Courage, People of God

“Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the LORD!” (Psalm 31:24)

St. Alexander Schmorell, Martyr

There are so many divisive issues in our society today, many of which discourage or threaten Christians.   Sexual immorality, big government, Islam, secularism, fascism, communism, anarchy, dictatorship, Obamacare, catastrophic illness, ruthless capitalism, poverty, war, aimless hedonism, global warming, unemployment.  From every side and every one looks, one can find issues that threaten our existence with uncertainty, chaos, suffering, persecution and nihilism.

How are we to respond?   With faith, hope and love.  That is what we are taught in Christianity.  No suffering in this world is ever viewed as the end all or final word on anything.  The final word, like the first word, belongs to God.  All things happen within God’s universe, and within God Himself.  For those who believe, this is to be of comfort.  No matter how bad things may seem, God and God’s plan are still outside of the control of this world and greater than the world.

St. Paul

St. Paul told the members of the nascent church which was threatened with persecution and extinction: “Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous (Gr: literally, “play the man” – see 2 Sam 10:12), be strong. Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Corinthians 16:13-14).   Their situation was not better than ours.  They were a tiny minority without any political support or power.   The established religions all opposed them, as did the rich, the educated, the powerful, the empire.  St. Paul tells them and us the same words that God’s prophets and kings had been telling the people of God throughout history.

So God tells Moses:

“Be strong and of good courage, do not fear or be in dread of them: for it is the LORD your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.”

Then Moses summoned Joshua, and said to him in the sight of all Israel,

“Be strong and of good courage; for you shall go with this people into the land which the LORD has sworn to their fathers to give them; and you shall put them in possession of it. It is the LORD who goes before you; he will be with you, he will not fail you or forsake you; do not fear or be dismayed.” (Deuteronomy 31:6-8)

After Moses, death, God said to Joshua:

“Be strong and of good courage; for you shall cause this people to inherit the land which I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law which Moses my servant commanded you; turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; be not frightened, neither be dismayed; for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:6-9)

King Joab facing war told Israel:

“Be of good courage, and let us play the man for our people, and for the cities of our God; and may the LORD do what seems good to him.” (2 Samuel 10:12)

King David used the same words to strengthen his people:

“Then you will prosper if you are careful to observe the statutes and the ordinances which the LORD commanded Moses for Israel. Be strong, and of good courage. Fear not; be not dismayed.” (1 Chronicles 22:13)

And again King David encouraged his son, Solomon with these words:

“Be strong and of good courage, and do it. Fear not, be not dismayed; for the LORD God, even my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you, until all the work for the service of the house of the LORD is finished.” (1 Chronicles 28:20)

In Daniel’s vision he is told while in captivity:

“O man greatly beloved, fear not, peace be with you; be strong and of good courage.” And when he spoke to me, I was strengthened and said, “Let my lord speak, for you have strengthened me.” (Daniel 10:19)

There are numerous other such examples sprinkled throughout the Old Testament – often before a battle,or before some struggle, God’s people were reminded to be courageous.  Even against superior odds, even when defeat seemed inevitable, even when the people suffered great loss and defeat, they were called to courage.  St. Paul in his words to his flock is simply copying the words of his ancestors and trying to get the nascent Church and struggling Christians to be courageous even in the face of opposition. He is invoking the memory of their forefathers.  Today is our turn to hear the call and heed the words to be courageous, no matter what is happening in history.  Courage is not folly.  We are not being called to the reckless abandon of super heroes, nor to go on some ravaging offensive to destroy others.  We are called to be courageous no matter what else is happening – to be people of faith, hope and love.  Courage is faithfulness to God.

 

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Reading the Old Testament in Consonance with the Saints

This is the 6th Blog in this series which began with Reading Scripture: the Old Testament, the Torah and Prophecy.   The immediate preceding blog is How to Read the Old Testament and How Not to Read It.

