An Ultimate Question: Who IS a Human Being?
Who AM I … perhaps one of the most puzzling questions pondered and debated through the ages. From the verb “to be,” we call this an ontological question. It’s safe to say that we are the only species on the planet to ask this, to have the ability to think about our existence and identity. Despite what many modern psychologists and neurologists are telling us, humans are not driven solely by our survival instincts or completely pre-determined by our DNA. It is utterly false to conclude that freedom and consciousness are an illusion. We instinctively know we are free, conscious, and self-aware creatures.
The answers given to this question often fall into one of two categories. We identify ourselves by what we do in large parts of our lives, whether pursuing our deep interests or our vocation. “I’m into cars.” “I’m a bookkeeper,” “I used to be a teacher, but now I’m retired,” “I’m a college drop-out, so now I just have to work at this loser job.” “I’m a musician, but I’m also a party animal.”
Or, we answer it in adjectives and comparisons with others. “I’m young, pretty, and very smart.” “I’m much dumber than my siblings – they’re really successful.” “I’m strong and self-sufficient, and I refuse to let anyone else push me around.” “I’m a winner – those jerks are losers.”
Many self-styled self-help gurus encourage us to say positive affirmations to ourselves or others. “I’m worth it,” “I’m getting better every day!” “I always find a way to win.” As an addictions counselor, I hear some version of this a lot: “I know I’m a good mom, even though I’m addicted to chemicals and have made a lot of bad choices. . . and lost custody of my children.” That kind of positive self-talk is understandable but quite seductive. We often try to convince ourselves of being someone we imagine is an ideal and successful person. This often flies in the face of an abundance of evidence to the contrary. But, somehow if I just keep repeating this, it will become true of me.
We have a deep-seated drive to affirm our value, to matter to the world and to ourselves, to prove we “have what it takes” in life. And we desire to be respected or admired by others, even if only a few. We march through life’s journey hoping that before we die we will have achieved a sense of value and dignity, anything not to conclude our lives have been a train-wreck, or that we struggled but failed to achieve our “best self.”
A central underlying assumption undergirds all such attempts at answers: “I am an autonomous, self-contained individual. I exist with 7 billion other individuals currently struggling to be happy on planet Earth.” While understandable, this a priori assumption is, quite simply, wrong.
We assume we are an individual slice of the human pie, and therefore able to be measured either in comparison to all other individuals, or to some abstract ideal of individual perfection, strength, beauty, or success. Thinking as self-contained beings will never sufficiently answer our heart’s desire to know ourselves. It will leave us stuck in endless comparisons, or deceived into thinking we can just create our own identity based on how we feel – today. And if we feel differently tomorrow – that’s cool, no problem. I am my own answer. This is deep and tragic confusion. It leaves us still thirsting to know the answer to the “being” question, and struggling with our self-destructive tendencies.
Before our primordial parents Adam and Eve disobeyed the command given them in the Garden of Paradise, they did not exist or think of themselves as individuals. Then who were they? Genesis 1:26 says “Then God said ‘let us make man in our image according to our likeness…’” What exactly is this “image?” It is the answer to our “being” question.
Certainly, some could interpret this verse to mean the Creator consists of many different individual gods. Therefore the “image” of these gods is countless numbers of individual humans since time began. But that presents us with another problem: three of the world’s greatest religions all agree: God is One, not many.
As Christians, we believe our Faith is the fulfillment of Judaism, and one major characteristic of the Jewish Faith is its absolute and unequivocal monotheism. How then are we to understand the plural “us” attributed to the One God of creation? Or hear Jesus our Saviour claiming to be the great “I Am” of the Old Testament? Or trust his unprecedented claims of being divine: “I and the Father are one,” “He who has seen me has seen the Father.”
Christians in the centuries after Christ rose from the dead were led by the Holy Spirit to articulate the great mystery of God in creedal form to combat the error of Arius, an intelligent and articulate priest. His false and novel interpretation of the scriptures was confusing and misleading for a great number of Christians in his day. It was a serious threat to the one Body of Christ Who prayed fervently for our maintaining love and perfect unity.
