OK, so I’m a dwarf standing on giants’ shoulders, but…
A life’s work between two covers… er, almost a dozen pairs of covers with four to six hundred pages in between… that could nicely adorn about two feet of space on your bookshelf… a little smaller in size than the complete Calvin and Hobbes…
“Must… fight… temptation…. to read… brilliant and interesting stuff from C.J.S. Hayward…. until…. after… work!”
If you don’t know me, my name is Christos Jonathan Seth Hayward, which I usually abbreviate “C.J.S. Hayward.”
But my name has to my surprise trilettered on Facebook to “CSH,” for “C.S. Hayward”. As in, the natural successor to C.S. Lewis. I take that as a big compliment.
I’m an Eastern Orthodox author, who grew up reading C.S. Lewis, and has read almost everything he wrote, including some of those reviewed in C.S. Lewis: The Neglected Works, but have written many different things in many styles. Readers have written things about parts of the the colllection like (J. Morovich):
A collection of joyful, challenging, insightful, intelligent, mirthful and jarring essays written by an Eastern Orthodox author who is much too wise for his years.
and (D. Donovan):
Each piece is a delight: partially because each ‘speaks’ using a different voice and partly because a diversity of topics and cross-connections between theology and everyday living makes the entire collection a delight to read, packed with unexpected twists, turns, and everyday challenges.
And all this for some of this collection.
These pieces are a joy to read, and a gateway to help you enter a larger world, and open up doors that you never dreamed were there to open. Want to really see how “There are more things in Heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy?” Read these.
The one single work I would recommend most by far, and has been strongly recommended by others, is The Consolation of Theology. It is based on a classic The Consolation of Philosophy, and it is meant to give consolation, joy, strength, insights and things that are beyond mere insight. In a pandemic, a collapsing economy, and times when grandmas are buying shotguns, and perhaps other things in the pipeline, happiness is possible, in our reach, and it is real.
My story includes Protestant origins and a progressive discovery of Orthodox Christianity. Because this is a collection of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, I have set the works I would particularly recommend in bold in the Table of Contents.
I’ve also dropped the specified price per volume from $29.99 to $19.99.
(Please note: In the past, a bug prevented an avid reader furious he couldn’t read more than the first half of the Kindle edition. The Kindle edition has one review at one star, from someone who read the first half of the book and was infuriated he couldn’t read further. I’ve since fixed that bug, but the review is live and probably deterring people from purchasing. I can and do write well-received titles.)
I’d also like to make available downloads for cheap or for free, but I have a reason for posting this now. I want to keep my website, which has been online since the end of the 20th century, alive for however long I really can, but there are some things I can’t control and I am getting ready, I hope, to visit a monastery. What comes of that I don’t know, but I’d really like for you to own my books in paper. And I’m not sure how long it will be until Amazon makes a decision that will render my works no longer available. However, as a complement to the availability of paper books, I have available:
(One note:) I had hoped to make a free download available in Kindle and ePub, as well as an option of spending a few dollars on Amazon. However, one of the latest additions reads:
How do I love thee?
Let me count the ways. integer overflow error at 0x0
And when I tried to convert the text to an ePub to distribute freely, the conversion software errored out saying it had reached maximum recursion depth.
Lecturer’s note: This lecture is modelled after Randy Pausch’s famous Last Lecture, and is in some way a satellite to it even when I disagree with him. If you haven’t heard of Randy Pausch, this lecture might make more sense after hearing Dr. Pausch’s lecture first.
A humble attempt to follow in the footsteps of Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture.”
“St. Clive:” An Eastern Orthodox Author Looks Back at C.S. Lewis adopts an unusual perspective because most examinations of the spirituality of C.S. Lewis come from Western spiritual perspectives, and few adopt the approach of C.J.S. Hayward, who opens his book with a Lewis-type series of letters to a guardian angel, The Angelic Letters, a Heavenly analogue to The Screwtape Letters. The book is even more distinctive in reflecting back on Lewis from a perspective meant to be thoroughly Orthodox.
Readers might anticipate a dry analytical style typical of too many Lewis analysis and assessments, but Hayward includes a wry sense of observational humor, evident in the first lines of his survey where a reflection on scholarly footnote traditions ventures into comedic cultural inspection: As it is now solidly established practice to add an a footnote skittishly defending one’s own choices regarding “gendered pronouns,” I would like to quote a couple of tweets. In response to a fellow user tweeting, “Nobody is safe in today’s society, man. It’s like walking on eggshells constantly. Someone will be offended, will be out to get you. It’s exhausting… and, I think somewhat that social media is to blame,” Titania McGrath coolly answered, “The phrase ‘walking on eggshells’ is a microaggression against vegans. Reported and blocked. [Emoji depicting a white woman tending to her nails.]”
This said, Lewis was a huge influence on Hayward’s Evangelical upbringing and religious perspectives and the starting point to his “pilgrimage from Narnia” (as one of his poems is titled) into Orthodoxy. St. Clive is not to be considered another scholarly inspection rehashing familiar spiritual pathways, but a unique compilation of Lewis-like reflections steeped in Orthodox beliefs and inspections for everyday readers. It produces a compilation of pieces that attempt to sound like Lewis himself, but which are original works meant to directly address these reflections and beliefs. This book is exciting, almost as if a hitherto unknown book of original works by C.S. Lewis had suddenly come to light.
The writings are presented in four sections that hold distinctly different tones and objectives. The first “…quotes him, builds on him, and challenges him to draw conclusions he may not have liked.” The second focuses more on Hayward’s writings and style, but with a nod to Lewis’ influence. The third section addresses Lewis’ affection for the book The Consolation of Philosophy and offers perspectives from Hayward on how its ideas and Lewis’s expand different aspects of spiritual reflection; while the fourth section offers bibliographic keys to further pieces in the Lewis/Hayward tradition for newcomers who may be piqued by this collection’s lively inspections, and who want more insights from other sources.
As far as the contentions themselves, “St. Clive” is a journeyman’s venture into the traditions of the Orthodox Church and its relationship to mysticism. It provides a lively set of discourses considering such varied topics as the failure of Christianity to superimpose itself on the pagan custom of Halloween and the notion that science is just one of the “winnowing forks” available for denoting pathways beneficial to mankind (natural selection being yet another; especially as it applies to diet choices).
By now it should be evident that a series of dichotomies exist surrounding this effort, which is ‘neither fish nor fowl’ but a delightful compendium of reflections that represent something new. It’s not a scholarly work per se, but its language will appeal to many in the scholarly community (particularly since any discussions of Lewis usually embrace this community more or less exclusively). It’s also not an attempt to channel Lewis’ approach and tone, though these reflective pieces are certainly reminiscent of C.S. Lewis. And it’s not a singular examination of spiritual perspectives, but offers a wider-ranging series of discussions that defy pat categorization.
Indeed, this is one of the unique aspects of “St. Clive.” What other treatise holds the ability to reach lay and scholarly audiences alike, creates a wider-ranging series of connections between his works and similar writings, and expands upon many concepts with an astute hand to spiritual, philosophical, and social reflection?
None: and this not only sets “St. Clive:” An Eastern Orthodox Author Looks Back at C.S. Lewis apart from any other considerations, but makes it accessible to a lay audience that might have only a minimal familiarity with Lewis or the Orthodox Way.
If you look on the web, you can find a lot of interesting quotes about what is simple and what is complex. These quotes are often interesting. They are sometimes contradictory. Some say reality is simple. Some say reality is complex. One of the most famous quotes is, “Fools ignore complexity. Pragmatists suffer it. Some can avoid it. Geniuses remove it.”
Probably the most interesting claim I read was, “Complexity goes before simplicity.” And that sounds strange. In biology complex organisms originally come from simple life forms. Programmers have repeated, “Every complex system that works is found to have evolved from a simple system that works.” However, I insist that the claim “Complexity goes before simplicity” is true, and furthermore that this claim unfolds the words, “I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would given my life for the simplicity on other side of complexity.”
