Teaching the Wicked – Good Luck with That!

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#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  

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#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  

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#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.

Joy Restored!


onlinelabels.com       

#24 of a Series on Psalm 50 –  “Restore unto me the joy of salvation.“

Joy is a fruit of the Spirit. (Gal. 5:22f)  

We all want to be happy, and since the time of Aristotle[i], it has been the stated goal of human life for multitudes. But who is really happy?  What is joy? How is it found?  And lost?

Since my early training in metallurgy, I’ve always been interested in mining and minerals, so a TV series about gold mining adventurers caught my attention a few years back. Called ‘Gold Rush[ii]’ the series focuses on rough and tumble adventurers who are on the quest for gold by learning how to mine for it in remote, harsh wilderness settings.  Their foibles and successes are entertaining, and their demonstrable courage at times to follow their pursuit admirable (despite the end goal perhaps). 

In one episode, the miner was in an Indonesian outland, where friend and foe could not always be distinguished.  But there is a profound scene, where the penniless natives who often helped the heavily equipped Western miner-strangers,) happily bailed them out of countless dangerous situations and untenable circumstances.  One of the goals of the miners was to show the natives that they could be find wealth literally under their own feet and become rich.  And in this scene, the miner – tired, discouraged, and sad – was directly contrasted to the simple, happy, native he’s trying to ‘convert’ to his way of thinking that somehow his life would be better and worthwhile if he just could get his hands on gold.  The simple smile on the face of the native, stooped on the ground, contrasted starkly with thediscouraged face of the miner who pitied the poverty of his helpers, as he continued his search for happiness by acquiring the bright colored metal.

Of course, Christianity has countless stories of people discovering spiritual joy in an even more profound and deeper way by coming to Christ and renouncing the world.  The lives of the saints tell the story again and again. As we come to this time of the year, we remember St. Nicholas as a man of joy, sharing that joy, healing and love of Christ with others. And many of the Fathers of the Church speak of this joy as a tangible and unmistakable gift for Christians.

Is it just that easy?

Well, for us fallen mortals, the experience of joy in this world may seem to be quite elusive. I would say, even for Christians.[iii] Spiritual joy (as in the New Testament) is different from what we would call ‘happiness’, which in this world can be quite fleeting.   I’m thinking here of the ecstasy of the Transfiguration[iv] moment for the Apostles – filled with an abiding sense of God’s presence and a desire to ‘park it’ right there, pitch a tent and take it in a good long time.  This needs to be contrasted with what came after (as discussed heretofore) when Jesus then takes his disciples aside, rebukes them and teaches them about his forthcoming Crucifixion and resurrection.  Their bewilderment was seemingly not at all ‘joyful.’ I would suggest this is more like the ebb and flow of the emotional tide of most Christians  go through where we have moments when we are seemingly ‘on fire’ for the Lord, and other times, when barely a lukewarm coal can be found.

When we base our perception of Christianity on this feeling of happiness or joy, or ascribe our Christian walk in those terms, we can sometimes lose our spiritual bearings and begin to seek the ‘happiness’ as for the sake of that feeling alone. And in the spirit of the previous discussion on delusion, we can try to ‘whip ourselves up’ into a false happiness or sense of security, which is not of God because it is fundamentally false.  

As Psalm 23 (22) reminds us, there are valleys of the shadow of death in this life that are invariably frightening or disheartening.  People, including good Christians, experience the same things as everyone else – like the grisly darkness and evils of violence and war – and have the resultant PTSD to prove it.  This is a perilously heavy cross to be born – and it’s not a seemingly ‘happy’ one.

There’s No Happiness in Sin?

It can be said, I think accurately, that happiness has fled because of sin.  I can remember in my seminary days, a vehement discussion among the students who were contrasting the Eastern Paschal texts (from the Easter season) with one peculiar line from the Western Paschal Rite (in the RC Church) at Easter, which proclaimed, ‘Oh happy fault, (in Latin – Oh Felix Culpa) that merited such and so great a Redeemer.”  How in the world can the ‘fault’ be ‘happy’, let alone ‘merit’ the coming of the Redeemer? And the previous verse, ‘O truly necessary sin of Adam, which the death of Christ has blotted out!”  is equally troubling. Much of this thought can be traced to St. Ambrose, and subsequently to St. Augustine whom he taught.[v]  Cynically, one can read this in such a blasphemous way to see sin as a ‘plaything’ of God – creating man to sin so that He can ride in on His white horse and save him through Jesus.  I’m sure that this is not what the saintly Ambrose had in mind, but he does seem to say that sin was almost a given, and because of it (alone?), did the entirety of salvation history unfold, including the Incarnation, the Cross and the Resurrection. 

It must be said that St. Ambrose is emphasizing the overwhelming graciousness of God, that while we were yet in sin, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8).  Much of what he writes points to how God uses the events of one’s life (including the ones where sin is at work) to nonetheless draw us to salvation and life.  When St. Paul says in Romans 8:28, “God makes all things work for the good for those who love Him”  he means all things. God is not afar, waiting for us to figure things out and turn to Him, but is knee-deep in our mess, and prompting us, showing us, and pulling us out of it.

