On Mission Parishes – A New Series


ways-of-christ.net

#1 in the Series

Those who have known me over the years or read my vitae, know that much of my ministry as a priest has been in small congregations, often called ‘missions.’  It’s actually my comfort zone – and for me the press of a larger parish is difficult if not unmanageable.  Rather, a smaller mission context allows a priest to explore what he really thinks is important and salvific in terms of the community he serves and the people who comprise it and you can really get to know the people because you rely on each other for everything.

Much of what I may write on this topic is the fruit of this experience, and often through my interactions with mission parish members through it.  Often, it’s their demeanor, beliefs, posture, service, prayer and love of God and others that has shown me what missions are all about.  I’m aware that, to share anonymity, I’ll have to work hard to make sure that nothing is said here that is demeaning or embarrassing to others, and I’ll ask forgiveness ahead of time if inadvertently something like that happens!  Likewise, if any readers have experiences[i] or insights that can enhance or correct what I write that input is most welcome!  All of this is recognized as only my limited (perhaps myopic) perspective, but it’s about all I have to offer.  Still, I hope that it’s of some value to those who would be open to reading it especially priests and lay members of mission churches – Orthodox and non-Orthodox.  I welcome your comments personally or if need be, anonymously.

Introduction

I’ve always loved the spiritual trajectory of this time of year, beginning with an inner focus on repentance and conversion during Lent, being joined to Christ and His saving Paschal mystery during Holy Week, the spiritual teaching on the gift of salvation through Baptism during the Paschal Season and the Ascension as the fulfillment of Christ’s work on earth pointing toward His Second Coming.

Sort of.

The trajectory as stated above falls short.  There’s more to it. Not that Christ didn’t accomplish his mission (Jn.17), but there’s more – a sense of the fulfillment after Pentecost of all that went before in Pentecost.  Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to accomplish in the hearts of men and women what Christ begins in Baptism – salvation, theosis, etc.  But there is still another question.  How does that happen? 

It happens through Mission[ii] – explicitly, the mission of the Church.  During the weeks following Pentecost the faithful of the Orthodox Church hear the Gospel stories that recount how the Lord called and raised up His disciples to become His Church, to continue His work!  Our Lord’s Ascension was literally and figuratively a ‘point of departure’ – not only His leaving earth (so to speak) but His launch of His Mission, to be continued through the work of the Apostles in the Church, and by His continuing Presence working through the Holy Spirit.

This series will explore this second part of the New Testament story as it unfolds in Acts and in Church life and history reflected in the Epistles and Holy Tradition and eventually up to our own age.  It all begins with The Mission.

So – What is the Mission?

Recently, I had the privilege of speaking with members of a mission parish for a talk, speaking about what it means to be a mission and how to go about the work.  It took me back to my own similar experience – two days plus 25 years ago when we celebrated our first Divine Liturgy in a hotel room in Charlottesville, Virginia.  At that time, I was rather pleased, amazed and challenged when I met those who showed up. God was mysteriously at work. And it was only the beginning of many moments of amazement, most pleasing – and always challenging as we tracked how a mission parish could be started, encouraged and grow and over time by grace, mature.

So the first question I asked was, ‘What is your mission?’  I think it’s a question we don’t ask enough.[iii]  What is a mission parish supposed to be about? What’s the point of it all?

Dumb Question?

We might be tempted to think this is a dumb question – of course we all know (especially clergy) what we’re all to be about. But this is not a stupid question – It’s the most important question.  Get this wrong and eventually things will go south.

I can recall a situation where I was approached by a couple of people who wanted to start a mission in another part of the state of Virginia.  I thought it was a worthy desire and I was intrigued about it.  They began by saying, there’s this Protestant church that had closed and those who it fell to manage the building wanted to reopen it, or get rid of it, so why not make it into an Orthodox Church?[iv]  A good question – and I’m sure there are mission churches that started just this way.  I eventually found out that the building had issues with construction, and most importantly, location – but it was a building, and of nominal cost, and available immediately!  Ideal situation, right?

Similarly, my late classmate Fr. William Wojciechowski and I used to joke about a most likely apocryphal story of one of our Byzantine Catholic hierarchs who stated that he wanted to send a young, inexperienced priest to the middle of nowhere in Nebraska because he found out that ‘we have three families in Topeka!’[v]  I don’t think they had enough guys to send someone to Topeka, and if they did, whether or not he ever came back.

So, to use the old cart-before-the-horse analogy we are accumulating carts and horses, and goods to haul.  But is this business of hauling things what we are to be about, that we need carts and horses? What are we supposed to be doing?  Is the way we go about ‘mission’ supposed to be getting a building, finding a handful of people to serve and having at it?  I don’t know – but I don’t think this was Christ’s model for church missions.  Yet this is how Orthodox missions are started all the time, and have been for centuries.

The Needs of the People

The vast majority of churches since 1900 in the US popped up because people immigrated to the US in large enough numbers, somewhat larger than three in Topeka, that they formed communities of like-minded people from which their church, whether Byzantine Catholic, or Orthodox would sprout and grow.  And often these fledgling religious communities would struggle financially, argue, split up, reconfigure or just die, instead of thrive.  For most of these folks, including my own family, these churches served as lifelines to their roots and identity, of which their Faith was an integral  part.  I am a Christian because of them. Yet, as that identity shifted in time, as immigrants grew Americanized, their church often no longer fit into their new emerging sense of American identity and the life work they were about.  In some social circles, in the mid-twentieth century,  being part of a ‘hunky’ church would hurt you professionally and socially. People would keep a dotted line affiliation to their church and maintain a relationship for feasts like Christmas and Easter, and for big life events, but not be committed or active in the real work of the Church, nor would they worship weekly.

In those days, when a new parish came into being, it  grew as a community to serve a small population, managed that successfully, thrived as that population grew (even explosively), plateaued, then as it often declined over the years, as they experienced the loss of their parish membership due to the economy, demographics or other societal forces. The people for whom the parish was meant to exist, were gone.  People have literally told me that their only desire was to see the church doors open long enough until they could be carried in and out for their funeral. After that, feel free to close the doors.[vi]   Later in this series, I hope to write an article or two about the trajectory of parish growth and decline that hints at how the end is often made a reality long before anyone is willing to even think or talk about it, but that’s for another time.

Chaplaincy

In these examples, the parish as an entity was established for certain known purposes, to take care of a certain group of people.  A long time ago, someone wise wrote about this, describing it as a ‘chaplaincy’ model of ministry or priesthood. In a chaplaincy, the clergyman is sent to simply take care of a given set of people, in their needs.  As long as the needs are there, the chaplain has a mission (job).  Those needs, are often determined by those requesting the chaplain.[vii]  Often in America’s past, parish boards viewed their priests as chaplains, hired to carry out certain spiritual tasks and services (weekly services, Christmas and Easter, baptisms, weddings, funerals, etc.) and compensated accordingly, and dismissed when these lay leaders perceived there was no longer a need, or the person was deemed incapable of doing the job to their satisfaction.  The mission in this case was taking care of these needs as were spelled out.  In Catholicism and Orthodoxy, the role of the bishop blunts this tendency, but sometimes in Protestant churches, this same dynamic is very much in operation today.  A minister may be hired with an understanding that they are to build a youth ministry, seniors ministry or a church building for example.  When that’s done, they can look for a dismissal letter in the mail.[viii] 

There are many reasons why priests and lay people want to see a mission parish started. If you ask the right questions you may find that the reasons for this may be very, very different – and even clash.  Some people are driven by the memory of past forebears who were ‘founders’ of churches and feel a need to live up to the same, just as a son might go to law school because his dad was a lawyer.  It really is a question of vocation, and not just for the clergy, but also for the laity.  To be a member of a parish that is a mission parish (i.e. a parish with a mission) brings a different set of assumptions and requirements than attending a ‘chaplaincy’ parish, where the parish is viewed as being there to serve you. Among the reasons cited, and present but sometimes present but not cited include:

  • A desire for a specific ethnic presence in a community – for festive public celebrations, dance groups, etc.
  • The unwillingness or inability to travel distances to another parish that will serve one’s needs
  • The desire for a church fellowship for people who are lonely
  • The emotional/psychological satisfaction in exercising one’s ego in the midst of a smaller group that can be controlled
  • Desire for a visual expression of one’s inner faith as a church building in a locale.
  • Desire to inform others about one’s religious identity, ethnic background – especially if it’s a minority.
  • Need to meet and know others who share similar perspectives, culture or life experiences.
  • For priests – the ego satisfaction of being a ‘successful’ parish founder of a mission and the peer approval that comes from that

Etc. Like most things human, these are not all bad, but often touched by personal agendas and goals.

I think if we are honest, most of us can admit that our parish communities meet many of our needs and not all of them are perfect or pure or in accordance with the Gospel. And it’s another question as to whether such a parish community or mission reflects what Christ sets forth as what the Mission is. 

So we’ll take a look at what that mission is in the next edition!.


[i] During my 40 years of service as a priest, 95% has been in small parishes, in West Virginia and Pa, Texas and eventually in a start-up mission in Virginia.

[ii] I’ll use the term ‘mission’ a lot.  Hopefully by the context it should be clear whether I mean the broad mission of the Church, or a specific local incarnation of that mission which we would eventually call a mission parish or something similar.  Another common use is in terms of a charitable outreach type of mission. The context will hopefully make this clear in the future.

[iii] More often than not, I find asking the question, ‘Why am I here?’, or ‘What am I doing here? to be really helpful.’ Often enough, when the answer to that question is unclear or lame, it’s time to go elsewhere or do something else. It’s a question that mission parishes need to ask as they begin and frequently thereafter.

[iv] There is an Orthodox mission near this location now.  Maybe an opportunity was lost!

[v] There is a Ruthenian Rite Catholic parish in the Kansas City area that had roots in the early 20thc immigration. It’s about an hour from Topeka so I’m sure those three families are being served if they have a car!

[vi] One rather interesting fact is that when a declining parish is facing closure, sometimes people think they will be financially enriched because they’ll sell the property (in some cases the land significantly appreciated).  They’re always disappointed to hear that first, in most cases, especially for Catholics, the deed to the property names the mother Church-diocese as owner. But even if the property somehow passed to the board members as owners, they would lose any IRS protection and all funds received by the parish from its inception would now become taxable and due immediately!

[vii] I can recall in seminary the recommendation from a senior classmate to read the book, The Thorn Birds, by Colleen McCullough.  It tells the story of the challenges posed to a Catholic chaplain sent to an Australian outback sheep herding community.  It’s very well written, and insightful.  Not necessarily good reading for celibate clergy though.

[viii] Let’s be clear here. Many Orthodox priests have been effectively ‘dismissed’ by their parish boards through a similar process if perhaps a little less obvious.  It usually involves making life miserable for the clergyman and his family, so that eventually the decision is ‘mutual’.  I can recall one tragic case which led to the divorce of the priest and his wife, when every action was micromanaged, including the purchase of a broom for the rectory (owned by the parish board). This is a parish whose mission, at the time, was seemingly to destroy people.

