sin

The Trap of Little Sins

I have a little print-paper icon of St. Moses of Ethiopia that I use as a bookmark.  It is currently in use as I read My Life in Christ by St. John of Kronstadt as part of my bedroom prayer rule.  On the icon are these words from the African monastic,

Even in little sins, let us force ourselves and not become lazy for truly we have forgiveness of sins

From the Russian priest, I found these words on page 58,

Most men not only bear Satan’s burden willingly in their hearts, but they become so accustomed to it that they often do not feel it, and even imperceptibly increase it

moses and kronstadt

It is not hard for us to wake up and repent of our “big” sins.  We are quick to be offended, saddened, or feel some other emotion when an obvious act of immorality has been committed.  If our vision along our spiritual journey goes no further than what can readily be seen, then Satan has blinded us.  As long as we aren’t observant that we don’t fall for the “minor” temptations and make excuses for us committing them, the evil one is allowing us to rot from the inside.  He is often waiting for the rot to set in so deeply that when faced with a major temptation, we will fall quite easily and not realize how we could do such a thing.

Oh, it is a little thing for a man to “check out” a shapely woman every now and then and consider it harmless.  Yet, our Lord taught us better;

But, I say to you, if a man looks upon a woman to lust for her, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  (Matthew 5:28)

In many cases of child molestation and rape it is not unusual for law enforcement to find the perpetrator had a pornography habit.  Affairs and fornication begin with the eyes and the mind long before the sexual organs are involved.  And rather than confront a son’s (or daughter’s, I suppose) lengthy times in the restroom or alone online, even Christian parents resign themselves to the phrase, “boys will be boys.”  The perpetual laziness in not being watchful against and embracing lust is the cause of men and women failing at relationships as we don’t know how to relate to one another as beings who pursue purity of heart.  Even as we pursue our “soul mates,” lust stains our souls so that we wouldn’t know the “right one” unless an archangel actually pointed him (or her) out.  And even if we do find a good spouse, those little sins left unchecked and well fed are able to rot the best of marriages.

Murder can begin with unchecked anger, theft with envy, hate with pride; every “big” sin begins with a “little” sin, or a series of “little” sins.  Care must be taken that we search them out within ourselves in times of contemplation and prayer.  We who seek God cannot afford to accept the worldly excuses for them.  They must not be tolerated in ourselves.  But, we must repent of them no matter how minor they may seem.

 

 

 

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Great Lent Week Three: Deeper Than Inside

And when you fast …

Yes, this is the time when Lent gets on your last nerve.  I have seen that Little Cesasr’s Bacon Wrapped Deep Dish Pizza advertised one too many times.  Spring is here and everyone is ready to enjoy the warmer tempereatures and lack of ice and snow.  But, we have a few more weeks of soul searching, intensive repentance, deliberate spiritual reading; our struggle continues.

One of the better known songs by the post-punk indie band (hey, I listen to a lot of different genres) Rites of Spring is “Deeper Than Inside”  I doubt that they meant any spiritual interpretation to their name or lyrics.  But, I am considering a couple of things.  The whole punk rock movement (also early hip-hop) was a rebellion against the huge, corporate monster music industry.  It was a couple of kids who knew how to play a couple of chords and say what was on their minds.  To seriously take on Great Lent, no matter what branch of Christianity you follow, is an act of rebellion against our arrogant and comfort seeking society.  We strip down faith to the sacrificial and repentant following of Jesus Christ as he has called us to do.

Even more so, we stive to know God and confess our sins in a more meaninful way.  Added prayers from the ancient fathers guide our focus to our deeper issues.  It isn’t so much that someone took an ink pen from work, cussed out a stranger, or cheated on their spouse and looks for a legalistic band-aid to cover his/her wound.  We deal with deeper ailments that show themselves when we do not fight against them.  Anger, fear, lust, envy, laziness, greed; these are the passions that monks and nuns have gone into the deserts and forest to fight against.  They have been so gracious as to share with the Church the wisdom they have been blessed with to help us non-monastics with our spiritual journey.  If we settle for a mere, “say 20 Hail Marys,” or “well, God knows my heart,” we have only cut the flower of our weeds.  Perhaps we may have even cut a few leaves and the stem.  Great Lent reminds us to stive to kill the roots of our visible sins.  A dead root cannot  produce a flower.  A wounded root does not readily reproduce.  A root left undisturbed will flourish again.

