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Archive for February, 2008

007577.jpg Today, the bonded leather editon of the Orthodox Study Bible came. At first glance, I’m fairly pleased with it. I’ve a couple of quibbles (stemming from my Protestant upbringing): no center column reference and margins too small for penciled notations. I would also add that the “You” instead of “Thou” when addressed to God just strikes me wrong, now that my liturgical lingua franca over the last five and a half years uses the more formal tones.  The aesthetics of the layout, however, are just fine. The binding seems a bit stiff and different from other bonded leather Bibles I’ve owned in the past. We’ll have to see how it wears over time.

Aside from a couple of one-off’s this is the first Bible I’ve purchased in thirteen years (that one being the New Revised Standard Version, with Apocrypha/Deuterocanonicals). I’ve picked up some Greek editions, but it occurred to me that I haven’t had a good, solid English translation that I’ve carted around and used the heck out of in a very long time. I hope that doesn’t mean I’ve been neglecting the Scripture–I don’t think so–but it is a curious phenomenon. It does, I think, point to how technical my Bible reading has become, and how much less “devotional” (if you will), it presently is.

So, we’ll dive into the OSB and see how we do. More to come.

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Fear and Assurance

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. . . . And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. . . . By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out not knowing where he was going. . . . By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old–and Sarah herself was barren–because he considered him faithful who had promised. . . . By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promise was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, ‘It is through Isaac that descendents shall be named after you.’ He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the deat–and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.(Hebrews 12.1-3, 6, 8, 11, 17-19)

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgement, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:13b-19)

Whether petitioning the Lord for our own requests, interceding for others, or engaging in other forms of prayer, I cannot see how one can escape the dynamic of assurance and fear. It may seem too stark to put the dynamic in quite such extremes. After all, if we lack assurance, it doesn’t necessarily mean we are gripped with some dark nameless fear that our request will not be answered. Oughtn’t the dynamic be between assurance and doubt? I don’t think so. For if we pray at all, we are expressing some level of faith. And as St. James says in his letter, even the demons have faith, but their lack of assurance is not predicated so much on doubt as on fear, for they do not love.

Or, rather, to say it another way, I do not think the dynamic is between faith and assurance on the one hand and doubt and hopelessness on the other. Faith and fear are not opposites, I do not think. But love and fear are. And if one does not have assurance, it may not be due to a lack of faith per se, so much as a lack of love (or the lack of a conviction that one is loved).

Too often, though I think I understand why, faith is painted in intellectual terms (one believes this or that set of intellectual concepts). But faith is not mere intellectual commitment (see on the demons’ belief referred to above). Rather faith is a matter of relationship, of trust, and that takes love. And love is personal, and thus polyfaceted.

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One of the distinctions between those the Church recognizes for their holy life (which recognition is manifested in canonization as Saint So-and-so) and those of us who struggle in the life of faith now is that the Saints exercised an expectant faith which sought for and often saw the workings of God in their daily lives, as well as in the critical moments. As Elder Porphyrios relates of his journey to Mt Athos to become a monk, while far below the age allowed:

By all this I want to show how God worked many miracles on me, unworthy as I am. His hand very manifestly protected me everywhere. And so in this case the hand of God led me into the hands of a holy elder and spiritual father who was to protect me. God had sent him and this elder saved me. It was a great miracle of God’s providence. In many things God’s providence has helped me but above all the great assistance I received was that I succeeded in going to the Holy Mountain at such an early age, in spite of the fact that it was forbidden. I knew nothing about monastic life. But God helped me. (Elder Porphyrios, Wounded by Love, p 9)

Certainly God’s Providence manifests itself in the miraculous–as in the story about how Elder Porphyrios acquired a walking stick. The lives of the saints are filled with dreams, visions, miraculous events. Sometimes, as Elder Sophrony relates, the Divine Providence works directly on the human heart, giving the grace of repentance.

