Turning Our Heart to God

Put not your trust in princes,
in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.
When his breath departs, he returns to the earth;
on that very day his plans perish.
Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the LORD his God,
who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them,
who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed,
who gives food to the hungry.
(Psalms 146:3-7)

That which a man loves, to which he turns, that he will find. If he loves earthly things, he will find earthly things, and these earthly things will abide in his heart, will communicate their earthliness to him and will find him; if he loves heavenly things, he will find heavenly things, and they will abide in his heart and give him life. We must not set our hearts upon anything earthly, for the spirit of evil is incorporated in all earthly things when we use them immoderately and in excess, this spirit having become earthly by excessive opposition to God.

When God is present in all a man’s thoughts, desires, intentions, words, and works, then it means that the kingdom of God has come to him; then he sees God in everything—in the world of thought, in the world of action, and in the material world; then the omnipresence of God is most clearly revealed to him, and a genuine fear of God dwells in his heart: he seeks every moment to please God, and fears every moment lest he may sin against God, present at his right hand. “Thy kingdom come!

Examine yourself oftener; where the eyes of your heart are looking. Are they turned towards God and the life to come, towards the most peaceful, blessed, resplendent, heavenly, holy powers dwelling in heaven? Or are they turned towards the world, towards earthly blessings; to food, drink, dress, abode, to sinful vain men and their occupations? O that the eyes of our heart were always fixed upon God! But it is only in need or misfortune that we turn our eyes to the Lord, whilst in the time of prosperity our eyes are turned towards the world and its vain works. But what, you would ask, will this looking to God bring me? It will bring the deepest peace and tranquillity to your heart, light to your mind, holy zeal to your will, and deliverance from the snares of the enemy.

(St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ, pp. 76-77)

 Then Jesus said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled; and they left him and went away.  (Matthew 22:21-22)

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Put on Christ

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  (Galatians 3:27)

Baptism

All things are possible with Christ. Where is the pain and effort for you to become good? Things are simple. You will invoke God and He will transform things into good. If you give your heart to Him, there will be no room for the other things. When you ‘put on’ Christ, you will not need any effort to attain virtue. He will give it to you. Are you engulfed by fear and disenchantment? Turn to Christ. Love Him simply and humbly, without any demand, and He himself will free you.

Turn to Christ and say with humility and hope like Saint Paul, Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?Turn towards Christ, therefore, and He will come immediately. His grace will act at once. (Elder Porphyrios, Wounded by Love, p. 135)

Weapons in the Church?

For though we live in the world we are not carrying on a worldly war, for the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds.  (2 Corinthians 10:3-4)

In 431AD, Emperor Theodosius II the Younger, issued an edict regarding imperial dignity, rights and security which acknowledged that being Christian also meant belonging to a kingdom not of this world.   It was normative for the Emperor to be protected by armed guards which also was a show of imperial power.  Even as the Byzantines thought that their Empire could accomplish God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven“, they accepted that life on earth still required the use of he sword at times.  They were not Utopian or Pollyanna-ish in their view of a Christian empire.  However, Theodosius decreed at the Ecumenical Council in Ephesus that when entering a church, all weapons were to be left outside the church.  Not only weapons, but even his crown, another sign of imperial power, was not to be brought into the church.  Before God we stand stripped of outward signs of imperial power or weaponry, acknowledging our own submission to the will of God. 

Although we are always surrounded by the lawful imperial weaponry, and it is not fitting for us to be without weapon-bearers and guards; when, however, entering the churches of God, we shall leave our weapons outside and take off the very diadem, emblem of our imperial dignity. (at the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus, 431. From For the Peace from Above, p 111)

For Emperor Theodosius, even the “good guys” were not to bring weapons into the church.  We all stand before God as sinners without defense and in need of God’s mercy.

And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.  (Ephesians 6:17)

The Problem of Profanity

And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell. 

For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no human being can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening fresh water and brackish? Can a fig tree, my brethren, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.  (James 3:5-12)

In just about every generation, writers comment on how bad things have become – as if there were a previous age in which things were better.  That probably is a human thing, as far back as Seth who really could think things were better in his parent’s day, but even in Paradise there was a serpent and sin.  St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, who died in 1783AD,  laments the disrespectful language he was hearing in Holy Russia which he claimed had become commonplace.  He would not believe how tame the profanity he laments sounds today and in fact for many would not even count as profanity.  His words remind us we should be mindful of what we say.

Profanity has become commonplace – a thing that is extremely unbefitting Christians – as to say “By God!,” “God be upon it!,” “As God is my witness!,” “God look after it!,” “For Christ’s sake!,” and many others. And these are said by some people quite often, even in every utterance. Such profanity is nothing but a satanic plot devised to dishonor the name of God and for the destruction of man. You should guard yourself from swearing in these and other ways.

When there should be need for you to affirm the truth, let Christ’s words be for you, Yea, yea; nay, nay; for whatsoever is more than these cometh from the evil one (Mt. 5:37). (Journey to Heaven, p. 15)

For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”  (Matthew 12:34-37)

Giving Satan Opportunity

33268195933_661cfa9dcc_nAs we come to the end of Great Lent, we realize that it is easy to give Satan opportunity to enter into our lives and tempt us away from Christ.  It can happen so naturally and mundanely that it has occurred before we realize what we have done.  We turn against those around us because we have lost sight of Christ and we come to believe falsely that “my” will is the most important thing in the world, and I become willing to sacrifice everyone around me to defend and preserve my self will.   In doing this we come to the fact that when we no longer are willing to let all we do be done in love for others (1 Corinthians 16:14), we have lost Christ.   If we have lost Christ, we no longer have anything to say to other Christians.

