Rising Up and Going Down

In modern Western culture we associate praying in a prostrate position (that is, on our knees, face on the floor, with hands outstretched in front) with Muslims because the Muslim call to prayer is a relatively common image on our media screens. But this is how Middle Easterners prayed (Jews, Christians, and later, when Islam came about, Muslims), and it is part of Orthodox prayer to this day.

There are certain seasons that the Orthodox neither prostrate themselves nor kneel (the fifty days from Pascha to Pentecost), and there are seasons (all the fasts) and particular feasts (Exaltation of the Cross, etc.) where full prostrations are the normal posture of prayer. Humans cannot easily separate mind, body, and will; we cannot easily humble our heart without humbling our body. The humility of full prostrations and conversely the confidence that comes from divine grace associated with standing while praying are both a normal part of the Orthodox posture of prayer.

I don’t think Archimandrite Zacharias ever talks about the posture of praying (whether standing, kneeling, or prostrate) in his book The Enlargement of the Heart, but I was reminded of prayer’s posture while reading the book. Zacharias is fond of the phrase “go down,” referring to the journey we are called to make, going down to hell with Christ where he announced his victory over sin and death. Going down to hell sounds harsh, but we Christians have become so accustomed to the traditional language of death leading to life that this turn of phrase helps us think about what the New Testament describes.

Zacharias, following and extending the thinking of both his teacher, Elder Sophrony (d. 1995), and Sophrony’s teacher, St. Silouan (d. 1938), says that one of the prominent features of the Christian church today is despondency. What is despondency or despond? If you’re like me, you might associate it with Pilgrim’s Progress and the “Slough of Despond.” If you are even more like me, you have never read Pilgrim’s Progress but guess that it means that Pilgrim was having a tough time of it. But despond has a more proper meaning than just that. Despond is a lack of concern about one’s salvation.

There is a doctrine widely held in America—the full assurance of salvation—that was originally taught by the Reformers to free Christians from debilitating fear so that they could confidently grow in Christ and be transformed. Ironically, given the modern zeitgeist in contrast to the zeitgeist of 16th century Europe, this very doctrine promotes despond. Once the cycle of despond begins, a blind trust in divine grace and assurance that everything will turn out okay tends toward a lax attitude toward growth and transformation—the very essence of despond.

It’s cliché to say that this is an age of unbelief. Talk to any honest pastor and you will hear stories of rampant unbelief among laity and clergy alike. These are people who like the idea of God and would like to believe, but just can’t do it. The heavens, having become brass, the spiritual world seems utterly cut off from them.

Zacharias argues that this is a symptom and not a root problem. Unbelief such as this, within the church, is a symptom of despond. When we aren’t faithful with a few things, we lose control over the large things, to paraphrase Mt. 25:23. The solution isn’t to try harder to believe, nor is it to just go through the motions hoping belief will come, it is to go through specific motions. Zacharias says the only path forward is to humble ourselves. This is why he is so fond of that phrase “go down.” Humility is going down below others and going down before God in prayer. Extreme humility is going down to hell with Christ.

The Apostle Paul proclaims, “I have been crucified with Christ!” (Gal. 2:20). What happened after the crucifixion? 1 Peter says that after his crucifixion, Jesus “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison …” This obscure and otherwise incomprehensible phrase has been linked to Eph. 4:8 (Christ “made captivity itself captive”). What then becomes clear is that Christ didn’t just die, in death he went and entered into solidarity with the very lowest low that humans captive by sin and death could possibly go: hell. It is here, in this lowest of low places and most hopeless of hopeless states that Jesus announced his victory over death.

Zacharias’ argument is that it is not enough to confess that we have been crucified with Christ, we need to actually do something. We need to travel with the crucified Christ and embrace our lowest and most humiliating low: the ignominy of sin that has captivated us. And only when we humble ourselves to that level can we truly hear and embrace the proclamation of Christ’s victory.

But “humbling ourselves” has become a hackneyed commonplace. (“I am so humbled to receive this honor.”) It begs the question of just what humility is. As Zacharias says, it is to “go down.” Zacharias reiterates the teaching of the fathers that the demons want to go up, not down. They want to rise to heaven and be like God and even above God[1]. In order to free ourselves of demonic despond, we need to start by “going down.” If we are all about improving ourselves, fixing ourselves, making ourselves better, we become easy targets because we are rising up into the sphere of all that stands against God. But if we go down … go down as far as hell, we then go to where Christ is, and then are ready to be lead out of captivity and the bondage of despond.

