Saturday, February 28, 2015

During Lent when we are tempted to make of penitence a saving work it is good to go back to St. Augustine and be reminded of the relationship between works and grace.

Let Us Understand the Workings of God's Grace

“Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law,  for ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” [Galatians 3:11].

From an explanation of Paul's letter to the Galatians by Saint Augustine:

Paul writes to the Galatians to make them understand that by God’s grace they are no longer under the law. When the Gospel was preached to them, there were some among them of Jewish origin known as circumcisers – though they called themselves Christians – who did not grasp the gift they had received. They still wanted to be under the burden of the law.

Now God had imposed that burden on those who were slaves to sin and not on servants of justice. That is to say, God had given a just law to unjust men in order to show them their sin, not to take it away. For sin is taken away only by the gift of faith that works through love.

The Galatians had already received this gift, but the circumcisers claimed that the Gospel would not save them unless they underwent circumcision and were willing to observe also the other traditional Jewish rites.
In the present letter Paul is writing to persons who were profoundly influenced and disturbed by the circumcisers. The Galatians had begun to believe them and to think that Paul had not preached rightly, since he had not ordered them to be circumcised. And so the Apostle begins by saying: I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting him who called you to the glory of Christ, and turning to another gospel.

            After this there comes a brief introduction to the point at issue. But remember in the very opening of the letter, Paul had said that he was an apostle not from men nor by any man, a statement that does not appear in any other letter of his.

He is making it quite clear that the circumcisers, for their part, are not from God but from men, and that his authority in preaching the Gospel must be considered equal to that of the other apostles. For he was called to be an apostle not from men nor by any man, but through God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. 

The entire Commentary of St. Augustine on Galatians can be found on

Friday, February 27, 2015

Who Were You? Who are You?

Have you considered who Moses was, before his encounter with God in the Burning Bush? The story in Exodus is instructive. Moses was rescued from a basket in the Nile by the daughter of Pharaoh, and then entrusted by her to a Hebrew nurse. The nurse was actually Moses’ mother. He is brought up in the home of his parents during his early formative years. When the child grew up he was brought to Pharaoh’s daughter and becomes her son.

It is important to understand, that at heart, Moses is a Hebrew. It is that which leads him into difficulty. He sees an Egyptian striking a Hebrew, and he kills the Egyptian. He sees two Hebrews fighting and he says to one of them, “Why do you strike your companion” [Exodus 2:13]? With that he discovers that his early execution of an Egyptian is clearly known and he flees from Egypt.

That’s the basic story, and as such illustrates the principle of Heilsgeschichte, or Salvation History. To put it simply, the Salvation History of Israel is an archetype of the Salvation History of each one of us. That is, in this story of the early life of Moses you will find important principles that will shed light on your own life and early experiences.

Moses, from the beginning, has a strong sense of what is right, or fair; and acts as a deliver in both of those short stories from his early life. His essential character as a deliverer with a strong sense of justice is formed before his encounter with the Living God in the Burning Bush. It is that character in Moses that is anointed by God and partially transformed. I say “partially transformed” because Moses, like all of us, carries his strengths and weakness into his life after that transforming encounter with God in the Burning Bush.

When we encounter God through Christ Jesus, we are transformed by the grace and mercy of God. Nevertheless, like Moses, we carry forward many of the gifts, talents, and personal characteristics that were formed in our early years. If we came to that encounter with a strong need to be loved and a strong need to love, we will carry that forward with both its strengths and weaknesses.

What happens when we encounter God through Christ Jesus? Christ Jesus has a magnetic personality; when he attracts us all of our original positive characteristic are drawn toward Him, and all of our negative characteristics are repelled. In that encounter everything within our lives is realigned. Our capacity for love finds and maintains a constructive direction when our polarity is focused on Him. One implication of this is that our need to love and be loved will ennobled and enhanced by our relationship with Him. That is one reason why it is important for us to maintain an active spiritual discipline.  

We, like Moses, will find that transformation is a process and that some of our weaknesses will endure for a long time; but we will also carry forward the inherent strengths which are our birthright and the natural result of our early nurturing or lack of it. That two-fold desire to love and to be loved will be carried forward in loving service to others.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Law of Undulation

C. S. Lewis’s character Screwtape, the Senior devil in The Screwtape Letters, has an interesting take on human nature.  He observes that our lives have a natural rhythm, an ebb and flow, a series of troughs and peaks that affects every area of our lives—our interests, our loves, our work.  We go through times of spiritual insight and responsiveness, and times of dryness and dullness.

That shouldn’t surprise us; the rhythm is written into nature.  In simpler times I have sat by sea and watched the waves; the rhythm of the waves breaking on the beach, then retreating to break interminably upon the beach again. And I have watched the long ebbing of the tide and its flowing back; a rhythm governed by the cycle of the moon upon the earth.

The rhythms of our lives are part of the dance of life that all God’s creatures dance.  The dance becomes un-rhythmical, disharmonious, erratic, when the dancers fail to move with the dance and try to force their way unnaturally.  This often happens when the dancers fail to notice that they are dancing the dance, and that the law of undulation is a natural law.

