Sunday, February 23, 2014

Forming Christian Identity in a Complex Age!

How wide is the gap between the ways of Jesus and the ways of the world?  An historian writes of the eighteen century English statesman Sir Robert Walpole:  “He was unscrupulous, and did very dirty work; but he did it to serve his country, and not for any selfish end other than that of retaining political power.  He himself said that he was ‘no saint, no Spartan, no reformer’; it was all a matter of business.”[1]  There is at least a bracing honesty in Walpole’s assessment of himself.  While that remark could stand as a motto for any number of contemporary public figures, I think I heard it originally in one of the Godfather movies. 

At the other extreme is a seemingly frivolous remark, “Encumbered with a low self-image, Bob takes a job as a speed bump.”   That reveals the depth of the problem of identity formation as it is experienced by many people.  A simple truth from Proverbs catches us up short:  “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he” (Prov. 23:7).  The question that should be raised immediately is, “Are we stuck with character flaws and weaknesses we now have?”

An essential element in human personality formation is understanding the basic freedom we have in effecting change within ourselves.  A principle of psychology says that if we know where in our past we learned the behavior that upsets us in the present, that knowledge frees us to decide to do things differently.  Jesus said, “If you know the truth, the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).  That includes even the truth about yourself.  Contempative Theology tells us that there is no true knowledge of God without the accompanying knowledge of one’s self; that is, in knowing Him, we begin, only begin, to see ourselves as He sees us. 

An Old Testament figure named Jabez illustrates the importance of self-knowledge and its place in our prayers.  Jabez’ name unfortunately translates as: “He Will Cause Pain.”

Now Jabez was more honorable than his brothers, and his mother called his name Jabez (He Will Cause Pain) saying, because I bore him in pain."           And Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, "Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I might not cause pain!"  So God granted him what he requested." [I Chron. 4:9,10].

When we acknowledge to God the pains and inadequacies that spring from our families of origin He stands ready to heal.  Indeed God names Himself  “I am the God Who Heals You” (Exodus 15:26).  Jabez’ discovery of his origin and his prayer for deliverance from the terrible name he received from his mother must have caused great anguish.  A commentary on the Torah speaks of the resistance we have to transformation,the stone does not take sides with the master, but against him; to the stone, the first stroke struck to form it, appears as a most unnatural action.”[2]  All beginnings are hard, especially the beginning of self-discovery and transformation.

This re-formation of our old identity into a new Christian identity is what the Scripture calls sanctification.  Sanctification is an old word that unfortunately has fallen out of use.  Sanctification is the process of becoming holy, which may be why it is no longer a popular idea today.  The deeper meaning of sanctification is the restoration to wholeness.  Holiness in thought and action flows from the wholeness that comes as God’s gift of grace in our lives. 

The theology of the Greek Fathers refers to this as deification following the teaching of St. Peter (2 Peter 1:3-7), “3 His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence,  4 by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.  5 For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge,  6 and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness,  7 and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.”  That sanctification, that deification, is in the end result a work of the Cross.

Paul shares with us two secrets about this interior transformation.  The first is that we are to be transformed by the “renewing of our minds” (Romans. 12:2).  Spiritually you are what you eat, therefore Paul says again, “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy -- meditate on these things” (Phil. 4:8)  Second, transformation comes from beholding the glory of God in prayer and worship, “we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18).  What you put in your mind colours and forms your identity.  Who you worship, anchors that identity in practical reality.             


[1] Alfred Plummer, The Church of England in the Eighteenth Century, (London: Methuen, 1910),  p. 17
[2] - Thomas Mann, in The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ed. Gunther Plaut,  (New York:Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981), p.665

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Lethe & Eunoë: Memory & Forgetfulness

       There are two rivers flowing from Dante’s Paradise, the River Lethe and the River Eunoë. The River Lethe is the river of memory where we remember our sins and enter into penitence and purification by the Blood of Christ. The River Eunoë is the river of forgetfulness where we remember our sins no more. 