Our God is intangible, invisible, searchless. Inscrutable, too, are the workings of His providence for us. How did His gentle but powerful hand catch hold of me when with the stubbornness of youthful folly I rushed headlong into the dark abyss of non-being? The heavenly fire burned into me and its heat melted my heart. Bitterly repentant, I prayed prostrate on the floor. . . . (Archimandrite Sophrony, We Shall See Him as He Is, p 37)

We today often think, due to our own paucity of such events, that these things are “abnormal,” unusual and not to be the expected fare of the day to day Christian. And, of course, to some degree this is true. After all, if everything is a “miracle,” then, well, nothing is a miracle.

But most of the time I think, when we call something “miraculous,” what we are really trying to express is the amazement and wonder at the way God weaves together so many normal, cause-and effect, free choices of untold numbers of human beings. Sometimes there’s that “inner voice,” directing a stranger to give a specific sum of money. But many more times, it is just the simple outworking of human choices.

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Prayer and Flesh

As near as I can tell, and if I read the Fathers rightly, the requisites for prayer are humility and trust.  If pride, arrogance, self-vaunting, or manipulation enter into prayer, then our prayers are empty, though God may still condescend, loving Father as he is, to respond to the better of our prayers, even when we ask for the worse.  Prayer is the central activity of the Christian, the praxis of our every moment, and because it is so central, and because we are fallen and sinful, our passions infiltrate our prayers.

It is such a subtle distinction for our sinful hearts to pass from confidence in God to manipulation.  When do repeated instances of the Jesus Prayer through our day actualize the perserverance in prayer to which Jesus calls us, and when the vain babbling of pagans seeking to manipulate our God to give us what we want? Where is that line that divides our hearts between the expression of our pain and sorrow and that of myopia and self-pity? When do our intercessions for our brother and sister in Christ pass from love of neighbor to the fulfillment of our own narcissistic desires, wishing them peace and blessing not for their sakes but for ours? When does the desire for justice pass into that of revenge?

These are distinctions that cannot be mapped by the one praying, or, at least, not by such of us that read too much and pray too little. Such as we are far too self-deceived to be reliable guides of our own spiritual lives. This is why God gives us our fathers in the faith, our priests, godparents, bishops, and the monks and nuns. This is why we must daily consume the Scriptures. And this is why we can take great comfort in the Spirit’s intercession for us when we do not know how and for what we ought to pray (and even when we do).

The divine irony is that it is just in this practice of prayer, by the divine operation of the Spirit, that we are purified of our passions, and our prayers are made more pure. As St. Isaac the Syrian writes (and I greatly paraphrase), if we wait until we are pure to begin our prayer, we will never pray. We should simply pray, aware always of our sins and our passionate weaknesses and temptations. We should know that if we ask for a fish, God will not give us a snake, and, in his mercy, even if we ask for a snake, he may well give us the fish for our salvation.

And so we pray, seeking humility, exercising trust.  Watchful, with the help of Scriptures and godly counsel, against the passions which mar and distort our prayers.  Indeed, recognizing the sins which infuse our prayers, we are almost inevitably cast down in humility.  After all, what can we put forward which would persuade God to hear our prayer?  Our own “holiness”?  No, all we have is the knowledge that he loves us and desires personal union with us.  What other knowledge, then, do we need?  Recognizing his great condescension, and knowing that love, not our own “righteousness,” is his motive for hearing us, we are emboldened in faith, in trust, to lay all our cares before him.  Such trust, founded on such humility, leads us deeper into the union with God in Christ which purifies us.  And our prayers.

I speak apodicticly here, but what do I truly know of these things?  May the Lord make firm the true and destroy the false.

I would appreciate your prayers for me and mine.

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Struggling in Prayer

God visits each of us in unique ways, and in his mercy, God gave me some timely and wonderful gifts yesterday, including the following verses:

Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. (Colossians 1:28-2:3 ESV)

Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God. (Colossians 4:12 ESV)

As might have been noticeable, I have been reflecting on prayer over these last several days. I have discovered some things that I have had trouble articulating. In God’s providence, however, I recalled to mind the verses above. And God also placed in my hands the words and teachings of Elder Porphyrios. I have typed in several excerpts from the book God allowed me in his loving providence to encounter.