Some of God’s children try to force their way into perpetual spiritual highs, others surrender to the lows and allow depression to govern all their days.  You can’t live on the heights, and you best not camp permanently in the low valleys of your experience.

The first correction that we can make is the simple acknowledgment that we have highs and lows; that highs and lows are a natural part of life, and that there is nothing wrong with having highs and lows.  Barring chemical imbalance, which is a matter for wise doctors and counsellors, having highs and lows is not a call for some pacifying medication to homogenize our days.  Bland is not beautiful.

Rather than that, make use of your highs, those moments of greater energy and joy, and rejoice that your God has made you and all things good.  In those moments step into the flow of His creativity and dance the dance with confidence. 

In the lows, do not condemn yourself or accept Screwtape’s counsel of despair. Instead, use the steady tools of your faith; pray the prayers of Morning Prayer, read Holy Scripture, especially the Psalms; that book of ups and downs.  Talk quietly with your friends, give love, accept love, read quietly things that delight the mind, listen to a symphony, and be at peace; the rhythm always returns and every ebb is always followed by a flow.

St. Benedict reminds us that “We believe that the divine presence is everywhere and that in every place the eyes of the Lord are watching the good and the wicked” (Proverbs 15:3). But beyond the least doubt we should believe this to be especially true when we celebrate the divine office” (RB 19:1,2).  First, understand that your Lord is with you in the lows as well as in the highs.  Even Screwtape knew that our Lord makes great use of the troughs in our lives, observing, “It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be.  Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best” (Screwtape, Letter VIII).

Second, observe that steady discipline maintained through both highs and lows is the clearest channel of grace.  The simple truth is that if we steadily hold our souls aloft to God, He will pour His blessing upon us.  Our daily prayer and Scripture reading doesn’t have to be flashy, it just has to be as regular as we can possibly make it.  There is a difference between infused grace, that moment of gratuitous spiritual intensity that we so often seek and cherish, and acquired grace.  Infused grace is temporarily rewarding, acquired grace builds slowly but steadily towards a deeper union with the God whom we love.

Third, observe that we take ourselves too seriously.  That is a result of our misguided view that we are actually in control.  Banish the thought from your mind.  The Psalmist says, “I am a man who has no strength…I am shut in so that I cannot escape…I am helpless” (Psalm 88:4,8,15 ESV).  You only think you are in control.  That in itself ought to provide the biggest occasion for self-deprecatory humour, that is, if it weren’t so often painful.  Relax into the hands of God, accept His forgiveness, accept His patience with you and extend some of that divine patience to yourself and to others.  From a divine perspective, in all our solemn seriousness, we may all be somewhat amusing.  That is to say, ease up on yourself and live in forgiveness and divine acceptance.

One of C. S. Lewis’s characters, at the moment immediately preceding her encounter with God, had the following flash of insight, “Supposing one were a thing after all—a thing designed and invented by Someone Else and valued for qualities quite different from what one had decided to regard as one’s true self?  Supposing all those people who, from the bachelor uncles down to Mark and Mother Dimble, had infuriatingly found her sweet and fresh when she wanted them to find her also interesting and important, had all along been simply right and perceived the sort of thing she was?” (C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, (New York: Scribner, 1945), p. 315).  The question really isn’t, “What do I want to do?”, or “What do I want to be?”, but “What has my Maker designed me to be?”, and “How has he moulded me through the apparent accidents of life?”

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Today Some of Us Will Be Martyred

In the grand scope of things consider how grievous it is that Christians in all the branches of the Body of Christ do not honour each other; but instead wound the Body of Christ with their words. 

St. Paul understood his own sufferings as a share in the larger sufferings of the Body of Christ across the world, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” [Colossians 1:24]. We are one Body with those who will be martyred this week; “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” [1 Corinthians 10:17]. 

Today in various places of our world radical Islam will, “murder the widow and the stranger and put orphans to death” [Ps. 94:6]. This day radical Islam will murder some of us. We pray for the Martyrs and for ourselves. Even in these circumstances we confess that, “No chaos, disaster, or malice can threaten God’s reign” [Antiphon from The Monastery of St. Scholastica, Fort Smith, AR]. We all will eventually pass through the gate of death, but those who have made their surrender to Christ will be gathered up with Him and carried to our Father to be with Him for ever.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Keeping a Holy Lent

Lenten fasts have their place, even in contemporary life, and this is especially true when your fasting is linked to the disciplines of prayer. A Lenten fast should be significant enough to remind you to pray every time the commitment to fasting intrudes on your daily life. If you think that giving up chocolate is a cruel Lenten discipline, you probably should give up chocolate for Lent.

Lent originally was a Middle English word, lente for spring. In the 4th Century St. Athanasius encouraged a 40 day period of fasting in preparation for Holy Week. In the 5th Century St. Cyril of Jerusalem included a period of fasting for new converts prior to their baptism on Easter Eve.