Why Me? – Final Thoughts

#38 of a Series on Psalm 50

“Have mercy on me, O God.”

With this reflection I’ll bring this series to a close for now.[i]  I began this reflection process several years ago as a series of Lenten sermons that were eventually written and shared.  I want to thank those who have encouraged me, especially Pani Christine and Cynthia, to kickstart the writing effort so that it might be revisited, somehow I trust, to the glory of God.

Sometimes, in the Orthodox tradition, when a prayer or psalm is ended, you go back to some verse earlier in the Psalm and repeat it, just for emphasis.  This is common in many of the services, like Psalm 102 in Vespers.  At other times, as in the Akathist to the Godbearer, we repeat the entire first stanza.  It would seem that once is never enough in Orthodoxy!

And that is how the spiritual life is, in its circular way, in Orthodoxy.  We start at one place, like the Feast of the Annunciation, and go through the entire cycle of the Nativity then less than two months later, celebrate the Annunciation Feast again.  Similarly, we begin Great Lent which leads to Holy Pascha (Easter) and Pentecost, then all the Sundays After Pentecost – then the cycle begins anew with the preparatory weeks before Great Lent for the following year.  All this, until the Lord comes in glory – or until we die – whichever comes first!

Why Me?

I just want to highlight this final segment with this thought, ‘Why me?’ Oh, how many times these thoughts pierce our minds or these words tumble out of our mouths when life grows difficult! Throughout this set of reflections, I’ve used the plural form most often – we, and indeed there is a corporate plural sense to all of this – we’re on this life journey together – as the Church. 

But it does really boil down to whether or not I am impacted personally by the words of this psalm, or of anything else said in the scripture.  Does it matter to me?  Do these really become my words – which David simply uttered millennia earlier just to show me how to do it?

I can think about all of the wonderful, mysterious and even mystical ideas embedded in the scriptures and words from the heart of David that serve as my personal invitation to participate in the restoration of my soul through penance.  The Church sets up forty days called Great Lent specifically for this purpose. 

But this does not mean that I have done penance, nor turned away from my sin, nor turned to Christ in repentance. Like Judas,  I may have deep sorrow even, for what I have done, but will I find now salvation by truly turning to my Savior and asking Him to be my Savior, from my sins.  My sinful state may in part have resulted because I’ve been turned away from God because of people (like this clergyman at times?) who proclaim religious truths but don’t come across as authentic, caring or who aren’t acting like repentant people. 

Still, the psalm says the opportunity to repent to God, through His Son Jesus, and forgiveness and restoration and all the things promised in the Psalm are for me.  If I but repent.

If I do actually repent then I walk with Jesus, to the Cross.  But I walk with David as well.  I’ll be invited to live my life like the great St. Paul, who identified himself as the ‘chief’ of sinners. (1Tim.1:15)[ii]  or like St. Peter, who denied the Lord. 

But as this reflection was about Lent and repentance, repentance does not end with us.  It ends with Christ – who accepts our repentance as our sacrifice to Him.  Repentance is all I can really offer to Him.  It’s really all that He wants!  It is the ‘worthy’ offering of the soul.

Holy Week

And so, in the fulfillment of Great Lent, we celebrate Holy Week which reaches its climax in the Lord’s initiation of our New Life at the Mystical Supper where He gives the Church the Holy Communion that will be our communion with Him until He comes again in glory, and becomes the food of the Kingdom.  On Great Friday, we climb the Summit of Forgiveness at Calvary where the Lamb of God is sacrificed for the forgiveness of sins and Life everlasting[iii] for all who would receive Him. And then we enter the Paschal Vigil – waiting for deliverance in the Resurrection.

In the Orthodox Church we look upon the icon of Christ’s Descent into Hades[iv] to glimpse what our deliverance from the bonds of sin looks like. It’s about freedom and release –  given through God’s forgiveness in His Mercy to all who repent and enter into connection and communion with God in Christ Jesus.  And so, in the so many of the icons, not only do we see the Original Sinners – Adam and Eve – receiving their release from their own personal Hell, but also the figures of the Old Testament like the prophet Moses, and yes, David (highlighted above)!  David’s release from sin and Moment for salvation and total forgiveness arrived when Christ lifted him out of his Grave of sin, and so David appears as one in the queue of Salvation, perhaps he was one of the saints seen in Jerusalem after the Resurrection of Christ as St. Matthew attests. (Mt.27: 51-53)

Knowing the Risen Christ – Knowing Salvation

It is our blessing in this life to know Christ as Messiah, son of David, in ways that David could not know – through our mystical encounter with Him beginning in repentance, but leading to Baptism, Chrismation and Holy Communion, as well as Confession.  David was led by the Spirit through the true words of the God, spoken through the Prophet Nathan that lead to his heart being restored in the truth about himself. The name ‘Jesus’ bestowed upon the the incarnate Son of God at birth, as the Son of David, means ‘The Lord is Salvation’. (Mt. 1-2)   To enter into repentance, is to come to know Jesus, and know salvation!

Why me? Why have I been afforded this opportunity to hear God’s truth and repent? I am utterly unworthy of such great forgiveness and mercy toward me and my sins. Why me? Only because God loves me.  And He sent me one whose name is David to show me just how much He loves me.

May David the prophet accompany you on your journey to salvation! On the Day of when the Risen Lord appears, may the words of David be our words as well, ‘Lord, You have brought me up out of the lowest Hades.’  (Ps. 29:3) These are the the fruits of repentance. Ω


[i] I say for now because there’s something incomplete about the number 38!  I need to get to 40 which is a much more biblical number I think!  But what I have in mind is just pulling this into a book that can be used perhaps as a Lenten meditation as it was first conceived.  But here’s the thing, I don’t know if that would be worthwhile or not – a good stewardship of my time and effort.  So, if you have any thoughts about this either way, send me a note by email or Facebook or give me a call.  Your feedback on strengths and weaknesses will be a blessing to me, and to anyone who might read these reflections along the way.

[ii] It’s no accident that this sentiment is part of our prayer in the Church immediately before receiving Holy Communion.  Paul’s sin which led to the martyrdom of St. Stephen and so many of the early Church must have weighed so heavily on his soul.  Likewise, his co-apostle Peter, was the very one to deny Christ at the most crucial hour.  It is said that Peter continued to weep throughout his life at the thought of his sin and moral failure.

[iii] The priest recites these words aloud to everyone who comes forward in repentance to receive Holy Communion, as they receive – riveting this truth to our souls in the Moment.

[iv] The Descent into Hades is the biblical reference to Christ’s descent into the lower regions (Sheol) to free from sin and death those held captive by Satan. It is the central theme of the entirety of the Orthodox understanding of Christ’s saving work. In 1Pt 3:17-22 we read: For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.

Repentance as Sacred Offering -Worthy is the Lamb That Was Slain


http://www.pinterest.com/pin/the-wedding-feast-of-the-lamb–490329478150804870/
#37 of a Series on Psalm 50

“Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous, in burnt offerings offered whole;  then bullocks will be offered on your altar.”

As I mentioned above, the ending to Psalm 50 to us seems obscure, and disconnected from the intimately personal thoughts and feelings of the heart of David shared with us in the prior verses.  This conclusion to the psalm speaks of sacrifices, offerings and Jewish practices unfamiliar to us, and seemingly of little consequence.  It’s even attributed to a sentiment that arose after the Babylonian exile, long after the time of David.  But, I’ve found this verse to be very important in my own understanding of the spiritual stewardship of life – the way of sacred offering.  So let’s look at some aspects of this puzzling conclusion of the Psalm.

The Sacred Offering – Biblical Context

The language of this verse clearly reflects the Jewish understanding of how important it was for the upright believer to make a sacred offering to God.  Going back to the earliest chapters of Genesis where we hear the story of the righteous, sweet-smelling offering of Abel, contrasted to the unworthy offering of grain by his brother, Cain, we see how the moral disposition of one’s soul is reflected in how one approaches God, and religious matters.  The Old Covenant prescribed many different offerings at various times for all manner of spiritual and practical matters – from those that were regular in the liturgical schema of the Hebrew faith during the year (Passover lamb, the Day of Atonement) such as we find in Leviticus.[i]  But there were also special personal sacrifices and offerings to be made.  This included sin offerings, ‘wave’ offerings, offerings of thanksgiving, first-fruits offerings, tithes and sacrificial offerings of other sorts.

The model of sacrificial offerings prescribed for the whole of the nation also became the models for the individual’s offerings.  The prescription of the  ‘whole burnt offering’ is presented in the opening verses of Leviticus, where Moses and the people are to make offerings to God of the various (clean) animals which they raise – bullocks, sheep, goats, fowl, etc.  The manner of their offering is a joint effort by the individual and the priests/levites – whose role is deemed essential.  The whole-burnt offering is just that – wholly consumed by the fire on the altar of the temple.  It must have been a messy and smelly affair!

The dedication of the animal taken from the livelihood of the person (even from the poor – the turtledoves) indicates that in seeking God’s forgiveness and mercy every one must have, as they say today colloquially, ‘skin in the game.’  Ironically, the rise of the money changers in the temple precincts was a sign that the required religious sacrifice could somehow be ‘bought’ or brought from elsewhere.  But in its original form it was meant to be highly personal and participatory.

It should be noted however, that the New Testament does not interpret Old Testament directives and practices with perfect symmetry of each element, rather the New Testament authors, in the Holy Spirit, saw the broad practices of Old Testament offerings as a whole, and uitilized imagery of many of the distinct Old Testament offerings into a whole.  Hence the sacrifice of Christ is seen as the Perfect offering for the sin of humankind, and the fulfillment of the biblical notion of the Paschal Offering commanded at the time of Exodus and there after.  But it is also an offering of Thanksgiving (Eucharist), grain (wheat), blood (Eucharistic wine), first fruits, etc. in a spiritual synthesis of the notioin of biblical offering by us all as human offerings.

Sweet-smelling

This is a fragrant biblical term which describes God’s response to the offerings made of the righteous.  Here in Leviticus, as in Gen. 4 (Abel) and Gen. 8 (Noah), God is pleased with the faithfulness of his servants in their behaviors and obedience to Him.  It is here, that we can catch a glimpse as to why the Psalm might be ended in this way and why it has particular implications.  God is pleased with the offering of the righteous who have repented and are reconciled with Him through the offering.

