Thursday, August 20, 2009

Being a Better Grape Picker

I would like to reproduce Step 10 of John the Scholastic's Ladder in toto because it was so profoundly moving for me, but time and copyright laws mitigate against that. Instead, I will offer up a few excerpts that were particularly potent.

The tenth step on St. John's Ladder of Divine Ascent is about overcoming slander. Slander here is not used in the modern sense of false, defamatory remarks. Instead, we slander one another, according to St. John, when we point out each other's sins either privately to another or even in our own hearts. It is a practice so commonplace and so thoroughly rationalized that to hear it called slander is a little galling. Yet, St. John more than adequately makes his point. I'll let him speak for himself.

"Slander is the offspring of hatred, a subtle and yet crass disease, a leech in hiding and escaping notice, wasting and draining away the lifeblood of love. It puts on the appearance of love and is the ambassador of an unholy and unclean heart."

"There are girls who flaunt their shamelessness, but there are others who are much worse, for they put on the appearance of great modesty while secretly engaging in abominable behavior [i.e. slander]."

"I have rebuked people who were engaged in slander, and, in self-defense, these evildoers claimed to be acting out of love and concern for the victim of their slander. My answer to that was to say: 'Then stop that kind of love, or else you will be making a liar out of him who declared, 'I drove away the man who secretly slandered his neighbor' (Ps. 100:5). If, as you insist, you love that man, then do not be making a mockery of him, but pray for him in secret, for this is the kind of love that is acceptable to the Lord."

"Do not allow human respect to get in your way when you hear someone slandering his neighbor. Instead say this to him: 'Brother, stop it! I do worse things every day, so how can I criticize him?' You accomplish two things when you say this. You heal yourself and you heal your neighbor with the one bandage."

"Anyone untrammeled by self-love and able to see his own faults for what they are would worry about no one else in this life. He would feel that his time on earth did not suffice for his own mourning, even if he lived a hundred years, and even if a whole Jordan of tears poured out of his eyes."

I write this not as an exhortation to others but as a public form of self-conviction, an acknowledgement of the depth of my own guilt in this area.

I wrote previously on the remembrance of our sins. There I argued that only once we truly appreciated our sins could we truly appreciate God's grace. Here, St. John expands the value of an acute awareness of sin. When I truly recognize the depth of my own depravity, how can I even begin to look down on the sins of anyone else? I know that I would prefer, as he said, that people who saw me sinning would pray secretly for me rather than discussing my sin with someone else or even holding a record of it in their own hearts. I hope for my part, that the next time I consider making a passing comment to my wife about some girl's immodesty, I will remember this: "A good grape picker chooses to eat ripe grapes and does not pluck what is unripe. A charitable and sensible mind takes careful note of the virtues it observes in another, while the fool goes looking for faults and defects."

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

You Put Blasphemy on Pagan Lips

Have we truly grasped the dire consequences of our substandard ethical witness?

"For the Lord says:....'Woe to him on whose account my name is blasphemed.' How is it blasphemed? By your not doing what I desire. For when the Gentiles hear from our mouth the oracles of God, they wonder at their beauty and grandeur; afterwards, when they find out that our works are unworthy of the words we speak, they turn from this to blasphemy, saying that it is a myth and a delusion. For, when they hear from us that God says: 'It is no credit to you, if you love them that love you, but that it is a credit to you if you love your enemies and those who hate you' -- when they hear this they wonder at its surpassing goodness; but when they see that not only do we not love those who hate us but not even those who love us, they laugh scornfully at us, and so the Name is blasphemed." - Pseudo-Clement, So-Called Second Epistle to the Corinthians.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Church of the Spiritual Orphans

"A man who is travelling in a wrong direction, has all the trouble and gets none of the good of his journey." - John Cassian

The modern "Discipleship Movement" has left a bitter taste in many mouths. Certainly the aptitude for abuse which was realized in many of those churches is a legitimate concern to have when broaching the issue of spiritual mentoring. Admitting that does not in any way excuse us, however, from addressing the serious issues that exist in the modern church with regard to the spiritual development of individuals. The spiritual growth of children is entrusted to their parents, but from the point of earliest adulthood forward, modern Christians seek accountability from their peers and receive instruction almost exclusively through impersonal means (i.e. from a pulpit). I would suggest that neither of these practices is in the best interest of the believer.

The rugged individualism of the West in general and America in particular has lead to a belief that your soul is in your own hands and in the hands of God. To place it in anyone else's hands would be to abdicate somehow our responsibility for it and surrender our control. In reality though, the inability to accept direction is nothing short of arrogance. The truly humble person accepts that there are those in whose hands his or her soul might be better off. This does not equate to the total abdication of responsibility, only the acceptance of guidance.

