Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas

Christmas Homily of St. Isaac the Syrian

This Christmas night bestowed peace on the whole world; 
So let no one threaten;
This is the night of the Most Gentle One - Let no one be cruel;
This is the night of the Humble One - Let no one be proud.
Now is the day of joy - Let us not revenge;
Now is the day of Good Will -Let us not be mean.
In this Day of Peace -Let us not be conquered by anger.
Today the Bountiful impoverished Himself for our sake; 
So, rich one, invite the poor to your table.
Today we receive a Gift for which we did not ask; 
So let us give alms to those who implore and beg us.
This present Day cast open the heavenly doors to our prayers; 
Let us open our door to those who ask our forgiveness.
Today the DIVINE BEING took upon Himself the seal of our humanity,
In order for humanity to be decorated by the Seal of DIVINITY.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Christmas Reflection

St. Ephrem the Syrian writes, “The Lord of David and Son of David hid His glory in swaddling clothes. His swaddling clothes gave a robe of glory to human beings.” This week we celebrate this most incredible event where God becomes man and yet is still God. He came in a most humble way delivered in a stable and wrapped in simple clothing. Yet as Saint Ephrem says, this simple beginning gave to all mankind robe of glory. What is this robe of glory?

In today's world it is hard to focus on the true meaning of this mystical event with all the parties and the mad gift giving, the coming of Santa Clause and the unending football games on TV. We are distracted even more now by our cell phones, iPads and instant movies. We no longer complain about not having a television but not having one that is big enough. How do we make this event relevant this week?

When we think of this robe of glory that He gave us we must first think back to His nature and the way He was brought into the world. He came in humility and left this world in humility. His robe was not made of golden threads. His birth and subsequent life had noting to do with material well being. He lived with a pure heart, one that glorified God, one that shone for all to see.

We must begin our reflection on this day with total humility. We must admit our weaknesses, our ways that deviate from what He taught and demonstrated to us. We must acknowledge our pride and our desire to hide our dirty inner clothing with fancy outer clothing. We must admit that we do not have this robe of glory that He brought for all humankind. We must make ourselves feel His humility.

With this reflection we must also remember the unending and limitless love He has for all His children. Acknowledging His love for us we can be joyful that we are held in His loving and merciful arms. We can be joyful that we are so important to God and in our knowledge that He will do anything to guide us towards His perfection.  He holds for us a robe of glory.

Let us rejoice in this glory that awaits us. Let us recognize Jesus for Who He really is, God Incarnate. Let's lay aside all our doubts about God and His Church. Let us for a short moment try on that robe of glory. Let us experience His peace and love of all humankind.

Joy to the world, the Lord has come!  Glorify Him. Follow Him.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Becoming Watchful

Do you experience distractions when you try to pray? Do you ever wonder what is the cause of those actions you take that you wish you had not taken? Whether we are in prayer or involved in our daily activities we are misled by thoughts. To counteract this we need to learn the practice of Watchfulness.

What is watchfulness in our Orthodox tradition? It involves a continual guarding or the heart, the center of our soul, from all thoughts that lead us away from God. These thoughts are called "logismoi" in Greek. These are thoughts that mislead us or distract us in prayer. They are not like we normally think of thoughts, but are those that seem to come from nowhere. They are temptations intended to lead us astray. They are not the result of our rational process but come from outside us sent by the devil to lead us away from God.  They are not "our" thoughts. They are directed at "our" weaknesses, our passions, which lead us to sinful activity, away from God. When we sit down for prayer we intend to focus our full attention on God. But against our intention we are bombarded by thoughts that take us away from our prayer and concentration on God. They are coming from without with the intention of disrupting our prayer to keep us separated from God.

The Church Fathers describe differing ways how these work but in general they describe them beginning with an assault, a sneak attack. It may be a thought to get up and do something during prayer. It may be a thought to lash out in anger or to condemn another person. It may be a thought of envy or a desire to possess something that is not ours or we cannot afford. It could be any  number of things depending our our weaknesses.

After this initial assault then if we are not watchful we enter into a dialogue with this thought. We begin to consider how to respond as a result of this thought. This then is followed by a consent, we own the thought as our own and become prepared to act on it. This is when the sin is committed and we become a captive of the thought. 

After we respond to the thought, the next time a similar thought is encountered we are more likely to accept it as our own and respond. The temptation becomes stronger. We become a captive of the logismoi leading us to a bad habit that we call a passion.

If we are watchful what are we to do with these thoughts? IGNORE them! The church fathers tell us to simply ignore them. They are like flies that fly around and bother us. We need to brush them away. Watch them come and go without disturbing the mind. They will quickly disappear. We need to think of them as an unwanted salesman who knocks at our door. We do not let him in and do not have a dialogue with him. The same with these thoughts. Do not let them enter into your heart.

Since God demands our whole heart, mind and soul we need to be ever watchful of these temptation that come in the form of thoughts. They are not ours but sent to us to lead us away from God. So just like we are not obligated to let any stranger into our house, similarly we do not have to accept theses thoughts and let them into our minds or enter our heart. To become watchful we must seek God's help to develop this attentiveness and resistance. This is why it is so important for us to stand before God every morning and focus our full being towards Him and engage our mind in prayer focused on God alone.

In prayer we need to practice rejecting all thoughts and develop this mental discipline. To pray we must not be distracted by any worldly thoughts otherwise it is not prayer. To dialogue with God requires our full attention to Him alone.  One of the most powerful prayers is the Jesus Prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me a sinner." This is a complete prayer. The first part is a confession of faith in the divinity of Christ and the Holy Trinity. The second is a supplication acknowledging our fallen nature, our weakness, our sinfulness and our need to God's mercy.

By repeating this prayer over and over as part of our prayer rule, we learn to concentrate only on the words. In doing this, the prayer becomes a habit and will be with us at all times. It will be there when we receive the tempting thoughts and will help us immediately drive them away. This is a prayer that with practice will be with you the entire day, even while you are working. It will lead you to a life where you act as of God's children. It will enable you to become watchful.

