Cast Away?


#21 of a Series on Psalm 50
Do not cast me from your presence
    or take your Holy Spirit from me.

Cast from His Presence?

The story of salvation history is centered on the personal encounter of people with God.  As I write this, there’s a fascinating story on the History Channel about the early civilizations in Cappadocia, Turkey and environs. It displays what is believed to be the earliest known civilization discovered in Gobekli Tepi, 200 miles away. This site is an amazing series of pillars and sculptures carved solely by stone age tools.  It is estimated to be at least 10000 years old.  Ordinarily when ancient sites are excavated they find the tools and items of everyday life – shards of pottery for holding food and drink or practical tools for providing foods.  But this site is described as a temple, a place which is dedicated to the religious-spiritual understanding of a people, and their history.  It is a probing of the deepest personal human aspects of life, and it is here that the gods (or the God) will be encountered. The knew of a Presence beyond themselves. This is the essence of the religiosity in humankind – seeking the Presence of God.

There is no spiritual life or sense of spiritual integrity unless the true[i] God is present.  The presence of God implies an immediacy, and that He is personally accessible to us. In Reflection 18, I spoke a bit about this, how God is revealed as personal, particularly in our Christian understanding of the Incarnation. This presence of God is something that humans desire in their deepest religious recesses of their being.

In this reflection we hear David begging God not to be cast from His presence. What is this presence? In the preceding reflection, I mentioned the story of the Garden of Eden, and here is the obvious starting point in the story of humankind’s experience of God’s presence.  It is described in Genesis 2 as intimate, and loving, characterized by walking in a sort of communion with God, in the cool of the evening.  The sin of Adam and Eve shatters this communion and when confronted by God’s presence and questions about the state of his naked body and soul, he distances himself from his wife as well, blaming her.  They are cast away from the Garden and all communion with Him. Paradise is lost – but worse, they are cast from the very presence of God.  Their life on earth would be difficult, but also empty.  There would be no intimacy with God and certainly they would feel a longing for restoration and re-entry into His presence. But the gates of Paradise were closed – guarded by the fiery sword of the Angels. David begs God not to do the same to Him because of His sin.  The stakes are high!

The Hebrew Encounter:  God – Hidden yet Revealed

The Orthodox Anaphora[ii] of St. Basil the Great explains the Church’s sense of how this presence was lost, but not completely,

O God, You set him in the midst of a bountiful paradise, promising him life eternal and the en­joyment of everlasting good things by keeping your commandments. But when he disobeyed You, the true God Who had created him, and was led astray by the deceit of the serpent, he was made subject to death through his own transgressions. In your righteous judgment, O God, You exiled him from paradise into this world and returned him to the earth from which he had been taken. But You provided for him the salvation of rebirth which is in your Christ Himself.  For You did not turn Yourself away forever from your creation whom You had made, O Good One, nor did You forget the work of your hands, but You visited him in different ways. Through the tender compassion of your mercy, You sent forth prophets. You performed great works by the Saints who in every generation were well­ pleasing to You. You spoke to us through the mouths of your servants the Prophets who foretold to us the salvation which was to come. You gave us the Law to aid us. You appointed angels to guard us. And when the fullness of time had come, You spoke to us through your Son Himself, through whom You had created time.

God remained present but invisible to humankind and His presence when revealed revealed His Justice and judgment, as attested in the Bible regarding the Tower of Babel, the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, etc. But, in a special way, He revealed Himself by setting aside of the Hebrew people and entering into the  Covenant with them, establishing the The Law and the ministry of the Prophets bringing His word.  But He would require faith of the Israelites, and their obedience following of His Law.  The biblical narrative of the Hebrew encounter with God In the desert,  not so much individually and personally (save for Moses), but as a people He made His presence evident to them in many ways – in miracles like the Manna for their food, and the purification of water for their drink, and their miraculous crossing of the Jordan into the Promised Land. The ongoing Presence of God was manifest through His Glory (Heb. Chabad)[iii] which was the cloud which led Moses and the Hebrews through the wilderness both revealing and hiding God at various times and ways.

