Teaching the Wicked – Good Luck with That!

clipartbest.com           

#27 of a Series on Psalm 50 –  “I will teach transgressors your ways and the wicked shall return to You… .“  (Orthodox Study Bible)

I wonder if other priests have had the following experience.  You give the homily at the Liturgy and on the way back to the altar to do Part 2 of the Liturgy, you ask yourself, ‘Did this mean anything to anybody out there?’ A second question often follows, ‘Was there anything in what I said that was worth listening to?’ In the humorous but pithy saying used by people today, are the faithful thinking to themselves, ‘Well, that’s 20 minutes of my life I’ll never get back!’?

These are not bad questions to ask.  Preachers can notoriously go on and on with zero positive effect (a situation feared by all parishioners) and possibly actually doing harm in the end.  We’ve got to be on guard against that.  A positive effect though can be that our preaching undergoes a better critique – either by myself, or others, who can help us understand why our message doesn’t get through, or perhaps more importantly, why the message isn’t reflecting the Message of Jesus.

One thing that I’ve noticed over the years is an overall aversion in our culture to preaching.  Preaching comes with a point – and people ‘don’t want to be preached to.’   But if that’s the case then Peter would never have stood up and preached in Acts 2 after the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the first 3000 would not have been converted, and nobody after that, and the New Testament would have ended there!  I don’t like to be preached at either.  But I do like to be engaged by a thoughtful preacher who cares, and who has a point worth hearing.  What is usually the case is that the resistance of us, the audience, to the point is often the point.  Why do we resist hearing something new, or challenging, that may in the end better our lives?  The goal of preaching is not just to ‘make points’ nor to slay people with impressive words, but to open the Word in a way that the embrace of divine Love through the Gospel challenges people to discover.  It opens hearts, not closes minds.  If this is the case, then personal sin will always oppose the Gospel, hence repentance is the starting point of the Point.

Opposition Research – What do people respond to?

The Right Words – Truth:  The testimony that leads to conversion is that which is True.  Jesus Christ identified Himself as the Truth.  His words have the power to penetrate the human heart.  The teaching or preaching which is just pious philosophy or a feel-good message will have no lasting spiritual impact.

The Right Person – Authenticity and Authority:  I mention this as a follow-up to a previous reflection.  The message of the Gospel is validated by the words and actions of the person presenting it.  Only a person who has been ‘leveled’ by repentance is believable when repentance is being preached.  It comes across not only through the words, but an inner awareness coupled to emotion and always, humility. It can faked – but not successfully certainly not over the long term.  The authenticity ratchets up when the Way of Christ is visible in other aspects of the life of the local church and its flock, especially the pastor, where, love and service to others is felt, especially the poor and others on the fringes. This means the message may be taught by words but is affirmed through the works of those living it. 

The experience of true humility (for the repentant) as well as that manifest in the life of Christ who needed no repentance, leant an air of authority to Christ and the apostles who preached in his name. The people contrasted that authenticity of Christ with the Pharisees and scribes, saying, “He speaks with authority.” (Mt. 7:29)  The repentant need not fear accusations because they’ve already dealt with their sins.  The accusers (in imitation of the Devil) have no power over the Truth within them of God’s mercy, despite their sin. 

A Crack and an Opening:  For the Word to penetrate our consciousness requires something special to happen. This is God’s work taking place long before a preacher/teacher shows up.  We learn from the story of Nathaniel’s conversion (Jn 1) that something had happened in his life while he was under the fig tree, that prepared him to hear the words of Jesus reference that event. It really isn’t important to us here what that was, otherwise the narrative would include it.  But it predisposed Nathaniel to hear the words of Truth of Jesus when He said, “I saw you under the fig tree.” And that was enough to allow a flood of awareness to come to Nathaniel, leading him to cry out, “You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel.”    SOMETHING happened under the fig tree that served as the trigger to his awareness.[i]  Scripture is replete with stories[ii]  of events small or large that serve as the gateway to a person discovering the Lord’s Word and call in their lives.  For the shepherds at Bethlehem it was the appearance of angels and a message of a birth of a child in nearby Bethlehem. The healings and miracles of Jesus and the apostles often served to open this awareness in the minds of people.  

For us that moment can be anything – a chance encounter with another person, a freak seemingly accidental event,  or an event that pricks our conscience with a memory, a moment of sheer grace and joy[iii],  or simply hitting rock bottom in habitual sin in the moment that says, ‘This is now or never.’  The stories of each person’s preparation by God to meet Him through the encounter is distinct and personal.  But it’s important at some point that there be a teacher, to help explain, encourage and ultimately make a disciple (beginning with sacramental initiation but not ending there[iv]) of the person who allows God’s truth to enter their souls. So Paul needed Ananias (whom God had prepared beforehand) to teach him the most basic truths of Christ and the Christian way, heal him of his blindness, and baptize him.  Cornelius, despite his virtuous life, needed Peter to explain the gospel to him

But even as in the days of Christ, when miracles are revealed, some people never truly open their hearts to Him – nothing really happens in that case.  The nine lepers are healed, but only one gets healed spiritually by returning to Jesus and falling on his knees.  This is why Jesus exhorted his disciples in their ministry to ‘shake the dust from their feet’ (Mt. 10:14) as they left the towns that rejected the gospel.  This, I believe was for two reasons.  First, as a sign that the hour of mercy will end and a ‘last chance’ for people to see how serious these spiritual matters are, and the time to repent is literally fleeing.  The second is for the sake of the disciples themselves, because the continuous opposition would (as they were just beginning at least) be a great discouragement.

