Christ the Teacher

Christ the Teacher

Monday, March 12, 2018

Acquire the Spirit of Peace and Many Will Be Saved

We deceive ourselves.  We are gullible.  We believe things we read and hear.  Truth has become a subjective thing in our culture.  Truths taught by the Bible or the Church and accepted as truth for centuries seem to fall by the wayside in our present culture.  Many, if not the majority, do not believe things taught by the Bible or the Church anymore.  These are perilous times.  What can we do to protect or even enlighten ourselves and to provide these things for our families?

Do the spiritual disciplines as I have written of recently.  As much as you can, employ all of your senses while doing these things.  I am speaking of things like standing in prayer, bowing, prostrations, or using incense, and speaking prayers aloud with your voice.  Pay attention at church.  Listen.  Feel.  Be aware.  Be present and be watchful.  

I think it is an important  to remember that at Liturgy we do use all of our senses.  We listen to the words of the prayers and the the Holy Scriptures, we feel the movements of our body and we stand, kneel, do prostrations, sit, and walk; we see the holy icons or statues, we see other people, we see the priest, we see all the things going on in the church; we smell the incense and we see its smoke rise.  We recall our prayers rising to heaven as incense, and near the end of the Liturgy, we come forward and we receive our Lord who is near and we taste Him.  Yes, all of our senses our employed during the worship.  This brings the Lord near and the worship service brings us an experience of Him.  This worship is different than the worship in other churches.  I will refrain from saying that it is better or more holy, but it is the ancient way, it is the way marked out to worship God given in the Bible.  

The reason to me that it is important is that it gives us a sensory experience of God.  God is real.  We see that in the Liturgy.  We sense that, we sense Him in the Liturgy.  He is with us.  He is near.  We desire to take this with us always.  We want to live this reality in our everyday lives.  

And so we are inspired to live a quiet life with God at the center.  Yes, Liturgy should inspire us.  It is inspiring.  It is ancient.  It is ancient worship.  No frills here, no entertainment, just Biblical worship.  And we make this Liturgy the center of our life.  The prayers we pray at home should have some sense of this Liturgy or some connectioin to it.  

And so our daily lives, all of life not just our prayer life, should reflect this attitude, these things that happen during the Liturgy.  We recall God and who He is and how He wants us to be.  And hopefully this happens even before we get out of bed!  Our worship of God strengthens us to do the disciplines but also by doing the seven disciplines, we strengthen our ability to worship.  It all goes together.  By doing both, we keep ourselves from deception.

I think of the phrase of St. Seraphim of Sarov, “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand around you will be saved.”

I think what he is hinting at has little to do with doing great things, rather keeping the little things.  It is about living the teachings of Christ.  Being satisfied.  Being humble.  And having the qualities of being silent rather than judging and condemning others.  Just go through the disciplines.  Do them in a quiet way.  You need not blow a trumpet as you go through your day and proclaim to others that you are fasting or that you are not judging.  No, just do them in a quiet and peaceful manner.  Just do them.  Stake your life on them and all the teachings of Jesus and you will have peace because you are building your life on something firm and stable, you are building your life on Jesus.

Peace be with you.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Why Do All These Things?

Looking back on my recent posts, I have written about the Sermon on the Mount and also the spiritual disciplines.  Someone can rightfully ask, “What good is all this?”  Or, “Why should I do all these things?  Isn’t this trying to earn my way to heaven?  Isn’t this just a whole lot of doing?

Well, my first response is, “What is my attitude while I am doing these things?”  

If each of us asks that question, hopefully, then whatever we do, we will do it with the right purpose.  Remember, the first discipline is to acquire humility.  If we do not get humility right, then we might be tempted to think we deserve Heaven, or that we could somehow earn our way, or think that I am better than “those” people or “that” person.  No, we must be willing to take the last place and hold the attitude that I deserve none of God’s gifts.  If my attitude is not humble, then nothing matters.  It will not matter what I do.  If I have pride in place of humility, I will have hell rather than Heaven, I will have selfishness in place of love, I will have a distorted self love rather than a love of God and neighbor, and I will be the most pitiful of men.

All the spiritual disciplines must be accomplished through love and humility.  We must be fearless.  We must know that even in our failures that the love and mercy of God will conquer all, even our own failures and our lack of love and humility.  We will be judged on love, but we take comfort that even in this judgment, God is merciful.  

To me there is something going on while we do things, while we discipline ourselves.  You know how we learn things.  We read, we watch videos, we listen to speakers, right?  We take information in.  But I ask you, how much of that information goes towards really changing your life?  We read the Bible.  We read the lives of the saints.  We read the teachings of the Fathers.  But what changes in our lives?  Do we come to treat people better?  Do we love people better?  Do we become more humble and usable to God?

In doing, in trying to do the disciplines outlined in the Sermon on the Mount, we learn things that we can’t read in a book.  Honestly, one of the first things I learn is how frail I am.  I learn many things about myself, but the first is that I cannot do these things very well.  I fail miserably.  The more that I grow, the more I see just how miserable that I am.  Not necessarily in my outward behavior, but in my attitude and my thought life.  

One example I can give is adultery.  Following the Old Testament law, I have never committed adultery.  Not once.  But if I apply the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, the New Covenant law, oh my goodness!  I think I fail nearly every day.  Then I learn that what I pray in the Jesus Prayer is true: I am the sinner.  I am, as St. Paul would say, the worst of sinners.  There is one line in the Prayer of Ephraim, “O Lord and King, grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother…”  Yes, I am getting acquainted with this line.  This is a powerful prayer.  If you have never prayed it, I would encourage you to do so.  Prayed over a long period of time, it is a good teacher in humility, especially if you do the prostrations.  So, here, if you would, you can see how just by praying the prayers, fasting, prostrations, a little bit of doing, I am learning just how wretched I am.  It is more than a mental exercise or a line read from a book.  It is experiential.  I use the prayers, the written down prayers such as the one by St. Ephraim, and of course the Psalms, to lead me into self knowledge and understanding.  One thing that I know, now more than ever, is that I do not deserve anything.  Oh, I have always known this, at least mentally.  But there is something different when you learn this lesson through life and your spiritual life.  One thing is for sure, I know that I do not go to Heaven on my own power, no way!  I have to trust that what St. Therese is true: that our sins are like a drop of water in the great furnace of the Lord’s love.  I am learning that my drop of water, my drop of sin is really like a bucket compared to my good works, which truly would be a drop.  My drop of good works, my drop of virtue is so small.  There is little that I can do that is good, and so I continue to repeat, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.”