Borrowing words from Greek philosophy, all but two of the 318 fathers of the first Ecumenical Council at Nicea agreed that our God is three Divine Persons – using the word hypostasis – eternally existing in one Divine Nature, or Essence – using the word ousia. These early successors of the apostles received from Christ the revelation of Who God is. They never tried to rationally explain God’s reality since there is absolutely nothing in the created order which is, at one and the same time, 3 and 1.
St. John of Damascus, writing in the 8th century and summing up the Christian Faith as it had been received and passed on in the Church says this: “… it is quite impossible to find in creation an image that will illustrate in itself exactly in all details the nature of the Holy Trinity.”
The three Persons of God are each a distinct personal expression of the one Divinity, but in no way do these distinctions divide God. Within God, there is only one Nature or Essence, one will, one mind, one activity, fully and equally shared by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in an eternal “dance” of love and inter-dwelling. God has never been alone.
St. John goes on to write of the way we are to think and speak of this great mystery:
“The holy catholic and apostolic Church teaches the existence at once of a Father: and of His Only-begotten Son, born of Him without time and flux and passion, in a manner incomprehensible and perceived by the God of the universe alone… The Father alone is un-begotten (ingenerate), no other subsistence (Person) having given Him being. And the Son alone is begotten (generate), for He was begotten of the Father’s essence without beginning and without time. And only the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father’s essence, not having been generated but simply proceeding. For this is the doctrine of Holy Scripture. But the nature of the generation and the procession is quite beyond comprehension.”
It certainly is, and many may say it’s as relevant to everyday life as trying to determine how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. So why even attempt to think or understand this lofty and abstract theology? Simple – our being is this mystery. We carry within ourselves the very image of this Trinitarian God. This is who we are. It is the only key to unlock the mystery of our truest identity, and which, through our trust in Christ, is our path to a fullness and experience of life God has always desired for us.
Through the centuries, Christians have reflected on the varied meanings of the image of God. The most important understanding is that we are distinct persons who participate in one human nature. In light of this, who are we? We are communion. I am communion, and you are communion. Living as self-contained and self-referenced individuals goes directly against our deepest reality.
This wondrous image cannot be destroyed. It is often covered over by our actions, hidden from ourselves and others. All the children of Adam “miss the mark” of loving God and others as we were created to do. But God’s image and thus our value is unquestioned, unconditional, and indestructible in spite of our autonomous choices.
Science, even with all its advances and techniques, will never discover or observe the image of God in people. It is not empirically verifiable. As Christians, we accept this revelation by faith. God’s grace and mercy slowly transform the heart of the believer to “see” and trust our identity. By faith, we gradually heal the issues and destructiveness brought about by our individualism. Let’s explore this further.
Human nature is one, given to us at conception, binary expressions as male or female. Before the Fall, God created Eve “out of Adam’s rib.” When he awoke and saw this new creature, he exclaimed (probably with loud and unspeakable joy) “This is now bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh…” In other words, she was exactly like him in his humanity, being the complementary female expression of our nature. And at the very same time, Eve was uniquely and wonderfully different from Adam. She was her own person.
By birth, we share this mystical oneness with every other human. We are placed in a relationship with all persons whether we want that to be true or not. It is impossible to “slice up” or divide our humanity. The distinctiveness of our identities is not to be found in our nature.
An important truth must be emphasized at this point. Persons, whether within the divine Trinity or within humanity, do not exist apart from their common nature. But person and nature are not the same thing. If we can describe anything about ourselves, our personalities, our inclinations and idiosyncrasies, our many physical differences, etc. we are talking about our common humanity. At the molecular level, there are infinite variations of our DNA, but even that is not what ultimately makes us unique.
A person is a unique, unrepeatable, and infinitely valuable expression of humanity. This gift of personhood is unable to be described or rationally understood. A person’s value is not dependent on any aspect of our human nature. It never fluctuates. God is changeless and is never tempted by evil thoughts. Our Father in heaven cannot view each and every human being except through the “lens” of the eternal personal love He shares with His Son and His Holy Spirit. It is the overflow of this perfect divine love which brought us all into existence as His very image in created form.
