Weak, Sick, Poor and Tired: A Story for Losers

Loser___Promotional_Poster_4_by_EllmerThe American Dream is embodied in strength. Gen. George Patton famously said, “America loves to win and cannot abide a loser.” The spirituality of winning is probably the fastest growing and most attractive version of “Christianity” to be found on the American scene. Mega Churches, seating 10’s of thousands have sprung up as temples of success.

Nobody wants to be sick. The dependence it fosters, the way it changes and shapes a life are a form of powerlessness that holds no attraction. Poverty (however it is measured) is a massive struggle against forces that steal human dignity. Most homes in poverty include children and are headed by women. Their daily efforts to pay the rent, work a job (or two or three), tend to childhood needs and face another day are quiet works of heroism that fall beneath the radar of most. They are not only poor, but tired (working jobs and raising children alone is a formula for perpetual exhaustion).

So, who wants to be weak, sick, poor and tired?

I could add more categories to these. Who wants to be handicapped, physically or mentally? Who wants to be constantly overwhelmed by the noise of the world, unable to read emotions, awkwardly moving through the world, somehow unable to see your own awkwardness? Who wants to be incompetent? Who wants to fail despite good intentions and best efforts? Who wants to be told that they are simply inadequate and should shape up or ship out?

It is little wonder that the American Dream is so powerful and popular. The alternative is nothing anyone would choose.

And yet, the American Dream may be the greatest obstacle to salvation the world has ever known.

The New Testament is quite clear: we are saved through our weakness. We are not saved in spite of our weakness. Nor is our weakness healed so that we can then be saved. Our weakness is precisely the point at which, by which and through which God saves us.

And our weakness can be found in places where our brokenness most resides: weak, sick, poor, tired, handicapped, dysfunctional, awkward, incompetent, inadequate – these all describe the place where Christ intends to meet us.

The good news is that despite the popularity of the American Dream, even those who find it most successfully remain weak. Their success can make them blind to their weakness, or can be so alluring that their weakness remains unacknowledged. But the very best of the successful remain broken enough to be capable of salvation.

Why are we saved through our weakness? There are many ways to answer this question, but I will choose but only one: Weakness is the path that is most like Christ Himself.

Christ specifically describes the path as “taking up the Cross.” In the Sermon on the Mount, those singled out as blessed are “poor in spirit”; “those who mourn”; “the meek”; “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”; “the merciful”; “the pure in heart”; “the peacemakers and the persecuted.” These characteristics do not belong particularly to the strong and the successful. They are hallmarks of weakness. Psychologically, our strengths protect us from the vulnerabilities of weakness. We need no help other than in managing and hiding our weaknesses. Not so strangely, almost no one ever went into treatment for an addiction because they felt so well that they only wanted to feel better. Interventions work through failures. The only question about hitting bottom will be between a high bottom and a low bottom. But bottoms are required.

The virtues required in the process of salvation include humility and self-offering. The noble virtues of compassion, kindness and generosity are certainly valuable, but even these virtues are most commonly found among the weak. The greatest givers, in terms of proportion of income, are found among the poor. If you need a few dollars and you’re on the street. You are most likely to get it from someone whose situation is little better than your own. The rich are the most able, but only in terms of resources. Their strengths shield them from the pain of compassion.

Many weaknesses are accompanied by shame – particularly in a culture that celebrates strength and success. Things such as incompetence and failure can be particularly shameful. Shame is a feeling about “who we are,” rather than what we might have done wrong (that is what we call “guilt”). The weaknesses that inherently produce failure are often experienced as shame. Psychologists say that the pain of shame is “unbearable.” We try to cover it. We lie, we cheat, or we find ways to tune it out. America has a name for such shameful sorts of characters: “Loser.” It is a epithet spoken and heard with sneering disdain.

It is both tragic and unsurprising that such shame looks for a winning identity. Sports teams provide a modern surrogate for success. I might personally be a loser, but my team is a national champion. I wear their logo and cheer them on. It is a mild and passing form of salvation.

