Sunday, September 25, 2016

Listening to Hear the Word of God in Our Lives

Let us press in upon Jesus to hear the word of God (Luke 5:1). When we do, maybe he’ll withdraw a little, as if getting into Simon’s boat and putting out a little from the land, but he won’t neglect to teach us (Luke 5:3).  We must each seek out and listen to the word of God in our lives. He is always speaking to us, I believe, in the language of our lives. But it can be difficult to make out what he’s saying over the crashing of the waves.

The word of God to us is often counterintuitive. 
What he’s telling us often isn’t what we want to hear. 
It’s often not easily recognized or understood, agreeable or believable to us. 
Hearing the word of God and keeping it requires a little faith.

Hearing the word of God is like toiling all night in a boat on the lake in the grueling and backbreaking work of fishing. Casting out your nets, pulling them in, catching nothing. Casting again, pulling in again, catching nothing again. All night long. Hour after hour. Then, exhausted and disheartened, giving up, coming near the shore to wash your fruitless nets and call it quits only to hear a man command you to put out again into the deep and to let down your nets again for a catch (Luke 5:4).

You know how good it feels to get home from work after a long day. But how would it feel if, when you just get home, your boss calls you and tells you to come back in and get back to work? My first thought probably wouldn’t be that this is the word of God to me. That wouldn’t be my first thought. To recognize such a seemingly mad suggestion as the word of God would take a little faith.

Simon, who Jesus will later call Peter, has a little faith. He says to Jesus, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! Nevertheless, at your word I will let down the nets” (Luke 5:5). Notice that he doesn’t say, “for a catch.” Jesus tells him to let down the nets “for a catch,” but Peter just says that he’ll let down the nets. He’s holding on to a little skepticism, but he also has a little faith. As it happens, God is the master of more than just fish, and so the haul they take in by heeding his word was enough to nearly sink two boats.

We must listen carefully for the word of God in our lives and be open to it, because it can be counterintuitive. Our God is a God of surprises.

Papyrus 46
Hearing the word of God is also like long suffering from a thorn in the flesh – a weakness of body or spirit or condition of life – and asking the Lord to remove it, yet still suffering it and so asking the Lord again to remove it and yet still suffering it and so asking a third time for the Lord to remove it, and finally hearing the word of the Lord: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power reaches perfection in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).

The word of the Lord isn’t always what we want to hear. Sometimes he has to tell us three times before we’ll accept it. Accepting it requires a little faith. Paul finally accepts his weakness and even boasts of it, saying, “for the sake of Christ, I am content with weaknesses” (2 Cor 12:10). 

The word of God can be hard to hear.

Hearing the word of God is also like trying to sleep at night but being woken by the voice of your teacher calling your name, getting up, going to see what he wants and hearing, “I didn’t call you. Go back to sleep.” Then, trying to sleep again, hearing him call you again, getting up and going to him only to hear again, “I didn’t call you, my son. Go back to sleep.” And again a third time – but this time at last your teacher recognizes that the voice you’ve been hearing is the voice of the Lord (1 Sam 3:3-10).

Sometimes we mistake the voice of the Lord for the voice of our human teachers, just as sometimes we mistake the voice of our human teachers for the voice of the Lord. His voice in our lives can be hard to recognize, but our teachers, if they are wise and humble, can help us to recognize him when he calls us.

Elkanah and Hannah bring Samuel to Eli
detail from Walters manuscript W.106circa 1250, ink and pigment on parchment
The priest Eli is a good example of this kind of teacher, even though he had failings (1 Sam 2-3). It is Eli who finally recognizes the Lord calling the boy Samuel in the night, only to learn that the Lord will punish his house for the iniquity of his sons, to which news Eli says, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him” (1 Sam 3:18). This demonstrates a rare humility and openness to the word of God, necessary in teachers who would help us to hear the word of God in our own lives.

