Take From Me and Give Me

 

“O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.”

With these words begins the prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian, which is prayed during the season of Lent. The prayer begins with the acknowledgement that Christ is the Lord over our lives. He is our Master; an unused and unpopular term perhaps but one that needs recovering. After all, St. Paul refers to himself as a slave of Jesus Christ, and if St. Paul is comfortable with that language then we should be as well. Christ is our Lord and we, out of love and gratitude, endeavor to obey his commandments.

The prayer then asks that the spirit of a specific list of hurtful things be taken from us. Before we can ask for these things to be taken, we first need to acknowledge their presence. Even if we protest that we may not struggle with them, usually they are hiding just below the surface in our hearts. Sloth, or laziness, can be present in either physical or spiritual forms when we do not take time for prayer, or when we neglect to fulfill our daily responsibilities at home and at work. Despair is an issue that many people face and experience in the form of depression. Lust for power can manifest itself in the highest echelons of power or in the office of a church secretary. Idle talk and gossip is a sin to which most of us are prone. It can be disguised as concern: “Pray for Bill, I heard from Sue that he struggles with lust.” Or it can be blatantly expressed openly as harassment on social media.

“But rather give the spirit of chastity, meekness of mind, patience, and love to thy servant.”

It is not enough for us to ask the Lord to remove hurtful and sinful behaviors from our hearts, we need to replace them with something of the divine. If we do not then we will fall back into the same destructive patterns of acting, thinking, and being that we are asking to be delivered from in the first place. It is not a coincidence that St. Ephrem’s prayer mimics St. Paul’s list of the Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23.

Chastity is the antidote for the desires of the flesh. It helps us to tame our physical desires that are wrongly ordered and to bring them in line with what God intended for them. Meekness of mind, or humility, is the antidote to pride and entering into the spiritual struggle of fasting and prayer, or attending services, can lead one to pride. C.S. Lewis helpfully said, “Whenever we find that our religious life is making us feel that we are good – above all, that we are better than someone else – I think we may be sure that we are being acted on, not by God, but by the devil.” Patience is needed because we should not expect to be transformed overnight. Becoming more and more like Christ is something that occurs over a lifetime, not in a sudden fit of religious ecstasy. There are no shortcuts to Christlikeness. Lastly, love is the most important of all. Love for God and love for our neighbors is what will help us as we ask and strive for: charity, humility, and patience.

“Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages. Amen.”

The prayer closes with another acknowledgement of Christ as our Lord and as our King. He rules over us seated at the right hand of the Father, and he makes intercession for us as our sympathetic high priest, as the author of Hebrews wrote.

In the Gospel of St. Matthew our Lord Jesus says, Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” It is easier to point out something that we think is wrong in another person rather than address the shortcomings, sins, and personal weaknesses that we are prone to fall into ourselves. If we can spend our time focusing on others then we never have to take a hard look inward at what God is trying to heal in us.

This Lenten season may the words of this prayer echo in our minds and in our hearts as we move towards the remembrance of our Lord’s sacrifice and participate in his call to repentance, as his kingdom, that is not of this world, has come near.

 

 

C.S. Lewis quote from: http://www.timesandseasons.org/The_Great_Sin_condensed.pdf

Prayer of St. Ephrem from: http://www.antiochian.org/saint_ephraim

Matthew 7:3-5 from: http://www.esvbible.org/Matthew%207/

Photo: http://popcornmonstret.blogspot.com/2009/12/gratis-bild-ljus-i-morkret-candle.html

 

 

 

 

 

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Incomplete Thoughts on the Incarnation

 

During tonight’s Good Friday service I found myself reflecting on Jesus (which is like saying one should remember to chew when eating food or pull up the emergency brake when parking on a hill).

Jesus, as we all know, died and rose again to reconcile fallen humanity to God and Holy Week is the time of year when Christians, except those odd Jewish root dispensationalists we run into on Facebook, commemorate and celebrate Christ’s Passion and Resurrection. When I was growing up, and for a large part of my early adult life, everything revolved solely around the Cross. The Cross, the shed blood, the atonement, these are all that mattered (well, the miracles mattered too because we were expected to be able to do “greater works than these” but thats another story for another time). The Incarnation was largely a footnote, an act of divine trickery that God, according to popular teachers in my old tradition, had to do in order to pull a fast one on the devil as the devil had legal rights over all of the earth due to Adam’s sin. So Jesus is God’s “back-door” way of setting everything right since God has no “legal” way of operating in the earth as he needs a human being’s permission to do so, hence the Incarnation. This is ridiculous nonsense.