Compassion

The conversion experience, if authentic, always carries two powerful elements.  While seemingly the call to repentance experienced through guilt and sorrow is the trigger, what’s most important ultimately is the experience of the mercy and compassion of Jesus in forgiving our sins.  The teacher/preacher of the Gospel needs to bring forward both.  If the message of mercy is absent, then the message is demoralizing, and false or misleading, because God came into the world not to condemn sinners, but that the world might believe through Christ. (Jn. 3:17)  If compassion is missing, then all that is heard from the preaching or teaching is judgment, condemnation, and darkness.  The ‘hell’s fire and brimstone preaching when limited in this way can be effective in instilling fear into people,[v] but does not open the heart to grace without the saving assurance of God’s forgiveness.  The effective teacher of the Word is always compassionate. The Prophet Nathan’s testimony to David was ultimately an act of compassion.

Thanksgiving

When repentance happens and God’s mercy is experienced, the natural fruit of this is joy and thanksgiving.  I had mentioned joy in a previous reflection and we’ll take a look at thanksgiving in a future chapter.

Who are we teaching?

Jesus made a big deal about the audiences he preached to.  He was pretty much unsuccessful calling the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes and religious leaders of his day to His message of salvation.  Yet he went to them, because they were sinners and a few, like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea got the message.  Everybody got their chance. But he was quite clear to the apostles as to who the audience was that would most likely hear and respond to His message.  It was the public sinners like tax collectors Zacchaeus and Matthew and their buddies with whom Jesus would sit and eat.  The prostitutes, the lepers, the Samaritans and others excluded from the society – and the marginalized poor and suffering were the ones where the seed of the gospel would find fertile soil.  And, as the Orthodox Church reads on the Second Sunday Before Christmas, when those who were initially called would reject Him and His message, the Master would dispatch his disciples ‘to the highways and byways’ to bring in those for whom the Banquet would be set, meaning the Gentiles, and that includes us. (Lk. 14:15-24)

Real Preaching – Tough Sledding

There’s an old saying, ‘That’s easyYou’re preaching to the choir.’  This refers to someone speaking to an audience that’s already on his side and understands the message, just as typically the choir in a church setting would already be believers in the Christian message.  But preaching to people who are not the choir is not easy.  It means going outside of one’s comfort zone of awareness to people who may live and think very differently than we do. That includes those hardened in their sinful practices.  Even the language[vi] becomes a stumbling block especially in cities and foreign lands when a plethora of people of various cultures live.  In some major cities, if you walk one block, suddenly, everybody is speaking a different language.

But by the grace of God, this teaching of the transgressors in any setting can be effective as He alone leads.  One need only recall the wonderful story of the late G. Gordon Liddy who was publicly humiliated by his role in the Nixon Watergate scandal in the 1970s and imprisoned.  But in prison he was led to the gospel and from that he was able to bring countless numbers of people to Christ through his ministry, which continues even today after his death.[vii]   The ‘transgressors’ are everywhere – not only in prison, but also the executive suites of the big corporations or government, our schools and workplaces or the living rooms of our homes.  So the preachers are needed there – everywhere. And as Jesus says, amazingly, ‘The fields are white for the harvest.’ (Jn. 3) and people are being made ready by God through their personal ‘moments’ with Him long before any preacher or teacher shows up.

The Wicked Shall Return

Before closing, I find something curious here that is incredibly hopeful as well.   David says, “The wicked shall return…”  He does not say, “The wicked shall come…” but in using return he is implying that the wicked (e.g. you and me) have already been with God before and this is a return. This hearkens, of course, the story of the Prodigal Son who returned home to the Father, but really it points to something important in the cosmic understanding of our human existence.  From the beginning, we were somehow ‘with’ God, but then left Him. It certainly is a reflection of the Christian world view – hearkening to the Garden of Eden story in Genesis 2.  It’s a place that somehow(?) we know inside that has really been prepared for us to return to.(Jn.14:2)  While it might seem new, there is a place inside of us that is reserved for God alone, and when we return, we have access again to God who is there, and has been there all along.  As some Fathers of the Church would say, our journey in sin is always a journey away from our very selves, and our return through repentance is when we become truly ourselves, and truly human.

The Lord has come to show us that even if we are wicked, through repentance and His forgiveness, we need not perish. Ω


[i] It can be a very helpful spiritual exercise to revisit moments in one’s life when God was breaking through.  Sometimes, because the circumstances of those events was so painful, it’s hard to go there.  But discovering the ongoing grace coming forth from those moments is akin to the Church’s continual revisiting of the Cross, where despite the anguish and pain, the grace of God’s love shown forth.  Every believer has her or his moments of grace that can be visited.  

[ii] The conversion of the centurion Cornelius is another prime example, in Acts 10.

[iii] By moments of sheer grace, I mean something akin to what St. Mary of Egypt experienced.  Her conversion came through the events of her life, but it was an experience of grace that drew her to the celebration of the Liturgy on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.  While her desire to enter the church was thwarted at first, her joyful experience of Holy Communion that that day would sustain her for her decades in the desert in the strictest ascetical suffering. Joyful moments where God’s presence is unmistakable often become the moments that crack our awareness and we see ourselves as utterly unworthy of Him and His mercy and love.

[iv] I believe I’ve mentioned above, but it bears repeating… I think this is perhaps the singularly greatest failure that takes place in the Church today.  We don’t often continue to make disciples through a process of spiritual formation and teaching, but assume the new converts have ‘arrived’.  It’s consistently true in Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant churches.  My opinion.

[v] The Parable of the Talents is telling.  The man who fails in being the steward of the treasure is the one who greatly feared the Master so he buried the talent.  He never realizes how gracious the Master is in the first place in showing him love and trust, entrusting him such a great treasure and the opportunity to serve Him through it.  (Mt. 25:14-30)

[vi] The Church honors specially the missionary work of Ss Cyril and Methodius who evangelized the (then) heathen Slavs who were enemies of Constantinople. Although they were Greeks, they learned the Slavic language and eventually developed what became the Cyrillic alphabet to allow them a written form of language that would serve to provide a means for the scripture and teaching of the Church to be communicated to them.