When I read The Twitter Job Search Book, something struck me as odd. One Twitter user said, “If you can’t make your case in 140 characters, having more space won’t help.” The author underscored this point. However, that was not what struck me as odd. What struck me as odd was that the quote was broken across three long tweets because it couldn’t fit anywhere near 140 characters. Twitter may serve legitimate purposes. Books and articles are still not obsolete.
Every U.S. presidential candidate in recent races, whether they are from the the left, right, or center, has something that they stand for. That “something” is usually big enough that even loyal followers can’t put all of it in words. But they also have a slogan. This slogan is often not even a complete sentence. The slogan may be just a short sentence fragment. And yet, at least to loyal followers, those few words put everything the candidate stands for in a very short nutshell. But the simple slogan comes after the big ideas a candidate stands for. The big ideas never stem from the slogan.
In the Gospel, Christ is asked which of the commandments is greatest out of the Law that opens the Bible, and answers, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” Someone familiar with the culture would recognize both the question and answer as stemming from an established and important tradition. Let me put the question in modern terms: “Out of all the commandments in the Law, can you put the whole thing in a nutshell?”
The response Christ gave wasn’t the only possible answer. There were several other accepted answers, such as “He has shown you, man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” However, the answer Christ gave was considered the greatest of all such answers. And there is a crucial point. You need to appreciate something of the Old Testament Law’s six hundred and thirteen commandments at some level before you understand why all of them fit in that nutshell. Reading a couple of sentences’ nutshell version is no substitute for knowing the Law in its long and complex form. Only then can you properly understand the nutshell.
Among the Great Teachers, the Golden Rule keeps resurfacing. People who have said giant things about ethics often say “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” or something similar, and the Law of Love, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” is considered an expression of the Golden Rule. However, it is lunacy to keep the text of the Golden Rule and simply drop the other 99% of what moral teachers have written. We need help fleshing things out.
People who are at the top of their game can put tremendously complex things into a nutshell. They can communicate with extreme simplicity. For instance, in Congressional hearings after the Challenger disaster, people were endlessly discussing whether O-rings could be brittle under cold conditions. People hemmed and hawed and said almost every perspective imaginable on the topic. Then Richard Feynman took a piece of an O-ring, swirled it around in his icewater, and went Snap! and was suddenly holding broken shards of O-ring. The discussion was over.
However, this isn’t because e.g. physics is simple and any physicist who can’t explain it simply doesn’t really understand. It says more about the talent that can reach mastery. Physics is not easy to master. It takes years for even very bright people to understand physics. The “Feynman lectures” are considered top masterpieces in scientific communication. They are noted for their simplicity. They are also simple for their subject and are not any kind of fluffy read. Let’s look at a related discipline. There was an uproar after Mattel released a speaking Barbie doll that might say, “Math is hard!” But the comment I remember from other math students was, “Umm… but math is hard!” Mathematicians consider doing something simply to be elegant and desirable given a correct solution, but math is is still hard. On that point I quote Einstein: “Do not worry about your difficulties in mathematics. I can assure you that mine are greater still.”
Let me close with one illustration that closed an argument with something really beyond simplicity. In the “letters to the editor” section of a senior-oriented publication, one member wrote an article saying, in essence, “I have attended church such-and-such many years and during that time, I estimate that I have heard such-and-such many thousand sermons. I cannot however remember any of the sermons. I know that pastors work very hard on their sermons, but I wonder if their time might be better spent.”
Here, too, people hemmed and hawed, and made ongoing arguments in different discussions, until finally another member wrote a letter to the editor saying, “I met my wife such-and-such many years ago, and we have been happily married for such-and-such years. During that time, I estimate that my wife has made me such-and-such many tens of thousands of meals. I do not remember the recipe to any of the meals, but I am on the whole in good health and not any fatter than when I met her. I judge that it was worth her time to cook all those meals.”
The discussion was over.
Simplicity is good, but it is not the only good. And “Simplicity comes after complexity.”
I am trying, before leaving for Mount Athos, God willing, October 16, 2017, to complete the Toastmasters Competent Communicator badge. This means a documented path towards ten speeches developing progressive competency. After a gentle reminder from my home club’s leadership, I am bringing the book used to record results and feedback, and I am now usually keeping it in the car.
That book didn’t have records of the usual “Icebreaker” speech, the first speech and a speech of self-introduction, and so I gave one today, visiting at a second club that gives more, and more direct, feedback, and what I was told about the speech was different from usual: people usually talked about themselves and things they had done, and I talked about things other people had done and my aspiration. The feedback was polite, but the gently given point was that my speech was off-topic for an introduction in Toastmasters’s “Icebreaker.”
I thought about that a bit, and decided that the speech really did introduce me, and that it really was worth repeating. I present it here, slightly changed, as follows:
The theme of fatherhood is one that is important to me. The time that I most felt like a man was after I had been away for schooling, and I went to say hello to our neighbors across the street. I chatted with the wife briefly, and their little boy didn’t remember me at first, which is not surprising. (Please keep in mind that the absence represented a much greater proportion of his life than any adult in the picture.)
About an hour later, I wanted to fix a flat on my van, and by that point he was starting to more than remember me. He came over and wanted to help. And I did my delighted best to accommodate him. In each step of the process I was looking for where I could slice off a little-boy-sized increment of work, and work with him while giving him bite-sized assignments. It took more time and more effort to work with his help, but I wouldn’t have exchanged it for anything in the world.
This is something I believe I picked up from my parents. When I was a kid, they seemed to almost never want to say “No” to “Can I help you?” Once in a while they did say “No;” I was upset when I came as a little boy to help my father work with the garbageman to heave an unusually large item into the garbage truck. But events like these were rare enough, and my parents’ strong preference was to try to honor any child’s offer of help.
One process where help was invited was carrying things when a group of friends would help one of their members move house. One of my brothers, at one point, was a little boy holding a tiny load, and said, perhaps feeling rather small, that he wasn’t carrying very much. My Dad gave him a big smile, and said, “You’re helping!” It really didn’t seem that long before that little boy holding a smaller item was a bigger boy holding a bigger item, and then a youth or young man carrying an adult load.
On this point I thoroughly hold to what my parents practiced. I’ve been helping people move on various occasions, and I’ve seen little children ask to help and be told, “You can’t help.” That’s been about the only situation where I’ve openly challenged a friend’s parenting decision in front of a young child. At at least one point, I gave the parents an explanation, but not before reaching in the top of an open box, finding some small item, and asking the child to carry that item.
More recently I have been noticing that I have been behaving in a slightly more fatherly way to those who are college aged. When I went in for some labwork, a supervisor was helping guide a young trainee through the multi-step paperwork to check me in, and early on I commented, “It’s so nice to see a young person going into the medical professions.” When I walked out from my labs not much later, the supervisor was glowing.
My heart’s desire and everything I am trying to do now is enter Orthodox monasticism, which is entering into receiving the deepest fatherhood the Orthodox Church offers. I’m counting the days. In the famed vows of “poverty”, “obedience”, “chastity”, the absolute “obedience” is the greatest fatherly healing that is available, and my only real regret in seeking monasticism now is that I didn’t do it twenty years ago.
There are other things I have already done that are fatherly. Not long after my first nephew was born, people were commenting that he wanted to be using a phone; he seemed to me to be playing in a way that suggested he wanted to be in on an adult game. So I began calling my brother, who worked a slightly early shift and was home by late afternoon, and initially just talked to my nephew nonstop for a few minutes, just telling him that I loved him. Then he started talking, and things shifted quickly to my spending maybe ten percent of the time asking him social questions, and the rest listening as he talked about his day. The relationship didn’t really change with this change in behavior.
