You should be especially nice at church: an examination of Galatians 6.10

“So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6.10)

This verse strikes me as being counter-intuitive. First of all, shouldn’t we do good to everyone equally? Secondly, if we are to do good “especially” to some, shouldn’t they be nonbelievers? The church is a place where people already recognize the goodness of God. I often think that since a person is saved, they are secure in their knowledge of the goodness of God, and there is no pressing need for my actions to serve as a reflection or reminder. On the other hand, I often feel a compelling need to point nonbelievers to God’s goodness by my actions, so that they too can become secure in God’s goodness. I can recall many times in which I have been more inclined to do good to a nonbeliever than a believer, simply because I want to win the nonbeliever over. When we see a world full of hurting, hopeless people, it becomes easy to be apathetic regarding your behavior around Christians and be more concerned with doing good to those who are lost. Yet, this way of thinking and accompanying behavior is not quite right.

To make sense of this command and readjust our way of thinking, we should start by examining the verse more carefully and then considering it in relation to Paul’s other teachings. The beginning of this verse, unfortunately, is easily overlooked. Paul writes, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone”. Paul is not calling us to neglect anyone in our good deeds. Paul is calling us to live with a mindset that leads us to do good to everyone whenever the opportunity arises. This verse is at the end of Galatians – a letter which emphasizes justification by faith and not by works. Paul teaches that we are not saved by good works. It is futile to try to save yourself or another by doing good. The reason we do good is because our Father is good, and we are created in his image. In other words, we ought to do good because we have been created to do so. When God use a good deed to be a reminder or a reflection of his goodness, then it is bonus.

With the proper reason for doing good in mind, let us consider Paul’s teachings on the church in 2 Corinthians. Paul’s letter indicates that church, as a whole, must be the starting place for the expansion of the Kingdom. Throughout the epistle, he discusses of the church’s obligation to share. The church must share in sufferings, forgiveness, and even material wealth.
In the context of sharing material wealth, Paul writes:

>Your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. (2 Corinthians 9.14)

This is a tangible example of the sort of good that needs to be done within the church. We “do good” when we provide for our brethren; this could mean bestowing forgiveness, loving-kindness, or tangible goods. Likewise, our brethren ought to “do good” to us as well and provide in the places where we are lacking. When the church family does good to one another there is fairness and fulfillment. If we take Galatians 6.10 seriously, then members of the church should feel complete in forgiveness, love, and strength. Then, we can better serve to be a light in the world. Think of a stone lighthouse, in which the stones are the members and the whole structure is the church. Each stone lends its strength and stability to the others. Together, they make the structure strong, and are able to provide light to those out at sea. It is necessary that each stone is present and lending all of its strength.

As we consider Paul’s command to do good, we must keep in mind the proper reason for doing good. We bear the image of the Highest Good, and our actions should manifest this. However, by the grace of God, our good actions can also serve to transform those around us. This is what Paul is getting at in the latter half of Galatians 6.10. Ultimately, we do good because we can and should. However, when we do good especially to those in the household of faith, we are being used by God to form the beacon of faith that shines out into a world of lost souls.

A Journey of Sacrifice

“You will have to manage without pocket-handkerchiefs, and a good many other things, before you get to the journey’s end.” (*The Hobbit*, 35)

This is my favorite quote from J.R.R. Tolkien’s *The Hobbit*, because it communicates the very thing that makes an adventure great: sacrifice. Bilbo is suddenly presented with an opportunity for adventure. He’s used to living in a cozy hobbit-hole, with the comforts of home at his fingertips. Yet something deep within him prompts him to take the opportunity and go on a journey with companions who are practically strangers. He does not quite know what he’s getting into and he suspects there will be perils ahead, but he still chooses to go. Less than five minutes into the journey he remembers his pocket-handkerchief and wants to turn back. It is at this point that Dwalin, a no-nonsense dwarf, reminds Bilbo that if he wants to be a part of the adventure, he’s going to have to leave the comforts of home entirely behind him. Bilbo is reminded to anticipate sacrifice if he wants to get where he’s going.

