultivated it with the wood of the cross and planted in it the most beautiful paradise of the Spirit, bearing every fruit that is sweet and delectable to God as its owner.”

(Pseudo-Macarius, THE FIFTY SPIRITUAL HOMILIES AND THE GREAT LETTER, pp 184-185)

Clothe Yourself With Christ

“‘As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise. For if ye love them which love you, what thank have ye? For sinners also love those that love them…But love ye your enemies and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again and your reward shall be great and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil. Be ye therefore merciful as your Father is also merciful.’ (Luke 6:30-36)

These words of Christ describe two ways. On the one hand, the ‘natural’ way is to do good to them that do good to us, to love them that love us. The other way, the way of the Gospel, takes us far beyond the natural way. Christ leads us to a deeper, supernatural way of life, a reflection of the perfect life of God: ‘Love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again. Be ye therefore merciful as your Father also is merciful.’ This commandment raises the human soul to great heights, for by it we are made children of the Heavenly Father and become like unto God.

The Lord’s commandment does not have a negative character. He does not say, ‘Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you’ but ‘Do unto others that which is precious to you, which so fills your soul that you would wish to receive it from them.’ Christian asceticism is ultimately meaningless unless it has a positive character. It is not simply a matter of ‘don’t do this or that’ but rather ‘do this, and be perfect’. We struggle not merely – to divest ourselves of the passions of the old man, but to clothe ourselves with the new man, the New Adam, that is, with Christ Himself.”

(Archimandrite Zacharaias, Remember Thy First Love, p. 316-317)