[vii] I don’t hesitate to bring examples from non-Orthodox Christians as examples because they too can reflect the same grace in their lives inspired by the One Holy Spirit, unto the salvation of souls through repentance.  While their message may have weakness or flaws, they should not be inhibited or discouraged when the fruits are being born through their lives by grace. (Lk. 9:49f)

A Few More Thoughts on Teaching  

  Operations60golf                                            

#27 of a Series on Psalm 50 –  “I will teach transgressors your ways… .“  (Orthodox Study Bible)

Recently, I watched a golf instruction video[i] by the renowned teacher, Bill Harmon, who hails from a strong line of professional golfers and golf instructors.  His father Claude Harmon Sr., was a Masters Champion in the 1950s, and as a the club professional at major venues, developed a strong reputation as a teacher. Bill’s older brother, Claude Jr. – ‘Butch’ Harmon is recognized as one of the finest teachers of the game, having mentored professional greats including champions Tiger Woods and Ernie Els.  Bill and the rest of the brothers followed suit, and Bill is known as a teacher of teachers.  The video I watched today was with Chris Como, himself a young but accomplished instructor now working with  arguably the most dynamic player on the Professional Golf tour today – Brycen DeChambeau. So this is not only golf instruction on display, but also the fundamentals of teaching can be seen.

While there is much to learn for a golfer like me any time a knowledgeable pro offers his insights, Harmon is especially compelling as he explained a little about his own life experience teaching golf.  He mentioned a favorite saying of his father, Claude Sr., on teaching golf. ““A good teacher will change 1 thing that changes 5, not 5 things that change 1.” 

Minimalism

To illustrate this saying, Bill recounted his very first teaching lesson, offered at the tender age of 21 (!) given to a man who happened to be his father’s best friend.  His father was also teaching that day on the same range, and doubtless wondered how his son was holding up!  When the lesson was done, Claude Sr. came over to his son, and asked him how the lesson went and how his friend was doing.  Naturally Bill knew his dad knew all about the mistakes his friend made in his golf swing then Claude offered his observations.  The dialogue went something like this,

Claude, Sr:  “I thought you were his ghost writer.” 
The son wondered out loud, “What do you mean?” 
And the elder told him, “Well you gave him enough information in the first five minutes to write a book.”
He continued, “But that’s not your job as a teacher.  Your job is to help him improve impact (on the golf ball)… Your job isn’t to tell him how much you know.”
Bill got mad and asked his father how he came to know this.
He was told,  “That’s what happened when I started teaching.  I was terrible and had to learn how to teach…”  

If this is true of world class golf instructors, it is far more necessary when teaching in the Church! But the problem is probably more widespread in the Church and it’s not just with the youthful pastors.

I often associated Christ’s warnings about using too many words (Mt. 23:14), as referring only to prayer.  Now I’m thinking it applies to teaching as well. I find that in my own efforts to preach or teach, I pile up mountains of words upon each other (including this Series on Psalm 50!), it strikes me that this knowledge-dissemination drive may well limit the impact of the message. 

Simple but Profound Teaching

Good teachers can be succinct and bring a point home clearly and quickly.  The desert fathers taught with great impact for multiple generations.  Their teaching could be grasped simply, often because it was peppered with life experience. Here’s a simple example:

“Abba Poemen used to say, ‘He who labors and keeps the result of his work for himself has twice the grief.’[ii]

The saying is speaking to the importance of working not to benefit oneself, but others and the dangers of accumulating material wealth. He used fewer words than what it took for me to explain what he said!

The Lord Jesus, of course, was the model for all such teaching, using simple and direct ways that he taught, even while using simple analogies and through the use of parables.  His goal was to get one (main) point across – powerfully, and he does just that. 

What’s ironic though, is that often the process of interpretation of His words leads to many nuances of meaning, and hidden implications.  This serves, for better or for worse, as the fodder for preachers in every age.  So in retelling the simple story of the prodigal son returning to his welcoming Father as an image of God’s love and forgiveness, one can easily launch into an expose’ of the prodigal son’s love money, his foolishness, the dangers of cavorting with women, the Hebrew understanding of the filth of swine, the hunger of the belly that is symbolic of spiritual hunger, the killing of the fatted calf, brotherly love or jealousy, etc… you get the point.

Part of the reason I launch into all this stuff, and sometimes miss the simplicity of a simple story is that that’s how I was trained to learn, at least in much of my academic experience.  In the classes I took in math and science in college there was an enormous amount of knowledge that had to be gathered, comprehended and mastered before advancing, as well as skills applied (such as math) to solve problems using it. You had to be able to demonstrate that you knew it in detail. I can’t imagine what it would be like in medical training today – the Covid clinical studies[iii] are an example – where seemingly a physician is required to have and fully utilize such a breadth of knowledge and call upon it at a moment’s notice to make a decision.  But maybe there’s a better way to learn – especially when there’s just too much information?

Good Instruction is Experiential

One reason why the golf instruction video struck me and stuck with me is that it was grounded in Bill Harmon’s personal experience.  And his father could teach him because he identified his own personal shortcoming in his own teaching experience. His example of his learning from his father showed me how this might  work in other contexts, like the Church. 

I think that Psalm 50 teaches us so profoundly because it’s laced with David’s personal suffering, reflection, aspirations and hope for a new way of life.  Ironically, because it is so much his, it can also be mine.  David’s outcome despite his sin was good – maybe so for me as well. 

Good Instruction is Personal

Bill Harmon emphasizes that everyone’s golf swing is unique.  If that’s true in the realm of something like golf, how much so in the realm of how we respond to the spiritual truths of the Faith? I have several books on golf.  They collect dust on the shelf. Reams of information are probably not very helpful.[iv]  When it comes to being taught (or better – trained) the  Internet in the end is often not helpful either  – despite the vast resources of the Information Age.  What Christianity shows us is what is needed is a good teacher.  In this example, a good teacher is to focus simply on the student and one or two specific areas to address to have a good impact.