There have been other things. I was at one point visiting with some friends, and the parents repeatedly told a slightly older little boy to play catch with his slightly younger brother. After I heard “I don’t want to play catch with [Name]” enough times, I stood up, said, “I want to play catch with [Name],” scooped him up, and said, “What I’m going to do is I’m going to count to three, and when I get to three, I’ll throw you to your Daddy!” Then I swung him around in the air while counting to three, and after swing number three, lifted him high up in the air, and set him with feather gentleness in his father’s outstretched arms. That event pretty much changed what it meant to the adults in that family to play catch with someone.
Right now I stand at an open door. It is time to be receiving again fatherly care, entering the Kingdom of Heaven as a little child. I have seen great generosity from people, and I pray that God will repay them, as I cannot.
The speech is perhaps imperfect and not a usual Toastmasters “Icebreaker” speech, but I do not count among its imperfections that I speak of contact with others whom I am connected to, nor that I look ahead out my windshield as well as my rear-view mirror. Monasticism is the biggest thing in site, and I look forward to that help in repenting of my sins, and working in obedience to an Elder’s spiritual fatherhood to reach the one freedom that matters.
He poured me a cup of wine. “Here, take this.” No sooner had I drunk it than I became aware of a crystal globe forming around me. It began to expand until finally it surrounded him too. This monk, who a minute before had seemed so commonplace, now took on an astonishing beauty. I was struck dumb. After a bit the thought came to me, “Maybe I should tell him how beautiful he is—perhaps he doesn’t even know.”
But I really was dumb—that wine had burned out my tongue! But so great was my happiness at the sight of such beauty that I thought it was well worth the price of my tongue. When he made a sign to leave, I turned away, confident that the memory of such beauty would be a joy forever.
But what was my surprise when I found that with each person I met it was the same—as soon as he would pass unwittingly in my crystal globe, I could see his beauty too. And I knew it was real.
Is this what it means to be a REAL monk—to see the beauty in others and be silent?
To even get near [humility], even for a moment, is like a drink of cold water to a man in a desert.
Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody.
Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him.
If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.
Humility is not thinking less of yourself. It is thinking of yourself less.
These two striking Western quotes need some counterbalance. Orthodox confess before communion: “I believe that thou hast come into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” And though this is above my pay grade, there are some very important words (in The Ladder of Divine Ascent, for instance) about longing for the cup of dishonor as if it were honor, an experience that I believe is very different from the inside and from the outside. The experience of reaching a new level of pride may be exultant for an instant, but the natural course of that sin, if we do not repent of it, is to hold on to the sin while its pleasure necessarily vanishes. My suspicion that those who long for the cup of dishonor as if it were honor, retain the virtue while its sting gives way to joy. Repentance is Heaven’s best-kept secret, and the monastic longing for dishonor may also bring joyful surprises.
With all of that stated, the story about the globe is the best picture I’ve seen of the heart of humility. And the humblest people I have known don’t really try to impress upon me how horrible people they are. They bear a striking resemblance to the figure Lewis describes: hospitable, generous, open, welcoming, listening, wanting to understand what you have to say, and wanting to understand you. Their style, the practical living effect of their belief that God is everything and they are nothing, is marked by joy in whatever person’s company God deigns to grace them with.
One verse that I’ve found profoundly difficult to appreciate is, “In humility consider others better than yourself.” I suspect others don’t find it pleasant either. But there is treasure inside.
I’d like for you to imagine yourself sitting next to your hero: your favorite person, past or present, near or far, someone you know or someone you might never meet. What is it like to be next to that person?
Now imagine someone who is a jerk and acts like an absolute scumbag. Do you enjoy the company?
Which one of these two is humbly considering others better than yourselves?
Pride is blinding; the term “hubris” refers to a blinding arrogance. The greatest degree of pride that has a label I’m aware of is called “prelest” or spiritual illusion, a term that doesn’t even mention self-opinion but describes being completely and destructively out of touch with reality and what will benefit oneself and/or others.
But with humility it is quite different. Some have said that the only true intelligence is humility. Humility opens people’s eyes, and it opens them to everything that is beautiful, honorable, and noble in others.
Humility allows us to see and enjoy the royal race.
The royal race
What do I mean by “the royal race?”
Let’s visit Confucius.
One nice, opaque snippet states that Confucius learned of a fire in the horse stables. Confucius asked, “Were any people hurt?” And we are explicitly told that he did not ask about the horses.
Today this story lends itself to thinking, “I guess Confucius just wasn’t the world’s biggest animal lover,” and trust me if I say, “Please ignore that; something completely different was going on culturally.”
In the China of Confucius’s day, a stable worker was a slave, here meaning a mere commodity worth only 20% of the value of a horse. Please contrast this with U.S. Southern slave owners who rationalized slavery at infinite length because they knew it was wrong, and they rationalized because they knew that it was morally wrong to keep African-American slaves in conditions unworthy of human beings and unfit for human consumption. In Confucius’s day, they didn’t even know it was wrong. The socially expected response from Confucius, upon hearing that there had been a major fire in the horse stables, would be to ask about what was the most valuable and important: the precious horses, not the expendable stable hands.
Confucius’s question about people in the stable left the obvious, socially expected response highly conspicuous by its absence. The point he sledgehammered was of the supreme value of every human life, whether at the top of the social scale, or the bottom, or anywhere in between. He didn’t say that all human life is sacred, and possibly it would not have occurred to him to connect life with the sacred, but the essential point he drove home is the supreme value of human life.
And that is really a dignity of the royal race.
Having mentioned race, I would like to comment something on the biology of the royal race. If we lay out on a football field the whole millions of years since humans first appeared, the first ninety-nine yards, or perhaps even the first ninety-nine and a half yards, show to the best of my knowledge our ancestors as living in Africa in the Sahara Forest. Then, a geological eyeblink ago, there was an Ice Age, and some of our ancestors bundled up against the cold and migrated under sub-Arctic conditions to what was eventually Europe. And they suddenly changed from needing lots of dark pigment to block out the mighty African sun, to vastly decreased levels of our built-in sunscreen because they needed to get as much of the precious little sun as they could. The whole change was only reducing the amount of one particular chemical: that’s it. And that is one major factor of the difference between dark and light skin.
What I would like to comment here is that this is an extremely shallow biological adaptation. Never mind that a dark-skinned and a much lighter-skinned person look quite different to the uninstructed.The biological difference is shallow. It is quite literally only skin-deep. None of us as the royal race grow feathers and have the ability to fly like birds, or can breathe underwater without technology, or can sleep while standing up unsupported. Nor, apart from birth defect, accident, etc. have we lost toes, or lose the full support of a circulatory system, or anything like that. Unless disability or adverse circumstances stop us, we all walk and we all trade in the miracle of language. There is one set of human anatomical features to be had with distinction between the sexes. We all need food, water, sleep, and so on. We tend to think we are very different because we look different, but the adaptations we have are biologically the shallow adaptations of a single, royal human race. There are admittedly other adaptations besides the pigments in our skin, but race as we know it hinges on people leaving Africa an extremely short time ago on geological terms and not enough time for much of any particularly interesting evolution to have occurred. We are all from the same species, Homo sapiens. For that matter, we are also all from the same, more specific subspecies: Homo sapiens sapiens!
Now I would balance my remark in biology and acknowledge any number of the most profound cultural differences across the world and possibly right in each other’s back yards, but again this is the royal race. Humpback whales have a culture; wolves have a culture; but there is essentially one culture for an animal community in a wild ecosystem. So far as I know the vast number of cultures that exist today attest to an unparalleled flexibility built into the royal race.
And if we look at Genesis 1, perhaps the two biggest takeaways are that we are made in the image of God, constituted by the divine presence in us, and that the entire human race is one family. The person before you is great: and he is your brother.
A note on beggars
And I would like to make one comment, very specific: “He is your brother” includes beggars.