Whenever we become obsessed by some past event in which we perceive that we have been wronged, we give the devil ample opportunity to lead us toward greater temptation. We forget that our warfare is not with each other! We are to engage in spiritual warfare against the Enemy of our salvation and his willing hosts, the demons. When we remember wrongs, we fall prey to the Father of Lies and engage in combat with our fellow brothers and sisters.   (Joseph David Huneycutt, Defeating Sin: Overcoming Our Passions and Changing Forever, Kindle Loc. 924-27)

38195829935_4831a43b3b_nThe antidote for Christians to this sinful self-will is Christ Himself.   “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).  In order for Christ to become human, He emptied himself (Philippians 2:5-7).  In order for  us to become fully human, we need also to empty ourselves and open our hearts to Christ abiding in us.   Here we realize that “the heart” of which the fathers speak isn’t the organ that pumps blood in our bodies, but refers to the spiritual reality that every person is capable of being a temple for God, or a dwelling place for Satan.  The choice is ours.

Understanding these things, enter within yourself by keeping watch over your thoughts, and scrutinize closely your intellect, captive and slave to sin as it is. Then discover, still more deeply within you than this, the serpent that nestles in the inner chambers of your soul and destroys you by attacking the most sensitive aspects of your soul. For truly the heart is an immeasurable abyss. If you have destroyed that serpent, have cleansed yourself of all inner lawlessness, and have expelled sin, you may boast in God of your purity; but if not, you should humble yourself because you are still a sinner and in need, and ask Christ to come to you on account of your secret sins.

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The whole Old and New Testament speaks of purity, and everyone, whether Jew or Greek, should long for purity even though not all can attain it. Purity of heart can be brought about only by Jesus; for He is authentic and absolute Truth, and without this Truth it is impossible to know the truth or to achieve salvation. (St Symeon Metaphrastis, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 33655-64)

This is why we prayed daily throughout Great Lent:  Grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother.

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)

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

Salvation as Deification Is to Know God

And this is eternal life, that they know You the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.  (John 17:3)

Catholic scholar Louis Bouyer  commenting on the writings of St. Irenaeus of Lyons  notes that the spirituality of the early church was one of participating in God.  To know God is to experience God and be united to the divine.

“We should note, in the above text from the Demonstratio, the use of the expression ‘to see the Logos of God’. For St. Irenaeus not only made his own the special expressions of Johannine mysticism, but assimilated them in a very personal way, as this other beautiful text indicates:

‘In His wonderful greatness and glory, “no man can see God and live”, for the Father is incomprehensible; but in His love and His humanity, and because He can do all things, He has granted even this to those who love Him: to see God, as the prophets foretold it. For “what is impossible to men is possible to God”. Of himself, indeed, man cannot see God. But He, when He wills it, is seen by men, by those He wills, when He wills it and how He wills it. For God has power to do anything: seen in a prophetic way through the Spirit, He is seen through the Son, adoptively, and He will be seen paternally in the kingdom of heaven–the Spirit preparing man for the Son of God, the Son leading him to the Father, and the Father giving him incorruptibility for eternal life, which comes to each one from the fact that he sees God.’

Christ the Ancient of Days

In the same spirit of Johannine mysticism, Irenaeus has us go on from the vision of God to the divine life that is communicated:

‘Just as those who see the light are in the light and share in its splendour, so those who see God are in God, participating in His splendour. But the splendour gives them life: thus they participate in life, those who see God. And it is because of this that He who is incomprehensible and intangible and invisible gives Himself to be seen, to be understood, to be grasped, so as to give life to those who grasp and see Him by faith. For, just as His greatness is unfathomable, so His goodness is ineffable, the goodness by which, being seen, He gives life to those who see Him. Since to live without life is impossible, the possibility (huparxis) of life comes from participation in God, and participation in God is to know Him and to enjoy His goodness. Thus men see God in such a way that they live, made immortal by the sight and truly attaining God.'”

The Spirituality of the New Testament and the Fathers, pp. 229-230)

Obedience is Better Than Asceticism

Photo by Seth Bobosh

And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.  (1 Corinthians 13:2-3)

As we move through the second week of our Lenten sojourn, we are reminded that if we are not acting in love or if we are not growing in love than our Lenten discipline, no matter what heights of ascetical self-denial we attain, are in vain.  The purpose of Lent is to control the passions and sin, not just to strictly change our diets.  Among the sayings that come to us from desert monastics are the words of Amma Syncletica. 

She also said, ‘As long as we are in the monastery, obedience is preferable to asceticism. The one teaches pride, the other humility.’ (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 234)

Asceticism can become a source of pride as we compare ourselves to how others are keeping or not keeping the food fast.  Or, even as we compare how much better we are doing this year than last or this week than last week.   Pride can set in, judgmentalism, gossip, bickering and backbiting. Or, on the other hand, envy and jeealousy, showmanship and hypocrisy.

Amma Syncletica thinks that obedience to an elder or a rule is even better because then there is no self pride, self vaunting, seeking attention or hyper-vigilance in watching what others are doing or keeping track of how much more I am doing than others.  Obedience says, it doesn’t matter what others are doing or not doing, I have a rule which I am to keep and that is what I need to be mindful of.  There is nothing to get proud about, or envious, or judgmental – we are simply doing our duty, doing what we were told to do.

“Will any one of you, who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep, say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and sit down at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and gird yourself and serve me, till I eat and drink; and afterward you shall eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.'”  (Luke 17:7-10)