In modern Western culture we associate praying in a prostrate position (that is, on our knees, face on the floor, with hands outstretched in front) with Muslims because that is what we see in the media. Few of us ever see it in church. Maybe this is a place to start as we seek a way out of our despond. Praying in confidence while standing upright with hands outstretched to God certainly has its place. But there’s another side to this coin. Before we can rise up with such confidence, we must learn to go down.


[1] Archimandrite Zacharias, The Enlargement of the Heart, 2nd American Edition, Mount Thabor Publishing, 2012, p. 28.

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Ransom: Exchange of One Life for Another

“The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45). Oddly, this verse regularly gives Bible scholars and theologians heartburn. The central point is sublime: In the whole paragraph, Jesus is telling his disciples, who are starting to get a big head, that leadership is expressed, not in lording over others, but in serving them. In this sentence he personalizes this and says that why he came to earth: to serve.

But then he adds that phrase, “and to give his life as a ransom for many.” This has led some to propose that the Devil was holding humans hostage and God had to pay a ransom (his Son’s life) to get them back. While this extreme position has never been the predominant view of the church, no matter which communion, it begs the question, “What’s this ransom all about?”

Over the years I have figured out that God’s work in the world is ultimately inscrutable, and human language can never do justice to what is going on. Because of this, our theological language is more suggestive than precise. The language about how the atonement works is typical. “Ransom,” (along with “justification,” “predestined,” etc.) cannot be precise in the same manner our scientific or mathematical language is precise.

Ransom was on my mind because Brenda and I are reading together in the evenings, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings, by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski. We just read the portion about C.S. Lewis writing Out of the Silent Planet, an allegorical bit of science fiction that deals with this topic, and whose main character is Elwin Ransom.

With this fresh in my mind, this morning, I read the following from Archimandrite Zacharias in The Enlargement of the Heart, p. 52f:

In the Liturgy we are but poor instruments of Him who “offers and is offered.” So, when we say to God, “Thine own of Thine own we offer unto Thee, in all and for all,” we do not just offer him a small cup of wine and a tiny piece of bread, for in that wine and that bread we put all our love, all our faith, all our intercession for our beloved, for the people who suffer, for the whole world. … So He does the same: He receives those gifts and He puts all His life in them, the Holy Spirit, and he says to us: “The holy things unto the holy.” In the Liturgy there is an exchange of lives. Man offers his life to God, and God offers his life to man, and who can compare, or rather measure, this exchange of lives? For ours is temporal, corruptible, earthly, and His is incorruptible, heavenly, eternal. Therefore, in the Liturgy, there is an unequal exchange of lives.

To be clear, Zacharias is not talking about the word ransom, nor has he said anything about theories of the atonement. He is talking about how humans and God interact. But what he describes at this point in the lecture is quite a good description of ransom:

It is an exchange [read: ransom]. Man offers his life to God, and God offers his life to man.

To return to Mark 10, this exchange, this ransom, is the ultimate example of the humble service that is the essence of Jesus’ leadership.

As an aside, I picked up the audio recording of this conference (Fr. Zacharias speaking to the gathering of the priests of the St. Raphael Clergy Brotherhood in 2001) fifteen or so years ago and have been listening to those repeatedly for over a decade. It was turned into the above-mentioned book. I purchased it a few years ago and am finally getting around to reading it. For my learning style, the book is far superior to the recorded lectures because I can stop and reread a particularly dense paragraph here and there. I am enjoying it immensely.

 

The Holy Spirit as Transformer

I ran across a surprising twist on the idea of transformation. St. Silouan (d. 1938) changes the direction of transformation. Yes the Christian is transformed by the Holy Spirit, but he said that divine grace is also transformed by the Holy Spirit. He speaks of the Holy Spirit as “transformer” in the electrical grid sense. The glory of God is too hot or too charged or too high a voltage for us to handle. (“No one can see God and live,” Ex. 33:20.) It is the Spirit who transforms or steps down the grace into a “voltage” we can handle.

