Thee will not Believe This!

I went out yesterday evening without a headcover. I had been changing clothes, my husband wanted to go to the store before supper, and I blithely put on my coat and went out. No prayer cap. No bonnet. No shawl. Not even the wild tie-dyed baby cap I wear at the gym. We got to the store, I got out of the car, and realized: No cap. My head is bare. I instantly thought everyone was staring at me.

Of course not.

Self-Discipline

I hated doing homework when I was young, especially the tedious, rote math homework. I didn’t like anything that was repetitive. I’d learned it; why did I have to do it over and over again? So I would procrastinate and dodge the work until my mother would be distracted past reason trying to pin me down to a chair. “Just do it now!” she would say. “Get it done, and it’s over with!”

This went on into the first year of high school, and then all that discipline from my mother paid off, to some extent. I became more disciplined in getting the work done, although I’d skive off the math homework if I could.

We don’t have self-discipline unless we have learned to accept discipline from outside ourselves. And without self-discipline, our lives are continually restless and unsatisfying. A lack of self-discipline leads to a lack of accomplishments, large and small. We don’t finish the university degree; we leave piles of dirty dishes in and around the sink. We can’t seem to keep our mouth shut at work and lose the job; we channel surf to the point where we can’t follow the plot of an ordinary television show. It’s a lack of focus, a lack of discipline, a lack of direction.

Of course I don’t mean real neurological disorders such as ADHD.  These are diagnosable, sometimes treatable. I mean the spiritual disorder that manifests as laziness and disaffection. It can look like busyness, too, as the undisciplined flit from activity to activity, leaving a wake of unfinished projects and forgotten friends behind.

The spiritual warriors we know as the desert monks fought lack of discipline as much as anything. Monastics need discipline, or the prayers go unsaid, the lessons unlearned, the praise forgotten. The repetition of monastic life is the result of discipline, but it also facilitates discipline. There is room for the spiritual work because the physical work is done according to rote and pattern. The prayers are said in certain order, the seasons kept in given order, and there is no room for heresies and false imagination.

Discipline within begins with discipline without. The parent disciplines and corrects the child, not harshly so as to drive it to anger and hatred and rejection, but gently and as necessary. I was not one to spank, but the firm and no-nonsense approach to corporal discipline isn’t wrong. There are limits. The purpose of spanking is to remind the child of what it did, with punctuation, and to remind of the superior position of the parent. It is to be a gentle shock, not a beating, a mild humiliation, not torture. It is not to be administered in anger, and it must never bruise or injure the child. A spank is administered to the sitting down part of the anatomy, and it is not a cuff or blow anywhere else. A child shouldn’t be spanked past the age of ten.

Other forms of discipline are effective, and often more effective than spanking. A quick word of correction, applied by a parent who is paying attention, may save both parent and child bitterness or failure. I train my dogs to respond to a fingersnap and a hand signal. Working closely with them, I can usually teach them this within days. Eventually all they need is to hear the fingersnap and they know they are expected to do something they are not doing. I don’t have to raise my voice or chase them or scold, very often. Not that we should train children the same way! But it is the putting them right when they don’t know the way, leading them time and again back to the proper course of action, without harshness and belittling, that will lead them to understand first the parental discipline and then their own self-discipline.

God disciplines us the same way. The people of God go astray more often than  sheep. Sheep will eventually understand the fence, but Christians charge through it, over it, under it, all the time.  Time and time, God sets His people right, even when it takes pain and sorrow. If we pay attention, we learn. If we don’t, we go farther astray and matters get worse for us. Just as the parent has to shout to the child running headlong into danger, sometimes God has to get our attention, because we were not heeding Him when His voice was gentle. Jesus promised us that the yoke was easy,the burden light, but we seem determined to make it difficult and heavy by carrying on with sin on our shoulders, rather than heeding the Shepherd’s voice to stop, rest and give up that burden.

Do we need explicit examples of how far from the path of Christ the church has gone? We can look around and see them. It is not just the human frailty of our leaders, but the petty disputes, the virulent distrust we see amongst the flock, as well! It is the disregard for the way the Lord gave us, disdain for the simple rules He calls us to follow. We act as if His commands are no more than mere suggestions. There is no humility and shamefacedness in the pews or the pulpits. The godliest of men and women are treated with contempt. The learned are belittled. The gentle are mocked.