I’m not going to say that the Christian life is like an adventure –after all, adventures are temporary. You return to the the comforts that you sacrificed once the adventure is over. The Christian life is not called the Christian adventure for a reason. It does not last for a few months and then come to an end. I will, however, say that this line from the Hobbit reminds me of the sort of sacrifice which Paul explains in Romans chapter 12. The Apostle writes:

> I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12.1-2)

Paul is instructing believers to seek a radical transformation. When he tells us to present our bodies as a living sacrifice, he means that we are no longer serving our flesh but giving ourselves to God. The world tells us it is okay to pursue our sinful desires. Paul is telling us to leave the world’s standards behind and change our mindset. If we want to be obedient we have to go all the way. We cannot be of Spirit with a mindset and a desire that is of the world. Yes, sacrificing our desires is uncomfortable and sometimes feels uncertain, but it is necessary if we want to get where we are going.

Returning to The Hobbit, it appears that Bilbo’s sacrifices actually improve him. Prior to his journey, he knew little of what happened beyond the borders of the Shire. He was content with his pipe, his food, and peace and quiet. He never had any need to exercise courage or push himself beyond his comfort zone. He learns with every step of the journey that there is more to him than he thought. He has a courage and strength within himself that brings him to confront incredible foes. In the end, he returns to the Shire as a changed Hobbit, with a beautiful story to tell.

It is okay if sacrifices scare you. You should feel a tinge of fear when you read the aforementioned line from The Hobbit, mostly because you can sense the risk and peril that is coming. You might feel a tinge of fear when you read Romans 12.1-2 as well. Saying no to a desire is painful. Christians know that they are on a life-long journey in which they will have to give up their desires. However, we can be comforted in the fact that as we make sacrifices we are being transformed and prepared for a future glory. Sacrifice is painful but necessary, frightening but transforming. As you strive to sacrifice the desires of the flesh, remember that you are on a journey in which you are becoming closer and closer to God. Not to mention, your journey ends with an eternity spent in his presence. With this hope in mind, press on in your journey of sacrifice.

Happy Endings in Love and Life: The Keys to Satisfaction

Man was never created to be an independent creature, free to do as he pleased.  In the garden, God created man to be in constant communion with him. Adam’s sole purpose was found in relationship with God. God created Eve because it was not good for Adam to be alone (Genesis 2:18).  Relationship is a core component of human nature.  Humans were made to be in constant relationship both with God and with each other. Eve broke that relationship when she took the forbidden fruit, choosing  her own way instead of God’s way, disrupting the natural state of man.  Man was no longer in constant subjection to God.  Listening to self instead of God soon became an option for living.  Obviously, this was not without consequence.  Discord and strife, instead of peace and harmony, immediately became the norm for life.  Hello to the world as we know it.

Marriage is an institution ordained by God designed to replicate the harmony in the garden.  Husband and wife entering into perfect harmony with each other; two becoming one (Genesis 2:25). However, just as it was in the garden, the husband and wife experience unity in their submission to God.  This requires mutual submission and self-sacrificial love.  Acting for yourself in opposition to your spouse results in strife.  For many, this kind of marriage seems very constraining.  It is.  You are not allowed to follow all your passions on a whim.  Marriage is a life time commitment to submitting to and loving another human being.  But in this commitment comes great joy that is not possible in relationship outside of marriage.

Desire is an important part of any relationship.  But as with any passion, desire can come and go.  Following desire can lead you down many stray paths.  Desire alone is not enough for a thriving relationship.   Commitment and security are needed.  In Song of Solomon, the bride says, “I am my beloved’s and his desire is for me (7:10).”  Without this firm sense of belonging, insecurity and doubt will destroy even the most passionate relationship.  Marriage provides a framework for desire where security and exclusivity allow it to blossom.

What about people in abusive marriages?  What about adultery?  There is no doubt that these will drastically affect and possibly shatter any union.  Strife and discord are inevitable in any relationship, no matter how committed the two spouses are to God and each other.  But my point here is not to write about the affects of sin on marriage.  My point is simply to present the best bet for a lasting love.

Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is the story of a tragic love affair.  Anna and Vronsky are destroyed by a love that cannot satisfy.  Anna soon becomes consumed with doubt and insecurity regarding Vronky’s commitment.  Without marriage, there is no assurance of commitment or belonging, thereby making insecurity overtake passion.  Vronksy strives to retain his “manly independence” and keep a life apart from Anna.  He holds onto part of himself that he refuses to give to Anna.  This too prevents them from becoming one flesh.  Chaffing is the natural result.  Destruction instead of a blossoming love becomes the outcome of their affair.  Desire outside the bounds of marriage yields nothing but strife.

Anna and Vronsky are perhaps an extreme example of something so commonplace in our culture, love outside of marriage.  Anna and Vronsky’s destruction was in part caused by their rejection by society.  Today, “living together” is a common place behavior.  While it may not be openly destructive, as with any other self-centered behavior, it can result in nothing but inward strife and discord.  It may feel good at times, but does it satisfy? True satisfaction only comes through living a life in relationship with and submission to God, and, if that life involves the love of your life, a God centered marriage.

Why is God important?  This too goes back to the garden.  God created us to be in constant relationship with him.  Thriving is only possible through this relationship.  Veering away from God might lead to earthly pleasures but will never lead to ultimate fulfillment.  Jesus came so that we might be fulfilled in a post-fall world.

Are you engaging in a self-centered behavior right now?  Whether it is an extra-marital affair, or something like excessive drinking or viewing pornography, I have to ask you, “Does it satisfy?”  Not just on the surface, but deep down inside.   Jesus tells his followers, ”The thief comes to kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10).”  Choose life.

Your righteousness has nothing to do with you

Your righteousness has nothing to do with you.

1. It does not start with you.
2. It is not facilitated by you.
3. It does not end with you.

Most of us probably do not have issues with the first statement. It is easy to recognize that only Christ’s blood justifies us and sets us on the path of righteous living in the first place. However, the latter two statements tend to be more problematic for the Christian. This calls for constant reminders of the means and ends of righteousness.

We often think that because righteousness is manifested by our actions, the process of becoming righteous is our responsibility. Of course, we acknowledge that God plays a role in this process, and it is common for us to pray and ask for his help. However, if you are anything like me, after you pray for a little while, you return to discipline and self-directed control in order to be obedient to God and grow in righteousness. I tend to think of it as a sort of spiritual conditioning in which forcing myself to desire righteousness and acting on those desires makes me into a righteous person. The problem with this thinking is that both the desire for righteousness and the will power to follow through with righteous actions is only possible by the work of Christ.

16th century theologian, Martin Luther, asserts that righteous actions stem from a primary source of righteousness. This is the righteousness that justifies us, and it is only by faith that we can receive it as a gift. When this happens, Christ becomes ours and our souls are immediately transformed. We are changed and made capable of genuinely desiring and acting on pure things. Hence, success in living righteously is a matter of faith in the transforming power of Christ. This does not mean that we should instead put our efforts into growing in faith so that we can attain righteousness. Rather, it means that we should keep to the faith by which we are justified in the first place. In other words, the faith by which you turned to Christ is the faith that will produce righteous actions. By the grace of God, if you maintain your full dependence on Christ, you will be transformed.

Your righteous lifestyle is for the purpose of bringing others to God. God calls us to live righteously, but it is not for our own gain. Righteous living has everything to do with others.
Love, patience, and peace are qualities of righteousness that affect the way we interact with others. Righteous actions are an extension of God’s goodness from a believer to another person. A prime example of this is Jesus, the incarnate Son of God. Jesus lived as a perfectly righteous man and he spent his life healing the sick and comforting the weary. The Gospels make it clear that Jesus’ righteousness had a greater impact on others than it did on him. Our righteousness is not meant to merely improve our lives but to improve the way we live with others. Also, since this sort of behavior is only possible because of Christ’s transforming power, it can only point back to him. Righteous actions encourage our brethren in the faith and serves as a light to the nonbeliever.

Do not fall into the trap of thinking of righteousness as a progression that ends with you. Rather, think of righteousness as a work of grace in which the Kingdom of God is expanded.