I know some people, who do or do not give to beggars, who have made a careful and considerate decision and act in a situation where evaluating the best action is hard to do. I know of some people whose considered judgment is that giving money to beggars does more harm than good, and their refrain from giving is harder to them than giving would be. I might also suggest that one could give things other than money; one can carry a bag with easily peeled Cuties citrus fruit, or a Halloween-style bag of tiny chocolate bars if the weather won’t melt them.
However, I have heard, and wince, when someone says “beggars” like they are some kind of disgusting vermin.They are not. They are made in the image of God, as you, and the Orthodox Church’s teaching is that you should give, and when you give, you are respecting others made in the image of God. It is possible that their begging is sinful; that is not your concern and you do not share in the guilt by a gift. I’ve heard multiple Orthodox priests address the topic, and they never seem to suggest giving particularly much; the specific suggestion is to give little at least most of the time, without any suggestion that you have to furnish all that a beggar with a story of need lists as the needed expense.
But there is a more basic concern than meeting beggars with an open hand, and that is meeting them with an open heart. Monastics are said to be “above alms”: those who have placed themselves above possessions may not have a single bite of food to offer at the moment. But the literature quotes, “Is not a word better than a gift?”, with the implication explicitly explored that if you have nothing you could give (or, perhaps, you have a $20 bill but have run out of the quarters or singles you carry in a separate pocket to give), a warm welcome is itself giving a gift. Monastics are spoken of as “above alms”, but they are not above loving beggars. Those monastics, perhaps more than people who are not above alms, are called to fit the picture of humility towards beggars: hospitable, generous, open, welcoming, listening, wanting to understand what they have to say, and wanting to understand them. This kind of warm welcome is a much bigger gift than a quarter.
But may I suggest a view of beggars that has more sharply defined contours?
Look at beggars as altars. The beggar, regardless of religion, is made in the image of God and can never be rightly understood without reference to God. He who despises the poor shows reproach for their Maker; God loves everybody at every level of the social scale, and to show kindness to a beggar is to show a kindness to God. It is possible to embrace without touching, or embrace in an offered fist bump. Insofar as you are able, give a quarter or dollar (if you are in the U.S.) / a Cutie / chocolate / …, and what is more, try to give in the generosity of a monk above alms who meets the dues of hospitality.
Look on beggars as altars on whom you can show kindnesses to God.
One more quote to squirm by
Here is one more quote that makes people squirm; it is a personal favorite (Mt 25:31-46, NIV):
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne.All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’
Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
Christ, in his own person, has no needs beyond the Trinity and could not possibly benefit from any generosity from any person.
But Christ in the person of a beggar is another story. There we can welcome him as Christ; there we can ease his hunger; there we can show a million kindnesses that will answer for us on that dread day when we are judged before his throne.
Someone who had a large collection of books asked, “Will I have any of these books with me in Heaven?” The answer came, “Probably.” The book lover then asked, “Which ones?” The answer came, “The ones you gave away.”
When our life is spent, none of the possessions we cling to will offer us any hope. However, even the tiniest of gifts given in the right spirit will answer for us. Even a smile, when you didn’t have change available, counts!
In humility consider beggars better than yourself. They, too, belong to the royal race!
In chapel, a speaker spoke of a person who was asked “Do you know how to play golf?” and answered “Yes, I learned yesterday.” He then went on to speak of one of the simplest of Jesus’s lessons, and how to truly learn that lesson is the work of a lifetime. If I were to be asked if I understand what I am talking about, the best and most honest answer I could give would be “No, but I am beginning to.” For all of my life, I have been shown and have seen that there is something horrible that occurs when a human life without Christ is extinguished, and believed that, if destruction is something God wishes humans to avoid, then he would not place them in situations where it is unavoidable. It is not God’s nature to say “this is to be avoided” and then be unfaithful and not provide a way out: sin is to be avoided and minimized. God always provides a way out. When I sin, it is not because God allowed me to come to a situation where there is no way to act without sin, or even because there was a way out that was beyond my strength, but because I choose to disregard what God in his love and wisdom has provided, and bring pain and destruction to myself and to God. And so I have spent time questioning and studying, and in the past couple of years have stumbled across something that astounds me. At first I saw one means that can work when diplomacy fails, and does not say to any other human being “You are expendible. I will permit you to die.” And then, looking deeper, I have seen that it is not only another way to avoid violence, but that it is the imitation of Christ, and a new understanding of what it means to imitate Christ, to suffer for him, to conquer in his name. From time to time, God has given me affirmations of what I am doing – showing me other Christians who before me have seen what I have discovered, bringing a new light to the darkness that is in causing suffering to another. I have no delusions of being a master of that of which I speak – while I learn, while I progress, I do not see how I will ever be other than a novice before I am in Heaven and no longer see darkly and through a glass – but, at the same time, God has shown me something that is awesome in the true meaning of the word, and it is something that I cannot keep to myself.
The most dangerous assumption is the one that is not realized as such. An assumption that is realized can be strengthened and improved in detail if it is true, and rejected if it is false. The one that is unstated offers the danger of not showing its full glory if it is true, and not offering itself for rejection if it is false. There is an often unrealized assumption that there are ultimately some situations where violence is the only way out (IE where God can’t or won’t use any other means), and furthermore that the choice is between violence and inaction (no other alternatives). Stating that it is an assumption neither proves nor disproves it, but does bring it to light – to consider and judge as an assumption.
The idea that the use of physical force is an evil is a presupposition that is carried throughout this work. All agree violence is preferably to be avoided, not a desirable state, and its means, deception and destruction, bear the mark of darkness rather than the mark of light.
I know fully that the sixth commandment, translated as “Thou shalt not kill.” in King James, used language that would better be translated “You shall not murder.”, a command that left open the possibility of killing in many cases. This does not mean that that moral avenue is still open. The ninth commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” was written in language that specifically spoke of lying in court. This does not mean that a court of law is the only place that a Christian is not permitted to lie. There are many things that were made complete when Christ came, one of which was shifting from inwardly attempting to maintain purity to outwardly evangelizing. In the Old Testament, the prophet had a role calling back the lost sheep of Israel, but to the Gentiles there was no real sense of the Great Commission. Christ’s coming changed that, so that one of the primary responsibilities given to Christians is to win souls. It is with knowledge of this that Paul spoke of becoming a servant to all, ending with “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.” (I Cor 9:22)
Each person in this world is either ready to die or not ready to die. A person who is ready to die will not be serving someone who needs to be stopped. I know that there are many soldiers who would rather not fight, who would rather die than kill, and who bear no hatred towards their enemies. At the same, if you would kill, I have this question for you: Can you consider it to be the best possible form of evangelism to look an enemy soldier in the eyes, say “Jesus loves you. He died so that you may be forgiven of your sins and go to Heaven. I love you.” and then, pulling a trigger, send that soldier to Hell?
The early Christian church (before Constantine’s vision) had a strong aversion to the shedding of blood, as reflected by people such as Athenagorus, who said in 180 AD “We [Christians] cannot endure even to see a man put to death, though justly.” When the Emperor attempted to create a Christian state, a part of the compromise that was introduced was the concept of just war theory: killing is undesirable and an evil under all circumstances, but there are some circumstances when it is not the greatest evil, and inaction and the damage it will cause is a greater evil. This thought is at the center of misunderstanding of pacifism: that a pacifist sits back and does nothing, that pacifism is passivism. I will attempt here to outline the difference between pacifism and passivism. If I succeed, it is only by God’s grace.
If Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had prescribed to the idea that it would be possible to know in advance what is the greater evil and what is the lesser evil, and to choose between, then certainly the lesser of the two evils would have been to bow down _once_ and continue with their many other ministries. The story, however, glorifies their refusal to commit even the smallest evil, and reflects God’s disregard for what is and isn’t humanly possible. “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit.”, says the Lord. Zech. 4:6
The new law is to love your enemy as yourself, and to forgive the one who injures you seven times seventy, as per Matthew 18:22.
