Monday, November 28, 2011

Beatitudes and The Many Ways to be Saved in Christ

St. Isaac the Syrian:
"But lo, the majority of men do not attain to such innocency [purity of heart], yet we hope that for their good deeds a portion is reserved for them in the Kingdom of the Heavens.  This can be ascertained from the understanding of the Beatitudes of the Gospel, which He stated differently in order to make known to us the many variations in the diverse modes of life within these same Beatitudes.  For in all the measures of every way upon which each man journeys to Him, God opens before him the gate of the Kingdom of the Heavens."

One way to view the Beatitudes is as a ladder, a progression of spiritual growth.  However, St. Isaac points out that the Beatitudes may also be viewed as a list of ways, or examples of ways, the Holy Spirit works in Christ's many-membered body to save the whole.  "The majority" of us will strive our whole life, yet the circumstances of our life will preclude the attainment of great purity of mind and heart.  But St. Isaac says that from understanding the Beatitudes we know that within the blessing of the Kingdom of Heaven there are many modes.  Some may mourn while others hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Some may have a meek "mode of life," while others excel in peacemaking.  Of course these all together describe Christ, whose body we are.  

We need not despair when we see how spiritually poor we are, for the first Beatitude is for us:  Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Harsh Parables of Luke

“You fool, this night your soul will be required of you” (Luke 12:20). Of the four Gospel writers, Luke seems to present the parables of Jesus in the harshest light.  For example, Luke’s telling of the parable of the talents includes this grizzly note: the king has slain in his presence those who did not want him to rule over them.  Only Luke’s Gospel includes the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, in which we see the Rich Man tormented in flames. And only Luke has the parable of the Unjust Steward, in which Jesus praises a servant who cheats his master.  Similarly, only Luke includes the parable of the Prodigal Son.  When people speak of this parable, they almost always focus on the loving Father who awaits for the return of the son--they almost never point out that the same loving Father was the one who gave his son what he asked for and freely allowed him to embark on a life of debauchery ending in a pig sty.   “Loving Father” takes on more nuance in Luke’s Gospel.  Only Luke gives us the parable of the Good Samaritan and the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, both with their very low view of good, religious people.  Luke’s is a tough Gospel.
In the parable of Successful Farmer (Luke 12: 16-21), Jesus tells us about a prosperous farmer whose land produces so well that he has to tear down his barns and build bigger ones.  He says to himself, “You have many goods stored up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.”  It is at this point that God speaks to him: “You fool, this night your soul will be required of you.”  Then Jesus comments on the parable saying, “So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”
Rich toward God?  How does one become rich toward God?  
I’d like to suggest that some of the other parables in Luke teach us how it is that we become rich toward God.  For example, in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus we learn that the reason why the Rich Man suffers in tormenting flames after he dies is that during his lifetime he had his good things while Lazarus, the poor man who begged at his gate, had evil things.  The good things the Rich Man had were his, he didn’t steal them; they were his to enjoy.  Yet at the same time, a beggar, Lazarus, had evil things.  The evil things are not identified as “his,” they were just evil experiences and circumstances that happened to fall upon him.  After both men die, we find out that Lazarus is comforted in the next life while the Rich Man suffers torment.  And the only explanation we are given for this state of affairs is that during his lifetime the Rich Man had his good things and Lazarus had evil things.  
It seems that what we do with our own things in this life has a huge impact on the next.
The parable of the Unjust Steward (whom we might even call the Embezzling Steward), which comes right before the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, teaches the same thing.  Here a steward of a wealthy master learns that he is going to loose his position and calls in his master’s debtors and erases large amounts of their debt. The wealthy master learns what he has done and praises the Embezzling Steward for being wise.  This parable makes no sense if we think it is really just about money and material goods.  
Let me interpret this parable.  The wealthy master is God and every human being is a steward of the master’s wealth: our life with all of our abilities, resources and circumstances, which is our stewardship from God, our good things, you might say.  Those in debt are those who have very few good things and many evil things.  They are in debt because they must depend on others.  That the steward learns that he will lose his stewardship means that he realizes that he will die--we all, one day, will lose our stewardship, the life entrusted to us by God.  What the steward does next is interpreted for us by Jesus: he uses the “unrighteous mammon” (the resources entrusted to his care) to gain friends who will receive him into “an everlasting home.”  Of course, the everlasting home is a reference to heaven, which we find out in the next parable (the Rich Man and Lazarus) is where the poor are comforted.  So the poor are the ones who will receive the rich into their heavenly homes if during this life the rich use “unrighteous mammon” to earn their friendship.
Such an interpretation does not go down very well in our Protestant-Capitalist culture.  Conveniently, the religious edict against “works righteousness” fits nicely into an economic system that prioritizes the accumulation of wealth--bigger barns.  However, the Church Fathers, and none more loudly than St. John Chrysostom, are pretty consistent in their teaching that what one does with one’s resources in this life plays a large role in what happens in the next. 
And I would hasten to add, however, that “unrighteous mammon” may refer to more than just money and material resources.  It might refer to anything that we tend to horde or protect for ourselves: our abilities, our talents, our influence, our time, our listening ear, our helpful hand, our compassionate tears.  Giving, as St. Paul says, is not measured by what you don’t have, but by what you have (2 Cor. 8:12).
And one more thing.  Maybe we can all be the poor.  The wealthiest man in the world may be starving for an honest word.  It seems everyone lies to a rich man.  Often those rich in one area are abjectly poor in another.  Didn’t St. James say that God has chosen the poor in this world’s goods to be rich in faith? (James 2:5)  It may be, if we have ears to hear it, that giving and receiving is something we all must do.  The rich person may have to receive as a gift the faith, prayer or thanks of a poor person.  It may be the only way in this world that treasures of the next world will enter his heart, so poor in faith he is.
Which brings us back to bigger barns and harsh parables.  Life and death, wealth and poverty: these are the realities, harsh realities, of this world.  St. Luke wants his readers to be certain that whatever we do in this world will certainly influence what happens in the next world, with its eternal realities that may prove both harsher and more comforting than anything experienced in this life. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Tower Heist