But for our purposes, before we go further we must look at the sacrificial offering of Christ, first in God offering Himself to humankind through the Incarnation of the Logos, and secondly in the sacred offering of Christ on the Cross, the ultimate sacrifice of the Lamb of God for the sins of the world.[ii]  This was the very identity of Christ since His sacrifice, to become the sacrificial Lamb of God and Victim.[iii]  St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians identifies Christ in this way, using the same terminology of Leviticus,

“Be imitators of God, therefore, as beloved children, and walk in love,just as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us as a sweet-smelling sacrificial offering to God. (Eph. 5:2)

So in the Person of the Lamb of God, the sacrifice (in which participate) is His sacrifice on the Cross which is a communion of sacrificial Love within the Holy Trinity, on our behalf. This is the perfect sin offering – exercised not merely in juridical justice, but in divine, selfless, undeserved mercy.  In further describing our place in this sacrifice, St. Paul uses similar imagery in second Corinthians:

But thanks be to God, who always leads us triumphantly as captives in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of Him. For we are to God the sweet aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one, we are an odor of death and demise; to the other, a fragrance that brings life.                       (2Cor.2:16f)

Christ’s sacrifice has imparted to us the identity of acceptability to God, which is described through the fragrance of the sacrifice.  It is for the Christian, newly consecrated in Baptism, filled with the Spirit in Chrismation, and offering / reconsecrating himself in participatory offering of himself in the Eucharistic sacrifice which brings continuing forgiveness of sins in Christ.  As in Leviticus, we not only are receipients of the grace and forgiveness of Christ, but participants in the sacrifice, through our own death to self, and participation in the sacred offering of the Liturgy.  All other forms of offering in Christian life find their meanig only in this Christian identity  in Christ, in His High priesthood, but also as Lamb, as Victim.  Hence St. Paul’s imagery of us as led triumphantly by God as captives, shows us that it is only in our slavery/service to Him that we are participants in salvation, but also we become the very ‘sweet aroma’.  Now note here that there is no sweet aroma until there is a sacrificial fire!  Hence our self-sacrifice in the fire of holy living is pleasing to the Lord.

Now We Can Make the Sacrifice?

This final verse has a curious time element to it.  In making the ‘whole-burnt offering’ it is a ‘then’ moment, or now moment.  This moment is dependent upon the previous verse, the restoration of the walls of Jerusalem, or in our Christian understanding, the restored human person who has been purified through confession and penance.  As mentioned above, the confession, in the spirit of David, must be made prior to the ability of the people to make a worthy, sweet-smelling offering.  It’s helpful here to remember the defeated spirit of the once arrogant Israelites, who were dashed and humbled by God to do decades of penance under Babylon.  Repentance in humility is always the underlying spirit of the true prophets of this period – Daniel, Ezekiel, Jeremiah (Lamentations) and later Ezra[iv] and Nehemiah leading the restoration of offerings in the Temple and the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem.  Daniel’s prayer in Chapter 9 begins this way, as he recounts the sinfulness of his people going all the way back through the history of his people, including not only his own generation, but also that of the times of Moses in the wilderness.

 Lord, in keeping with all your righteous acts, turn away your anger and your wrath from Jerusalem, your city, your holy hill. Our sins and the iniquities of our ancestors have made Jerusalem and your people an object of scorn to all those around us. Now, our God, hear the prayers and petitions of your servant. For your sake, Lord, look with favor on your desolate sanctuary. Give ear, our God, and hear; open your eyes and see the desolation of the city that bears your Name. We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy. 19 Lord, listen! Lord, forgive! Lord, hear and act   (Dan. 9:16-19)

Having completed the full course of penance was not enough – it was necessary to return to the Temple, in the midst of the people, to take action by making a sacred offering for one’s sins and enter into the sweet fragrant aroma of communion with God once again.[v] There was a kind of impatience in the Hebrew prophets – knowing that fulfillment of their restoration would not be complete until the sacrifice could be offered in thanksgiving, leading to the experience again of communion and righteous living as the people of the Covenant. This made the ministry of the levitical priesthood essential, but not sufficient in itself.  When the offerings were not made, or made in the wrong spirit, the tainted offering was not ‘sweet-smelling’ but self-serving.  The verses from St. Paul, above, point to the reality as having been held captive by sin, Christ has saved us, and now we are His servants and in our being offer the sacrifice pleasing to the Father because it was wrought by the Son.

It’s Time

The ‘moment’ of penance for us happens in two distinct liturgical actions.  The first is in the absolution by the priest who applies the healing remedy for sin wrought by Christ to our souls, restoring us to unity with Him. This is perhaps one reason why the penitential disciplines were often tied to the reception of the Eucharist. The second moment is the ‘hour’ of Christ of which He spoke in St. John’s Gospel (Jn.17:1), the hour of His glorification on the Cross.  This the Church remembers in the Divine Liturgy, in fact, when the Divine Liturgy begins the deacon speaks to the priest the words of the Psalm 119:126, “It is time for the Lord to act.”  The moment has come when all the cosmos joins a local congregation and a local priest, somewhere, to remember “all that Christ has done on our behalf” and make the wholly sanctified, acceptable offering to the Father – the Holy Eucharist.  It could be said that, every time the Liturgy is celebrated, Daniel’s prayer, “Lord, hear and act” is answered.

Liturgically, this action, is always preceded by an act of repentance – a recitation of Psalm 50. May it also be preceded by the action and spirit of penance in the heart of all participating in the saving sacrifice of the Liturgy as well. Ω

_______________________


[i] For a helpful analysis of the first several chapters in Leviticus, please see Dr. Bob Diffenbaugh’s treatment at: https://bible.org/seriespage/2-law-burnt-offerings-leviticus-11-17. The details of all the sacrifices is well beyond the scope of our study here.

[ii] See John 1:18ff. 

[iii] Although the use of the term ‘Victim’ as referring to Christ as the sacrificial Lamb is used in ancient patristic literature, It’s interesting to me how the Latin West seemed to use this terminology and imagery more commonly than in the East. A number of the ancient prayers of consecration of the Eucharistic Gifts in the Latin tradition (called anaphoras) in the Liturgy use the term, but it is more rare in the Christian East. The Triumph of Christ is more emphasized in the East, perhaps, in seeing the Cross and Death and Resurrection as a victory, not Him as a victim.  Another factor may be the canons that later forbade the use of the Lamb imagery (as above) in portraying Christ, particularly after the Christological controversies beginning in the fourth century.

[iv] Ezra is notable in that he is given an extensive genealogical study in scripture *(Ezra 7) asserting his priestly credentials, as one called by God to lead the restoration efforts.  Note that he was not the high priest himself, but exercised administrative and other spiritual gifts to the glory of God as his priestly ministry.   This hearkens to the priestly people of God in the New Testament how the priesthood extend beyond just the actual ‘handling’ of the sacred gifts to many other, essential elements. The New Testament would give two distinct genealogies  of Jesus to assert his own spiritual patrimony as ‘Son of Abraham and Son of David’  See Mt. 1, Lk .3.

[v] When doing a recent podcast with OCLI, I was struck by the convergence of this theme, with the exhortation of Christ regarding reconciliation with those we have offended. The discussion centered around Judas returning to the Chief priests and scribes asserting he had done wrong, and feeling great sorrow. He wanted to give the money back but it was not accepted. It was a type of ‘sin offering’ of sorts. Yet, Jesus taught that before you make your offering on the altar you must first be reconciled with your brother.  In the case of Judas, he would have had to make his peace with Jesus first! But he could or would not do so, and fell into despair.  https://www.orthodoxservantleaders.com/doulos-podcast/your-champion-for-30-pieces-of-silver

Walls and Gates, Part 2

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#36 of a Series on Psalm 50

“Do good in Your good pleasure to Zion;  [Re]build the walls of Jerusalem.”

In the previous reflection, we looked at the walls of Jerusalem, and Jerusalem itself, as being reinterpreted by St. Augustine as representing the restoration of the Human Person, in the Church, through the Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery of the Death and Resurrection of Christ in His Body.

The person incorporated into Christ through his death through immersion in the Baptismal waters of repentance is a New Creation. (2Cor 4:17)  He manifests this new life in ways that we can see in the restored walls of Jerusalem, the ‘walls’ of the human person – in its defensive capability,  integrity, portals, strength, watchtowers, defenses, moral righteousness, greatness, purity, strength and moral righteousness mentioned in an earlier reflection. 

Let’s take a look at each of these characteristics, very briefly.

Defenses

The obvious purpose of a fence or wall is defense.  It serves no offensive purpose, rather it keeps other forces out.  The wall that is broken down is easily penetrated.  If the enemy is within, the destruction can be extensive or even total.  As this is written, there is an effort to build a wall at the southern border of the United States.  Its purpose, ostensibly, is to keep people who wish to cross into the country illegally at bay.  The threat of the people is not in their personhood per se, but moreso in the notion that unimpeded illegal entry promotes lawlessness – because there is no respect for established, undefended border.  After countless years of illegal entries, a wall was deemed to be necessary.  In human terms, the Devil has no respect for our ‘boundaries’ – a wall is absolutely necessary.

So, the human person must have moral defenses.  We all know that if we are physically attacked we will be wounded, so we attempt to defend ourselves physically by walling ourselves off from the threat.  We should realize that, for the human being, the worst of the attacks on people are through demonic falsehoods, ideologies and threats that wound the person within through sin. These forces must be walled off from ourselves, lest we fall to their power to wound us.

The soul’s defenses are outlined by St. Paul in the notable chapter (using the anatomy of a soldier) in Eph. 6:12-17)

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this world’s darkness, and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Therefore take up the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you will be able to stand your ground, and having done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness arrayed, and with your feet fitted with the readiness of the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Portals

Every wall has its entryways, otherwise the inhabitants inside it would be unable to escape.  But entryways are the weak link in the wall system.  In patristic literature, the ‘portals’ of the human person were likened to the senses.  Why? Well, if the wall of our defenses against the Evil are intact, he goes for the weak spot, the senses. Hence the eyes, the mouth, the touch, etc. become ways in which we lower our defenses spiritually to allow Evil to access our inner being, our heart.  This is why our portals must be ‘manned’ to do battle against intruders – spiritually of course – we must intentionally fight temptations of sight and hearing and the like.  Asceticism is training in this defensive strategy – for example fasting is cutting off the pleasurableness of taste, so that we can defeat the sins of gluttony and other abuses of food.  The eyes are particularly vulnerable – as the imagery of the world today so easily entraps the mind through instantaneous image accessibility sparking fantasies and the triggering attacks on our souls.

Watchtowers

I mentioned how the watchtowers on walls provided the ancient city a special protection because, seeing the enemy coming from a distance, those outside the walls could flee to safety within, and the portals could be strengthened – IF you saw the enemy coming in time.  This, in the Bible and patristic literature, is for the human person called watchfulness – or vigilance[i].  We are to be on the lookout for temptations and identify them as such early on so that we can fortify our defenses and not fall victim to the attacks.  The Psalms speak frequently of ‘keeping watch’ especially at night, because the enemy would be concealed at night hence the need for special vigilance then.  Here is a sample from Psalm 141:3, which we recite daily at Vespers, says, “Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; keep watch at the door of my lip[ii]s.”  Here the watch is kept over oneself, to prevent sinful thoughts from leading to sinful actions.  

Before His betrayal and death, Christ invited his disciples to keep watch in the Garden of Gethsemane with him.  They failed, and we know the rest of their plight, and His. (Mt. 26:36ff)  The Church, after the Resurrection, is called upon to keep watch, not only for the attacks of the Enemy, but also for the Second Coming of Christ.  Among the Lord’s strongest words are found in the Synoptic Gospels, especially at the end of His earthly ministry,  ‘Keep watch!’ (Mt. 24:32, Mk 13:35, Lk 12:37).

