Friday, January 28, 2011

Mercy and Grace

Mercy and grace, in as much as we use these words to refer to God, can refer to the same thing.  That is, both mercy and grace--and love and justice and truth and any other word that can rightly be used to refer to God--refer to God as God comes to us.  I am tempted to say that they are attributes or characteristics of God, but that would not be quite right.  God merely is, or more correctly, God exists as Himself beyond even existence.  And yet, God also comes to us and makes Himself known to us.  
God does not change.  God cannot be divided or enumerated by characteristics--as a scientist might a new species.  Most of what we can with any confidence assert about God must be stated apophatically: What God is not.  God is immortal (He does not die), God is immutable (He does not change), God is invisible, etc.  And yet, God comes to us.  The profound mystery of God’s relationship with human beings is that the unknowable God makes himself known, the Invisible reveals Himself.
In this sense, mercy and grace refer to the same thing, in that both words refer to God's coming to us.  They refer to what is experienced or known of God.  They refer to the works or the manifestation or the life, light and energy of God--all words used to talk about how we experience God's coming to us.  And because God’s actions, God’s works, come out of who God is, we can say things like God is merciful (because we experience mercy from God), God is gracious (because we experience grace from God), God is light, God is love, God is just, etc. (because these are what we experience from God).  However, all of these attributes are conditioned by human experience; so they in no way limit, and certainly do not exhaust, who God is.  Words are of very limited use when speaking about God because words have meaning only in our very limited human experiences.  (What does green mean to someone who is blind?  Our experience gives meaning to words.)
And yet, mercy and grace may differ, or refer to slightly different experiences of the God who does not differ, does not change.  I read somewhere once that grace refers to God’s coming to us despite our unworthiness, lowliness and sin; and mercy refers to God’s coming to us because we are suffering and miserable.  Despite and because. When we talk about God’s grace we are emphasizing God’s freedom from obligation and our complete lack of right: God owes us nothing, and we owe God everything.  Grace is God’s coming to us in spite of our debt.  Grace refers to God’s magnanimity,  condescension, and freedom from obligation as he comes to us, comforts us, reveals Himself to us and saves us.
Mercy, in a sense, is a bolder word.  Mercy implies compassion.  Mercy asks God to see our suffering, our pain, our miserable condition;  and mercy asks (here we get very bold) for compassion.  We ask the passionless God to share in our suffering; we ask God to show compassion, to act because he shares our suffering, to have mercy.  How is this possible?  How can the immutable God suffer with us?  How can we be so bold as to ask for such a thing?
Mystery: God became man without ceasing to be God.  Jesus Christ is the Theanthropos, the God-man.  In Christ, God experiences change (without changing), God shares in our suffering (without suffering), God enters our misery (without being miserable).  Like I said, it’s a mystery.  God comes down without leaving heaven, God suffers as a man without ceasing to be the impassable God. 
In Christ, because of Christ, and through Christ we can ask for mercy, we can ask for compassion.  In Christ we have boldness to ask God to come to us not only despite, but also because, because God Himself knows and shares our suffering, because God has compassion.
But this brings us back to the beginning.  In our human experience, despite and because seem to refer to the same thing.  God comes to us despite our sin, and we suffer because of our sin.  Because God suffers with us, He comes to us in our suffering, despite the fact that our suffering is caused by sin.  When we pray the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner,” we are praying for both mercy and grace.  We are asking God to be Himself to us, despite our sin and because of our need.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Who'll Tell Emma The Truth?