David was saved because he had a Teacher – the holy Prophet Nathan.  Nathan didn’t quote the whole Torah at David or fill his mind with lofty thoughts.  He told a parable that had an impact on David because the truth of that parable confronted David’s own behavior. 

The Christian Method of Teaching

In the Church we often quote the words of Christ at the very end of St. Matthew’s gospel, (Mt. 28:)  “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son,and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

The teaching process is to be done by ones who not only had the knowledge to teach, but had become disciples of the Master and could then enter into a relationship of discipling those who wished to learn the Christian Way.  This is what Jesus did, he first called disciples, then taught them – only gradually but personally helping each one understand and doing so by building slowly.[v]  And of course, we know how slow that learning process went!  By the time of the Crucifixion the disciples seemed to have forgotten everything the had been taught!  

But His Teaching was built on a relationship – the Rabbi and his students, the Master and his disciples.  This is how Christian teaching works best.  How often do our Church efforts to teach and preach, in the end, amount to little more than casting out one idea upon another to a mass of people, like the analogy of throwing paint up against a wall and hoping it sticks?

But the example of Jesus’s teaching effectiveness was clear.  The disciples[vi] learned the most important lesson – that they were still disciples of Jesus after the Resurrection!  It didn’t matter that they had forgotten so much and forsaken everything in their moment of trial.  The Relationship is what really counted – and it lives beyond the grave.[vii]  In that state, the disciples could begin to really learn what the Teacher had been saying all along, by living in light of their discipleship of the Risen One.

David’s discipleship formation by Nathan was a foreshadowing of the apostles’ experience with Christ, in that David’s relationship with God would be sustained through his dark night of sinfulness and the wrenching pain of penance.  It is the relationship with God that is the heart of the Psalm.  In the end Psalm 50 is not so much about David’s sin, or even his repentance, but of God’s personal love for Him through it all.

Getting a Grip

As the golf video unfolded, I was struck by one other insight that Bill Harmon shared after practicing decades of teaching.  In golf before you hit the ball you have to pick up and grip the club. The correct grip is different than how we might naturally try to grasp a baseball bat or a shovel.  Harmon put great emphasis first on getting the grip right.[viii]  The grip is the connection of the golfer to the world he will impact.  Without a firm, but supple grip there is a loss of connection to the motion of the golf swing and its impact. 

One thing Harmon mentions in the video is that he found that, consistently, all golfers (like yours truly) hate to change their grip – even if it would improve their game.  That’s because, as he notes, it’s uncomfortable. He goes on to show how getting started with a bad grip leads to all kinds of other problems in the golf swing, often forced by attempts to compensate due to the original error, often with disastrous results.

I couldn’t help but identify with this – not only regarding golf, but with spiritual matters and life itself.  To correct something in our life often means changing something SO basic and fundamental to the way we ‘always did it.’ But often the way we get a ‘grip’ on life is flawed and the compensations lead to more problems and even disastrous consequences.[ix]  What Christianity gives us, is a whole new grip – or connection to life in this world.  It is a different life vision, a different way of behaving, and most importantly, a different way of thinking.  This is uncomfortable, especially at first.  I’ve found this to be true in my own walk as well as trying to help others.  We resist the uncomfortable and always want to go back to what we did before, with its errors.  To actually change could hold great promise – but the battle is to sustain the change long enough until we get over the ‘hump’ of being uncomfortable and begin to see something happen.   Then we can say, ‘Oh yeah – now I get it.’ 

I’ve seen this happen with people trying to explore Orthodoxy as well.  The initial excitement can start a process of inquiry based on a host of experiences or interests – such as beautiful liturgies, liturgical music, profound theology, stunning art, mystical prayer, rich relationships, etc.  But to enter really into any of that requires fundamental changes – and this is a process of becoming uncomfortable.  A person who likes Orthodox theology may become uncomfortable when the praise band is replaced with foreign-sounding chant.  Or the one who loves the fellowship of others may well find it deeply difficult to believe in, let alone experience, a fellowship with the holy ones of the Church called the saints.

But as Harmon would say about his golf students, persevering with the grip change will lead to a time and place where that is the ‘new normal’ and going back to the old ways is then not only undesirable, but uncomfortable as well. What’s more, the benefit of the new way opens the window to a host of other personal benefits that were impossible doing things the ‘old way’.  One arrives in a New Place.

Teaching in a New Way

I think this is where the Christian teachers really earns their keep. 

The true teacher in the image of Christ walks with the student (disciple) through the uncomfortableness of it all.  They listen to the complaining, bear with the excuses, challenge kindly and perhaps hardest of all, endure the sadness of failures when the one they are walking with fails and all but wants to throw in the towel.  Such teachers persevere because of love, knowing that student they love and serve must learn the  ‘new grip’ that the Church teaches if she is ever to make progress along the spiritual path we call Christianity.  Such teachers – at whatever level be it church school, adult ed, seminary, etc. – in persevering become like the Master Himself – icons of His understanding, perseverance, endurance, forbearance, etc. because they themselves are learning to love as He has loved. The teacher remains a learning disciple.  All such teaching is based in the Truth that the Resurrection awaits, when all – including student and teacher – will come to know the Teacher and see Him face to face. This is very far from merely accumulating data or ‘knowledge.’

Teaching the Unjust?

David asserts he will teach the unjust the ways of the Lord.  We can begin to see what an undertaking this is. Ironically though, perhaps the ‘unjust’ are in a position to be more open to life change. We could simplistically use as an example of the ‘unjust’ person, a woman who is in prison. There may be well established patterns of behavior and thinking that will be uncomfortable to change for her, in becoming a Christian.  However, if she’s in prison, she’s already uncomfortable!  This may well open the door to a total reorientation that can take place very quickly if it’s done personally by some who actually cares for her, and demonstrates it in the ‘dog – eat – dog’ world that she knows.