Different Christians are transformed (in the traditional sense) to different degrees. The Spirit, as Transformer, steps down divine grace that matches our own transformation. To some it comes hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold (to adapt Jesus’ parable of the Soils in Mt. 13:8).

For those who have followed me for a while, you might be reminded of the Orthodox understanding of judgment. (And this is no doubt what Silouan has in mind.) Judgment is not God’s anger, it is God’s love. For those who have been transformed, it is experienced as inexpressible glory. To those who have rejected or not taken advantage of God’s transformation, that same divine glory is experienced as burning pain. Zacharias describes it as follows:

As we are told in the Gospel of the Last Judgment, the notable appearance of the Lord at the end of the ages will be ineffably terrible: blessed for the humility of the righteous, but unbearable to the obstinacy of sinners.

Drawn from The Enlargement of the Heart by Archimandrite Zacharias (Zacharou), Mount Thabor Publishing, 2nd American Ed., 2012, p. 39 and p. 34.

God Who Is Grace

The Sermon on the Mount is often described in terms of a new law, a Christian law that supersedes the Mosaic Law. Indeed Matthew structures his Gospel to parallel the events of Moses receiving the Law from God on Mt. Sinai. There is also a sense that Jesus interiorizes and radicalizes the Law, making God’s demands on us absolute. But if this is all we see, we will miss the point in much the same way that Luther’s half measures in relation to divine grace (described in the previous essay) miss the point. Child rearing offers an apt example of what I am getting at.

Children first and foremost need to know that they are loved and accepted as they are, no matter what. (This is analogous to our new understanding of God as pure Grace in contrast to God simply offering grace where it is needed. It is described with some depth in the first essay in this series.) Once this basic reality of love and acceptance is established, children need to be encourage (and often pushed a bit) to do things beyond what they think is possible. Kids, in fact, don’t know what is possible; their natural sights are set far too low.

Tell a child to build an outdoor shelter that will be adequate to spend the night in. On her first try the kid does an abominable job. Mom knows it’s an abominable job. But she tells her daughter that the two of them are going to spend the night. Mom doesn’t tell the kid that it’s going to be a miserable night; instead, she suffers the night with her. In the morning the miserable child gives up and declares that she is incapable of building a shelter. But Mom, in a tender motherly wisdom that is likely experienced as punishment by the child, tells her to try again. Mom never builds the shelter, but gives pointers along the way. After much “punishment” meted out by mother, the child finally figures out how to build an excellent and comfortable shelter in which she and her mother spend a glorious night.

The Sermon on the Mount might be considered the shelter we are to build. The “demands” of the Sermon on the Mount are absolute and simply cannot be fulfilled. But after trial and error, and with the urging of the church and the nudging of the Spirit, we begin to get the hang of certain bits and pieces. Eventually our life is transformed in some small way and we spend a glorious season with God basking in the new person we have become.

Of course, while God accepts us, God also believes we are capable of things that we quite literally can’t imagine. While the Sermon on the Mount is an unattainable goal in its absolute sense, it and other similar teachings by Jesus lay out path which we will travel. We can (and will) spend a lifetime tinkering, asking for help, getting nudged and empowered by the Spirit, and always, bit by bit, making a better shelter and being utterly transformed by God in the process.

In his book On Being a Christian, Hans Küng describes our various efforts at social justice in light of the above process.

Jesus, as we shall see later, did not prescribe for everybody either renunciation of possessions or common ownership. One will sacrifice everything to the poor, another will give away half his possessions, a third will help with a loan. One gives all he has for god’s [sic] cause, others are active in servicing and caring for the needy, someone else practices apparently foolish prodigality. Nothing here is legally regulated. Hence there is no need for exceptions, excuses, privileges or dispensations from the law. [p. 248]

One could argue that all of us should do all these things. And indeed, all of these things are part of the absolute demands of Jesus Christ. But when we understand the dynamic—God pushing us beyond what we think possible, yet always joying in our lives and growth, even when our efforts fall short—it makes sense that both the church and us as individuals fail so miserably in our efforts. God knows what we are capable of, and because of that he has set out description of life that is limitless in possibilities.

If one one insists on the “traditional” perspective, we are guaranteed to fail. In contrast, what is actually happening is that we are provided literally unlimited possibilities for growth—more than we can ever accomplish in this life. And as we grow bit by bit, God enjoys us as his children toddling and goofing our way to transformation and holiness. This is the Gospel of God-as-pure-Grace.

