Reflections on “The Unmoral Christian”

An Orthodox priest I had the pleasure of meeting and hearing late last year was Father Stephen Freeman. He is an Orthodox priest serving in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, at St. Anne’ parish. His website is called “Glory to God For all Things.” He has written a series of blogs in the last several months around the topic of morality and an Orthodox Christian’s understanding/relationship to being a “moral person.” This is a link to his blog entited “The Un-Moral Christian”    In my opinion, much good thought and discussion has transpired as a result of his thoughts. What follows is my addition to the mix.

“Human being are not first of all moral or immoral: we are dead. We inherited from Adam–all of us, including the Blessed Theotokos—the wound of mortality, and now, though we exist on planet earth, we are actually more like the “spiritually walking dead.” Our wound just hasn’t physically caught up with us yet.

Corpses have no interest in “progressively improving their state of being.” Corpses never ask each other “Are you doing any better today?” or confess to each other “Man, I really blew it today” (as opposed to how well I did yesterday.) If a corpse has any grasp of his true state, his only concern will be for some one or some thing to remove his death from him, to actually make him alive. And hence Satan who “holds the power of death,” is ready to ply us with his abundant smorgasbord of “death defying treats.” Often at the top of the list are drugs and alcohol. But in America, shopping, eating, fantasizing, working, texting, web-surfing, fornicating, intellectualizing, moralizing, religious proselytizing, saving-the-planet-izing, NFL season-izing, etc. ad nauseum.  Because yes, death does make even the most “morally advanced” among us sick.

Our magnificent created world, which even in spite of pollution and natural tragedies such as tsunamis and tornadoes, etc., still shows forth the footprints and glory of our Creator and God.  But in another sense, it is our cemetery, and we all groan because of this Adamic wound of our mortality. Our inner self, our spirit/soul, is born dead, our bodies will sooner or later join us in the grave.

In Romans 7, St. Paul, after candidly expressing how fractured his will and intentions to do good are, cries out from his own depths of darkness: “Who will deliver us from this body of death?”  Thanks be to God for Christ Who is our Resurrection and our Life. “He who lives and believes in Me shall never die.” St. Isaac the Syrian reminds us that this life on earth, in our cemetery, is given to us for repentance, and everything else we do is a vain pursuit. Like trying to “improve” our moral state.

Thinking that we are called to be moral paragons, and to continually progress toward some ideal of moral perfection, is a thought belonging to dead people who believe doing so will make them alive. Of this sincere but misguided belief, I need to repent daily because “Only God is Good.” A dead person who attempts to improve his state of being, whether atheist, agnostic, or a sincere and gentle Bible-believing Christian, will inevitably bump up against the “sin which indwells us,” the bitter fruit of our mortality. These efforts offer little to combat our strongest enemy, Death.

The sin mindset and all our attempts to remedy it will inevitably invite comparisons.  Someone has rightly said that “all comparisons are odious,” whether comparisons within ourselves (yesterday, or last year’s Lent compared to “how I’m doing in this year’s Fast”), or much more insidious, comparisons to “others.”
Mr. Pharisee was so thankful he wasn’t like all those moral losers around him. His “death-sourced blindness” elicited Christ’s sternest rebukes, because a moral focus can easily blind us from seeing our Savior standing right in front of us. “I didn’t come for those who are righteous . . .”

This recognition of our deadness is essential to understanding Christ’s command: “Do not let your right hand know what your left hand is doing.” When we give alms or do other good deeds, we are at risk if our reason to do so is our desire to please God by improving our moral state. So if we stop, even for a split second, to reflect on how we have just performed, we will be rewarded: accolades and praise from dead folks.

I’m reminded of the story of the wise abbot who told his novice to go out to the cemetery and spend the entire day praising and lauding the dead in their graves. The novice did so, and the next day the abbot told him to spend the coming day cursing and condemning those same dead people. Which he faithfully did. When he returned, the abbot asked him how the dead responded to him both days.  His response was essentially, it didn’t affect them in any way whatsoever. The abbot replied “Then go and become like them”

As an addictions counselor, I am reminded of the blessing I have been given by God to work with folks who, in some dark corner of their slavery to alcohol or drugs, KNOW without a doubt that they are dead, that all of their boot-strapping attempts to stay clean are futile and breed a cynical despair.  Of such Jesus said that many of them will enter the Kingdom of God before the religious of the world. Knowing and experiencing that we are utterly dead is the first step to look for and desire the empty tomb of our  healing.

Many of my clients struggle to “be a better person.” Their “confessions” to me as their counselor often include something like this: “I know my addiction has taken over my life, and I feel so terrible that I’ve abandoned my children, I’ve burned all my bridges, and wasted the opportunities I’ve had in life to better myself. . . but I’m really a good person… really, I know I’m a good mom…” “please don’t think bad of me.”

