Hopes and Fears

Wow! I was scolded for being happy at Christmas. It turns out Christmas is a hard time for some people and my happiness made them even more miserable.

It occurred to me that maybe this person nailed the reason for season like Nadia Comăneci nailed her landings in the Olympics (albeit, for all the wrong reasons).

Thomas Hopko once said that Nativity is the fulfillment of the longings of all people for salvation which are found in all religious and philosophies in human history. The latter part of the first stanza of O Little Town of Bethlehem gets to the same point, but more poetically. “Yet in thy dark streets shineth / The everlasting Light; / The hopes and fears of all the years / Are met in thee tonight.”

“The Holidays” (if you believe the movies) are a season of gift giving, wassail and toddies, candy canes and cookies, relatives and family dinners which for many people degenerate dangerously on or around Christmas day. All these really wonderful things come crashing in and by Christmas afternoon we’re either lonely, angry, drunk, or eating the whole pie and container of ice cream … because we just can’t stand it any more.

As bland and predictable as that script is, it does sum up the “longing” and the “hopes and fears” of a whole year that seem to get concentrated into this short few weeks from Thanksgiving to New Years.

Christmas is God saying, “Yep, that whole ‘lonely, drunk, fighting, eating too much thing,’ that is precisely what this whole season is about. That’s why I sent my Son to be born as a human being. This seemingly horrible thing you call “The Holidays” is actually the silent and mysterious beginning of something big.”

Eventually we’ll be singing with gusto at midnight, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and giving life to those in the grave.” But not today. Today we simply “long” for what’s to come, with all our “hopes and fears” … and we might even get scolded along the way because, let’s face it, our hopes are sometimes dim and our fears are very big.

I’m not advocating drunkenness or binge eating followed by self-loathing or family fights or a blue Christmas in general. I’m just saying that if that describes your experience, this is the Christian feast for you. Longing … hopes … fears … and angels singing “Glory to God” because they know how this whole mess ends. Thanks be to God.

Considering Our Own “Works of the Law”

Yesterday’s Epistle in the Daily Common Lectionary was Gal 3:1-14, which is Paul’s diatribe against the Galatians concerning their “works of the Law.” As a brief aside, I have covered at great length through the years the fact that the Pauline corpus as a whole isn’t opposed works. We are “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10). We should adorn ourselves with good works (1 Tim. 2:10). He commends others to “be rich in good works” (6:18). And of course, there is his warning about people who “profess that they know God, but in their works they deny him …”

Paul’s beef is with a very specific problem: “the works of the Law.” The culture in which Christianity began was Hebrew culture where the Old Testament system of life and sacrifices, as dictated by the Law, had become the means of appeasing God. (As Paul clearly points out, this wasn’t authentic Hebrew religion, which was actually one of faith in God, it was a bastardization of Hebrew religion.)

Reading this text yesterday I couldn’t help but think of the standard things that my fellow travelers in men’s group say about what they have to do in order to maintain their faith. If they don’t go to church … if they don’t come to men’s group every week … if they don’t take time read the Bible and pray every day … then they are no longer close to God. That’s the stuff that makes their relationship with God tick. (This is not limited to men’s group, by the way. This same attitude goes back to many years of pastoral ministry.)

It’s what Paul is talking about, except it’s clothed in a different religious culture. One might call it “the works of Feeling Good About God” or “the works of My Spiritual Pick-Me-Up.” It niggles at me that when we live this way, we’re not living by faith at all, we’re living by works (or in this case feelings) that support a sense that I’m okay with God.

I’m not okay with God because of the Hebrew Law, men’s group, daily prayer, etc. I’m okay with God because of Jesus was incarnate, lived with us, died for us, and offers life to the world. It simply requires faith to believe that fact and accept it. Don’t get me wrong. We are “created in Christ for good works,” but all of that other stuff doesn’t make me good with God; God has taken care of that. All that other stuff should be aimed very specifically at incorporating this God-given life into my being so that I am transformed into the divine life to which I’m called, or, in Paul’s words our “upward calling.” It is in Christ Jesus (and nothing else) that the blessing of Abraham comes upon us, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith (v 14). Amen.