There have been attempts to correct the arrogant misconception. Some have formed small groups which allow for community and accountability, as well as mutual guidance. Others have opted for a more personal means, electing to have peers in whom to confide and to whom to confess, affording the same courtesy to their peers. Yet both of these practices fall short.

If two men are climbing a mountain, the one who is higher up holds the rope for the one below, supporting him and pulling him ever upward. If two men are walking through a forest, the one who is ahead calls directions out to the one who is behind. If two students are going through school, the one who has had the class already tutors the one who is currently taking it. It would be insane to have two men at the same point on a mountain and expect one to pull the other up. It would be unreasonable to have two men standing at the same point in the forest and expect one to tell the other what is ahead. It would be pointless to have two students who have never taken the class and expect the one to tutor the other. The same flaw exists in any peer support system. The growth is necessarily stagnated by the shared developmental level. Nothing can substitute for an older, wiser mentor.

What would the church look like if spiritual infants were adopted by parents rather than orphaned? At some point it isn't enough to teach generic lessons from a pulpit. At some point it isn't enough to confess sins to someone who doesn't know how to overcome them any better than you do. At some point it isn't enough merely keep faith alive. It must be nurtured, it must be attended to personally, it must be labored over, it must be loved into maturity by those who are already mature. What would a church look like that embodied Titus 2? The old women would teach the young women what it means to be good wife. The old men would teach the young men what masculinity really means. The body of Christ would take responsibility for itself, not in some nominal, disinterested way where the right hand says, "I sure hope the left hand doesn't fall off," but having instead a genuine anxiety for the well being of all.

The concerned Christian should always have one eye forward to see where good Christians have gone before and one eye back keeping faithful watch on those who are coming up behind. In that way we can stand in one unbroken line, on one unbroken path and never have to fear, as John Cassian says, travelling in the wrong direction and achieving nothing.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The grace of God has ruined us...

...or at least encouraged us to ruin ourselves.

Let me explain. The sola gratia impulse of post-Reformation Christianity has created a religious culture where the emphasis is on God's grace and not human responsibility. In view of the depravity of the human condition (be it inherent or by the free exercise of our will) and out of respect for the extraordinary nature of God's grace, we declare - and rightly so - that there is nothing we can do to affect our own salvation. A man can never offer up so many good works as to make God awestruck by his righteousness and thereby earn his salvation. Similarly, a man can never be so utterly depraved that he is somehow out of reach of God's redeeming grace. Yet, these ultimately valid truths leave the question of how to respond to our sin hanging unanswered in the air.

Cheap grace is the answer we accept in practice. Taking sin as an inevitability, we accept it when it happens. We may feel a twinge of guilt. We may wish we could go back and change the past. The diligent Christian might even go so far as to try to pray for forgiveness each time he catches himself in sin. But if we are being honest, most of us cannot be bothered.

How often when doing something we ought not be doing are we gripped by the fear that some one will find out? Why is it that we never cease to invent new ways to keep our sin private for fear that we will be caught? How foolish! We have already been caught. The God against whom we sin is the God who sees our sin when it is hidden to everyone else. We fear our friends, our spouses, our families will discover our darkest sins, but why are we not gripped with dread to know that God sees them?

St. John the Scholastic put it this way: "We should be afraid of God in the way we fear wild beasts. I have seen men go out to plunder, having no fear of God but being brought up short somewhere at the sound of dogs, an effect that fear of God could not achieve in them."

We are so comfortable in the knowledge that God will forgive all of our sins, that we trivialize them. But how can we trivialize an affront to the very Maker of all that is and was and will be? How can we so easily take for granted a gift that was obtained with such difficulty? How can we treat so cheaply a redemption that was so costly?

Again St. John said, "The man turning away from the world in order to shake off the burden of his sins should imitate those who sit by the tombs outside the city. Let him not desist from ardent raging tears, from wordless moans of the heart, until he sees Jesus Himself coming to roll back the rock of hardness off him, to free the mind, that Lazarus of ours, from the bonds of sin."

How much more rightly would we understand the gift of grace if we first understood the gravity of our sins? When we sin it is not merely a breach of some human code but a violation of the Divine Will for humanity. When we fall, it is not by our strength that we stand again but by the strength of a God who was willing to be struck down on our behalf. When we sin, do we allow ourselves to suffer in accordance with the gravity of your transgression, or have we fallen totally into apathy?

It is my ardent prayer that we will all remember this: the immensity of God's grace was first and foremost necessary to blot out the immensity of our guilt.