Integrity

Sometimes when people have been a long day doing a difficult, dirty or fully engaged outdoor work project, they will proclaim after they’ve rested a bit and taken a shower they’ll say, “I’m human again!” Somehow performing the big effort, while carryout out the task, some things of life were amiss or out of balance – and you can feel it!  We can see that sin knocks us completely off-balance and through repentance (and its cleansing force) we ‘become human again.’

Integrity or oneness means that something is fully intact, the pieces are together and in an internal unity, so that everything can function fully as it was intended.  When integrity is broken not only is functionality compromised but the very essence of the subject is compromised. As an example, if addiction is raiding our lives, it effects everything through a dis-integrating force – relationships, health, finances, work, etc.

 Through our Baptism into Christ, the New Man, we become human again. The inner harmony of the original human within us is restored and we can begin to function again as human beings.   St. Paul exhorts his followers, ‘Don’t lie to each other, for you have stripped off your old sinful nature and all its wicked deeds.’ (Col.3:9) – because nothing destroys the integrity of the human relationships and inner life than falsehoods of every sort.

Strength

Sin always ends in destruction. The first fruits of its destructive energy, the rising of the passions, causes disarrangement within the soul, and this results in weakness and emotional frailty (depression). A sinful person has a compromised will and his desires can seem to be overwhelming. This is perhaps best exemplified in the biblical story of Samson (Judges 13-16), who was gifted with extraordinary strength to be able to accomplish God’s purposes for His people.  His hair was a symbolic source of His strength and when it was cut, his strength was lost.  Of course, this was symbolic of the loss of inner strength (and integrity) due to his sin with Delilah.  When we fall into sins, we begin to lose strength.  Even entertaining them in our mind begins to disorient the singularity of purpose in our souls, setting us up for a great fall when our strength and integrity are tested.

Repentance means a recentering, and over time inner strength is built within and translates to our ‘walls’ as well.  The process of rebuilding strength comes from a renewed practice of faithfulness to God, the disciplines and behaviors themselves are part of the reorientation.  This ‘turning around’ means reacquiring a vision of life that is purposeful and directed toward God’s will for our life.  In that we find strength through grace.

Great Walls

The walls of the major cities were impressive and formidable to the enemies. It would have been an impressive site to behold a great city like Constantinople – whose walls which could not be breeched until a more modern form of warfare emerged. .  A high wall not only cannot be scaled by the enemy, but actually serves as a highpoint from which the sieged city can counterattack with their own weapons in a highly advantageous elevation.  The Great Wall of China shows how such walls can last millennia.

Our spiritual greatness is not visible in earthly terms, but the lives of the saints who have lived the life of repentance reveal a spiritual greatness or godliness. They reflect God’s grace and strength in a powerful, but humble way as they walk the earth and live in their communities. 

Purity

The strength of materials is often directly related to their purity.  In my days long ago in studying material sciences, it was clear that impurities, like a piece of slag in a metal beam caused structural weakness if not identified could lead to catastrophic failure. Although it may look normal, the weaknesses is within and under stress the load will lead to collapse. 

The spiritual walls keep out impurities.  This was very clear in the Old Testament, when the Israelites were warned by the Lord that they were not to mingle with, let alone marry, those from the pagan nations that surrounded them.  Invariably, the pollution of their idolatry would destroy their faith in the One True God and the scriptures are replete with examples.

Moral Righteousness

There is no path to righteousness without grace, but walking this path requires a person to be first purified by grace and then sustaining that way of live through righteous moral living.  This means that the virtues of the soul arise out of the strength and presence of the Holy Spirit as the fruits of all of the virtues and graces above.  Beginning with the purification of repentance, in the spirit of David, and baptism, an ongoing way of life creates a moral radiance in the life of the one on her path to becoming a saint.

Rebuilding The Walls

All of these graces are the fruits of God’s divine love and energy being poured out upon his repentant people.  David implores this of God, “In your good pleasure…”  This restoration only begins when God’s will as revealed is seen to be better for us in our mind’s eye, and it is for us to embrace His will and begin to seek Him with all our hearts.

Much of the subsequent progress happens in a synergistic way – divine grace working through people as they exercise their human wills in righteous ways according to God’s plan.  When this process is at work, then nothing is impossible (Lk 1:37) and in the words of the Apostle Paul, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Phil 4:13.


[i] The Greek Fathers frequently spoke and wrote on vigilance or nepsis.  The vigils of the Orthodox church are a corporate way of this kind of keeping vigil. This article gives an interesting word origin for the term nepsis, as to not drink fermented drinks – or an awareness or soberness.   There is so much wealth of spiritual experience in the Patristic sources on this topic.  https://ancientchristianwisdom.wordpress.com/2012/11/06/the-therapeutic-strategy-of-nepsis/

[ii] The ‘door of my lips’ is an example of one of the portals above.

Walls and Gates, Part 1

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#34 of a Series on Psalm 50 –  Walls and Gates   Part 1

“Do good in Your good pleasure to Zion;  [Re]build the walls of Jerusalem.”

As these final verses wind down David’s hopeful outlook after his repentance, he takes something of a left turn.  I remember maybe five decades ago when I first cracked open my New American bible[i] and read this psalm, I came across this footnote:

“These two verses were added to the psalm sometime after the destruction ff Jerusalem by the Babylonians.”

Now it would seem that the biblical scholars saw these verses as tacked onto David’s original hymn at a later date, after the exile of the Hebrews to Babylon and the fall of Jerusalem beginning in 597BC, when the walls of Jerusalem were literally torn down and their subsequent return in about 445BC as led by Nehemiah.

City Walls for Defense

We hear about the walls of Jerusalem in the founding of the city by David – in no small way was it that the site, previously a Canaan city, would be rebuilt with fortified walls, and become the ‘City of David’:

And the king and his men went to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, who said to David, “You will not come in here, but the blind and the lame will ward you off”—thinking, “David cannot come in here.” Nevertheless, David took the stronghold of Zion, that is, the city of David… And David built the city all around from the Millo inward. And David became greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him.

2 Samuel 5:6–10

Now the walls of the ancient cities of civilized lands were the critical to their very existence.  In siege warfare, invading armies would be kept out of cities literally by the walls – the bigger and stronger, the better.  The gates of entry were few and very well defended.  Sentries were placed at key points on the walls to keep watch for invaders in the distance. When under siege, the defense of the walls and their strengthening of their ramparts was essential.  A small failure, somewhere, anywhere, providing access of the enemy to the city, was enough to bring it all tumbling down[ii].  In short, the walls were essential to the protection and survival of the city.

The walls[iii] symbolized Jerusalem’s integrity. When breached, the enemy’s presence meant that the locus of the heart of the Hebrew people’s integrity had been violated. The enemies overcoming the temple of the Lord were a great spiritual burden to the faith and hearts of the people. When enemies were approaching, the people in surrounding areas would flee to the city were supplies were stored for just such an occasion.  The entire populace surrounding the city depended on the strength and unity of the walls.

I mentioned that the walls have to have portals for entry and exit, and these were invariably weaker, and could be splintered by weapons like battering rams because of their wooden construction. These weak spots of the wall needed much more fortification when the siege came, and strength to push back the intruders when they came. To give the sentry assigned the watch help in his task, he often climbed a high point, called the watch tower enabling him to see farther over the horizon for signs of an approaching enemy – all the while, when the people working the surrounding land could be assured with a good watchman on the wall, that they would be safe, because if an enemy approached, the sound of the horn/alarm would summon all back to the city for its defense.  If the city collapsed and was overrun, the invading army could subjugate or completely slaughter the trapped residents.  The only other option was to flee to the hills[iv] during the ensuing chaos.

The history of Jerusalem and its strength is reflected in its walls, and the great leaders of the Hebrews were men who built, rebuilt and strengthened them. In addition to David, we hear of the work of Solomon and, Hezekiah.  The ‘rebuilding of the Walls’ of Jerusalem referred to in the psalm was realized in the time of Artaxerxes, when Nehemiah was charged to begin the restoration of the wall.

The Book of Ezra reports it this way,

“He extended mercy to us in the sight of the kings of Persia, to revive us, to repair the house of our God, to rebuild its ruins, and to give us a wall in Judah and Jerusalem” (Ezra 9:9)

Nehemiah only had a handful of men remaining in the area yet accomplished this work, which was deemed miraculous.  The Lord had begun the restoration of His people from exile and the walls were a visible sign of this renewal.  The Hebrew people would again become a ‘people’ with their own place and identity – both spiritually and politically. Herod the Great would do one more big project of wall-building in Jerusalem, finishing it just before it all came tumbling down in 70AD during the attack by the Romans. 

Except for Herod, the other Kings who did the work of shoring up the walls of Jerusalem displayed not only a civic zeal but a spiritual zeal as well.  The names above – David, Solomon, Hezekiah, Nehemiah, the Maccabees – are all regarded as heroes and saints. They were wise in their provision of the people practically as the direct outcome of their spiritual zeal or the Covenant which was the source of their Hebrew identity.  The preservation and restoration of the walls also allowed for the integrity of the Temple, which even Herod[v] sought to rebuild in his own strange way.

Ancient walls and buildings were often engineering marvels. One can see this in that so many are still standing – it’s almost impossible to get rid of them if you wanted to  – from the ancient Egyptian marvels like the pyramids, or the Babylonian ziggurats, or in our case the city of Jerusalem.  The destruction of Jerusalem was prophesied by Christ, to be so complete that ‘no stone will be left upon another’ (Mt. 24:1f)  While this was not true in its totality, as one can see in the fragment of the Wailing wall at the site of the Temple Mount, it is for all intents and purposes absolutely true.[vi] And the real ‘temple’ of which Jesus was speaking was that temple ‘not made by human hands’ which was fashioned in the body of Mary in the Incarnation.

While this reflection is not a study of ancient buildings (!) I thought it helpful to toss out some of these practical aspects to life in the ancient world, which are so different from our own.  As I write this, there are cities in Ukraine experiencing a similar siege – not from catapulted boulders and fiery darts, but high tech missiles and aerial bombardment.  Yet, the walls still can be effective in keeping an enemy out of the city especially if the number of entry points is limited.

But they have very rich, important meaning because of the use of the wall imagery not only in this psalm, but other psalms of David as well as the rest of both Old and New Testament scripture and Orthodox writings as well. Our appreciation of these walls, what it took to build them, the strength and protection that they engendered in the hearts and minds of the people were all important in understanding the spirit of the psalm as it has come to us. We’ll begin to explore that meaning in the next reflection.


[i] First edition, 1970.

[ii] I’ve always marveled at how, for centuries the city of Constantinople had incredible resilience to multiple attacks from all sides because of its walls.  The eventual fall of Constantinople after almost a millennium, finally fell to new weaponry – cannons not available to other intruders.

[iii] We intuitively understand how walls protect – but the language of siege warfare, flaming arrows, etc. we run into in the bible is foreign to us. 