In the previous blog, we noted that the correct means of reading Scriptures is not to treat it as a book of magic incantations as if we were living in a Harry Potter world:  memorize the appropriate talisman, and then bring it out in the appropriate occasion and voila you get your way magically.  If you think about the Harry Potter stories, you come to realize it is not magic that wins the day for Harry and his friends.  All the wizards and witches have the same magic at their disposal.   There is no magic however that can make you courageous, virtuous, willing to suffer for the good, or willing to sacrifice yourself for others.  The courageous and good were willing to sacrifice themselves for others.  Those following evil were afraid and trying to spare their own lives.  Moral fortitude is stronger than magic even in Harry Potter.

St. Paul in Consonance with the OT Saints

With Harry Potter in mind, one can note that in the Orthodox tradition of reading Scripture, an essential factor for reading with understanding, is to be living a life of Christian virtue.  It is not magic, but courageous fortitude which enables us to follow the way of love and the way of the Cross.  It is keeping our eyes on the Kingdom of Heaven, and actively choosing to move toward that goal which opens the treasury of the Scriptures to us.

“Consonance with the ecclesial tradition, as the primary requirement for the Orthodox Christian biblical interpreter, is exactly what Athanasius meant when he wrote this axiomatic passage about biblical interpretation in the DE INCARNATIONE…:  ‘What are the requirements for the searching of the Scriptures, and for true knowledge of them?  An honorable life is needed, and a pure soul, and that virtue which is of Christ.  For the intellect must apply this to guide its path and then it shall be able to attain to what it desires, and to comprehend it, insofar as it is possible for a  human nature to learn of things concerning the Word of God.  But without a pure mind and the modeling of one’s life after the saints, a person could not possibly comprehend the words of the saints. … Or take the case of a person who wanted to see a certain city or country.  Such a person would surely journey to the place in order to be able to see it.  It is exactly the same for someone who desires to comprehend the mind of those who speak of God.  Such a person must begin washing and cleansing their own soul, and by addressing their manner of living.  They should approach the saints by imitating their own works.  By such consonance with the saints in the conduct of a shared life, a person may understand also what has been revealed to them by God.”  (John McGuckin in SACRED TEXT AND INTERPRETATION: PERSPECTIVES IN ORTHODOX BIBLICAL STUDIES  edited by Theodore Stylianapoulis, pp 309-310)

The Cloud of Witnesses

Consonance with the saints: that great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1 ) comes alive to us and inspires us in correct thinking and behavior.   The icons which are present in our homes, and which surround us in the church, are transformed from boards on the wall into windows into heaven.  We come to realize how we must live in order to be true disciples of Christ as we understand the lives of those saints who followed the Crucified Lord.

Thus reading the Scriptures is not an act separate from our daily lives.  For the reading of Scriptures should form our lives and shape our hearts and minds.  Conversely, as our lives conform to the Gospel commands, our hearts are opened to the Word of God (Luke 24:32), and we come to see and understand “greater things”  (John 1:50).

The disciples said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” (Luke 24:32)

It is living in consonance with those who hearts were illumined and set on fire by Christ that we most and best understand the Bible.

Next:  Reading Torah and Keeping God’s Word

Tax Cuts: a Painful Way to Keep Bleeding

The Co-Chairmen of the bipartisan commission to reduce the deficit released a proposal for the commission members and general public to consider as to what is needed to reduce the national debt.  In their comments they bluntly make it clear the reduction can only come with pain to the American people; there is no other way.  Of course Americans have never taken kindly to pain when it comes to economics and thus politicians who vote on policies which affect the nation’s economy tend also not to make the hard decisions in fear of being voted out of office. 

The U.S. Congress is going to take up the issue of making permanent the Bush era tax cuts.  This is being done while simultaneously there are calls to shrink the national debt.  These are the tax cuts that Mike Kimel and Michael Kanell in PRESIMETRICS characterize in this way:

Consider, for instance, that less than two months after taking office GW laid out a plan to aggressively pay down the debt while simultaneously cutting taxes and boosting military spending.  The plan was titled, ‘A Blueprint for New Beginnings: A Responsible Budget for America’s Priorities.’  One can only wonder what an irresponsible budget might have looked like to GW’s advisors. 