For the Hebrew nation, the moments of their encounters with God in history and the sustaining force of faith and the retelling of their story[iv] as God Himself commanded, would become the personal source of inspiration, drawing the soul closer to God in thanksgiving and prayer for generations. This model of encounter with God by the Old Testament saints, the sharing of the encounter story with others engendering faith and faithfulness and the celebration and passing of the story (Word of God) on would be the way that the Christian tradition also would adopt.  In a similar way, the New Covenant is founded on those who came to see their encounter with Jesus, as a ‘new Exodus’ with God leading them through the Son. Faith, as we learn from St. Thomas, which is trust in God despite his ‘invisibility’ is what would render God present.  For Christians this pattern is clearly manifest in the Resurrection narrative, and the command to ‘tell the others’, the rebuke for failing to believe, and then the appearances to the saints in the time and manner of God’s choosing. 

But as those disciples, including Luke and Cleopas, who had that special encounter with the Risen Lord at Emmaus served the Church in a most wondrous way, by showing how the narrative of the Mystical[v] Supper on Holy Thursday would serve as the Church’s eternal means of entering into the presence of Christ by partaking of the Heavenly Eucharistic Banquet of the Glory of the Risen Lord.  This mystical way of encountering the Lord, mystical like the Cloud of the Old Testament, would be the means of revealing the Unknowable One, to everyone whose heart was open to be filled with faith, whose mind sought the Word in truth, and whose actions revealed an adherence to His Way. 

Why do I mention all of this?  

Seeking God is path that contains a number of pitfalls.  False religions (and false teachers who bear an orthodoxy only externally) can tempt one to seek experiences that effectively conjure the presence of God.  This, again, is not new as its what sorcerer Simon Magus desired to do – to capture the power of the Presence of God through magic. (Acts 8:9ff)[vi] While most people see the dangers of séance-like mysticism, Christians who long to see God may seek to experience Him in ways that are not HIS ways of true revelation.  This has been present since the early Church, where those who claim a personal experience or knowledge (Gnosticism) set aside the Way of Christ’s revelation to us, and focus on individualistic ‘words from God’ or seemingly divine actions/encounters in their personal lives. While there are a biblical witnesses to this sort of encounter (like St. Stephen or St. Paul), any such experience of the Presence of God requires great discernment of others (the Church) to determine the truth or falsehood and hence the source of the experience as from God, or from the Devil.  Many charismatic[vii] sects today insist that people must have some sort experience with God, usually one marked by ‘speaking in tongues’ or other ecstatic experiences, that bear no semblance to the Way outlined above.  These ‘encounters’ are often manifestation extraordinary happiness and joy, but at times an exaltation of self. In all cases, in the Orthodox Church, through her presbyters (priests) and those with deep spiritual experience (monastic), necessary guidance can be gained to avoid the pitfalls of a self-delusion of God’s presence.

David – The Man of Faith

David experienced the presence of God in his life, as a man who loved God and sought Him out. He was a man of prayer, the Law, and obedience to God.  This is why God really made His presence felt when David fell.  God’s presence became an experience of emptiness or absence.  Yet God remained present to Him, even in this absence.  How you may ask?  I would suggest that His conscience, formed through decades of faithfulness to God, now would serve as a brilliant, and burning light – not unlike that experienced by St. Paul.  It is the same God who convicts us of our sin, not simply to judge us, but to save us by leading us to repentance and conversion.  Instead of the joy and peace of the sense of the presence of God, David’s spirit reproached by the searing presence of the Holy Spirit, experienced not joy, but the deepest sorrow.  The Spirit alone can purify the heart – but our actions and thoughts can invite the Presence of God to be with us even in this burning way.