[iv] This was notable in the prophecies of Jesus concerning the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans and the fate of the Jews he fled to Masada, but ultimately died there as well, preferring suicide to slaughter. https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-sites-places/biblical-archaeology-sites/the-masada-siege/  

[v] Here’s an interesting report on Herod’s work.  Note however that Herod’s ‘spirituality’ also included bring pagan practices into the temple area. https://www.biblestudy.org/bibleref/antiquities-of-jews/herod-rebuilds-temple.html

[vi] And a good warning against a biblical fundamentalism that insists that every absolute word must be literally so, or else it’s false. But’s also interesting to note that the article on the above footnote points to how the rocks were pried apart to recover gold that was melted from the burning of the temple, running in between the rocks themselves! But at the wailing wall a few stones remain.

Show me the Evidence!

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#33 of a Series on Psalm 50

The psalm of David we’ve been studying has been a fascinating dive into the human mind, and spiritually, the human heart.  The study would be an interesting one, not only for those seeking spiritual meaning, but also psychological understanding.  But it’s easy to speculate about another’s thoughts or do amateur psychoanalysis, but do we really know what they thought?  Where is the evidence?  When it comes to repentance, it’s not enough to profess sorrow.  Recently, I heard it put this way by a Protestant believer, “Repentance is not just sin management.”  Our modern thinking is so outcome and ends-focused that we ignore the inner realities driving our decisions. Repentence is a re-orientation of those inner thoughts and drives. But what we do consistently serves as the roadmap to the heart.

Prove It

When I was a kid and we another kid bragged about his achievements or prowess, the response was immediate – Prove It!

The prophetic tradition of Scripture, of which Psalm 50 is a powerful part, requires evidence of repentence proven by the deeds exercised by the human will. Essentially the message is, “Believe, say, and do the same thing.

The Psalm that precedes Psalm 50 includes these words:

Listen, my people, and I will speak; I will testify against you, Israel: I am God, your God.
I bring no charges against you concerning your sacrifices or concerning your burnt offerings, which are ever before me. I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens…

But to the wicked person, God says:

What right have you to recite my lawsor take my covenant on your lips?
You hate my instruction and cast my words behind you.

 When you see a thief, you join with him; you throw in your lot with adulterers.
You use your mouth for evil and harness your tongue to deceit.
You sit and testify against your brother  and slander your own mother’s son.
When you did these things and I kept silent,  you thought I was exactly like you.
But I now arraign you and set my accusations before you.

                                                                                                                                Ps. 49:7-9, 16-21

This repeats the theme announced by David in Psalm 50 – the deeds must match the words. Anything else is wicked duplicity.

Repentance as Action

When the Lord Jesus began his public ministry, he built on the teaching of St. John the Baptist, who preached repentance – whose message was, basically, ‘Repent, then prove you’ve repented by your deeds.’  John’s baptism was a sign of that repentance – or change of heart.

St. Luke’s Gospel[i] reports it this way,

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?  Produce fruit, then, in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe lies ready at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

The crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” John replied, “Whoever has two tunics should share with him who has none, and whoever has food should do the same.”

Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”  “Collect no more than you are authorized,” he answered.

Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”  Do not take money by force or false accusation,” he said. “Be content with your wages.”

What we see here is something of the sketch of a moral code of required behaviors for the repentant. The behaviors after Repentance and baptism must be consistent with the way of life of the disciple.  As John would recognize his role as Forerunner, and his disciples would begin to become followers of Jesus, they would hear the same messages from their new Master, and indeed, more stridently 

There must be a consistency in life behaviors with that of the repentant follower of Christ.  They take the form of commands, from a superior to a disciple.  In the Gospel according to St. Matthew, the ‘moral code’ follows the baptismal narrative in the form of the Sermon on the Mount, and subsequent teachings.

Behavior Modification

I find it really easy to identify what is wrong in my personal situations, or things that are causing me discomfort.  Resolving those issues is a whole different matter.  That takes a change of behavior in many instances – not just a change in external forces.  We bring on much of our own suffering.

Repentance is even more than self-centered analysis, it’s God-focused.  My sin is against God and to be who God wills me to be I must change my thinking, my choices and resultant behaviors.  In a sense, it’s not just the behavior, but often the choice that precedes it that has come from a repentant heart.  So the internet pornography user who sees his life as offending God, must put to death his desire (lust) for it, decide that he doesn’t want to want it any more, then take all the steps necessary to so that he will not be subject to stimulating those passions in the heart, weakening and falling again into sin.  The behaviors that change would include steps like purging internet accounts, installing website blockers and filters, changing behaviors in eating and sleeping, regular confession – accountability to another such as a priest and submission to their recommendations, confronting patterns of thoughts in relationships, etc.  Sometimes this leads to a deeper journey as to where the passions arise from – psychological/emotional wounds, relational failures, etc. 

But it all starts with an act of will, bolstered by grace, to stop it all.  That, in Christianity is preceded by our awareness of Almighty God and His divine authority in my life – taking offense in me and my actions, but also affirming me on the path of penance.

St. John’s practical advice to the questions posed above –  ‘What must we do?’ – are  riveting:

  • “Whoever has two tunics should share with him who has none, and whoever has food should do the same.”
  • “Collect no more than you are authorized”
  • “ Do not take money by force or false accusation,” he said. “Be content with your wages”

What I find interesting is that in each case, the remedy involved changing behavior regarding one’s possessions – the actions required of so many of our sins boil down to curbing desire and sharing with others. Both of these are a death to self.  The ones who obeys these directives gives evidence of their repentance and if this was necessary for the disciples who received St. John’s baptism how much more for the disciples of Jesus?

Action Required!

If we don’t change our behavior, we will surely fall back into the patterns of thinking from sins from which evil actions sprout.  This is why, in penitential practice, the wise priest prescribes an epitemia, or course of activity to help serve as a remedy for the spiritual sins. To the person who stole, she must return the items and any harm caused by his action. But many sins are less simple to address through specific overt actions – things like judging others, envy, pride, despondency, etc. How can behavioral change lead to attitudinal change such things?

St. Basil the Great, in one of his homilies on thanksgiving, says this:

Have you been dishonored? Then have regard for the glory which is laid up in Heaven through patient endurance. Have you suffered a loss? Then contemplate the heavenly wealth and treasure which you have laid up for yourself through your good deeds. Have you been expelled from your homeland? Then you have Jerusalem as your heavenly homeland. Have you lost a child? Then you have Angels, with whom you will dance around the Throne of God, rejoicing eternally. By thus opposing anticipated good things to present sorrows, you will keep your soul in the cheerfulness and tranquility to which the Apostles precept summons us. Neither let the joys of human affairs create immoderate and excessive gladness in your soul, nor let sorrows diminish its exultation and sublimity by feelings of dejection and abasement.

What he prescribes is a way of thinking that leads to a change of attitude, and behavior.  It is an invocation of the World View which comes from our Faith which is focused on eternal things.  In fact, much of the grief of our lives will never leave us because, focusing only on short-term worldly pursuits, we are continuously and forever to be disappointed in this world, and the others who occupy it. We then are unwilling to forgive them of their offenses.  St. Basil describes profound deprivations that lead to despondency in this life – even losing a child!  Only a trust in the eternal love of God can deliver us from despair and despondency and restore hope so that we do not act out of such dark feelings of loss. How many sinful behaviors – like addictions,  anger-driven broken relationships, children doing self-harm, sexual sins and perversions or materialistic indulgence or any of the slough of despairing behaviors we experience in twenty-first century life – can only be healed by a fresh Christian perspective on life in this world and hereafter?[ii]  

We confess our sinful actions.  In David’s case, he confesses his adultery and murderous behaviors.  We confess our sinful actions.  David repented, and while the rest of his life was not wine and roses, his restored love and trust in God enabled him to act in righteousness in his renewed outlook and life purpose.  May we do the same. Ω


[i] St. Luke’s Gospel is replete with moral teachings, particularly those involving the relationships of those in power, with the weak and the poor. This teaching is but a part.

[ii] I ask a question here because I don’t know.  It’s possible to take the saint’s words and turn them into a form of psychological and emotional denial of the reality of the sorrow experienced.  How many of our sermons or counsel to others in times of great suffering are little more than an invocation that they  put on rose colored glasses on a situation?  This is not love – it does not share in the pain, sorrow and grief?  But in such cases, to save us from despondency, we must keep one foot of leverage on the solid ground of our Christian world view, even as we descend into the depth of the deep sorrows of a broken world.

Divine Delight

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#31 of a Series on Psalm 50

You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifice to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

There’s a vibrant biblical theme that is often ignored if we have a juridical view of the righteousness of God, the Law, and sin.  That theme is delight!  How odd that this highly personal, emotional term would be used to describe Almighty God!  God delights, takes pleasure, treasures in personalized way, in response to human actions.  This sentiment is not reserved to the thought and experience of the prophet David.  The prophet Zephaniah says this,

The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing. “  Zeph. 3:17

Zephaniah’s verse express powerful sentiments like ‘rejoice’, ‘gladness’, ‘(peaceful) quiet’, ‘exult’, ‘loud singing!’ In a similar spirit, David’s words explain to us what brings delight to God, or maybe more accurately, what doesn’t bring delight – namely a mere external obedience to some command or precept.  While at first this might seem strange, that God is not pleased with the sacrifices He commands (!) as we observed in the previous reflection, but rather in something else – in the broken spirit, the broken contrite heart.  This He will not despise.  The broken heart will be the acceptable sacrifice to God – if it is offered to Him in humility.

A broken heart is not sufficient in itself to please God.  Does God delight in our brokenness in and of itself?  I think not. God’s will is not that people be broken.  Sin breaks people’s spirits and destroys their souls.  But, within the soul is the capacity of the will toward contrition, which is a  sorrow that saves the soul. 

St. Paul, as a wise pastor, knew that the believers in the Corinthian community had fallen into sin and they needed correction which he delivered forcefully in his first epistle to them.  He also knew that that correction would bring sorrow to them – but didn’t let the emotion of fear proceeding from correction keep him from speaking what was necessary to them.  

As I’ve reflected about this, I’ve come to believe this is a rare commodity today – to entrust the Truth to people and not be afraid that the emotional climate would sweep them to despair.  It was a sign not only of his love for them (to speak the truth and nothing less) but also his trust of them, and trust in God.  It was a verbal therapy that they needed desperately – correction.  With no correction, there is no understanding of the truth, no repentance (and sorrow) and no improvement. 

 In his second letter to the Corinthians (2Cor.7:8ff) he follows up saying this,

For though I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it; though I did regret it—for I see that that letter caused you sorrow, though only for a while— I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, in order that you might not suffer loss in anything through us.

As we’ve mentioned before, sorrow itself does not save.  Judas was torn with sorrow but his sorrow did not lead him back to the Lord.  Contrition is when sorrow is mixed with faith that God loves us. The Corinthians were moved to that saving sorrow that led to repentance. The truth, however, can also lead to the sorrow of despair – like that of Judas, from which there is no recovery.

Are you sorry for your sins?

On occasion, while making a Confession, the priest will ask me, “Are you sorry for your sins?”  I remember how striking those words were, and have been when asked.  When we say our prayer of Contrition (in our UOC usage), we say, “For these, and for all the other sins I have committed….I am heartily sorry…”   But these words can be empty – easily spoken with NO real sorrow. It can just be words, a formula, a ritual. This sorrow is necessary for the Confession to be acceptable to God, as a sacrifice.