Through our minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day consciousness, freedom, and choices, we uniquely express our common humanity. No one else has ever, or will ever, express himself or herself in the exact same way we do. This is the amazing and beautiful diversity of human personhood, called by one Orthodox theologian “the wonderful adventure of our freedom.”
Because of our intrinsic and infinite value to God, there is no point or profit in comparing ourselves to anyone else, at any time, for any reason. It is a fruitless and misguided effort, one of the many tragedies of our Fall from grace. The church fathers clearly teach that to judge or evaluate any person regarding their virtues or vices is inappropriate, even dangerous. God alone knows our unique personhood and our deep heart. He alone is our source and judge.
If we can’t finally and rationally describe just what being a person is, how is personhood revealed and known? There is one and only path to the knowledge and experience of a person: unconditional love and acceptance. As we stated earlier, the Divine Persons of the Trinity know and love each other from all eternity. They are never blurred into one person, or divided into three natures. “God is love” says St. John the Theologian, but not because He radiates some divine “force” from His nature. He is love because He exists as Personal communion outside of created time and space.
We can see an example of this experiential knowledge of personhood in the parents of identical (monozygotic) twins. Their DNA is exactly the same – so much so that they often delight in fooling friends or teachers. But Mom and Dad are not fooled. It is in the relationship of parental love and acceptance that each twin is known and loved personally and uniquely, as two distinct expressions of the same DNA.
God the Father, out of the overflow of His eternal and unconditional love, and in the Person of His Timeless Son, has become human in Christ without ceasing to be God. Jesus assumed the whole of our humanity in Mary’s womb, uniting it to His divinity that He might invite us to re-enter the divine/human communion of persons fractured at the Fall. Being joined to Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection in baptism, and raised as a “new creation in Christ,” we are “seated” – even now – in the heavenlies” as members of Christ’s body, His human and deified nature.
The good news which Jesus preached and accomplished has set us free to leave the prison of thinking of ourselves as self-contained individuals, forever comparing and measuring and experiencing life as survival.
This is our salvation: the restoration of Paradise and communion with God and man. In His life on earth, God the Son never sinned or broke this communion with His Father. By His voluntary suffering and death on the cross, He abolished and forgave humanity’s sins “for they know not what they do.” By His glorious resurrection from the dead, he destroyed humanity’s final and most powerful enemy: mortality.
Death entered humanity after the eating of the forbidden fruit. This death was not the cessation of physical life. It was a brokenness and fracture of humanity. It was the beginning of life as individual survival for Adam and Eve and their progeny. Physical death was a saving grace from God, so that our survival as individuals did not enter eternity.
“Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”– therefore the Lord God sent him out of the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken.”
14 Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He (Christ Jesus) Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.
Fear of death is the core motivation for all who live as self-contained individuals. Besides fearing our final departure from life, for most people it means fear of change, fear of loss of control, fear of being shown up, left behind, made fun of, abandoned by those we depend on, fear of the future, fear of being taken advantage of, fear of being used as an object, fear of being poor or homeless, and all other neuroses and psychological dead-ends which are the tragic consequences of our inheriting mortality and a weakened humanity from our first parents.
After disobeying God, Adam and Eve were “naked and ashamed.” This is not to be understood as our common embarrassment and vulnerability when someone we’re not married to sees us naked. It was a complete change in their psychological and emotional experience of one another. They now looked upon each other as individuals, not persons. And as individuals, there was now a built-in distrust. The “other” may in some future way hinder or even destroy my contained individual self.
When we love others, and accept them unconditionally for who they are, we transcend our nature and our fear of death. In those precious moments of communion and perfect love, we are “lost” in the other person, and they are “lost” in us. It is in those moments of being face-to-face with a beloved one that we know them as distinct and valued, and they know us. Can we rationally describe those times, or the person who is the object of our love? Not at all, but the reality of that experience causes us to taste eternity, and hunger for it as a divine sweetness not to be found in any earthly pleasure.
God saves us daily by inviting us to “lose” ourselves in order to “find” our unique personhood and value. Our individual concerns and anxieties and fears of death and loss are now, in a real sense, irrelevant. Christ has “trampled down death by death.” “He who believes in me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” (John 11:25-26)
He then asks: “Do you believe this?” That is now humanity’s new ultimate question. Do I really trust His words that I am now free of death’s dominion, free to live as persons in communion? Following our Lord is learning daily to trust this return to God’s paradise in Christ’s Kingdom, expressed in His body the Church.