Leading and Teaching

So much is said today about mentoring and coaching in many walks of life, not only just in sports but in business, education, and the like.  Those who have been coached well – by anyone doing anything – have received, I believe, a great gift. They have learned how to get a grip on one aspect of their life, get over their hump of discomfort, and begin to get better – to mature. They have someone who cared enough about them to give them a sense of value, that their life can be better and is worth changing.

In the Church this has long been the model for our teaching discipline.  Perhaps it’s time to move back to it as our mode of teaching as the Teacher’s disciples. Ω


[i] You may be able to view the video here: https://www.golfpass.com/golfs-top-instructors-bill-harmon/the-importance-of-grip-club-face-ball-flight?utm_source=GOLFPASS&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=gp_non_member_videotips__20211212&utm_content=the-importance-of-grip-club-face-ball-flight     By analogy, many of the things Bill shared in the video can taken from golf to other aspects of learning in life.

[ii] From Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the Essential Texts, Bryn Geffert and Theofanis Stavrou, Yale Univ Press, 2016, p.94. Many of the selections they cite  are from Benedicta Ward’s, Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

[iii] As I’ve studied the emergence of the Coronavirus and Covid disease, I’ve probably read or watched videos of hundreds of articles on it and know I haven’t got anything but the thinnest grasp of any of it.  Reading theology is the same – there’s just too much of it.

[iv] Pastors’ libraries are filled with shelves and shelves of books – many/most unread or long forgotten. My grade school principal wisely used to tell us that you can only learn so much, but what you really need to learn is how to find information you need. What he was talking about was a method of learning, and searching, for information.

[v] We see the personal approach when the scriptures identify a disciple specifically, like Philip (Jn. 14:8), who He teaches about seeing the Father through Himself, or his rebuke of Peter about the necessity of the Cross. (Mk.8)

[vi] All but Judas of course.  By his suicide he cut himself off from the Master and himself as well – his own discipleship.

[vii] It’s interesting how in the lives of the saints, one who is mentored is sometimes ‘visited’ by his spiritual father or inspirational guide even after death to correct or encourage the one on the journey to continue in faith.

[viii] Growing up in Southwestern Pa, my golf hero was Arnold Palmer, who was from nearby Latrobe, Pa – hometown of my wife no less!.  In one documentary on his life, I recall it said how he would spend hours, gripping, regripping and adjusting his grip alignment, the pressure in his fingers, etc.  I learned to grip a club in about 1966.  Since then I would be surprised if I spent more than 15 minutes thinking about it since!  And the scorecard proves the point. 

[ix] The downward spiral of addiction is an example – whether it be to alcohol or drugs, food or material things, money or power, etc.  The compensations lead to a breakdown of personal integrity = sin. E.g. Compulsive gambling can lead to lies, theft, fraud, bankruptcy, broken relationships, other addictions, despair, etc.   A new ‘grip’ on life is needed.

 Experienced Teachers Needed  

ClipArtLibrary.com

#26 of a Series on Psalm 50 –  “I will teach transgressors your ways… .“  (Orthodox Study Bible)

I find this verse of Psalm 50 to be among the most amazing of the whole psalm.  It’s a sign of just how far the penitent prophet David has come.  Here, in this string of verses that speak of the David’s restoration, he expresses both the desire (before God) to teach other transgressors about the mercy and forgiveness of God, and the boldness to assert this by faith in prayer and that he is not disqualified by his sin from doing so. It’s an amazing statement of his desire to help others caught in the clutches of their transgressions.

While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us…    (Rom. 5:8)

Notice here that St. Paul does not say, ‘While you were yet sinners…”, but “while we were yet sinners.” Elsewhere he calls himself the ‘chief’ among sinners. (1Tim. 1:15)  Yet, Paul has the audacity to teach others about sin, having been freed from it by the grace of God.  He never shies from confronting sin in the Christian communities he serves, nor makes excuses for sin, but he directs his words and actions against ungodly offenses.  This is his teaching – coming from which he has exceedingly painful experience of his own sins.  The wartime scout who was part of an army that got slaughtered while he and only a few survived, is the one best in the position to know what can go wrong and warn others about the dangers out there.  Like David, Paul had blood on his hands.  But he too, like David, came to know thoroughly the repentance of which David taught. Perhaps St. Paul’s reading of Psalm 50 brought encouragement and assurance to him in the course of his own spiritual healing and repentance.

I wonder if this gave a type an authenticity to St. Paul’s message?  People who have had cancer say that other people who have the disease and lived with it are the ones in the best position to speak to recovering from it – it has a ring of compassion and authenticity.

Teaching about Repentance – A Narrow Path to Walk

With the opening words of the Gospel of St. Mark 1, ‘Repent, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand’, the Gospel is preached and taught to people to help the them go through a process of repentance in their life.  The Gospel as preached from the Pentecost day by the Apostle Peter:

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ Peter replied, “Repent….. “  Acts 2:37f

At all times, the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus is always a call to repentance.  And it’s always preached by forgiven sinners[i].

Preaching the Gospel, all the while knowing you’re a sinner, is a difficult and narrow road to walk.  I think of the danger posed to, and by, newly converted Christians (or perhaps other religions) to let their zeal take them to confront others in pride about their sins with the goal to ‘convert them.’  In fact, the presence of pride in one’s own soul signals that such a person is in no position to convert anyone, until the sin of pride has been discovered and by the mercy of God uprooted, healed and forgiven.  Often, the newly converted become the ‘rock stars’ of an emotional movement approach to religion and when their star falls dramatically, or fades, the faith of others goes with it.[ii]

But another danger is fear – or a nagging sense of lingering unworthiness that somehow, because I was SOOO EVIL, I could never be any good for anyone else. This is an accusation of the Devil which denies the very mercy and forgiveness that Psalm 50 proclaims.  While this thought pattern may seemingly be safe in some ways, it limits what God can do in us, and through us.  It is said that St. Peter, another of the ‘great’ sinners having betrayed Christ three times, would weep deeply every time he spoke to people of his betrayal of the Lord.  Perhaps, because he was called to given his ‘testimony’ so frequently, and revisit the pain of his former way and betrayal, that the experience ‘grounded’ him not only in the reality of who he really was when he left Christ, but also that incredible confrontation by the Lord Jesus on the shore of Tiberius, when he asked three times, ‘Peter do you love me?’  And Peter’s affirmation of his love and acceptance of the Lord’s mercy would set him free to be the Apostle he was called to be. 