Salvation comes to us at the point of weakness. To become whole we must become broken. Only in self-emptying can we be filled. The teaching of Archimandrite Zacharias of Essex states this most clearly:

…the way of shame is the way of the Lord, and when we put ourselves in the way of the Lord, we immediately beget Him as our companion. It was through the Cross of shame that He saved us; so, when we bear a little shame for His sake, in order to repent and come to confession, He considers it as a thanksgiving to Him, and in return He gives us the comfort of the “Comforter”.

The tender mission of the Church is to preach the gospel to all, but to know especially that it will find the greatest response among the weak, the sick, the poor, the tired, the incompetent and inadequate and all those who struggle with their shame. The pastoral task of the Church is to always be the kind of place where such people may find shelter and support. The Church must clearly be a place where the bearing of shame is possible. This is the very definition of “safe.”

It explains clearly why Christ was surrounded with harlots, tax-collectors, lepers and the like. He saw in those filled with shame, kindred souls. For he voluntarily walked a path that carried Him into the heart of human shame. It was in that very place that He entered death and hell and saved us. We cannot meet Him there by any other path. If we would live with Him, we must also die with Him.

And, of course, the good news is that everybody qualifies. Losers one and all.

104 comments:

  1. Thank you, Fr. Stephen!

    How timely this was… I am a single a mom and was just fired from a job I’ve had for 14 years.

    It is hard but I will say it, even if it difficult to truly mean it in this situation: “Glory to God for all things!”

    Marjaana

  2. This is wonderful! Thank you for pointing the way to salvation. I feel that I’m just beginning to practice giving thanks always and for all things. I’m very grateful for your words.

  3. Many thanks, Father! This is, oddly so, very comforting and helpful. Thank you again. Glory to God!

  4. Thank you, Fr. Stephen!

    This reminds me of a question I have had for several years now about the “shame of the cross.” I think one of the tone 5 troparia for Vespers says something to the effect of:

    “Though thou was lashed on the back, I will not hide it; or nailed upon the cross, I will not deny it.”

    There are several other such references to the cross as an image of shame turned into a token of victory. Yet, I don’t think I ever saw Roman punishment as a thing to be ashamed of. Perhaps because of my upbringing as a Christian, I took it for granted that Romans capriciously killed innocent people. Of course, this was especially true of their violence towards Christ (in concert with the chief priests).

    I also wonder whether our cultural norms that say one is “innocent until proven guilty” has the unintended consequence of muting the irony in the tension between the symbol of shame and the symbol of victory represented in the Cross.

    If this is so, I wonder if this makes it that much harder for us to accept shame. We certainly see that Jesus is treated unjustly, but we’re not inclined to see him as a disgraced person.

  5. Wonderful! The path to salvation is the suffering of Christ in us. May we all be faithful to His Truth.

    Thank you Father!

  6. RobC

    As I understand it, for a Jew, crucifixion was a shameful way to be executed or killed.

  7. I hear too often where a person should do whatever it takes to win. Society can be very hard on those we consider “losers”. In fact, many stay away from them or avoid even looking at them. Sometimes hard times can come to anyone, even the people who have always won. Just think, if everyone helped others out, even just a little (and not with just money), everyone would be winners. 🙂 Those we help could teach us all a little about humility.

  8. You break my heart Fr Stephen, such a touching article, and here I was just about to settle down to a quiet evening with my cup of milk and a croissant. but now you’ve got me wanting to run out into the streets and hug the first beggar I find.

    This was actually closely related to topic of discussion that I was taking part in with another group: What should Orthodox Evangelism look like? I do NOT think that it should look anything like the sort of evangelism that Protestants engage in today, that sort of evangelism seems to do more harm that good. Our first commandment to our fellow man is to love them, and that means not harming them.