This might be depressing to some folks.  We are created good.  Our egos are fragile and we cannot bear the truth about ourselves.  Perhaps this is another point of doing these disciplines: We are somehow strengthened in the doing.  I cannot explain it other than to say it is grace and this is how grace works.  No, we do not earn it and yet there is something that we must do.  

Take our Father in faith Abraham.  How would God have reacted if, when told to sacrifice his son Isaac, Abraham replied something like, “Well, OK, but you know Lord that nothing that I do can earn your love, so rather than sacrifice my son Isaac, I’ll just love you in some other way.  OK, Lord?”  

Or our Mother Mary, when the Archangel Gabriel came to her.  Her reply was, “yes.”  We tend to forget the law at the time, the Old Testament law that said the penalty for adultery was stoning by death.  Mary showing up pregnant without being married would have been cause for stoning to death.  But she said “yes” anyway.  She trusted God in her action.  In her actions, she learned about trusting God much more than just reading something in a book and then making some type of mental assent to this idea and labeling it faith.  No, there is something we learn by doing that is far, far more deep than ideas or claiming to believe an idea or even to say something like, “I believe in Jesus.”  Well, that really isn’t saying so much unless we back it up with lifestyle, and doing certain things, and making certain decisions that put our faith to the test (read James chapter 2).

The disciplines are just a start, a warmup.  They prepare us for actually sticking our necks out!  And you know, we are headed into a time when we will have to answer for our faith.  “Happy clappy” Christianity is worthless.  The “MTD” gospel will save no one.  The cultural war we are engaged in has progressed to the point where people are losing their jobs for their faith.  Others have lost their businesses.  I recently read of a case in California where a teenager was taken from his parents by the courts because he wanted to pursue “trans” treatment and become a woman.  His parents refused and the case went to court.  

Here I will close by encouraging all of us to stand with the Truth.  Remember Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn?  Go back and read some of my articles about him.  Or read up on him on the Internet.  He stood with the truth and suffered.  

I will leave you with Luke 12:49-53: Jesus the Cause of Division

49 “I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished! 51 Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division; 52 for henceforth in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three; 53 they will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against her mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”

The footnote in the Orthodox Study Bible shares an interesting point about verse 51 that I will also share with you:

There are  two kinds of peace.  False peace, to which Christ refers here, is a shallow harmony that results from ignoring issues of truth.  Genuine peace is reconciliation to God through faith in Christ and surrender to truth.  Genuine peace has division as a byproduct because not everyone wants truth.  In the fallen world, divisions are necessary for truth to be manifest (see 1 Corinthians 11:18-19)

Look up the 1st Corinthians verse.  The Greek word used in verse 18 is actually the word we translate as “schisms” and in verse 19, the word is “heresies.”  

Get ready for battle.  Get ready to embrace truth.  Get ready to suffer.  I am not telling you to go out and look for suffering, it will come to you all by itself just by living your faith.  Just don’t be surprised when it happens.  It will happen.

One last thought about the disciplines.  This is what “ascesis” is.  It is the training, the exercise.  St. Paul talks about it.  The early Christians took it very seriously.  What athlete does not train?  What army does not ready itself for battle?  So too, we Christians must prepare ourselves for when the battle comes to us.  If we do not train ourselves, we will not say “yes” as Mary did.  We will not obey the Lord as Abraham did.  We will fail the test. Our faith will not stand up in the heat of the furnace.  The world mocks us for being sinners.  Do not let your sin, your lack of perfect behavior, unsettle you.  This is why we Christians repent daily, or even more often.  We know we are sinners.  We know we are unworthy.  Yet, we know who our Lord is also.  He is the merciful one and we stand with Him.  He will not abandon us.  Our sin does not, and will not, condemn us to hell.  Only our lack of repentance can do that.  Our Lord will fight for us.  We are weak.  He is strong.  Stand with Him.  Call on Him.  He will help you.

May His peace and blessing be upon you now.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Spiritual Disciplines VIII, Self Accusation

“For the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.  Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

Of course you will recall that verse 1 of this chapter was in the last article about the spiritual disciplines: “Judge not, that you be not judged.”  Today we take this one step further and we look at ourselves and pronounce ourselves, “guilty.”

But self accusation is not merely finding fault with ourselves or taking the blame for something, oh no, rather it is a process of finding out who we really are.  When we accuse ourselves, we are coming to grips with who I am and we come to self-knowledge.  
We typically just blame others for our problems, don’t we?  The danger in this is that we deceive ourselves in our attempt to deceive others.  Saying, “It’s not my fault,” does not lead us into truth.  In Orthodox spirituality we are taught that everything is our fault.  Far from being a stick that is used to beat us, it is a pointer that is used to teach us.  Because the truth is, my problems are my fault.  Even if I can say that I really, truly did nothing to deserve this bad thing, if I go back far enough, there is a decision somewhere along the line that put me in this situation.  Therefore, it is my fault.  Now, don’t take this to be a negative thing.  It is a positive movement because it reveals who we are.  This is a positive.  And it reveals our need for Christ.  And in the case when something really and rarely might not literally be my fault, it is an opportunity to be like Christ for He took on the sins of the whole world.  I might be asked to bear innocently the sins of my spouse or my best friend.  Not so much, right?  Oh, painful to be sure, but you want to be like Jesus, correct?  Well, take up that cross.  Bear whatever suffering might come to you.  Do not be bitter, rather find your way to love.  Love your way through whatever trial besets you.  Be like Christ.  Do it for the one you love.  Or find the love of Christ in the trial you bear for the other person.