The Eastern Fathers, from what I’ve read, take a different view from St. Ambrose.  The Original Sin was a catastrophic, dehumanizing event utterly rupturing the relationship between God and man. There could be nothing essentially ‘good’ about it because it was essentially ‘not God’.[vi]  It was in no way ‘necessary’ for as a number of Fathers explicitly said, the Incarnation of Christ would have happened, as God’s extension of His love to humankind, even if there had been no sin.[vii]  And salvation from sin would have not been necessary, and the sense of exaltation (happiness) and fulfillment of the human relationship with God would not have proceeded from Hell (through the Cross) but in another form of spiritual ‘resurrection’ and eternal communion with the Trinity – effectively what one might call a ‘theosis’ moment.

Can sin be ‘happy’.  No, not in my experience anyway.  Sin always (eventually) brings discouragement, misery and death.

Can Happiness be restored?

David experienced personal misery deeply because of his sins, beginning with adultery and murder and adding anger, doubt, etc. into the mix.  David’s joy was gone.  But with his repentance came the hope, of a restored joy.  Here is where the holy Prophet David stands up and stands out – by asking God to restore his joy!  This is one of the first fruits of repentance – the inner prayer based upon restored trust that in God while we have sinned (in the past) penance gives us a way to be restored.  The burden of his heart is being lifted and turning to God, he seeks a return of the joy that he knew before.

David’s joy is not in anything external – but in His relationship with the Holy One, and in salvation.  While much can be said about the sense of what ‘salvation’ is, in the Old Testament – deliverance from terrible circumstances (e.g. The Exodus, or from enemies (e.g. the Babylonians), the sense of this is always, in an underlying way, spiritual.  Salvation is salvation from that which is Evil, the fallen world and the Prince of this World who is our enemy.  David personalizes this, because he has experienced the ‘enemy within’ but through repentance that enemy is being cast out.  This anticipates, and prophecies in fact, the ultimate salvation that would happen through the coming of Christ, His Cross, Death and Resurrection.

So, if we are not joyful, could it be that we are in need of penance?  Maybe.  But we are not to seek penance because we are seeking joy. This is akin to us just trying to patch things up (superficially) and make everything ‘OK’.   But perhaps even our less-than-pure motives can move us in the right direction! It’s like the addict who is so miserable he’ll do anything to lift him from his misery – including even turning to God.

Penance is not merely external, nor is it emotional in essence.  It is fundamentally born in the recognition of Truth, that surely then bears fruit in sorrow when we become aware of personal[viii] sin, the bearing the burden of that in the soul, and the turning to God to seek forgiveness.  The tears of penance are sad and bitter.  In time, as the fruits of penance begin to be realized, they can be transformed by grace to tears of joy. The path to lasting joy leads from the gate of sorrow.

Closing Thoughts

As a priest I don’t think I’ve ever suggested to anyone who was sad or depressed that they should go to Confession (unless I was aware of serious sin.)  Maybe I should have?  I do know this, that countless people have approached the icon of Christ in confession filled with sorrow and remorse and unburdened themselves of their sins, and heard the words from the Gospel, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’  (Lk. 7:48)

And many, so many, have walked away light-hearted and filled with joy.

And didn’t even have to ask God for the restoration of their joy and inner peace, but just to give thanks to Him for it. Ω


[i] Per Aristotle when posed with the question what is the supreme good for man, from the , Nicomachaen Ethics: “And of this nature happiness is mostly thought to be, for this we choose always for its own sake, and never with a view to anything further: whereas honour, pleasure, intellect, in fact every excellence we choose for their own sakes, it is true, but we choose them also with a view to happiness, conceiving that through their instrumentality we shall be happy: but no man chooses happiness with a view to them, nor in fact with a view to any other thing whatsoever. “  As quoted from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hide-and-seek/201301/aristotle-happiness

[ii] In what might have been a Freudian error (?), as I typed, ‘Gold’ I ended up typing ‘God’!  The difference cosmically between ‘gold’ and God is immeasurable, but in this world, they are too often, confused.


[iii] I’ve been reading lately St. Simeon the New Theologian, who reflects on how the joy of Christians is unmistakable sign, and many other Fathers spoke in the same way. (References upon request.)

[iv] It has been said that the Transfiguration can best be understood in light of the darkness of the Cross, and those who are immersed in it with Christ.

[v] An interesting reflection on this by Brian Kelly can be found here: https://catholicism.org/o-happy-fault.html  It is a reflection on a series of Lenten reflections and the writings of Cardinal Biffi of Milan, the city of St. Ambrose.

[vi] I would like to hear a Protestant take on this.  If the Original Sin resulted in the ‘total depravity’ of mankind, could it ever be seen as good in any way?  Do weigh with a comment if you have any thoughts on this.

[vii] This is, of course, totally speculative.  But St. Maximus among others attests to it, and even later, Duns Scotus, in the West, gives credence to the idea. https://publicorthodoxy.org/2018/06/21/theology-without-the-fall/

[viii] An oft-overlooked aspect of our whole perception of sin is that it is only personal.  Sometimes this seemingly gets amplified in Christianity.  But much of the sin of the Old Testament was seen to be corporate, and a cursory look at the warnings of the Apostle John in Revelation to the Churches of Asia, spoke of corporate sins.  Where and how do we reflect on ‘corporate’ sin in our own age?  The systemic sins, especially in the Church, are borne from the individual failings in conscience, but united with others become very powerful and damaging, especially in the Church. Wars are never caused by just on person. There is always a simmering hatred/violence/pride among many that promotes it.