In many cases their fellow corpses, i.e. sober family or friends, have blindly judged them to be “bad, a terrible person, you don’t even care about your kids” and on and on. Because I am kind to them and willing to listen to their stories, they often feel a need to convince me (their fellow corpse) that they’re really not all that – morally – bad.

In that work context, I am not permitted to overtly proclaim Christ as the Resurrection, the true path to freedom and healing. But as Fr. Stephen has pointed out, God is so humble that He will bring His healing power to any and all who “turn their life and their will over to the care of God as we understand Him” (Step Three). My blessing is to work with and listen to my fellow corpses. Even though by God’s grace I haven’t chosen a “drug of choice” to be my “resurrection,” I have many other things, addictions, from which Christ alone can and does save me if I seek Him with my whole heart.

My sincere but misguided upbringing in a low-church Protestant denomination strongly formed me to believe the following narrative of how to be a disciple. It goes something like this: Once I come to Christ and accept Him as my Lord and Savior, I’m to sincerely live “the Christian life” (be moral, be good) each day. The blueprint for this new life in Christ is fully and solely the Bible, primarily understood as The Rule book, the road map for proper behavior. If I’m a good Christian, I will “prove” I am worthy of Christ’s love for me. My “good works” will show my faith, and demonstrate that I’m not “crucifying Christ again.” The more I “grow” as a Christian, the more I will become a better and better person . . . especially compared to all the “enemies of Christ” in our society. Because of course, often in subtle ways, I’m always comparing. I am measuring myself, measuring my progress, “seeing whether I’ve been naughty or nice.” Which leads to being so disappointed in myself when I sin, or can’t seem to overcome certain bad habits.

This understanding of our life as Christians will ultimately bring no respite from our deepest needs, no healing oil to the ancient wound of our mortality. It can easily blind us to God’s true salvation, which is not to make “bad” people good, but to make dead people alive. God desires to open the eyes of our hearts to see and desire union with Christ as life itself, as everything central to our calling to grow into the likeness of God.

So if we are not attempting to “make progress” in the moral life, how then shall we live? We live in sacramental union with our Risen Lord, our True and Only Vine, our Lord Who is Life, Who is our Head and we are His body, the one holy catholic and apostolic church. This begins with our Baptism – our mystical union of our death with His death. “Do you unite yourself to Christ” we are asked 3 times at our initiation. And this question must remain with us minute by minute, hour by hour, temptation by  temptation.

Holy Confession therefore isn’t about how I have “improved on” or relapsed back from by moral journey since my last confession. It seems to me it is the sacrament where I have an opportunity to “come clean” about my love affair with death, and in so doing, be cleansed from that death and its disease, sin. I admit those times when I have “in knowledge or in ignorance” failed to trust and unite myself to Christ in this world of deathly pleasures. “I know I am dead, oh Master, and I ask your forgiveness for not relying on You as my only Truth and Life.”

St. Paul exhorts us to remember each day that “We are His (the Risen One’s) workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). Remembering that “we can do nothing” apart from Christ, as in nada, nyet, no way, we learn to discern what life-creating, not morality-improving, works God our Father has prepared for us to synergize with. That which we see Christ doing, we do by the power of His Spirit and nothing in and of ourselves for we are corpses.

And we look for Christ wherever He may be found.  He has not hidden Himself from us, but tells us clearly that we unite ourselves to Him in every one who is hungry, naked, lonely, sad, bitter, incarcerated, addicted, etc., for that is where He chooses to  be. We bear one another’s burdens in order to fulfill the law of Christ. St. John Chrysostom says “the rich in this world are given for the benefit of the poor, but the poor are given for the salvation of the rich.”

A death-defined life makes efforts to improve its state by judging, comparing, excusing, justifying, isolating, and rushing after every illusion of the devil. A Christ-centered, Resurrection-defined life makes efforts to never forget we are corpses except for the grace of the Risen One, and as dead people, we more and more see the utter futility of judging, comparing, excusing, justifying, isolating and partaking even further of sin’s soul deadening powers. What shall it profit the most morally advanced human in this or any age if he loses his soul?

Randy Evans, a begging corpse, hoping in the Resurrection and Blessed Theosis

A Simple Presence

Simple Peace-making

There she was. And down a ways, there they were. Tall, big dudes. Eyes wide. Edging closer, their bad intentions starting to seep through the group of hungry men, felt by spirits standing near. Amazing how potential violence is contagious, the flip side of humble kindness which is infectious, peaceful. Back to the woman in a moment.

Something about a bus pass I think. I didn’t catch any other specifics, didn’t need to know, didn’t matter. But whatever it was, it wasn’t going away. Nope – once crossed, the boundary of basic civility affords little resistance to hostilities seeking expression. And with these two folks, that boundary was probably already pretty thin because they were homeless.