It Is Time for the Lord to Act!

[The title, if it’s unfamiliar, is the very first thing the Deacon says in the Divine Liturgy (the Sunday eucharistic service) of the Eastern Orthodox Church.]

As I have mentioned ad nauseum in recent weeks, I’m re-reading Hunsinger’s The Eucharist and Ecuminism. I have felt not unlike poor Alice falling down the rabbit hole. It is a reductionist analysis of a handful of particularly contentious issues surrounding the Eucharist. There is nothing wrong with reducing a complex issue to its constituent parts in order to better understand them – that’s why I read authors like Hunsinger – but this time around I’m finding the book to be tough sledding precisely because it is so reductionist.

I decided to turn off the Kindle and go back to The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the particular eucharistic service we pray on a weekly basis in the Eastern Orthodox Church. I didn’t disect it or analyze it. All I did was read it through from The Great Doxology to the Dismissal and took a few notes along the way.

I was once again reminded that Sunday morning is quite simple. It’s “here and back again” (to steal a subtitle from Tolkein); it’s a journey to heaven where

We who mystically represent the Cherubim and sing to the life-giving Trinity the thrice holy hymn … lay aside all earthly cares … That we may receive the King of all, invisibly escorted by the angelic hosts. Alleluia!

Much of the ecumenical debate surrounds the question of sacrifice at the Eucharist. Is it a re-sacrificing of Christ, a participation in the eternal sacrifice of Christ, a sacrifice of praise by the Church to Christ? The Liturgy skips all the quibbling and gets to the heart of the matter by combining a paraphrase of Jesus’ words on the cross with the Eastern version of a kyrie:

Forgive, O God, those who hate us and those who love us. O God be gracious unto me a sinner, and have mercy upon me.

Note the sublime order: forgive others first (even my enemies!) and then in due time, forgive me. And then as the Elements are lifted high, as if in sacrifice, these incomparable words turn that sacrifice argument on its head:

God hath gone up in jubilation: the Lord with the voice of the trumpet.

It’s a journey (and a Victory Lap for Jesus Christ) … it’s a feast … it’s a forgiveness-fest of those who hate us (and once our priorities are in order, a forgiveness-fest from God to us) … it’s sustenance for the days ahead … It’s battle with the evil one.

Sorry, George Hunsinger, but it’s waaaaay better than your book. (And I suspect you’d agree 100%.) Spoiler alert: Here’s the very end of the service … it seems a good place to stop.

Priest: The blessing of the Lord and his mercy. Christ is in our midst!

People: He is and ever shall be!

Preparing For That We Know Not Of, Nor Where, Nor How

December 19 … Six more days in the Nativity fast. It’s not a fast that I observe, but whenever the Orthodox Church is in the midst of a major fasting season I find myself becoming more aware of the intricacies of my Christian life. Tomorrow, Dec. 20 is also the beginning of the Forefeast of the Nativity. During the Forefeast, the focus of the fast changes from penitential themes to more celebratory themes (the Christmas hymns are chanted in worship throughout the Forefeast and the twelve days of the Nativity Feast proper).

This year I am struck by how little anything actually changes in our society around Christmas. There are certainly the cosmetic changes of the season such as the lights and decorations, the music, the seasonal parties and food, etc. This is also the season of almsgiving and we are typically bombarded with pleas for various charities. And finally it is the season when so many Christians become utterly grinchy and whine incessantly about putting Christ back into Xmas and worrying that Starbucks only observes the season with the color red and fails to put a pine tree or a bauble on their coffee cup. All of this is utterly predictable because it is simply how life goes every year in the Western world.

