Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Godly Sorrow?

Godly sorrow works repentance, but if you don't make it to Godly sorrow, chances are you are stuck in your spiritual growth process. You are probably languishing in either despondency or apathy, both of which will eventually keep you from spiritual progress and maturity.

Godly sorrow is exactly that- Godly!

One of the greatest obstacles to authentic spiritual progress (and by "progress" I mean a deeper experience of communion and union with the Persons of the Holy Trinity) is Pride. This pride masks itself as "false humility" at times by saying "I'm so far gone, there's no use in trying anymore." That is Pride, dear ones.

Pride always suggests self-sufficiency. Either I don't need anyone else, or I don't want anyone else. Both sicknesses have their seed in Pride.

What is the answer? Brutal honesty! Not brutality toward another, but brutality directed at my own soul. An honesty that says I will no longer hide from the searing Light of Love that demands an unadulterated response, undiluted with self serving agendas and self congratulating desires.

To have Godly sorrow means that I long only for God Himself. St. Paul displayed such love when he told the Romans that he was willing to become a castaway himself if it meant the salvation of his Jewish brethren. St. Paul loved God and his neighbor to the extent that he was willing to forgo his own salvation for their benefit.

How do we develop Godly sorrow?

Well, I don't know.

But if the fathers of the Church can be our guide, I think they would advise us to look to the basic disciplines of the Faith - prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

Prayer, because corporate and private prayers and worship shape me and reawaken the hunger for God in my soul. The wisdom preserved in the Liturgy and prayers of the Faith are a veritable banquet for the soul to both educate and edify. I learn of His eternal Beauty in His House.

Fasting, because until my physical desires are made subject to my true Hunger and my true Need for God, I will forever be tempted to seek the temporary at the expense of the eternal. Fasting is much more than discipline with food. It is subjugation of the entire body to the work of eternal communion with God. It isn't a denial of anything as much as it is an affirmation of a single thing - Life in Christ!

And Almsgiving, because until I have a right relationship with possessions and "things," I will always be tempted to satisfy my deep longing for God with the shallow and empty false assurances of what I've gathered around me. When I can hold my very life loosely in my hands then I will know how to long for God above all else.

So, how are you doing? Have you yet reached Godly sorrow? Until you do, repentance will be nothing more than "I'm sorry I got caught."

Thursday, June 15, 2006

My Eyes A Fountain of Tears

St. Paul told the Corinthians that "godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death." (2 Corinthians 7:10) And this is the next step in reaching sober joy.

After one has admitted his need for spiritual and physical sobriety, one is asked to confront where one is with a full knowledge of where one should be.

That distance, as great as it is, produces "sorrow" or shame or despair. This is a critical crossroads in any spiritual journey because the wrong choice can lead to lethargy and poverty of soul, while another choice leads to joy.

In any spiritual journey you will confront your own spiritual poverty. When this happens, the Enemy of your soul longs to trap you in despair. "What's the use. I'm so far away from Christ, why even try." And at that moment the Enemy wins your soul. He traps you in a pit of despondency, and you lie there wounded, dying, but also self centered. Ultimately, what leads a soul to despair to the point of inaction is PRIDE. "I am such a bad person not even God Himself can rescue me." The sin of pride robs the soul of a sorrow that leads to life and traps that very same soul in a sorrow that leads to paralysis.

But if you choose to sorrow with faith, your sorrow is of a different nature altogether. Here the sorrow is based not on self centered shame but on authentic love of Another. I love God. I long to be with God. I see my own spiritual poverty and I recognize that this poverty is keeping me from my Beloved. Here my sorrow is based on my longing for God and this sorrow leads me to repentance.

We cannot hope for sober joy without first confronting authentic sorrow for the poverty of our soul. But we are at a dangerous intersection of our journey and the Evil One longs to capture us. He will fail if we truly believe that God is good and loving. If we believe that the Father truly longs for we prodigals to return home. If we believe that a generous and loving welcome awaits all those who turn from their rebellion and sin and run home to the Father.

We will confront this sorrowful choice in several places of our lives. As soon as one battle is won, know that many more battles await you, but we can never allow despair. God is for us. Who can be against us.