Remember what our purpose is in this life. We are preparing for our Heavenly life to come. We should always be looking forward to the end of our earthly life and think of ourselves as training for this future, our life with God in Heaven. The Jesus prayer is not like yoga or Transcendental Meditation. It is based of the reality of a living relationship with God, the God who revealed Himself to us in His Incarnation, the God who humbled Himself to take on human flesh, to become fully man while yet remaining fully God. He Showed us the Way to become united with Him. He was Crucified, arose to sit at the right hand of the Father in Heaven and opened the gates of Paradise for those who choose to follow Him. This is quite different from Eastern ascetic practices that are centered on oneself and seek a stillness that is identified with an impersonal absolute. As Christians, God has revealed Himself to us in Jesus Christ. We strive to become like Him and out of our love for Him enter into a ongoing dialog with Him. This leads us to a mind that is ever focused not on stillness or emptiness, but on actions that carry out His will, actions that are without sin actions based on love. We are created in His likeness and image and out of his love for us and our love for Him we are destined to be united with Him in eternal life. Watchfulness is key to us realizing our potential. The Jesus Prayer coupled with a life of repentance and participation in the sacramental life of the Church helps us gain the grace of God that enables us to become like Him.

For more on the Jesus prayer go to the website 

Reference: The Hidden Man of the Heart, Archimandrite Zacharias

Monday, December 8, 2014

Mystery of the Heart

When you read in Scripture, the Kingdom of God is within us (Lk 17:21), what does this mean to you? The Church Fathers refer to this place within also as the "Heart." It is in this place that God has fashioned that God abides so He can manifest Himself through each person. The role of the Church is to help us discover this deep place of the "Heart" that is also the center of our soul.

It is the place within where we wage a battle for our salvation. This is the target of all our ascetic efforts.  We want it to be made pure. Jesus has told us that the pure of Heart will see God. As we seek to become united with God, to overcome our sinfulness, we desire that our soul, its "Heart" be ignited by His grace.

Jesus told us, You shall love the Lord your God will all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. (Matt 12:30) So, what does this mean? Saint Gregory Palamas says the heart is the body of our body, a place where our whole being becomes like a knot. When our mind and heart are united we have only one thought––the thought of God. All of our desire is focused on God. When we give our whole mind, our whole heart to God we are totally focused on Him. In this stance we receive His grace and are given the ability to do His will. In this way we attain what Apostle Paul meant when he said that Christ is formed in us (Gal 4:19).  We become whole and are perfected.

We can never wholly contain God in our heart as He is infinite, something greater than our heart. He makes it a dwelling place, a temple of His divinity reflecting His image in us. When our whole heart and mind are turned to God we become holy, enlightened, "the light of the world." It is in this way that God directs our life, fulfilling the purpose He has for us.

Reflect on the following passage from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus told His disciple the following:
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In this same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)
We want to purify our heart so that is shines, becomes a great light, enabling us to take action in the world in a way that glorifies God, that encourages others to purify their hearts and to seek God with their whole heart and mind and soul. In this way the whole world can become a great light.

What is it that keeps us from becoming this light that Jesus speaks about? Our reality is that we are not able to give our whole heart and mind to God but instead are distracted by our passions, our earthly desires. We are not living with a focus on the "Heart" but on the things of this created world siphoning our attention away from God. Because of our fallen nature we have within us also the tendency to sin. As Paul says, "all have sinned and  come short of the Glory of God." (Rom 3:23)

How are we to proceed? We must do as the prodigal son, recognize our condition and seek to return to our father's house which is within. We must uproot our sinful tendencies so that God's commandments will become alive in our heart instead of our passions and worldly desires.

This is a path of return that is difficult. There is only one way and that is to master our situation with God's help so we can follow the divine commandments. Archimandrite Zacharias writes, 
There is no greater misfortune than that of an insensible and verified heart that is unable to distinguish between the luminous Way of God's Providence and the gloomy confusion of the ways of the world."
Difficult, yes, but we know it is possible. We have an all powerful ally, God.  His aim is for our "Heart" to become His temple.  He says to us, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock: If anyone hears my voice, and opens the door, I will come to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me? (Rev 3"20). When we knock and the  door is opened we discover the greatest of miracles. Our heart becomes united with the Holy Spirit. With an open "Heart" we can unify our mind with our heart and God will fill His Kingdom within us with His full goodness.

For this to happen God must first be able to converse with us. We must be capable of hearing Him and willing to surrender our will to His direction.  In this way God can become the sole focus of our life. We must learn to develop an intimate relationship with Him so we can have an ongoing dialogue with Him

What gets in the way? It's our pride, our self-centeredness. We fail to see the larger picture and see our death as the end of everything that gives us pleasure. We become fearful and sinful seeking to satisfy our own needs. We are stuck until we can come to terms with the reality of our situation, just like the prodigal son before he was able to return to his father. We must say what the he said, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you and am no more worthy to be called your son. (Luke 15:19-19) In this way we are humbled. We discover how poorly we live by His commandments, how distant we are from Him. We see clearly our self-centeredness, our selfishness and pride. We become sorry for our condition and seek His help to return. From this realization we are motivated to make changes in our attitude and orientation toward life and God. We begin a long journey of purification where we liberate our "Heart" from all the bodily passions. In cooperation with Grace we will finally be able to surrender our whole being to Him, to commit our whole heart, our whole mind, and our whole soul to Him. We will discover the "Kingdom within."

Reference: The Hidden Man of the Heart by Archimandrite Zacharias

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Tests of Faith

Faith according to Scripture is something that is beyond belief. It involves a complete trust in the promises of Jesus Christ that are recorded in the Gospels. Such faith cannot be measured, but Pope Shenouda III has given us a list of ways we can test our faith.
1. Faith Expresses itself through love.
2. Faith is Demonstrated Through Deeds.
3. Examination of Faith Through the Purity of Heart.
4. Faith Is Tested Through The Power It Grants That All Things Are Possible.
5. Test Of Faith During Distresses.
6. Test Your Faith According To Some Commandments.
7. Test Your Faith In The Extent Of Caring About Your Eternity.
8. Test Your Faith In The Correctness Of Belief.
9. Test Your Faith With The Sound Qualities It Has.
1. Faith Expresses itself through Love
Saint Paul identifies the qualities of a sound faith based on love.  He writes:
Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Cor 13:4-7)
Use this list of attributes to evaluate your faith. In addition he adds:
And though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. (1Cor 13:2)
Our capacity for love is one of the most basic tests of faith.

2. Faith is Demonstrated through Deeds
Our faith must show through our actions by doing the work of God.  Saint James says: I will show you my faith by my works (James 2:18). He also says that a dead faith cannot save anyone (James 2:14). Saint Paul echoes this when he writes, They profess to know God, but in works they deny Him (Titus 1:16). Saint John tells us that one who knows Him and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him (1John 2:4).

3. Examination of Faith Through Purity of Heart
If we love God based on our faith we will not sin for fear or erring in front of Him. With faith we will know that God sees, hears and records everything. As Saint John says, Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor knows Him. (1John 3:6)

4. Faith is Tested Through the Power It Grants that All Things are Possible

We must be able to say what Saint Paul has said, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. (Phil 4:13)  Jesus tells us, All things are possible to him who believes. (Mark 9:23) Despair is an indication of loss of faith. If we are continually influenced by external pressures of the current situation to commit sin we do not have faith.