Losing the Holy Spirit?


Courtesy- Cerzone.com

#23 of a Series on Psalm 50 –  “Do not cast me from your presence
    or take your Holy Spirit from me.”

There is probably nothing worse to say about a person than, ‘He’s lost the Spirit.’  It’s the essence of being truly lost. But can we actually lose the Holy Spirit? How?

As was mentioned earlier, the Holy Spirit was active and present in the world from the beginning of Creation and particularly through the Hebrew Covenant, of which David was a central figure.  But it is also clear that David’s perception of the work of the Spirit was much keener than most, and arguably even most today. While what would say today as the norm of the reception of the Holy Spirit through purification, Baptism and Chrismation was obviously not the case with David, it is clear that the Spirit was quite present and active in many ways, not the least of which was through His prophetic ministry.  Only the Holy Spirit can inspire a true prophet.  But our perspective is from the New Testament, the old has passed away and all things are made new[i].

Much is said in Christianity[ii] of the acquiring the Holy Spirit and it has been a bit of a focus of these reflections as well.  In Orthodoxy, there is great theological focus on the personal reception of the Holy Spirit through the sacramental Mystery of Chrismation (akin to Confirmation in the West and in an ongoing way through the practice of the Orthodox Way).  We celebrate as a Major Feast the Gift of the Spirit to the Church, at Pentecost as inaugurating a new age of His sustaining presence forever.  There’s no taking that away.  The Fathers speak of ‘acquiring the Holy Spirit’ personally through the whole of the Christian discipline process (read spiritual discipline) – Church life/worship, prayer, ascetical practices, virtuous deeds, charity, etc.[iii]  

The Church teaches that the gift of the Holy Spirit once ‘sealed’ in the soul is a forever gift, God will never forsake his servants whom He so loves as to give Himself as a Bridegroom gives himself to a Bride.  This is the innermost quality of the relationship that is established in Chrismation. So how is it that the Holy Spirit could be taken?

The Gift of the Spirit – To be Stewarded

Our relationship with God, actualized by the Holy Spirit, must be attend to lest it be lost.  So many biblical examples come to mind here –  for example, the Parable of the Sower and the Seed, wherein we learn that the life of grace is planted by God, but it will either thrive or die depending on living circumstances and environment.  Of course, the parable as subsequently explained by the Lord Jesus, shows us that the ‘environment’ consists of spiritual attacks of things like spiritual immaturity (wilting in the drought) and succumbing to the ‘cares, riches and pleasures’ of life. (Lk. 8:1-15)

Christians are assaulted with temptations of every sort which can unravel the discipline (discipleship) of our spiritual life. When that happens, the ever-present Spirit seems distant or unknown.  We feel cold. The relationship grows cold – the gift seems to be slipping away. After a while a spiritual apathy overcomes us, and we don’t care if we are losing our spiritual center.  In stewarding the gifts of God, we do well to understand certain movements in this process.[iv]  The Gift of the Spirit is a relationship, and relationships must be stewarded by constant communication, attentiveness, purification (leading to a deeper relationship) and love.  The Spirit responds inwardly, prompting the heart to pray, and indeed the Fathers have identified the ‘heartbeat’ as something of a bodily metaphor for the intimacy and presence of the Spirit.

Grieving the Holy Spirit

When a relationship is going south, it causes grief.  St. Paul describes it in this way,

“Don’t use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them. And do not grieve God’s Holy Spirit by the way you live…. Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of malicious behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.”    (Eph. 4:29 – 32)

As with any relationship, when the sins above are present it is impossible to live in peace.  The relationship with God is different though.  God is the Giver of peace of heart, sweet words, truth, and love.  To act in this way is to respond not to the presence of the Spirit in the heart, but to the promptings of the Devil and submission to Him in our actions.

Just as an aside, it is worthwhile to note the proliferation of foul talk in our culture.  Christianity always fights the proliferation of foul talk. This is especially true regarding the holiness of the name of the Lord, the Name above every other Name, Jesus Christ.[v] When someone speaks thus to animate their words, they instill them not only with vehemence, but evil.  Once this is started (I know from experience) it becomes increasingly difficult to control. As it becomes commonplace (sometimes even in ‘churches’) it further coarsens society. It’s worst effect?  It grieves the Holy Spirit!   Note that, like Peter in the Garden when he denied Christ three times, he ‘cursed and swore’.  Thankfully, the beginning of his healing began soon after when he ‘wept bitterly.’ (Mk.17:71ff)

When we hear our outer language growing coarse or utterly sinful in using the Lord’s name in vain, the Spirit is not empowering our words and is far from our hearts from which the words precede.

Presumption and Delusion

There are two other sins to mention that are particularly harmful regarding our relationship with the Holy Spirit.  Of course, all sins tend to spiral into a single vortex – as David found out – lust can join to anger leading to murder. The sins of presumption and delusion often work as a pair.