Personally, I’ve always had trouble with this, because, as a priest, if I disclose my sins to others, especially those deeply personal or terribly sinful, that this would be a scandal to others and the priesthood itself.  This fear of scandal has been perpetuated in the Church (clerical ranks) so much so that it’s one reason why terrible evils have gone on in the Church,[iii] such as recent sexual abuse by priests.  Church officials, driven by fear of ‘scandal’ rather than faith in God, have covered up the evils, ignored the victims, silenced the narrative and covered everything over.  This is not what Christ had in mind when He taught this!

There is one more way to slip on the trail of confrontation of sin – one in which we are immersed culturally today.  Some sins are simply ignored.  Certain crimes are more deemed ‘important’ than others. As I write this, waves of riotous looting is rampaging through some of our major US cities.  Hundreds are innocent people in the city ghettos are murdered in cold blood every weekend.  Allowing people to remain in sin is a death sentence, for some literally, but living and dying in sin is the ultimate spiritual death sentence.  The Gospel is preached by forgiven sinners to sinners who need to hear that message for the salvation of their souls.

David was confronted by the Prophet Nathan and confessed his sin.  David’s sin became known – his adulterous activity would lead to the death of the child to be born and David’s grief would be deep and well-known.  And if that wasn’t enough, his Psalm would put to words exactly what the state of his heart was in his sorrow and mourning for his sin. These words are repeated again and again for ages of ages for all to hear.

Two More Examples

So before everyone goes out of the confessional and starts preaching to all, we can see another way in which God can use the life of the penitent soul to His glory.  Being perfected in penance through decades of severe asceticism in the desert, following her early years of sexual profligacy, St. Mary of Egypt became a model of repentance in the Church.  During her life in the desert she never spoke to a soul, save the priestly servant Zosima who was sent to minister to her and learn her story that it might be shared with the entire Church. Today, she teaches us Orthodox Christians every year, through the reading of her life story at the Great Penitential Matins of St. Andrew of Crete on the fifth Thursday of Great Lent.  She is commemorated specially on the following Sunday – and through all of this, countless Christians hear the story of her life, her repentance, her restoration in grace, and the miracles of her life in the desert. 

Abba Matta El Meskeen[iv], known in the Western world also as ‘Elder Matthew the Poor’, a Coptic Orthodox monk shares with us a word of wisdom about coming to the point where we can actually teach others.[v]  He is talking about “premature freedom” – thinking you can do something before you are spiritually mature.  He says,

  “..(I)ndeed, freedom is desirable for the soul but it is not to be wrenched by force.  Those who presume to taste love before tasting the cross are rebuked….’My brethren, let not many of you become teachers’, for you are still in the stage of penitence.  A penitent’s place is the dunghill rather than the throne of teaching. The words of premature teaching prior to fulfilling the requirements of penance stop us from ardently seeking the road to salvation…..Can you speak more eloquently than the words uttered in the books of the saints?  If you wish to help your brother let it be through prayer, humility, love, endurance and patience.” 

Today, centuries later, St. Mary and the Holy Fathers continue to teach the Gospel to us sinners, if we are willing to listen.

And sometimes we too are called to teach in some context in our own time– and we can do so if our own life reflects the penitential Spirit of David, Peter, Paul, the Apostles, the Holy Fathers and Mothers (like St. Mary of Egypt and Matthew the Poor.  Ω


[i] Sinners on their road to sainthood.

[ii] I’ve seen this in many Church traditions, including Orthodoxy.

[iii] Because of its widespread publicity, the scandals among Roman Catholic clergy are well known, but no Church body (including the Orthodox Churches) have failed to some degree. Because these are so sensitive, discretion and caution are always called for because accusations are not always true. But the pastoral care of souls is also about bringing forth the witness to the Truth.

[iv] Reposed in the Lord, +2006.

[v] Excerpted from a yet unpublished book on the Life of Elder Matta titled Sojourners.

Please – Hold Me Up  

Illustrationssource.net

#25 of a Series on Psalm 50 –  “Restore unto me the joy of salvation and uphold me with Your guiding Spirit.”  (Orthodox Study Bible)

The track of Psalm 50 now shows us how repentance leads us from one blessing to another, or as St. John the Apostle or St. Paul might have put it, ‘grace upon grace.’ (Jn.1:16)   While joy is the fruit of the Holy Spirit, especially those restored in the Spirit through penance, we can see additional graces building within the soul of those who are renewed through repentance.  Perhaps these gifts are offered to us only after repentance, because only then can we actually receive them.  While we are in sin our awareness of God’s gifts is dulled and our desire or capacity to act in a godly and virtuous manner diminished or even effectively destroyed.  With repentance also comes a desire to live a virtuous life in the service of the Lord, and others. 

Uphold me with a Your guiding Spirit.  Again, this verse references the ‘Spirit of God’ as we are praying for His guiding Spirit to come to us.  The verb ‘uphold’ here is interesting.  I think everyone who has tried to walk the Christian walk can identify with the idea.  Especially those who have failed.