Hearing the word of God is also like suffering the oppression of another nation for seven years and them destroying all the produce of the land and taking all the livestock, instigating famine, making you so weak and so powerless against them that you just know that there’s nothing you can do about it , so you call out the Lord and ask him, “Why don’t you do something? Where are your wonderful deeds? Why don’t you deliver your people?” only to hear back from the Lord, “Why don’t you deliver your people?” (Judges 6:1, 4, 13-15). Sometimes we ask the Lord, “Why don’t you help us?” only to hear him say, “You are the help I have sent.”  Sometimes we see our own particular problems because God is telling us to deal with our own particular problems.

Icon of Gideon
17th c., North Russia
This is how it went with Gideon against the Midianites (Judges 6). What the Lord was asking him to do to was unbelievable to him. He was of the weakest clan in Manasseh and he was the least in his family and yet the Lord chose him, of all people, to deliver Israel from the Midianites (6:15). He took a lot of convincing.

The word of God can be like that. It confounds us. It calls us to do things we think are impossible. And they would be impossible without God, but they are not without God. When God calls us to seemingly insurmountable tasks he says to us, as he says to Gideon, “But I will be with you” (6:16), and that makes all the difference.

Sometimes people say that God will never let you suffer more than you can bear, but I don’t think that’s quite right. Rather, we may get crushed by our problems, but he will bear them in us. Be with us. Raise us up when we fall (Ps 145:14). It really was impossible for Gideon to drive out the Midianites, but God in Gideon can do anything.

Of myself, I can’t do anything.
God can do anything.
In God, I can do anything God wills.

So, with the guidance of wise and humble teachers, we must listen carefully for the word of God in our lives so that we can know his will for our lives and live in him who accomplishes great, surprising, new, impossible, confounding, and glorious works in and through us. 

Sunday, September 11, 2016

God loves the world.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” These must be the most recognized words of the gospel in the United States. We see John 3:16 everywhere: on bumper stickers, t-shirts, in the eye black under Tim Tebow’s eyes. At some point, everyone in America has probably looked up this verse.

I once heard a priest quip that maybe it’s time we start writing John 3:17 everywhere. Then, after a while, we could move on to John 3:18, and so on. That way, maybe, before they die, people would make it through at least one chapter of scripture.

We quote John 3:16 in our Divine Liturgy in the anaphora of St. John Chrysostom just after the “Holy, Holy, Holy….” These words have been popular among us Byzantines since before there were chapters and verses to cite.  

And they tell us that God loves the world. We hear these words so often that maybe they go in one ear and out the other. We might begin to lose a sense of their significance – even of their scandal.  

The word for world here in Greek is κόσμος. God so loved the cosmos. This word is potent and loaded in the Christian tradition, and particularly in John, who uses it more than anyone. Its meanings are complex and varied and seemingly contradictory. The lexicon gives it no less than eight definitions.

We hear from Jesus that God loves the world. But John tells us in another place “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). This is confusing. We’ve just heard that the Father loves the world, but now we hear if we love the world we do not love the Father? 

And anyway, how can God love this world? In this world, we let children starve to death. We slaughter them before they’re born. In this world, men crash airplanes into skyscrapers, killing thousands. In this world, we drop nuclear bombs. The ruler of this world is the devil (cf. John 12:31, 14:30; 2 Cor 4:4). We see this wickedness all around us and we don’t love it.

St. Isaac the Syrian writes that “The world is the general name for all the passions. When we wish to call the passions by a common name, we call them the world.” The passions, you know, are like greed and sloth, lust and vainglory, envy and resentment, and so on. So, when we say that God loves the world are we saying that he loves these things? That he loves the passions and the horrors that impassioned people carry out? God forbid the thought. The word “world” carries many senses. And we must carefully consider what is meant.  

Jesus is not of the world but is above the world (John 8:23). He creates the world and yet becomes of the world to save the world. We are taught both to love the world and to hate our lives in the world (John 12:25). The devil is the ruler of the world but Jesus is the king of kings and lord of lords. The world brings up these parallels and opposites. And only Jesus Christ and his cross can reconcile opposites. 