Men act like women; women dress like men. Children are disrespectful. The proud prevail. The authority of the Word of God is ignored in favour of a cult of personality revolving around some priest, pastor, musician, speaker. Factions turn on each other in every denomination and jurisdiction, name-calling and slandering. Is this Godly behaviour? Did the Lord tell us to act as rats tearing at the wounded and weak?

Parents are afraid to discipline their children, and priests afraid to discipline their congregations. We might get sued, we might get fired. We must then obey man-made law and the rule of the mob rather than the Lord.

Envy

I think of envy as a sin of youth, a failpoint of immaturity. It is part of that clash of self and identity, of expectation and potential. It is love of this world, and of self, and a neglect of self-discipline and prayer.

Envy is not jealousy. Jealousy is guarding what one has; envy is hateful yearning for what one does not have. It is not “Please give me a meal, for I am hungry,”  but “I want what you have even though I have no right to it.”

To each his own gifts; envy denies the gifts of others and covets them. Envy says that God’s blessings for one’s self are insufficient.

Envy is murder. It is the root of gossip. It is the root of theft. It is the root of adultery.

Envy creeps into lives looking like ambition. It creeps into the church especially this way, as Christians battle Christians for control of the institution. We cannot control the Church. It is under Christ, not humans, but instead we attempt to annex the structure and system of the church for our own means. As St. John Chrysostom said, beware of ambition in a priest.

On the day-to-day level, envy leads to bitterness and causes love and admiration to turn to hatred and contempt. When we admire a person for his attributes we feel a kind of love. But if we become envious of those attributes because they are not ours, then that love turns to dislike and even virulent hatred. We may grumble about how arrogant someone seems, when the real sin is our own envy of their virtues.

Envy is most common over possessions. The old saw about “keeping up with the Joneses” is a statement about envy. We cannot bear, at times, to see the worldly success of others. We want the possessions, the status, the acclaim and the pleasure for ourselves. Modern marketing is an exercise in fomenting envy in as many people as possible in a short period of time. We envy the Hollywood actors and other famous people who can afford status symbol clothes, cars, houses and pets. We even try to emulate them despite our relative poverty. We flash the designer names and brand identifications to show that we, too, have status, and that others should envy. We belong, they don’t. And that is a losing proposition, because tomorrow, even tonight, there will be a different status object to desire, another person to envy, and the cycle is never ending. 

To step away from the world’s demands is to break that cycle of sin. The Lord told us this: Do not be concerned for how thee clothes thy body, or what thee will eat. The Lord provides. The world does not. 

My way of realizing that truth is plain dress and modesty. Plain people don’t need to envy; they don’t need the objects of envy. The Lord has set us in a good way of life, and we follow it. We are not to be envied, for we are the least of all. There’s nothing flashy or status conscious about us.

We have much to learn from monastics. The strictest groups still have uniformity of dress, to the point where it is hard to distinguish one from another.  They practive holy poverty, so that the monks and nuns are not concerned about the costliness or richness of their dress, and must be satisfied sometimes with old, faded and patched clothing. And it is enough, because true monasticism means that one’s eyes are not on the things of the world, but on the riches of heaven. One is clothed royally in prayer while the body is merely covered against indecency and bad weather.

I had to learn this kind of holy poverty, and it is a great gift. I was once worldly and envious of others, especially when I was young. When I was older I didn’t mind impressing people with my sense of style, my beauty, my understated but quite obvious status. I was proud, and that invoked envy in others, and that is a sin, to make others sin because of thee.

I’m not proud of the clothing I wear now; I don’t pay attention to it much until it gets to the point of ragged. It is a major change in attitude for me, thanks be to God! For He took me off the weary and lonely treadmill of envy and status seeking, and freed me for a life of prayer and service, and though I am feeble in that life yet, He will strengthen me for greater work.

A Few Thoughts on Christian Marriage

I’m not sure if I really should say anything on marriage. I have a good marriage, but I’ve seen failed marriages (including in my own past, to be honest) and sometimes I wonder: What went wrong there? How did they get off the rails so fast?

Nicholas and I were talking about romance the other day. We are not romantic people. There’s no need for weekend getaways, or champagne and roses, or even greeting cards in our relationship. There was a time we might have thought “That sounds great!” if someone talked about such things, but now we’re both very practical and down-to-earth.