By his grace we can possess a saving faith.
By his grace that same faith will bring about transformation.
By his grace our righteousness will point others to back to him.

Book Review: “Let Us Keep The Feast: living the Church year at home (Holy Week & Easter)”

Doulos Resources recently released a series of short books outlining seasons of the Christian liturgical year. Guides for Advent & Christmas and Lent & Epiphany are currently available for purchase, and future editions will be released later this year. I just finished Holy Week & Easter, which is available for pre-order.

Let Us Keep The Feast: living the Church Year at home (Holy Week & Easter) postures itself as a beginner’s guide to the (Western) liturgical year and traditions surrounding these seasons. Starting with a general introduction by editor Jessica Snell, the book is divided into two main chapters: “Holy Week” (written by Jennifer Snell) and “Easter” (written by Lindsay Marshall). In addition to outlining historical and global traditions as well as ways to involve children and community members in the season, the authors include Resources sections at the end of each chapter, listing various readings, music, and prayers related to Holy Week and Easter. These lists are a lovely taste of how these seasons have been celebrated over time, functioning both as a sort of educational survey of seasonal expression and as a suggestion for materials that can supplement the celebration of Holy Week and Easter in one’s church.

The authors highlight some important truths about Holy Week and Easter, as well as Christian tradition in general. Jennifer Snell, in her chapter on Holy Week, speaks of the need to slow our busy schedules in order to fully experience these seasons. In her introduction, Jessica Snell says that “Christians developed seasonal devotional practices that helped remind God’s people of God’s mercies,” affirming the importance of being mindful of these seasons’ significance to the Christian history and faith and how traditions and rituals aid such mindfulness. The authors rightly emphasize active participation in liturgical seasons, particularly within the context of one’s church. Jennifer Snell says it well in the quotation that sticks with me most: “No private devotion can substitute for the corporate journey to Easter in the company of your church.” Easter is more than a single Sunday service in the year; it is, as the authors continually point out, a season that is the focal point of the Church year, just as Christ’s resurrection is the focal point of the Christian faith.

I am by no means an expert on church history and tradition, but based on some research into topics I was less familiar with (and after running a few things by my seminarian husband), the book’s historicity seems to generally hold up (but again, I can’t make any truly authoritative statements in this regard). For other non-experts like myself, the book seems to be a good starting point for learning about various aspects of Western Christian tradition and a potentially good jumping-off point into conducting further research, if readers should desire to do so. The book’s success in this regard could have been even greater if the authors had included more citations of church history texts. It’s possible the authors (understandably) wanted to avoid an overly academic tone, but more prolific historical citations would have enhanced the authors’ credibility and provided additional historical resources for readers to explore. The Bibliography does include some historical works, but most are only directly referenced once or twice; even including a more comprehensive list of historical “Works Consulted,” or something similar, would have bolstered the book in this area.

I came away from the book feeling that the authors should have more clearly stated (even in the form of merely one or two sentences) that their focus is on Western Christian traditions and practices; while some Eastern church practices are mentioned briefly, the book primarily presents Holy Week, Easter, and the cycles of the church year through the lens of Western Christianity (that is, Roman Catholicism and denominations derived from it, such as Anglicanism, Lutheranism, and Presbyterianism). This is implicit in the text, which, as one example, often references the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, but readers who are unfamiliar with church history or any sort of liturgical tradition may not make that inference.

Unfortunately, the book contains some typographical errors; nothing egregious, but enough to be noticeable. For example, the title of a book cited, The Origins of the Liturgical Year by Thomas J. Talley, is printed correctly on the Bibliography page but incorrectly when referenced in the text itself. Even the name of the book, as printed on the cover, does not match the book’s name as printed on the title page or front matter page: on the cover, it’s “living the Church Year at home,” while on the other pages it’s “celebrating the Church Year at home.”

Beyond these critiques, the book offers important insight into the history of celebrating the seasons of Holy Week and Easter, and it also provides inspiration for how and why Christians of all backgrounds should work to internalize and cultivate in their daily lives an active participation in the liturgical seasons.