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Prayer and Confidence

For those souls given to a belief in God and to the practice of praying to him, a difficult struggle inevitably undergone is that between faith and doubt. Even events that could be labeled unmistakably miraculous are subject to reinterpretation, and more so those events that on the surface seem to be answers to prayer but could be otherwise interpreted as coincidental or caused by less than divine intervention.

And that is precisely the journey of faith that prayer calls us to. Prayer by its very nature demands that we interpret our lives and experiences from the standpoint of faith. Events that turn out in accordance with our prayers are, by the very fact of prayer, placed in a framework which carries with it certain assumptions: God is real, he loves us so much he desires intimate involvement in our lives, and by such involvement he wishes to manifest to us his ever-vigilant care and providence. Any heart that casts forth its requests to God also puts itself in a position in which it will now view subsequent events in terms of God’s involvement.

When in the act of prayer, implicit faith is exhibited (if not explicit avowals of trust). And there is in the act of praying a certain confidence one can be given which further fuels one’s prayers. Indeed, it is perhaps not uncommon that the act of prayer itself draws forth faith and confidence, however weak and unstable. Prayer itself is that exercise of faith, and the more one prays, the more likely it is that one’s confidence in God may grow.

But there will inevitably come those seasons in prayer in which one’s faith is tested, and in which any weakness and instability will not only be made manifest but even magnified in the face of such testing. No longer does one possess the gift of faith given in other seasons. Rather, one hauls oneself before God, often with very little faith, perhaps just enough to haul oneself before God, and then rests on the faith of Christ and his Church.

In fact, more painfully, one may be so afflicted with a seeming lack of faith that one fails to pray day after day. Even here, one may be held aloft by Christ’s own faith and that of the Church. For though we be faithless, he is faithful for he cannot deny himself, and once we have been incorporated bodily in his Church, by baptism and chrismation, we are his even when we deny him. He stands ever ready to receive us until, with our final breath, we solidify our destiny by choice. He stands ready, even until the eleventh hour to receive our repentance and our renewal of faith, when once we have contemplated the final end of the unrepentant and have contemplated his eternal love, and at last cast ourselves once more into his embrace.

It is in the day to day struggle, it is in the struggles of one’s life’s destiny, that we are called to faith, and that faith is both exemplified and fed by the simple turning to God in prayer. Prayer exhibits and draws forth faith.

And so, in prayer, we go to him, trusting his provision, his goodness, his love. Knowing that if we ask for a fish, he will not give us a snake, but will give us that fish, and, in fact, more. He will, truly, give us himself, satisfying both our dying mortal needs as well as the undying needs of our inner heart. Prayer shows us that we have nothing here on earth that will satisfy us, not even our own identity. What satisfies is nothing less than and nothing except Christ himself, who, in satisfying us, gives us back our selves and all those other penultimate things we desire.

This is the confidence we have before him in prayer: not that each minutiae of our desires will be answered in the particular (though he is not a God of torment, and will not refuse us those particular gifts that are for our strength and healing), but rather that each of our desires will be answered in Christ, who gives himself to us, and in himself all things.

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Petitionary Prayer, Faith, Providence and Mystery

When it comes to prayer, the faithful man or woman of God is confronted by a host of seeming contradictions. On the one hand, God respects human free will so much that he will allow a man or woman to freely reject him forever. And yet, so much of the way God provides for his creatures (food, shelter and clothing) is an inescapably and deeply tangled matrix of untold numbers of free human decisions. We are told that if we would have what we ask for in prayer, we must ask in faith. And yet, we are told that such faith may be as small as a mustard seed. We are told not to seek anxiously after food, clothing and shelter, since God providentially provides all these for us, just as he does the unreasoning birds of the air and the immobile lillies of the field. And yet we are told to lay all our cares upon him for he loves us; we are told to ask and to seek and to knock.

The blessing of these paradoxes is that it enables us to move beyond the God of formulas, the pagan god: The god whom we placate by a certain number of prayers, a monetary donation of a certain amount, or by striving to please God. Rather, it forces us to encounter the personal God, the good God, who loves us and ever seeks us whether we run away from him or run to him . . . or, in our pain and despair, simply wait for him in silence.