    Personally I think Orthodox Evangelism should look like exactly like “sheltering and supporting” … “the weak, the sick, the poor, the tired, the incompetent and inadequate and all those who struggle” as well as the rest of our neighbors. Without requiring anything in return. That’s the sort of thing that will bring the people who need Church into Church, and also will actually be helping people at the same time. I’m not saying we can’t also teach people who want to learn about Orthodoxy more about it, but I think just looking for people to teach and making that the focus of ones efforts is the death of evangelism.

    I’d love to hear what you think about this.

  9. Ah! Happy they whose hearts can break
    And peace and pardon win!
    How else may man make straight his plan
    and cleanse his soul from Sin?
    How else but through a broken heart
    May Lord Christ enter in?

    Oscar Wilde The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

    Your comment about the poor being more generous than the rich made me remember when I used to go to classical music concerts in Vancouver Canada. The street people would show up outside the theatre before and after the concert. I did not have much money , in fact I had to take public transport for hours to attend these concerts, but I always kept money handy to give to these people. And as like as not, the expensively dressed ignored the beggars as they headed to and from their Lexus and Mercedes cars. In fact they seemed offended even to have to ignore them! But who knows, perhaps they gave another way in secret?
    Some of my most interesting conversations arose from meeting the street people of Vancouver, although some of their stories sometimes seemed pretty questionable. Once I met a cheery fellow who asked for change and as I was separating it out because I needed so much for the bus to where I was staying , he gave me a big smile, patted my arm, and said never mind darling ,get home safe. Bless him.

    About weakness, I have ADD and even in my sixties I still do daft things through my lack of focus. Lately I managed three non serious mindless acts in a row(maybe a record) which I had to confess to the people we are housesitting for in France. It is bad enough saying to myself ” how in the world did I do such a stupid thing” without having to admit it to someone who has entrusted his house and animals to me. But I am learning to turn to God and not be obsessive. Indeed it is not hard to be humble when you are me. Glory to God for all things!

    p.s. If you have never read De Profundis by Oscar Wilde ,it is a beautiful treatise on the beneficial effects of utter humiliation . He was broken and Lord Christ entered in.

  10. “Repentance is not self-regarding, but God-regarding. It is not self-loathing, but God-loving. Christianity bids us accept ourselves as we really are, with all our faults and our failings and our sins.” (Bishop Fulton Sheen, Peace of Soul)

  11. To Marjaana,

    Heard you lost your job and are a single mom. Well, I am looking for someone to live with me, plant a garden, raise chickens. maybe even have a milk cow. I am elderly and disabled (bad knees), use 2 canes but I still plant. You might consider a farmers market and incesticide free food, and animals humanely raised. I have old 2-story house, garage, shed, and barn, which I own totally. No rent or mortgage, just taxes. Call me at 701-294-2196 or email email hidden; JavaScript is required.

    Janis Schmidt

  12. Janis, how kind of you to open your home like that! Your response is one of the reasons I enjoy reading the comment section after Fr. Freeman’s writings almost as muc as I do the article itself. God bless you sister! And God bless and keep you as well, sister Marjaana. I have unemployed since February, but through God’s grace and mercy all is well as I pray it is and will be for you.

  13. I recall reading somewhere that it was a practice in 19th c Russia for parishioners, as they were ascending the steps into church, to place a coin in the hands of the poor and “mad” and ask them (the poor) to pray for them (the less poor) in the belief that the poor and “mad” were closer to God because of their suffering, and God would more likely hear their prayers.
    In a similar vein, I was re-reading an article Rod Dreher wrote in which he addressed an otherwise unrecognized peculiarity of the relationship of the Church to the poor. Briefly, the Church can and often does do a lot for the poor in terms of trying to alleviate their physical suffering but the poor (which presumably includes the poor in spirit) do not actually come to church. They receive the bread of life but not the Bread of Life. Frankly, I’m stumped. It’s easy to organize a way to hand out “bread”. How many of us actually see the “poor” in our churches? What are we overlooking? What have we missed? Is the answer right in front of us?

    http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/the-church-and-the-poor/

  14. Gregory M.

    I suspect your question is a big one which leads to the whole topic of poverty. I don’t have the answers but I will make one observation:

    Our North American culture is firmly entrenched in Individualism. One subtle mindset the 19th C Russians parishioners possessed was a sense that everyone around them – including the poor – was part of one group: the human race, their city, their neighborhood, their people – however you want to frame it.