Last night Bonnie and I saw Tower Heist: I don’t recommend it.  I wouldn’t have normally gone to see such a movie, but when I looked at the rating I saw the “PG” but not the “-13.”  Even then, I would not have avoided a movie that interested me based solely on the rating without first reading about why it received that rating on the imdb website.  I almost always do this, but this time I just didn’t think about it.  I saw the trailer and the premise seemed interesting: a very wealthy investment tycoon swindles the pension fund of the workers at the high-end New York apartment building in which he lives, so the workers try to steal it back--classic Robin Hood story.  
I should have read the imdb website.
It says that the PG-13 rating is for language and sexual content.  The “sexual content,” however, is not scenes of people having or about to have sex.  In this case sexual content refers to explicit talking about sex in humorous contexts.  I must admit I did laugh a lot.  Perhaps a more pious man wouldn’t have found it funny: you are free to draw your own conclusions.  Nevertheless in my defense, the film studio did spend a lot of money tweaking the dialog and the settings so that what would certainly be distasteful in any other context was humorous here.  Of course Bonnie picks up on these things much more quickly than I do.  She didn’t laugh much.  It took me half the movie to realize that I had made a mistake about the movie’s rating.
By the end of the movie, I was not laughing much either.  
What disturbed me the most about the whole experience last night was not being exposed to explicit talk about perverted sex.  I know the pain of real lives trapped in sexual addictions and delusions.  What disturbed me most was the nervous couple sitting right next to me.  They couldn’t have been more than 14 year old.  All they know is the laugh, the glitz, and the implication that everyone is doing it in all sorts of different ways--with no consequences, at least none serious enough to mention.
My heart is very heavy this morning.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Doubt gets a bad rap in the New Testament.  James says that one who doubts is a double-minded person who is unstable in everything he or she does, and the writer of Hebrews warns,  “Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God.”  
I’d like to suggest, however, that there are different kinds of doubt.  Or to put it more clearly, a lot of different sorts of inner experiences may be labeled as doubt or unbelief.  
One experience that can be called doubt is what James and the writer of Hebrews talk about.  This is a questioning in one’s mind that causes one to draw back from God, to draw back from the Church.  This doubt manifests itself as a kind of excuse to indulge ones desires.  
For example, if I had been raised in a home that does not drink alcohol, I might go through a period when, wanting to do what others are doing or driven by curiosity or even rebellion, I use my doubt of the logic of my parent’s prohibition as an excuse to indulge my desire.  I have not really done the mental and spiritual work of thinking though what is indeed appropriate and why I so much want to have a beer (or several) with my friends.  I just use the fact that I have some doubts regarding my parent’s prohibition as an excuse to do what I wanted to do anyway.  This, in my opinion, is similar to the “departing” or more literally, drawing back, referred to in Hebrews and the double mindedness spoken of by James.
This is the kind of doubt experienced by Eve in the Garden of Eden.  The fact that the Serpent and injected an element of doubt into Eve’s mind (“Did God really say…”) was not for Eve a sin.  What Eve does with that thought will make all of the difference.  In the end, Eve uses the doubt as an excuse to indulge in what appealed to her senses: “the woman saw...the tree was good for food...pleasant to the eyes and to be desired to make one wise….”
But not all doubt goes this direction.  Thomas doubted the resurrection.  And not Thomas only, for the end of Matthew says that some doubted.  But what did Thomas do with his doubt?  Did he “draw back” from the other disciples?  No, he stayed with them even though they believed in the risen Christ and he just couldn’t.  Did he use his doubt to escape from the frightening situation of hiding in an “upper room” (an attic, perhaps?) for fear of the Jews?  No, he did not forsake the relationships that he had forged even though he could not believe.  Thomas stayed where he was.  He stayed with his doubt until the doubt was cleared up.  
And when Thomas’ doubt is cleared up, Thomas becomes the first human being in the Bible to call Jesus God.  In seeing the resurrection, he sees Christ’s divinity in a way that perhaps the other disciples had not yet seen it.  Fighting through doubt, hanging in there in spite of doubt, Thomas eventually not only sees but touches.  It reminds me of Job’s great trial, which, after Job is sorely tested yet refuses to curse God, Job sees with his eyes the God whom he had only heard of with his ears.