In accusing ourselves, the saints say that, “We enter into the joyous process of seeking and recovering our true person through finding the truth in our situation.”

Looking at our lives, especially within the family, how many of our arguments are about assigning fault?  You know, “Who did this?”  “Who broke that?”  “I didn’t do it!”  “Well I know I didn’t do it so you must have done it,” and the argument goes on.

We do not want to “take on the other’s sin, do we?  But sometimes it is just better to do so.  Take one for the team!  And by doing so we grow in the spiritual life.  Accepting the wrong of another is a big step to finding out who you are.  Just as owning up to something when it is your fault and just saying so.  We really learn what it is to be generous.  We learn what unconditional love is all about.  We learn how stingy and selfish we can be.

You know, work is a great place to blame others too.  We don’t want to look stupid.  We don’t want to mess up a potential job promotion.  And guess what?  You being honest just might mess up your job promotion.  It has worked this way for me on at least two occasions.  I had two jobs in the past where in choosing to do the right thing, caused me to look bad to my superiors and hence, all chances of being promoted went out the window.  Sometimes, I look back and I regret my action.  Perhaps, and there is no guarantee of course, but I wonder what could have been.  Then, I have to pause, and remember that I chose to seek the truth and live the truth.  And sometimes, there is a consequence for living the truth.  Living rightly does not always mean you will get the promotion, the better job, the bigger house etc.  Living that way is not the way of Christ but the way of the world.  We have to be careful about who we seek when we live a life seeking rewards.

This idea self accusation is not restricted to the Gospel itself.  St. Paul mentions it also in 1 Corinthians 6:7-8.  

Now, this takes work!  and humility!  

Work on your sin.  Name it.  Look at those instances when you’d like to blame others.  Let them bounce around in your heart and mind.  What does Christ say?  Oh yes, you’d like to tell them off.  You’d like to do this or that back.  You want to tell others and clear your name.  You want to let people know that this thing is not your fault.  OK.  Sometimes you might be innocent.  If you are like me, that actually might happen…. rarely.  I find solace in that this is the seventh discipline.  This is the culmination of the spiritual life.  This is the mountain, so to speak.  It is difficult.  Yet, here we must toil, work, pray, fast, accuse ourselves, and repent.  By repeating this process, which includes the previous six disciplines, we eventually and little by little become free.  The saints tell us that we reach a point when we are not tempted to react to the sin of others because we are focused on our own sin.  

The last sentence in the above paragraph, hmmmm, well this may have happened to me sometimes.  This would not be my norm, but I am making progress.  I find that it is good to listen to or read the news from time to time, especially when it comes to some of the social issues.  The gay marriage and transgender items that come up especially when it comes to what is being taught in school really disturbs me.  And I have to remind myself of this principle.  

As St. Paul then continues in 1 Corinthians 11:31, “But if we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged.”  

This is Jesus in Matthew 7:1 just stated another way.  And so, I must remember to judge myself and leave others to the Lord.  Then, I will escape my own harsh judgment that is coming later.  Yes, I need to keep my own judgment in mind, I am talking about the one that will come at the end of my life.  My deeds, my words, and my thoughts, yes, I will be judged on them all.  It is a good idea to get a grip on this side of death and deal with all these things as the Lord and St. Paul instruct us.

As you get into this more and more, you will notice that it sounds very similar to the Little Way of St. Therese.  Yes, there is a suffering of sorts when something happens and you would love nothing more than to lash out or to defend yourself.  No, be silent.  Here is a small cross prepared for you by Jesus to move you forward in love.  Be thankful.  Do not be bitter.  Let your motivation be the love of Christ.  

So, there you have it, the seventh of the spiritual principles.  It is simple, isn’t it?  Simple yes, easy?  No.  This takes time and a whole lot of surrender.  As all of the disciplines, it is love that will strengthen us: love of the Lord.  

As we progress through Lent, let us be mindful of the disciplines.  Pray, fast, give alms.  But remember to be humble, trust in God, and release your judgment.  Finally, look at yourself.  The fault is yours.  Be willing to see that.  Maybe you cannot bear it today.  Maybe not even next year.  But there are times when you will see.  The grace is given.  Open your eyes.  You will see.  Accept this, not as something that is negative or punitive, rather, it is a sign of love and a call for you to love more deeply.  Love God.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  Be willing to love greatly and deeply.  

May this lead you to peace in the Lord.

Happy Lent.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Another School Shooting. Things Must Change. I Must Change.

I responded to a post on a friend’s facebook page about the school shooting in Florida last week:

It’s terrible. Guns may be part of the solution to the killing, but only part. What about all the stuff on TV and video games? We deaden our senses to killing. Or, how does the government solve their problems with others? We send in the SEALS and then our politicians brag about killing so and so on the nightly news. We send cruise missiles and destroy things, and oh if they kill civilians, oh well, and if they kill the “targets” we rejoice. People who commit terrible crimes we give them the death penalty And somehow this serves justice. We don’t want that baby, we take mommy to Planned Parenthood and kill the baby. If grandpa has dementia there is a pill that can fix that too. And if you can’t kill grandpa in your state, you can always go to Oregon. Yes, adults fix many problems by killing. We have taught our kids very, very well. They are smart. They don’t do as we say. They do as we do.

Why are we shocked when our youth kill?  Why are we shocked when suicide among young people is a leading cause of death?  We have sown the seeds of destruction and only have ourselves to blame.  We have medicated ourselves into dysfunction and death.

I am a substitute teacher.  I love talking to students, especially high school.  For the most part, I find them to be bright and eager to learn.  Yet, there is a downside here, something is missing.  Often I ask students, if they have anyone in their lives who tells them they are good.  They typically laugh at me.  When they realize that I am asking a serious question, they respond in unison: “No!”  Rarely, perhaps one class in three, will have a student who will say that yes, a parent or sibling really does affirm them and say that they are good.  