May God grant us His mercy and strength to continue the struggle.

St Mary of Egypt: An Antidote for Sexual Addictions

Most people struggle with lust from time to time.  We all aren’t so overcome by it that we have violated anyone else.  But, with so much “eye candy” presented to us in every form of media, we are all guilty of thoughts and actions that we are ashamed of.  Of course, we Christians are quick to say, “Just Take It To Jesus And Pray.”  And this is the ultimate solution to our struggle with impure sexual thoughts, words, and actions.  But, our Lord also gives us forerunners who have struggled with and overcame the same sins which besiege us today as there is nothing new under the sun.  Among such great men and women who have been transformed by the power of repentance and forgiveness is Mary of Egypt.

St. Mary of Egypt

Mary was a sex addict.  She gave into lust at the age of 12.  In her story to the monk/priest Zosimas, she wasn’t forced into prostitution or the victim of rape or incest.  She just loved sex and would give herself simply for pleasure and not money. After some 17 years of her shameless behavior, she joined a group of pilgrims sailing from Egypt to Jerusalem to venerate the Holy Cross.  She used her body to pay her fare constantly tempting men to have their way with her.

When she came to the church, she sought to enter.  Time and time again, she was blocked by an invisible force.  She realized that the force was her own sinful lifestyle that kept her from entering the church.  She grieved  deeply at this revelation.  Seeing an icon of the Theotokos, Mary repented of her lustfulness promising that if she were allowed to worship at the Cross that she would no longer live in her sexual exploits.  After her prayer, she was able to walk into the church and worship.

Mary made good on her promise.  She crossed the Jordan River and went into the desert with nothing more than three loaves of bread and the clothes on her back.  Led by the Holy Spirit, she lived in the desert for 47 years repenting of her sins.  This was no easy feat.  The thoughts of her former pleasures tormented her.  The desire for meats, wine, and other things also tempted her to leave the desert.  Yet, she constantly prayed in deep humility and tears to be free from her lust.  It took some 17 years of struggles to be free from her sexual addiction and lust.

Fr. Zosimas giving the Eucharist to Mary

It wasn’t until she met Zosimas in the desert that she even saw and spoke to another person.  By that time, her clothing was completely gone and he gave her his outer robe to cover her.  He saw the holiness of her story and her prayers.  The following year, he was able to give her the Eucharist.  The year after that, Mary was found dead.

Mary shows us that sexual immorality keeps us from the fullness of Christ.  Oh, we may still go to church and worship.  We may even make excuses for what we do.  “They were just pictures.  I was born this way.  We are in love, so it’s okay.”  Let’s stop fooling ourselves.  The sexually immoral will have no part in the kingdom of God.   Mary shows us that our repentance must be serious.  Casually saying, “well, the Lord knows my heart,” is not enough.  There should be a deep sorrow for what we have done and a serious commitment to change our ways.  Mary shows us that our struggle against sin is not always over in an instant.  Some addictions are stubborn to leave us and can only be overcome by (as our Lord taught His disciples) by prayer and fasting.  And indeed, fasting should be a part of the life of the faithful.  By following Mary’s example of following Christ, we can overcome even the worst of our sexual sins and live in purity.

The icon of St. Mary of Egypt at St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church in Hampton

The icon of St. Mary of Egypt at St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church in Hampton

Having been a sinful woman,

You became through repentance a Bride of Christ.

Having attained angelic life,

You defeated demons with the weapon of the Cross;

Therefore, O most glorious Mary you are a Bride of the Kingdom!

Lessons From Lent: The Temptations

There really isn’t any point in fasting, praying, nor almsgiving during Great Lent and Holy Week if you are not trying to grow spiritually from the experience.  During this time of renewal, I ran across one of the spurious letters of St. Ignatius to the Philippians that made me take a second look at the tempting of Christ in the desert (Matthew 4).  Satan attempts to persuade Jesus into three frames of mind that would lead him into sin.