While both arise from a self-centered ego, spiritual presumption affords to oneself that which is a gift from God.  It can affect anyone and pop up quickly. One scenario might be this – a person is baptized as a child and given the wondrous gift of Life in Christ and the Spirit. For whatever reasons, she carries on the outward activity (even highly engaged) of Christianity but does not examine herself – words, deeds, motivations – and soon begins to assume her ‘Christianity’ is her own, giving her a ‘boldness’ from her ego, not from God.  This can lead to all sorts of bad things  where the outward profession is increasingly different from the inner heart.  Presumption usually leads one to think of oneself as better than others.  The Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican is a fine example of how presumption is manifest.  While applied to a ‘Pharisee’ it can be true of a Christian just as easily, but to even more harmful effect because, bearing the very name of Christ, others identify not just ourselves with Christianity, but worse, identify Christ with us! Saying in effect, “If that’s what Jesus Christ is about I want nothing to do with it!”  

I find it necessary to mention that this is a great temptation in Christianity today because the systems established in the early Church to get us to do self-examination (as the Apostle commands – 1Cor. 11:28-29) have drifted from our praxis.  The self-examination and confession of sins is at the heart of this discipline.  The discipline of personal confession was pretty much lost in Protestantism in practice, except for a very individualized  form, which denied the not only the value of external counsel and discernment, but the very forgiveness of sins in the power of the Spirit offered sacramentally.  But even in the Roman Church as well as Orthodoxy, the value of confession has waned in various places and times, and with that, the advice of St. Paul goes unheeded.

The Sin of Delusion

Delusion (Gr. prelest) is the evil sister of Presumption, is essentially self-centered flattery which, like presumption, makes us think more highly of ourselves than we should, about which St. Paul warns decisively. (Rom.12:3)  The thing about delusion is that while self-inflation is at its core, it leads, literally to a ‘deluded-false’ view of self and subsequently, the world. This then opens the heart to demonic inspired thoughts of one’s spiritual greatness and the demons will even provide visions and other forms of self-exaltation in dreams and the like. This can lead to serious mental illness.  It could be said that all religious charlatans who lead countless people to their destruction, are suffering from this truly mortal (deadly) sin.

In fact, delusion and presumption are horrific temptations for priests and those in ministry because we are so close to great and wondrous truth and sacred gifts of God that we can get our egos entangled terribly in it all. This is especially true in preaching, and the road from the church is littered with the souls of deluded preachers and those who paid heed to them.  The problem is that, because they (we) can become so ego-centered, in human terms ‘ powerful,‘  that the message seems to be convincing and compelling.  Roll in the thunderous sound of one’s own voice electronically amplified in an auditorium, the applause of people, or thousands of adoring social media fans and ‘likes’, increased money, power, etc. and t becomes an extremely dangerous cocktail.  This was one sin that St. John Chrysostom continuously and vehemently warned about in his day.

But all this arises, not from the Holy Spirit but from the demonic spirit of prelest.  In this case, it could be said that the Holy Spirit has been ‘taken’ from the preacher, or perhaps seen another way, the preacher’s failure to humble himself and be vigilant has led to falsehood and delusion in both his message and presentation.  This is often then accompanied by other moral failures (like sexual misconduct) then end up in the end, bringing him down – which is a good thing, because the evil is confronted and repentance is possible.

I would only add that among the greatest needs in the Church is that of discernment for priests – not just within ourselves (which can be deluded) but from others, whether laity, other clergy or, ideally, hierarchs.  One example for me was when a parishioner asked me about a passage which I had preached about.  Through the discussion it became clear to me that I had been wrong, and needed to be humbled and change my thinking. This is how the Spirit sometimes come to us and confront not only the misunderstanding, but the spiritual weakness and sin. So don’t be afraid to ask your priest about what he is preaching about.  Rightly done, it can lead to a rich dialogue and correction of errors, misunderstanding and with it, humility.

Conclusion

I cannot begin to say where the Spirit is, or is not, or how existentially the Spirit may be taken from a person.  These things are beyond me – the state of souls and particularly the Spirit who moves where He wills.  But I cannot think of a worse Hell than from one which the Spirit of God has in some way withdrawn, in which all goodness has vanished.

Take not O Lord, thy Holy Spirit from me!


[i] Cf.2Cor.5:17

 

[iii] Wisdom 1:5 shows this relationship: “the Holy Spirit of discipline flees deceit and withdraws from senseless counsel”

[iv] I refer to these movements elsewhere as the ‘Spiritual Cycle of Stewardship’ as consisting of eight such movements.

[v]As a kid, the Catholic churches almost always had a ‘Holy Name Society’.  I never knew what it was about, it was seemingly a pious confraternity. From Catholic.org: “The primary object of the society is to beget due love and reverence for the Holy Name of God and Jesus Christ. The secondary object is to suppress blasphemy, perjury, oaths of any character that are forbidden, profanity, unlawful swearing, improper language, and, as far as the members can, to prevent those vices in others (Pius IV, April 13, 1564).” 
In today’s society, I can think of no other more valuable task force of committed Christians of all Churches and denominations to take on than the restoration of the respect for the name of the Lord and the saints, and speech in general.

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]

All Things are New!

#19 of a Series on Psalm 50

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

Christian theologians over the centuries have discussed, or maybe just as often argued, about the nature of salvation and trying to describe in a comprehensible way this most profound human experience which bears eternal consequences. What you end up with is a stream of internally coherent thoughts and ideas, which become theological ‘positions’, which try to explain the unexplainable.  As an occasional fan of theology, these days I’m wondering if the best we can do is revert back to metaphor and shroud it in mystery.  That appeals to my tendency to be lazy in thought – contrasted to that part of the nature of our human condition driven to probe and understand, conceptualizing things and processes, whether they be in the natural world through science, or the metaphysical and spiritual worlds through nebulous theologies.  