Someone once said that the secret to dealing successfully with doubt is to stay the course.  It is like walking across a room when suddenly the lights go out.  As long as you keep walking according to what you last saw before the lights went out, you will be safe.  However, if in the darkness you begin to change course, there is a good chance you will bang your shins on the coffee table.  
This does not mean that there is never a time to change course.  Doubt is also often the beginning of the rejection of something false.  To return to the example of doubting a prohibition against drinking any alcohol, doubt may be the beginning of a deeper understanding.  Doubt can often lead to a nuanced understanding.  Doubt can cause us to ask hard questions and work out hard answers; it makes us look seriously at ourselves and seek out the wisdom of others.  The trick is to stay the course, remain engaged, and not allow doubt to become merely an excuse to do what you want.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


“For just as on the stage actors enter with the masks of kings, generals, doctors, teachers, professors, and soldiers, without themselves being anything of the sort, so in the present life poverty and wealth are only masks” (St. John Chrysostom’s second homily on the rich man and Lazarus).
I have been rereading St. John’s homilies contained in the little volume by St. Vladimir’s Seminary called “On Wealth and Poverty.”  One of the things that has struck me in his homilies is his likening of death to an actor’s coming off the stage.  In death all of our masks are removed and we must confront who we “really” are in the face of who Jesus Christ is.  
In a sense, masks are a necessary part of our lives in this world.  We all must serve in different relationships that require that we fulfill certain roles.  I am a priest, but to my wife I am a husband.  I do not hear my wife’s confessions.  This is not a problem.  Boundaries and limits are a necessary part of all relationships.  I am on the Conciliar Press editorial board, and as a board member I must evaluate works submitted for publication and recommend them or not for publication.  I hate this.  I don’t want to judge someone else’s labor.  And yet such judging as Christ recommends against is nonetheless required if any books are going to be published at all.  If children are going to be taught, if doctors are going to be trained, criminals are going to be corrected, someone has to wear the mask of teacher, doctor and judge.  
That we wear masks is not our problem.  Our problem, I think, is that we sometimes mistake our masks for our selves.  We hide behind our masks rather than express ourselves through them.  Yes, express ourselves, our true selves, through a mask.  
Jesus said that from the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.  Our bodies themselves are a kind of mask, and it is through what we do (and say) with our bodies that our true hearts are revealed.  Similarly, what I do and say as a priest, husband, teacher and friend can reveal who I really am.  The tricky thing is to stay aware of the self who speaks through the mask, and not to think the mask is anything real, anything enduring.  The masks come and go as life ebbs and flows.  Who I am in Christ endures forever.
Paying attention to Christ in my heart at all times helps keep me from being deceived by whatever mask I may temporarily be wearing.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Tender-hearted God