    Here in this part of the world we are meticulously trained that we are individuals first and foremost – and really only a part of groups by choice for the most part. Those street people we meet are part of a different group than ours. Whatever their problem is, it isn’t ours. And just in case it’s contagious, please stay away.

    In reality of course this is simply BS but we have lived the lie for so long – and many of us have gotten away with it – that nothing short of another mass rude awakening will violently prevail upon us the real truth about the situation: they are part of us. If they suffer, we all do.

    An Orthodox quote I learned long ago: “To the extent that one person is hurting or missing, we are all diminished.” (Obviously this goes far beyond the church walls and encompasses the whole race, but with our human limitations we would be doing well to just look around us in our daily lives.)

    When we as North Americans wake up to this reality, we will begin to open ourselves to the visibly less fortunate and desire to share all good things with them, i.e. food, clothing, church services, conversation, presence, etc.

    But right now we are blind to this – and by default blind to all the things these other people possess that we would benefit from: poverty, suffering, life experiences, personalities, innocence, time, love, etc.

    The barriers aren’t the church walls, but rather those within our hearts.

  15. “The sanctity of private property” has become part of the received canon of American Christianity. It is true, that there is a Biblical respect for property. But, it also clearly holds that all things come from God and belong to God. We hold them in stewardship. The attitude of “this is my money, I eaarned it,” has many, many flaws within it. Of course, saying this doesn’t mean that the State owns everything. But the Christian should hold that everything he has and everything he is comes from God and belongs to God. He holds it in stewardship. From those who have been given much, more is expected. The rich hold the money of the poor. If they refuse to share it, there are and will be consequences (check out the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus).

    Living life in a manner that actually holds what the Church teaches would look strikingly different from our American culture. We have drunk very deeply and for a long time from a poison well. So much so, that when it is withdrawn we shout, “Where is my poison?”

  16. The article seems to promote the notion that we should embrace our weaknesses and not work hard to overcome our them.

    Fortitude vs Sloth
    Persistence vs Apathy
    Fidelity, Courage, Fearlessness vs being scared
    Charity Vs Greed
    Hope and Joy vs dejection and despair
    Refusal to quit vs I don’t want to be responsible thus I quit.

    All of these good things require us to be attentive to ourselves and to work really hard, all the time.

    Everything that happens to us in life, our educational background, our family, our friends, the situations we find ourselves, our physical strengths and maladies are all opportunities for us to work hard to over to overcome deadly weaknesses. And it indeed takes great effort and willingness on our part. And God’s salvation often times comes in that struggle, in the midst of and as a result of all that hard work.

    Our American culture promotes hard work and it promotes that idea that we weak should should do all we can to overcome and this is good. Our culture even have systems in place, that as flawed and deficient as they might be, try to give those that are weak the opportunity and assistance to overcome.

    From the article:
    Gen. George Patton famously said, “America loves to win and cannot abide a loser.”

    Well instead of seeing this quote in a negative light, let’s use it to bring people closer to the Church. Come on who does not love Patton!?

    Was a Jesus a loser? I would suggest that no he was not. He was victorious in battle. He destroyed death. He overcame the grave. He won. He did not lose. He did it in voluntary weakness and we canot imagine the strength required to do that.

    “America loves to win and cannot abide a God who is a loser.”

    Think of the strategy and the bravery and the courage and the fidelity required by Jesus to do what he did. Same applies to the Apostles and all the Saints. I propose that Patton would be appreciative of the bravery and the tactical savy to pull off such a vicorty, if were explained to him.