I do not know how many youth truly believe that they are good.  I do tell them that they are good.  I look them in the eye.  Sometimes, it happens that kids get choked up.  I had senior girl in high school start to cry one day.  She said, “No one has ever told me I was good.”  I find comments like this truly incredible!  And I do mean it when I tell these young people that they are good.  I mean it because this is how God has created us.  Oh sure, we mess things up, but as I tell the young people, we must separate what we do from what we are or who we are.  We all sin and do bad things, but that does not make us bad.  

I think this is a symptom of our culture being too utilitarian.  We are what we do.  Just ask anyone who they are when meeting someone for the first time and they will almost always respond with their profession.  “I am a doctor or teacher or …..”  We must separate ourselves from that.

And television.  I think we are very naive about television and its power to shape and form our youth and into adulthood.  Father Richard Rohr, in a talk about 25 years ago, said, “The message of TV is that you are what you have and you haven’t got enough.”  Yes.  I think this is absolutely true.  About 15 years ago I cancelled my cable.  I did go on DISH for a year or so but otherwise, I have been TV free ever since.  Oh, I do have a computer and we are able to watch movies or Youtube, but we are very selective of what we watch.  

And video games.  Even the ones that are less bad are very addicting.  This cannot be good for our youth, or adults for that matter, to spend so much time glued to a screen.  We are creating a generation that cannot sit still and appreciate a beautiful sunny day, while enjoying the view, getting lost in the beauty of the moment without the need for thinking a single thought.

And religion.  I think how we view ourselves comes from a distorted view of who God is.  We allowed the “Fire and Brimstone” God to rule far too long, the God of fear and punishment just is not true.  We somehow started to believe that a God of love must be a permissive God and we fell into a trap of trying to be perfect.  That did not work.  The backlash is the MTD gospel: Moralistic, Therapeutic, Deism, which is really devoid of any power to heal or change someone.  It is merely a vague idea that God is there and if I am good I will go to heaven.  This is really a product of poor catechesis and few examples of authentic faith to follow.  Look up the Wikipedia article on this.  If you have never heard of it before, you will see that this is how we are today.

I do have a proposal, a solution, to these school shootings.  It involves our culture, how we raise our kids, how we situate ourselves in the world.  Many people in our society say that we need to return to God, and I agree, but it cannot be this vague, MTD kind of God.  It must be rooted in something deep, something worth living and dying for.  

Here are my thoughts.

First, read The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher.  I have had many people tell me that they have heard it is false, or bad, or whatever.  Well, I’d counter that it is probably people who espouse the MTD gospel that are saying this.  Read it.  It is a very important book for our times.

Second, I’d recommend that you find a faith, a God, that is bigger than you. My complaint against so much religion in our culture today is that it basically teaches people how to control God to get what you want.  It demands no change from a person, but merely reinforces what that person wants out of life anyway.  I read a poll once a number of years ago given to Evangelical Christians, although it probably applies to most of us, and to one of the questions about wealth, 80% of people said God wanted them to be rich.  Here is a huge problem.  We associate faith with being wealthy.  Could that have anything to do with living in the most materialistic nation that has ever existed?  We misinterpret what Jesus says about the abundant life.  

Orthodox priest of blessed memory, Father Alexander Schmemen said, “There is no point in converting people to Christ if they do not convert their vision of the world and of life since Christ becomes merely a symbol for all that we live and want already without Him.  This kind of Christianity is more terrifying than agnosticism and hedonism.”

And I believe we are living the fruit of exactly this kind of faith if you can even call it faith.

What faith should we adopt?  Well, for me I am a traditional Christian and as such I would point you towards the Orthodox Church or the Catholic Church, but I would also warn you that you must ground yourself!  Don’t just go to Liturgy and expect everything to fall into your lap!  You must repent!  You must fast and pray!  You must live the life that is given to us.  Don’t fall for the cheap, liberal interpretations that are often handed to us by some priests out of laziness or because they want to be popular with the people.  As far as I am concerned, liberal Christianity leads noone to a holy life or to God.  It pretty much leads us into thinking we are god.

The most recent posts in this blog, the last 30 or so, deal with the Sermon on the Mount and the spiritual disciplines espoused by Jesus in this sermon.  Start here.  Change your life.  Start praying and fasting.  We are in Lent now.  Make it real.  Make yourself real.  Become leaven.  You and me as individuals cannot change the world.  You and me are not the loaf of bread, but can we be content to be leaven?  Are we content to become small?

And so, here comes my ultimate point for number two, explore the Little Way of St. Therese of Lisieux.  Start with Wikipedia.  You can check out some posts I have done on St. Therese and the LIttle Way on this blog.  Beyond this I won’t give you a lot of details as that is not the focus of this article.  But I believe that teachings like the Little Way, which in reality is a very condensed and profound rendition of the Gospel of Jesus, is our way through this mess that we find ourselves in today.  It is non-violent teaching, it is not punitive, views God as the God of love, and sees ourselves as small.  One incredible statement by St. Therese that I just find wonderful is that she says, “Most of all I imitate the conduct of Magdalene; her astonishing or rather her loving audacity which charms the Heart of Jesus also attracts my own.  Yes, I feel it; even though I had on my conscience all the sins that can be committed, I would go, my heart broken with sorrow, and throw myself into Jesus’ arms, for I know how much He loves the prodigal child who returns to Him.”

To Therese, being little was everything.  It meant that we keep in mind our nothingness and that we expect everything from God and that all we have is from God.  He is our Father who loves us.  There is no cause to worry about anything.  We can have total confidence in HIm.  I will write more about the Little Way in the future.  

My third recommendation is this: Be careful with electronics.  Your smart phone, television, and video games are dangerous.  They can easily lead you astray.  Disconnect your cable.  Never play violent or sexual video games.  Put your smartphone down from time to time, and as this is Lent, perhaps a modern day fast is to fast from your phone at least for portions of the day.  