It’s with that sense that I try to skim through this verse, touching on it like the hummingbirds flitting from flower to flower as they prepare for their great sojourn south very soon.  The word ‘create’, from the Orthodox Study Bible’s translation above has a profound implication. 

A New Heart?

Everybody has a heart and when that heart is diseased, our only hope is to make it somehow ‘better’ and able to function at least moderately to ‘get by’.  That changed when the miracle of heart transplantation appeared with Dr. Christiaan Barnard’s work in the 1967. Before that, we always were just stuck with the heart we were given at birth. But when you’re so sick that your heart no longer works, you die.  Now there’s an alternative – get a heart transplant =  a new heart.  

Sin is a spiritual ‘heart attack’ which seriously compromises our heart’s function.  Now here I mean the heart as the center of our being, our soul mysteriously linked to our rational and emotional functions, and the seat of the greatest dimensions of our human condition – love, hope and faith, cognition and rationality, artistic aspiration, etc. – essentially bearingour personality and life itself.  When this heart has been wounded, our capabilities to live in goodness (righteousness) and in love and care of others collapses, and death is near.

In our theologies, and even in this psalm, we see references to the cleansing of a heart or, in some translations, a purification.  There is, however, in Christianity a very different theological ‘add-on’ to this idea.  The heart of the penitent is not merely purified, but instead the penitent is given the unthinkable – a new heart, spiritually.  To create is to take something that does not exist, and make it exist.  This idea is, I believe, conveyed in this verse – what the penitent person receives is a new heart.

But, as my metaphor above limps as they all do, this new heart is not merely like the transplanted heart from an unfortunate accident repurposed in someone else’s chest – as marvelous as that is (!) – but a new heart, in every way.

Judaism and Christianity

I believe that this concept has been a struggle since the earliest days of the Church. 

What is the nature of Christianity?

Is Christian teaching a ‘purified’ or a recycled Judaism taking its teachings to a new place ethically and with a new spiritual focus, centered in the teachings of Jesus?  The Council of Jerusalem[i], which wrestled with this fundamental issue, recognized two important things.  The Council realized that Christianity is the fulfillment of Judaism in the Risen Lord, yet had to remain in continuity with it, echoed in the Law and the Prophets and expressing this in distinctive worship (liturgy) of Jesus as Lord, a tightly bound community life and structure, and strong moral teaching based on the teachings of Christ – living a life pleasing to God.  But there was always a ‘Judaizing’ tendency in the Early Church, to be confronted by the Jew above other Jews – St. Paul himself, who was the voice of the Christian teaching regarding the evangelization of the Gentiles.  It became clear. Did someone need to become a Jew first, before becoming Christians?[ii]  Led by the Spirit, the Apostles through the Council was a profound, ‘No.’

The Death and Resurrection of Christ forever changed Judaism – in some ways bringing it to an end so that the fulfillment of Judaism in Christianity would emerge just as a death is necessary for a Resurrection to take place.[iii]  Hence, the old Judaic practices of the Law would give way to a completely new re-founding of the Revelation of God in the Crucified and Risen Lord, Jesus Christ identified as The Word of God Himself. It is this newness that St. Paul, emphasizes. Consider these two passages from Galatians:

I have been crucified with Christ, it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. The life I liv in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up fo me.” Gal. 2:20 

Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.” Gal. 6:15

Speaking forcefully to those who wanted to impose Judaism[iv] on those who had received Christ and come into the Church, St. Paul makes this powerful distinction – because becoming a Christian means a death of the old self (and its religious views and limitations) to allow the new creation to emerge.  Penance is that necessary death to the old self and our prior actions so that the new life can emerge. As Paul argues in much of the Epistle to the Romans, the old religion of Judaism is meaningless in regard to making one’s soul righteous – for that can only happen in Christ – by being ‘crucified with Christ’ unto death and receiving the new life, in the new heart of spiritual man born of water and the Spirit.

Baptized into His Death

This death, and the emergence of new life happens in sacramental Baptism. It is sacramental precisely because it ‘makes sacred’ the one who was previously dead (the essence of uncleanness in Judaic terms) in sin, and brought to new life and recreated – given a new heart.

As we can see, this newness is, in a sense, not new.  David had prophetically (under the inspiration of the Spirit through his penance) alluded to it in Psalm 50, with his language of creating a pure heart – as a re-creation – in the passage above. The Holy Prophet Ezekiel spoke of this as well:

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”  Ez. 36:26

This is why the imagery of death to self is so essential especially, as manifest in the renunciation of the Devil in the Baptismal practice (and ritual) and a confession of sins prior to Baptism.[v] This confession paved the way for receiving the new life, and the new heart, through Baptism.

In this regard, we can also consider the nature of Baptism itself.  Some teach that it is a type of symbol or ritual, like the Old Testament ritual washings, which has no real spiritual efficacy except that Jesus said to do it (Mt. 28).  The Ancient Church, as expressed in Orthodox and Roman Catholic teaching rejected such a simplistic understanding because the Scriptures had so much more to say about what Baptism accomplishes – the eternal incorporation into the Body of Christ, the Mystical participation of a person in the very life of the Risen Lord, the nature of the Church itself, etc.