Held Up

David is asking to be upheld.  Now the opposite of being upheld, is to fall, or perhaps better, collapse.  Perhaps we catch here a glimpse of the Spirit of humility illumining David’s thought?  How many of us have not asked God to uphold us – simply because we didn’t think we needed it!  We think, “I’m strong enough now – I can handle this.”  As the oft-quoted proverb reminds us, “Pride precedes the fall.”  (Prov. 16:18)  This has certainly been true in my life, and my falls.  A wise priest told me years ago that men are tempted usually in one of three big areas – pride, sexual sin, and avarice.  My experience is that all three are an ongoing struggle (!), but the one I thought would be the ‘easiest’ to deal with, is the one that slays me all too frequently.  We have this idea that somehow that isn’t going to be my problem – at least until God allows the circumstances in life to show us the truth about such things.  I would suspect that maybe David’s experience of the burning lust was something he thought he could ‘handle’.  He didn’t do what he needed to protect his eyes and his heart. Similarly, we don’t recognize our weakness and susceptibility in part because we really haven’t been tested.  But when we are – BOOM! – and the fall is catastrophic.

How are we Upheld (in Grace)?

The way of repentance shows David and us all that we must be upheld in Christ, by grace.  While our wills can open us to that redemptive power, on our own (even after repentance) we will fall unless the grace of God sustains us and as David’s prayer identifies, the Spirit guides us to confront life and its temptations while being upheld.

The image that comes to mind here is what we read about in the story of Exodus 17.  God has sent the Israelites to conquer the idolatrous tribes in the desert, and they face off with the Amalakites, with Joshua leading the charge.      Moses is to hold up his arms (ostensibly with his staff in hand) for hours while the battle rages.  So, human that he is, Moses gets tired.   Exodus 17:11f says,

“As long as Moses held up his arms, the Israelites won, but when he put his arms down, the Amalekites started winning.  When Moses’ arms grew tired, Aaron and Hur brought a stone for him to sit on, while they stood beside him and held up his arms, holding them steady until the sun went down.”  (New International Version)

At sunset, the battle was finally won and the Amalekites defeated.    The battle goes well only when the arms of Moses are upheld.  If he weakens and his arms fall, the tide turns against the Israelites.  The guys on the battlefield are doing the  fighting, but their fate is in the hands of Moses (so to speak) and the special grace is coming through Moses. His role is seemingly simple – keep his arms lifted up – but humanly difficult.

Arms Reaching Out

Now this passage is full of images and lessons.  In Orthodox biblical interpretation, the outstretched arms are a prefigurement of the outstretched arms of Christ on the Cross, which was the source of the ultimate Victory over sin and the Enemy which is Death and the demons who fight us.  As with Moses in the Old Testament, so Christ in the New Testament is the pattern set. (Jn 1:17)   The hymnography for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross refers to this event in the desert and the symbolism of the Victory of Moses as an anticipation of the Triumph of the Cross.  Our human collapse into sin has been reversed – defeat has been changed to victory by God’s ‘holding us up’.  The exaltation – uplifting also alludes spiritually to the uplifting/offering of Christ on the Cross.  This sacred offering of Himself, concluded at the ninth hour, with the sacrificial death and the ultimate Victory of Christ in glory.  We can also find interest in the ‘sitting on the stone’ which shows up in the Resurrection narrative when the Angel who proclaims the Resurrection sits upon it.  To be seated in this way lends the sense of the power of God present and the authority given to the Angel to reveal the Victory in the Resurrection.   

In another way, in the ancient Church, Christians prayed with their arms uplifted. This is refered to biblically in 1Tim. 2:8 reflecting the Hebrew practice in Psalm 63:4 and elsewhere. So Christians ‘lift up their hands and bless the Lord’ as well. Several traditional icon styles of Mary in prayer (Gr. Orans), such as the ‘platytera’, portrays her with her hands uplifted to the Lord. It is a common gesture prescribed in the ritual rubrics for priests at various points in the liturgical services. This lifting up of hands was an ancient gesture of recognition, honor and openness to another, culturally, which was extended to God specially. And we can see the importance of the Spirit praying within us (Gal. 4:6) that ‘upholds’ our spirit and our own hands and arms as we pray.

So the people are upheld by God, and by Moses, through his arms.  Now there is an interesting aspect to the Exodus narrative here – namely, that Moses can do it on his own – but only for so long.  Even with the almighty grace of God present and winning the victory, Moses grows weak and his arms droop and the battle turn ugly.  But then what happens?  We see that Aaron and Hur literally prop up the arms of Moses, themselves, sustaining him and his ministry, so that it can reach its glorious end. 

Where’s the Support?

I can only say that this image of ‘support’ is as essential as it is powerful to all of us.  For those of us in ministry in the Church, the uplifting strength of others is essential – that it be present, and that those so serving can draw upon it. 

The assistance of others comes from many sources.  For example, our Lord Jesus gave us the model of this in his own ministry.  He had twelve apostles gathered close to him in a sustaining way – and he called upon them constantly to help and participate in his life and work – whether it was his empowering them to carry out the saving tasks of preaching, healing and casting out demons in the villages, to preparing the Passover Supper, or in countless other ways – even like managing the purse![i]  And let us not forget that riveting passage in Mt. 26:36ff where Jesus asks the disciples to be with him, and pray for ‘one hour’ – but they failed him.  Let’s also note the faithful women who also accompanied Jesus from the beginning and met many of his needs, including the special spiritual balm preparing Him for his burial (Mt. 26:12)  They would process with Jesus all the way to the Cross, and then would carry out the gruesome burial preparations because the male apostles (save for John) had fled the scene.  These acts of care and support of his ministry would foster love in their hearts – imperfect at first – but as with Aaron and Hur, a sustaining uplifting necessary, given the weakness of the human condition in the flesh.   In the end, ultimately, victory.