Just these three things can change us.  I believe it, but we must be diligent, not naive.  It might be popular among conservatives to say we need to put God back into school, but I don’t think that will change anything.  God needs to be lived and if He was truly lived at home and in the culture at large, I do not believe we would be experiencing this level of violence in our culture.  If you agree, please share this post.  Perhaps we can start something, but it will take more than me, it will take more than you.  We must work together and work hard.  Pray hard.  We start by changing our own lives.

Please pray on these things.  More later.

Peace always. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Spiritual Disciplines, Part VII, Do Not Judge

Today we come to step six in the spiritual disciplines outlined by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and it’s a biggy: Do not judge.

In Matthew 7:1 we read, “Judge not, that you be not judged.”

We all miss the mark on this one, don’t we?  Or even, how much of the day have I just totally ignored this command?  It seems that even while I am at peace and all recollected, I am susceptible to judging others.  If I don’t judge people I know, people who have hurt me, it seems I can effortlessly move on to the condemnation of politicians, groups of people in other faiths or religions, or it might be rich people, poor people, and just about any kind of people.  I can even think judgmental thoughts about dogs and cats.  How on earth do we make progress in this area?  

If you have not listened to Fr. Evan’s comments about this, I would encourage you to do so now.  Otherwise, here is a brief recap of his comments, drawn from the Fathers and the saints.

First, let us begin with the attitude that this is not an “all or nothing.”  This is a big piece of Christian morality, but we have to bite it off in smaller pieces and work on them little by little.

First, remembering past wrongs.  Get rid of grudges and the lists of wrongs that others have done to you.  We like to talk about them, don’t we?  We like the sympathy.  We like it when others feel sorry for us.  Well, stop it.  (I need to say that to myself about once per month.)  We love to expose the sin of others, but we need to stop that too.  If we want to do good, confront the other person directly and tell them that they hurt you.  If they do not repent, gather two or three witnesses and go to that person again.  If he still does not repent, go to the Church.  These are the instructions of Jesus in Matthew 18:15-20.  If we do not wish to follow the Lord in this, then I think it is incumbent upon us merely take the problem to prayer.  Pray for the person and let the Lord work on him or her.  The results can often amaze us.  At the same time that we are praying, we must do our best to stop talking about the person in a bad light and also watch our thoughts.  When we notice an anger or bitterness welling up inside, we must turn to prayer.  Maybe an Our Father or a Hail Mary or a few Jesus prayers.  The focus must be on a request for mercy for the person you are angry at and also mercy for yourself, for you are a sinner too and have offended many.  We must adopt the attitude of St. Paul who thought of himself as the worst of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15).

Get rid of the “victim mentality” that is so pervasive in our culture.  Suffering is part of life and the sooner we come to peace with that thought the better!  The Christian life is about suffering and uniting our suffering to that of our Lord.  Today, we seem to think that Christianity is all about healing and getting cool stuff from God, but we forget that the sign of our salvation is the cross and each of us has to bend over and pick ours up and carry it all the way to Calvary.  Certainly the Cross of Christ opened the door to salvation for us, but it is in the carrying of our cross where we punch our ticket.  The New Testament has many, many verses about suffering and trials that we must endure on our way into the Kingdom.  St. Peter and St. James speak much about suffering in their letters.  The Gospel of Mark is much about the spirituality of suffering.  There is no way around it.  Acts 14:22 adds, “...through many tribulations we must enter the Kingdom of God.”  So add this to the list: bear with some of those things that others do to us.  Surely they hurt.  Turn that bitterness and anger towards mercy.  Make that suffering you feel a cross that you can carry for the other person.  Jesus carried the cross for everyone of us, for all of humanity.  Perhaps He is asking you to carry a cross for your son, or your spouse, or one of your co-workers.  Not as big as the cross Jesus carried, but difficult enough, isn’t it?  To carry this cross you will need the other five disciplines of being humble while you pray, fast, give alms, and trust God in your pain.  Yes, let us call it what it is and it is painful.  You might be completely wrong in your anger and bitterness.  While carrying your cross you just might come to seeing or understanding.

Second, work conquering the outward signs of your anger and animosity.  Ask yourself these questions:

Do I dislike certain people (individuals or groups)?
Am I angry with a specific person now?
Do I yell and shout?
Do I call people names like idiot, dummy, jerk etc?
Am I hard to get along with?  
Am I sarcastic?
Do I need things “just right” or am I hard to please?
Are others always wrong?

This is not a long list, per se, but it is a difficult one.  You know, we want to justify ourselves.  We want others to like us and so we protect our reputation.  “It wasn’t my fault!”  And so if there was some wrong doing, we tend to put a lot of it on others.  We need to try to get to the point where we rarely, if ever, need to blame anyone for our problems.  We need to just be able to work them out.

I wonder if part of our problem to begin with (when we blame or hold grudges) comes from a lack of trust in the Lord?  We trust in ourselves and live our lives as if everything depends on me.  I have gotten angry or depressed because I didn’t get a job or didn’t feel like there was any hope that life would get better.  At these times I would look for others to blame.  I could even get bitter!  Well, maybe I just need to seek God’s will and guidance.  Maybe God’s will, or my lack of following it, has something to do with why I am where I am, or why my problems are my problems.  

One final thought.  I have been praying to St. Therese a lot these days.  I have been studying her “Little Way.”  There is a man, Brother Joseph Schmidt, who has some nice teachings on the Little Way on Youtube that you would profit from.  I have.  I have picked up a number of things from his interpretation of the LIttle Way.  A couple of points:

Our love must not be violent.  We must not put ourselves down, or others.  This is a violence.  

We must come to truly love ourselves before we can come to truly love another.  A large part of this is acceptance.  We must accept who we are and what is happening in our lives as a gift from God.  

Here is the link to part one.

One more insight from “Letters to Spiritual Children,” by Abbott Nikon who was a monk in Russia under communism.  He suffered greatly and had to bear a prison camp for a number of years, finally being released during World War II.  He died around 1960.  Here is just one little nugget for us to ponder:

In one letter, he spoke about how suffering is the only path to salvation that is open to us.  That we must be patient in our sufferings and accept it as coming from Jesus Himself.  The Lord HImself is teaching us in our suffering.  