5. Test of Faith during Distresses
If you have faith you will not be disturbed by all the trials and tribulations of this life. You will believe they are for the good, even though you may not understand why they occur. Saint James says, Count it a joy when you fall into various trials (James 2:1). Paul tells us, All things work together for good to those who love God (Rom 8:28). And Jesus says, All things are possible to him who believes (Mark 9:23).
With faith we place God between us and the trial. We call to remembrance the trials of all the saints and remember what happened to Moses, Joseph, David and Job with faith. We accept the trials thrown at us and are happy the Lord gave us these trials. The Apostles give us an excellent example when after being whipped it is recorded, So they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name (Acts 5:41). 

6. Test the Faith According to Some Commandments
Our commitment to tithe is another indicator. If we are not doing so we may be attached to our material possessions, placing our faith in them instead of God. Our regular attendance at Sunday worship services is another test. With faith we look forward to our worship services and the opportunity to participate in the Sacraments. The nature of our daily prayer life is another way to evaluate our faith. With faith we pray daily guided by a prayer rule.  When praying with faith we are able to keep our mind from  wandering. Continual prayer throughout the day is a sign of a sound faith.

7. Test Your Faith in the Extent of Caring About Your Eternity
Jesus tells us,
Let your wast be girded and your lamps burning; and you yourselves be like men who wait for their master, when he will return from the wedding, that when he comes and knocks they may open to him immediately. Blessed are those servants whom the master, when he comes, will find watching. (Lk 12:35-37)
Our primary orientation must be on preparing ourselves for eternity and our destiny in the world to come. If we find our primary orientation is on this world and being successful, then we will know that our faith is weak. If we are continually thinking about our every action as preparing for the life to come then we know our faith is growing.

8. Test Your Faith in the Correctness of Belief
We must make sure our beliefs are free of our own opinions.  It's essential to make sure we rely on the Scripture and the teachings of the Church Fathers so we know the correct beliefs. Otherwise, we may be believing in ourselves as God.

9. Test Your faith with the Sound Qualities it Has
Our faith must be consistent and practical. Our soul must always be filled with peace and without fear. Our faith must be a living faith and not intellectual or a periodic one. It must be continually nurtured and always growing.

Reference: Life in Fatih by Pope Shenouda III

Monday, November 24, 2014

What Weakens Faith?

Here are ten things that can weaken your faith from Life in Faith by Pope Shenouda:
  1. The Self
  2. Domination of the Senses
  3.Submitting Faith to the mind
  4. Associating with Doubting people
  5. Yielding and having a weak personality
  6. Fear
  7. Lust
  8. External circumstances
  9. The Devil's deceptions
10. Doubt
The Self: 
When I think of the self it seems natural to think about my own ability to assert my will for this or that. I sense that it is very strong and does not want to give up this ability easily.  It definitely protects itself and its freedom. Pope Shenouda says this part of us is the greatest hindrance to faith. Jesus affirms this when he told to his disciples, If anyone desire to come after Me, let him deny himself (Matt 16:24). He also says, He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it (Matt 10:39). Faith is based on a trust in God instead of our self. So each time I rely on my own reasoning without seeking help from God, I am denying my faith in Him, and saying that my intellect and my will are better than God's. I can see why my faith is weak as I reflect on this. My own will is very strong and not willing to give up much control. I can see how critical it is to deny oneself but it's not at all clear how I am to do this and place total reliance on God. Based on my experience it seems to b a gradual process.

Domination of the Senses:
Our senses are the main way we know the reality of this world. Our eyes are sensitive to a small band of wavelengths that our brain translates into images allowing us to make a vivid moving picture of worldly reality. We add to this our ears which are sensitive to another narrow band of wave movements in the air.  From this we discern different tones and can hear sounds when the air is disturbed. Our nose also picks up an narrow range of smells, or a sensation of different chemical particles that are in the air. And with our ability to touch and taste we pick up a few more clues about reality. How our brain takes all this input and creates something that we see as a complete picture and totally real is mystery even to scientists.  But we know there is much more to the reality of this world that we cannot pick up with our senses. We have developed instruments to aide us in learning that there are other wavelengths of radiation that we cannot see. With a certain kind of goggles or computers that translate these invisible wavelengths into visible ones, we can see what is not visible. Our senses are definitely limited and tend to make up the totality of what we believe to be real.
How does our reliance on our senses weaken our faith?  It constrains our knowledge of God's Creation to what we can pick up from our senses. Using these we are also blind to the entire spiritual realm. The Apostles had the advantage of being with God in flesh. Even so Saint Thomas could not believe in the Resurrection unless he used his senses to touch and see. But now we must believe without seeing, without using our senses. This demands faith in a reality that is beyond the ability of the senses to capture. If we rely only on our senses we will not know God in a way that affirms His presence and builds within us the faith we need to place our total trust in Him, to give up our self.

Submitting Faith to the Mind: 
Our minds are also very limited as are the efforts of science to understand things that are not available to our senses. If we limit ourselves to our senses only, or to our man made logic from our intellect, we will deny miracles as told in the Bible. We will deny the work of the Holy Spirit and God's grace. We will be limited to only what we can determine from our senses and our own rationale. We will be blind to the whole spiritual realm, limiting ourselves to what will fit a human logical system. With Faith coupled with a surrender of self we are able to open up a greater sense in our soul, to become exposed to a divine logic, to receive divine grace, where we can have in intimate relationship with God. In our Heart where He resides we can call on His grace, the Holy Spirit, that is not physical or measurable to work though us enabling us to become like Christ and do His will. The Church Fathers affirm that with faith and humility we can experience His energies which are very real, but are beyond the understanding of our mind. So to submit faith to our mind reduces it to a faith that is human centered and primarily based on physical attributes of reality. It becomes a self-centered faith.

Associating with Doubtful People: 
If we have a weak faith and we continue to associate with others who have doubts or even do not believe in a God, we will be influenced by them. Saint John tells us, If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds. (2John 1:10)  It makes sense to develop a circle of friends who have a strong faith and are striving to develop their faith like yourself.  This is the nature of the Church, the Ecclesia, the faithing community.