According to what I’ve read, making the Bush-era tax cuts permanent will add $4 Trillion (that’s $4,000,000,000,000.00) to the national debt.  One wonders whether any Americans are really fiscally responsible or conservative who can advocate this right now.

Christmas is a time when kids tell Santa what they want and adults pay for it.  Deficits are when adults tell government what they want and their kids pay for it. (Richard Lamm)

The push for the tax cuts at this point seem to be the usual American nearsightedness when it comes to fiscal issues: we want immediate gratification and don’t want to be troubled by the fact that what we do today will have  future repercussions.  

“… a president who cuts taxes while at the same time driving up the debt is not really ‘cutting taxes.’  He is merely transferring taxes from now until some later date.”  (Mike Kimel & Michael Kanell, PRESIMETRICS)

A president who cuts the national debt, on the other hand, saves you from having to make interest and principal payments on that debt in the future, and therefore reduces you tax bill later. Unfortunately, most people don’t seem to make the connection between fiscal irresponsibility today and increased taxes later on.  (Mike Kimel & Michael Kanell, PRESIMETRICS)

We would do well to remember how we got into the national fiscal mess we are in and not perpetuate those same mistakes and then magically hope for a different result.  We might consider the words of U.S. founding father James Madison

“… war should not only be declared by the authority of the people, whose toils and treasures are to support its burdens, instead of the government which is to reap its fruits: but that each generation should be made to bear the burden of its own wars, instead of carrying them on, at the expense of other generations.”

It is we the people, or at least we through our elected political leaders, who got US into the current financial mess.  It is the current and past president and the current and past congresses which have made the decisions to  bury us in debt.

Somehow, some keep singing the song to reduce taxes, as if that is the panacea for all that ails the American economy.  Yet the national debt also ails the economy and we are not going to reduce the national debt by reducing taxes,  anymore than someone can reduce their credit card debt by reducing their income.  If we are serious about reducing the national debt, we are going to need a different remedy than reducing taxes to pay down the current debt.

I do not know where the idea that reducing taxes is the best way to grow the economy comes from – but if PRESIMETRICS  measures the data right, then reducing taxes isn’t the panacea needed.  Consider the following based on Kimel and Kanell’s analysis of the data available from 1952-2008 (Presidents Eisenhower to GWBush):

“in recent decades, higher tax burdens have been associated with faster, not slower, economic growth.” (p 120)

“there doesn’t seem to be any evidence here for the proposition that lower taxes result in higher incomes  … lower taxes- at least by themselves- are not the way to increase economic growth.”   (pp 124-125)

“The numbers are pretty compelling.  Lower average tax burdens do not produce faster economic growth, or more jobs, or bring in more tax revenues.  Similarly, tax cuts also do not produce faster economic growth, faster income growth, or more jobs, or bring in more tax revenues.  … Unexamined faith in a principle that is demonstrably false is no way to run a country.”  (pp 129-130)

So, is the idea that tax cuts are beneficial to the economy based upon intuitive assumptions rather than on any statistical analysis?    It seems like it should be true that lowering taxes would benefit tax payers in every way, but the data which PRESIMETRICS studies doesn’t uphold what is a cornerstone of political beliefs for many.

This may be a case where we need to stop believing what we think, and actually examine the data to see what in fact will bring down the national debt and help the economy.  Maybe we actually are going to have to do some of the painful things the bipartisan commission is considering, including both raising taxes and cutting spending.  Ouch!

Or maybe we will continue to pretend there is some magical and painless way to reduce the budget deficit and keep doing all the things we currently are doing. 

Any magic left in these contenders?

In the Harry Potter books and movies, ultimately it is not magic that saves the day and defeats evil, but rather the courage and persistence of its “all too human” heroes to do the right thing despite their weaknesses, even when it is very painful.

Our politicians need to learn a bit of that magic called courage.