Do we really want this presence of God?  If His presence means this deep sorrowful and painful burning in our soul?  Our penitential practices in Orthodoxy are meant to seek the presence of God to bring forth this encounter, hence the Holy Fathers often speak of the gift of tears as the fruit of one’s encounter with the Living God.   Perhaps this is the most authentic sign of the presence of God, leading to true awareness of Him, of others, and even ourselves. It requires faith to pursue this path and not rationalize our sins, but enter into the heart where God can be found – even in the pain of repentance.

Don’t Take it Away
 

There is a joy which can follow repentance and conversion which is profound.  It is the Gift of Joy, a fruit of the Holy Spirit that can sustain people even when circumstances of life are filled with sorrow, tumult or confusion.  As with God’s presence, it is a gift, bestowed by Him upon whom He chooses, when He chooses.  Any attempt to whip oneself up into a joyful sense of God’s presence is going down a dark path, identifying God with one’s own emotional encounter of Him.  And when that fades, the darkness is deeper.

The life of David bespeaks his efforts to seek the presence of God. He came to know God in joy, but also in sorrow.  David begs God not to cast Him from His presence, as Adam was cast from the Garden.  But, perhaps ironically, by faith – despite his sin – he believes God is still present, otherwise He would pray not to be cast out in the future.  God remained with David even though he sinned, because David repented.  It is suggested (I believe in some patristic texts), that God would not have cast Adam and Eve out of the Garden either – if they had repented. St. Simeon the New Theologian puts it this way,

[Adam] tries to put the blame on GodWho had made “all things very good”…
And the woman in her turn ascribes blame to the serpent, and because both of them absolutely would not repent and fall down before their Master to ask His forgiveness, He removes them and throw them out of the royal palace, the dwellig-place of nobility – I mean Paradise – so that they must live aftewards on this earh as foreigners and exiles.
” (On the Mystical Life, St. Vladimir’s Press, p.27)

The exile happens ony because they would not repent. Or perhaps the punishment rendered by God for their healing may have taken a very different form.  

So when David says in Psalm 50, “Take not Your Presence from me.”  he is saying not only that he longs to continue to experience moments of extraordinary joy or peace or insight, but also those moments of heart-wrenching pain. In those latter moments, we realize that our that our acts have been totally contrary to God’s will and that it is only in His mercy that He remains with us.  The fiery Presence is not of the Cloud of Glory, but of the burning Conscience.

There is another promise however – that an hour is coming, when the Lord returns in glory. At that moment, Jesus, the Lamb, will wipe away every tear from their eyes. (Rev. 7:17) Ω

_________________________________


[i] Entering the realm of the spiritual, one encounters not only the Truth of God, but also the darkness of demonic forces.  These are not always well discerned.

[ii] This beautiful theological liturgical prayer. Authored by St. Basil the Great in the Fourth century,  expresses God’s economy toward humankind in broad terms, but filled with biblical imagery. An anaphora is the prayer of offering of the gifts of Bread and Wine to become the Eucharist. The ultimate theme of the Eucharistic prayer is the restoration of humankind through the saving death and Resurrection of Christ.

[iii] The Greek renders ‘glory’ as ‘ortho’ – and this is the core meaning of the ‘ortho’ of Orthodox.

[iv] The heart of Hebrew identity and worship is the Passover narrative, which the Lord commanded to be celebrated annually in a series of remembrances and liturgical actions in Exodus 12.

[v] While the Western Church calls this the ‘Last’ Supper, the Orthodox Church describes this as the Mystical Supper because it is the gateway to entry into the Mystery of eternal life, abiding in Christ, through Holy Communion. It was actually the first supper, of the Banquet of the Kingdom of God.

[vi] It is interesting that despite St. Peter’s reproach of Simon, according to Tradition, he later became a part of the apostolic community.