The primary intent of Lent, however is not fasting, but penitence. That is difficult for contemporary people because we have forgotten what penitence is. Old, antique, and awkward disciplines color our understanding. We may think that we have gotten past self-flagellation, but many people indulge in mental and emotional self-flagellation thinking that they are being penitent.

In “The Purple Headed Mountain” Martin Thornton gives an excellent definition of penitence,

Penitence means knowledge, of ourselves, of the world, and of God, and knowledge leads to love. Penitence clarifies our vision, it helps us to develop that insight into the ways of God with things and people which the text books call wisdom.…So our quest for penitence, far from being a negative, introverted, unhealthy thing, is a search for truth every bit as creative as the search for truth by scholars and scientists.[i]

A season of Penitence is a season of self-discovery. This will take some deliberate action on your part. As part of your Lenten discipline, read Scripture every day, and listen to what God is saying to you. One way of doing this is the ancient method of bible study called Lectio Divina [Divine Reading]. There are four steps in Lectio Divina: Reading, Reflecting, Responding, and Resting.

  • Read the passage over several times.
  • Reflect on what God is saying to you in the passage.
  • Respond in prayer to God about His word to you.
  • Rest in His Presence.

Many Christians who read Holy Scripture get as far as Reading and Reflecting, and stop short of Responding to God about what they have heard. The Psalmist says, “For behold, you look for truth deep within me, and will make me understand wisdom secretly.”[ii]

A good way of making this more concrete is by keeping a Prayer Journal about what you have heard God saying, and what you have said in Response. One way of doing that is addressing God directly at the beginning of each entry. Keep it simple, and begin saying, Lord… and then continuing with your prayer entry.

What Lectio Divina uncovers is that Prayer is a Dialogue. God talks to me, and I talk to Him.

[i] Martin Thornton, The Purple Headed Mountain, (London: The Faith Press, 1962), p. 17-18
[ii] Psalm 51:7 BCP

Wednesday, February 11, 2015


We are such creatures of habit, and not all of our habits good, nor all of them bad. This is true for both the children of God, and the children of the world. The presenting problem for the children of God is that they were once children of the world and the old habits of the world are hard to shake. Lancelot du Lac confessed, “How hard it is to take out of the flesh, that which is bred in the bone” [La Morte D’Arthur, Mallory]. The problem is that what people generally want is their own way, to be the god of their lives. That of course was the sin of Adam and Eve and it's written in our DNA.

The children of the word live by knee-jerk reflexive action. No matter how bad they feel they are quite capable of saying, “When shall I awake? I must have another drink” [Proverbs 23:35].

Even my dogs are creatures of habit. I usually feed them around six in the evening, but last week because of our own schedules I fed them an hour earlier twice. As I did that, I knew that for the next few days at five o’clock they would be looking at me with beseeching eyes saying, “Where is our dinner?”

Establishing new habits and shedding old ones doesn’t happen accidentally, it takes both the grace of God, and responsive decisions on our part. Isaiah may say, “Morning by morning he awakens, he awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught” [Isaiah 50:4c]; but in the final analysis we have to decide to get ourselves out of bed in order to listen.

Monday, February 9, 2015

All Our Desires Are Known

It is with some embarrassment and alarm that the Psalmist prays, “O Lord, you know all my desires, and my sighing is not hidden from you” [Psalm 38:9 BCP]. The words are strong words. The Septuagint Greek translates the word for desires as “lusts”, and the word for sighing as “groaning”. At our very worst he sees us.

No wonder the Psalmist in the very next Psalm prays, “Deliver me from my transgressions and do not make me the taunt of the fool” [Psalm 39:9]. It is not just that all our desires, bad and good, are seen by him. Our foolishness is seen not only by Him but also by the fool who may well taunt us for our foolishness. Finger pointing is a worldly sport.

Again the Psalmist prays, “I waited patiently upon the Lord; he stooped to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the desolate pit, out of the mire and clay; he set my feet upon a high cliff and made my footing sure” [Psalm 40:1,2 BCP]. The Lord God not only stooped to hear  our cry; He becomes Incarnate, born in human flesh, that through His Death, Resurrection, and Ascension he might lift us out of the miry pit and carry us aloft to God the Father. “Not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking the Manhood into God” [Athanasian Creed].

How far down is it from Heaven to earth? Down thousands of tumbled miles, immeasurable distances from heaven’s highest realm to the lowest earth. A Late-Medieval English poem rightly identifies this Middle Earth of ours as the focal point of the world’s greatest mystery: “The turning circle of the years had spun/ Through the world’s winters in the way men count,/  Two hundred and three times, and then/ Still thirty more, since Almighty God,/ The King of Glory, had been born on this middle-Earth of ours, light for the faithful/ In human form” (Burton Raffel, “Elene,” Poems and Prose from the Old English).

He works this miracle by the sacrificial offering of His own Blood. This gift is offered free to us, but very expensive for Him. “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” [Hebrews 10:19-22].