    So what about weakness? Our weaknesses can be tools to gain strength of one kind or another. Our weaknesses are indeed meant by God as a help and aid in becoming strong.

    Take up your cross…this requires us to become strong and to become even more so.

    Alex said above:
    Personally I think Orthodox Evangelism should look like exactly like “sheltering and supporting” … “the weak, the sick, the poor, the tired, the incompetent and inadequate and all those who struggle” as well as the rest of our neighbors. Without requiring anything in return.

    Think of the strength required to do this. Amen and Amen Alex!

    Weak and unable to work and provide for yourself, then you must become strong in faith and hope and trust and persistence in prayer. Yes Christ meets you there in your weakness but He does this so that you might become strong in the ways just described.

    Facing certain death? I have no doubt that Christ is most present in these times steering one toward courage and patience and hope and all virtues.

    I have no doubt that Fr Freeman is absolutely correct in all that he said. I know there is a need to be critical of the bad in our culture…there is a reason to bash Protestantism and America, but I would like to see at least equal time given by Orthodox writers to seeing good and framing this good so that all people can be brought closer to the church and not just those who are grumpy and disenchanted.

    Typing fast and not fully thought out…but that’s the idea of what initially came to my mind

  17. Marjaana,

    Life is a river, continuously moving. Life is regulated by seasons, which we have totally forgotten about. Instead, we are regulated by the clock and money. Money is not wealth or knowhow. If you were set down in the middle of the prairie with winter coming on, could you survive? I did. (with help from some full-blood Indians.)

    I am giving you an opportunity to move in time with the seasons and live with humane treatment of animals, a place where I believe God dwells. I believe gardening is doing God’s work. Most time-punched, clock work is the work of the devil.

    Small window of time to get your garden planted. Have to move with the seasons. I need someone who would share the work and the house. If time proves you to be valuable, reliable person, you could share title. Then no one could come along and forclose on you or fire you. Think about it.

    Janis

  18. Scott,
    I think you do not understand my most fundamental point. You may do all of the things you suggest – but you will meet Christ at the point of your failures and weakness, not at the point of your success – even if you give Him the credit for the success.

    This is by no means an urging anyone not to try. But, rather that our Americanized gospel has them trying the wrong things.

    To follow Christ on the way of the Cross leads us to the place of our shame. And there we must learn to bear the shame, along with Him. Patton could not bear shame. And yes, Jesus was a loser. He was the greatest loser who has ever lived.

    This is neither grumpy nor disenchanted. Though I am disenchanted and disgusted by a nation that not only refuses to bear its shame, it won’t even acknowledge it. The cheerleader Christianity that you are suggesting is not the gospel – it’s just American boosterism with Christian window-dressing. It produces athletes and movie stars – the favorite spokespersons for this kind of thing.

    I don’t think you understand the Cross. I know that’s a very strong statement. But Christ meets you in your weakness and then He takes you down to deeper and deeper levels of weakness, if you will let Him. And there, in the very depths of hell, He will unite you both with Himself, and then with all of your brothers and sisters in hell. And then, at last, you will learn how to pray – for the whole world.

    Jesus did not die in order to help us improve our lives. He died so that we could die with Him. There is no other road to eternal life. If you do not die with Him, if you do not suffer with Him, you will not reign with Him. That’s just the New Testament.

  19. Thank you Fr. Freeman for your reply.

    “I think you do not understand my most fundamental point.”

    You are probably correct.

    “But you will meet Christ at the point of your failures and weakness, not at the point of your success”

    I think this is exactly what I am suggesting. Our weaknesses, if we allow, force us to reach out beyond ourselves, to seek help from the Saints etc. Our faith, our hope, our joy, our persistence, our courage all are strengthened…our weaknesses are intended to make us strong. We actually change. Christ doesn’t just cover us up. We are not snow covered dung. We change, and we can change for the better and we should and this is winning.