Natural Consequences

One thing we can learn from Jesus is that grace is not a buffer protecting us from God’s wrath, instead grace is simply the character of God. Furthermore, God has told us this, but words are not enough. It must be experienced within relationship to be fully grasped. We explored this in some depth in the previous essay. That essay might be summed up by saying Divine Grace must start as a lived experience before it makes sense as a theological doctrine.

The angry God motif is common enough in the Old Testament, and it ought not surprise us that it is there. We have been separated from God and separate ourselves from God. As a result when we experience Nature as uncaring and impersonal (Nature that seemingly arbitrarily creates havoc in our lives and society), we assume God has turned his back on us. The actual fact is we have turned our back on God because of our preference for sin. From this mistaken starting place, it is easy to assume that God is angry and judging. (More about this below.) But Jesus offers us a glimpse into reality that is quite different from our perceptions.

In the parable of the Prodigal Son, the Father is neither angry nor does he have a need to punish the prodigal. Instead he waits attentively for his son’s return. Thus Jesus speaks to the way we perceive divine reality: The prodigal assumes (as we do) that if he returns he will face severe consequences (ie, wrath) and prepares accordingly. He is completely wrong. The Father welcomes him with open arms and doesn’t even allow him to finish his confession! This is but one story of God-as-Grace (in contrast to God offering grace as a cover or shield for underlying divine wrath.)

Martin Luther interpreted medieval Roman Catholic doctrine in line with the Prodigal Son. Starting with divine wrath, he recognized that the balance sheet could never be balanced. This led him to proclaim a gospel of grace in sharp contrast to works. This is the source of the well-known Lutheran “alone” statements. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Upon this teaching (Lutherans call it the “material principle”) all other teachings emerge. While Luther’s insight fell like a bombshell on medieval Europe, he only got half way to the whole truth. Luther believed that the fundamental attitude of God toward sinners was not grace but wrath. For instance, while hidden away in the Wittenberg Castle, he wrote,

I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the Decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!” [Quote from Steve Lawson, “Fortress of Truth: Martin Luther,” First Things, 9/11/2017.

Luther missed the necessary starting point. God isn’t in the business of punishing sinners. Just as the Prodigal Son’s eating of corn husks meant for the pigs was not his Father’s punishment for leaving the household. So, the calamities and judgments that befall us aren’t God’s doing but the natural effect of our leaving God’s household. The necessary starting point is not the Prodigal Son’s tragic condition, it is the Father, sitting on the porch, waiting for him to return so the Father can welcome him home.

This is how we should understood law (including the Mosaic Law). “Natural law” is not so much God’s demands upon us to live up to divine holiness, it is a divinely revealed description of how the natural world works. We humans turned our back on God. In mercy, God told what we would need to do in order to make our way in the world without the living presence of God within us. Breaking the Law doesn’t make God angry, it brings about effects that are simply part of the created order.

Alongside explaining the negative effects of abandoning the presence of God, Jesus offers a description of what living in the presence of God would look like. The Sermon on the Mount is his most concise summary, and given our experience, Jesus’ description sounds harsh. If we can move beyond our perception of the angry God, we can then recognize how gracious Jesus’ description of live with God (and God within us) truly is. We will explore this in more depth in the next essay.

If God Is For Us

The place we must begin as Christians is that God is on our side. As Paul says, “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” (Rom. 8:32) This is what Jesus lived out in his earthly life. He embodied the reality that God is for people. He certainly opposed religious leaders who tried to misconstrue religion to make it burdensome. But his opposition was never against people in principle but always against those who stood in the way of the people coming to God.

The history of religions is rather different. Broadly speaking, religion (that which was thought up by us, not that which was revealed by God) grows out of the sense that we have displeased the gods. Religious practices were put in place to overcome that displeasure. Erich Neumann, in The Origins and History of Consciousness (a summary of Carl Jung) argues that this trope is beyond ancient, it is part of our primordial mindset.