Christ invites us – for it is truly a free request – to take up our cross and follow Him. It is necessary to die to the mentality of being a self-contained individual, with all our survival impulses, judgments and measurements. All the saints throughout history know the myriad layers of our heart’s deceptive self-containment. We cannot even let “our left hand know what our right hand is doing” without the temptation to be proud of our individual “accomplishments.”
Bearing Christ’s cross is an invitation to partake of the joy of the Bridegroom’s wedding Feast offered to persons whose loving orientation is no longer self. This is manifested in space and time at each celebration of the holy Eucharist, where we commune, in a great mystery, with Christ’s very body and blood. This “medicine of immortality” both reaffirms and nourishes our eternal life as unique persons who are mystically joined to our Lord. In this feast, we are again ravished by God’s outrageous love and acceptance. We are made more and more complete by our union with all other persons joined at this heavenly table, those gone before and those of us still fighting the good fight. The power of the cross releases us to enter His life-giving communion of peace and joy.
In so doing, we answer and experience our ontological quest. We are restored to personhood and communion. We are healed from our slavery to individualism. We are set free to “love even our enemies,” and to do good to those who spitefully use us, finding the grace to forgive everyone exactly as God has forgiven us. We are free to become by grace everything God is by nature. This is who we truly are.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages, Amen!
 An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, John of Damascus, AD 749
 Genesis 3:22-23, NKJV
 Hebrews 2:14-15, NKJV
Closer, Ever Closer
April 11, 2017
A friend, a brother in Christ, a fellow seeker, a supporter and encourager, a fellow debater in the best sense, a strong and fruitful mind, a soft heart of love and compassion, a delighter in the wonders and mysteries of our God – has now departed this life. His painful struggle with cancer has come to an end as has his last breath on earth. His very last experience of earth’s gracious atmosphere was a few short days ago.
He was only 9 months younger than me. I have known him and worshipped with him, his wife and five children for 30+ years. We prayed the solemn and hopeful prayers of the Orthodox funeral service yesterday, gave him the “final kiss,” and watched his casket being closed, the last time on earth we would ever see his face or hug his body.
Only a short week ago I was able to hold his hand – his still warm, blood infused hand for five minutes after his dear life-partner Susan told him I was there. He wasn’t able to open his eyes or speak, but he knew his old friend was standing by his bed. Thank God for that moment.
And now I find myself pondering once again this final threshold of each human being: our passing from an earthly journey into eternity.
I remember first starting to think much more specifically about my death around 8 or 9 years ago. I read Peter Kreeft’s book Love is Stronger Than Death – twice. Powerful, hopeful, yes, but only a book. My own tentative existence, my own body’s growing frailty, my slowly waning energy combined with my gradually increasing stiffness, now daily reminders. Death of my body and all that is familiar to me is coming to an end. The autumn of my life is moving much faster each year into my winter.
Of course, every person “knows” this inevitability. People die every day, every hour, every minute. Just within the last year or so, three men, younger than me with whom I worked very closely in past ministry, have been struggling with serious medical conditions. It would sadden but not surprise me if at any time I would get a call or an email saying they too had passed.
But as far as I know, I’m not at death’s doorstep yet. I still play singles tennis 2 or 3 times a week. I have no chronic aches or pains. I am very and thankfully alive every day. I see, hear, smell, taste, and touch life every single day, especially with my precious wife, my beautiful daughters and their families, my grandchildren and all my magnificent friends and associates. All of that coming to a definite and irreversible END is not something I can even imagine. For others like my brother Brian, yes, but for me? Not at all.
But his recent passing makes my final passing much more real, much more definite, much closer to my consciousness.
And in spite of all I have read and thought and hoped about that end, I have no experience–based knowledge or hope to enlighten me. I just have a giant abyss lying in the road ahead, an opaque “next chapter” I cannot escape. As soon as any part of me tries to imagine what that will actually be like, I come up short, woefully unable to put my mind around even a tiny drop of life beyond that door.