Oftentimes people ask me “Well, God commanded not only defensive wars and even conquest but genocide in the Old Testament; what about those?” Please be assured that, were I to be born before Christ came, I would believe that violence is sometimes allowed. If I were to be born before Christ came, I would probably be an active member of the military, because that is what God commanded of many people and something that my gifts would be suited for. Jesus, however, said “You have heard that it was said: ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who persecute you… Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:43,44,48) Before this command, it would have been not only acceptable but a moral duty to strike at some enemies, just as it was not only acceptable but a moral duty to repay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe (Ex. 21:23-25). With Christ, however, things were completely changed: “You have heard that it was said: ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matt. 5:38-39) Any action taken in a war must be reconcilable with complete and absolute love for the enemies attacked: loving (“Love does no harm to its neighbor”, Rom 13:10), doing good towards, praying for, blessing.
If you wish to become a warrior, then you will study and try to learn tactics and strategy. An attack that is lacking in planning will fall to a defense that is strategic, even if the attackers have better soldiers and better weapons.
If you wish to use the means of peace (whether or not you believe that they are always sufficient), then just as a warrior must study, you must study the concepts and principles of the means of peacemaking. You must study the tactics and strategy of making peace before even considering to declare it an insufficient tool for a situation where violence is necessary.
Once the men of a village came, running, and told Gandhi that they had run away while the police were raping and pillaging. When they told him that this was because of his instruction to be nonviolent, he hung his head in shame. He would not have been angry with them if they had defended their families by the power of a sword. He would have approved had they stood in harm’s way, calling all injury to themselves without seeking to strike or to harm, to the point of death. But to run away like that and passively leave those who could not run was an act of great and terrible cowardice, the darkest possible answer to the problem. Gandhi – because the Hindu religion sees grey and dark_er_ and light_er_ courses of action (every action falling onto a spectrum) believed that violence was necessary in many situations, in any event infinitely superior to cowardice. I do not believe that God presents a situation that does not have some way out that is free of sin and evil, and so I believe that violence is completely unnecessary to the Christian. The point of this example still stands, however – that cowardice is diametrically opposed to peacemaking.
Random violence for its own sake is not farther from a just war than sitting back and doing nothing is from pacifism. Cowardice is the direct opposite of peacemaking, and a coward CANNOT learn to be a peacemaker without first learning bravery.
Long before one person _ever_ strikes another in a corporeal manner, peace has been breached. The first principle of peace is something that lies much stronger and much deeper than the absence of physical conflict. The Hebrew word “shalom” has come to have the meaning that peace should have – if you have not encountered the word shalom, take “harmony” or “accord” to be a rough English equivalent. When there is truly peace between two people, they love each other to the point of being ready to forfeit wealth, honor, and life. Such peace leaves no room for prejudice and misunderstanding, which scatter as cockroaches scatter at the appearance of light. To establish peace, you do not merely ensure a lack of physical violence (particularly not through intimidation at your own superior capability for violence – “peace through strength” destroys what it wishes to establish), but rather work to remove all traces of hatred and injustice. Peace is not an absence, but the presence of love.
“The greatest of these is love.” I Cor 13:13 Establish love and there will be peace.
Just as a warrior must be ready to sacrifice the life of another by killing, so also, to live by peace you must be ready to sacrifice yourself by dying. This is the heart of the difference between passivism and pacifism. A passivist sits back and does nothing. A pacifist goes out on the battlefield, ready to die. To go out into a battle to kill, with the knowledge that you may die, requires great courage. To go out into a battle, not to kill, but to die, requires greater courage still.
It is obvious that there is a certain power which, in order to harness, it is necessary to take up arms and be ready to kill if need be. What is not so obvious is that there is another power for which it is necessary to put down arms and be ready to die if need be.
It is easy to return love to one who loves. It is not easy to give love to one who hates. And yet to do this impossible task is possible by the grace of God: “I can do everything in Christ who gives me strength.” Phil. 4:13
Christ did not conquer us by threats of fire and brimstone. His message was not centered around “If you do not follow me, you will go to Hell.” (although that is true) He did not torture us until we said “Ok, Ok, I believe.” (although he has the power, the authority, and the right to do so) He rather said “Look how much I love you. Look at what I did for you. Look at what I want to do for you.” He loved us who were his mortal enemies, and conquered us from the inside out: not by force, not by threat, but by love that knew no bounds. When we evangelize – conquering those who are God’s mortal enemies – we do not threaten with Hell or use torture. We show our love, and by the power of the Holy Spirit conquer from _the_inside_out,_ making an ally of an enemy and bringing blessing where God wills. This nature, this love, this manner of conquering is the heart of peacemaking.
In the midst of a world where darkness has its dominion, the powers of light are not overcome. This is not because the power of Satan is weak, but because the power of God is stronger. If you master an enemy by violence, your victory is temporary. If you master an enemy by love, your victory is eternal.
In the study of war and peace, look not only at troubled individuals and nations in the time of war, but also when there is peace – and know, as much as what went wrong when there were battles, what went right when there was love. Formal elaboration of some principles of peacemaking are rare, but its practice is more common than you might think. When you use your body to shield another person from injury, when you place yourself in the path of harm – take the example of the king of Denmark shielding Jews from Hitler – that is peacemaking.
Brother Andrew, while speaking at a chapel here, recounted an an excellent example of peacemaking. He was talking with the leader of a terrorist liberation front who was holding hostages. He reasoned with the leader for a while, talking about how he could not rest if a single brother or sister of his in Christ was in captivity, but did not succeed. Diplomacy failed, as it sometimes will. He did not break into a fistfight, or try to grab one of the guns in the room. What he did do was to ask, “Will you take me in his place? Will you let him go free, and chain me to the central radiator?” The leader was astonished, not believing at first that he actually realized (let alone meant) what he said, and then that Andrew’s house was in order, and that he really was ready to be a hostage. That is acting in Christ’s love.
Love is not weakened or limited by hostility of the ones loved. It would be hollow and worthless if it were only an effective means of dealing with people who love you and take you seriously. Christ came down and died, died not for perfect people who were worthy of salvation (such people would need no such thing), but for people who were walking in the darkness and hated the light. His manifest power is revealed in the ones who have been conquered and transformed by its strength, and so Billy Graham, Jeffrey Dahlmer, and myself who were all repulsive in his sight and fully worthy of Hell have come to be forgiven and made anew. We were God’s enemies, conquered not by a show of force on God’s part (which would have been easy – God could kill me as easily as I lift a finger), but by costly love. He came down in human form and, when he had shown his love in all other ways, showed his love by dying. And, as God conquered us who were his enemies by the power of his love, and made us to be his reconciled sons and daughters, so we must conquer those who are our enemies by the power of his love manifest in us, and make them to be our reconciled brothers and sisters.
Jesus said “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matt. 5:39) This is not a command to act as if you have no rights and passively let yourself be regarded as subhuman, but rather an insistence on the fact that you do have rights. In the society of that time, a slap on the cheek was not intended as a physical injury but rather as an insult, putting an inferior back in his or her place. The strength of that insult depended greatly upon which hand dealt it: as the left hand was seen as unclean, a slap with the left hand was the insult far greater than one dealt with the right hand. This was reflected in the legal penalties for an inappropriate slap: the penalty for slapping a peer with your left hand was a fine one hundred times the penalty for slapping a peer with your right hand; the penalty for slapping a better with your right hand was a fine while the penalty for slapping a better with your left hand was death. The people Jesus was speaking to most directly were, by and large, slaves and the downtrodden. A slap on the right cheek was dealt with the left hand. To turn the other cheek would leave the master with two options. The first would be to slap the slave again, but this time with the right hand (therefore declaring the slave a peer). The second would be not to slap the slave again (therefore effectively rescinding the first slap). Now, such impudence and sauciness would often tend to bring punishment, but it none the less says “Hey, I’m a human. I have rights. You can’t treat me like this.” It is not an action without suffering for oneself, nor does it inflict suffering on the “enemy”: but it does say and do something in a powerful way.