    “This is by no means an urging anyone not to try. But, rather that our Americanized gospel has them trying the wrong things.
    To follow Christ on the way of the Cross leads us to the place of our shame. ”

    YES! Don’t be ashamed to get the place of our shame. Fight hard to get there. Don’t be afraid to go there. Be courageous and go the place of our shame. This is winning!

    “I don’t think you understand the Cross. I know that’s a very strong statement.”

    I think beyond being a “strong statement” it is a silly statement given that it is based solely on your reading of a few words without any knowledge of me a as a person or my life experiences….seems just a little on the snippy and defensive side. I mean you might be correct, perhaps I don’t understand the Cross. There is a very good chance that I don’t. But is seems tenuous that you could divine that conclusion from such little contact with me. Or perhaps I am better writer than I fashion myself to be. (nope it can’t be that I just ended that sentence witha preposition)

    “And yes, Jesus was a loser. He was the greatest loser who has ever lived.”

    I disagree. I mean sure you are correct in a sense, but in another…nah. He was the greatest winner who ever lived and died and defeated death and lives again reigning forever. That is winning. That is not cheerleader Christianity. That is the truth.

    “Jesus did not die in order to help us improve our lives.”

    Hogwash! Of course He did. If becoming fully human and living forever isn’t an improvement of our lives well then…..

    Take the “winner” attitude of America and use it to our advantage. Show what real winning looks like. Maybe that is what you were trying to do. I don’t know.

    I challenge you to find something good about America and relate that to the Orthodox Faith and write a brilliant post. That’s my main point, I think.

    Many thanks,
    Scott

  20. Scott,
    I didn’t mean to impugn your devotion. But the fundamental point still seems to escape you. There is an “improvement” after a fashion – eternal life, conformity to the image of Christ. But the improvement of our lives in this world is not a goal. St. Paul gives us this example:

    For I think that God has displayed us, the apostles, last, as men condemned to death; for we have been made a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are distinguished, but we are dishonored! To the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed, and beaten, and homeless. And we labor, working with our own hands. Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; being defamed, we entreat. We have been made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things until now.
    (1Co 4:9-13 NKJ)

    St. Paul has become “the filth of the world…offscouring” that’s the dirt you scrape off your shoes. The self-emptying model of Christ, Phil. 2:5-11, is not a model of improvement. It’s a model of emptying. God will take care of anything else.

    But this culture is consumed with the passions. The consumer mentality destroys Christian lives. It has to be addressed. The Evangelical nightmare is its genius for taking the culture into its Churches and using it to “further the gospel.” When, in fact, it does not further the gospel. It just creates a little Christianized version of the same consuming culture in which it lives. It just becomes a little America. It has thereby changed the gospel in some very, very radical ways.

    The Orthodox Way produced the martyrs of the world…and still does today. American Evangelicalism produced Joel Osteen and Benny Hinn. That’s where the winners are.

    Jesus said, “What good does it do a man to win the world and lose his soul? There are so, so many who have for so, so long taken the “winner” attitude of America and tried to use it to their advantage. They have destroyed American Christianity and don’t even know it.

    We disagree.

  21. Fr. Stephen…your words remind me of the German pastor/theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer murdered by the Nazis shortly before the end of WWll. He spoke of those who want cheap grace when there is no such thing.
    The closing words of your penultimate comments to Scott powerfully drive home this same point.

  22. For whatever it may be worth, it seems to me that there is a very subtle point being overlooked. I saw a church sign once that said “If you think being meek is weak, try being meek for a week.”
    I understand Jesus to be an integral part of the Triune God, and to try to visualize God, in any of His forms, Father, Son, Holy Spirit, as weak (as I understand it) is simply incompressible. I an certainly no bible scholar, but I don’t find anywhere that I am instructed to be weak. Quite the contrary.
    The subtle point being overlooked, I propose, is that we are supposed to be MEEK, rather than WEAK. And meekness is NOT weakness. I propose that if we concentrate on being HUMBLE, as we are instructed in numerous places in the scriptures, we will find that condition that God wants us to attain, whatever we call it.
    I humbly (to the best of my ability) propose that we strive to be, with God’s help, strong enough to be truly meek and humble.