Confession as Life Improvement

There is a second aspect of the sorrow of the Confession – it must mean a change in life orientation[i], back from the brink of egotistical living, to obedience to God and following His way.  Traditionally, this was described as a firm purpose of amendment – an act of will and the engagement of the person in actions that reflect a new, holy and different way of life.

Sometimes we fall into the trap of confession being just a counseling session – akin to talking to a life coach about ways to improve one’s life.  A coaching or counseling relationship can be very helpful in identifying patterns of thinking and behaviors that are self-destructive or limiting in many aspects of one’s personal life.  This self-improvement focus isn’t bad in and of itself, except that the focus often only remains on the self – it’s all about me.  Most such sessions don’t have a place for dealing with deep, soul-level sorrow when these patterns are identified as sinful, and an offense to God, and are ways of living that are not pleasing to Him.  In fact, some secular counseling considers the idea of sorrow as negative, unhelpful, self-destructive and to be avoided. 

The Christian way of authentic repentance through Confession of sins centers on three fundamental elements or movements, the awareness of one’s sins as offense to God and others, sorrow for one’s sins in the heart leading to Confession, and the willingness to take action to restore justice toward others and amend one’s life.   This threefold action becomes an act of sacrifice – and God-oriented – which is pleasing to Him as the scriptures.

We’ll have more to say about the actions that proceed from repentance in future reflections. Ω

_______________


[i] While it’s common in some circles to ridicule self-improvement books popular in our culture, especially those that speak to improving relationships or management skills, I often find a wonderful kernel of truth in a number of such books and when oriented toward a fuller set of principles that govern our (Orthodox) Christian way, can be of great help.  There’s a reason why they are found in best-seller lists, because they can be simple, well written, thought-provoking and practical. If you’re interestedin finding which ones have been helpful to ………………………

The Acceptable Sacrifice

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The following clump of thoughts expressed in the concluding verses returns us to the spiritual notion of stewardship as sacred offering[i], that is a favorite of mine.  The proposition is this – that when we have been blessed by God, we rightly carry out some type of offering to Him, expressing the inner spiritual drive of our hearts to thank Him as the Giver of this blessing.  The previous verse, speaking the words of praise to God, represent such a sacrifice.  In these verses however, the prophet David identifies a more concrete expression of sacred offering, based in the Jewish commands of the Law, which prescribed all manner of offerings of materials (e.g. grain) and animals (lambs, doves) that were part of the way of worship of God.  Today, these Jewish practices are often ignored or infrequently studied, and we rarely consider them in a Christian, contemporary perspective, except in a purely symbolic manner.

Yet much of the entirety of the Leviticus is concerned with this, the Law’s command to make specific religious offerings – the myriad types of offerings, the manner and preparation, their content, the priestly role in offering, the efficacy, etc.  This, like much of the Law itself, is easily cast aside as simply unnecessary Jewish religiosity which is excised from the Christian message.  However, the Christian Church was deeply concerned with the entirety of the Old Testament scripture as a means of understanding who Christ is, how we come to Christ and live as Christians.  Just as Jesus said that He came not “to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it” (Mt. 5:17), so we could say the same things of the religious practices of Judaism. Christ came not to abolish the sacred offerings, but to fulfill them, and in Himself, His life, His ministry and the work of His Church, implement a new way of sacred offerings that would fulfill what the God had intended for mankind.  Rightly carried forth, these bring us into a special communion with God.

Offerings – Sacred and Not-So-Sacred

It is unmistakable that the scriptures speak directly about sacred offering to God as a most fundamental and blessed way to express our thanksgiving and praise to God.  From the earliest verses of Genesis, we see the offering of Abel (good) and Cain (not so good), the offering of Noah after the flood, the tithe offering of Abraham, and his sacrificial offering of his son in obedience to God and countless others.  These were all long before the Law, but we see something internal motivating these patriarchs to make an offering to God as an external religious sign.[ii] They are efficacious – they bring communion with God as they are described by the Lord as ‘sweet-smelling.’

From the beginning though, we see two things going on.  First, because every human lives in a fallen world and state, with fallen intentions and understanding, there’s a tendency and temptation to misdirect and misuse fundamentally good human drives.  We can make an offering – but is it sacred?  Does it render God’s holiness somehow present?  Is God pleased with our offering? 

We see in the offering of Cain[iii] (see Gen. 4) from the very beginning that our offering can be somehow less than it’s supposed to be, or tainted, or even offensive to God. His offering of grain is contrasted with that of his brother Abel, whose lamb offering is described as “the fat portion” of “firstborn” of his flock.  This ‘finest’ portion of Abel’s offering is contrasted to what St. John Chrysostom describes as the ‘careless’ offering of Cain.  We know that Cain’s offering does not find favor with God (it’s not his best) and Cain’s anger further drives him from God and his brother.  Ultimately his anger leads him to murder his brother – in utter contempt of God’s sovereignty over life, and His goodness.  The matter of the worthiness of our offerings is no small matter!

You’ll find similar sentiments about the unworthiness of the offerings of God’s people under the Hebrew covenant. For example, while the firstborn, unblemished lamb is the required, acceptable offering to God, there developed a spiritual practice of offering something less (the second-rate blemished animal) which was scorned by God.  The prophet Malachi expressed it this way,

When you offer blind animals for sacrifice, is that not wrong? When you sacrifice lame or diseased animals, is that not wrong? Try offering them to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you?” says the Lord Almighty.

The prophet identifies the dishonest practice of the Levitical priests offering to God the blemished, unworthy animals, then challenges them, ‘Would you dare offer them to an earthly authority?  Yet you offer such to Almighty God!’ Elsewhere in the scripture (e.g. Is. 1:11), the offerings were contrasted to the internal spiritual orientation of the people, who would disconnect their pious external religious practice from a sinful interior disposition.  This is akin to giving a gift to someone you despise, while pretending to honor them.  It is hypocrisy.  It was this sort of hypocrisy, expressed in the New Testament by Jesus who while acknowledging that the Pharisees offered tithes on the smallest and most insignificant items religiously, they lacked the proper, essential, internal disposition of humility before God.

Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God.  (Lk. 11:42)

David’s Understanding – The Offering Must be Worthy

David’s language in this verse of Psalm 50 clearly expresses the right understanding and practice  – when he acknowledges that God would not be pleased in his offering to Him, regardless of how seemingly perfect it was in an external sense.  That’s because, as the rest of the psalm has shown us, his inner guilt tainted everything he might have thought to do before God that might be in accordance to His will.  His sin with Bathsheba was a stumbling block which tainted his ability to be human[iv] – to offer a sacred and worthy sacrifice to God in Thanksgiving.  

So, David wants to make such an offering but he cannot because of his sin.  He knows that even the ‘sin offerings’ prescribed by the Old Testament will be of no avail.  He knows that this is a matter of the heart.  Hence,  his first offering is his prayer of repentance, to free him from his guilt so that he make an offering pleasing to God.

He goes further, however, saying that God would not ‘take pleasure in whole-burnt offerings’.  This may sound strange – is this not the very command of God Himself?  It is here we catch a messianic glimpse from the Prophet who shows us that while God has given the Law and the manner of external sacred offerings to be fulfilled in obedience, these in themselves, do not accrue holiness to those who so offer. The tenth chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews has an excellent expose’ on this topic.  It is not the action itself which has value (at all really), but only when that action is coupled to a soul who’s intention is pure, obedient and singularly devoted to God.  It would take a special sacrificial offering, by a special, pure unblemished lamb – not of the flock of sheep, but the Lamb of God from the human flock of God. This Lamb, whose body was given to mankind by God (Heb 10:5) , through the Incarnation, which would be sacrificed in purity and obedience on the Cross.

Against Idolatry

This understanding reveals how idolatry is utterly ungodly and the very enemy of all spirituality in relationship to the living God.  Idolatry is an action of the human soul to pre-emptively create a manner of worship with no reference to God’s sovereignty and Lordship.  The acceptable worship to God is that which He has set forth (in Christ). As false worship[v] idolatry  is harmful because it creates as sense of justification (‘I did it for You Lord’) with neither  humility nor obedience.  This religious self-direction of the will – creating things according to our will and human desires – bears no relationship to humbling ourselves before God and His sovereign design as revelation.

So this bears the questions – What is my sacrifice to God?  Is it pleasing to Him or unworthy and careless?  How much do I really care?  Is it tainted with hypocrisy?  What does God say about my offering?

The contrast with idolatry helps us here.  Basically, an idol is something that competes with the true God – in our minds, and in our lives.  When Jesus says, ‘Where your treasure is, there is your heart,’ (see Mt. ) He does so in the context of the teaching on our ever-present, life-destroying temptation toward the love of money and its twin sister, materialism.

Arguably, our entanglement with the idolatry of our age in American materialism is the cause of much of our grief and sinfulness before God.  As I write this, and we are approaching Great Lent, we can realize how almsgiving can be a spiritual salve by breaking these entanglements by willingly letting go of our wealth in the love and service of others (alms).  In so offering alms we are making a spiritual offering to God and suddenly, after perhaps a moment of grief from our loss of the materiality, there is a spiritual coupling in love, with God and with those who we are trying to serve – IF the offering is authentic, and made humbly with no ‘strings’ (=idolatry). 

Our material offerings to the Church are symbolic in this way.  David’s first offering is his penitential death to himself in the heart, eventually expressed through the words of Psalm 50. After his repentance and thereafter, he would be source of great spiritual generosity in love of God and the Hebrew people.  One example was his outpouring of wealth offered as the funds for the later building of the Temple by his son Solomon.  This offering could be made because his repentance paved the way for his restoration with God, so that made with an upright heart, his offering would be acceptable.  These offerings, made in this way, brought great joy to him, to his family and the entire nation.  See (1Chron.29- emphasis added)

in my devotion to the house of my God I have offered from my own property, gold and silver, which I give for the house of my God, over and above that which I prepared for the holy dwelling place: three thousand talentsof gold of the gold of Ophir and seven thousand talents] of refined silver for overlaying the walls of the houseof gold for the things of gold and of silver for the things of silver, even for all the handiwork of the craftsmen. Now, who is willing to consecrate himself today to the Lord?”

 Then the leaders of the fathers’ houses, the leaders of the tribes of Israel, the captains of thousands and hundreds, and the officials of the king’s workers offered willingly.

David’s offering was acceptable to the Lord – but only after His repentance.  Our annual spiritual journey through Lent and daily journey in repentance motivates us in our hearts to make a holy sacrifice, acceptable and pleasing to the Lord. Ω


[i] For my thoughts in depth on the matter see by book, The First and Finest, Orthodox Christian Stewardship as Sacred Offering, https://www.amazon.com/First-Finest-Orthodox-Christian-Stewardship/dp/1491821361

[ii] The external action-sign of something internal expressed religiously and inspired and blessed by God is the essence of the sacramental nature of worship in Orthodox Christian worship (and related to that of Roman Catholicism).  This is what a sacrament is about.