I see two major problems in most marriages, Christian and otherwise. One is that most people have huge expectations about the material side of adulthood and marriage. They want the moon.  They want the lifestyle they see on television and in the magazines. They may say they don’t, but secretly they do, because they shop, and shop, and shop. Maybe they can’t afford Rodeo Drive, but they wish they could. They start with the over the top wedding (the kind that drives clergy crazy) and then they expect it’s going to be “Bride” magazine from now on. Honeymoon in Hawaii, first home in a nice part of town, furniture, electronics, and so on. You’ve seen it, I’ve seen it, and pretty soon they don’t have enough money. Husband takes a second job. Wife works overtime, then takes a retail job weekends. They never see each other. The money flies out the door to pay bills and to keep up the consuming lifestyle. (I mean the irony in that phrase.) They don’t work to support themselves, they work to support their debt, and it’s a cuckoo in the nest, pushing everything else out and eating its head off. This marriage will fail. Even if they stick together, it soon fails internally, because they were not serving God. They were serving the world and its master, Satan. The love God intended between two people in marriage is lost very quickly, if it ever was there. The next step is almost always an affair by one party or the other, with the excuse that they “feel unloved.”  That’s because possessions can’t love anyone, and all the “love” is love for the world, nothing but desire and passions.

Often the materialistic marriage ends in poor health, as well, as the worry and physical stress of trying to keep it all together causes illness.

Immaturity is a leading cause of marital failure. One partner (sometimes both) expect the other to be a substitute parent, and probably not a responsible parent, but the parent who spoils and expects nothing from the child.  Husband and wives are equally guilty of this. Some people marry so as to have no responsibilities, not to take on the unique set of responsibilities of marriage and family. The symptoms are expressed as competitiveness (“if you can have one, so can I”), secrecy (just like little kids sneaking cookies from the kitchen), and contempt, as the immature adult who doesn’t get his or her way belittles the other partner. Immature relationships are marked by fights and tantrums, as the partners try to assert control. Many “romantic”‘ relationships are just immature partnerships. The partners appease and bribe, demand and take, and what looks like a constant round of “we’re in love” events are just payoffs.

Nicholas put it this way: Modern people aren’t looking for good partners in life. They look for a pretty face, a nice figure, and  a good income. They look for romance and excitement and sex. They aren’t looking for the attributes that carry one through a long life: Maturity, ability, intelligence, temperment. No one seems to care if the wife can cook, the husband can work, or that either of them has one clue about raising kids.

Life is not going to get easier in the next years. Even those who aren’t end-time prophets can see the changes in the weather, figuratively and literally. The world is a mess. And many people are ill-equipped to deal with it. When they lose the job, the house, and the car, when they can’t go on vacations or buy the latest plasma screen tv, they will fall apart. There’s no depth of strength in many people, and they can’t support themselves and their families emotionally when the hard times come. They can’t support their families at all, because they don’t know how to grow food or bake bread or care for chickens. They don’t have a grasp of the basics, spiritually or otherwise.

Christian marriage is about trust. It’s about trusting God first, that is, true belief that God will not fail us, even if death overtakes us. True marriage doesn’t give up. True marriage is a mutual gift. It is irrevocable. Marriages that fail may not have been true marriages in the first place. Christians, when they marry, must expect that it will be until death parts them, even if the road is rough and it’s not much fun all the time. God intends marriages to last a lifetime.

True marriage is honest, totally honest. Nothing hurts a marriage more than secrets. Some learn this the hard way, by weakening the trust between husband and wife by keeping back something. It could be major (past illness or an out-of-wedlock pregnancy when young) or it could seem minor (an unpaid bill, a dented car) but secrets will take on a life of their own and haunt the secret keeper. It’s possible to rise above that kind of harm, but it will take time and understanding, and not everyone has that kind of strength all the time.

A Christian marriage is Christian love, charity at heart, and self-sacrificing. It is the ultimate traditional marriage, for some of our patterns for marriage go back to the early days of humanity captured in Genesis. Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekka: these are our models for marriage. Above  that, we have the model of Christ and the Church, His Bride, for whom He gave His life, and it is for Him that the Church lives.