Being homeless tends to cause one to place a highly-inflated value on the smallest of things. One man carried an electric razor, cord dangling, for what ultimate purpose, hard to say: perhaps a future bartering chip. Not having a dependable and sustainable protection from the elements breeds irrationality, an inability to overcome any potential of another loss, another disappointment, another reason to conclude the universe is inescapably hostile.

As the two moved further down the alley, more and more of the men in line for lunch sacks heard their posturing. “Do you wanna fight me” – “come on, let’s do it” – “somebody give me a phone to call 911” – “I’m not trying to go to jail.” Eventually they passed behind the woman who was quietly, calmly passing out bologna sandwiches and bananas.

I wish I could remember what she said, probably something along the lines of “Hey fellas, let it go. Come on now, not worth it.” But it wasn’t her words, it was her gentle presence and the calm expression on her face as she positioned herself between them. She was a good foot or so shorter than the taller of the two men. And to watch her look each man in the face, smile, preserve their dignity and help defuse a potentially dangerous situation … amazing.  Some minutes later, others helped to emotionally “hold” the men and absorb their anger until it dissipated.

Such a clear reminder of our Lord’s invisible Presence in us at all times, especially when the fractures of our common nature seem ready to erupt. Let us continue to “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” His faithfulness is without measure, without limit to all.

“Blessed are the peace-makers, for they shall be called the sons and daughters of God.”

What Really Matters …

I met a man once . . . he was in a line some time before dawn, waiting patiently; eyes cast downward, not entirely comfortable being where he was. He shuffled forward, furtive, guarded, survival etched deeply in all his features.

What he was really like, God knows, I don’t. And I don’t care. It is possible he was once a successful man according to the world’s standards, perhaps a pillar in the community, a charitable man, a man of means, a man of no mean report. But also possibly an angry, addicted, abusive man when no one other than family was around. It doesn’t really matter.

Perhaps he was a lover of alcohol, enslaved to “demon rum,” damaging his brain, his liver, his family and everyone he ever cared about. His children were, at once, terrified or thrilled when he would return home from work each day, depending on who showed up – saint or sot. And now, years after they were grown and gone, they wanted nothing to do with him. NOTHING . . . but that doesn’t really matter in this very instant of encounter.

After his first business venture crashed and burned due to his philandering, his gambling, his “cheat and manipulate anyone in his way” homage to Lord Dollar, he learned to fight in the school of prison, in and out, in and out, too much until his mid-50’s body and mind convinced him he was too tired and old to keep doing this and that.  But all of that doesn’t really matter.

Today matters: he had nowhere to lay his head. He couldn’t remember the last time any other human being trusted him, even a little. The sadness in his eyes was deeper than a cold mountain lake. He couldn’t count the number of scrawled cardboard signs he had held by the side of interstate exits.  A good day for this man?  7 or 8 bucks, maybe 10 during the Christmas season.

And then back to the alley, or next to a steam vent, or under the bridge, or by the river, or next to a junkyard . . . “junk” living next to junk and stench, scrambling in dumpsters for anything possibly resembling a blanket. Ever wary, ever on-guard, ever beaten down by life and his toxic choices. But that doesn’t really matter.

Because today, as I meet this man, only one thing matters – only ONE . . . his hands. It is a bitter, piercing, 60  February morning. His hands are naked. The same hands which he used to caress or strike his children in days long past, are now desperate for one thing: a pair of gloves. At that moment, it was the only thing that mattered.

Nothing from his past had any significance, influence, or bearing in this simple encounter. Nothing in his story had altered the singular Truth of this man’s existence: he was an image of his Creator. He was invisibly a brother to Him who took the sins of the world onto His shoulders. The fingers of this image of God were in serious danger of frostbite. Donated coat and thin pants pockets offered little resistance to mother winter. In this singular encounter, the ONLY thing that mattered: naked hands need gloves.

Jesus’s broken brother needed my gloves. He got them. He mumbled his embarrassment, “No, I can’t take them, they’re your gloves.” But I convinced him it was my choice – “I want you to have them – they’re a gift.”

As I hurried back to my warm van, to my warm house, I reflected that I have several pairs of gloves, and buying another pair, even 10 more, wouldn’t come close to impacting my budget.  And with deep gratitude, I remembered that never once in my long life have I been cold without any hope of becoming warm. Never even close. My hands, by God’s grace, have never been naked.

I blessed our Lord Jesus in this man, and humbly asked Him for the grace of repentance in my hard heart. It’s all that matters.

“The rich are given to the poor for their benefit; the poor are given to the rich for their salvation.”  St. John Chrysostom