We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.  (Rom 1:6)

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. (2Cor 5:7)

It is this two phases of baptism into Christ’s Death – through a penitential confession of sins and sacramental Baptism, that the new Creation in Christ emerges. 

New Creation

This newly created heart exists in the man and woman who are the new creation in the Risen Lord.  In a rather involved, but fascinating account of the creation of man and woman (Adam and Even), St. Simeon the New Theologian[vi] makes a remarkable observation about the creation of Eve from the side of Adam. The act of creating Eve from Adam, before the Fall, is paralleled to the Lord’s taking a ‘portion’ of humankind for, and dare I say, unto Himself.  In His divine foreknowledge He knew that the old Man – Adam and those of his flesh – would die.  But the new portion set aside would be ‘reserved’ for the ‘new Adam – Jesus Christ’ and it would be en-fleshed in the Virgin Mary who would give flesh to the Son of God, the New Adam, to institute the beginning of the New Creation through the Incarnation and all that Christ would accomplish as the God-man.

This idea of a new creation is specially revealed in the beginning and end of the Bible, the first and last chapters– Genesis and Revelation.  Genesis 1 begins with the starting point of Creation of the cosmos and the human role of stewardship of the Creation being made in God’s image and likeness but bearing bodily form, unlike the angels.  Revelation describes the fulfillment of the cataclysmic end of the fallen world as it is recreated in a new way, in Christ, in the Church as the Bride of Christ.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea no longer existed.  I also saw the Holy City, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband.”  Rev. 21:1

In some ways, this new creation idea is not new!  The prophet Isaiah spoke these words centuries before the coming of Christ,

For behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.”  Is. 65:17

It is in this light that perhaps we can see the First Miracle of Jesus in Cana as pointing to what He was really to do in His ministry. His changing of the water into wine constituted a new creation of the water from something with a simple liquid, into something with a similar but fundamentally new and distinctive nature – wine.

Renewal of the Mind

While the final re-creation of the cosmos in Christ will encompass all beings and all things, the re-creation process has already begun in the central core of creation, the human heart – as David discovered and exclaimed through his repentance, “Create a pure heart in me O God!”  This echoes the prophetic cry of the early Church, prompting the faithful to cry out, “Maranatha, come Lord Jesus.” (1Cor 16:2) – anticipating the second Coming of Christ.

When we think of the New Creation, we may anticipate and long for the cataclysmic recreation of the world described in Book of Revelation. But the new creation really begins in a different way, not with trumpets and earthquakes, but with what St. Paul describes as the “renewing of the mind.”  (Rom.12:2)  This is prompted by tears flowing in repentance for offenses against God, and opens the doors of grace, and Christ Himself, to enter and refashion the human person in His likeness. Ω


[i] The Council of Jerusalem is described in Acts 15:1ff.

[ii] I cannot imagine how incredibly difficult this would be for someone to accept who was so steeped in Judaism as St. Paul. It would have seemed like an abandonment of the Hebraic Faith – except that full understanding of Christianity would point to him the narrow path of understanding how Christianity was truly fully Jewish in its Godly spirit, while certain external aspects would be superseded by incorporation in to Christ (and the Church).

[iii] Many of the Fathers of the Church see the tearing of the curtain of the Temple at the moment of Christ’s death as a sign of this radical end to the Judaism as it was known.

[iv] For a long time I’ve found it utterly strange that some Protestant congregations would have a type of Jewish Seder meal on the evening before Good Friday.  Despite the profound meaning of the Seder and its implications for understanding the Christian Passover (Pascha), to celebrate this instead of the Eucharist shows just how far the breakdown of theology has gone.  The Eucharist forever supplanted the Seder which had only served as a metaphorical forerunner of the Sacred Meal of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  It shows the importance of Liturgy as a spiritual stream of theological revelation.

[v] This raises the oft-debated question of the baptism of infants, which leads to the very important theological discussion of the nature of sin (and the Original Sin) which cannot be explored here.

[vi] See St. Simeon the New Theologian, On the Mystical Life, Vol. 1, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. In this effort to summarize a complete thought of St. Simeon I way well misconstrue or misrepresent certain aspects of it – hence my recommendation to go to the source.

Can You Face Him?

Icon of Christ the Bridegroom – M. Kapeluck


#18 of a Series on Psalm 50

Turn away your face from my sins; blot out all my iniquities.”

“Face it.”  

It’s an expression that we say to people when we want them to confront something they don’t want to look at.  It means confronting oneself with the truth about something that is (seemingly at least) bad, and we are reluctant to look at.  As human beings (unlike horses or prey animals[i]) our eyes are on the front of our face so to really focus on something we must look directly at it.  Hence the facial orientation is important and shows up in all kinds of ways, culturally, in literature and communications.  Your face is the key to your heart – and metaphorically, it’s the key to God’s heart as well.

Of late, I’ve done a little reading on autism[ii] – a developmental disease that usually presents itself early in life. The symptoms of the disease are psychological, neurological, physiological and social, including behaviors we would often call disruptive (like outbursts of emotion), social detachment and self-fixation. Researchers are finding that it is much more common than originally thought – and observable in some ways even in otherwise seemingly well-adjusted and even highly successful adults. The wide variety of behaviors and expressions of it have led to what is called the autism ‘spectrum’ which implies that wide variation in breadth and depth of symptoms.  Autistic people sometimes have unusual abilities in some areas, and skills and knowledge rightly applied can bring forth remarkable capabilities.