Yielding or Having a Weak Personality: 
I find there are many times when I have sat back and said nothing because I knew it might bring ridicule among those I was with. I was week and succumbed to man-pleasing behavior instead of one that was God-pleasing. I often find myself not able to stand strong like Paul and the other Apostles who were not afraid even to lose their life to speak their faith and I find myself sometimes worried about possible ridicule or rejection. We see in Scripture that even Mary Magdalene had a weak personality. She had been with Jesus and heard his teachings. But when she went to the tomb and saw it was empty she said, They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him (John 20:2, 3, 13, 15). After being with Christ and being prepared by Him for this eventuality, she did not have faith in His Resurrection. She could only think that someone had taken His body and put it somewhere else. So we can see that this weakness is not uncommon and can be overcome as she later became a strong voice for the spread of Faith in Christ.

This is similar to the above item. We see that the Apostles before they received the Holy Spirit after Christ's Ascension on Pentecost, were very weak. They ran and hid at the time of the Crucifixion because they feared that they too might be subject to such cruel punishment. But later when they had developed a stronger faith, they had no fear of death, trusting totally in Christ. All except John faced a martyr's death standing firm in their faith. One who has a strong faith does not have such fear and his faith is strong enough that He relies on the promise of the life to come in Paradise.

Our earthly desires keep us attached to what is of this world. With them we do not want to give up our earthly pleasures to follow all His commandments.  James tells us, Whosoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself and enemy of God (James 4:4). And Jesus tells us, No one can serve two masters (Matt 6:24). I do not think this means we cannot enjoy the pleasures that God had provided for us in this world, but we cannot become attached to them. When we face death we will feel like they are being taken away from us and we will be more focused on trying to retain them rather than being born into a new world where we will find true joy in union with Him.

External Circumstances:
We can easily be overtaken by circumstances that are beyond our control. It cases such as a natural disaster we often forget to call on God for comfort and help, knowing that He is good and wants us to rejoined with Him. When the situation of our circumstance overwhelms us we can lose our focus on God and our faith.

Devil's Deceptions:
Especially in our dreams we can easily be deceived by the Devil. We are told in Scripture to be wary of dreams and false prophets. Jesus says, false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders (Matt 24:24). Jesus prepared His disciples for these deceptions He knew they would encounter. So too we must be attentive, watchful, for any thought that is leading us to a temptation to abandon God's teaching.

This is the method used by the devil. When he deceived our first parents in the Garden of Eden he planted doubt when he told Eve that God did not really tell them they would die. When we encounter doubts, which we surely will, we must remember that these come from the devil. We have to have a strong faith so we will not let them linger and lead us away from God.

Developing faith takes our concentrated effort. If we are aware of the above points we can avoid what will weaken our faith and work against our efforts to develop a deeper faith.

Next: Tests of Faith

Reference: Life in Fatih by Pope Shenouda III

Monday, November 17, 2014

How to Strengthen Faith

Most of us struggle with the question of faith. We often realize how weak our faith is when we are challenged with a death, serious illness or other difficulty. We know that faith is essential for us to enjoy the promise of a Christian faith in the Gospel, but how can we strengthen our faith? Pope Shenouda III in his book, Life of Faith, gives us some suggestions.

      1. Have confidence in God's qualities
      2. Have confidence in sincerity of God's promises
      3. Look to God and not your surrounding circumstances
      4. Read the stories of Faith
      5. Have humility of heart and mind
      6. Cultivate an experience with God
      7. See God in every matter
      8. Build a relationship with God
      9. Pray for a stronger faith.

Have confidence in God's qualities:
We must always remember that God is Love and a doer of Good. Tell yourself as Saint Paul says, All things work together for good to those who love God. (Rom 8:26) We must also remember that God is a good father who treats His children with tenderness and gives us all we need without asking. Also, we must remember always that God is all powerful and can do anything. Think about Abraham, Moses, Joshua and the wonders He did for them. Finally we must believe that God's judgment is good and whatever he wills for us is for our benefit even if we can't understand it.

Have confidence in the Sincerity of God's promise
Think about the promises that God makes in Scripture. He promised Abraham he would have many descendants when he and his wife were childless in old age. He promised the Israelites their freedom from bondage in Egypt. He promised Elijah help in time of famine. And He promised He would send His Spirit to all the people.  All the things He promised He did. So have confidence in the hope of eternal life He has promised us. He told us, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." (Matt 28:20)

Look to God and not to the surrounding circumstances
Think about the Israelites before they were to cross the Red Sea and how difficult was their circumstance. They were pursued by the Pharaoh's army and the sea blocked their escape. Moses said to them, Stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord, which He will accomplish for you... the Lord will fight for you, and you shall hold your peace. (Ex 14:13-14) God then parts the waters for them to escape and then allows the waters to submerge the pursuing army. Think about David as he faced Goliath. He trusted that the Lord would empower him to defeat Goliath. Like Moses, the Israelites fleeing from Egypt and David as he faced a unbeatable enemy, look to God when you face what seems like an insurmountable difficulty. Look above so that faith will enter into your heart in such times.

Consider the Stories in the Bible
Remember when Jesus told His followers in His Sermon on the Mount: Consider the lilies of the field... even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. If He clothed the grass of the field like that, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? (Matt 6:28-29) Have confidence that He will provide what you need with your cooperation with His grace.

Develop Humility of heart and mind

If you have humility you will not be stuck with a proud mind that thinks it knows everything and dosen't need God. One who has humility accepts all that comes from God with satisfaction. But one with a proud mind discusses, argues and discounts what does not please his own mind. We must accept that our mind is limited and that we cannot fully understand God an all His ways. He says, Give me O Lord the faith of children and not that of philosophers. (Lk 10:21)

Experience God

Do not stay trapped in the limits of your own mind. Try to live and rely on God, seeking Him regularly instead of relying solely on you own mind's view. Experience His love and power.

See God is all matters
Do not try and find a reason for everything without mentioning God. We now have great power derived from scientific exploration that it seems like we can know everything and do anything based on our own will. Do not be deluded by this scientific view. When a person is ill and is cured do not credit only the drug or doctor, but instead thank God that He healed the sick and used the hands of the doctor and the know how of the druggist. Relate every power, every miracle to God. Take time to also admire His work in nature. Look at the flower in your garden and do not analyze it, but reflect on the wonder of its Creator who gave such beauty to us for our enjoyment.

Build a relationship with God
When you have a daily dialogue with God through prayer you will find you can talk with Him without fear. When you accept His friendship and love you enter into a deeper faith. You will share all your secrets with Him and ask for His help often. With this loving relationship you will also want to make sure you do not disappoint Him and will be motivated out of your love for Him to follow His direction and all His teachings.