So, dear ones, let us join the prophet Jeremiah and say "Oh, that my head were waters,And my eyes a fountain of tears..." (Jeremiah 9:1) But let us not sorrow as those who are without hope. God, our loving Lord, will not reject us, ever. Let us pray that our sorrow is not birthed from self centeredness but from a heart that longs for "my Beloved." Let us love God, dear one, for He is truly so lovely.

Come, brothers, weep with me.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Steps to Sobriety

As I said before, the first step in becoming sober and therefore open and available to the grace of God to transfigured you into a Christ-like person is to admit you need sobriety.

While this may sound like the first few lines of an AA brochure (the similarities are striking), it is meant to call us to confront the very first stumbling block to our own healing - our fear of change. Many of us prefer the "devil we know" as opposed to the unknown world of spiritual health. We say we want to be saved. We say we want to be transformed by God's grace, but too many of us either know precious little about what that actually means or are really fooling ourselves.

The truth is I want to be changed as long as it doesn't hurt too much or cost too much or isn't too much trouble. Come on, confess! You feel that way too!

If you've ever tried to break a bad habit then you know how hard it can be to stop doing one thing and start consistently doing another. Some have become so despondent of change that they have concluded its impossible. "A leopard can't change his spots." Others give up and declare that "this must be the way God made me, so I'm OK as I am."

But the scriptures and Holy Tradition are clear that a man can be transformed by God's grace, but that transformation never happens by accident or "magic." It is never enough to say the "sinner's prayer" and then POOF, you're saved. No, it happens in a heart warmed by faith and strengthened by hope. It happens when a man turns to God as his only hope and cries out for mercy. God always answers "Yes!" And this is a continual turning toward God and away from inebriation.

So, my first step in sobriety, toward authentic spiritual healing is the confession "I need help." At that point, your heart is open to receive what you have always needed, grace and mercy from the God Who came Himself to rescue you from sin, death, and Satan.

But this is only the first step. Let's say it now - this process of authentic sobriety and spiritual health will take the rest of your life, but the process is always the same and it always starts with confession of need.

Our God is the ultimate Gentleman - He will only enter where He is invited.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Sober Up!

As the title of this blog states, my desire and I believe the very goal of Orthodox Spirituality is "nepsis" or Sober Joy. Another way of translating this word is "quietness."

Either way, this goal of Orthodox spirituality is defined as moving from the fractured, chaotic, and divided mind of self centeredness to the peaceful, sober, hopeful, and joyful rest of authentic communion with God, the Holy Trinity. This lifetime work, this lifetime struggle, this lifetime journey is infused throughout the Divine Liturgy, the cycle of prayers, the rhythm of fasting and feasting, and the mindset of Orthodox Christianity. The whole of salvation is summed up in the words of St. Seraphim of Sarov when he instructed a seeker to "acquire the Holy Spirit."

So, what is it about acquiring the Holy Spirit that produces the spiritual sobriety necessary to be in authentic communion with God?

First, we must admit to our lack of sobriety. We live in an age where intoxicants come at us from all sides. Our own woundedness feeds this desire for the oblivion of intoxication. Our pain, our fears, our brokenness, all feed this temptation to escape from reality into an illusion of numbness. But this intoxication, whether from chemicals, ego, or even religion, always lies to us. In the end our lack of sobriety actually feeds the very pain, fear, and ego we were trying to escape.

This is why the Church is such a shock to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The Church, the Faith, the Tradition of Orthodoxy all call me to sobriety, to face reality, to confront my pain, to admit my fears, to confess my ego. But this is nothing less than the path to salvation, albeit a terrifying path.

Though terrifying, it is actually the only way for me to escape from the debilitating effects of a life numbed by the intoxicants of a fallen world. I will not be able to come into the unfiltered Presence of the God Who made the universe if I have never sobered up. I will HATE His Presence. It will torment me. Just like a drunk can't stand loud noises or bright lights, so I will be miserable in God's Presence because I came to Him stupified by the lies of my own sufficiency.

The Church calls me to cry out "Lord, have mercy." Not in some pagan attempt to dissuade the wrath of an angry father, but to constantly say to my own soul "Sober up!" Stay Awake to your need for mercy. Don't let the temporary lies of intoxication rob you of the eternal joys of communion with God!