If you are to be a peacemaker, you must act against any evil – no matter how small it may appear (by human measure – there is _no_ small evil by God’s measure) – whenever you see it. Even if it is not a breach of peace in the military sense, it is a breach of shalom, and should be stopped as soon as possible, so that it does not grow and multiply. If this is done, it will be rare if ever that violent intervention is even a question.
The power of violence is in what it can compel of the body. The power of peacemaking is what it can compel of the soul. If someone commands you to do what is morally repugnant to you, and you use the force of arms to stop that person, then you will probably slay some, and you will certainly make emnity. If instead you use the force of peacemaking – by noncompliance, being disobedient and taking whatever the consequences must be, and by choosing your own suffering over the convenience of obedience – you will not see results as quickly, but your actions will command respect rather than emnity.
If you are to gain the power to successfully intervene with violence, then you must devote resources to equipment and time to training. Time and money thus spent are not spent on humanitarian ends. This is not to say that military technology and research does not have civilian spinoffs, or to say that the precision and discipline within military bodies is not something that can be very useful. Both of these benefits do exist, and are worth taking note (and advantage) of. At the same time, it is necessary to think: Is this really the most powerful and best way to spend this money? Love and active peacemaking are not limited to the well financed. Its power does not come from the investment of scarce monetary resources, but rather through the Holy Spirit, which is anything but a scarce resource. Money is freed to other ends.
Everyone in this discussion agrees that it is better to voluntarily suffer than to inflict suffering on others.
Diplomacy is a powerful thing. It becomes even more powerful if you study the positions of all parties involved, study both their stated desires and what is unstated: their culture, their experience, the motivation behind stating the desires and intentions that they state. Oftentimes goals that appear diametrically opposed will, when examined at the root, reveal a mutually beneficial way of resolution. The power of diplomacy is not, however, absolute, and it depends to an extent on the goodwill of both parties. It is then that either one side must turn back, or that the desires be accomplished at the price of suffering. The usual method of waging wars uses physical force to conquer. The method of peacemaking – to stand in the way of the evil being done against you, and not dodge or resist the blows aimed at you – uses spiritual force which opens a hardened heart.
Love is not the exclusive domain or power of one group. Any individual can bring surprise by an act of love. The power of love, when applied to all ways so that there are no charges of incompletion or hypocrisy, is overwhelming.
Love wishes nothing that it would not accord to another. Greed, the placement of self at the center of the universe, is diametrically opposed to love.
Christ’s resistance and even revulsion at our evil did not cause him to force that evil from us. He rather showed us the better way, and left us to choose between the paths of light and those of darkness. So it is with love that makes peace: it is not forced upon those who believe violence to be the greatest interventive power.
Proclaim Christ at all times, and use words if need be.
Morally, there is not a difference between directly and indirectly causing an action. The one who commissions an assassination is no less guilty than the one who murders in person. Be sure that the actions you support are as pure as the actions you would take in person.
Just as Jesus said not to murder either in body (by breaking the sixth commandment) or in mind (by harboring hatred), peacemaking and love must penetrate both the actions of the body and the actions of the mind completely.
If you oppose someone with peacemaking, you will call to yourself the love and respect of others. Your power is not dependent on the extent of your military might (which is dependent on the extent to which you sacrifice humanitarian ends), but only on the extent to which you love and to which the Holy Spirit has power. In other words, if it fails, it is because God sees more good in that momentary failure than its success.
Peacemaking is more the opposite of inaction than it is of violence. Violence consists of seeing an evil and trying to act to rectify it; the means are imperfect. Cowardice and inaction make no hint of an effort to rectify the situation, and in my view are more reproachable than well meant violence. I have no respect for cowards – including those who dodge military conscription because they are afraid to die or be maimed in battle – but do hold respect for soldiers who have the courage and the desire to rectify which is the heart of peacemaking.
The power of love to conquer a hostile person without harm is a mystery; I would be a great liar if I said that I have always treated others in love. I will say that, when I have acted in a manner that says “You are expendable”, there is a seed of evil and poison, however small, that starts to grow. When I have acted in a manner that does not see the least (by the world’s measure) as expendible, God’s love acting in me has shown power that is beyond my comprehension.
At the heart of violent intervention is a presupposition that you know the hearts of your enemies and that you can predict what can happen, so that the slaughter you cause will be lesser than the slaughter you prevent, and that if you instead intervene with your own blood without physically incapacitating your enemy, God will not work through and bless your actions as much as if you had compromised. When this assumption comes to mind, I believe that God has answered it when he said “Satan is a liar and the father of all lies.” John 8:44, and that that he can and will do “immeasurably more than we all ask or imagine.” (Ephesians 3:20) I am personally offended by the idea that it is necessary to take evil in order to prevent evil, because it carries the implication that God is either a hypocrite (by telling us never to to evil, and having the power to keep us from a choice between acts of evil, but choosing not to) or incompetent (telling us never to do evil, but lacking the power to make this possible). At the heart of peacemaking is faith, faith that without committing any undesirable evil it is possible to conquer the darkness. I have taken too many leaps of faith and landed on solid ground too many times to think that God is unable or even unwilling to grant power to those that will not compromise.
It is said that it is more blessed to give than to receive. Whether or not you agree with that – I find a great blessing in both – it is evident that one of the marks of love is that it benefits the one who loves and the one who is loved. Violence does not “do no harm to its neighbor” (I Cor 13:10), but very regretfully does what it hopes to be a minimum of harm to its neighbor. The power of love and peacemaking is such that it brings blessings upon the one who uses it to oppose evil, and the person whose evil is opposed.
Civil disobedience must be loving and sincere in all regards. To hatefully scream while restraining your fists is not enough: you must act in complete love and not harm in the least the person who you are resisting.
When you take an action, always look at why you act.
Love that is ready to die leaves no room to be cowardly.
“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:21
I hope that, if God offers me the honor of becoming a martyr, I would have the courage to accept the honor. As Paul said in Phillipians 1:21, “To live is Christ; to die is gain.”
All Scriptural quotations (except for quotations from the ten commandments) NIV.
As we [Paul and Silas] were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by soothsaying. She followed Paul and us, crying, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” And this she did for many days. But Paul was annoyed, and turned and said to the spirit, “I charge you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.
But when her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market place before the rulers; and when they had brought them to the magistrates they said, “These men are Jews and they are disturbing our city. They advocate customs which it is not lawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”
The crowd joined in attacking them; and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods. And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, charging the jailer to keep them safely. Having received this charge, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks.
But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and every one’s fetters were unfastened. When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.”
And he called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas, and brought them out and said, “Men, what must I do to be saved?”
And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all that were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their wounds, and he was baptized at once, with all his family. Then he brought them up into his house, and set food before them; and he rejoiced with all his household that he had believed in God.
Acts 16:16-34, RSV
As he [Jesus] passed by, he saw a man blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him. We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
As he said this, he spat on the ground and made clay of the spittle and anointed the man’s eyes with the clay, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Silo’am” (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing.
The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar, said, “Is not this the man who used to sit and beg?” Some said, “It is he”; others said, “No, but he is like him.” He said, “I am the man.”
They said to him, “Then how were your eyes opened?”
He answered, “The man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes and said to me, `Go to Silo’am and wash’; so I went and washed and received my sight.”
They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the clay and opened his eyes. The Pharisees again asked him how he had received his sight. And he said to them, “He put clay on my eyes, and I washed, and I see.”
Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?” There was a division among them.
So they again said to the blind man, “What do you say about him, since he has opened your eyes?” He said, “He is a prophet.”
The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight, until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight, and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?”
His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but how he now sees we do not know, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age, he will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if any one should confess him to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age, ask him.”
So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and said to him, “Give God the praise; we know that this man is a sinner.”
