Monday, December 28, 2009

New Year Thoughts

In 1993 Bill Murray starred in Ground Hog Day, a movie about a completely selfish weather broadcaster who spends a year trapped in the same day—Ground Hog Day. After repeating the same day several times, Phil (Murray) figures out that he can use the new knowledge he learns each day (names, personal information, and predictable actions) to manipulate people in the small town where Phil is trapped in order to indulge his selfish lusts. However, not everyone can be corrupted. After several weeks of repeated days spent gathering information in an attempt to deceive and seduce his beautiful and innocent weather show producer, Rita, and each evening ending with a cold slap in the face, Phil begins to look at his life more seriously. In the end, he learns that the only happiness in life is found in loving and giving to others. By repeating the same day over and over again, Phil finally learns the lesson that Jesus and even the Old Testament Law teaches: in loving our neighbor, we love ourselves.
When you think about it, Phil’s story is not very much different from everyone’s story. We are all trapped in a series of days. Although each day is not the same day, each day is pretty much the same. Each day begins by waking up, each day ends by falling asleep. We eat, we go to work, we talk to the same people almost every day. Cycles repeat. Summer, autumn, winter, spring; Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday…. As long as we are alive, we are all pretty much like Phil trapped in Ground Hog Day. We learn something new almost every day (about people, about things, about ourselves), but the question for us is the same as it is for Phil in the movie: “Are we learning our lesson?”
As we begin a new year and a new decade it is time to examine ourselves. Are we going to take what we have learned from the past and use it for our selfish advantage, or are we going to use what we have, what we know, and what we have gained to bless and encourage others? Are we going to learn from experience, repeated so many times in our past, that selfish desires lead us to frustration and we end up hurting the ones we love most? Now is a good time to change; and if you don’t think you can change on your own, now is a good time to get help to change. One thing is certain—and life experience has taught us this—if we continue to walk down that same dead end we have walked down so many times before, we will only end up with the same regrets and frustrations.
Christianity is the faith of new beginnings. Like Phil in Ground Hog Day, every day is a new chance, a chance to try again. Yesterday’s failures are nothing but lessons learnt, if I want to learn the lesson, if I am willing to grow and change. The Church has a name for this daily growth and change. It is called repentance. When we begin our days with morning prayers, we ask God for the strength to live the new day free from the sins and mistakes of the past. We ask God to help us live that day without sin—and we always live just one day at a time. For Christians, the dawning of a new day or the ringing in of a new year is another opportunity, as it says in the Liturgy, to commit ourselves, each other and our whole lives to Christ our God.

Wealth and Poverty

“I am poor and needy, O Lord, come to my aid,” says the Prophet and King David.

There is a kind of wealth that makes you arrogant and independent even if you do not have a cent. And there is a poverty that takes no notice of visible signs of wealth, for it sees them as only transient: tools to be used, responsibilities to be managed, tokens of the greater judgment that will fall on those who have received more. King David continually refers to himself as the poor and needy one. His visible wealth and power did not often blur his inner vision. David never forgot that he was the youngest son, who was not even counted worthy to be called in from the sheep-field when the famous Prophet Samuel paid the family a visit: David, the son who did the work of a hired servant, who was ready to confront the lion and the bear to protect his father’s sheep—considering his own life to be of little value when compared to his father’s flock. David, who would not stretch out his had to strike the Lord’s Anointed, even thought the insane King Saul was hunting him like an animal. David, who would not drink the water from the well of Bethlehem gotten for him at the risk of his men’s lives, but he poured it out to the Lord. This David remembered who he was and who God is, for he knew his poverty and only twice did he forget it.

The first time David forgets his poverty (2 Kingdoms [Samuel] 11) is after he had been established as king of Judah and Israel, after a particularly stunning victory over the then world power of Syria. The following spring, “at the time when kings go out to battle,” King David sent out Joab and his guards and all Israel to finish up the military campaign that was interrupted last year when the Syrians became involved. David stayed home. Perhaps he felt he was too important to go out to battle, now that the great army of the Syrians had been defeated. Maybe he felt that he deserved a rest. Maybe he just had other things to do—whatever his reason, at the time when kings go out to battle, King David stayed home. And staying home, David was bored, and being bored he gazed at a woman bathing, and then David, who once was willing to give his life to save his father’s flock, steals the one beloved lamb of Uriah, a low ranking commander in his army. To hide his sin, David uses his power, the power that God had given him to do good, David uses that same power to kill a faithful servant, a man better than he, a loyal man who willingly dies in the service of the Lord’s anointed.