This isn’t a lament, it’s just an observation. In fact I find a certain comfort that as much as everything changes at lightening speed, nothing has really changed going back to the Old Testament prophets. “Prepare the way of the Lord!” cries the prophet. They didn’t do it then and we don’t do it now – at least in a noticeable way.

The incarnation was (and is) this utterly quiet event which passes with hardly anyone noticing. And let’s consider who didn’t notice. First, there were the professional religionists (the Levites, the Scribes) who simply continued on with temple worship and synagogue teaching as they had always known it. There were the religionists who were either upset or disillusioned with the professionals and went about purifying and deepening religion (the Pharisees, the Zealots). They were too busy standing against religion-as-usual to notice something as quiet as the birth of the Messiah. And then there were the faithful. They were caught up in this new Roman tax which involved this new census and how inconvenient it was going to make their lives. They were busy getting their kids to synagogue school and looking for that perfect goat that they could take to the temple to sacrifice.

In my younger firebrand days I railed against all these people because I thought they missed the birth of Christ because they weren’t paying attention. I now take back most of the things I said because I see the situation in a brand new light. Who would have thought to look for the Messiah in a barn? What God was doing was so new and so different that even the faithful who were paying attention almost certainly missed it. Consider Anna and Simeon, the two prophets who were in the temple the day that Jesus was brought in. They recognized him and proclaimed his true identity. But that was an accident of scheduling. What if Anna would have arrived a half hour late because she was fetching water for another widow who was too ill to go to the well. What if Simeon was asked to teach at the Synagogue School that day. On the flip side, how many people were there in Jerusalem who were prepared and searching for the Messiah as faithfully as Anna and Simeon, but happened not to see Jesus because they weren’t in the temple at that particular hour? Without that “chance” meeting of the Christ-child, even the most prepared and watchful Jew would not have guessed what was coming to pass.

No, the failure of the world to offer the proper hoopla and praise for the Christ-child should not be used as an excuse to condemn the world because they weren’t prepared. How can you possibly prepare for something that has never occurred before. It will never be quite what you expect.

In fact the world was prepared according to St. Paul. “When we were children, we were slaves to the elemental spirits of the universe. But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal 4:3ff). Granted no one (except about a half dozen people) was looking in that exact spot and that exact manner for the Messiah, but when they saw him, they recognized him and gave him due honor.

This year I’m thinking that this is the very heart of Winter Lent. We prepare for that we know not of, nor where, nor how. For those who want to control their little world, this reality will lead to deep frustration and probably no small bit of railing against God. For those who are preparing in the same manner that Mary was preparing, we are ready to say, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

Most of the time I’m pretty sure I’m not a very faithful Christian. I also have little sense that Christ is doing a mysterious work in my life. Why do I think that? Because yesterday was pretty much like today which will almost certainly be like tomorrow. My life has not been transformed. Granted, I’m no spiritual athlete; I’m not faithful at all with the disciplines the church encourages and I’m not as faithful as I should be at worship. But during Winter Lent I come face to face with the God whose ways are so different and so mysterious that we rarely recognize him and his action. I’m confident that just as something mysterious but mostly unnoticed was going on in Bethlehem, so it is going on in me. Thanks be to God.

A Follow-up on Judgment and Repentance

After posting my previous essay, I listened to this installment of Praying in the Rain (also available in essay form here) with Fr Michael Gillis. He is able to explain certain aspects of how the ancient church and contemporary Christian East understand heaven and hell better than I can. If you are interested in further reading or listening, I recommend it.

A Science Fiction Author Meditates on Judgment and Repentance

I am currently listening to a SciFi audio book (Abaddon’s Gate, by James S. A. Corey) that features a very bad young woman (Clarissa) who was pushed over the edge by the arrest of her father and her denial of just how evil her father’s actions were. She kills lots (lots!) of people in her hope of revenge.