In the next few posts I want to explore the path to sobriety the Church provides for me. As with any inebriated soul, this process will be painful, but that pain is both temporary and nothing to be compared to the joy of a sober gaze into the Face of a loving Lord.

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, the sinner.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

God Ain't Got No Grandchildren

Sincere and fervent faith is always one generation away from being extinguished in a community.

That's because we live in a world where it is easy to lead self centered lives and difficult to lead purposeful Christian lives.

As M. Scott Peck said in his famous Road Less Traveled: "Life is difficult."

This is precisely why I am increasingly convinced that the Orthodox shorthand of Cradle Orthodox and Convert Orthodox is counter productive. The very real truth is that we are all Converts and that's as it should be.

The Orthodox Church teaches us that, like the Israel of the Old Covenant, we Christians are the spiritual Israel of God, and that means our calling, our destiny, is to be a kingdom of priests so the whole world will be blessed. This divine calling and identity is not meant to make us feel proud or somehow superior to others, but to call us to a deeper sense of mission and responsibility to our world. Like Israel of old, we are to be an example to the whole world to show them what a "new community" led and nurtured by God's grace and mercy looks like.

But, like Israel of old, we too are tempted to forget that this special calling is not some kind of guarantee to us regardless of our behavior or our fidelity to God Himself. Like Israel, if we forget our primary mission, our reason for existence, we will be replaced. St. Paul warned the Romans that "If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you." (Romans 11:17, 18).

We Orthodox must continue to challenge each other to a life of faithfulness. We cannot allow any of our brethren to foolishly believe that a simple accident of birth or some ethnic connection makes us truly Orthodox faithful.

No, we each must continuously make the blessings of our baptism real in our lives today. We cannot "inherit" faithfulness. We can only inherit the great benefit of a spiritual "head start." But that very blessing should make us all the more committed to share this blessing with those not fortunate enough to have an Orthodox beginning.

So, God doesn't have any grandchildren. Our faith demands fidelity from generation to generation, and then to extend that blessing of being a Kingdom of priests to the whole world. So, in the end, we are truly all Converts every day our lives.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Sinner in the Hands of a Loving God - A Diversion

Below is an article I wrote recently for an internet publication. I feel strongly about this particular theological difference between the East and the West and wanted to share it with my current readers. I will be interested in your comments.


What if freedom were worse than punishment? What if love was more fearful than hatred? These seeming paradoxical statements accurately reflect the perspective of our Orthodox faith on heaven and hell, eternal life and eternal damnation.

The Orthodox perspective on God's judgment and our eternal destiny, whether heaven or hell, uniquely preserves the biblical teaching that all humanity is created in God's image and is meant to be with God forever. The Church through the ages has preserved and declared a truth that seems to be a paradox: God made us free, free to choose Him or reject Him – AND He loves us forever, regardless of our choice.

But how can we say God loves all of us equally when we know the Church teaches that some of humanity will really spend eternity in hell? Isn't God angry with those people who reject Him? Don't our sins offend God and earn His wrath?

The startling truth is that our behavior has no power over God; it does not disturb His eternal peace. God is always at peace, and He is always loving. Your obedience does not “please” Him and your disobedience does not “offend” Him. He is eternally free from passions and loves you unconditionally. The question of your eternal salvation lies in how you will respond to this eternal Love. Do you embrace it with joy, or do you writhe in torment in the loving embrace of God?

In light of this Orthodox understanding, how are we Orthodox supposed to understand Paradise and Hell? I believe there are three foundational truths that must under gird our Orthodox Christian understanding.

First, God is FREE. The paganism of ancient Greek philosophy taught that matter was eternal, and the gods were bound by “necessity” to act in certain ways. The gods of our pagan past were not free. They were slaves to “necessity.” But the Orthodox understanding about God, the Trinity, is entirely different. God is free. He is not bound by tragic necessity. He forgives the sinner unconditionally. Since God is essentially and foundationally free, He is not forced to punish or reward. In fact, the Last Judgment is not about punishments or rewards at all. It is about revealing in the Light of God’s eternal presence who we really are at our very core.