Pray that your faith will increase
Pope Shenouda III gives us this prayer:
Give me O Lord, that I believe in You with full faith. Give me that I love and have confidence in You in everything, and to believe that You do me benevolence even if the world is dark in front of me. Let me feel that my mind is much smaller than what is required to understand your wisdom and judgment. I know that You are a doer of benevolences, that You are living, that You see everything and that You are capable of doing everything, and in spite of that my faith often weakens, so help my weak faith.
For me who prays every day that the lord will strengthen my weak faith, the most important thing is to remember God in everything you do. Mastery of the Jesus prayer is most helpful in this regard. And always remember to thank God for each blessing you receive throughout the day. Do not wait until the end of the day, but make you daily life an ongoing dialogue with Him. Your life can become an ongoing prayer. See his power in all things. Seek His help and give Him thanks.

Next: What weakens faith

Reference: Life of Faith, Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Church

Friday, November 7, 2014

What is Faith?

It is essential for a Christian to understand the true nature of faith as it is through faith that we are united with God. But what does faith mean?  Does it mean we that read the Creed and willfully accept what it says?  Or is it about something more than this?

Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Church wrote a beautiful book titled Life of Faith. Reading this book a few years back I was moved to think about faith in a much deeper way.  I want to share with you some of his teaching and my learnings from them.

I used to say, "I have faith, I believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God." But then I would have trouble with many passages in the Bible, miracles and the numerous stories of those of faith we also find there. Jesus says, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain "Move from here to there, and it will move." (Matt 17:20) As I understand it, faith of a mustard seed means that even the smallest amount of true faith can "move mountains."  I knew I did not have this kind of faith. I interpret the phrase to "move mountains" means that there is no limit to the powers that God can work through a person if one has faith. So faith must be something greater than believing, something much more than mentally affirming a belief in the Creed.

Jesus tells us that faith involves more than just having reverence for Him. He says, Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord," shall enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt7:21)  He also says faith means more than calling on His name. He says, Many will say to me that in that day, "Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in your name, and done many wonders in Your name?" And then I will declare to them, "I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!" (Matt 7:22-23) From this we can say that the faith required is about knowing Him and trusting in Him to following His teaching.

Faith is beyond belief. It must be about a life based on a living relationship with God, one where you trust in Him totally, and do what He instructs you to do. Scripture gives us the example of Abraham who was tested by God asking him to take his son to be sacrificed. Abraham trusted totally in God, knowing that in such a sacrifice only good would come from it for him and his son. He was obedient based on a full faith. He had total trust in God.

Faith can be examined based on what we do, how well we follow what He has taught.  Evangelist John records, He who  says, "Know Him," and does not keep His commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him. (1John 2:3-4). But we know that this means more than following a set of rules like the Ten Commandments.

How about the Apostles? How did they demonstrate their faith in God? When Jesus called James and John, sons of Zebedee they immediately left their boat and their father and followed Him. (Matt 4:22) They believed and had trust in Him so they harbored no fear of leaving their livelihood and even their father to follow Him. We also have the unending examples of the martyrs of the Church who willingly gave their lives without fear knowing they would be cared for by Jesus in the heavenly realm. 

For me these were sobering thoughts as I pondered this little book. My faith was not on par with these stories and teachings. It was a faith more based on the tradition of my family and a mental belief, a simple affirmation. But did I trust my whole body, heart and soul to Christ? No, I had too much pride in my own self will. I still trusted mainly on my own intellect and will. I found I was still too much like Adam.

If we have faith, we cannot fear death, because this means we do not trust in what is to come beyond death. Apostle Paul says about faith, Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. (Heb 11:1)  So what are these things hoped for? This is a life after death where we have hope in a life with the angels and the saints and to see the Lord in Paradise. We have hope in being resurrected and taking on a new spiritual body free of suffering and decay. We must have a faith that gives us total confidence in these realities even though we have not seen or experienced them.

I realized that faith is something that involves a trust in realities beyond any understanding of things of this world. It requires a trust in what is beyond our sensual knowledge and beyond any mental concept we can imagine. It involves a surrender to Spirit, to the Triune God. It is more than methodically being a good person who identifies a set of rules from Scripture and tries to do them. Of course, if we do have the kind of faith that Scripture talks about, we will live the virtues with the help of God's grace without much effort. We will be united with Him and out of the love of this intimate relationship we will do what he directs us, knowing that if we follow Him we will find rewards in the life to come. This is what I found faith to mean. A total trust in and a surrender to His will.

The truth is that with faith in the power of God, we are confident that He will be with us forever. With faith we become willing servants of His will. With faith, even if we stumble or fall, we know He will be with us to help us recover. With faith His unlimited power is there for us whenever we need it. Saint Paul says, To this end I also labor, striving according to His working in me mightily (Col !:29) and also, To Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us. (Eph 3:20) He further says, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. (Phil 4:13)

It by this full faith, faith beyond belief, that we are able to go beyond the level our senses and intellect and trust in Jesus Christ as True God of True God, Begotten not created, of one essence of the Father, through Whom all things are made. Our destiny is to be united with Him in heaven with eternal life, but only if we have the kind of faith described in the Scriptures. We must go beyond mere belief.

The important question is how to gain this kind of faith.  Later.

Reference: Life of Faith by Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Church

Monday, October 20, 2014

Dialogue With Elder Paisios as He Faces Death

After spending time with my Father who at 98 is coming to terms with his mortality, I began to wonder how some of our Church Fathers would provide counsel in such situations.  I found this account of Elder Paisios as He faced terminal cancer.