[vii] In my life I have been blessed by many Christians who are Pentecostal or Evangelical who believe in Christ deeply and live according to His will as best they can while emphasizing one’s relationship with Christ personally. The dangers of self-induced ‘experiences’ of God or even His leadings in life present themselves within all faith communities of Christianity today, and Orthodoxy has had its own countless examples.  The advantage that Orthodoxy has is that Holy Tradition buffers the experience of the individual, allowing for the possibility of a clearer discernment if it is sought.

Psalm 50 and Stewardship?

        

http://www.pinterst.com

#20 of a Series on Psalm 50

I’m taking a brief pause from the verse-by-verse walk through Psalm 50 to address a question that came to my mind, namely,

What has penance got to do with Christian stewardship?”

 I figured it to be an appropriate question here because, after all, I do title this blog Stewardship Now, with the subtitle, Orthodox Christian Reflections on Life and Stewardship.  Embedded within the titling is the sense I have of the importance of a lived Christianity now, and in daily life. Stewardship is central to that way of living.  But what does stewarship have to do with the theme of Psalm 50 – repentance?

First, a word about how I view stewardship for those who may not have read elsewhere.  Taking the imagery from the creation narrative where God establishes man and woman in the Garden of Eden as its caretaker, symbolic of the ‘dominion’ given to him over all the earth and the creatures of it (Gen. 1, 2).

But when I explore the biblical roots of this idea, I run into the problem of the nuances of language.  Many translations of Gen. 1:26: Let Us make man in our image … Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of heaven,…”(Orthodox Study Bible)  use terms like ‘dominion’ or ‘rule.’ ‘‘Dominion’ in the English language implies a total power or authority as it is linguistically derived from ‘Dominus’ in Latin, meaning ‘God’.  But Man is not God so he does not have godly dominion! Rather he is to serve in the image of God as His worldly and royal representative.  It’s precisely in this point of departure – understanding empowerment by God of a type of authority and responsibility that we lay a groundwork for a right understanding of stewardship – or not.  When man becomes ‘dominus’, creation will be used for sinful purposes.  This is at the heart of the story of the Fall in the Garden in the Garden of Eden, and the relationship of God-man-creation is ruined.  Who will be Dominus?

So what is sin then, if not a failure of stewardship? In the simple imagery of fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2, the sin is an abuse of a gift (the fruit in the Garden) taken (stolen) because it was not entrusted to man by God, rather explicitly forbidden to him by God, unlike all of the other fruits.  God’s directive is either obeyed – leading to faithful stewardship, or not. Furthermore, the eating of the fruit internalized the sinful act establishing the corruption literally within Adam and Eve. It is no accident, that Christ, in restoring humankind to purity and holiness, would do it by giving us something to eat – the Eucharist.[ii]

Forgiveness is necessary because the Original Sin was a failure in this fundamental human stewardship vocation.  If we see that our life consists fully and only of what God has entrusted to us, then all of our sins will somehow relate to how we fail to carry out the divine mandate to live in a way that is pleasing to God, in every dimension of life. 

How Have I Failed You? Let me Count the Ways

Here are a few simple of examples drawn out from this premise:

1. Pride and Vainglory – Pride is a failure to submit to God’s dominion over us, everyone else, and the world He created, preferring personal dominion over our ourselves and all things. This is a failure of the most basic gift entrusted to us – the gift of a right relationship with God Himself.  Related to this is the sin of vainglory, which is the drive of the ego to exultation of one’s self above others – putting us above them in our own minds reflecting self-aggrandizement inwardly and also in external actions.  In essence, I am better than you… rather than, I am here to serve you.

2. Theft – Is simply taking that which has not been entrusted to us, but instead often intended for others.  It can take every imaginable form – not only of simple things like a piece of candy in the store or embezzlement at work to the theft of less tangible things like intellectual property, to societally authorized theft, such as corporate or governmental exploitation of the poor.