Acceptance.  Saying “Yes.”  Cultivating a heart that is soft enough to see Jesus even in our suffering and allow Him to teach us there.  Oh yes.  I think these things go a long way to teaching us not to judge.  We must abide in a place where it is so easy to judge another, especially when they are the ones who may be causing us to suffer.  Well, we must learn to love them right there, in that place and in that moment.  We must learn to not react with violence.  We must learn that yes, we can have emotions, because they can come and go.  We can control them.  But it is not good if our emotions control us.  Then we fall into violence and judgment of others, even ourselves.  This is not the spiritual path that leads to God, freedom, and joy.  Let it all go.  Fall into the loving arms of God.  

Peace be with you.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Spiritual Disciplines VI: Trusting God

All the spiritual disciplines are interrelated to each other.  I cannot say that I am going to pray but not fast.  I cannot say that I will be charitable but not merciful or trust in God.  I cannot say that I am saved but I am very judgmental.  The disciplines go together and grow together as we grow.  Our prayer life deepens as we learn to fast, trust God, and become less and less judgmental.  

Last time I had an article about fasting.  Lent is nearly here so please do your best to fast.  It will deepen your spiritual life because everything is connected!  In specific, and this list is not a complete list, but as Fr. Evan Armatas points out, here are some things that fasting will do within us:

quiets us
brings intimacy with God

These are just a few.  I would add that as we grow in all the disciplines, the same thing will happen with each.  But we cannot say I will do number 1, 2, 3, and 4 and the rest we are not going to bother with.  No, that is not a complete spiritual life.  That will not bring us to intimacy with God.  Some counter this by telling me that I am being legalistic.  Far from it!  If I want to be a concert pianist I probably need to play 5,000 to 10,000 hours on the piano before I am even in the ballpark for applying for a position in an orchestra.  Is this a legalistic requirement or is it practicing how to play the piano well?  The same is true in the spiritual life.  People argue with me that it is all free.  God just pours it in your lap, but I would counter that it is not that simple.  Oh, He might on occasion do this for someone, but most of us need to work at it.  We learn how to pray by praying, we learn how to fast by fasting, we learn things like humility by doing all these disciplines over time, growing little by little.  And little by little our intimacy with the Lord grows.

Today’s topic is to trust God in everything.  The first four disciplines must lay a pretty good foundation because how do we come to trust a person?  It takes time!  It takes surrender, vulnerability, a willingness to expose yourself to being hurt by the other, and it also takes some time being together as well.  

The normal American pretty much trusts in himself and the things we have stored up such as the money in our bank accounts, retirement accounts, and our stock portfolio.  We are building a home here as if we are going to spend eternity here!  And this is part of our problem in trusting the Lord.  We are attached to this world.  We place too much value on things like our reputation, how we look, how our things look, and how much power or money we have.  Even our churches seem to follow the path of riches and there seems to be a spirit of building fancy churches, paving parking lots, and really making things look wonderful.  And many are.  I do not have a problem with beauty.  Beauty is Godly and is important.  But I fear that our priorities can become mixed up.  We get distracted by things that do not matter.

An example is the church I attended in a small town I lived in for nearly many years.  We had the largest congregation in town.  As the years went by and the people got older, and the congregation got smaller, a movement was started to build a parking lot.  Over the next 10-12 years we purchased two homes on nearby lots, tore down the houses, and paved the lots.  Now, with the smaller number of people, they have two nice parking lots that are half full for the typical Sunday Mass.  My argument while I was there is what are we doing for the poor or those who might need something extra?  I had no problem with parking lots, really!  But if we had money to buy and demolish two homes, could we not afford to buy a house and give someone cheap rent or use it in some manner for those less fortunate?  Or what about some money spent on a parish retreat of some kind to deepen our spirituality or love for the Lord?  It seemed that the only “spiritual” thing we spent money on was religion classes for youth.  After confirmation, well, confirmation was “graduation” and no more had to be done it seems.  

Well, money was saved, a lot of money by the way, hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend on projects to improve the church building.  I am not against the church saving money!  But we have to be honest about what is going on here.  Perhaps 90% of the effort and the resources were spent on the building.  Bible studies and prayer groups attracted six or seven souls out of 350 families, and then they would disband after a few months.  Special collections for missions would garner $200-300 on a weekend collection, but also you must note that the people, by and large, had nice cars to drive, most lived in very nice homes, and surely there were a few people like me who struggled, but not so many.  The average Sunday collection was about $1500.  This is less than $5 per family!  Not much of a commitment, is it?

While I worked for the church, my priest was always after me to buy a new car.  Mine was functional, but it had over 200,000 miles on it, and it certainly had seen better days, and not just on the engine, the body too.  It was rusty.  It was an eyesore.  When I finally did buy a different car when my old one died, his attitude was more of relief.  Then it dawned on me: he wasn’t concerned about me.  He did not want a respected employee of the church to be driving a tattered and worn car not to mention having it sit in “his” parking lot!  

Sometimes the things we are enslaved to disguise themselves very, very well.  This priest was deathly afraid of poverty.  He grew up poor and worked on a farm but had done well for himself.  He had a lot of money.  He was given much over the years by different parishioners in their wills.  But he also did not appreciate poor people in general.  Poverty, to him, meant alienation from God.  Poverty was a kind of punishment or at least a sign that you are not doing something right. Of course, on the other hand, my wages at the church were barely at minimum wage.  Every year, the staff would go before the parish council and the pastor for an increase, and my goodness, the howls were audible across the street!  A 25 cent raise for the staff was akin to sin, and what if we couldn’t pay the heat bill because of “all this extra money spent on staff?”  (Most of the parish council members were affluent, with incomes at or over $100,000 per year.  I can think of more than a couple who were millionaires and could have easily funded the church by themselves for an entire year if it were truly necessary.)  If I recall correctly, the average wage of the staff was about $8.50 per hour.  