I mention autism because one common diagnostic characteristic of autistic people is that they are extremely uncomfortable looking someone in the eyes, face to face.  This is part of the social distancing which is seemingly innate in their being, even from an early age. It can either come from, or foster further, an inner sense of inadequacy and self-weakness, which the ego directs into avoidance behaviors.  Confrontation of that behavior may lead to an explosive outburst in self-defense. 

Over the years, when I’ve found myself in a ‘bad’ place spiritually[iii], my own behaviors will mimic this in some ways. The eyes avoid contact with others.  I am unable to face someone – directly and personally and literally cannot look them in the eyes in peace – especially those to whom I am directly accountable.  It actually becomes noticeable within and other people pick up on the behavior as a mirror of the inner state.  With repentance (especially Confession) one can be set back aright and ‘look forward’ again, not just down.  Sometimes people confuse humility with being unable to look someone in the eye.  It’s probably a sign of the opposite – an inner weakness perhaps due to the wounding of sin.

Now there is another way to meet someone face-to-face.  That is in confrontation – where the ego is exerting itself in a dominance battle with another person.  This is described almost universally in societies when we use the phrase, saying someone “blinked first.” In a stare down, whoever looks away first capitulates and crumbles before the other who then exerts dominance in other social ways.  

The Glorious Face of God

In this verse, David implores God to turn away His face from his sin.  David is essentially asking God to do what he has done, because the sin is so hideous to David that David must turn his face away from it.  Looking at the sin burns David’s heart, and it would seem that God must see David only as sin.  To David, he has ‘become sin’.  By God’s turning his face away from his sin, David has the possibility of separation from this fire consuming his identity – He can exist beyond and outside of his sin.  God can then look at him, and not see the sin anymore – if God turns His face from David’s sin.

Maybe?

The Face of God

The Face of God is oft-expressed in the Bible, as God’s manifestation[iv] of His personal being to human beings.  Because God in His essence is unknowable to us, His gaze is like a consuming fire.  In the Book of Exodus (Ex. 33:18-34:9) Moses longed to see God.  God instructs Moses that he cannot, but was only given the blessing to look at God’s ‘back-side’ as He passed by in the vision on Mt. Sinai.

“I will cause all My goodness to pass before you,” the LORD replied, “and I will proclaim My name—the LORD—in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” But He added, “You cannot see My face, for no one can see Me and live.” The LORD continued, “There is a place near Me where you are to stand upon a rock, and when My glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away, and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen.”

Moses, like every human, could not bear to see the face of God and live.

It might be helpful to see how the Transfiguration of Christ[v] begins to shift some of this teaching and understanding in the New Testament.  The same Moses (now deceased) appears in the vision with Christ and Elijah.  St. Matthew describes this saying,

And His face shown like the sun”

Now as we know, the sun is too bright to look at – and if somehow we do for very long we go blind.  These words describe the glory on the face of Jesus, as described in St. Peter’s epistle, as a personal testimony. (2Pt.1:16ff)[vi]  The glory of the moment was too great for the disciples to cast their gaze upon the glorious Christ, but they had to hide their faces.  In a powerful (but perhaps overlooked?) verse from St. Luke at the end of the scene:

Jesus came and touched them, and said, ‘Arise, and be not afraid.And when they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no man, save Jesus only.

So, the passage really is about seeing the face of Jesus – first in his glory (His original form radiating His divinity) and secondly, in His human form, where He is recognizable as a man (only).  Looking at the face of Jesus allows them to identify Him, and allow his gaze to identify themselves as He sees them.

Behold, the Lamb of God Who Takes away the Sins of the World

In the Crucifixion narrative that follows shortly, the quote from Isaiah 52, which is read at Great Friday Vespers:

Just as there were many who were appalled at him — his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness.”

It can be said that one reason the Orthodox Church so values its iconography is that it gives the Christian an opportunity to view, mystically by grace, the face of Jesus.[vii]  Of course we know that the pigments and paints are not the face of Jesus but just as a photographic print or even digital pixels can form an image of the face of someone that can speak to us inwardly and powerfully, and inspire, or even convict us of our sin. When we pray before the icon of Christ, we are approaching Jesus – God Incarnate, face to face.

Looking at Sin?

As I mentioned above, its so difficult, even impossible, to look at sin. The horrific visions of human suffering wrought by sin in every age and so many cultures cause revulsion.  Seeing this (and sensing through our senses) causes us unbearable sickness.  I can’t imagine what anyone who experienced first hand the atrocities of the Holodomor, Auschwitz, the front lines of war or even the 911 bombings can bear it. Or watching the death of one’s child through violence.  Those who have born this must look upon this ‘sin’ daily – as the images are brought back to them in vivid suffering especially through experiences like PTSD.  They know the power of Evil. 