I’m reading Jane Austen’s Emma again because of a sentence I read in Elder Porphyrios’ Wounded By Love. In a passage on the dangers of praising children too much, Elder Prophyrios makes the following statement: “You must tell the truth for a person to learn it. Otherwise, you sustain him in his ignorance.” When I read this, I immediately thought of the character Emma Woodhouse.
Emma is a very good-hearted, intelligent, pretty and a generally gifted twenty-one year old spoiled rich kid. Only one person in her life tells her the truth, no one else will. Mr. Knightly, a close family friend and relation by marriage, is ten years her senior, owns the neighboring estate, and is often in the Woodhouse home. He tells her the truth. No one else will, and Emma doesn’t have to listen to Mr. Knightly--even if circumstances and often her own heart tell her that he is usually right.
It’s not as though others do not tell Emma the truth because they want to deceive her. Everyone who surrounds Emma depends on her. They are in various ways much weaker than she. They are too vulnerable. Since her older sister married when Emma was fourteen, she has been the mistress of her dotty father’s estate. Her father’s mental weakness makes him dependent on her. Her governess--in what is perhaps the most serious (even if understandable) failure--becomes her best friend. I certainly do not think Miss Taylor intentionally shirked her responsibility, her responsibility as governess to govern Emma (“govern” comes from the Greek meaning “to steer”). Because Miss Taylor has no financial resources herself, long-term friendship with Emma and/or eventual marriage is her only hope to avoid penury.
Mr. Knightly tells Emma the truth, but what makes Mr. Knightly successful, what makes Emma pay attention to Mr. Knightly and eventually love him is the way he tells the truth.
Truth is a very dangerous commodity. It is like a very sharp knife. You will kill or wound someone with truth more easily than you will cut the cords of ignorance with it. Truth often hurts; sometimes the hurt is necessary. A friend of mine used to say, “The truth will set you free, but it will make you miserable first.” In order for wounds to be healing wounds, they must be both given and received in a context of love and trust. Emma may often disagree with Mr. Knightly, but she never doubts his concern for her and her father.
An example of selfish truth telling is Jane Fairfax’ letter to her aunt. Austen says of the letter that it “contained nothing but truth, though there might be some truths not told.” The irony is that all the truth that can be told leaves some truths not told. Truth does not fit easily into words. Therefore the good intention of the truth-teller is essential. By good intention, I do not mean intention for some abstract good. By good intention I mean love, love for the one to whom the truth is being told. And by love I mean concern for the good, blessing and happiness of the other--even at the cost of my good, blessing or happiness. And I do not mean love of the truth, for if the truth is not personal, then it is merely an abstraction. Impersonal love of truth is mere love of my system or opinion.
I attended a high school retreat last weekend and the main speaker made the following comment about romantic love. He said “I love you” usually means, “I love me and want you.” Until “I love you” means “I love you more than I love myself,” I love you has no meaning. Mr. Knightly can tell Emma the truth and Emma can hear it (eventually) because Mr. Knightly loves Emma more than he loves himself.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Forgiving the Unrepentant, Again and Again

Forgiving, again, and again, and again.  Forgive me if I carry on with this topic forgiveness, even if I get repetitive.  

When I was a kid (about 8), I scraped my knee pretty badly.  I wasn't in a context of close adult supervision, so the wound was never cleaned or bandaged.  The scab was huge.  I couldn't leave it alone.  I kept picking at it until it got infected.  I would squeeze out the puss, a scab would reform, and I would pick at it some more.  It took months for the wound to heal (thank God I didn't get blood poisoning).  Well into adulthood, I had a scar on my knee from that wound.

Forgiveness, in my experience, is much like healing a wound.  If we have good spiritual care and we follow instructions and the wound is not too severe, we can heal (forgive) pretty quickly.  However, if we are left to own devices, if we have bad advice, or don't follow good advice, emotional and spiritual wounds can fester and become gangrenous and eventually kill us.  This is especially true if we keep picking at them: if we keep calling to mind past wrongs and experiencing afresh past pains.

One aspect of forgiveness that causes some confusion--and thus adds to the picking--is the association of forgiveness with punishment.  In a juridical context, sure, forgiveness means not receiving punishment.  However, experiencing consequences is not the same as being punished.  God forgives us our sin, yet we still experience many of the consequences of our sins.  This is an aspect of human freedom.  Freedom wouldn't be real if consequences were not real.  If I chose to go left, but experienced the consequences of the path on the right, then I never had a real choice.  While forgiveness averts punishment, it doesn't change consequence.