Because the belief that the gods are against us, or at the very least, displeased, runs so deep in our consciousness, it is not surprising that it is a theme that weaves its way throughout the Old Testament. Since it is clearly present in the Old Testament, there is a tendency to say that this is how the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob truly is. It is a sentiment that is expressed in the extreme in Jonathan Edwards’ infamous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It is a sentiment that the Apostle Paul wrestles with in his epistles. The theme has also shaped our interpretation of hell, wrath, and judgment.

But if God isn’t like this, why has God allowed the idea that he is angry with us to persist and even creep into scripture? The answer comes when we consider what was important to Jesus. His interaction with the woman at the well was typical. She was concerned with right theology. Being a Samaritan, questions about the correct place to worship—the Jewish Mt. Zion or the Samaritan Mt. Gerizim—were foremost. But Jesus essentially brushed correct theology off by saying, “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him” (Jn 4:23). Instead he was far more interested in her life struggles than her theology. When he probed her mind, it had nothing to do with theology. “Go call your husband and come here” (v 16). Her life, it turns out, was a wreck, and Jesus was far more interested in getting her human relationships sorted out than sorting her theology.

“Who is my neighbor?” turns out to be a question that must be answered, not by the Rabbis in the synagogue (or the priests and theologians in the seminary) but by you and I as we walk or drive to work. As we read the Old Testament with this sensibility revealed by Jesus, we realize that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was as Jesus said and not like the old gods who were easily piqued and demanded that everything be just right. The living God demonstrated that he wanted those ancient wanderers to come along side God and wander with him. God is profoundly relational, and that’s what took center stage, not the need to get all our ideas about God exactly right.

I’ve never had foster kids, but as a pastor I’ve seen a number of them placed in the homes of congregation members. When the foster parent says, “I won’t beat you; you’re safe here,” it’s largely an empty statement, because it’s not the child’s experience. That is a message that can only be expressed through presence and action, not words. After several times when the kid messes up and is not beat, after several months of living in an environment that is actually safe, then the kid himself or herself will begin to say, “You won’t beat me; I’m safe here.” It does little good to tell the child, don’t cringe in fear. The good foster parent ignores that while working hard to create an authentically safe place. It is a truth that is revealed, not by words, but only in action and relationship.

We have come to believe in a wordy revelation. We hold the Bible in our hand and think that this is the divine revelation. But in a profound sense, it is not. The revelation is God who didn’t bother correcting all of the ancients’ misconceptions with mere words, but rather busied himself by creating a safe home (to carry on our analogy) so that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob could figure out on their own that, “You won’t beat me; I’m safe here.” The revelation isn’t what Matthew, and John, and Peter, and Paul wrote about Jesus, in a far more fundamental sense, Jesus himself was and is the revelation. To return to the woman at the well, Jesus didn’t start out by saying he was the Messiah, he let her figure it out on her own. And then when she finally put into words the outrageous idea that the Messiah might actually be present, he affirmed her insight. “Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you'” (Jn 4:26).

Like the foster child, it does little good for God to tell us how to think and act. There is a primordial sensibility seemingly structured into our genetic makeup, if the neuroscientists are to be believed, that the gods are against us and probably enjoy messing with us. (Consider the story of Job.) The only way past that sensibility is to live through it and ultimately beyond it.

And so we end, full circle, where we began. “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” (Rom. 8:32) This is what Jesus lived out in his earthly life. He embodied the reality that God is for people.

New Growth in the Soil of Decay

I haven’t posted anything for a couple of months although I have been writing quite a lot. But the tone of my writing has been too negative, so it’s ended up in the trash bin rather than the blog. It’s easy to be a critic; it’s easy to postulate about what’s wrong with the world. It’s better to find a way forward.

The most dramatic trend in the last two decades (if it were a play, it would be a grand denouement) is the catastrophic failure of Liberal culture. To be clear, I am not referring to liberalism and conservatism as we tend to think about it today. They are in fact two versions of Classical Liberalism, the broad category I have in mind. These two versions (that we call conservative and liberal) have suffered a catastrophic failure of vision and will. The reactions to this failure, nativism, nationalism, tribalism, political philosophies that are exclusive rather than inclusive, are seen with horror by those of us who are true children of the Enlightenment. And there are certainly reasons to be horrified by many of these expressions, whether its the denial of science, the tendency toward xenophobia, etc. What is more difficult to see is that all of these movements are new sprouts growing from the fertile soil of spoiled fruit. The nature of these new sprouts is what has captivated my thinking for the last while. Many of the sprouts are noxious weeds, but not all. It is in discerning the difference where dreaming dreams and proclaiming visions needs to become a core bit of our contemporary kerygma.