And I AM NOT USED TO THAT FEELING. It is deeply unsettling, and I’m not even sure why this is so. It’s not really a fear although that has a way of whispering around the edges of my mind. It’s not a rock-solid hopeful certainty, but neither is it a dreadful hopelessness. I truly can’t say exactly what happens in my inner life when I ponder my death, my time of passing.
Perhaps it is ultimately only one thing I experience in these moments: a complete vulnerability and powerlessness of my entire being, the realization of my utter and complete dependency on One Reality Who is the Creator and Sustainer of me, God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
I guess I do know one thing for sure: the moment of my passing is the point. That’s the whole shebang. That’s IT, and nothing nothing nothing else in my wonderful existence to this point ultimately matters … it’s just (what a pathetic and insufficient word in this instance) it’s just and completely God and Randy, Face to face, forever in His Kingdom.
Wonderful, terrifying, and everything in-between. Of course there are not, nor cannot be any words or thoughts to describe this moment. The Divine Darkness our fathers in the Faith talk about is real, meaning that the uncreated Divine Light of God is so much brighter than a thousand suns that we created beings can “see” nothing very clearly this side of eternity. O Wondrous and Loving Mystery, Great Physician of our souls and bodies, glory to You.
Dearest Lord of all creation, my deepest hope and belief for myself and for every other human person is that You are truly and forever “The only true friend of mankind.”
In honor of Reader Brian John McDonald, 1948-2017
A great fire was once cast upon the earth and all its inhabitants. Fire, as we know, requires three things to exist: fuel, oxygen, and a spark. I am part of its ongoing fuel, especially when I seem to have no clue I am being so. I live and breathe this fire’s oxygen – the mentality, attitudes, and values of my culture, influenced and promoted by all the cultures of man, past and present.
The very first and very small spark which ignited this fire was spoken by an alien, a stranger in the Garden: “Did God say … hmmm … I’m afraid that I must inform you … God was mistaken my child.”
For some unknown reason, my first mother, who was surrounded in every way with Beauty and Fullness and Warmth and Light, stopped and pondered this spark. It was quite interesting to her. She found a certain kind of logic, a certain kind of distorted beauty in its subtlety. She soon chose to believe the anti-promise which the alien had proceeded to tell her once he had her attention, though of course he could in no way fulfil this promise for her.
As she continued to think about it, a great and terrible dark cloud began to drift slowly down into her mind and heart. It blinded my dear mother’s heart. She ate this spark of darkness, and shared it with her husband. And “they were cast out.” They wept without consolation.
And so was I – cast out. And so were all her dear children. I too ate. I too became blind. I too became fuel. I too learned how to breathe the dark smoke from the fire. I too agreed with the alien’s “logic,” and became deeply fascinated with its ugly beauty.
Check that. A deep wound in me still agrees with the alien’s logic. I am still, all too often, fascinated with the alien’s illusions shouted and shown to me daily by my fellow humans breathing the same smoke I breathe. I still provide fuel for the alien’s sparks.
What, O Wondrous Creator of all that exists: Who can rescue me from this earthly fire and its consumer logic and endless parade of pretentious images painted with tainted oils and perfumes?
Only another river can rescue me. Not of water, nor foam, nor earthly chemicals. A Blessed River of Fire, far greater and broader than any alien’s fire of destruction.
This Mystery – Fire destroying fire – was in my Creator’s mind even before all the ages existed. It is the Fire of Divine Love, of Divine Goodness, Purity and Beauty. It is the in-fleshed Fire of Divine Truth, flowing over and around and through and above all alien smoke and illusion.
But fire of any kind is terrible and frightening and confusing to our hearts. “Of course,” whispers the alien. “God’s Fire has only one purpose, one goal – to punish and destroy you. You and all your kind greatly offended Him.”
Hmmmm … that’s not what another glorious being said to my young, and soon to become, 2nd Mother. “Rejoice, O full of grace. The Lord of all, and His Wondrous River of Fire, is with you. Is for you in every way imaginable. Will you allow His healing Fire to be born in you this day?”
And with simplicity and humility of heart, and not needing to know how and why this could be true, my truest mother, Blessed Mary, said Yes… for herself, and for me, and for all people of the earth, in all times and all places who had ever fueled and been destroyed by the alien’s fire. “Yes, let this be done unto me” and to all generations.