Listening to God

I’ve been a Christian a long time. When people talk about their conversion experiences, I can’r remember mine. I was no more than five years old when I became convicted of the truth of the Gospel, and I have never doubted. I had my share of young silliness in religion, and more than my share of worldliness, but to me, all through my life, home is where God is. It’s made me a bit of a wanderer, because I don’t get attached to places and things, and soemtimes I regret that we are not more settled as we pass the half-century mark. But it really doesn’t matter that much.

New Christians and reborn Christians (those who wandered and then came home, let’s say) will come to us with words of how God has spoken to them – they know it, in their hearts!  And this can be so true. God does move our hearts. The Light of Christ enters us and we see.

But I also listen with a bit of hesitation at accepting “God has spoken.” Because there is more in our hearts than God, we have to be careful of the voices within. Our hearts, if we have not given up the world completely, (and we never will, this side of the Jordan) will give us messages of beguilement and pride, making those messages seem beautiful and clean, while they are really serving our dark nature.

“Oh, this is where I should be!” someone may cry out in an awesome church building or in a centuries old monastery, all peaceful and glorious. Rarely does anyone cry out with awe at the raw beauty of a soup kitchen or a clinic for poor children. We may be moved to tears of pity for the downtrodden and suffering, but rarely do we see the beauty of Christ in the desperately poor.

Christ told us that is where he will be. We know that. “What thee has done for the least of these, thee has done for me.”

That realization can’t be forced. It can’t be sentimental. Thee must see the suffering as well as the heavenly beauty. Sometimes all thee may see is the suffering, and the beauty comes back as a memory. Sometimes we don’t hear God in the moment, but later we do, when we reflect in prayer on what happened.

If God is speaking to thee, most likely it will be about something thee does not want to do. We are weak creatures, full of selfish desires, full of passions and silly enthusiasms. We prefer our own way. When God speaks, and thee is compelled by it, most likely it will be toward what is difficult for thee. God will make thee angry. God will frighten thee. The words of truth will make thee turn upon the human speaker, if such is the agent of the message, with bitterness and even hatred, “How can you even suggest I do such a thing? I can’t! I won’t! God would never ask that!” And yet that may be just what God is asking.

The Quakers have two terms for the compulsions of the heart. If they are of God, they are leadings. If they are of the sinful self, they are notions. Sometimes notions can look a lot like leadings. Thee may have a notion to cast away thy job, thy connections in thy native place, and go to China as a missionary. It sounds so noble and Christian.  But it may be vain and prideful. It may be a decision thee wants to make to prove how faithful and self-sacrificing a Christian thee is. It may be a romantic idea gained from reading a book or watching a film. It may be an attempted escape from the hard work of resisting temptation and living a life of peace amongst thy neighbours.

Equally, it may be a notion that thee can witness by living a quiet, inconspicuous life, that thee is setting a good example, for thy neighbours will surely see that thee is a Christian because thee is in church on First Day, thee is kind and considerate, thee does not have the biggest television set or the most expensive car on the block. Thee may be entirely convinced that God will allow thee to have a moderate amount of worldly success, and does not expect too much of thee. But this is mere spiritual cowardice. No one will notice that thee is a Christian if thee lives a worldly life. It is no witness at all. Instead, it says that the world is just fine, that Christians don’t need to challenge it, that God helps those who help themselves. And this is all nonsense, a deception of the devil.

All “messages” from God have to be tested, first with other, experienced Christians and then in action. All ideas, which may be notions or leadings, have to be tested in prayer. And the first prayer of all, and I am not ashamed to repeat it, is: “Thy will be done.”

It’s Not a Story

I studied in fairly liberal theological circles beginning about twenty years ago, and the liberal language of theology is familiar jargon to me. That can be a hindrance, because for years I have left the term “story” go unchallenged, until my husband pointed it out after an Advent sermon.

Week after week we hear in sermons, we read in Christian articles, about the “Christ story”, the “stories” of the Old Testament, and so on. To most people, “story” means fiction. And perhaps to a lot of liberal Christians, there’s a lot of fiction in the Bible.

But it’s not a story.

I have seven years of theological education. I know all the variants. I am not inteested in one more explanation of authorship, redaction and narrative development. I thought when I was studying the scholarship that some was plausible, and none was proveable.