[I wrote the following on the flight from Arkansas to Dallas, after saying good by to my daughter and her children]

Last Sunday, Fr. George at St. Anthony Church in Tulsa spoke about God's tender-heartedness.  His text was one of the Orthros prayers that the priest prays while the chanter reads the six Orthros Psalms.  The prayer beseeches God's mercy based on God's own tender-heartedness.  

I have been thinking about this all morning.  Initially, the impression I feel is one of relief--it is God's own tender- heartedness that motivates God's mercy. God pities me, God pities us, His heart is tender toward us--like my heart is tender toward my grandchildren.  They are a handful, lost in an ever changing inner world, annoyingly pushing boundaries, blissfully unaware of the inconvenience and stress they create for their parents, overwhelmed by strong emotions that will take them years to control.  And did I mention that they are adorable?  Tender-heartedness.  God is tender hearted toward us.
But while I may begin to experience a sliver of God's tender-heartedness with my grandchildren, I am miles away from sharing in God's tender-heartedness for everyone.  God loves everyone much more than I have begun to love my grandchildren.  God understands me, my weaknesses, my fears, my insecurities, my still unending childish tendencies much more than I understand and love my grandchildren.  And just as God understands me, He understands you, He understands everyone.  And here is the miracle that has captured my mind today: not that God could love so well, but that God could pour that same love into our hearts.  God can make us tender-hearted too.
 But a tender heart, like a tender sore spot, feels pain more quickly than a hard heart.  Slowly, slowly God comforts us in our pain, taking away the fear, taking away the sting.  Slowly, slowly we learn to trust in hope, to accept, to be at peace even in the pain.  And then somehow even the pain is transformed.  Somehow rejection and suffering and even death become gateways to life.
And then we can love.  Then we can love the unlovely. Then tender-heartedness compels us to give ourselves not expecting anything in return.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Moths, Wool and Arkansas

I'm on vacation visiting my middle daughter in Arkansas. I packed my favorite Pendleton wool plaid shirt. I always wear wool shirts on vacation--except in the summer. They don't make wool clergy shirts.

This morning when I looked at myself in the mirror, I saw that moths had eatten some small holes in my shirt. I guess I no longer have an excuse not to wear my favorite shirt when I'm doing chores around the house.

I find it interesting to watch how my daughter and her husband (also the son of a priest) live their Orthodox Christian faith. Viewed from the outside (always a misleading thing to do), they are the least pious of my three daughter's families. The outside isn't something they spend time thinking much about.

Let me explain.

I am a convert. Orthodox Christianity is something I put on, kind of like an after-market improvement. I find that I often ask myself, "What is the Orthodox way to do this or that." I am consciously Orthodox.

My daughter and son-in-law never converted. They just are who they are. Faith for them is not something they put on. It is the background of their whole life. It's kind of like my favorite red plaid shirt. There is a lot of busyness in the plaid, but red is background of everything, it is the foundation.

This is the Orthodox faith in my daughter's family. They are a busy, happy, busy, loving,(did I mention busy), hard-working family whose whole life is colored by their faith. Orthodoxy is not something they put on, it is just who they are.