–– Geronda, the final diagnosis has been made. Your tumor is cancerous and it's aggressive. 
–– Bring me a handkerchief so that I may dance to the song: "I bid farewell to you, O poor world!" I have never danced in my life, but now I will dance for joy as my death approaches. 
–– Geronda, the doctor said that first he wants to use radiation to shrink the tumor and then do surgery. 
–– I understand! First the air force will bombard the enemy, and then the attack will begin! I'll go up then and bring you news! Some people, even the elderly, when told by the doctor, "You will die," or "You have a fifty percent chance of surviving" get very distressed. They want to live. And then what? I wonder! Now, if someone is young, well , this is justifiable, but if someone is old and is still desperately trying to hang on, well, this I just don't understand. Of course, it's quite different if someone  wants to undergo therapy in order to manage pain. He's not interested in extending life; he only wants to make the pain somewhat more bearable so that he can take care of himself until he dies –– this does make sense.  
–– Geronda, we are praying that God may give you an extension on your life. 
–– Why? Doesn't the Psalmist say, "The days of our years are threescore years and ten?" 
–– But the Psalmist  adds the following, "And if by reason of strength they be foreshore years..." 
–– Yes, but he adds the following, "Yet is their strength labor and sorrow," in which case it is better to have the peace of the other life. 
–– Geronda, can someone, out of humility, feel spiritually unprepared for the other life and wish to live longer in order to get prepared? 
–– This is a good thing, but how can he know that, even if he does live longer, he won't become spiritually worse? 
–– Geronda, when can we say that a person is reconciled with death? 
–– When Christ lives inside him, then death is a joy. But one must not rejoice in dying just because he has become tired of this life. When you rejoice in death, in the proper sense, death goes away to find someone who's scared! When you want to die, you don't. Whoever lives the easy life is afraid of death because he is pleased with worldly life and doesn't want to die. If people talk to him about death, he reacts with denial: "Get away from here!" However, whoever is suffering, whoever is in pain, sees death as a release and says, "What a pity, Charon has not yet come to take me... He must have been held up!" 
Few are the people who welcome death. Most people have unfinished business and don't want to die. But the Good God provides for each person to die when he is fully matured. In any case, a spiritual person, whether young or old, should be happy to live and be happy to die, but should never pursue death, for this is suicide. 
For a person who is dead to worldly matters and has been spiritually resurrected, there is never any agony, fear or anxiety, for he awaits death with joy because he will be with Christ and delight in His presence. But he also rejoices in being alive, again because he is united with Christ even now and experiences a portion of the joy of Paradise here on earth and wonders whether there is a higher joy in Paradise than the one he feels on earth. Such people struggle with philotimo* and self-denial; and because they place death before themselves and remember it every single day, they prepare more spiritually, struggling daringly, and defeating vanity.

* A way of life expressed through acts of generosity and sacrifice without expecting anything in return.

Reference: Elder Paisios of Mount Athos Spiritual Councils IV: Family Life, pp 274-276.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Suggestions For an Elderly Man Facing His Mortality

Suggestions for an elderly man who had come to terms with his mortality

1. Your health is good for a 98 year old man. You have been blessed with a good and healthy life with many years. You probably will live for a couple more years. So enjoy each day and give thanks to God.

2. Do not allow yourself to get depressed. Fight it without drugs. Call on Jesus when you feel distressed or down. Here is a simple prayer to say throughout the day and when you feel discouraged: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner." Depression is a sign of separation from God. Call on Him and He will comfort you.

3. Use the prayers in the Orthodox Study Bible every day. There are prayers for the morning and evening. Read them after you get up and come to the table in the morning and before you get into bed at night.

4. Read a kathisma of the Psalms mid day. Also read a chapter from the book of John. Reflect on the path Christ took and how He suffered and then was glorified in His Resurrection. This is promised to all of us who have faith. If you are not up to reading have your aide read them to you.

5. Be sure to reconcile with anyone you may have offended and ask God for forgiveness. Be thankful for all who try to help you as your daily routine becomes more difficult.

6. This time of life is for you to prepare for the life to come. To be with God in His kingdom forever you must love Him no matter what and follow His teachings no matter how difficult. You do not know what challenges He will give you in these last years but the key is how you respond to them. Always give thanks and seek mercy. Remember the thief on the Cross who sought mercy and ask God to remember you in His Kingdom. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Secularism: Does this weaken faith?

Today we live in an increasing secular world to fulfill the freedom of religion clause of our Constitution.  What is the implication of this?

Secularism is defined by the dictionary as "the doctrine that morality should be based solely on the well-being of mankind in the present life, to the exclusion of all considerations drawn from belief in God or in a future state." This means secularism is about a morality based on a Godless way of living. A secular state is one where our Christian faith is separated from our discussion about morality in our public affairs. This assumes that we can separate our religion from our discussions on moral issues. Is this possible?

A secular approach is based on a misunderstanding about the nature of religion. Our faith is about why we live the way we do. It informs us about the purpose of all our actions, why we are given life and then death. It is an essential part of our world view that allows us to interpret everything we sense in this world. Religion is essential to all people. Even if we do not understand what our religion is, we still have a religious world view within us. It is what give meaning to our life.

The attempt to take religion out of public discourse and activities is doomed to failure as it is not possible to separate our beliefs about life and our life after death from our actions or any discussion we have about about moral issues.

The reality of the world is that there are many world views based on differing belief systems. Anyone who says we can build a society based on a non-religious viewpoint in our public life and yet allow for us to privately practice our religion does not understand that they are asking us to build a society on their idea of religion, an atheist one. They are assuming that religion really is not important in our life and can be relegated to a small part of our life. Secularism implies a view that self-proclaims itself to be greater than all other religions.  It is another form of religion called secularism.  No religion teaches us to keep our beliefs separate from our public life. Secularism is simply a way for atheists to promote their world view.

If we want to have more meaning in our society we need to have sincere dialogue about our individual beliefs and seek ways to include them in our societal actions no matter how much they may differ. There are many issues where agreement may not be possible. We have great differences on issues like abortion. Is this be something a diverse society that protects freedom of religion can ever attain agreement? It deals with how we understand the very idea of sanctity of life and the impact of our choice in this regard to our status after we die.  For those who believe it's ok to kill a fetus, are they to be oppressed or restricted by those who see this a murder? Or, are we to leave such choices up to each individual based on their own faith? I as a Christian should be able to fight for the protection of the unborn based on my religious beliefs, not on some logical morality devoid of God.

We may ask, are we to be ruled by the Ten Commandments of Shria Law?  How do we resolve such issues? In a free society we must allow each to practice their own morality based on their faith after a meaningful debate on such issues. Otherwise, we violate the intent of the promise of freedom of religion. When we do not permit this kind of dialogue to take place in our public arena, we are reducing freedom of religion rather than increasing it. There should be no place or forum where we cannot express our religion and its beliefs. It is part of who we are. To make restriction is an attempt to marginalize our faith.

It seems that it is best if we recognize the diversity of our beliefs in the public sphere and permit individual freedom to reign as along as it does not limit actions dictated by another person's beliefs. Everyday we make choices  according to our religious beliefs. If we are an Orthodox Christians we daily examine our actions and seek forgiveness for all the times that we have not been able to follow the teachings of our Lord and God Jesus Christ. We know we cannot live up to them all, but also know that we are expected to strive for perfection in our moral behavior. The key for life as a Christian is to be able to live so we can freely pursue our faith and live according to the way Jesus taught us. This may mean we need to say a prayer before doing certain activities. We may need icons or other religious symbols in our work space. Christians are taught to accept those who have differing beliefs even though they disagree with them. So they should also stand up for the right of a non-Christian to say a prayer to their God or have display in their workspace a image of symbol of their faith.