God may forgive me for hitting my brother, but the black eye doesn't suddenly go away.  In fact, although my brother too may forgive me, the emotional or mental sickness or instability that originally impelled me to hit my brother still needs to be healed.  Moreover, my brother having completely forgiven me, may still want to stay out of arm's reach for a while--at least until he has reason to believe that I have begun to lean how to control my anger.  This staying out of arm's reach has nothing to do with forgiveness.  Forgiveness was a matter of my brother's heart.  Staying out of the way is a matter of wisdom.  A man who has shown that he has anger control issues should not be treated as though he really doesn't struggle with such issues.  That would be stupidity, what is commonly called codependency. That is not forgiveness.

Sometimes people have a hard time healing emotionally and spiritually because they cannot separate these two matters, forgiveness and consequence.  This confusion is like an infection that poisons emotional wounds.  In order for the wound to heal, forgiveness is necessary. But forgiveness seems impossible, or at best foolish, when it is tied to (A) second chances (third, forth, fifth, sixth, chances) or (B) to trust.  

Forgiveness does NOT mean an automatic second chance.  Forgiveness does not equal trust.  Forgiveness means that I have stopped picking at the wound in my heart.  Forgiveness means that I do not hold your trespass against me, against you.  I forgive you, but I also now know you better and will treat you according to that knowledge--not to punish you, forgiveness lets go of punishment.  I will treat you according to my knowledge of you so that you can heal, so that you are not soon put in a situation where you will be tempted to commit the same trespass again.

This is good for you and safe for me. Forgiveness does not throw wisdom and common sense out the window.  Sins have consequences, and forgiveness does not make those consequences go away.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Forgiving the Unrepentant

Ostensive Lyme asked whether Christians "need to" forgive the unrepentant.  The short answer is yes.  
I can see why someone might say no if we think of sin and forgiveness in mere juridical terms.  However, as Orthodox Christians, this is not how we understand sin and forgiveness.
As Orthodox Christians we think of sin as wounding and alienation--from God, from others and within ourselves. So forgiveness has to do with reconciliation.  Forgiveness has to do with healing.  Just as I pointed out in Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant, forgiveness is not static.  That is, how or whether we receive God’s forgiveness depends a great deal on what we do.  It’s a mystery, not a syllogism.  God forgives unilaterally and completely.  Jesus has already died for the sins of the whole world.  From God’s end (so to speak), all of the sins of all of humanity for all of the ages have already been forgiven.  But that is not the end of the story.  Forgiveness has a life of its own--and anyone who has tried hard to forgive someone who has deeply hurt them knows this by experience.
Somehow the one forgiven interacts with the forgiveness offered.  We might even say that the forgiveness offered must take root and grow and bear fruit in the life of the one forgiven.  If this does not happen, forgiveness is somehow short circuited--in the one forgiven, not necessarily in the one forgiving.  It helps to think of forgiveness as the whole process of healing, not just the initial step, not just a legal absolution or a letting go or forgetting of past wrongs.  In relationships with others, one’s willingness or unwillingness to repent affects the progress of forgiveness, of healing.  However, whether or not someone repents or accepts forgiveness does not necessarily have any effect on another’s ability to forgive.  God forgives completely, even if His forgiveness does not always take root and bear fruit.
Not only does forgiveness interact with the one forgiven, it interacts within the one forgiving.  God is perfect, so only God can forgive perfectly, once and for all.  Human beings are sinful, which means that within ourselves we experience alienation.  Part of us can want to forgive, while another part of us doesn’t, while yet other parts of us remain hidden.  We can forgive on Monday and by Wednesday find surging resentment and anger rising from some hidden place within us.  Forgiveness, for sinful human beings, is a process.
From the perspective of the one forgiving, the repentance or apparent repentance of the other is irrelevant because you have no control over someone else.  In fact, I can’t even know if someone else really is repentant, no matter how penitent they seem.  Only God knows that.  What I do have control over is myself, and like God--and only with God’s help--I can forgive, I can begin to heal, regardless of the other's repentance or lack thereof.

P.S.  It is also possible for one who has committed an offence to experience forgiveness even if someone refuses to forgive him or her.  Forgiveness ultimately comes from God.  So in forgiving, it's important to realize that the resources necessary to forgive are not our own apart from God.   The ability to forgive those who sin agains us comes from receiving the forgiveness that God has first given us, and in turn our forgiving others affects our ability to receive God's forgiveness. It' a mystery; it's a process; and it takes a lifetime. 