The second time David forgets his poverty is when “Satan stood up against Israel, and moved David to number Israel” (1 Chronicles 21). For David to count his men, like a rich man counting his gold coins, was a sin because there was no need: it had no purpose except to allow David to revel in his power. David forgot, for a moment, that the kingdom is the Lord’s, that military might came from God’s favor, not the strength of his arm—as David himself had said in his Psalms. Even Joab, a man not known for virtue or spiritual insight, warns David that this would be a sin, yet David’s authority as king prevailed—authority given to him for good not for evil, not so that he could revel in self-satisfied contentment.

David, who usually sees himself as the poor and needy one, for a moment takes his eyes off his heart, where the shepherd boy still sang hymns to the God of the earth and the sky. The shepherd boy who now shepherds God’s rational sheep lifted his eyes from his heart and began to pay too much attention to the trappings around him. He forgot who he was and who God is and fell into sins that, because of his position, brought suffering and death to the very rational sheep he was given to shepherd. David’s sin with Bathsheba resulted in civil war and the death of four of his sons. The counting of Israel brought plague that wiped out thousands. Truly to those to whom more is given, more is required. When a very poor man sins, few others suffer but himself. When a powerful man sins, thousands may die.

When I read the words of David in the Psalms, I remember his life. I remember the importance of poverty, poverty of spirit. To be poor and needy has to do with a broken and contrite heart—not the house you live in or what you eat for dinner or what car you drive (or not). The poor man is the man who calls out to God night and day, who is small and despised in his own eyes, who has no sense of importance—but may have a strong sense of obligation and responsibility, responsibility for the things God has given him to manage and for the people God has given him to love. May God grant such poverty of spirit to us that regardless of our trappings, regardless of size of our wallet or our position in church or society, that regardless of what we do or do not have, we will be God’s poor and needy ones. For the strength of man is vain (empty) but those who fear the Lord will not be deprived of any good thing.

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Note to a Young Christian on Responsibility in Relationships

Now, I want to explain something to you. My goal is to help you become a good son/brother/friend without slipping into patterns of thought and response that do not help you or those you love. For the sake of your own psychological heath, it is probably a good idea not to be too concerned about how you feel about your mother (brother or friend) and what she does or doesn’t do, says or doesn’t say. She will not change (at least not due to your influence). Let me explain.

God is already at work with your Mum as much as your Mum will allow it. It is easy for children, friends or siblings, especially those with an over developed rescue reflex, to feel responsible—even when they tell themselves that they are not—to help make mother, friend, brother a better, or at least a less damaged, person. This is a trap. Motivated by feelings of guilt or responsibility, one ends up merely reinforcing their negative behavior and responses. Why? Because, at the heart of the problem, is your problem: pride. “Where’s the pride?” you may ask.

When we see the terrible suffering of those we love (and the suffering they inflict on others), it is hard for us to believe that God really cares, really is involved, really is doing all that is possible to help that person. It is hard for everyone to believe this, not just you. The martyrs are saints for the very reason that they trusted God when all outward circumstances indicated that God didn’t care. In the case of family/friendship dynamics, we also sometimes wonder where God is; and in our anxiety it is easy to adopt a role, to cast ourselves as a necessary person (maybe even the necessary person) in the salvation of another. This is where pride comes in.

Of course we are to pity our loved ones and be kind and generous (time, money, emotional support), but there is an important line in our hearts that we must not cross, or else the very Grace that is inherent in our loving actions is not only evaporated, but the “loving action” itself becomes merely an act in an ongoing play directed by past habit, our own hidden insecurities, and probably even a demon or two. And what is this line? It is the line of thinking that we and our actions will somehow change or influence this person. Such thinking comes from pride and leads only to frustration and unhealthy forms of co-dependency. God, and God only, can influence change in others, only God knows how to do it (that is, what will work best for this person), and (here’s the tough one) God is already doing and has already done all that is possible to influence this person toward salvation. If God uses us at all, it will be without our knowing it. Our acts of love and kindness are offered out of, well, love and kindness, not out of a hidden desire to change someone. Mother, friend or brother are who they are. You cannot change them. If you feel pity, frustration, responsibility, fear, hope, sadness, in your relationship with them, don’t take it too seriously. It doesn’t mean anything. When we feel strongly (whatever that feeling is) about someone, we offer that feeling to God—the only One who can do anything about it.

“Yes,” you may say, “but don’t we work together with God?” Yes we do, but what is our “work”? Our work is to become like the Mother of God, to offer ourselves, one another and our whole lives to Christ our God in prayer; and then to love, to be joyful, to be kind, to be generous, to be faithful, to be patient, to be good, and above all, to be at peace. This is our work. You might say, “That sounds artificial—if I really care about someone, I will try my best to really help him/her.” And I respond: “Watch out for pride!” Who can “really” help your mother/friend/brother? Who loves them much, much more than you ever can? Who really has the knowledge and ability to provide them with the help that they really need, not just what they seem to need? You know the answer.