It was only much later that I began to read and interact with a very different sort of theology that showed me that every part of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection has something to accomplish for our salvation. The Incarnation is not a back door nor is it a way for God to get a secret foot-hold. The Incarnation of the Son of God shows us that Jesus stands as the divine and human mediator, mediating his divinity to us and mediating our humanity to God. Only the God-Man can do this. The Incarnation is much more than an odd aside in the overall story of the atoning work of Christ. Without the Incarnation, without God becoming human, the sacrifice of the Cross would have been completely meaningless and utterly powerless.

In his classic book On the Incarnation of the Word of God, St Athanasius wrote, “Therefore the Word of God took a body and used a human instrument, in order to give life to the body and in order that, just as he is known in creation by his works, so also he might act in a human being and show himself everywhere, leaving nothing barren of his divinity and knowledge… the Savior did this in order that as he fills everything everywhere by his presence, so also he might fill all things with the knowledge of himself…” In other words the Word used a human instrument so that his divinity would infuse all human beings who will receive him, and not just human beings but the entirety of creation.

The Incarnation matters. All is lost without it.

Seeing God

 

In his letter to the Philippians (3:8) St. Paul wrote, “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” I quoted this passage three weeks ago in a sermon I preached at my church’s Wednesday evening service not knowing how those words would come back to me when my house almost burned down.

Tuesday evening, while I was out, my house caught fire. My landlord/roommate called me right after he heard and I jumped into my girlfriend’s car and she drove me home. When I arrived there the fire was out and the investigators were walking around trying to determine what caused it. I know that the verse is speaking of losing all for the sake of Christ, and my house fire was not an act of persecution or something I chose to lay aside, but I have, pretty much, lost almost everything I own.

The day after the fire I was scheduled to preach the sermon at my church’s Wednesday evening service and I spoke about the story of Jesus and the blind man in John chapter nine. In the story Jesus not only restores the man’s physical eyes but also restores his spiritual eyes leading the man to fall to his knees and worship. Often times it is very hard to see God when incredibly terrible things happen and we need our eyes to be healed in order to see God.

Whether it is bad news from the doctor or experiencing loss, if we look we will be able to see something of God in it. For me I see God in the outpouring of support from my friends and church community. I see God in the fact that until the insurance company decides what’s what I have several different places I can live. I also see God in the fact that I have lost entertainment devices. It is all too easy to play Skyrim or watch Netflix on my Xbox 360 than to pray. It is sometimes far too easy to choose to watch a Blu-Ray than to read the Gospels. Now I have no such distractions. This latter point was reinforced in my mind when one of the few things I was able to salvage from my room was my prayer rope.

This does not mean that I’m sailing above it all unaffected by what happened, far from it, but when the sadness comes and when it starts to build I have something in the middle of the sorrow that I can hold on to. It may seem like nothing but to me it’s as clear as a light shining in a darkened room. Also, if you think of it, please remember my roommate and I in your prayers (especially him as the house is his).

Walking in the Spirit

 

Lately I have been reading through St. Nicholas Cabasilas’ book The Life in Christ as part of my daily devotional reading. Its an amazing book and it is divided into sections that make it easy to use as a devotional much like The Imitation of Christ. However, I like this book much better than Thomas a Kempis’ influential classic. In the reading today St. Nicholas was expounding on baptism as a door or an entryway that Christ himself did for us in order to cleanse us from sin and to seal us with the Holy Spirit.

One thing St. Nicholas mentions that struck me was a connection I had never made before in regards to walking in the Spirit. In Galatians 5:16 St. Paul writes, “But I say, live by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desires of the flesh (NET) and in Romans 8:14 he writes, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God (NET).” I grew up in an independent charismatic tradition that believed “walking or living in/by the Spirit” meant empowered by the Spirit in the sense of not only being given the spiritual resources to crucify the flesh but also demonstrations of power and supernatural experiences. A premium was placed on the experiences and power to the detriment of the hard work of crucifying the flesh. This is incredibly interesting to me as the Pentecostal tradition that spawned independent charismatic churches taught that one had to experience entire sanctification before one could receive the gift of the Holy Spirit evidenced by speaking in other tongues. In the reading this morning he made a link between “walking in the Spirit” and the holy Mysteries (Baptism and the Eucharist) which is a link foreign to my charismatic upbringing.