Once all the shooting is done and there’s time for reflection, the questions of forgiveness and redemption vs judgment become key themes in the book. This part of the book is amazingly insightful. (Okay, maybe I’m selling SciFi short, but I typically don’t turn to this genre for deep insights into theological themes.) It has me doing a lot of thinking about judgment and forgiveness.

I inhabit two very different worlds when it comes to this subject. Protestantism (the faith of my youth and pastoral ministry) contends that God’s primordial reaction to sin is wrath. God is holy and a holy God cannot abide the presence of sin. This puts God into a posture of wrath (and note that wrath is not an emotion, it’s an existential reality in opposition to that which is not holy) until the sin problem can be solved.

I am no longer Protestant and am now Eastern Orthodox. The Orthodox argue that this view of holiness is fundamentally flawed. It’s not God who cannot stand the presence of evil; God wants to stand in the midst of evil, to be present “to, with, and for” all his creation. Jesus’ favorite people were not the religious folks; he preferred the company of sinners and tax collectors. Thus, God’s primordial reaction to sin is not wrath, it is sorrow and longing for reunion. Wrath is a sinful human’s interpretation of what happens when we brush up against holiness; it’s not actually an attribute of God.

The two starting points are, from what I can see, diametrically opposed to each other, and these two radically different starting points lead to subtly different perceptions of judgment. From the Protestant perspective, since the “problem of holiness” is a divine problem (that is, a holy God cannot look upon sin), then judgment is inevitable unless extraordinary measures are taken. Those measures are the death of God’s Son which (from within this “juridical model” as it’s often called) is necessary to appease God’s wrath, and the sinner’s acceptance by faith the free gift of forgiveness which can now be offered by God because of the death of Jesus Christ.

From an Eastern Orthodox perspective, the problem is death (or separation from God, who is the source of life) and the sin which comes about because of the corroding effects of death. The life-giving connection between God and his creation was broken because of Adam’s sin. Without that life-giving connection, creation is slowly dying. The incarnation (God becoming human) re-linked God and his creation allowing divine life to flow back into creation. Humans, created as God’s priests on earth, are the means of that re-linking. Certainly the person must participate in the life-giving gift through faith. The person must repent and go to the work of assuming the proper posture that will allow this divine transformation to take place. But the ultimate goal is not to save the sinner, it is the transformation of the entire creation through the very life of God.

These two views on the matter of God’s relation to the world lead to subtly different views of judgment and what happens after death. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews says,  “And just as it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Heb 9:27f). For Protestants (and more specifically, for Evangelicals) the question is, “Did a person accept Christ as their Savior, or in the words of Hebrews, are they eagerly waiting for him?” The judgment hinges on that question and will determine whether you go to heaven or hell. For the Orthodox, the question is, “What is the state of the deep heart?” If one’s true self recognizes that I cannot help myself and is not fundamentally antagonistic toward Christ, the judgment will reveal that, no matter what one’s outward actions look like. One might have never made a conscious decision to become a committed follower of Christ and even appear to be antagonistic to Christ while their deep and hidden heart recognizes the hopelessness and eagerly awaits salvation offered in Christ. The heart, often ineffable to humans, will be fully revealed to Jesus Christ.

Another judgment text that is every bit as important as Hebrews 9 is 1 John 3:2 and it speaks to this. “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” What we look like and act like is not the actual determination of who we truly are. The judgment therefore isn’t a ruling of “you’re in” or “you’re out” it is rather a discernment of what truly is and what is only ephemeral.

All of us need to admit that we don’t know exactly what happens after death. Eternity is described in broad strokes (the judgment, we will be changed) or in fascinating metaphor (the Banquet of the Lamb, the Lake of Fire). Beyond this, scripture is mostly silent on the specifics. In my experience as a Protestant, I would say that Protestants think in terms of instantaneous change. When I get to heaven, I will immediately be perfected and purified. The Orthodox tend more toward seeing what happens after death as a process. Death itself marks a moment of no return; the die is cast in terms of your ultimate circumstance. But the process from my current state to my ultimate union with God will remain a process, even after death.