In truth, once we have completely entrusted our loved ones to God in prayer, or are continually doing so, our actions may not change much, the difference will be in our hearts. In fact, letting go of a false sense of responsibility and guilt, you will be more full of Grace, less driven by impulse, and in the end may actually do or say something that God uses to turn around someone you love—but you won’t realize it, at least not until long afterward. At the time, you will just be offering them to God in your heart and being kind and patient and peaceful: just being a Christian.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

More on Fénelon

I’ve been reading the works of François Fénelon, a French archbishop and spiritual writer whose life straddled the 17th and 18th centuries. Although his spiritual writings were condemned by the western church, they have been widely and profitably read by both western and eastern (Orthodox) Christians even to today. In fact, I have been told, the prayer in most Orthodox prayer books that is attributed to St. Philaret of Moscow and is sometimes referred to as “the morning prayer of the Optina Elders” (“Grant me to greet the coming day in peace…”) was originally written by Fénelon and translated into Russian.

His work is full of practical wisdom and spiritual insight. An example of his practical wisdom is found in one of his letters entitled, “Bearing the Bad Opinions of the World.” In this letter he deals with the worlds seeming glee at the fall someone who had appeared righteous. (One cannot help but think of the latest fallen “angel” and the glee of the media over Tiger Woods’ marriage problems.) Fénelon says, “Let those who wallow in the mire not rejoice because they see one fall who seemed able to stand.” Those who have abandoned all hope of escaping the mire of their passions rejoice because in their minds the weakness of another justifies their continued willing enslavement to passions.

The almost universal excuse used when we find delight in the fall of another is the accusation of hypocrisy. Somehow by labeling others as hypocrites, we feel justified in enjoying their fall. But who is not a hypocrite? I know no one whose ideals are so low that they constantly live up to them. Some say, “At least I don’t claim to be perfect.” “Very good,” I respond. “But if you had bothered to ask those whose fall so delights you now if they thought they were perfect—even before their fall—they would have denied perfection also.” We are all hypocrites in one way or another. We all fail to live up even to our own standards, yet we have “good reasons” why our own failures are excusable while others’ are not. Integrity has nothing to do with our ability or inability to live up to our ideals. Rather, integrity is a matter of intentionality, on the one hand, and willingness to recognize one’s own fall as a fall, on the other hand. The real hypocrite (in the sense that Jesus uses the term) is not the one who intends to do well yet falls, but the one who intends to fall without getting caught—even by his own conscience. The real hypocrite is the one who pays attention to appearances, indulging the passions as much as possible secretly while intentionally maintaining a false appearance to others (well, only to the others whose opinion matter). The real hypocrite is the one who when caught justifies him or herself arguing that what may appear to be sin is not really sin in this particular case.

With so much false goodness in the world, it is easy to see why many despair to find genuine goodness anywhere. To return to Fénelon, “people are deceived by [hypocrisy] only through their lack of discernment or [lack] of experience in real virtue. People who do not understand diamonds, or who do not examine them closely, may take false stones to be real. But all the same there are such things as real diamonds, and it is possible to distinguish them.” As we practice integrity, not perfection, we develop the intuition to discern the real from the false, what is really hypocritical in ourselves from what is merely weakness, in spite of good intentions.

Another useful bit of practical advice from Fénelon is the following: “Despair of yourself as much as you please, but not of God.” That is, when confronted by something that seems impossible, we should “imitate the blessed Virgin, who, when what seemed completely impossible was set before her, answered unhesitatingly, ‘May it be to me according to your word.’” My weakness does not limit God’s strength; my inability does not limit God’s ability. I am free to acknowledge my weakness so long as I remember that God uses the weak to confound the strong, the foolish to confound the wise.

However, there are passages in Fénelon’s letters that are tainted by western theological suppositions and rational limitations that Orthodox Christians will find merely odd in some cases and in others almost heretical. For example, Fénelon quotes St. Augustine as saying, “Whatever we love outside God, so much the less do we love Him.” Fénelon goes on to explain that love is like a brook that if divided into steams “takes away that which belongs to God.” In his next letter, “The Danger of Compromise,” he extrapolates on the theme of undivided love for God based on the Great Commandment to love God with all one’s heart, soul, strength and mind. Again, his point is that to love others is to compromise one’s love for God. Orthodox Christians, however, generally see love very differently.

Love is not a zero sum game. Love is not finite, as though I have only so many “love coupons,” and to spend too much love on one person (a son, a husband, a mother) is to have fewer love coupons to spend on God. Fénelon forgets that Jesus says that the second commandment is “like unto” the first. To love ones neighbor a species of love for God because my neighbor is in God’s image. Similarly, St. Isaac the Syrian most famously points out that mature love for God is to love all of the creation so much that one cannot bear even to see lizards suffer. I think St. Augustine could be interpreted in such a way as to agree with St. Isaac, for I would argue that all love is within God, even if we are not always conscious of God’s presence. But Fénelon does not interpret St. Augustine so generously. Trapped in western rationalism, Fénelon can only read “either/or” in St. Augustine’s maxim.