He answered, “Whether he is a sinner, I do not know; one thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see.”
They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”
He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you too want to become his disciples?”
And they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”
The man answered, “Why, this is a marvel! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if any one is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him. Never since the world began has it been heard that any one opened the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
They answered him, “You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?” And they cast him out.
Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and having found him he said, “Do you believe in the Son of man?”
He answered, “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?”
Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and it is he who speaks to you.”
He said, “Lord, I believe”; and he worshiped him.
John 9:1-38, RSV
The Gospel today deals with physical blindness, but it is about much more than physical blindness. In this passage, the man who was blind from birth received his physical sight. That is an impressive gift, but there’s more. The passage deals with the Pharisees’ spiritual blindness, but the Church has chosen to end today’s reading with the blind man saying, “Lord, I believe,” and worshipping Christ. When he did this, the blind man demonstrated that he had gained something far more valuable than physical sight. He had gained spiritual sight. The Bible actually gives a few more chilling words about the Pharisee’s spiritual blindness, but the Church, following the Spirit, is attentive to spiritual sight and ends its reading with the man demonstrating his spiritual sight by adoring Christ in worship.
What is spiritual sight? We see a glimmer of it in the passage from Acts, where we read something astonishing. We read that Paul and Silas were stripped, savagely beaten, and thrown into what was probably a dungeon. And how do they respond to their “reward” for a mighty good deed? Do they say, “Why me?” Do they rail at God and tell him he’s doing a lousy job at being God? Do they sink into despair?
In fact none of these happen; they pray and sing to God. Like the man born blind, they turn to God in worship. As should we.
That is advanced spiritual sight. I’m not there yet and you’re probably not there either. But let me suggest some basic spiritual sight: Next time someone cuts you off on the road and you almost have an accident, instead of fuming and maybe thinking of evil things to do the other driver, why don’t you thank God?
What do you have to be thankful for? Well, for starters, your eyes work and so do your driver’s reflexes, you have a car, and your brakes work, and probably your horn. And God just saved you from a nasty scrape that would have caused you trouble. Can’t you be thankful for some of that?
In the West, we think in terms of rights. Almost all of the ancient world worked without our concept of rights. People then, and some people now, believed in things we should or should not do—we should love others and we shouldn’t steal, cheat, or murder—but then there was a queer shift to people thinking “I have an entitlement to this.” “This is something the universe owes me.” Now we tend to have a long list of things that we’re entitled to (or we think God, or the universe, or someone “owes me”), and if someone violates our rights, boy do we get mad.
But in fact God owes none of the things we take for granted. Not even our lives. One woman with breast cancer responded to what the women’s breast cancer support group was named (“Why me?”), and suggested there should be a Christian support group for women with breast cancer called “Why not me?”
That isn’t just a woman with a strong spirit speaking. That is the voice of spiritual sight. Spiritual sight recognizes that we have no right to things we take for granted. We have no right to exist, and God could have created us as rocks or fish, and that would have been generous. We have no right to be free of disease. If most of us see, that is God’s generosity at work. He doesn’t owe it to us. Those of us who live in the first world, with the first world’s luxuries, do not have those luxuries as any sort of right.
I am thinking of one friend out of many who have been a blessing. I stop by his house, and he receives me hospitably. Usually he gives me a good conversation and I can hold his bunny Smudge on my lap and tell Smudge that my shirt is not edible. This is God’s generosity and my friend’s. Not one of these blessings is anything God owes me, or for that matter my friend owes me. Each visit is a gift.
It isn’t just first world luxuries that none of us are entitled to. We have no right to live in a world where a sapphire sky is hung with a million constellations of diamonds. If there is a breathtaking night sky, God chose to create it in his goodness and generosity. Not only do I have no right to be a man instead of a butterfly or a bird (or to exist in the first place), I have no right to be in community with other people with friendships and family. God could have chosen to make me the only human in a lonely world. Instead, in his sovereignty, he chose to place me in a world of other people where his love would often come through them. I have no right to that. I’m not entitled to it. If I have friends and family, that is because God has given me something better than I have any right to. God isn’t concerned with giving me the paltry things I have a right to. He is generous, and gives all of us things that are better than our rights. We have no right to join the seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominions, powers, authorities, principalities, archangels, and angels—rank upon rank of angels adoring God. Nor do we have any right to live in a world that is both spiritual and material, where God who gives us a house of worship to worship him in, also truly meets us as we work, garden, play, visit with our friends, and go about the business of being human.
Isn’t it terrible if we don’t have rights? It’s not terrible at all. It means that instead of having a long list of things we take for granted as “Here’s what God, or the universe, or somebody owes me,” we are free not to take it for granted and to rejoice at God’s generosity and recognize that everything we could take for granted, from our living bodies to the possessions God has given us to God placing us at a particular point in place in time and choosing a here and now for us, with our own cultures, friendships, languages, homelands, sights and sounds, so that we live as much in a particular here and now as Christ, to a world carpeted with life that includes three hundred and fifty thousand species of beetles, to the possibility of rights. Every single one of these is an opportunity to turn back in praise and worship God. It is an opportunity for joy, as we were created for worship and we find our fullest joy in worshipping God and thanking him. Would you rather live in a world where you only have some of the things that can be taken for granted, or in a world where God has created for you so many more blessings than he or anyone else owes you?
There is, actually, one thing that we have a right to, and it’s a strange thing to have a right to. Hell. We have a right to go to Hell; we’ve earned a ticket to Hell with our sins, and we’ve earned it so completely that it cost God the death of his Son to let us choose anyone else. But Hell is not only a place that God casts people into; it is also where he leaves people, with infinite reluctance, after he has spent a lifetime telling people, “Let go of Hell. Let go of what you think you have a right to, and let me give you something better.” Hell is the place God reluctantly leaves people when they tell him, “You can’t take my rights away from me,” and the gates of Hell are barred and bolted from the inside by people who will not open their hands to the Lord’s grace. The Lord is gracious, and if we allow him, he will give us something infinitely better than our rights. He will give us Heaven itself, and God himself, and he will give us the real beginnings of Heaven in this life. The good news of God is not that he gives us what we think we have a right to, but that he will pour out blessings that we will know we have no right to, and one of these blessings is spiritual sight that recognizes this cornucopia as an opportunity for joyful thanksgiving and worship.
When I was preparing this homily, there’s one word in the Greek text that stood out to me because I didn’t recognize it. When the blind man says that Christ must be from God and have healed him as a “worshiper of God,” the word translated “worshiper of God” istheosebes, and it’s a very rare word in the Orthodox Church’s Greek Bible. Another form of the word appears in Acts but this is the only time this word appears in either the Gospels or the books John wrote. It is also rare in the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint. It occurs only four times: once in IV Maccabees 15:28 where the mother of seven martyred sons sees past even her maternal love “because of faith in God” (15:24) and is called “the daughter of God-fearing [theosebes] Abraham,” and three times in Job where the blameless Job is called a theosebes, or “worshiper of God.” In Job, this word occurs once in the book’s opening verse, then Job is twice called a “worshiper of God” by God himself. The Maccabees’ mother is not even called theosebes herself, but “the daughter oftheosebes Abraham.”
What does this mean? I’m not sure what it all means, but John didn’t use very many unusual words. Unlike several New Testament authors, he used simple language. In the Greek Old Testament, this word is reserved for special occasions, it seems to be a powerful word, and it always occurs in relation to innocent suffering. Job is the very image of innocent suffering and the Maccabees mother shows monumental resolve in the face of innocent suffering—the text is very clear about what it means for a mother to watch her sons be tortured to death. The Gospel passage is about innocent suffering as well as spiritual sight. When the blind man calls Christ a “worshiper of God,” he is speaking about a man who would suffer torture for a miracle, before Paul and Silas, and this little story helps move the Gospel towards the passion. But Christ says that the blind man suffered innocently, and I’m not sure that we recognize all of what that meant.