St. Ignatius of Antioch

St. Ignatius of Antioch

First, is ignorance of the word of God.  In the previous chapter, our Lord was baptized, had the Holy Spirit descend on Him, and had been announced by the Heavenly Father as the Son.  Jesus needed no other proof as to who He was.  Thus, Satan’s challenge (if you are the Son of God) fell on deaf ears as our Lord chose not to be ignorant, but to pay attention to the word of God rather than obey the legitimate cravings of his flesh.

The second dangerous frame of mind is a vainglorious relationship with God.  Here, Satan was careful to use scriptures to give Jesus a sense of assurance of safety if He would cast himself down from the pinnacle of the temple.  But, rather than fall for the seemingly legitimate bait of scripture, our Lord stood on the more humble command not to put God to the test.

The final mentality that Satan used to tempt Christ was direct rebellion against God for the sake of the world.  No doubt, the splendors of the ancient world’s kingdoms were great.  Yet, Jesus knew there was a much greater and everlasting kingdom that was not built by human conquest and construction.  Our Lord felt that this place was so great that He commanded the devil to leave him for even offering up such a choice.

Christ overcoming Satan

Considering my own struggles and temptations, I can see where every sin is linked to one of these three frames of mind.  For the sake of satisfying legitimate cravings we ignore the truth God indisputably revealed to us.  We say and act as we wish because we have adjusted the scriptures to fit our bidding rather than to submit to what the scriptures say believing we have God’s approval.  For the sake of what we can gain in the world, we gladly serve the devil himself in direct defiance that God has something greater for us if we are faithful and patient.

Pascha (Easter) is a few days away.  I anticipate enjoying every form of meat and dairy product that my palate chooses and wallet can afford.  But, I pray that I will spend times meditating on these lessons from my first Lenten Fast as an Orthodox Christian.  Rely on the word of God and forsake the flesh.  Walk with God in humility and not vainglory.  Serve God only and reject this world as it calls us to serve Satan.

A Blessed Holy Week and Pascha to all.

 

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (Third Monday): Better Diet and Prayer Life

New Day (© John Gresham)

No, I have not been perfect in this fast.  I didn’t read every ingredient of every product I consumed to make sure there was no oil or dairy in it.  Potato chips are a special weakness of mine as well.  I will make sure I am more strict with myself on the Wednesday and Friday fast until the Dormition in August.

Other than that, taking up this fast has been very good for me.  As far as food is concerned, my palate has been opened up to a whole new world of possibilities.  I would have never dreamed of being satisfied with grilled vegetables and tofu.  But, the barbecue master Steven Raichlen is absolutely correct; “Anything that taste good baked, boiled, steamed, or fried will taste better grilled.”  While fish is to be avoided, shellfish are permitted.  A fast that allows for crabmeat, shrimp, and oysters can’t be that hard.  And a vegetable based diet came out a bit cheaper than my normal meat based fare.  I don’t know if I have lost any weight.  But, my body feels very good.

Spiritually, the fast has been equally good if not better.  It used to be that I would try to maintain morning and evening prayers on my own.  The prayers I use in the Orthodox Study Bible, the Jordanville Prayer Book, and the St Phillip’s Prayer Discipline website are like helping hands in my journey of faith.  One central theme I have noticed in Orthodox prayer is the seeking of mercy.  I don’t hear that as often in many of our Protestant prayers.  Thanksgiving, praises, supplications; all good things and prayed in all of Christendom.  But, without mercy from God, what good are the other things we pray for and about?  The constant seeking of divine mercy is what keeps us humble and reliant on God’s grace rather than our own power, intellect, and wealth.

So, I have learned to feed my body better stuff.  I have also learned to nourish my prayer life with what is truly needed.  Fr. Steven Freeman has a great article about the Apostles Fast and a very interesting blog as well.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

 

A Pursuit of the Spirit of Christ: In the Beginning

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.

John 1:1

A Douthat Sunrise (© John Gresham/DCR)

The opening 18 verses of John’s Gospel is the glory of Jesus Christ in a nutshell.  Jesus is described as the light and giver of life.  Though John the Baptist may have revealed the light, he isn’t to be confused as the light.  Belief in the light is what gives us rebirth not as physical creatures.  We become children of God.  It is impossible to truly pursue the Spirit of Christ without accepting this introduction of who Jesus is.