So where is the good in the midst of this collapse of the Enlightenment hegemony? First is the rejection of the inherent reductionism that marks the Enlightenment. Reality is made up of far more than science and empirical inquiry can study. Furthermore, the part of reality science to which science does have access, always turns out to be more complicated and interconnected than anyone imagined. As a result science studies a subset of that which is necessary for true knowledge.

Malcolm Gladwell is fond of using the automobile as an illustration. What is the ontology of the automobile? Said another way, what is its most basic function? What is it best at? We can consider the question from two different perspectives: intent and result. Intent looks forward ; it describes our hopes and desires, while results looks backward and describes what actually happens. The intent is that an automobile is designed to get us place to place. From this perspective the ontology of the automobile is as a conveyance, and it’s actually pretty good at that. But we could argue that looking back (considering cold, hard results rather than hopes and dreams) the automobile is even better at (1) killing and injuring people and animals, (2) polluting the air and other environmental degradation, and (3) undermining community by allowing and possibly encouraging the insular existence of the suburbs and exurbs. Looking back rather than forward, the ontology of the automobile may be better described as a destroyer, destroying life, environment, and community.

We more commonly call the gap between intent and actual results “unintended consequences.” There is a very real sense that one of the primary agendas of the Enlightenment was to take control of our world. Rather than leaving our destiny to chance and the vagaries of nature, we would control it and determine our own outcome. Now there is overwhelming evidence that we humans are incapable of this because we are not capable of considering all the consequences.

The anti-science backlash we see today, from anti-vaxxers to global warming denialists, is an expression of this exasperation we have with the hubris of science. Nature is brutal but it doesn’t seem to be quite as stupid as science sometimes turns out to be and there is a strong desire to to once again cooperate with creation rather than re-create it in our own fallen image. Of course the pendulum has swung too far. There’s a big difference between humble science and simply being anti-scientific. But we have an opportunity to learn humility and develop a new respect for the inherent wisdom of the created order.

A second “good” which is arising from the collapse of Classical Liberal culture is the rediscovery of our connectedness. The Enlightenment idea of the individual at its most radical rejected this connection. Ever since Descartes (the “I think, therefore, I am” guy), theologians have been fighting a rear guard action to re-establish the Christian idea of the “person”—a being whose self-understanding doesn’t come from within (the mind or the will) but from relationship. This emphasis on the untethered individual has been magnified with industrialization. The modern city, based on industrialization, which doesn’t need families or artisans who mentor other artisans, but only worker drones to keep the machinery humming, accompanied by the ease of transportation (have I said anything about the assumed vs. the real ontology of the automobile?) promotes individuality to the point of isolation.

Since the beginning of the industrial revolution there has been push-back, beginning with aid societies, and then the growth of labor unions. The shape of the current push against isolation is rather amorphous and it’s hard to tell exactly where it is going. But it is something that can be happily capitalized upon by Christian communities. Isolation is not normal. But rather than rail against it, we have the opportunity to offer authentic examples of the true alternative.

I went into some detail above about how trying to control nature almost always backfires. There is now an openness to the value of cooperating with nature. There is a parallel in our personhood. History shows that individualism and its resulting isolation, leads us to think of a neighbor who is too close to be a hinderance, and sometimes, even an enemy. But society is increasingly open to the value of relationships, the push and pull of communities, and the dangers of privacy as an absolute right. Just as we have an opportunity to reinvigorate the principle of cooperation with nature, so we have an opportunity to reinvigorate the principle of cooperation with other people in our communities and society.

There are other examples of this moment of opportunity in which we live, but 1,000+ words and two examples will suffice for now. Rather than complain about what might seem to be the collapse of society, I want to explore how we can capitalize on the tender shoots of positive growth that we see all around us.