It is true, you know – no one can touch or enter any fire, earthly or divine, and not be wounded. No one can not feel that pain, can not struggle in myriads of ways to escape the very sure death that the River of Fire will bring upon the children of father Adam and mother Eve, if they choose to enter it each and every day.
But, O wondrous and life-creating Mystery – this death will not kill us. We shall surely not die in this Fire. Only every alien and enslaving lie and illusion and urge sparked by the evil one will die in this Fire. When we, in fear and trembling, draw near and eat of this Bread and drink of this Wine, and “partake of the Fire, though I am dry grass,” we shall live and be healed forever in a Garden of Delights which “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, nor has it ever entered into the heart of man.”
“O truly and only One Who is Goodness, and Truth, and eternal Beauty above all imaginings of my heart, I believe – I truly believe. But help Thou my unbelief and heal me in Your Divine Fire, until we see You face to face … forever and ever, unto the ages of ages … Amen.”
Something totally unexpected, unforeseen and quite strange happened one day in America. A large mirror appeared in society, so huge and imposing it was impossible to ignore. And no one did ignore it. In fact, Americans probably spent more time looking directly into this mirror than they had looked at anything for centuries, perhaps ever.
People who gazed at it fell into one of two camps. Some adamantly refused to see themselves in the mirror, to which they loudly complained that it was totally broken. Useless! Or others saw a sort of “Photo-Shopped” image of themselves, uniquely distorted for each person, making them proud and convinced they were much better looking than they actually were.
Debate raged among everyone as to what, why, and above all how this mirror had appeared. The two polarized camps held a deeply embedded conviction that they alone saw what the giant mirror did or didn’t reflect. It was crazy-making to put it mildly, often engendering an angry blindness in otherwise usually sane folks.
But not everyone was blinded. A relatively few souls saw their own deeply unflattering self when they looked into the mirror. Though painful, they saw their American face without rationalizing or excuse. With a certain shame and sorrow, these few understood that the arrival of this giant unexpected mirror was inevitable, that America had been given what it deserved. It had only been a matter of time.
But if one looked closely at his or her own reflection with genuine humility—not worrying about what others thought they saw—they would recognize the mirror as holding the potential to move them deeper into the grace of personal repentance. This ancient term was always understood as a gift of the ongoing healing of one’s heart toward a true and lasting vision of eternal values which never fail or become irrelevant, which can never be bought or politicized. And which will never allow one to manipulate or use people for personal gain. Which sadly, will probably never make the evening news.
Three daughters, young, beautiful, 7, 5, and 2, dark-skinned, Mom with a slight accent. “Chad” she answered to my query about her home country. She had lived in ours for ten years and was now enjoying a hot breakfast at our FOCUS dining room with her young girls, sitting by themselves since most folks were done.
The little one invisibly beckoned me to come and sit beside her, and then (in my mind) whispered “I have a gift I want to give you, a blessing to warm your heart.”
Now who can resist such a mysterious invitation, thought the father of three beautiful daughters who once were those same ages. So down I sat right next to this tiny one in her booster chair, and immediately began appreciating her simple braids and delicate features. She turned and stared at me, expressionless, pure, innocent, perhaps never having had a large light-skinned male so close to her. She didn’t seem to mind at all. Her job at two years old was simply to “observe and absorb” everything entering her field of reference. It’s what kids do. It’s part of the gift they bring if one has eyes to see and ears to hear, reminding us of the sacred reality of being, of communion.
In spite of my banter, I couldn’t seem to arouse any kind of response from the little one: no words, no fear, no discomfort, no looking at Mom for reassurance, no smile or frown, just gentle innocent eyes meeting mine. It was as if she had been waiting for me to join her. I was loving it because sometimes we human types get to “just sit” in each other’s presence. That’s right – it’s actually an important thing we have full permission from God to do. . . an agenda-less moment, sans all cell phones or other technological distractions.
After about five minutes or so, the little one inaudibly asked me to sing her a song. (excuse me, Randy, your imagination is a little weird here.) No it’s not – I have empirical proof that is what she said in her mind . . . it was the gift she had for me.