It’s like we have two worlds here. And I think that’s it really. We live in two worlds at the same time. There’s the world as God creates it and there is the fallen world, enslaved to sin. We must be aware of both worlds – both the cosmos and the chaos.

Cosmos means order – and in this order, there’s a union and not an opposition between spirit and matter. It is a disordered world, a fallen world, which rends the spiritual and the physical asunder. The cosmos as God creates it is both at the same time.

The Lord creates and loves the cosmos. The cosmos is all people and it is also all creation. It is the whole universe. Certainly we human beings have a primary place in the created universe but there’s more to it than just us. When we were created in the order of things, we were put in the garden as the gardeners. We were put in the cosmos as the stewards of that order.

But we have disordered this order. Not only do our sins cause personal harm but also cosmological harm. Our disordered acts hurt us, hurt each other and even hurt the cosmos. Our sins break our lives apart in ways that we can see and in ways that we can’t see.  I think entropy itself, like death itself, has its ultimate origin in sin.

Now, in the way that we experience things, death has become so much a part of the order of things that it seems necessary and even good.

A naturalist can well observe all the good that comes out of death. The dead bodies of animals fertilize the plants. Growth comes out of decay. Good comes out of evil. Things cannot live, in the order that we know, unless there is death. We ourselves live and feed on the death of other living things – plants and animals. How can I say that it is not a part of the created order – that death is unnatural?

Death is a part of the cosmos that we know and experience, but we know and experience the cosmos in fallenness. Yes, good comes out of death. The greatest good comes out of the greatest death – the death of Jesus. God enters into this cosmos, which he loves, which is fallen and wounded, and he becomes a part of it himself, and it wounds him.

We often repeat that God becomes man, which is the whole basis of our salvation. A corollary of this is that the creator becomes the creation. Here is a surprise and a paradox – two things being at once while seeming to contradict. Divinity by nature is uncreated, humanity created, and so Jesus, both divine and human, is both creator and creation.  

So not only is humanity saved, redeemed, glorified, brought into unity with God by this, but so is the cosmos. By his incarnation, Christ is cosmically present to the universe. And the whole universe stands in need of his salvific presence, because the whole universe is disordered and suffering from destruction and death of many kinds.

Death is what we’re being saved from. God gave his only Son so that we would not perish but have eternal life. Death is an evil. Some of us are accustomed to thinking about moral evil only and we forget about physical evil. We fail to understand physical evil as evil. We even call it good.

And it has been made good in Christ and in his cross. But we must not forget that this is a paradox, lest we forget all our Lord has done for us. In Christ, all things are new. In Christ, death becomes the means of life, because in him, life goes into the place of the dead, into Hades, so that there is nowhere God is not. God is even where God is not.

God is impassible, yet in his humanity he suffers the passion. God is immortal, yet in his humanity he dies. God creates the cosmos, yet in his humanity he is of the cosmos. God loves the world.

The world is the whole cosmos that God creates. Yet the world is also the passions, the sins, the suffering, and the death. So it gets convoluted sometimes when we’re talking about the world. We see the passions and the weakness, the suffering and the death, all of which is evil, and it gets hard to see what’s good about the world. 

All of this is reconciled only in the cross. We exalt the cross when we say that we love the world. When we say that God loves the world – that can only make any sense in the context of exalting the cross. God is making the sign of the cross over the whole world. He is blessing us with the cross.

The cross unifies opposites. There’s a vertical bar and there’s a horizontal bar. The divine and the human intersected and made one. Heaven is brought down to earth. The cross is the cosmos as it really is. All of it, unified. Life enters into death. Unified, death becomes the way to life through resurrection. Opposites are made one in the cross, this wonderful and holy sign.

by John Russell, 2007
acrylic and charcoal on canvas

A version of this article appears on Catholic Exchange

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