Monday, January 10, 2011

Forgive Us Our Trespasses As...

We forgive those who trespass against us, don’t we?  I have been wondering about this as I have discussed the topic of church community life over the past few days with several people with similar frustrations but in different communities.
Fr. Boris Bobrinskoy in his essay, “The Mystery of Forgiveness,” points out that in the Lord’s Prayer, Our Father’s forgiving us is contingent on our forgiving those who trespass against us.  However in most of the other passages in the New Testament relating God’s forgiveness to our forgiving, God forgives first, and we forgive as a consequence.  This is not a contradiction; it is a mystery.  St. Paul says, “...forgiving one another just as in Christ God forgave you” (Eph 4:32).  And “Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Col. 3:13).  And in Romans, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (5:8). 
Similarly, our Lord’s parable of the man who owed his Master 10,000 talents begins with the Master forgiving the servant this huge debt merely because he begged Him.  At the end of the parable, Jesus associates the Master in the parable with “My Heavenly Father,” just in case we don’t get it: Our Heavenly Father first forgives us our great debt.  However, the story is not over.  The experience of forgiveness implies consequences.  The same Grace that forgives also transforms the forgiven one.  But this transformation must be cooperated with.  That is, we must bear the fruit of forgiveness, which is forgiveness.  (What do you get from a pear tree but pears or an apple tree but apples?)
When the servant forgiven of his great debt could not himself bear just a little of the fruit of forgiveness on behalf of his fellow servant who also owned him a debt (a much smaller debt), this stinginess affected his relationship with His Master.  And the remainder of the parable is painful to read:
“Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant!  I forgave you all that debt because you begged me.  Should you not also have compassion on your fellow servant just as I had pity on you?’  And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him.  So My Heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, form his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.”
Notice the Father forgives first.  But then we must also participate in perpetuating that forgiveness; otherwise, somehow we are no longer able to participate in the original forgiveness.  Put another way, God graciously and lovingly gives us opportunities to participate in His Life and Grace by giving us fellow servants of Christ who owe us what they cannot pay.  Our fellow servants of our common Lord owe us love, owe us kindness, consideration, friendship, understanding; and very, very often they cannot pay.  
But this is a set up.  God wants so much for us to share in His Life, in His Grace, in His Forgiveness that he sees to it that we are surrounded by men and women as weak as we are.  I think the experience is called Salvation.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Response to Christopher

(Please first read Christopher's comment on "A Journey To The Ancient Church" in which he comments on some problems in most Orthodox Churches he has been a part of.)

Dear Christopher,
You are right, and I believe Fr. John alludes to this too, there are lots of struggles within the Orthodox Church.  In my own experience, after an almost idillic journey into the Church, after a brief honeymoon period, I experienced the worst church conflict in my life.  The damage of that terrible period is still healing (almost 15 years later).
However, as one convert priest said reflecting on his own struggles, "It's kind of like Noah's Ark.  It's loud, messy, and crowded with creatures I'd rather not hang out with; but it sure beats the death outside.

And a further point I'd like to make.  Community is what you make it.  Over the last year or so I have been corresponding with a young mother whose family moved to a new area of the country where the nearest church is culturally very different from what she is used to.  The church they want to go to is a two hour drive away.  The local church is very uncomfortable for them.  The people seem strange and the priest alienates them.  

What should she do?

Here is what she has done.  After getting over the initial shock, this mother of toddlers decided that this is her church whether she feels welcomed or comfortable or not.  She began attending regularly.  She took the initiative to go up to people who seemed aloof and introduce herself and talk to them--again and again, whether they seemed friendly or not.  She began inviting people over for dinner or for children play dates (and there was at least one real dud).  She began to sing in the choir.  
Guess what’s happening?  Slowly, slowly, she is starting to make friends, to develop community.  She still doesn’t care much for the priest (she drives two hours every now and then for confession).  She still thinks most of the people are strange--although she is starting to meet and develop relationships with some people who not so strange as they first appeared.  

Bottom line: community happens when you make it happen.  