“Itsy-bitsy spider went up the water spout. Down came the rain and washed the spider out. . .” My hands automatically illustrated this age-old story of life on Planet Earth. And then, at about the 3rd line, her little face turned to me, a beautiful smile slowly emerged, and those tiny little-girl lips began to mimic the words. No little-girl voice was heard, but it was clear: she had heard those very words before and loved them, and was glad to have the chance to join in. The invisible hosts of heaven hummed along in amazement and joy.
I cannot put into words how this moved and warmed my heart, how it transported me to a place of wonder, reflection, and thankfulness to God for this little one’s gift in that moment, totally unexpected, amazingly therapeutic to my tired body and spirit.
We connected through music, two fellow travelers separated by 65 years and thousands of experiences. And at that moment we were completely one and the same, touching heaven together. And I believe Mary, the mother of our God, smiled at the memories of songs she once had shared with her young child Jesus, the only True Friend of mankind. What a profound gift.
Dear Indianapolis Star Editor: Isn’t there just one?
I taught at a church youth camp last week on poverty and helping the poor as a source of many blessings, especially for those who give in some way of their time, talent, or treasure to folks struggling to find enough to eat or pay their electric bill.
Since Peyton Manning’s contract negotiations were in the headlines, it just came to me during the introduction of my talk to wonder out loud – “What in the world is Peyton going to do with more money than he’ll ever spend, especially a $24 million dollar a year salary?” Team owner Jim Irsay was willing to pay that to make him the highest paid NFL player ever. Since then, Peyton “stepped up” for the team’s sake and settled for only $18 million per year.
I went on to share what I have often pondered. What if one professional athlete– just one–who makes a minimum of, say $2 million dollars a year, were to decide that he can live more than adequately and comfortably on, for example, $200,000 a year. He would then give the rest of his salary, all of it after taxes and business expenses, to any legitimate social needs he or she felt drawn to support. How amazing and powerful that would be in a world addicted to greed, to more more more, and to the underlying misleading assumption that life and happiness consist in the abundance of possessions.
After a cursory Google search on Pro Athletes and their Foundations and charitable giving, I was pleasantly surprised to read an impressive list of rich athletes who are giving back (for example check out Athletesforcharity.com/foundation.) From peytonmanning.com/payback-foundation, these stats:
The PeyBack Foundation funds various programs in Indiana, Louisiana and Tennessee. The Foundation has distributed more than $4.3 million in grants since 2002, including $800,000 in May 2011 to 147 youth based organizations. The Foundation provides assistance to programs such as Boys & Girls Clubs, area food banks, after-school programs, and summer camps.
That is about $482,000 a year (admirable), but only about 2.6% of his new annual salary (not including his endorsement income.) What if Peyton were to announce that since he already has more money than he and his children and his grandchildren will ever know how to spend, he has decided to live on $200,000 a year and give, say, $8 million a year to his foundation (based on Uncle taking his 45% plus other business expenses). Each year, those disadvantaged youth programs, and others like it throughout 50 states, could start to share almost 600% more per year than three states have enjoyed since he started this excellent Foundation.
If anyone chooses to respond by defending Peyton in some way, please – it’s not the point I’m musing about. It’s not about some judgment left only to God about Peyton’s or other pro athletes’ moral character. And of course I have no idea what percentage of Peyton’s take home pay he gives to other charitable causes. It’s not anyone’s business unless he makes it public.
I’m a huge fan of Peyton Manning’s athletic ability, mental focus, and work ethic. Huge! I would become an even bigger fan of him or any other professional athlete who would decide to live on “only” $200,000 a year, giving everything else society and business believe them to be worth as gifts to those struggling just to feed their children regular healthy meals, who live all around us. As Jeff Saturday recently said, “Athletes should lead by example.”
A very wise man who lived in the 4th century had this to say about maximum human happiness and fulfillment in this life: “The rich exist for the poor; but the poor exist for the salvation (wholeness, fullness) of the rich.”
A word, full of significance and meaning, disappearing in our culture, before our eyes . . .