  23. Don,
    How about God’s reply to St. Paul, “My strength is made perfect in weakness.” St. Paul then goes on to say that “I will therefore boast of my weakness.” I think that can be taken as an instruction to be weak.

    It is ironic, of course, that true weakness requires a kind of strength – not an effort, but a letting go. The very things that are required for the acquisition of virtue and pretty much counter-intuitive.

  24. “I didn’t mean to impugn your devotion.”

    Didn’t notice if you did.

    “But the fundamental point still seems to escape you.”

    Probably does.

    “But the improvement of our lives in this world is not a goal.”

    St. Mary of Egypt did not gain an improvement of her life in this world? Of course she did. She fought a good fight. She finished the race. United to Christ in this Life. Vast improvement. She won. She was no loser. We are called to do the same.

    “St. Paul has become “the filth of the world…offscouring” that’s the dirt you scrape off your shoes. ”

    YES! And we should do likewise with joy! There you go…that can be your “what I love about America” blog post…the American culture I know and grew up with says if you are weak, don’t give up, don’t give into despair…fight (like Patton), keep your chin up, don’t whine and complain, be resourceful, be joyful even in hard times, even when you are weak. Those are good things. From time to time, would it hurt to highlight those things about American culture/

    “The self-emptying model of Christ, Phil. 2:5-11, is not a model of improvement. It’s a model of emptying.”

    Emptying is a goal. Emptying is improvement. Emptying is winning. Emptying is to be human. It’s not a reason to be sad.

    “But this culture is consumed with the passions. The consumer mentality destroys Christian lives. It has to be addressed.”

    At least the American pop culture is…but there are also millions upon many millions of dis-passionate and serious Protestant Christians who love these United States of America.

    While these folks may or may not be moved closer to the Orthodox Church by our complaining of the state of Evangelicalism, what I propose is that we ought to give some equal time to highlighting what is good about our world and explaining how that good is thoroughly Orthodox.

    “…American Evangelicalism produced Joel Osteen and Benny Hinn. ”

    You left of my all time favorite, Jack and Rexella.

    “That’s where the winners are.”

    Hogwash! The martyrs of the world are the winners.

    Christ wasn’t a loser, nor did He re-define winning and losing. Instead He revealed the true meaning of winning and losing, of victory and defeat, no?

    “It is ironic, of course, that true weakness requires a kind of strength – not an effort, but a letting go. The very things that are required for the acquisition of virtue and pretty much counter-intuitive.”

    and letting go requires a sort of effort, typically of the constant variety.

    Many thanks again,
    Scott

  25. Don and Scott;

    There is of course a paradox in what Fr Stephen is saying here. Those who come to know the Lord as He is discover that he is the greatest and only power in the universe. But this power is contrary to everything that we typically think of as “powerful”, and those who come to know it (the saints) come only through weakness, brokeness, and suffering.
    The saints are humble not through an act of will-to-change, but through the terrible discovery that despite their best efforts they still utterly fail. They are the least, the lowest, the weakest of all.

    This is the sort of weakness that we are invited to admit in ourselves.
    For those of us who have tried the path of strength, idealism, success, this invitation to weakness is a cool and satisfying breeze. It is freedom, invitation to be ourselves naked before the Lord in our weakness and failure.
    It is the only salvation fit for losers like myself. Please do not take it from me.

    Peace;
    -Mark Basil

  26. “The saints are humble not through an act of will-to-change, but through the terrible discovery that despite their best efforts they still utterly fail.”

    I don’t think this is quite true. We do not subscribe to Luthers bonage of the will. An act of will is very much required, and often it comes whence Christ meets us in our weakness. That act of our will might be to decide to let go. Despite their best efforts they utterlly fail…and then they keep trying, even trying to let go, and this is winning.