Here is my ultimate point: What is important?  We need to look at our life.  What is the most important thing, or things?  Are we struggling to make our way in the world or are we striving for the kingdom?

“Unfaithful creatures!  Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?”  James 4:4.

Living in a capitalistic and very materialistic nation, it is difficult for us to separate what is spiritual or the Kingdom and what is earthly and perhaps not as important.  

So, as I come to the end of this article, here are some thoughts about trusting God with everything, or everything that really matters.

1. Most people trust themselves and not God.  We trust in what we have saved up.  We trust our money, our intelligence, our friends, or maybe the government, but most people do not rely on God very much.

2. We will not grow up to trust God unless we apply the first four disciplines.  Things do not just happen for no reason.  We must be purposeful.  Trusting God is a big thing, a major development in life.  It takes time.  It takes prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and humility.

3. As you grow in your trust in God, you will become more and more filled with peace, even to the peace that is beyond understanding, Philippians 4:7.

4. Enslavements, addictions, our disordered passions keep us from the Kingdom.  We must disentangle ourselves from the world.  It is like Jesus when He says we cannot serve both God and mammon, Matthew 6:24.  We have to choose one.  It is one or the other.  You can’t put energy into building your financial empire AND claim to be a Christian, a disciple.  Don’t get me wrong, we need money in this society to live.  We need houses to live in and cars to get to work.  The ultimate point is, “Where do you abide?”  Do you NEED that new Cadillac?  Are you embarrassed to drive an “old beater?”  What are you embarrassed by?  Some time spent, over time, in prayer with this topic can be very revealing of who we are and lead to number 5 below.  

5.  Guard your hearts!  What are your desires?  Engage in battle against those that are contrary to the Gospel!  Battle against your sin!  Many think that Christians somehow are supposed to be moral people and not sin.  And yes, we claim to have a morality to be sure, but we must be honest with our struggles.  We DO sin.  We ARE human.  And we repent of our sin.  We must do this and battle against sin, or we end up giving into it and then there is no growth, no power.  Lent is upon us.  Use this time to battle against one of your sins, your tendencies, or one of those desires that is contrary to the teachings of Jesus.  We can be sure of His help!  Remember, it is not our sin that will condemn us to hell,it is our lack of repentance!  We blind ourselves to the truth of ourselves all the time.  Open the eyes of your soul to see yourself as you are.  This is a terrible, terrible journey into the unconditional love of God.  He loves us not because we are perfect but because He is perfect.  

6.  All this must happen daily and include normal, daily things.  Accept everything as being from the hand of God, all the good in your life (His blessing) and all the bad things in life (as His correction or teaching or His calling you forth to make you strong).

Do these things and you will live, you will grow and you just might become an oasis of peace in a world which seems to hardly understand the concept at all.  

And so, may the peace of the Lord be with you now and always.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Spiritual Disciplines V: Fasting

Let us continue now with the fourth discipline: fasting.  This one is always the crowd favorite!  Who
enjoys fasting?  Oh, the thought and idea are wonderful.  Not many people will say that fasting is bad.  Yet, I do not run into many people who actually to fast on a regular basis.  Many people, many good Protestant people, tell me that because we are in the New Covenant, Jesus is with us so we do not have to fast.  And if we decide to fast from time to time, it is up to the individual believer and not something for the church to dictate to us, because then it becomes legalism and is not of the spirit.

Well, why do we fast?

In fasting from food we must make the connection to the spiritual life.  Most of us don’t do this.  We fast when the doctor tells us not to eat before having some blood work or some other procedure. Many people say that certain fasts help cleanse our bodies of toxins or impurities so that we can be more healthy.  Here, the focus is on our bodies and we see that it is good.

The fast that the Church encourages us to participate in is for our spiritual health.  How can this be?  How can altering what and how much we eat change or improve our spiritual health?

First, I think that living in America, most of us have adopted an Evangelical Protestant mindset.  I do not mean any disrespect, but the common mindset is the spirit is good and the body is bad.  The spirit is godly.  The body is sinful.  This is perhaps an oversimplification, and not all Evangelicals would believe this, but generally speaking, this teaching is pretty common and has invaded the outlook of most of us.  I would also add, it is false.

According to the Scriptures and the Church Fathers, we are mind (or soul, literally “nous”, body, and spirit, 1 Thessalonians 5:23.  We are “embodied souls.”  The body and soul, or the physical and the spiritual, go together as one unit.  When we separate them and call one bad, then we become Platonic, humanistic, even pagan, but not Christian.  Ancient Christians came up with the novel idea that the body, and all of creation, are good.  They arrived at this conclusion because this is what the Scriptures say!  When we die, we are not liberated from our “evil flesh” as many say today in our culture.  The early Christians made creedal statements about the resurrection of the dead and the resurrection of the body.  We will be united with our bodies in eternity.  Humans are a unique.  We have spirits like the angels and bodies like the animals.  We are the physical and spiritual in one creature.  In our bodies is written a truth of the cosmos and of God: spirit and matter (or the physical) are one.  

We can also look at two events in salvation history to verify if fasting makes a difference spiritually.  First, look at Adam and Eve.  What did God tell them?  His first command was, “Do not eat….”  What happened?  They ate.  And now we are, all of us, saddled with the burden of sin.  Adam and Eve were given a command to fast and they disobeyed.  