Fénelon has been a blessing for me to read; I have been inspired by his insight that evidently comes from a deep mystical relationship with Christ. Nonetheless, I cannot generally recommend him. While many of his insights are wise and some even amazing, there is also a good deal of early Enlightenment rationalism applied to spirituality. It’s like pebbles mixed in with some very good beans. If you’re not very careful, you could crack a tooth on him.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Reading Messianic Prophecy (As a Christian)

As we draw near to Christmas, I find joy in rereading the prophets: “’Rejoice and be glad, O daughter of Zion, for behold, I am coming to you and I will dwell in your midst,’ says the Lord. ‘And in that day many nations shall flee to the Lord for refuge, and they will be His people, and they will dwell in your midst, and you shall know the Lord Almighty has sent Me to you’” (Zech 2:14,15 LXX [2: 10,11 Heb]). This promise of the coming of the Messiah in the flesh is set in the context of the promise of the return of the Jewish exiles from Babylon, and so we have both a literal reading of the text—the promise of the return of a remnant of God’s people from the physical land of Babylon to the physical city of Jerusalem—a promise fulfilled in the sixth century before Christ. However, there is also a messianic reading of the text. This is the reading of the New Testament writers, the reading of the Church.

In the Church’s reading of this text, Zion is no longer an earthly city, but the Jerusalem from above. It is an eschatological reality realized in the Church, in which we are built together as living stones to form the city in which God dwells. Many misguided Christians read this and similar messianic texts as though Christ’s coming hadn’t changed everything. They read these texts as though the coming of the Messiah, the entry of the “nations” into the “Daughter of Zion” and the establishment of the New Covenant through the trampling down of death by death had not made everything new, as though God has somehow made everything new for the entire creation—except for those who reject the Messiah, yet still call themselves Jews: for these there is still the option of the old.

The Church has taught from the beginning, indeed a great deal of the New Testament deals with this issue, that there is only one Israel, one people of God. Even in the literal reading of the Old Testament, the Israel of God is continually winnowed to leave only a remnant. Abraham has two sons, one by a slave woman, according to the flesh, and one by his wife, according to the promise. Both are sons of Abraham, but from only one comes Israel (Jacob). Jacob has twelve sons, the “sons of Israel,” the children of the promise to Abraham, who go on to become a great nation and to inherit the physical land promised to Abraham. But even here, ten of the twelve tribes are lost, and the promise from Zechariah (quoted above) doesn’t even make mention of them. By the sixth century before Christ, “Israel” no longer exists except as an idea, and the promise of restoration is given to the Jews (literally, the inhabitants of Judea, those few descendents of Jacob who remained faithful to the temple worship in Jerusalem). Certainly, even under the Old Covenant, Israel does not refer to the biological descendents of Abraham, but to those faithful to the God of Abraham.

The Church has taught that those who “receive” the Messiah, those who repent and begin to live the new life in Christ, are given eternal life (the very new life they begin to experience even in this world), and God will raise them up on the last day. Those who do not receive the Messiah, regardless of their ancestry, are condemned by their own choice of darkness rather than light. There is no longer a promise of land for those who believe, the heirs of Abraham according to the promise, but a promise of the kingdom to come, a new heaven and a new earth where all sorrow and sighing will flee away.

Until the fulfillment of this promise, when Christ will come again to judge the living (those who long for his coming) and the dead (those who dread it), the promise of God exists now in the hearts of the children of the promise, in the church, even while the people of God, the church, remain in this corrupt and corrupting world—the world that is passing away. Those in this world without hope in Christ have nothing to cling to but this sin-scarred world. They (and we believers too in as much as we cling to this world) are to be pitied who cling so desperately to prestige and profit and position and property. If some who call themselves Jews and have rejected the Messiah want to have a homeland in the Middle East, God bless them. In obtaining what they want, may they find the One whom their hearts truly desire, the One who is the fulfillment of the promise of which land is only a faint shadow.

Of course to claim property, one inevitably must take it from someone else, and this is the tragedy of the human story: the children of those terribly persecuted in one generation have become persecutors themselves. Through our prayers and physical aid, we who have our hope in heaven must do all we can to assist our suffering brothers and sisters who have lost their earthly homeland so that others might find theirs. At the same time, we must not judge too harshly the children of the Holocaust. Have they not done what all other human beings have done throughout the bloody history of mankind? Those with no hope outside this world fight and kill and steal to hold briefly in their hands an illusion of hope in this world.