Jesus used the image of gold and its impurities. The heat and light of holiness will purify gold while burning away the impurities. If we lived a life of repentance and purgation, that process will be relatively painless in heaven under the discerning eye of our loving Father who longs for us to unite with him. If, on the other hand, I did little with my talents (to use the imagery of a different parable) and did not live a life of repentance and purgation, that process of fully entering into the Kingdom and becoming one with God might be quite a lot more painful as the chaff is stripped and burned away. This is not judgment in a moment, but judgment as a process of revealing my true self and allowing the “what we shall become” to finally appear through all the junk.

Although it is certainly not official Orthodox teaching, a surprising number of Orthodox theologians, bishops, and faithful suspect that in the end everyone will be saved. This is not a dismissal of the seriousness of sin and evil in the world. It rather begins with the assumption (described in some detail above) that divine wrath is certainly not a divine attribute but rather a sinful human perception of holiness. With that assumption in mind some people are able to discern the spark of repentance and possibility of forgiveness in even the most recalcitrant sinners they have met. This leads to speculation (and let’s be clear, this is not a dogmatic position, but only a counterfactual speculation) that all people may actually be open to entering into union with God once it is revealed who they truly are.

Again, let me reiterate, this speculation among some Orthodox that all might be saved is not a denial of the necessity of the Incarnation and Cross, nor is it a denial of God’s abhorrence of sin and evil. It’s not even a way of letting sinners off the hook because repentance and purification toward holiness will be an ongoing process in heaven, not an instantaneous transformation. It is rather a meditation on what it means to be created in the image of God and the fact that the divine image is never completely obliterated in sinful humanity. It is an attitude of confidence that Gen. 1:31 is literal beyond our comprehension when it says, “and behold, [God’s creation] was very good! And there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day.”

At this point I want to return to the novel. Clarissa, having returned to herself after the insane and all-consuming rage, is lost in despair for the evil things she has done. She is almost catatonic with grief. She only wishes that they would quickly find her guilty and execute her, for that is what she deserves. Anna, a minister of the Gospel who is working with Clarissa, seeks desperately to postpone the trial and the execution that is certain to follow. She fervently believes that there is something deep within Clarissa that can accept forgiveness. She is afraid that if Clarissa dies before she discovers that hope deep within, she will indeed be lost forever.

This interplay is remarkably Orthodox in its sensibilities. Even in the face of ineffable evil, Anna, the Christian, can find the goodness of God’s creation and believes in the reality of forgiveness and transformation. Paradoxically it is a perspective that should cause us to fear divine judgment even more. (It would be a fearful thing to be Clarissa, even a repenting Clarissa, before the penetrating eye of God.) God will look deeply into us and not just make the bad stuff disappear as if all that sin stuff was a mistake, giving me a pass directly to perfection, rather he will see me for what I truly am and proceed to burn away the chaff and transform me into what I was truly meant to become. This is the glory … and terror … of true faith in Jesus Christ’s perfect offer of salvation. Amen.

Is Cowardice Worthy of the Lake of Fire?

So here’s a weird bit of scripture:

He who conquers shall have this heritage, and I will be his God and he shall be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death. (Rev 21:7f)

Who’s going to burn in the lake of fire? I understand the faithless, the polluted, murderers, fornicators, etc. But why put “the cowardly” at the top of the list?

I ran across this verse when doing some cross referencing with the word “fear.” (See previous post.) To be clear the Greek word for fear (phobos) is not used here (although the KJV does translate it “fear,” so it showed up in one of my searches). Rather it is the word deilois, an adjective meaning “cowardly” or “timid.”