And I thought: It doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter that the Exodus narrative is only somewhat supportable by archeology. That does not make it fiction. The history told in the Old Testament is history as remembered. Traditionally the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) are attributed to Moses. Good enough. It doesn’t matter. I’d say there’s a really good possibility that the different narratives and traditions were brought together at the time of the Exodus, told during the long migration, and developed as coherent units. Moses and his successor, Joshua, very well could have had a big influence on those fireside narratives. These are pre-literate people, for the most part.  People who have no opportunity to write things down memorize them, teach them word-perfect, and pass them on verbatim. That can be better than literacy.

The New Testament, in terms of world history, is a recent document. We have good copies of it; we have unbroken narrative concerning the authorship of the New Testament books in the Orthodox tradition. (Have a look at my husband’s blog, Anglican, Mostly Anabaptist for more on this.)

Part of the confusion liberals have may be the word “legend.” Modern people think it means fiction, mythology, just-so stories. Its other meaning is the subscript on a statue or monument. It really means the supporting evidence, the explanation.  The Bible is not legend in either sense, but there are narratives such as the “Golden Legend” that belong to the second sense of the word rather than the first meaning. They support the Bible and tradition.

So please, stop calling the Bible “a story.” Stop thinking it is a story. Start thinking of it as the Word of God, manifest in Jesus Christ.

More on Prayer

The disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Now, these are devout men, always in the synagogue,  up to the temple regularly, and they knew the ways of their religion. They heard prayer all the time. But still they ask, “How do we pray?” 

The answer was the Lord’s Prayer: Our Father, who art in heaven… I had to memorize it in Greek in seminary; I can’t recite it all the way through anymore, but it was a good spiritual exercise.  Most of us memorize the Lord’s Prayer at an early age, if we are raised in the church. It’s a good thing to do, for there are times in life of such dire need of prayer that we can’t even think, we can’t even respond, and the prayer the Lord gave us is always there for us. People will spontanteously join in if we say it out loud. It is the greatest comfort in times of trouble, and the Lord Himself left it with us. Many, many theologians have written on the Lord’s Prayer. I don’t think it needs a lot of explanation. People sometimes wonder about “lead us not into temptation,” but this simply means, “Don’t abandon us when we face the tough times for the soul.” That’s why it’s followed by “and deliver us from evil.” This is more accurately translated “save us from the Evil One.” It specifically means Satan, not just the accidents of life that lead to pain and inconvenience.

Prayer is the Christian’s strongest weapon against sin and evil. It puts us in the presence of God. With the Holy Spirit in our hearts, we turn to God, sometimes run to God, in prayer. In times of great turmoil, whether physical or spiritual, “Lord, save me!” is more effective than a mouthful of fancy words.

The Apostle Paul tells us, “Pray without ceasing.” Keep a word of prayer always in thy heart. The Jesus Prayer is meant for this unending prayer. It goes on in thy heart while thee is doing other things. And it will call thee to silence in the midst of noise, solitude in the midst of hurry. It becomes the prayer of the breath – as natural as breathing. Some of the prayer practitioners attempt to make it integral with breathing, but this seems forced to me, an esoteric practice. Let the Prayer be what it is, and work within thee for peace.

The prayer cap is a symbol of unceasing prayer. When are we not praying? And doesn’t a woman cover her head in prayer, to show that she is under the headship of Christ? (Remember that this is a privilege and a gift of glory; even bishops must uncover at the altar, but not women. They remain veiled as Moses was veiled, to keep in sanctity the glory of God.) So the prayer covering is her symbol and reminder of everlasting prayer.

Prayer is an attitude, a state of the soul. It is the natural state of the Christian. It can be conscious, as when we deliberately in voice and attitude turn to God with our thanksgivings and petitions, or unconscious, as our souls reach out to the Eternal Light that nourishes them as the sun nourishes plants.

The Lord hears our corporate prayers, the prayers the church sets before us to guide us and keep us safe from heresy (in theory, at least.)  The Lord hears silent prayer, and heartfelt prayer, and the simplest prayer offered in a half-second. Christians don’t need testimonials about prayer being answered. We know that our living and breathing is a gift of God. All things come from God, even those things we do not want. Prayer is not about petitions, asking for what we want. That is baby prayer. As we mature as Christians we pray “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” And that is enough.