3. Lust – AdulteryFornication:  These sins of sexual desire are a failure of the will to accept the boundaries established by the Lord in human relationships where a woman is entrusted to a man (and vice versa) in the sexual expression of marriage.  The penitential prayer of David is required because of his fall into this sin.  In the case of fornication, it also means the defilement of the body of another person who is engaged in this activity contrary to God’s will. These sexual sins called porneia in the New Testament, also take countless forms in things like pornography, homosexuality, incest and any other actions that promote lustful thoughts and feelings.  These are all failures of stewardship of our bodies, which have been blessed by God in their sexual nature and expression, intended for holiness and love.

4. Lying –  The Truth is a great gift of God. It is the essence of His Nature which Jesus affirmed when He said, “I am the Truth.”  (Jn.14:6)  Therefore, lying is the opposite – the failure to affirm, steward and transmit the Truth, most often for a certain fallen/egotistical intention.  I lie to get something I want.  Lying destroys another great Gift of God – which is Trust.  When the atmosphere of relationships is tainted with lies, there can be no trust.  This is perhaps the greatest evil of our age.

8. Relationship Failures with Others – Every relationship is entrusted to us by God in some fashion.  The most powerful and lasting are those closest to us – our spouses and families.  Simply put, if the marriage relationship is not cared for, it will result in anger, violence and disruption followed by dissolution and divorce. Close relationships like parent-child relationships, are to be stewarded with great care and, failing that, children wind up abused and neglected.  But the Lord has a commandment for children going the other way – ‘Honor your Father and your Mother’  (Ex. 20:12) means that the relationship is two ways in its ability to bring the very experience of love to another.  Love is to be the heart of every relationship as found in the great commandments to love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. (Mk. 12:31)   We gift of relationship is everywhere!  It’s part of the essence of Christian-church life (fellowship). Our extended families, employment, public service, social circles, neighborhoods, schools, etc. all become the realm of relationship – and hold the temptations that lead to relationship failures. Our new technology allows us to see the possibility of ‘neighbors’ around the globe, with whom we can enter into some form of relationship, characterized by love, or something else.[iii]

5. Murder – Violence:  Is a breakdown of the stewardship of the precious gift of life.  Perhaps there is never a more clear example of this than abortion which is infanticide– when the precious life of another is willfully and selfishly taken. Violence becomes the ‘air’ which is breathed when an appreciation of the gift of life is lost.  We see that, increasingly, as murder is legally permitted in the streets of America, the atmosphere of violence becomes more toxic to all who inhabit it. This is because so many people in recent generations have been sent to war, ostensibly for ‘good’ reasons, but themselves are wounded by the violence.

There are countless other examples – here are but a few more:

6. Waste – A steward who is aware is diligent seeking to care for all entrusted to her or him. Hence whenever we waste something, it is a failure of stewardship.  Over the years, especially as I get older (!), I become aware that Time is one of the greatest gifts of God to us that we are most likely to waste. When we squander it, some day we come to regret it and we run out of it.  This happens to almost all as they get older, when they look back and see how they wasted their time, which means that they wasted their lives.  Another thing that we can easily squander is our health.  God’s gift of health (even if imperfect) is easily wasted when we trash our bodies with what we eat or drink, when laziness keeps us from exercise, or through a lifestyle that deprives our bodies of what we really need, even sleep. Our materialistic lifestyles has led to great waste and a disruption of the physical world and we trash our life-sustaining ecosystems in materialistic pursuit.  The beautiful life-sustaining earth becomes a toxic trash heap.

7.  Sins of the Mind – Our inner rational thought capabilities are among the greatest gifts to us in our human condition. The Apostle Paul exhorts,


Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” (Phil. 4:8 NIV) 

In the entertainment and Internet age, it is easy to focus our minds on things with no lasting importance, all the while ignoring things like growing in our understanding of Scripture and the spiritual life.  Evil thoughts can take many, many forms – but in the end our thoughts couple with some other inner desire within, and we end up using our minds for evil and not for good. That coupling of our minds with desire is called covetousness – where we then focus our life energies and resources on acquiring things only of limited, short-term earthly value or pleasure. The mind’s great power can be corrupted in other ways if there is no inner, moral formation.  The one who is capable of great scientific discovery is also capable of failing to direct it in such a way that the very discovery brings great harm to others, instead of help.