Remember Martin Niemöller’s famous poem that begins, “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Socialist. … ? Pastor Niemöller was railing against apathy, but timidity can also lead to such inaction. And Niemöller’s contention was that those guilty of innaction are as guilty as those who did the evil deeds. As great a sound bite as that poem is, I always found Pastor Niemöller to be a bit over the top. I attributed it to survivor’s remorse. I argued that reality was a bit more complicated than that. There are, after all, extenuating circumstances. Ethics can always be black and white after the fact; doing the right thing is often gray and murkey in the midst of the crisis. For this reason I always preferred Bonhoeffer, who, in all his absoluteness, was far more nuanced than Niemöller. (That’s pretty funny, heh? Describing Bonhoeffer as “nuanced”?)

(And don’t call Bonhoeffer a martyr. He didn’t die for confessing Christ, he died because he was a spy and was caught in the midst of an act of treason. The cause for his actions was his Christian faith, but that was not the cause of his death. In his Letters from Prison he struggles with the issue of “disobeying Ceasar when we are commanded to respect our authorities.” This gets to the heart of why he is such a great hero of mine. Did he do it because he was a Christian or did he do it because he was a German? I’m not sure Bonhoeffer could fully distinguish the two. It’s this fundamental ambiguity that makes him so great in my mind. He’s a confused Christian and accidental saint. While I’m convinced that God will give him the white robe of martyrdom, it was political expediency that drove him to plot to overthrow and/or murder Hitler.)

But in the end, it may be Niemöller who had the clearer vision of truth: “But as for the cowardly … their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.

Caveat. I’m not preaching this as gospel truth. I’m just trying to make sense of a really weird verse of scripture.

No Fear in Love

Over the past few days I’ve been reviewing how the word “fear” (Greek  phobos) is used in the New Testament to make sure my memory about it was correct. The reason for this exercise was because I’ve heard a couple of people use 1 Jn 4:18 (“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”) as a proof text for condemning the current fear of Muslims that is so prevalent in the U.S. What I discovered is that while my memory was correct, I had forgotten how profound a reversal this verse (along with Paul in Romans 8) offers up.

Fearing God is normative. It is a major theme in the incarnation story. To offer one example, when the birth of John the Baptist was foretold to Zacharias, “fear fell upon him” (Lk 1:12). It is also a big part of Jesus’ life. The disciples were seized with fear after Jesus calmed the sea (Mk 4:41). After another miracle, “Fear seized them all; and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has arisen among us!’” (Lk 7:16). Notice that in this instance – and this is a common theme in the Gospels – a natural response to fear is to worship God. The two seem to go hand in hand.

This connection between fear and God continues right into the Church age. For the Church, fear of God is a tool of discipline. “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear” (1 Tim. 5:20 RSV). That pattern began (in Luke’s telling of the story, anyway) with the judgment of Annanias and Saphira. After they died, “great fear came upon the whole church, and upon all who heard of these things” (Acts 5:11).

In short, fear (phobos, powerful fear; possibly a better translation would be “terror”) is our normative relation to God. And this makes sense. He is our Creator and Sustainer. God is holy. Anyone who sees God will certainly die, according to the Old Testament, because sin cannot look upon such holiness. As sinful people it would be unnatural and wrong for us not to be terrified of our Creator and Sustainer in our state of being controlled by sin and death.

It is into this context that both Paul and John turn fear on its head.

For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Rom 8:15ff)

John takes Paul’s sentiment to a more profound level in 1 John. “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” This verse is a restatement of one of the great truths of John (that stretches across the Gospel, the Epistles, and the Apocalypse). Just as there is a coninherence between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that is at the very heart of the life of the Holy Trinity, so there is a potential coinherence between God and the believer that can be completed through love. As God dwells in us and as we accept his transformation within us, we begin to dwell in God. This action of each dwelling in the other results in true unity not just a familial connection. This is the very thing the first epistle says in 4:16. This “cause” has an “effect” found in the next verse. “Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment.”