Behold Your Son

These words speak of the horror of the experience of Mary, the Theotokos, looking upon Her crucified Son.  In what ways does this not also reveal perhaps how God the Father ‘beholds’ His Son?  Crucified by sin, Crucified in love.   God would look upon His Son.   This may shed a ray of light on one of the most mysterious passages of scripture, and also misinterpreted, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us…” (2Cor.5:21)  [viii]

Because the Son, as the Lamb of God, had taken upon Himself the sins of the World, so those who beheld the Lamb of God, would have to look at the sin.  Confront its horror and injustice.  God would not turn His face from His Crucified Son, and hence would not and could not turn His face from the sins He bore.  And He would not turn His face from us.  In doing so, He would be unlike us – who cast our eyes away from our sins because we cannot bear it. 

In the Crucifixion, lies the only path to forgiveness and resolution of the sin of David, my sin, and the sins of the world. It is only when God looks upon us, even in our sins, and heeds to the words of the Son, “Father forgive them!”  that the power of sin over the soul of man is broken.  But the price requires a total payment in love – The Death of the Son.  God deemed the restoration of the heart of man as worthy of the ransom price paid.

It is perhaps, if any of this is true, possible to glimpse how the one who is on the path of salvation, Mary, is invited to do the same as the Father – to Behold the Son! (Jn. 19:26)  In all of the unspeakable grief and sorrow wrought by sin. How was it possible to not turn her gaze away.  But Jesus gives these words as a command – Look!  Don’t turn away.  You have within your heart the love sufficient to bear this with all its horror and sorrow. And through the humanity of her who did this, emerges a path to truly ‘behold’ Christ for all who would follow.  It is for this reason that the Vigil of Pascha/Easter in the Orthodox liturgy is grounded in the profound lamentation of Mary, and all who are beginning to open their hearts to the possibility of bearing the grief and love at this depth in their hearts.  And to see sin for what it really is and has done to humanity.

They Shall Look Upon Him Whom They Have Pierced

St. John’s gospel effectively concludes the Crucifixion narrative with this quotation, cited from the prophecy of Zechariah 12.  Following the piercing of Christ, and the image of the blood and water of the death of Christ (symbolic of the new life in Baptism and the Eucharist), St. John offers these words as another invitation to ‘Behold’ and to ‘Look upon Christ’ who was so pierced.[ix]   The followers of Jesus must look upon Him – and stop casting away their gaze, or amusing themselves with other things, or distractions – but shall take up the burden of the spiritual struggle with sin.

The Christian life means to look upon the face of Christ, as the first step in learning to look upon ourselves and see ourselves as we truly are, and even perceive what sin has done to us.  The light shining from the face, and from the tomb of Christ is the only way that we can possibly really look at our sins.  It’s because God has not turned away from us, even in our sins, that we can begin to see things as they truly are in a spiritual way. 

Closing Thought – Setting His Face to Jerusalem

In St. Luke’s narrative, adjoining the Transfiguration narrative, we hear these words, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”  (Lk.9:51)  In this passage we see the mission and ministry of Jesus destined to fulfillment in glory (taken up in His Ascension), setting his face upon us in a new and total and loving way of self-sacrificing embrace of us all, and bearing the cross and pain of our sinfulness as the only way to be completely joined to us. 

He set His face not just upon Jerusalem, but upon you and me, and would not cast his gaze away until He could no longer – when He would say, ‘It is finished.’  And his eyes would close.  Ω

______________________


[i] The sight capabilities and their link to their behaviors as prey animals is a fascinating study of equines.

[ii] A growing body of research is coming available on this syndrome and the CDC can serve as a good starting point.  What has been called ‘Asperger’s’ disease is similar but presents slightly different criteria for diagnosis.

[iii] What I describe here personally has no reflection on the spiritual state of people with autism or anyone else.

[iv] I hasten to note here that we are in the realm of profound, mystical and theological teachings that I offer in only the most inadequate, incomplete and cursory way. The patristic teachings on the biblical passages on the human and mystical encounter with God is the place to explore this, as discerned through Holy Tradition of the Orthodox Church and deemed worthy. Two references that come to mind are St. Gregory of Nyssa’s, The Life of Moses and St. Simeon the New Theologian’s, On the Mystical Life

[v] The Exodus passage above is read at Vespers for the Feast of the Transfiguration, and the presence of Moses with Christ (and Elijah) implies a change in the way that God relates in His awesome glory to humankind.

[vi] Many of today’s biblical scholars tell us that 2Peter was not authored by the Apostle.  Yet I find this passage so compelling as a testimony – he wanted his listeners to hear his story and discern its meaning from him.  Authorship has different aspects to it.

[vii] The Icon of Christ Not Made with Human Hands (Gr. Acheiropoieta) is one of the most ancient, according to Tradition given by Christ Himself to the pious Prince of Edessa, Abgar, which brought healing to him.  The tradition of ‘Veronica’s Veil’ bears this same type of image in Roman Catholic piety.

[viii] Space does not allow a treatment of this verse which was interpreted in certain Protestant traditions in such a literal fashion as to imply that somehow in the essence of Jesus’s being (which in Orthodoxy means his divine and human natures) that He transformed into the nature of sin itself. Such an understanding does is not compatible with the Church’s understanding.  Because the mystery of the working of the divine and human natures in Christ is an utter mystery, this must be passed by for now.

[ix] In light of this, Rev. 1:7 speaks powerfully of how the entire world will come to do the same thing  –
Behold, He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him–even those who pierced Him. And all the tribes of the earth will mourn because of Him. So shall it be! Amen” The implications of this are profound.