9. The Care of our Soul – In a sense, all of the above come under the broad umbrella of our fundamental relationship with God which can be either focused and nourished, or abused and ignored.  God’s gift of Himself in Christ is the most precious gift – our Faith in Christ and the life in the Spirit.  As stewards of the spiritual life our souls will be nourished by prayer, reading of God’s Word, participation in Church life, exercise of spiritual gifts unto eternal life and salvation, or ignored or discarded unto our damnation.

 ______________________ 

This is a very short list of some of the gifts entrusted to us all, in different and even distinctive ways to each of us.  Often, we are unaware of them or worse, see these somehow as entitlements.[iv]  The sins for which we must repent in the Spirit of Psalm 50, are any and all of the above – they are all failures to steward the blessings of God. The coming to an awareness of God, as the source of “every good and perfect gift that comes from above” (Jas 1:17) leads us to an awareness of how we have not lived in a way worthy of our calling to steward these gifts.  In some cases, that failure leads to the gift being taken from us (like the death of the ill-conceived child of David and Bathsheba – see 2Sam. 12:15ff) and a descent into the heart in sorrow can lead to a resurrection of the spirit of surrender to God of all things in life and the change of heart described as repentance in the scriptures.

Conclusion – The Answer

So, to answer the question, ‘What does penance have to do with stewardship?’ we can say everything! We can see that penance is our only way to be restored when we have failed (sinned) in any and all of these areas of stewardship which is the heart of Christian living. Because each of us is entrusted with different gifts and uses them (or misuses them) distinctly, our penance must be personal and reflective of our personal life, our own failures.  No one else can confess my sins but me.[v]  David’s sin led to the disruption and destruction of his soul.  His repentance was the restoration of his soul, his mind and his will to once again carry out God’s gift of his relationship with Him, and the rest of his life.

Penance means turning back to this fundamental orientation from creation – where God is the Lord and has dominion over us once again. Christian stewardship is the recognition of this, returning to God and offering penance is the first step of making sacred the offering of our life to Him again, purified through repentance. Ω

Note: For those who may wish to explore this topic further, I have developed a Stewardship Examination of Conscience, that explores many facets of living as invitations by God to be faithful stewards of His gifts – and listing them, we can quickly see how, where and sometimes why we fall short and sin.    To acquire a copy at not expense, simple contact me here: https://www.orthodoxsteward.com/contact/  .


 

[ii] Much of this follows the thought of the late, Fr. Alexander Schmemann.  His chapter on the Eucharist in For the Life of the World and The Eucharist, provide rich reflection on this basic act of eating. (Both published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press)

[iii] I’ve found that in my Facebook account, there are a large number of African folks who just want to be ‘friends’ so I say OK! But then I find that they have hopes, dreams, sorrows and souls.  How does one steward that from a distance?

[iv] With the rise of an ‘entitlement mentality’ in America today, it is very easy to confuse what we think belongs to us by right, and what is actually a gift of God.  At the moment of death we learn that everything has been a gift and that we have either accepted and used it wisely, or abused it in one way or another.

[v] Sometimes we face a big challenge teaching children how to confess their sins.  We use formulaic expressions and general categories of things they might do wrong. But what is needed for children and adults to really grow through true penance is when they are touched with how they have personally and distinctly failed before the face of God.  This opens the door to the experience of a very personal experience of the mercy of God in His forgiveness of the very sins confessed and His distinctively personal love not only for ‘all of us’, but for me.  This is when the opening lines of the Psalm ring true, “Have mercy on me.”


 [FRH1]