Judgment should instill fear in us. No one wants to go before the judge. But as we enter into unity with Christ, a miracle occurs and fear is driven out by divine boldness. Even though God is our Creator, Ruler, and Judge, true believers can approach the judgment seat with boldnesss. This is the point of v. 18. “There is no fear [of judgment] in love, but perfect [or complete – the Greek word is telios] love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection [telios] in love.

I have great sympathy for the contention that we should be far more afraid of our own fear than we should be of the terrorists. As Churchill famously said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” But don’t drag 1 Jn 4:18 into this particular argument, this verse has very specifically to do with our relationship to God, and how, as we enter into union with God and God’s love flows directly into our deep heart to deify it, the normative fear that we have of God is banished by a bold, living love. Thanks be to God.

Men’s Group? … Schmens Group!

I’ve joined a men’s group / Bible study at work, and honestly, I’ve been hating on it ever since I joined. While other members talk about how much they need it for their spiritual life, I find there is little that is spiritual about it. We watch videos and the videos seem to me to be a cross between Dr. Phil and Peter Drucker with a few Bible verses thrown in much the same way that the Human Resources department uses those goofy inspirational quotes posters to lift morale around the office.

When I was a pastor in eastern Kansas and Nebraska I would take occasional retreats at monasteries (something the Presbyterian Church encouraged, by the way). In retrospect, one thing that struck me about monastic life was that the monks never got together for Bible Studies nor fellowship groups. They gathered daily, but it was always for prayers: matins and vespers for sure, and for those who were available, also prayers at “the hours” (every three hours throughout the night and day). Furthermore, these prayers weren’t an opportunity to talk to and encourage each other, they were highly structured with the purpose of making us humans shut up. They were made up of psalms, hymns, readings, and typically some sort of call and response prayer. (Later on I discovered this is also the pattern of Eastern Orthodox monastic life.)

What do the monks know that we Christians in the secular world have not figured out?

  1. While becoming a nicer, more polite, and productive human is a perfectly fine goal if you’re Miss Manners or Peter Drucker, those things can actually be distracting to our entering into communion and unity with God. The true goal of our spiritual struggle is a struggle to become one with Christ, not to become successful in our spiritual life.
    1. The enemy of our union with Christ is our love of self. Becoming a better human (better husband, better, father, better coworker, etc.) easily becomes a means of promoting my love of self disguised as love of God. (A classic form of idolatry.)
    2. Overcoming what the Orthodox Church calls the passions – what might be called the noisy distractions of everyday life, everything from my mind flitting from this topic to that willy-nilly, to my perceived need to obey my hunger pangs at a moments notice, to my becoming quickly bored when I’m not being entertained – are the true enemies of my entering into true communion with Christ.
  2. True unity is achieved through an attitude of prayer. Brother Lawrence called it “practicing the presence of God.” Talking to other people about spiritual things frequently causes us to focus on other people and the so called “spiritual things” and takes our focus off of God. The presence of God can only be discovered when our innermost being becomes truly silent, because God will very rarely interrupt our busy-ness of mind and body. He will wait silently until we too are waiting silently.
  3. The “language” of heaven, I suspect, is twofold. It is a “language” made up of silence and singing. Of course it isn’t actual silence, but that’s how we perceive it in our current state, because all our thoughts and words drown out the sublime and profound communication of the heart that leads to authentic communion with God and results in union.
  4. Authentic spirituality, like being a professional athlete, is highly disciplined. Disciplines require constant repetition.  Once we begin to truly discipline our inner life, we are finally freed to enter into the world of God’s true light and life. (This is why in the Greek language, people who do this are called “spiritual athletes.”)

Knowing God is not an intellectual exercise, nor does it come about magically through socialization. It is an activity of the true heart. I suppose that fellowship groups have their place, but in the midst of this most recent experience I am reminded of the frustration of two decades of promoting this stuff as a pastor. The result is a deep sadness that we seem so willing to substitute this for true knowledge of God.