Thursday, January 06, 2011

A Journey to the Ancient Church (part 1 of 4)

I found this four part youtube video and was very blessed watching it. It chronicles one group's journey to Holy Orthodoxy. Although their journey is unique--every journey is unique--it has elements that are similar to my journey and I think the journeys of all who have come to Holy Orthodoxy as adults. I recommend that you share these videos with anyone you know who is inquiring into the ancient Christian faith. After you watch the first part, you will see part 2 of 4, then 3 of 4, etc.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Emma: Gratitude

I am reading Emma again. It is my favorite of the three Jane Austen novels I have read. I started Sense and Sensibility, but was overrun early on by too much femininity. I think I had to break something to recover.
Early on in Emma, Austen describes Captain Weston’s probability of a happy life after his second marriage. His first wife, who died after three years of marriage, was of a higher social and economic sphere: he married up. Although it was not an unhappy first marriage, his wife could not forget what she had given up; and Captain Weston exhausted all of his resources trying to keep his wife near to as comfortable as she wanted to be.
Almost twenty years later, Captain Weston marries Emma’s governess and friend, Miss Taylor, a “delightful and well-judging” woman with nothing to recommend her except herself. This time, Miss Taylor is the one marrying up, and Austen comments that this “must give [Captain Weston] the pleasantest proof of its being a great deal better to chuse than to be chosen, to excite gratitude than to feel it.”
I have been thinking about this line all day. In describing our relationship with God, marital language is common. I wonder if God feels “a great deal better” when He chuses (Austen’s spelling) us and excites gratitude in us? I wonder if my merely feeling grateful makes God happy—or “blesses God,” to use Bible language? Somehow I feel it does.
My heart feels very open when I think of Christ laying aside the power of His divinity to “part the heavens and come down,” to claim His bride lost, confused, and torn.
I wonder if Miss Taylor’s gratitude is a smidgen like mine.

Punishment vs. Discipline

Discipline and punishment are not the same thing.  Discipline is a kind of teaching, it has as its goal the training of the person under discipline.  Punishment is a mater of retribution, it has as its goal the carrying out of a sanction or penalty based on the transgression of a moral, legal or social code.  
Discipline is an essential part of Christian life, punishment is not.  
For the one under discipline, however, it is sometimes hard to tell the difference between discipline and punishment.  In fact, in the ascetic tradition of the Church, sometimes the word “punish” is used as a synonym for “discipline.”  A good example of this is when an ascetic talks about “punishing his body” to bring it under control.  Similarly, St. Paul in Hebrews 12 talks about the “chastising of sons,” which is never pleasant but rather painful.  Such suffering is not punishment for breaking moral, legal or spiritual law; it is discipline “that yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
Nevertheless, it is harder to think in terms of discipline rather than punishment.  To understand suffering and unpleasant consequences in terms of discipline requires discernment.  It requires one to reflect on his or her life, relationship with God, and relationships with others.  Because discipline leads to learning and growth, it requires that one fully engage it--not just endure it.  Punishment, on the other hand, is easy to deal with.  You only need to endure it.
If my sufferings are just punishment, then all I have to do is affix blame. If I am being punished, then I merely identify a rule or principle that has been violated.  I just ride out the suffering, for there is nothing much to learn except not to break that rule again, or at least not to get caught again, or to find a loop hold or obtain an exception.  Punishment does not require much reflection. It requires no growth.  Punishment is fulfilled in forcing conformity to code or law, it has nothing to do with personal growth.
The tendency to think in terms of punishment rather than discipline pervades our psyches much more than we realize.  As a culture, our concepts of equality are based largely on the presumption of equal treatment under the law.  Such thinking trickles into our church and family life.  When someone violates a moral or legal code, we feel something rise in our minds demanding punishment equal to the violation.  While such legalistic thinking may seem to be necessary in certain secular settings, it has no place in the church, and particularly not in a Christian family.
Children are not equal.  The goal of Christian child rearing is not equal conformity to any moral, legal or social code.  The goal of Christian parenting is to train our children to know Christ, to love Christ and to become more and more full of the Grace of the Holy Spirit.  When our children fail to keep moral or other laws, our goal is not to enforce conformity.  Our responsibility is not to punish.  When our children sin (miss the target in their behavior, speech or attitudes), our goal is to help them find repentance.  Our responsibility is to provide the discipline (training) to help our child recognize and overcome temptation.  