We should have enough belief in our faith, in the power of God, that if we live according to the Truths taught us we will influence others and will bring others to the truth with His aid. This is what happened in the early days of Christianity. With fervent faith they were aided by the Holy Spirit. But  they had a greater faith in those times. They were willing to stand firm in their beliefs even when it did not fit with the norms of Roman society or against the will of a ruthless Emperor and meant death or torture.

We should expect to persecuted as the Scripture tells us, but we also know that to be united with God we must become humble, seeing our own sinful nature while we also see the image of God that is also in all others who do not share our beliefs. We do not want to interact with others is a way that would make them sinful.

So what is the answer? It makes no sense to try and take religion out of public debate as it is integral to who we are a persons. A Christian cannot accept this and  be true to their religion. We should work to expand our pubic discussion to include all our differences with respect for the rights of every one. We should allow each person to express their faith in their own way in public forums. Freedom of speech should never be compromised in the name of secularism.

Let's not shrink from standing from as a witness to our faith in Jesus Christ by expressing our faith in the public sphere and remaining true to who are and what we believe. In this way our faith will grow and not become weakened. If we succumb to secularism we will end up with a weakening our faith, succumbing to relativism where all faiths are seen as equally valid, and lack the strength and grace to become united with God. If we stand true to our faith, we will gain the grace of God and gain in our ability to live the life He taught us.  As we do this we will influence others to come to the truth we have.  But first we must not let our faith be marginalized by the well intentioned ideas of those who believe that a pure rational godless approach is superior to one that combines rationality with faith.

Monday, September 15, 2014

On Truth. Are There Many Truths?

When I was a teenager I was taught by my Methodist pastor that there were many paths to God besides Christianity. He described it as climbing a mountain. Some paths went around the mountain and zig and zag, but the Christian path was one that climbed straight to the top. I held on to this notion until quite recently not realizing how it was weakening my faith. I see now how it caused me to wander in my spiritual pursuits seeking the right path. This way of thinking along with those who say all religions are the same, that they teach similar values and so forth, discounts your belief in the Truth of Jesus Christ. You cannot hold a strong view about what you believe if you think it is only one of many paths.

Often we are taught that its arrogant to claim that our faith is the absolute Truth. After all, others make the same claim. But it's jut as arrogant for someone to claim that there are many paths. They are taking a position that they have a larger, higher view than you, and are claiming a greater and superior truth. We cannot be ashamed of proclaiming what we know to be Truth. 

Jesus Christ is a historical reality. The true nature of Christ is critical to understand and believe. It was fought over in the seven Ecumenical Councils. It was always affirmed that He is the incarnate God. He is both fully man and fully God, not just some virtuous person or esteemed prophet. Only Christians believe this Truth. It is through our understanding of this mystery of God's revelation that we have the best chance at finding true joy and salvation from the turmoil, suffering and death we face in this worldly life.

Because so many claim to have the Truth and seem to want to impose it on others, there is much strife in the world caused by the different religions. The solution is not to condemn religion or to stamp it out. This only causes greater suffering. Man needs religion as proven by its continual growth. It is the Christian Truth that offers the greatest hope for peace and harmony in the world.

As Christians we believe that all people are created in the image and likeness of God. We know that everyone has within them the potential to be virtuous. In addition to this Christians recognize that we are all sinners. We are in practice less than our Orthodox Christian beliefs should make us. Even though we are sinners we know that God still loves us. If He loves us as sinners, surely He also loves all others who have not understood the truth of Christianity.

Saint Silouan put it this way,
While still a child I would pray for those who gave me offense. I used to pray, "O Lord, lay not sins on them because of me." But though I loved praying, I did not escape sin. Still the Lord remembered not my sins, and gave me to love people, and my soul longs for the whole world to be saved and dwell in the Kingdom of Heaven, and see the glory of the Lord, and delight in the love of God. I judge by my own case: if the Lord so loved me, it must mean that He loves all sinners in the same measure as He loves me.
Others may even be more moral that we are, but does moral behavior guarantee us salvation? No! Our salvation is based on our faith and our love of God and a life of repentance where we seek His grace to help us become united with Him following His teachings out of this love and faith. This requires great humility on the part of a practicing Orthodox Christian. We must recognize our sinfulness, our weaknesses and failings out of our love of Jesus Christ and what he has taught us. We know His teaching to be True as they have been recorded for us unerringly in the Gospels and maintained in purity by the Orthodox Church.

Strife in the world comes when one group feels it is superior to others. Such superiority leads to marginalization and even persecution. Christians know this superior attitude as pride. This is one of the greatest of sins. It's the sin of Adam and Eve and it blocks our relationship with God. A practicing Christian cannot accept that they are greater than others, but must insist that they are the greatest of sinners. We are taught to live by loving our neighbors, no matter what their religion or beliefs, and to to live with humility knowing the human condition.

We are called to master our own failings and to help others do the same. This is the mission of the Church.  It is a place where we come to be healed and united with Christ. Our beliefs help us to develop a loving relationship with all others regardless of their beliefs. This is something that can be witnessed from the beginning of Christianity.  The early Christians were diverse in their make up which was scandalous at the time. They were selfless and generous in helping others, even in the times of the plagues where many gave their lives helping the sick. They even faced persecution with peace of mind. True Christians are peace makers and generous to all humans.

A Christian needs to hold firm to their faith. One cannot let it be discounted by those who say it is only one of many paths. It is a path that offers the best hope for the world peace and universal salvation. The teachings of Jesus Christ will not make us arrogant, but will develop in us humility. Following Christ we will not be led to oppress or marginalize others.

Beware of those who claim there is no absolute Truth, who claim that all religions are the same or that they are just different paths. They will surely weaken your faith. With humility of mind, seeing yourself as a sinner, know that you have the correct faith that has been revealed to us by God Incarnate, Jesus Christ, who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of a virgin, who lived a life without sin, who was unjustly killed by crucifixion, rose and ascended into heaven opening the gates of Paradise for all mankind. He sent the Holy Spirit to establish His Church so we  could all live as loving communities being led to a union with Him. This is the truth of the Orthodox faith. Don't become a lukewarm Christian.

The late Bishop Augoustinos of Florina writes,
The soul seeks truth. truth is the atmosphere in which the soul lives and rests. It is the living water, the heavenly bread. But only Jesus Christ has this bread. He declared that He is the truth, the incarnate Truth: "I am the way, the truth, and the life.". (John 14:6)

Thursday, August 21, 2014

What does "Hallowed be Thy Name" mean?