Beauty is Passing, Perhaps still Important

Immanuel Kant said, “Two things fill the mind with ever increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” The beauty Kant saw in the starry sky impacted him deeply and moved him to wonder and awe which are the same traits we use to describe our  worship for God. For the Church, beauty shouldn’t only be used for superfluous adornment but as strong cultivators of the feelings which help us worship.

 

However, some churches would question the use of physical beauty believing it hinders rather than helps. With this mindset, beauty becomes a distraction when the worshiper stops paying attention to the meaning behind the object and instead focuses on the object itself. This is the sin outlined in the second commandment which says, “you shall not make for yourself a carved image…you shall not bow down or serve them…” The temptation to worship the beauty found in the creation rather than the creator is a real danger and for some believers, physical beauty fails to cultivate proper worship.

 

The Bible recognizes this danger and warns about the snare of physical beauty telling us, “Man looks at the outward appearance but the Lord looks at the heart.” Our human tendency gravitates toward prioritizing outward beauty. Physical beauty is easy to value since it’s present and tangible, but we are reminded, “Charm is fleeting and beauty is passing.” To find worth in beauty only for its present benefit is to then only find value in a brief and temporary satisfaction.

While it’s prudent to recognize these potential  dangers of beauty, it’s also important not to dismiss it altogether but realize it can play a significant role. In the appropriate context, the use of beauty should never become the forbidden graven image, a created object worshipped in the place of God. Rather, beauty is used to guide and increase the worship of God. This is why some churches include stained glass windows as part of their decor. The purpose of the stained glass is not to distract from God but to direct our attention to God through the resulting feelings of wonder and awe.

If the beautiful images found in nature and in man’s handiwork are able to generate worship, it’s also possible for the beauty found in man to also point to God. In fact, perhaps the type of beauty found in man best reflects the person of God since we were created in His own image. The danger is not beauty itself, but the temptation to over-value physical beauty. Physically, this means it is possible for us  to dress up for church to respect God but also as a means to generate worship of God through the beauty of our clothes.  

 

Ultimately, the better reflection of God is found in the beauty of our spirit which is why Peter says, “Do not let your adornment be merely outward — arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel — rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.”  In comparison to the earthly beauty which perishes, the loveliness of our souls displays a far greater enduring spiritual beauty. While it is good to cultivate and appreciate material beauty, ultimately we must remember our focus should be centered around glorifying God through the cultivation of the imperishable beauty of our spirits.

 

 

 

You should hug trees…Or at least, appreciate them: A Theology of Trees

Christians should care about National Arbor Day (to those who don’t know, that is today). Even if you are not a devoted celebrator of trees, it is worth your time to stop and consider what wonderful things trees are. Not only are they ascetically appealing, they are present in almost any climate, and provide shade and food. Practicality aside, the Bible illustrates many points through trees. The prevalence of trees and tree imagery in the Bible should shed light on other ways to appreciate and consider these majestic pillars of nature. To explore this idea, let us look at some specific examples of trees in the Bible and examine what they ought to signify to the Believer.

In some stories, the trees play a direct role in the narrative. In Genesis, Adam and Eve sinned by taking the forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. To Eve, the fruit was a “delight to the eyes” (Genesis 3.6). It appealed to her, not because fruit is deceitful and evil, but because fruit, by nature, is beautiful. Being tempted by the devil to act on her desires, Eve took what belonged to the tree as her own. In partaking of the fruit of the tree, Adam and Eve brought death and corruption upon the whole human race.

In direct correlation to the fall, even our salvation came about by a tree. Christ, our loving Savior, was nailed to a tree for the sins of man. He accepted this death voluntarily out of obedience to the will of God. Through his willingness to die on a tree, humans are restored and reunited with the Father. This tree, the one which was made into a cross for the death of our Savior, should be a symbol of hope. It ought to remind us of the merciful action of our Lord by which unworthy souls are made holy.