Lazarus Saturday: Joy between Repentance and Mourning

It’s Lazarus Saturday today (Mar 31), which means Great Lent is over and Holy Week will begin in two days. Once again, here’s a quick overview of the differences between Orthodox and Western Lent and Easter/Pascha. First, the Orthodox will celebrate Pascha on April 8. (You can’t have Pascha until after Passover, which is Mar 30 – Apr 7 this year, so that puts Pascha on Apr 8.) Second, the Orthodox count all the days of the week in Lent while the Western Churches don’t include Sundays, so we get to 40 days in two different manners. Orthodox Lent begins on a Monday and then ends on a Friday (7 days x 5 weeks = 35 + 7 more days = 40). So Great Lent ended yesterday. The Holy Week fast begins on Monday. That leaves two days in between: Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday.

This interim time between the two fasts is an opportunity to reflect on what I have come to think of the three proper states of being for Christians. (This is my own thought; I haven’t seen it anywhere else, so consider the source and take it for what it’s worth.). Those three states are repentance, mourning, and joy. The Lenten fast is a season of repentance. Lazarus Saturday, Palm Sunday, and Pascha are seasons of joy. The Holy Week fast is a season of mourning.

This distinction was lost to me as a Protestant because Lent—that period from Ash Wednesday to the day before Easter—was an amorphous whole. As a result there was no specific season of mourning, except for Good Friday and maybe on that Sunday once every three years where that verse, “Jesus wept,” came up in the lectionary. I therefore want to consider the role of each in our Christian lives.

Mourning is a recognition and response to the fact that things are not right in the world. Geo Pallikunnel, a Syro Malabar (that is, the quite ancient Orthodox communion on the Indian subcontinent, also called the St Thomas church) theologian describes it this way. “Human nature is basically good, even though sin disintegrated it.” The world was created very good and humans were created in the image of God (thus we are basically good) but sin has marred and disrupted it. I especially like Pallikunnel’s use of the term “disintegration” in this context. In his monograph he describes our life of salvation in terms of our disintegration because of sin and Jesus Christ’s integration of our beings.

In this metaphor sin is more process than act. Things are coming apart at the seams and we know that this is not right, that things once were better (“very good” in fact) and should be better. But they’re not. We too often beat ourselves up for this state of affairs. We too often rage against our own frailties, our fellow Christians’ hypocrisy, and the evil that the world spawns. But such regrets and recriminations are not a proper Christian state of being. “Blessed are those who mourn …” says Jesus, not, “blessed are the angry.”

Rather than regrets and recrimination, our proper response (the second state of being) is Repentance. Repentance is not being sorry that I sinned; that’s, just … well, sort of sorry. Repentance isn’t an attitude, it’s an action; it’s turning around; it’s changing our direction. This is embodied in three specific actions: fasting, prayer, and alms. Said another way, repentance focuses on ourselves by denying (and thus, to a certain extent, taking control of) our out-of-control desires that are causing the disintegration of our being in the first place. Repentance is also focusing on others by truly looking at them in their life situation and helping to meet their needs which grow out of their own and the world’s disintegration. Repentance also focuses on God. The disintegration that I keep going on about is a symptom of a deeper problem. Cut off from God, who is life itself, all creation is dead (in the same way cut flower is dead—still beautiful and fragrant, but severed from its life-giving source). Repentance is specifically a turning toward God-who-is-Life-itself in order to re-establish the flow of life through prayer and the Eucharist.

Lent is a season set aside to focus on this second state of being: repentance. Holy Week, in contrast, is not about repentance; it’s about mourning. It is looking at the incarnation (that is, the whole earthly life of Jesus Christ) as a prolonged death, a seeming disintegration of God. “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me!” And ironically, just as Jesus said would happen, as we mourn, we are comforted. As we mourn we see clearly the current state of affairs and that it is not the true or intended state of affairs. Furthermore we see that God hasn’t left us to our own devices, but walks besides us, suffers beside us, and is “disintegrated” (if we dare use that term!) on our behalf.

But mourning does not occur in a vacuum. We can dwell in this state of being because we know there is another state of being: Joy. Lazarus Saturday is a truly special day on the Orthodox calendar. Saturday morning there is a Eucharistic Divine Liturgy that is a foretaste of Pascha. Everything is light instead of dark. The talk is of victory rather than death. It is a foretaste of Christ’s victory over death. It is an absolute proclamation that what looked like divine disintegration turns out to be the re-integration of all creation with its Creator.