People believed then, as many people believe now, that sickness is a punishment for sin. The question, “Who sinned? Who caused this man’s blindness?” was an obvious question to ask. And Jesus says explicitly that neither this man nor his parents sinned to bring on his blindness. Jesus, in other words, says that this man’s suffering was innocent, and he was saying something shocking.
What does this have to do with spiritual sight?
Spiritual sight is not blind to evil. The Son of God came to destroy the Devil’s work, and that includes sin, disease, and death. Sin, disease, and death are the work of the Devil. The woman who survived breast cancer who suggested there should be a Christian support group called “Why not me?” never suggested that cancer is a good thing, and would probably never tell a friend, “I wish you could have the sufferings of cancer.” When Paul and Silas were beaten with rods, being spiritual didn’t mean that they didn’t feel pain. I believe the beatings hurt terribly. Sin is not good. Disease is not good. Death is not good. Spiritual sight neither ignores these things, nor pretends that they are blessings from God. Instead, God transforms them and makes them part of something larger. He transformed the suffering of Paul and Silas into a sharing of the sufferings of Christ, a sharing of the sufferings of Christ that is not only in the Bible but is written in Heaven. I’ve had sufferings that gave terrifying reality to what had always seemed a trite exaggeration that “Hell is a place you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.” My sufferings are something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, and it is terrifying to realize that Hell is worse. So why then is spiritual sight joyful?
C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce describes a journey. This journey begins in an odd place, and one that is not terribly cheerful. Anyone can have anything physical he wants just by wishing, only it’s not very good. The ever-expanding borders of this place are pushed out further and further as people flee from each other and try to get what they want.
A bus Driver takes anyone who wants into his bus, which ascends and ascends into a country that is painfully beautiful to look at, where not only are the colors bright and full but heavy, rich, and deep. It is painful to walk on the ground because the people who got off the bus are barely more than ghosts, devoid of weight and substance, and their feet are not real enough to bend the grass. This is in fact a trip from Hell to Heaven, where Hell is mediocre and insubstantial, and Heaven is real and hefty beyond measure, not only beautiful and good but colorful and rich and deep—and infinitely more real than Hell. One part that really struck me was that when Lewis’s Heavenly guide (George MacDonald) explains why a woman in Heaven, whom MacDonald said had gone down as far as she could, did not go so far as descending to Hell:
“Look,” he [MacDonald] said, and with the word he went down on his hands and knees. I did the same (how it hurt my knees!) and presently saw that he had plucked a blade of grass. Using its thin end as a pointer, he made me see, after I had looked very closely, a crack in the soil so small that I could not have identified it without his aid.
“I cannot be certain,” he said, “that this is the crack ye came up through. But through a crack no bigger than that ye certainly came.”
“But—but” I gasped with a feeling of bewilderment not unlike terror. “I saw an infinite abyss. And cliffs towering up and up. And then this country on top of the cliffs.”
“Aye. But the voyage was not mere locomotion. That buss, and all you inside it, were increasing in size.”
“Do you mean then that Hell—all that infinite empty town—is down some little crack like this?”
“Yes. All Hell is smaller than one pebble of your earthly world: but it is smaller than one atom of this world, the Real World. Look at yon butterfly. If it swallowed all Hell, Hell would not be big enough to do it any harm or have any taste.”
“It seems big enough when you’re in it, Sir.”
“And yet all loneliness, angers, hatreds, envies and itchings that it contains, if rolled into one single experience and put into the scale against the least moment of the joy that is felt by the least in Heaven, would have no weight that could be registered at all. Bad cannot succeed even in being bad as truly as good is good.”
Bad cannot succeed even in being bad as truly as good as good is good, and spiritual sight knows this. To have spiritual sight is not to close your eyes so tight they don’t even see evil, but to let God open your eyes wider. Our eyes can never open wide enough to see God as he truly is, but God can open our eyes wide enough to see a lot. Why were Paul and Silas able to turn from being viciously beaten and imprisoned to singing and praying to God? For the same reason a butterfly from Heaven could swallow all of Hell without it even registering. In that image of Heaven, not just the saints but the very birds and butterflies could swallow up Hell. This is just an image; the Real Place, real Heaven, is far more glorious.
Death is swallowed up in victory. Let us let spiritual blindness be swallowed up by spiritual sight that begins to see just how much God’s generosity, grace, mercy, kindness, love, and 1001 other gifts we have to be thankful for. Let us worship God.
Today the biggest symbol of evil is Hitler or Naziism; there is almost no bigger insult than calling someone a Nazi or a comparison to Hitler. The Old Testament’s symbol of evil that did the same job was a city in which the Lord God of Hosts could not find fifty righteous, nor forty-five, nor forty, nor thirty, nor twenty, nor even ten righteous men. It was the city on which fire and brimstone rained down from Heaven in divine wrath until smoke arose as from a gigantic furnace. It was, in short, the city of Sodom.
Ezekiel has some remarks about Sodom’s sin that might surprise you. Ezekiel 16:49 says, This was the sin of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, more than enough food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.
These are far from the only stinging words the Bible says to rich people who could care for the poor and do not do so. Jesus said something that could better be translated, “It is easier for a rope to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:25). It would take hours or perhaps days to recite everything blunt the Bible says about wealth, if even I could remember so much.
But who are the rich? The standard American answer is, “People who have more money than I do,” and the standard American answer is wrong. It takes too much for granted. Do you want to know how special it is, worldwide, to be able to afford meat for every meal you want it and your Church permits it? Imagine saying “We’re not rich; we just have Champagne and lobster every day.” That’s what it means for even poorer Americans to say “We’re not rich, just a bit comfortable.” The amount of money that America spends on weight loss products each year costs more than it would cost to feed the hungry worldwide. When Ezekiel says that “your sister Sodom” had more than enough food but did not care for the poor, he is saying something that has every relevance to us if we also fail to care for the poor.
I would be remiss not to mention the Sermon on the Mount here, because the Sermon on the Mount explains something we can miss (Matt 6:19-21,24-33):
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also… No man can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Money.
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Do you think that by worrying you can add a single hour to your life? You might as well try to make yourself a foot taller! And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, `What shall we eat?’ or `What shall we drink?’ or `What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the Kingdom of God and his perfect righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.
This includes a hard saying about wealth, but it is not only a hard saying about wealth, but an invitation to joy. “Do not store up treasures on earth but store up treasures in Heaven” is a command to exchange lead for gold and have true wealth. It is an invitation to joy, and it is no accident that these sharp words about Money lead directly into the Bible’s central text on why we never need to worry.
Elsewhere we read, “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions,” (Luke 12:15), which is not a statement that spiritual people can rise so high that their lives aren’t measured by possessions. It is about everybody, great and small. If money doesn’t make you happy this is not something specially true about spiritual people; it’s something that’s true of everybody. But Jesus’s entire point is to direct us to what our life does consist in. The words about storing up treasures in Heaven prepare us for the “Therefore I tell you,” and an invitation to live a life that is fuller, richer, more vibrant, deeper, more alive, more radiant with the light of Heaven than we can possibly arrange through wealth.
What will we leave behind if we spend less on ourselves? Will we leave behind the Lord’s providence, or hugs, or friendship, or banter, or worship, or the Church, or feasting? Will we leave behind the love of the Father, or Christ as our High Priest, or the Spirit? Will we be losing a Heaven whose beginning is here and now, or will we be pulling out our right hands and our right eyes? If it seems that way, we may adapt C.S. Lewis to say that living the life of Heaven through our finances today may seem like it will cost our right hand and our right eye, or in today’s words an arm and a leg, but once we have taken that plunge, we will discover that what we have left behind is precisely nothing. Or perhaps we could say that we are leaving behind a false Savior who never delivers, but only distracts us from the true Savior in Christ, and the treasure that is ours when we lay our treasures at his feet.
Is there a luxury you could give up in this invitation to joy?