From death into life, even our daily walks are described in terms of trees. When Christians are thriving in their faith, it is said that they will bear fruit. You cannot see into the heart or judge the faith of another person. Yet, you can tell whether or not they are being spiritually fed because they will be acting in love, joy, peace, and so on. In the same way, you cannot see the roots of the tree. You cannot see the place where the tree receives its nourishment. You only know if it is healthy by the things that it is producing. Trees, then, exist as an image of the relationship between one’s heart and one’s actions.

Even the body of Christ is represented by a tree: Paul presents the imagery of the olive tree in Romans, showing the relationship between the Jews and the Gentiles and revealing the beauty of the gospel. In chapter 11, Paul says that the Gentiles have been grafted into the tree, being made into a legitimate part of God’s family. The Jews who have rejected the truth are the branches that were broken off so that all men could have a share in salvation. Now, because of God’s abundant mercy, all men can be nourished by the tree. With this metaphor, the tree represents how each person can be a part of the family of God.

Today is a day where people take the time to celebrate trees for their beauty as well as their necessary contributions to our environment.
As Christians, we can also recognize trees as being a part of the story of our salvation. Trees are involved in our fall and our redemption. They also illustrate the other aspects of our Christian life, such as the picture of bearing fruit or the imagery of the Gentiles being grafted in. Today, take the time to celebrate National Arbor Day. Appreciate trees for their beauty, their necessity, and their existence as tangible reminders of the story of our salvation.

Death, Thanksgiving, and the Resurrection

“Keep your mind in hell and despair not.” — St. Silouan the Athonite

I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately. An acquaintance of mine is a widower, and while I knew previously that his wife died several years ago, I only recently learned how: she suffered a sudden and massive heart attack. This woman was in her early thirties and in good health, and she died shortly after giving birth to the couple’s first child.

It’s easy for me to think of tragedy as something very distant and other. Tragedy happens to people on the news. It is sad and horrible, but always in a somewhat abstract way.

It’s easy to put my faith in statistics and regular exercise and my daily vegetable intake.

It’s easy to believe that because I am young and reasonably healthy I have a lot of life ahead of me.

Of course, if asked point-blank, I would not say that I expect to live to a certain age or that my life will go exactly as I hope and plan it will; no rational person can say that with certainty. Tragedy teaches us that life is very uncertain. Yet my underlying attitude comes out in my words: I joke with my husband about “when we’re old and gray;” I muse about parenting strategies and baby names in preparation for “when we have kids.” I use language of certainty when I speak of the future.

Like so many things in a young person’s mind, I often and far too easily relegate death to the far-off “someday” category. It will come when I’m old and after I’ve accomplished everything I’ve set out to accomplish. Perhaps I don’t believe this completely or even all the time, but in some small corner of my heart, I believe that death will come when I’m ready for it.

And so, it seems I have built an altar to my hopes and dreams, to what I expect out of life and what I think I deserve. I rely on a good diet and good luck for a fulfilled life, and in so doing I ignore the reality of death and tragedy, which really boils down to ignoring God and my need for him.

A former priest of mine used to respond to the question, “How are you doing?” with the statement, “Thank God.” That is, regardless of the circumstances in his life at that moment—whether joyous or tragic or somewhere in between—he responded in this way to practice continual thanksgiving. This is a good reminder of what our baseline should be as Christians: thankfulness to God for every good and perfect thing, and, more importantly, thankfulness for his unchanging goodness and mercy despite our current life circumstances.

After my priest’s example, I am trying to change the way I talk about my life. I speak of the future in terms of God’s will instead of my own plans. Rather than saying, “When I’m an old woman,” I’ll say, “Lord willing, when I’m old.” It’s not bad to hope for good things, but it is bad to idolize our desires and expectations.  We must remember who is ultimately in control, placing our faith in God’s sovereignty and grace above all else, especially when life doesn’t go according to plan.

This past Saturday, my church celebrated Christ’s raising of Lazarus from the dead. I was moved by one of the Scripture readings during the service, from the book of Hebrews:

“Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we may boldly say: ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?’…Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” — Hebrews 13:5-6, 8

In just a few verses there is such a profound and overarching message: that we must be content with what we have, for the greatest thing we always have is a God who will never abandon us, and that is all we could ever need.