[iii] I hadn’t noticed this before, but in the verses that proceed, Cain is the ‘firstborn’ son of Adam and Eve.  Younger brother Abel came later. Birth order (despite the emphasis on firstborn in Judaism) was not the primary consideration here.

[iv] For a discussion of this, see Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s book, For the Life of the World (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press), on the notion of man as ‘priest’.

[v] While God’s judgment of idolators is clear in the scriptures, it may have often arose out of an ignorance that was not necessarily willful. The matters of conscience regarding such are utterly God’s.  But many pagan Greeks and Romans repented from their idolatry and turned to Christ unto salvation of their souls.

Out of the Mouth, Part 2

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#30 of a Series on Psalm 50 

 The Fruits of Repentance – Words of Truth, Singing Praises of God

The thoughts formed in the mind expressing the depths of the human soul seek to find an outlet.  God has fashioned a tool[i]  for such expression – the Mouth.  From the first moments of our life in the world at birth, this expression tool engages  – a LOUD scream.  The mouth effectively captures attention (ask Mom!), being immediately impactful, and capable of expressing both concepts and especially (!) emotions. 

Literature and now electronic media are visible forms of what our mouths express (and vice versa), but there is something more powerful and personal[ii] about saying something – we own it.  Our mouths serve as the trumpet of the soul, especially in the glory of beautifully sung music, but in conjunction with the tongue can also express the most gross and vile evil emanating from a darkened soul.  The mouth and voice are serve are also key utilities.  Once the issues of language are overcome, human communication works transactions (bid-offer-confirm-sell), but so much more in terms of human expression – affirmation, consolation, communion of spirit and love. 

The Mouth Opens in Worship

As the passageway to the soul, the mouth is essential for human expression in the worship of God. As discussed in the previous reflection, the mouth and lips of the repentant will inevitably find an expression.  In the heart, when the chains of sin are broken, this is experienced initially as relief, ‘unbelief[iii]’, and thanksgiving.  David’s Psalm 50 is a hymn of thanksgiving – which permeates his words, even those spoken in sorrow.

The bible speaks a LOT about the mouth, and its companion, the tongue, and their profound ability to take that which inside us and externalize it.  Hence tragic when a person is mute or a child is severely autistic, where they cannot form some types of expression through words that others can understand. One can only feel the enormous struggle and tension within, trying to bring forth those words that will allow one’s personhood to be heard by others and affirmed as people. It’s in this spirit that the wonderful story of Jesus, opening the ears and mouth of the deaf and mute man, by saying the word, ‘Ephphatha’ – ‘be opened.’ (Mk.7:31ff)  The opening of the mouth lays open the human soul.

And what proceeds from the mouth is what in is in the heart. (Lk. 6:45).  The mouth serves as the passageway for the listeners of the world to our interior life.

Pretty Dangerous huh? 

After the Fall in the Garden, we hear from Adam in his own words. What is curious though is that what we hear is more or less true, but more profoundly, evil.  When asked by God how he came to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Genesis says, ‘The man replied, “It was the woman you gave me who gave me the fruit, and I ate it.”  (Gen. 3:12)  So these words are factually true.  But listening to them, I hear Adam dodging responsibility in his weakened, sinful mindset.  He blames the woman for supplying him the source of his sin.  But look further and perhaps we even see him blaming God, for giving the woman (whom God gave him) who in the end, he blames for his disobedience! And God gave him the ‘opportunity’ to fail.  It’s really God’s fault!

What is perhaps more sinister is that the accusation is duplicitous.  Adam is just ‘stating the facts’ but lurking in his heart are the fruits of his sin and the inability to deal with it, because he has not repented.  In repentance we learn to listen to our own words, and hear how well we’ve learned to lie to ourselves, and accuse others, even as we seemingly speak ‘the truth.’  Of course, while God knows Adam’s heart, Adam himself does not, nor does he accept it or look at his inner darkness.  We should realize that perceptive people can do the same thing – being able to see through us (Mom?) when we veil with a verbal smoke screen of facts when confronted with our own shortcomings. In this scenario, we are really just trying to both insulate ourselves, and misdirect a conversation, to maintain self-justification of ourselves and shortcomings.

So, we see here how, like everything in human life, the mouth and tongue can be used simply and beautifully, or in a twisted and deceptive way.  This is part of our fallen way of living and communicating – some of it is learned behavior.

An Opening?

So the Lord will open my lips, and out will come praise? Perhaps the praise should proceed only when we’ve learned to be silent?

I recall as young college student that I was struggling in a computer class and needed a good grade to pass a course and knew I had ‘blown the final.’  I was distraught for several days.  Eventually the mimeographed grade sheet came in the mail with the grade scores and I dreaded opening it.  When I saw the fuzzy letter on the page I looked at it again, and said,

“God damn!”

It turns out the inevitable D grade (or worse) came out as a ‘B’ on the gradesheet.  I couldn’t believe it – the grading computation device must have made a mistake! But then again, I wasn’t going to argue…

But then I heard my own words and was ashamed.  I had used the Lord’s name in exactly the opposite way that I should have.  I had been coming to believe more personally in Jesus Christ as my Lord, yet these were the words that mirrored my heart?  I realized I lacked the inner vocabulary of thanksgiving and praise of God as the basic orientation in my heart. 

I’ve struggled with this from time to time, and only in grace finding appropriate words on similar occasions.  Over the decades, I’ve come to see in myself and others a pattern of inner fear and frustration, leading to anger which then colors everything that one says.  I think my experience reflected the culture of our times and since.  In those days, harsh work places like the steel mill were places where men spoke in coarse language and using it seemed, for boys, a sort of badge of honor and manly thing.[iv] Girls were more refined – cleaner and kinder language was expected of them, which is why when such language came from the mouth of a girl they were doubly punished for it.[v]   Language with sexual content, was banned as unworthy of common societal use because speaking so would lead to a degradation of society. (Check) 

Now today we live in a very different world when what used to be called the ‘F-bomb’ now is no longer even a dud firecracker.  Even if it was once effective as the ultimate attention-getting word in the English language, the continued coarsening of language, culture and the human soul leaves us unable to communicate even with stunning language, effectively leaving people dumb (in its original meaning ) This is especially true in some subcultures where the victims of poverty[vi], social decline, broken family life and the loss of spiritual orientation lead to a deep frustration because words can no longer describe the inner plight.  Acting out becomes necessary.  Our words have failed us.

Repentance and the Word

The Good News is that Jesus, who is the Word of God, can restore the inner turmoil wherein we find ourselves psychologically trapped and renew not only our hearts, but also our mouths.  The Christian Way is one of self-control  – “Let your words be few.” (Eccl. 5:2) and as the Apostle Peter taught, “The one who desires life, to love and see good days, must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit.” (1Pt3:10) 

One of the most effective remedies that Christian discipleship brings is the reading of Holy Scriptures.  Scripture is Holy. The reading of scripture not only leads to an understanding of God, but the good, holy and life-giving words of God become the language of the mind and heart and mouth. In the Book of Samuel, there is something marvelous about the image of the prayer of Hannah,[vii] from her heart, but silently yet moving her lips. This is why monks are so encouraged to read the psalms and why it’s such a full part of their daily life and worship. Their constant repetition of the psalms leads to an internalization of their meaning, so the monk (or lay Christian) fashions her own words in the same spirit and ‘language’[viii] of the scriptures. This is also why the holy Fathers teachings were laced with truth, because they imaged scripture.

In Christian conversion the inner process of repentance frees the heart and the tongue as well of spiritual death and corruption.  This is strengthened by self- control and in that extraordinary pursuit of holiness in monasticism, we learn of the beauty of silence – which is an inner quieting of both mouth and soul.  From that place the words that are spoken can be fashioned in a noetic/spiritually thoughtful way – and expressed through praise of God and love of Him, and love of neighbor.  Foul language becomes bitterly distasteful again.

As the children of God, the Christians who are being restored in grace will imitate the innocent words of praise of the Hebrew children at the entry of Christ into Jerusalem, ‘Hosanna in the highest, blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.’  The Evangelist Matthew quotes the words of David the Psalmist, ‘Out of the mouths of children, you have fashioned praise.’  (Ps. 8:2, Mt. 21:16)

Words of Worship?

As I write, this we areapproaching Great Lent,[ix] and recently heard in Church the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (Lk. 18:9-14).  Here we see the profound contrast of the thoughts expressed in words between the humbled Publican and bombastic Pharisee.  It displays the inner heart of repentance contrasted to  the proud heart of vainglory. Curiously, as with Adam, the Pharisee’s display occurs in ‘presence of God’, as he, like Adam, addresses God directly. The Pharisee’s words, beginning, “I thank you God…”  and the rest of his words of self-praise are foolishness.[x]

To come to a place where we can use the right words of praise (literally in Greek – ‘ortho-doxa’), we must first come to a place where are hearts are right with Him through penance, and where, from a grounding in a still heart, the words of the Spirit become our words.   No longer is it, ‘God damn!’  But ‘Praise and thanks be to you, Lord and Father.’   Only God can heal us to do so and the penitent Publican, like David, can show us what we must do.  And through our words we will bless and not curse others.

When this process is at work we can worship authentically with ‘all our voice, with all our heart’ and make the ‘offering of peace, the sacrifice of praise.’[xi]  Ω

__________________________


[i] As mentioned heretofore, the Apostle James describes this as a dangerous tool.  (James 3)

[ii] We read David’s words in Psalm 50 as scripture, but their very nature is more like something spoken.

[iii] By unbelief here, I mean ‘unbelievable’ or wonderful or beyond imagination.  It is a joyful unbelief, that upon reflection becomes true belief – that God has intervened in my world and delivered me from my sin through His forgiveness.

[iv] Except for the fact that my father rarely used profanity save in the worst of times.

[v] This might have been a good thing – a higher standard to live up to often elevates and orientates the soul to higher things.  It is no wonder more girls became the women of faith that anchored most Christian communities in the 1960s and since.

[vi] The use of foul language is not unique to the impoverished. In fact, in the spiritual poverty of the rich, the breakdown of culture and language in recent years has been stunning.

[vii] 1Sam1:13  The goodness of the heart reaches the lips.  In time the tongue will engage as well.

[viii] By language here I don’t mean Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, etc. but the underlying word meanings and orientation of the soul that express the biblical words in any and every language.  To do so is to ‘speak scripture’ in a true way.  The words of Scripture are expressed externally, and hopefully, in truth and the right spirit. Said, often enough, word images of scripture even become colloquialisms in society. Note that it’s also possible to ‘speak scripture’ but use it like the Pharisee – for self-praise or to impress people with one’s knowledge of the scripture or personal faith.

[ix] In the Orthodox Church, Great Lent is preceded by four Sundays when the themes of prayer, fasting and almsgiving are introduced through four thematic Sunday:  The Publican and the Pharisee, The Prodigal Son, The Last Judgment, The Expulsion from Paradise.

[x] St. Andrew Crete in the Great Canon identifies these words as ‘foolishness’.

[xi] From the Orthodox Divine Liturgy.