How was this first disobedience remedied?  Jesus came and after His baptism, He went into the wilderness for 40 days and he fasted.  Then the devil tempted Him.  In HIs obedience, he undid the disobedience of Adam and destroyed the power of the devil.  But, and it is a big but, we still have a choice to make.  Jesus refused to listen to the devil and went to the Cross to offer us the Kingdom of God.  Our choice is we can listen to the devil and get all the earthly goodies he tempts us with or we can go to the Cross and enter the Kingdom as Jesus did.  You might think of the two paths here, the easy and wide path, and the difficult and narrow way.  Fasting is one of our tools to fight the devil.  First, we learn to fast from food.  Then, we learn to fast from other things like the vices such as anger, greed, lust (not for just sex but for money, power, prestige, and even an abundance of possessions), and pride, just to name a few.  I think of the prosperity gospel.  You know, those churches are attempting to give to the people everything the devil tempted Jesus with.  No fooling.  But other churches are doing the same.  How many Catholic and Orthodox churches are going through the motions of fasting but the people are living lives just like our unbelieving neighbors?  They drive the same kind of cars, live in big, fancy houses, and have so many possessions that they need to rent storage space to keep it all.  What is made out to be evil are illegal immigrants or people on food stamps.  The solutions offered build walls of hate or ignorance.  This is a distraction to the real problem which is the sin that is internal.  We need to fast so we can see, or at least begin to open our eyes to what is happening spiritually around us and within us.  Fasting can be that key!

At this point, I would highly recommend the podcast by Fr. Tom Hopko about the Temptation of Jesus.  Find it here.

What was He tempted to do?  What are we tempted to do?  HInt: it is one and the same thing.  And most of us fall for it.  Many churches do too.  We do, we have.  I have.  Now, listen to the podcast and quit falling for the sham and the lie!  

Back to my question above, why do we fast?  One of the goals of fasting is that you should feel a little hungry.  This hunger within the body speaks to our soul.  The soul, little by little, is to regain its authority over the body, so to speak.  Without this discipline, the body has control over the soul and we end up living a life with the body dictating its needs and we fulfill them.  Fasting helps reverse this.  We want the soul to be in charge.  A second purpose is that while the body is hungering for food, or a particular kind of food like meat, we are reminding ourselves of our hunger for God.  Only God can truly satisfy us.  We will stumble from time to time in our fast and eat that hamburger or whatever we were fasting from.  This stumbling is actually good in a way, because when reflect on what happened, we will notice that our feeling of satisfaction lasted only a few moments.  The feelings of yearning for more meat (or other menu item) will soon return.  Yes, we are fasting from food, but we are really yearning for the Lord.  Fasting shows us how incomplete we are, how weak we are, how needy we are before God.  Even if we are to complete our fast in perfect order, we will notice that something is missing, something about us is incomplete.  Fasting is a teacher, pointing us to the way of enrichment.  

OK, now, how and when do we fast?  Or, what are some guidelines so someone can fast properly?  

First, if you have never fasted before, or have done so only rarely, the first thing that is needed is a regular fast.  Second, you need something simple to start.  So, as you begin, I would refer you to your spiritual father or director.  In absence of you having one, I will give some basic advice.

Being a Traditional, ancient Christian, I see how the Orthodox have kept the ancient ways of fasting, and while the Roman Church still advocates fasting, they have allowed things to slip a bit.  So, my recommendations are going to look a lot like Orthodox teachings.  If you want to see the Orthodox guidelines, check them out here.

So, first the regular.  In Catholicism, Friday is a “penitential day.”  The Church recommends that we do not eat meat.  So, here is your start: don’t eat meat on Fridays.  It is simple and regular.  I’d say, do this for awhile at least, maybe a few months.

Then, perhaps another step is to incorporate Wednesday along with Friday.  This may seem strange to some, but it goes back to the earliest days of Christianity and is mentioned in the Didache (written about the year 100).  We fast on Wednesday to honor the betrayal of the Lord and on Friday to mark His crucifiction.  

Feel free to experiment.  A traditional Catholic fast is to fast on bread and water.  Try it.  Perhaps you may modify this somewhat.  When I do this fast, I make it bread, water, and coffee.  Always the point of fasting is to incorporate hunger into your routine.  The hunger you feel in your body, or the desire for meat or a chocolate malt, is to help you to focus your desire on the Lord, or our need for the Lord.  Another tip that might prove helpful, especially when starting, is fast until the noon meal.  So, basically your fast is to skip breakfast.  Later on, you can move the time forward to afternoon snack or even to supper.  Pretty soon you will be able to fast the entire day.  It is still, and always will be a struggle at times, fasting is never easy, but you will get to the point where you have the experience and know how to get through the periods when you have a strong desire for a piece of meat or cheese.  Yes!  You can do this and part of it is just being patient with yourself as you grow.

The orthodox fast is basically a vegan diet.  Try to incorporate more items from this list.  if you do, do not use substitutes.  If you drink milk and milk would be an item you fast from, don't switch to almond milk and think you are obeying the fast.  You haven’t changed anything really.  You are still getting your milk and cereal.  Remember, we don’t fast from milk, for example, because dairy milk is bad and almond milk is good.  This puts the focus on the item of the fast.  The focus is on the Lord!  If you are fasting from dairy products you can still have the Cheerios, but have them with water or plain.  

This brings up another point of fasting:  perhaps your going without an item will help you to have some solidarity with those who go without all the time.  While you are feeling hungry, think of the millions of people who will go without food today because there is not food to eat or because they have no money to buy food.  Offer a prayer for them at that moment!  Then, you can ask, “What am I going to do about it?”  You know, we have a share in all the evil in the world.  I didn’t cause all the hungry people in the world to go without food today, but by my lifestyle, I must come to the realization that I am either part of the problem or part of the solution.  I hope we can all come to the point of repentance and resolve to become part of the solution.  Do it with a regular gift of money, prayer, a change of lifestyle, or invite someone who struggles into your home for supper once and a while.  

And so you see, fasting is much more than an individualistic endeavor of going without a food item for a day.  We are all in this together.  This article merely scratches the surface.  My hope is that as you grow in your fasting, you will discover the other benefits on your own, and believe me, there are many.  Persevere.  Don’t experience failure and quit.  Your failures are part of the battle and your ultimate victory!  This is a spiritual battle that will help usher in the Kingdom of God.  May your fast help you become a more faithful and peaceful person.  May it aid in the growth of virtue as you do battle with your vices.  May it help you enter the Kingdom more fully and to be an example to those around you.  Let us always have our neighbor in mind as we do our spiritual labors.

So, peace be with you.  I will offer you up in my prayers and my fasts.  May it be will with you.  God bless you.