While ignoring the reality of death and tragedy can be detrimental, I am not promoting the opposite extreme of being so consumed with the notion of death and mortality that we become hopeless and fail to live our lives well. Rather, we must be mindful of death, our weaknesses, and other realities that ultimately illumine our continual need for God and his grace. The Jesus Prayer, inspired by the parable of the tax collector in Luke 18, is a powerful aid for such mindfulness: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.”

My contemplation of death seems appropriately timed, as we near the end of Holy Week and rapidly approach Easter Sunday. Soon, the Christian world will celebrate Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Death has been defeated, and while it is still a terrible reality of this life, it is not our end. Our mortality and our shortcomings remind us to be humble, but, as St. Silouan says in the quote above, we must not despair. This is not to say that tragedy and suffering are to be dismissed as insignificant; Christ himself mourned the death of Lazarus, which points to how death is unnatural and against God’s will. Death is a horrific thing that tears apart a human’s very being. But thanks to Christ, we have hope beyond death and despite tragedy and suffering, as our savior tells us:

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” — John 16:33

Thank God.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

The Seventh Day

“To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money…is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for man’s progress than the Sabbath?” – Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath

 

This past summer, I found myself in a lot of cathedrals. I traveled to Switzerland, France, Spain, and England, and in each place I saw tall turrets and brilliant glass windows. I quickly learned that experiencing the outside of a cathedral is not the same as experiencing the inside of a cathedral. The outside is colossal and glorious and allows you to see where the cathedral exists in space compared to all that exists around it. The inside is colossal and glorious in a different way. It is darker, holier. In it, your senses adjust to the sacredness of the space. The scents and sounds are different, the air is cooler, and there is no direct sunlight. Rather, all sunlight is filtered through stained glass windows wherein you see your Savior and His story. He is brighter than you, and you are aware of it. When you are in a cathedral, you are in a sacred space: a space built by man but dwelt in by God. This is the Christian tradition.

 

While the beauty of sacred spaces can be appreciated in itself, sacred spaces only fully affect us if the time within them is sacred as well. Abraham Joshua Heschel, Jewish rabbi and activist of thetwentieth century, speaks about the sacred thing that God built before man ever built the cathedral. In The Sabbath, Heschel points out that there was a designated sacred time before there were sacred spaces. This sacred time was the seventh day, the only thing God created in the beginning that He called “holy.” Sabbath—or Shabbat, as it’s called in the Jewish tradition—is like an incorporeal cathedral. It is a sacred architecture assembled not in space but in time.

 

During Shabbat, it is the participant who decides to make Shabbat holy. This is very different from sacred space. The sacred spaces we gather in (like cathedrals) are, in part, designed to help us adopt the right posture towards God during sacred times of worship. Yet in holy spaces, I fidget and my mind wanders if I have not learned to regard time correctly. Although sacred spaces invite you into sacred thoughts, if you have not learned to value time as sacred as well, you likely will not feel the need to actively give up your internal quarrels or evil thoughts. We can enter into sacred spaces while hiding these profanities so that they are invisible to everyone else. However, it is much more difficult to enter into sacred time while harboring profane thoughts. For Shabbat to occur, the participant must actively give up enemies, quarrels, and work. Worry is laid aside; war ceases. Shabbat is an internal commitment to keep the seventh day sacred, and it is this internal commitment to sacredness that enables us to fully experience the affect of external sacred spaces.

 

Shabbat celebrates time, not space, teaching us how to have a proper relationship with time. The result of the fall is a broken relationship between man and himself, God, and all of creation. We must learn how to correct our relationship to all aspects of existence again, including time, which is an aspect of existence that we often misuse. Driven by our desire for success, Americans often consider rest as merely a means to increase productivity throughout the week, failing to see rest as an end in itself. To Heschel, however, Shabbat “is not an interlude but the climax of living.” When we enter Shabbat, we enter into a glimpse of eternity, or as Heschel calls it, “eternity in disguise.” During Shabbat, we cannot pick up our worries and quarrels as we would on a normal day. We are commanded to enter into rest, and that rest reminds us that our earthly cares are just that—earthly. They cannot follow us into eternity, and if we enter Shabbat correctly, they cannot follow us into Shabbat, either. Shabbat is peace in action among man and everything else. For one day, we do not fight the earth, fellow man, or God. The only thing we fight during Shabbat is our own desire to do, a desire that often stems from the idea that doing is what makes us worthy or whole. Once we fight ourselves out of doing, we can realize that just by being—being God’s child, an heir to the kingdom, a new creation—we are worthy. Work is important to the Christian life, yes. But we must remember that it is God who makes us worthy and whole, not our work.