Recognition of this  need for others as  sustaining people and relationships is a hallmark of healthy ministry in the lives of who serve in the name of Christ.  For clergy, we are called to ‘uplift’ others in the Spirit and there is great strength in the spiritual gifts afforded by the Lord to care for His people and grant them victory in their spiritual battles.  But it is a heavy burden, even when the battle is going well, others need to be present[ii] to ‘prop up’ those who are serving in support of this battle even if they’re not, like Joshua, on the front lines. 

I know from my ministry[iii] over the years that such support has come from many different people in many different ways.  Certainly, having a spouse who supports one in such a ministry is something I would deem critically important.  (Those who are celibate must find support from others in their clergy/monastic circle.)  It really helps to have others in team approach to local ministry who can hold one another up in their various aspects of service.  I know that when that teamwork is absent or weak, upholding even the status quo is difficult, and collapse imminent.[iv]  The ministry of many has been destroyed because they thought they could ‘go it alone’ with the grace of God of course.  The image of the scriptures hints otherwise.

I’ve seen support for those in ministry come from so many places – starting with family (spouse), godly friends, parish members and others who are ‘served[v]’, other clergy/professional colleagues[vi] and yes, hierarchs, who as the servants of the servants, really need to be upheld.[vii]  There are countless ways that this support manifests itself and in some ways, like quiet prayers offered silently for those who serve[viii], they are not visible.

But many are visible – in simple gestures of affirmation, kind words of encouragement, a simple compliment[ix], offers to help, practical support like assisting with projects or just providing food.  Children can provide an amazing gift of joyous support in the Church or other contexts where service is going on.  Sometimes any support is desperately needed, other times (attention any bishops reading this!) specific support is needed that can provided by only one person. Sometimes a person needs support only until ‘nightfall’ – a passing moment.  Other times, it seems like a lifetime need. 

And yes, Moses needs to allow his brethren to prop him up – without them he can’t do it.  Each has a role – Joshua on the front lines, Moses upholding the battle, Aaron and Hur upholding Moses. God working through them all by grace to bring Victory. That’s the picture.

A Word about Guidance

The Holy Spirit provides guidance. 

The repentant one is in a position to be guided – the counsel[x] of the Spirit will not fall on deaf ears if a person is repentant.  Spiritual openness to guidance is the mark of one maturing in Christ because he or she is being led. While this is a spiritual reality (the Spirit leads) we can use the biblical analogy above to also better appreciate how the ministry of spiritual guidance works in the Church. In Orthodoxy, the spiritual guidance by the ‘elders’ (Gr. presbyters = priests) is usually present – but not always mature or well-utilized.  Much of spiritual guidance in traditional Orthodox countries eventually became the purview of monastics who rightly were recognized to potentially have deep spiritual gifts of wisdom and insight.[xi]  Others provide counsel, including laity.  One good example is in the essential counsel of parents and godparents to children.  Another example is the love and counsel provided by Church school teachers, adult catechists and other ‘elders’ in the parish community.

A Desperate Need Today

Before I close this, again speaking from experience, I would say that this type of guidance may be one of the most desperate needs of the Church in our age.  People need help now or eventually realize that they need spiritual help, and guidance.  Will they will look to Christ, the Church, or her ministers?[xii]  This guidance is essentially the fulfillment of the Gospel mandate in Matthew 28, “Go … and make disciples”.    The making of disciples is the work of the Holy Spirit – but advanced through the ministry of those entrusted to provide them guidance – then continue to uphold them as they are baptized and live their Christian lives. 

This topic of guidance/ discipleship needs a lot of exploration in our day – maybe in a future discussion here.

May God’s mercy uphold us, even as we also provide love and care for others as they serve and ‘do battle’ in their own lives.  Ω

________________________


[i] Sometimes the apostles failed in their service in upholding the work of Jesus.  Judas, the keeper of the purse, failed horrifically. (Jn.13:29)

[ii] If not continually, then frequently.

[iii] I speak here from my experience as a priest (first Catholic then Orthodox).  I am assuming that the work of others in ministry mirrors the priestly ministry in our need for others to support us. That support may take very different forms some times.

[iv] I fear that, for far too long, we’ve assumed that the institutional aspects of the Church would carry it forth through the battle.  We are finding today that not only can the institutions no longer carry the Church, the institutions are themselves in need of interpersonal and relational support internally (in many forms) with which they will collapse.  This is true across Christian Churches/denominations. The Church is always people.

[v] I don’t want to promote the falsehood that ‘the clergy serve and the laity are served’.  All are called to serve and from my experience I have received powerful sustaining support from laity in many different ways, as I’ve tried to support them in their ministry. That said, clergy need certain things from other clergy and often, that is woefully lacking.

[vi] Such as the counseling professions which become ministries.




[vii] This is why the Church prays for the hierarchs so frequently in the liturgical prayers – they need them.

[viii] Worthy of note is that we pray in our services (litanies) “For those who serve…” in God’s holy churches, and the anaphoras of St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom are explicit – for example, we pray for ‘those who serve the poor’.  All of the ministries are vital, and need to be ‘upheld’.

[ix] As the Fathers constantly warned about vainglory and praise from others, this must be noted. But it’s also worth noting that psychologists today can demonstrate that those who do not receive affirmation often fail in their efforts – again ostensibly because they are alone and may even feel abandoned.  Where are Aaron and Hur when you need them?

[x] There is a great biblical and spiritual tradition on the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Good Counsel. (Is. 11:2)

[xi] A simple example in our day is St. Porphyrios who reposed in the Lord in and was acclaimed a saint by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 2013.  His legacy of spiritual help to countless thousands continues through his spiritual intercession for us and through the witness of people and publications that attest the ways he provided this type of spiritual guidance.

[xii] There is an interesting nascent development where people are advocating for a restoration of the female diaconate in the Orthodox Church. The special needs of women for sound spiritual guidance may be a great, but unmet, need and deaconesses may be able to provide this ministry. If you are interested I this topic, let me know.