There is much about petitionary prayer that, I think, must lie ever beyond our grasp. Our understanding of petitionary prayer, it seems to me, must be like trying to grasp water. The more tightly we grip it, the less we grasp it. But we may float in it, and we may swim in it, and we may drink from it and be refreshed.

For petitionary prayer is nothing else than joining ourselves to God. We seek him, for he is good. We want his will, for it is our good. And he and he alone is worthy of our deepest selves, alone worthy of our deepest needs and desires, alone worthy of our ineffable darknesses and wounds. He and he alone will satisfy and quench, alone will give light and healing.

But this pathway is not easy, and the larger the crisis and hurt and pain, the more difficult it is. For in such times our need for assurance and hope is very large, large enough, heaven help us, to even crowd out God. But if we will simply lay these needs, this hurt, this pain on the altar of prayer, we can, even through tears, find our entry into the life of God himself. And there, where our heart is joined to God’s heart, there is where our petitionary prayer belongs. There where the fire of divinity enlightens and vivifies, where heart is joined to heart in Christ by the Holy Spirit, there we find peace and rest, whatever may be of our petitions.

And the wonder of it all is that, when we enter this ring of fire, we find there an unusual coinherence, a new capacity to bear one another’s burdens. We do not simply pray empathetically, though we do learn to suffer with those for whom we pray, but in our mutual identification in Christ, in a way I do not know rightly how to express, we pray for them as though we were them. We are united one to another in this prayer, in this heart of Christ, in a way of union wherein our lips are their lips, our prayers their prayers, and the love which God bestows on them is the love we receive. We weep not alone for our own failings and sins, but for theirs, we desire union with God not alone for ourselves but for them . . . as though we are this other for whom we pray. We are one in Christ, and when we pray for those others, that union is manifest in an ineffable and deep way. We are truly present with them in spirit, and if the Lord wills, those who pray and those for whom they pray can know and sense this presence.

In looking over the above, confessedly, I’m not sure I have said it accurately or rightly. I am grasping here through experiences I have no way to articulate. May the Lord preserve what is true and cast away the false.

And may he have mercy on us all and draw us ever closer to him.

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Kansas Rain

The darkening Kansas skies of spring are not always a welcome sight, for they can bring chaos and destruction in the blink of an eye. But when the grey clouds begin to gather, and the dusty wet smell fills the nostrils, a man can welcome the coming rain. The drama of a Kansas thunderstorm, with blazing lightning and crashing thunder, will soon give way to the steady rain which the farmer’s fields drink in festival. The dust is cleared from the air, the landscape is cleansed.

Most Kansas rains are gentle rains, and steady. They embrace everything, like God’s pity, soaking flower and earth, rose and stone, man and beast, house and the bowing wheatfields. No one and nothing is beyond the reach of this rain and its mercy. It quenches the thirst fired by desire with the true drink that has long been sought. It gives new life, true and green. It cools and it soothes.

The aftermath of a Kansas rain, like the mercy of God, leaves a gentle, quiet joy. It will not heal the branch broken off by the storm, a tear in the fabric of the tree that will mark and scar, but it will bring the new growth that covers the wound and new branches with buds of life soon sprout. That darkened sky is broken soon by the light of the sun, and a sky so crisp and bright that one must shade one’s gaze to see the horizon. The blue of the heavens infuses a man’s soul and buoys his heart and mind.

There is no rhyme nor reason to the Kansas rains, which come in fury, or in a whisper, which spring out of nowhere and which come on slowly and steadily. And there is no formula to the mercy of God, for it is indiscriminate in its scope and efficacious beyond our knowing. Like the Kansas rain, it falls upon the just and unjust. It can destroy the foundationless, and pierce the stone. It can fill a mother’s milk and slake a hardened athlete. It is pervasive, but must be sought. For it one can find substitutes, but substitutes which do not satsify, and indeed, only accentuate the need.

It is a dangerous thing to meditate on the mysteries of God’s grace. For too close attention to one or another matter of God’s mercy leads one into unreason and madness. It is far, far better to leave aside the machinations and reasonings of men, and to simply embrace the God of mercy, who loves and pities each of us, always, wooing us like no other lover ever could, and in that love making us freer, more whole, more divine.

Let it rain.

Other Kansas Meditations:

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