A tall, graceful young mother of two young daughters, moving to sit in the booth just behind ours, accompanied by her young husband, carrying her 6-month old and trailed by her two year old. This woman, at the Einstein’s in Speedway, was sitting to enjoy her morning coffee with her family. I was thankful that she sat with her back to me, guaranteeing I couldn’t stare at her . . . at her eyes.
I had seen eyes like hers before, but only a few times in my life. Women walking by the Steinway piano at Nordstrom whose eyes, for only a brief moment, would meet mine and then cast quickly forward as I played Gershwin for the shoppers. In that brief human encounter, a thousand and one thoughts would flood my mind, questions, wonderings, imaginings, and yes, judgments. Because that human encounter allowed me only to see one thing: their eyes.
Like those women walking by, this young mother too was clothed from head to toe in a burkha. She presented only occasional glimpses of her slender hands attending to her daughters. Had she been sitting facing me in her booth, I confess I would have been tempted to see if she would make eye contact with me.
As I reflected this evening on that encounter, I found myself wading through those same questions, wonderings, and yes, judgments. I concluded that I knew at least one thing for sure: her religion has impressed on her a word which has almost completely disappeared from the modern western lexicon: modesty.
I remembered a time or two as a young boy in the 50’s following my dad into the garage where the family car was being repaired. I remember staring, as only a young boy approaching adolescence can do, at the pin-up calendar hanging over the tool bench: a beautiful and shapely woman dressed in a bikini. Reader – understand: this bikini by today’s standards was HUGE, easily seven or eight inches wide on the top, and a pants bottom just barely beneath her belly button. It wasn’t entirely unlike what NBA players used to wear back in the day. I think my dad noticed me noticing and probably urged the mechanic to hurry so I wouldn’t dwell on that image.
Modesty still held sway in the vast consciousness of America . . . mechanics’ garages and perhaps an occasional barber shop were the only places such scandalous images could be seen.
And now, right in front of me in this coffee shop, an expression of modesty, which, of course even in the fifties would be seen as extreme. I thought of the tremendous courage this woman demonstrates given the climate and perception of dangerous Muslim terrorists perhaps living all around us. Are you kidding me? How many blatant and often angry stares does this woman endure every time she ventures out?
At a visit last year in the home of a wonderful priest who serves in St. Paul, MN, and who was originally from South Africa, I asked what he made of the tremendous spread of Islam the world over. What did he think was behind this religious movement attracting so many millions around the world. I will never forget his answer. He surmised that perhaps some of it is what people in many countries observe when they see western culture plastered on the internet, in movies, in TV commercials, and just about every other public arena: the absolute and total death of modesty, of public decorum, and a loss of the innate sense of the dignity of human beings, now replaced by debauchery, drunkenness, lewdness, and a thorough-going debasement of human persons. In prime time. In just about every TV commercial interspersed between the most humble or modest of shows (if you can still find one.)
Forgive me if this seems flippant or irrelevant, but I ask us: if we had a choice between burkhas or thongs as a predominant image we would prefer the world see in us, which would it be? Two extremes of course, and a resurrection of cultural modesty would certainly not require women to show only their eyes in public. But when a pin-up of the fifties is now looked upon by many (most?) in our culture as laughable, amazed at how “repressed” women were back then, do we mourn the loss, not just for women but for men as well of the true and essential virtue of modesty? Does it greatly distress us that women are more and more seen and often used solely as objects of pleasure, existing as non-persons to be cast aside when youth and physical beauty fade? Do we really want our beautiful and innocent daughters to grow up being laughed at because they wear skirts at knee length or a little lower, IF you can even buy such skirts any more . . . my daughters assure me it is almost impossible to find such dresses in any stores anywhere.
When I see women dressed as she was this morning, I still have questions, wonderings, and I am unable to grasp her mindset or religion. But judgments? St. Ephraim’s Lenten prayer reminds me daily to “look at my own sins, and refrain from judging others,” and I usually add “at any time and for any reason.” Is a burkha, as strange and extreme as it is, perhaps a prophetic call from our Creator Who, I believe, deeply mourns the loss of this word modesty? Blessed, simple, dignified modesty, fit, yes even essential for all who are created in His blessed image, male and female alike.
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” http://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2014/12/17/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
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.”