Sinful behaviour is a symptom of a deeper wandering from God.  Helping our children find their way back to God is our goal, not the eradication of certain behaviours.
And while discipline is usually unpleasant, its success is measured not in conformity to any code, but in the “peaceable fruit of righteousness.”  We must never forget St. Paul’s words to the Romans, it is “God’s goodness that leads you to repentance” (2:4).  Goodness and discipline together, but mostly goodness:  When the prodigal son returns, he receives only goodness.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Why Is Theophany Important?

The feast of Theophany (also called Epiphany) is the second greatest feast (after Pascha) in the Christian Calendar. Theophany is even more important than Nativity. In fact, Theophany is the fulfillment of the Nativity. At Christ’s birth, his revelation as the God-man begins. However, this revelation begins slowly, quietly (it had actually begun silently nine months earlier at the Annunciation). At Christ’s birth, only a few shepherds know what is going on--and an angel had to reveal it to them: “Go into the town” the angel told the shepherds, “and look for a tightly-wrapped baby lying in a feeding trough.” While Jesus was still an infant but after Joseph and Mary had settled in a house, three Wise Men from the East found them; but no one else did. And then the Holy Family left town and lived in Egypt for many years. The manifestation or coming (literally, the “epiphany”) of the Son of God as the Son of Man did not become fully revealed until thirty years later at the baptism of Christ by His cousin John in the Jordan River.
At His baptism, Christ not only fully identifies with our fallen humanity, but he even takes on our repentance. As St. Paul says, “He who knew no sin, became sin for us…” (2 Cor. 5: 21). Although Christ had no sin to repent of, He received the baptism of repentance on behalf of all human beings. So much did Christ identify with humanity, all humanity, that he took on the consequences of sin--himself being completely free from sin--for the sake of all men and women. In Christ everything is fulfilled on behalf of every human being: “all righteousness” is fulfilled, He says to John before His baptism (Matt. 3:15).
At His baptism, Christ not only identifies with our humanity, but He also reveals His divinity. And more than that, for the first time in all the Scriptures, in all of history, the Holy Trinity is clearly revealed: The voice of the Father speaks of the Beloved and Well Pleasing Son while the Spirit descends in the form of a dove. Never before had the mystery of the One God in Three Persons been revealed so clearly. Here at Christ’s baptism the mystery that began to be revealed at his birth is openly manifest to the universe and before the crowds who had come to be baptized by John: the Son of God is the Son of Man.
At His baptism, Christ not only identifies completely with our humanity, but He also begins the transformation of the entire created world. Instead of the water of the Jordan washing away His sin--for He had no sin--the brilliancy of Christ’s divinity and the power of His sinless Humanity began the reversal of the ancient curse. The demonic forces that hid in the water (which in the Old Testament refer to death) and which manipulated the natural world to terrorize lost humanity, these demonic forces were crushed when Christ entered the water of baptism. No longer would the deep, the abyss, or Sheol hold power over mankind: having been baptized in the water, Christ would walk on the water, Christ would pull the sinking Peter from the water: even the watery depths could no longer control mankind, that is mankind in Christ. At Christ’s baptism the ancestral curse begins to reverse.
And after His baptism, having as a man been filled with the Holy Spirit, Christ begins to show the way to triumph over temptation, sin, sickness, religious hypocrisy, political oppression, demonic oppression and eventually even death itself. Christ as a man--without ceasing to be God, but laying aside his prerogatives as God--Christ as a man conquers all human enemies. Christ as a man shows the way for all mankind into the Kingdom of God, into Paradise, into the Resurrection and into Eternal Life.
This is why Theophany is so important. In remembering, in celebrating the baptism of Christ, we call to mind in the most profound way the revelation of the God-man, the washing away of sin through repentance, the reverse of the ancient curse, and the conquering of sin and all of its consequences, even death. The world was enlightened at Christ’s baptism, and when we prayerfully remember it, we come to experience that enlightenment just a little more fully.