According to St. Cabasilas, when we partake of the Mysteries the life of God fills us and this dims everything else in us that is of the flesh and replaces the “beauty” of the world with his brightness. He then writes that this divine life overcomes the desires of the flesh enabling or accomplishing walking in the Spirit. This is a marked difference from one having spiritual experiences, feeling God’s tangible presence or “flowing in the gifts.” If he is right, and I think he probably is, then walking in the Spirit is a sacramentally powered gift of God’s grace which necessitates our continual coming to the table to receive it over and over again until the parousia. It is worth noting that there is no initial act of total sanctification one needs to receive before one can experience the illumining and empowering work of the Holy Spirit in the thought of St. Cabasilas because the Spirit is given and is sealed in Baptism. Granted most charismatics would reject that idea as well but since they do not have a robust understanding of eucharistic illumination the work of the Spirit will continue to be focused on the externals of what they believe life in the Spirit should look like in the hope that this external experience will somehow enable perpetual death to self.

Pablum as Profundity (or Negative Thoughts on Positivity)

 

You may have seen them on social media -Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest- they are fairly ubiquitous. You may have a few friends or acquaintances that post them every day, or you may post them yourself: inspirational quotes over a picture of a field, sunshine, or stylized background. Usually you are invited to share the quote with everyone and sometimes they sound pretty good, but sometimes not so much.

This week I’ve been waging a one man campaign against the profusion of positivity quotes. On Facebook I have been posting faux inspirational quotes sourced from actual words and writings of select people and watching the reactions they garner (you can see them here: https://www.facebook.com/michaelalandsman/media_set?set=a.10152491981653169.1073741840.548908168&type=3). Sometimes they were shared with no comment and sometimes they started conversations. I even used three hashtags to indicate that the quotes were meant to be taken satirically. At first I started with absurd quotes from movies like Mystery Men or Big Trouble in Little China but soon moved on. I discovered in the tweets and resources of televangelists and Christian “life coaches” a world far more inane and unintentionally funny than I thought possible, so I started posting their quotes. Then I started thinking about the whole thing.

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A good friend of mine recently said in a sermon that life is not moon beams and sparkle ponies. I mention this because most of these motivational quotes exist in the world of moon beams and sparkle ponies. They are words of wisdom from a world where everything is expected to work in our favor and to our advantage. We desperately want to live in a world where our poor finances, familial crises, or poor health are magically relieved. These spin meisters take the scriptures and use them to create a world of moon beams and sparkle ponies and we buy their books, we ingest their sermons and life courses, fill their wallets, and eat their pablum. And thats exactly what it is: pablum masquerading as profundity.

These purveyors of pablum will make cursory comments about life’s difficulties, but the paths they offer ultimately lead to disappointment. They teach people to go around the long, slow march towards Christlikeness while trying to get out of the situations that God is using to make them more like Jesus in the first place. Telling someone “When you see what’s invisible God will do the impossible” or “A broke man is not a man without a nickel but a man without a dream” acknowledges difficulties but sidesteps completely any words or counsel on how to actually see the invisible or find a dream. And the sad thing is the scriptures do offer us help, they do offer us direction and comfort, but when God’s word becomes mixed with trite feel-goodisms the scriptures are robbed of their power.

The way Jesus offers us is infinitely better than anything we can possibly imagine, but we don’t get the fullness of it right now in the present. We get a foretaste, and believe me its the best thing you’ll ever taste, but it is only a hint of the glories to come. That foretaste, that hint of the world to come, is what motivated and empowered the early Christians to endure terrible times and that should be what motivates and empowers us. St. Paul says in Romans 8:18, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” The context of that glory is the resurrection and the redemption of all things not finding a dream or seeing the invisible. As we anticipate that day lets not hit that share button before a few moments of reflection. Half-truths sound great, and may contain a modicum of good advice, but ultimately do not satisfy because pablum never does.