 

The cathedrals I found in Europe are merely one testament to how much we’ve done to preserve historically sacred spaces. We have done much less to preserve the ancient practice of sacred time. Imagine if the number of sacred places on earth were converted into sacred days during which we could experience the peace of the kingdom of God. Rest and peace can happen outside of a cathedral. We can fill the entire world with the sacred peace of Shabbat.

 

A Time to Weep

Ecclesiastes 3 tells us “to everything there is a season” and the current season we are in is Lent. But most of the conversations I’ve had about Lent miss the underlying meaning of this season and focus only on what’s been given up. While Lent does incorporate the practice of giving up, also called fasting, the underlying purpose of Lent is to set apart a time for the purpose of grieving. So when I’ve been asked, “What are you giving up for Lent?” I’m not upset because I know one part of Lent is the practice of fasting, but another part of me also feels the loss in failing to connect fasting to the overall purpose of entering into a time of grief.

From the conversations I’ve had about Lent, grief and fasting are not often linked together, and this is understandable. At first glance, the acts grieving and fasting seem fairly distinct; one focuses on sorrow while the other focuses on self-discipline. However, Lent does not separate these practices but intertwines them. So what is the link between grieving and fasting? One answer may be that both grief and fasting allow the believer to learn how to let go of things belonging this world and to learn how to hold on to things belonging to God

Before diving into the link of grieving and fasting, it is important to first clearly understand what each process entails. Grief is not just an emotion but the recognition of loss, and while the specific examples of loss may vary, the characteristics do not. Loss is a combination of the inevitable, painful, involuntary and disorienting, and while we can’t control loss, we can control our response. When responding with grief, change is directed by the reason for grief. If grief is centered around the self, loss causes despair since it can only focus on what has been lost and the inability of man to reclaim. But when we grieve in the context of the Christian life, loss teaches us to face our mortality, values, and fears. For the believer, this lesson from loss is possible since life is not contained only on this earth but is sustained for eternity from God. Thus for the believer, grief should not cause us to spiral inward and downward but should instead lead us outward to express, embrace and explore.

While grief involves the emotions, it is also not a short or passive experience but a strenuously active processing of loss. This is because part of the Christian life is the long-term process of learning how to acquire and how to let go. Job reflects this process when in his grief he declares,

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.”  Job’s cry stems from the knowledge that his life was not grounded in what he possessed or what he lost but rather founded on his relationship with God. This perspective exemplifies the Christian grief which recognizes the loss on earth but simultaneously understands our lives ultimately rely on God.

So during Lent, fasting similarly reminds us our sustenance isn’t found in what we gain or lose but in the eternal relationship we have with God. Often times, fasting is merely seen as a way to practice endurance or self-discipline. However, its deeper meaning is revealed through abstaining from one form of sustenance such as food which then points to the greater sustenance of another such as God. The remembrance of and reliance on God through fasting then allows believers to focus on the renewal of a relationship with God. It’s a self-imposed loss which similar to grief should not cause us to turn inward or despair but should instead lead us to explore and embrace the relationship we have with God.

Grieving is difficult and at times overwhelming but it is also a process which ultimately allows for growth. While growth can be found amidst loss and grief,  “we do not grieve as others do who have no hope.” Likewise, when we fast, we don’t fast eternally but in preparation for feasting. Instead, we learn how to properly give things up with the belief they will eventually be replaced with things far better. So in this season of grief, let us patiently and somberly grow in the process of loss but let us also be encouraged in the hope of what is to come.