Most Christians will recite the Lord's prayer every day and pray, "Hallowed be Thy Name." Have you stopped to think about what it means to pray this?  For surely God is holy. He does not need to be told that. What are we praying for when we say these words? Why did Jesus ask us to pray in this way?

Saint Gregory of Nyssa in his commentary on the Lord's prayer writes,
But now what does the Lord's Prayer set down? "Hallowed be Thy Name." If I did not utter these words at all, let us say, would it be possible that God's Name be not holy? ...God's Name is forever holy and nothing escapes the power of God's rule. Rather, He has dominion over all and admits no addition to His holiness. God absolutely lacks nothing and is perfect. What then does the prayer intend with the words, "Hallowed be Thy Name, Thy Kingdom come?" 
It must be clear that it is not to proclaim that God is holy, but to ask for something for our own salvation. How do we make His name Hallowed? It can only be by how we live our lives. If we proclaim to be a Christain and are dedicated to serving this God, then we must demonstrate what this means through the way we live our daily lives.  Otherwise, those who see us will not think very highly of our God.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa puts it this way,
those who bear the name of the faith, but their way of life contradicts the name whether by lapsing into idolatry by way of greed, or by behaving unseemly through drunkenness and revelry, or by wallowing like swine in the mire of profligacy then those who are unbelievers resort to a handy accusation. They do not direct their accusation against the free choice of those who abuse Christian life by doing evil, but against the mystery of the faith itself, as if the faith positively teaches to do those kinds of things. 
If we want God's name to be hallowed, holy, we must become true followers of what he teaches.  Otherwise we blaspheme Him. This phrase states the entire purpose of our life. We are to live in a such a way that makes God's name hallowed. This is our purpose. to become united with Him is such a way that His holiness shines through us.

Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) says this,
This petition shows what the purpose of man is and for what reason he lives. Man’s purpose is to be united with God and to become holy according to the grace and energy of God. God is holy by nature and people are [called] to become holy by grace. In the language of the Fathers of the Church, this is called deification and those who are made holy by their participation in the grace of God are called deified. For one to become holy, to be deified, means that all one’s spiritual and bodily faculties are transfigured, that God is the center of one’s life. 
He further explains that our inability to live such a life, leads others to have no faith or a very weak one.  If we want to spread His Word to others, then we must hallow His name. It is not what we say, but how we live that will bring us salvation but also others to join in union with Him.
Because our lives are not consistent with this petition [in the Lord’s prayer] and we do not strive to live according to the will of God, our conduct is anti-Christian. We are full of vices and passions, hatreds and animosities, and we commit injustices and slanders. And that is why other people see us and do not believe in God; hence we cause the name of God to be blasphemed among the nations.
Next time you recite this prayer that our Lord has instructed all to pray, think about how you hallow His name. Do not take the easy path and only think that it means that God is holy, but think about what this requires of you in your daily life.  Examine how closely you carry out His love of Him and others. 

Gregory of Nyssa concludes his comments with with this,

When I pray saving "Hallowed be Thy Name," the meaning of these words apply to me actual- izing God's blessings. Lord, through the cooperation of Your help, may I become blameless, just and pious. Abstaining from every evil, may I speak the truth, practicing righteousness and walking on the straight path. May I shine with prudence, be adorned with incorruption, and be beautified with wisdom and discernment. Overlooking earthly things, may I set my mind on the things above (Col 3:2) and be radiant with the angelic manner of life. 
May we all pray for the strength and divine grace to live a life that makes His name hallowed. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Should We Fear God?

For many years I was troubled by the pronouncement when the chalice is brought out to offer communion, "With the fear of God draw near."

Why should we fear God? Should we fear Him because He will punish us for our mistakes? But we know He is a loving and forgiving God. How could He punish us whom He created. Maybe we  should fear Him because we are not willing to give up our way of life to become congruent with the Life of His Kingdom.  Maybe we should fear Him when we learn that we are seeking to make His kingdom like we wish it to be and know deep down that this is not the realty we face?

I recently saw a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon where Calvin says the following, "If Heaven is Good and if I like to be bad, how am I supposed to be happy there?" Calvin like many of us prefers to be "bad".  If that is the case then our choice will be hell. For Calvin, heaven only has meaning if it can be like he wishes it to be, "bad". But this is not the way it is. This is not the reality of our existence. Heaven is God's Kingdom. He calls us to perfection to be joined with Him in His Kingdom forever. His commandments are the only way to enter.

C.S. Lewis also addressed this issue in his book, The Great Divorce. In this book residents of Hell are given the opportunity to visit Heaven. When they arrive, they are met by heaven's Spirit residents  who tell each of them in an individual encounter that they are welcome to stay. All they need to do is to  give up their sins, whether that be a lack of forgiveness, a lust for recognition, or some other self centered activity. But in his story, none are willing to give up why they are living in Hell where the worst tendencies are accentuated. Unwilling to change they choose to stay in Hell. The visitors one by one get on the return bus and willingly to go back to hell.

All of us have our bad habits that we probably know are not acceptable to God. We need to ask ourselves, are we willing to change because of our love for God? Are we willing to give up what we think gives us fleeting pleasures in our life, and instead seek what God intends for us?  Or, do we expect God to adapt to our way of thinking? Do we think in the end it will be OK because I believe in Christ?

My problem was that I did not really believe in any absolutes. I believed that God surely would adapt to my view of what is a good life and way of living, after all I was a respected member of our society. I wanted to change the wording in the proclamation before communion to "awe" instead of "fear". But this misses a most important point I was to later learn.

The day of reckoning will eventually come for all of us. We will either have been trained through a life of repentance to have demonstrated our love for God and our willingness to work toward giving up our ego-directed actions to follow Christ, or, remain stuck in our own personal version of what God will accept. In the end we will be the one who chooses heaven or hell.  Will we be like the visitors to hell in Lewis' story, where when even confronted with what heaven is really like they were unwilling to give up what they believe gives them pleasure? They preferred the place where "bad" was acceptable like Calvin.

Christ told His disciples to "Follow Me." They gave up their livelihood and followed Him. We are not asked necessarily to give up our livelihood as they were. But, if we surrender to Him and cleanse our hearts of the passions, we will be blessed with His grace. It will then be up to us to follow the way He guides us. This is the path to heaven. There is no other.

There comes a time when our appropriate fear of God is transformed into an intense love for God. Our fear becomes transformed into a loving obedience. We will no longer fear His punishment, or that we will have to give up what gives us pleasure, because we have found true pleasure and joy in union with Him. We will be fearful that we could still lose the joy and comfort we gain when we willingly live in His grace.

"With the fear of God, faith and love, draw near."