Out of the Mouth?

 

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The Fruits of Repentance – Singing the Praises of God
 Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare Your praise.…

The beauty and awe of a restored relationship is emerging in the heart of David.  He who so loved the Lord with his heart, whose psalms led the worship of the Hebrew people for generations (and the Church today), now experiences a restoration of his capacity to praise God. He is not only enlightened through God’s intervention in his life, but lightened as well. The heavy weight of sin no longer oppresses his heart.

Do we Know How to Praise God?

We cite from the beginning of our catechetical lessons – our life purpose is to live with God and worship Him.  It’s in our DNA. The focus of our eyes and our life is toward Him and beyond this world into His eternity.  The Church Fathers taught that this is how we are fashioned, to imitate the Angelic powers[i], in the worship of God.  Our Divine Liturgy on Sundays is a foretaste of this worshipping orientation of life – looking forward to the next opportunity to open our mouths and sing God’s praises!

Yeh – tell that to most 14 year- olds and see what response you get!

That’s true to lots of adults too, probably. If we are to follow the teachings of Christ, young children initially have a curiosity with God, and even a simple intimacy with Him, a trust in Him, and sense of reverence and awe of holy things.  But as adults/teens this trust and awareness seems to be dissipated as we pass through life stages.  Some have proposed that the widespread decline in Church attendance due to Covid was due to a latent sickness of another sort, people looking for a good reason to stop going to Church.  And attendance at Church isn’t all – because the real purpose and focus of our presence there is meant to be a effort (liturgy = holy work) in worshipping the Lord. 

Do we know how to worship?  Yes – sort of – at least in Orthodoxy, ours is a ‘right worship’ – the very definition of ‘ortho-doxa’  or ‘true glory’.  That’s all well and good. But are we really worshipping?[ii] Since I’m probably more distracted in worship than most, I can assure you that I know that there’s less actual worshipping going on in the sanctuary on Sunday mornings than what might appear.  Who taught us to worship?  For many it was ‘baba’ or ‘ya-ya’ = Grandmother.  Universally in the Church there are  women who faithfully attended services ‘religiously’ every Sunday.  But what were they doing there?  Worshipping God?  Or something else?  Again, in Orthodoxy, a parent or elder can show us essential acts of worship – words to say or making gestures like the sign of the cross or venerating an icon.  But does the child (or convert in discipleship training) actually experience an orientation of the inner thoughts of the heart to the living God?  I certainly can’t answer that – but God knows our hearts. How do we absorb this knowledge or integrate it into a conscious part of living to accompany these externals?

I know that there have been ‘moments’ in my adult life when I’ve been aware of the invitation personally in my heart to worship Christ (cf Mt. 2:1ff, Mt. 8:1,Mt. 16:16 etc.) I also know there have been times when I should have been worshipping Him but my mind and heart were far away. (This is what sin does).  And other times, it has been a difficult struggle of faith in God, to belief in His presence or relevance.  When these situations persist over time, our worship of God grows distant from us and Him.  Stay away for Church long enough and the idea of faith itself will be challenged. 

Worship – the Gift of the Holy Spirit

Worshippers are molded in the heart by the Spirit of God.  This is a theme of the story of the Samaritan Woman, when the Lord Jesus promises that the ‘God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth’ (Jn.4:24) St. Paul advises that it is the Holy Spirit who actually forms the movements of the Christian’s heart toward holy and pure prayer,  “The Spirit…intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express”.   (Rom. 8:26)  When a person is Baptized and Chrismated,[iii] her lips are anointed with Chrism to sing the praises of God.

Sin  Destroys Worship in the Soul, Repentance Restores it

David’s experience is instructive to us.  Because of his sin, his lips were shuttered from the kind of prayer[iv] that poured forth from his heart so spontaneously and naturally before that. But with repentance comes restoration of the whole person – and this is most wonderfully manifest in the opening of the penitents’ lips with authentic, heartfelt prayer. This prayer is always characterized by thanksgiving –  in the recognition that our very being, and all human capacity, is God’s gift continually bringing us into existence and enabling us to live in His presence and worship Him.

Note how David frames his words, ‘Lord, YOU will open my lips and my mouth shall sing your praise.’ [emphasis Added]  It is God who opens David’s lips that he can again praise Him as is proper[v].

The ‘opening of lips’ appears in a number of informative passages of Scripture.  A good example is that of Luke 1, and the story of the test to the High Priest Zachariah to believe the testimony of the Angel, that his wife Elizabeth would conceive and bear a son (St. John the Baptist) despite her advanced age. In Zachariah’s incredulity, he is punished for a time when he is made dumb and unable to speak until the birth of his son, St. John.  At that time, when asked about how his son is to be named, he is obedient and writes on a board, ‘His name is John.’  Immediately – as his actions affirm his inner intent – his lips are opened, and he fashions a hymn of praise of great beauty and theological power that has inspired Christians ever since.  We see also in Luke that Mary, who accepted the Angel’s proclamation, was not silenced, but also poured forth her heart to God in thanksgiving in the Magnificat hymn.  These examples show how the human heart, when unburdened by sin, is oriented in its pure state toward God, and will worship Him with zealous faith in thanksgiving for all of His goodness and righteousness and gifts to us.

Implications?

This passage – of God’s forgiveness opening our lips in praise – can speak to so many personal dimensions of prayer and worship in personal and Church life.  When we are weighed down in sin, we are unable to lift up our hearts to God because they are chained by the burden of sin.  When we are lazy and get out of the habit of prayer, whether personally at home or in the church community, we are likewise weighed down.  Young people who ‘learn’ to sin especially as they grow up are challenged to rediscover their childhood innocence through repentance. (This is why youths need to be taught how to confess their sins sacramentally.)

It is so important for the elderly to confess their sins especially.  If we are in heaven’s ‘waiting room’ we need to be preparing ourselves by unburdening our souls through Confession (Penance) and lightening our souls during the final struggle ends in death – victoriously entering into the next Dimension of the worship of God in our lives with the angelic hosts, as the holy fathers of the Church reveal!

The worship of the congregation is a heavenly encounter.  Recently a friend sent me a testimony[vi] of a priest who was reluctant to celebrate the Liturgy on a very cold day – below zero, hoping that no one would come to Liturgy so he could go home. (I can identify with the sentiment!) But the cantor came.  And as the liturgy was begun.  At one point, mysteriously, many different people began to appear.  These, as it turned out, were the saints and angels[vii] who joined in the worship of this small lowly church served unworthily by this listless priest and his cantor.  And there was also a sense that those for whom the Liturgy was offered (living and departed) also shared in participating in this Liturgy.

One other notable worship experience became evident to me recently, as I observed a congregation bound by Covid protection masks.  To me they appeared as ‘muzzled sheep’ – as if their external expression of their words was unimportant.  Meanwhile, the priest and chanter could open their mouths in glorious, melodic worship.[viii]  How do the laity worship God with their lips?  Are the clergyman’s words supposed to substitute for those of the laity? Will the laity be ‘hushed’ if they sing along with the lonely chanter?  Do the masks ‘silence’ our worship and if so, how do we overcome this? These questions with their many implications, alas, cannot be answered here. 

Conclusion

The forgiveness of sins allows us to enter into the presence of the Lord with praise and thanksgiving. (Ps. 104)  While the words of praise reside in our hearts first, they are not to remain there, but migrate to our bodies and find expression through our voice and the opening of our lips.

Let us all say (cry out) with all our soul and with all our mind, let us all say, ‘Lord, have mercy!’ Ω


[i] The liturgical texts always instruct as to what should be going on during the Orthodox worship services.  There are many references for example to our role in pure worship – imitating the pure angelic powers who according to scriptures pray continuously in the worship of God, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy Lord of hosts!’ (and enjoy doing it!)  This is referenced before we the congregation sings this thrice holy hymn, (See Is. 6, Rev. 4ff) before the readings of the Liturgy when the priest prays, (quietly) ‘Accept O Master this Thrice Holy Hymn from the lips of us sinners.’ And then aloud, ‘For You are Holy our God, and to you we lift up Glory (doxa), to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and ever and to ages of ages.’ After which time the choir sings, ‘Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal have mercy on us!’   Later during the singing of the Cherubic Hymn, the exhortation is: “We who mystically represent the Cherubim, and sing the thrice holy hymn to the life creating Trinity, now lay aside all earthly cares…’ Note that Orthodox worship is Trinitarian – to the One God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit, not so much solely to the Father, or the Son, or the Holy Spirit distinctively, except in certain, theologically relevant ways.  This is beyond the scope of this discussion however.  If interested, contact me. I must also note that there is a plethora of teaching in ancient Christian literature on taming the evils of the tongue, proper speech, silence, prayer, etc. that are touched upon here.

[ii] It’s interesting to look at the Liturgical texts and look at the exhortations of the deacons, whose very job seems to be to get the people to tune in and worship God in the service. Commands like, ‘Let us pray to the Lord’, “Again and AGAiN’, Dynamis (worship with energy),  ‘Stand aright, stand in awe that we might worship…’ etc. One of our problems may be that the effectiveness of worship is that most parishes don’t have deacons, and those that do, don’t intentionally work to prompt the congregation to true worship. Nobody ever told them that that’s their job – maybe their primary one – in the Liturgy.

[iii] The sacrament of Chrismation in Orthodoxy immediately follows sacramental Baptism and consists of a short prayer followed by anointing with the specially prepared oil called ‘chrism’ that imparts and seals the grace of the Holy Spirit in the newly baptized Christian.  For our purposes here, the lips are sealed with chrism – and effectively ‘unsealed’ or opened so that the person might offer with pure lips the perfect and Spirit inspired worship of the God. Chrismation is akin to Confirmation in the Western Church, but with significant differences.

[iv] Although similar in meaning, I tend to use the term ‘prayer’ when referring to that done by an individual, and ‘worship’ reflecting communal prayer.

[v] The notion of the ‘properness’ of worship is a surprisingly important dimension of liturgical worship.  Most liturgical prayers of the Consecration of Gifts (called anaphoras) in the Christian East and West, have language of exhortation, where the priest will say, ‘Let us give thanks to the Lord…’ to which the congregation responds, ‘It is proper and right…to worship…etc.’ Some texts use the Old English word ‘meet’ in English translation for ‘proper.’ It appears in many other places as well.

[vi] This type of experience has been reported in a number of places in monastic and ancient Christian literature.

[vii] It was reported in the 1990s that an angel ‘appeared’ in the midst of a worshipping Orthodox congregation in California.  The Church does not ‘require’ such manifestations to validate all of the spiritual reality and truth of the Liturgy in fact the opposite is true.  The Church affirms the ‘mystical’ presence of the angels and the saints at every Liturgy – the gift of being able to visibly ‘see’ these participants is rare, and like other miracles, is to inspire us to deeper prayer, faithfulness and trust.

[viii] The issue of participation in the liturgy with our voice (including congregational singing) is, in my opinion a very important and long-overdue discussion needed in the Church, in Orthodoxy in particular, but also among the faithful of other congregations.  This issue was part of the move for liturgical reform in the Reformation.