Before anything else existed, the Word existed.   In many religions (and among many Christians), things such as commandments, law, and morality are put at the forefront of faith.  Word is far more meaningful to true spiritual pursuit than these things.  Commandment, law, and morality are useful as they set limits of behavior and practice for the good of individuals and society.  There can be no civilization and community without them.  But, they were not there in the creative process of God and only appeared after creation took place.  Adam was given a commandment after the Lord God made him and placed him in the garden with the tree that he was forbidden to eat from.  The Law of Moses was given after the Lord God made the promise of land to Abraham’s descendants and they were free from Egypt and slavery.  So, to have a faith where the morality and the Word are one in the same is wrong.  Morality is secondary as it is a created boundary.   A true pursuit of Jesus must focus on pursuing the Word.

The fact that the Word became flesh goes above and beyond the latter boundaries.  For the creator to take the form of the created ends the wall of separation between the two.  The creator can easily reject the created because of its flaws and faults.  He who made the flesh has every right to condemn it for its constant infringements of commandments, law breaking, and immorality.  Yet, this Word possesses light and life.  These qualities have no rejection in themselves.  But, they offer renewal to anyone who is willing to accept them.  And as these qualities are a part of the Word that was with God and is God, light and life are far more desirable, powerful, and merciful than the secondary boundaries of commandment, law, and morality.  According to these, we should all die in our sins.  The Word gives us light and life in the fullest as it became flesh and dwelt among us.  A true pursuit of Jesus calls for us to behold his glory. 

 He came first to those who had all of the necessary boundaries for righteousness in individuals and society.  But, they held on to their law and ancestry rather than receive him and believe in his name.  Adhering to Mosaic Law and claiming Abraham as their father were the spoken grave mistakes of the Jews in the Gospels.  We run the risk of being just like them when we cling so tightly to morality, race, and nationality that we cannot accept the Word that created all things.  Our righteousness is limited to ourselves and what we believe should be done.  The righteous Word is all merciful and reaches out to all that will accept his authority over their lives.  Our boundaries govern those born of flesh.  To receive him and believe in his name is to be born of God.

May we be born of God, pursue the Word, and behold His Glory.

Straighten Out Straight Marriage

And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man

Genesis 2:22

Like anyone should be surprised that a liberal president would be in favor of a liberal cause.  I was more surprised about people being surprised.  I am also aware that our heterosexual marriages aren’t much to crow about these days.  Scripture and two thousand years of church teaching stands against homosexuality.  These things also tell us “straight” people that we need a healthier look at our relationships.

STRAIGHTEN OUT STRAIGHT MARRIAGE

Genesis 2:18-25

Introduction

  • Mr. Obama’s Biblical reference does not apply to gay marriage

Antithesis

  • Protestant doctrine has assisted in the ruin of heterosexual marriage
  • Capitalism has assisted in the ruin of heterosexual marriage

Propositional statement

  • Rather than be upset with gay marriage, we need to heed the story of creation to revive the best of our traditional marriages

Points

  • We should concentrate on the work God gave us and let him present us with the person we should have (v. 15, 18)
  • We should accept the person God has for us for who he or she is (v. 23)
  • We should be and create a bond where we are safe to be open and honest with each other (v.25)

It is not enough for us to say that heterosexual monogamy is God’s will.  We must seek God in our marriages to make them so.

Each One An Icon

Then God said, ‘Let us make man in Our image, according to our likeness, … .’   So God mad man. in the image of God He made him; male and female He made them.

Genesis 1:26, 27

How foolish I am!  How can I venerate and give honor to the saints on the wall and not show like love to the person on the street?  How dare I honor the Holy Theotokos and harbor lust for the girl I did not marry? 

What is a holy icon but a window and portrait of God’s greater glory?  Was it not by the hand of the painter that we have these windows?  Perhaps by the skill of a wood-carver and other craftsmen that we possess such items as reminders of the love of our Lord?

And yet God made the perfect icon when he made men and women.  In his image and likeness we are fearfully and wonderfully made.  With his breath of life we are all living souls.  Here is the icon I should honor and kiss in holiness.  Here is the image I should hold as evidence of God’s compassion and mercy.