            Do you remember the Dying Thief? “Today you shall be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). What a grievous life the man must have led; his sins had weighed heavily upon him and he rebuked the other dying thief saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:40-41). The weight of his sins had nailed him to the cross and nothing could atone, not even his own death. Mercy is his only plea, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” It is surrender and hope in Jesus alone that brings him into Paradise.

And what is Paradise? Paradise is that walled garden where in the cool of the evening the Lord God walked among the trees, and the trees of the garden lifted up their leafy arms rejoicing in His presence.

O let the Earth bless the Lord :
yea, let it praise him, and magnify him for ever.
O ye Mountains and Hills, bless ye the Lord :
praise him, and magnify him for ever.
O all ye Green Things upon the earth, bless ye the Lord :
praise him, and magnify him for ever.
O ye Wells, bless ye the Lord :
praise him, and magnify him for ever.

There, in the midst of the paradise of God, the tree of life still stands and the dying thief with his terrible memories and guilt was the first to eat of that tree as a result of the immediate self-sacrifice of the Christ who hung on the cross beside him.

There are two rivers flowing from Paradise: One is the River Lethe, the river of memory, the remembrance of our sins and of purification through the blood of Christ. One must drink of the River Lethe first before one is prepared to drink from the River Eunoë, the river of forgetfulness and kindly thoughts. He who drinks from both of Dante’s rivers Lethe and Eunoë, remembers his sins “only as an historical fact and as the occasion of grace and blessedness” (Dorothy L. Sayers, introduction to the translation of Dante’s Purgatorio).

Teresa of Avila, like many of her contemporaries drank deeply from the River Lethe and the remembrance of sins. Do all do that today? Some drink not at all and mistakenly think that they can drink from the River Eunoë and repress and forget the realities of their sins. It doesn’t work that way. Drink from Lethe first and from Eunoë second. When one drinks from Lethe, the river of memory and purification, then one is ready to hear the words of Teresa, “He guilds my faults.”

As miserable and imperfect as my deeds were, this Lord of mine improved and perfected them and gave them value, and the evils and sins He then hid. His Majesty even permitted the eyes of those who saw these sins to be blinded, and He removed these sins from their memory. He gilds my faults; the Lord makes a virtue shine that He places in me—almost forcing me to have it.” (The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Vol. One, The Book of Her Life, (Washington: ICS Publications) 1987, p. 69.

It is not that sin is any less sin, but sin must be seen through the eyes of grace. Never underestimate your sin, nor the work of grace in your life. God Himself almost forces us to live by grace, rather than by self-accusation.

Similarly Catherine of Genoa observes,

“I then saw others who were fighting against their evil inclinations and forcing themselves to resist them. But I saw that the more they struggled against them, the more they committed them . . . You cannot defend yourself and I cannot defend myself. The thing we must do is renounce the care of ourselves unto God who can defend our true self” (“Life and Teachings”, ed. Foster, Devotional Classics, p. 213).

            The psalmist says, “Protect my life from the fear of the enemy” (Psalm 64:1b). There is a common thread. Fear and compulsive flight from sin don’t help. Let Him gild your faults. Rely on grace, not only for the past, but also for the present. You cannot defend yourself, and I cannot defend myself. Relax into His hands. Catherine also speaks of the gradual unfolding of self-awareness. We are shown only what we need to see, and are accepted even with our imperfections and limited self-knowledge. He protects us from complete self-knowledge, which is more than we can bear. Transformation is a process.

            Drink deeply from both of the rivers that you may be cleansed, restored, and made whole. In drinking from the River Lethe know for certain that you come to the God of love who has already provided the sacrifice, who draws you to Himself, in order to restore you. “How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:14 KJV).

            Drink deeply from the River Eunoë. God never intended that you live with old guilts long since cleansed. “As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12). There is such a thing as Divine Forgetfulness, “For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more. (Hebrews 8:12 ESV). He who drinks from Dante’s rivers Lethe and Eunoë, remembers his sins “only as an historical fact and as the occasion of grace and blessedness”