We Christians have no need to rage. (The nations rage and the Psalmist asks, “Why?”) Instead we can mourn for a season because there is a state of joy. For the most part we exist in these three distinct states of being (repentance, mourning, and joy) simultaneously. But the Church helpfully breaks them apart as three distinct seasons to help us understand this admittedly odd state of affairs. And these three seasons come together in a mysterious and wonderful manner on these two days (Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday) between the two very different fasts of repentance and mourning that precede the greatest of Feasts of Rejoicing: Pascha.

Jesus wept … Lazarus come forth … But surely he stinks and smells of decay! That is life in a nutshell. Amen.

 

Finding Nobility rather than Tragedy

There are two old men who smoke cigars every other week, early afternoon, at the Dublin House, where I am a member and go to smoke my pipe. When they come one wears various bits of northern Civil War garb while the other wears southern bits. There they sit, blue and grey, smoking cigars, and talking just a bit too loudly about the nobility of that War and, in particular, the nobility of the southern stand against the northern aggressors.

Racism is an overused word and I certainly resist the temptation to call them racist (they’re more likely merely ignorant, having never been to the south!), but my experience is different. Having lived a couple of blocks from Prospect Ave., the great divide between black and white, in Kansas City, having gone to seminary in Louisville, KY, my first experience with huge, fancy, white private schools built to get around the busing rules, and having spent a year teaching school in Port Gibson, MS, where boycotting white businesses was first experimented with during the 1960s civil rights struggle in the American south, I have a rather different perspective on the war, its causes, and its aftermath.

A few weeks ago, because no one was paying attention to their conversation, in spite of the fact that it was getting louder and louder, the two brothers finally engaged me about my thoughts on that noble chapter in our glorious American history. I had had enough and gave them my frank opinion about the tragedy of the event, the tragedy that has continued to fester ever since, the evil that spawned it (and continues), and their own denial about that particular ongoing chapter in our history, and thus their unwitting participation in that evil.

No doubt they had heard it all be for and even said, “God bless you,” on my way out the door. I found I was disgusted by their righteousness and nobility that whitewashed the tomb of racism that still stinks to high heaven down south of the Mason Dixon line and across the country as well.

I don’t claim to be innocent. I grew up in Montana with Indian reservations all around me, so the racism I am blind to tends to be toward the Native Americans and not the African Americans.

One of the momentous events in the version of Native American history I was taught practically passed by the house where I spent most of my young life. The story I learned in school was one of grit and glory, the Nez Perce helping various groups of western bound white settlers along the way even as they outwitted the five armies chasing them. General George Custer supposedly called Chief Joseph, “the greatest living Indian” at one point. Most of the Nez Perce considered him a coward, an opportunist, and merely the last man standing.

Yep, it’s a complicated history, so I just started reading Kent Nerburn’s book, “Chief Joseph & the Flight of the Nez Perce.” In the introduction he says, “A fine story, full of pathos and nobility and all the poignancy of the American Indian struggle.

A fine story, but false. Or, to be more accurate, only half true. The real story, the true story, is every bit as poignant and every bit as dramatic. But it is obscured by the myth because the myth is so powerful and so perfectly suited to our American need to find nobility rather than tragedy in our past.

Seeking nobility rather than tragedy … I was immediately reminded of the cigar-smoking brothers. Not all tragedies are noble. And in the case of both the American Indians and the African Americans, not all tragedies are in the past.

Forgetting to Look Up

The world has lost its bearings. Not that ideologies are lacking, to give directions: only that they lead nowhere. People are going round in circles in the cage of their planet, because they have forgotten that they can look up to the sky

and

Because all we want is to live, it has become impossible for us to live.

Eugene Ionesco, Romanian/French playwright, speaking at the 1972 Salzburg Festival.

That last bit would have been more appropriate to post on Mardi Gras, given what has become of the beginning of Lent in our culture. But I posted it now because Ionesco rather misses the point.

Lot’s of us look up, but there’s nothing to see and nowhere to go except the vast emptiness with the occasional star in between. Because of the blindness of sin, we not only fail to see, we are incapable of seeing—truly seeing—the Creator in creation.

No, Ionesco is mistaken, we need not bother looking all the way to the sky. We should rather humbly limit our upward gaze only as high as the cross.  From it we learn that death to self is more blessed than living to live, for in this particular path of death lies the possibility of truly living and the fullness of life.

Have a blessed Holy Week.