Yet this is the icon that I hold in contempt.  I suspect it a thief and liar.  I condemn it for its flaws and imperfections.  I abuse it as a toy only fit for my pleasure and whims.  This icon which was not made by a man’s hands.  This image of God and made by God.  This likeness of which I am.  I am their brother and I have shown them fear, hate, and lust. 

Lord, have mercy!  Lord, have mercy!  Lord, have mercy!  I am the chief of all sinners! 

Forgive my calloused thoughts and harsh words toward my fellow-man.  May the power of the Holy Spirit cleanse my heart and mind of wicked desires.  Let me hold high the value of each man, woman, boy, and girl.  We are the icons that you made.  Let us honor and love one another as such.

No Greater Hell

… and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites.  There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Matthew 24:51

But he answered and said, ‘Assuredly I say to you I do not know you.’

Matthew 25:11

And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Matthew 25:30

“Depart from me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels. …”

Matthew 25:41

Crossing (© John Gresham)

Is there a worse version of hell than the descriptions Jesus gave to his disciples during the eschatological discourse?  Can the reasons for going to such a hell be more frightening?  Note, if you would, the ten virgins who were locked outside of the banquet hall being told by the bride groom, “Assuredly I say to you I do not know you.”  These women are left disowned and vulnerable.  The wicked servant fares no better being counted among the hypocrites for abusing his fellows and carousing with drunkards.  He and the virgins did not live in expectation for something greater.  They mistakenly believed they had plenty of time before being in the full presence of the bridegroom and master.  The unprofitable servant made no effort to increase the wealth the master gave him, not even to give the gift to those who could make some sort of profit.  He too goes to the place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

In these three examples, the graphic punishment is not some demon in a red suit armed with a pitchfork.  To be disowned by the Lord Jesus Christ and left vulnerable in great tears and agony goes beyond any sort of vengeful torture.  This is why the martyrs endured the wild beast, burning pitch, and other horrors of earthly cruelty.  They chose to die brutally rather than be separated from the source of life and life eternal.  And the source of life is to do well to one’s neighbor, practice self-control, increase love and spirit, and to anticipate a glory beyond what this world can give.

Indeed, to ignore the plight of the least of humanity is the apex of being separate from Jesus Christ.  The Lord identifies himself with the “least of these.”  The cursed are to suffer the same total separation as the ultimate rebels against God not because they committed some act of immorality.  They are punished for their lack of compassion and mercy.  Morality is good.  But, it is no substitute for the love that gave it’s self to our unworthy humanity for our salvation.  If we do not love likewise, we have missed the whole point of the crucifixion and resurrection.  If we miss the point, we will miss his return.   There can be no greater hell than that.

Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect

Matthew 24:44

Let us live in his presence believing that his greater glory will come.

Selling Out Jesus

Happy Easter to all Orthodox Christians.

This weekend is the celebration of 40 years of Pastoral Service of Rev. Wilbert D. Talley at Third Union Baptist Church.  He has been a mentor to me since I was a child. Dr. Talley held high positions at Virginia Union University and other statewide organizations.  A man of his caliber and education could have easily sought the pulpit of the most lucrative churches in the nation.  And yet, for four decades he remained the pastor of a little country church.  His work has included major improvements on the building and aiding people in building their lives.  It is an honor to celebrate such a man and wish him many more years of service to God.

Dr. Wilbert D. Talley (© John Gresham)

SELLING OUT JESUS

Matthew 26:14-16

(Introduction) Now that we know him as the resurrected savior, no Christian would sell Jesus out the way Judas did.

(Antithesis) In Matthew’s Gospel, Judas is no more wicked than any other disciple.  But, he made a most horrible choice.

(Thesis) We must be on guard not to sell Jesus out the same way Judas did because we face the same temptations.

(Relevant Question) How do we sell Jesus out

(Points)

1.  We hold on to our preconceived ideas of what is right (v. 6-14)

2.  We go to those who truly seek to kill him (v. 14)

3.  We accept a cheap payment (v. 15)

(Conclusion)  True discipleship is too costly for us to sell out at any price.