Second, Humanity is FREE. We were created, all of us, in God’s image, and God has given us His freedom. Since He is not enslaved to any “necessity,” we are also free from any sort of determinism, of fate. Adam’s sin did not make us all “guilty” of wrongdoing as much at his rebellion passed on to us our fatal handicap of mortality, which tempts us to dominate others and deny God in our attempt to escape death by our own power. Christ comes to deliver us, not from sin, but from the consequence of sin – from that death that we can never escape by ourselves. At the Common Resurrection we will all be raised, good and evil, holy and unholy, righteous and unrighteous, and come face to face with the loving God. We will abide throughout eternity with our free choice to either love God and want Him above all else or our free choice to live self-centered, rebellious lives. Either way, we will not escape the consequences of our free choice.

Finally, God’s love is FIRE. Hebrews 12:28, 29 says “since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire.” Coming into God’s uncreated Presence should cause us to seriously re-evaluate our own lives, our attitudes, and our actions. There will come a day when He will no longer mercifully shield us from the full, blazing radiance of His uncreated Presence.

This is what St. John meant when he said that, at the Second Coming, some will beg the mountains to fall on them to hide them from Christ the Lamb (see Revelation 6:12-17). This fire of God’s love warms the man who loves God and torments the man who rejects God. But we’ve always known what fire does. Fire purifies gold and consumes wood. It softens wax and hardens clay. The fire of God’s unconditional love does the same for a man – it either purifies him or torments him, and it either softens him or hardens him. What that man is made of – what he has made of himself – determines the effect of the fire of God’s love.

We live in a modern world where people either believe that God is nothing more than a senile grandfatherly figure, easily swayed with sentiment, or a Divine Terrorist dangling souls over the pit of hell to guilt or shame men into proper behavior. The truth is both more awesome and more terrible. God is a loving Lord Who will not diminish Himself to accommodate our weakness. Rather, He invites all of us to be transformed by His loving grace into a person who can live joy filled lives in the fire of His uncreated Presence. This invitation is extended to us here and now. How will you answer?

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Convert/Cradle - An Orthodox Life

Recently, I've thought a lot about the verbiage we use to talk about the faithful in the Orthodox Church. For those raised in the church their whole lives, who have come from generations of Orthodox Christians, we call them "Cradle Orthodox."

For those who have discovered Orthodoxy later in life, who many times come from other Christian confessions and many times have a strong formation in other Christian groups, we call them "Convert Orthodox."

This is a handy way to talk about the cultural challenges that face each group. On one hand a "Cradle Orthodox" might be terrified by an influx of people into his parish from a different ethnic background precisely because he fears loosing something precious in his background. This "Cradle Orthodox" comes from centuries of formation and many times his religious understanding of the Orthodox faith is inextricably tied up with his cultural formation. For many "Cradle Orthodox" to be Greek or Russian or Romanian or Serbian IS to be Orthodox.

A "Convert Orthodox" however, would look at this in bewilderment. He has been shaped by a religious experience that says his faith is not so much tied to an accident of birth as to a free and conscious choice to follow a faith. He is amazed that a "Cradle Orthodox" knows so little about the faith he was born into. Many times this "Convert Orthodox" has paid a high social price (sometimes, in the case of former pastors who convert to Orthodoxy, they have also lost jobs and retirement benefits) to embrace what they have discovered as the "faith once for all delivered to the saints."

The "Cradle" sees his self identity wrapped up in this ethnic identity which includes a religious affiliation.

The "Convert" has little if any ethnic identity at all, and certainly doesn't see his self identity shaped by any ethnic ties. If there are any ethnic ties, they will be subordinate to his religious fervor and commitment to his church.

This necessarily sets up an interesting clash of civilizations within the Orthodox Church here in America.

This is a country where a melting pot of ethnic backgrounds are all thrown together. For 200+ years we have experimented with building a nation where a person is identified as an American but may come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. The national motto of the country is the Latin "E Plurabus Unum"- Out of the Many, One.

Having set this up, I want my next post to deal with what I hope to be an ongoing conversation about the very nature of Orthodox identity, an identity that goes beyond any ethnic heritage, while not dismissing the beauty and value of a heritage where Orthodoxy shaped an entire nation.

But, as my grandma says, God ain't got no grandchildren!