    They are the least, the lowest, the weakest of all.

    Absolutely! They win!

    “…Please do not take it from me.”

    Own your own upset.

  27. I think the seeming contradiction is that people look at the picture of Christ portrayed in the Gospels and are struck with awe and love, and then they are told that being Christian means being like Christ, and so they expect that as they apply themselves to becoming like Christ they will similarly begin to grow in spiritual stature and virtue.

    The trouble is that the way that many people are taught to approach this ultimately boils down to just simply acting like Christ, putting on a play, almost like a divine game of “Simon says”. A pantomime of Christ is not truly Christ.

    What, I think, Fr Stephen is saying is that what it really looks like in practice to “be Christ” for us, as sinners, looks like a lot of repentance and humility, and a recognition of the truth of our low spiritual estate, it looks like shame as we march to the hill we are to die upon. Which is totally opposite to what most expect, but that’s the point, our ideas about Christ are backwards, he isn’t some golden skinned God with his hair blowing majestically in the wind, he’s a corpse nailed to a beam of wood.

    Now, I completely agree with everything Fr Stephen is saying, but I do think there is room for a little more charity in all of our lives. Christ did perform virtuous works, he did help the poor, he fed them, he healed them. We can’t deny or ignore or excuse these things. But why did he do it? Was he piling up medals for virtuous behavior? Of course not, he simply cares about people. We shouldn’t look at helping the poor as being a good deed to be proud of, we shouldn’t be thinking about glory.

    I’ve heard people say that we should “see Christ in the poor”, and help them as if they were Christ, I don’t think that’s necessary. Yes, Jesus did say to the sheep “When you saw me in prison you visited me, when you saw me hungry you fed me” but the sheep answered “When did we see you in prison? Or hungry?” In other words, they didn’t see Christ in the poor that they helped, they simply helped them because it was the right thing to do, they did it because they cared. That’s the only motivation we should need.

  28. Alex said:

    “they simply helped them because it was the right thing to do, they did it because they cared. That’s the only motivation we should need.”

    Amen! Amen! and again I say Amen!

  29. I’ve heard people say that we should “see Christ in the poor”, and help them as if they were Christ, I don’t think that’s necessary. Yes, Jesus did say to the sheep “When you saw me in prison you visited me, when you saw me hungry you fed me” but the sheep answered “When did we see you in prison? Or hungry?” In other words, they didn’t see Christ in the poor that they helped, they simply helped them because it was the right thing to do, they did it because they cared. That’s the only motivation we should need.

    Should, but it would not even begin to occur for many, dare I say most, of us who are weak (deluded, miseducated, etc.) enough to need it spelled out for us.

  30. I just read these very plausible misunderstandings with curiosity. The difficulty in grasping this key issue of God’s ‘strength made known in weakness’ once again reveals the key paradox, found at the core of the Christian Spiritual life, and how crucial it is!
    This [strength-weakness] “double knowledge” as it is often termed -of one’s utter weakness and God’s utter omnipotence- requires both of the following:
    the deep ‘roots’, (all the way to the deepest ‘hades’ of humility),
    for the highest tree-top (to reach up to Heaven)…
    The further ‘down’ man travels in self-disregarding humility the further he can be graced without danger of luciferean usurpation.
    The Holy Spirit -which undeniably imparts an otherworldly indomitability to the one it possesses (as often witnessed in the unimaginably heroic martyrdoms of some saints) – cannot possibly remain (without the prospect of tremendous harm through man’s vain arrogation of It) in one who is not also continually aware of their utter nothingness. And this awareness is still what is termed ‘ascetic’ humility and is still not yet [the gift of] Christ-like humility.

  31. Scott’s points about “winning” are understandable. And we could always say that “losing in Christ” is “winning.” The problem comes, and I hope Scott will understand this, is that when the focus is on “winning,” it simply encourages the same achievement message that permeates our culture. And the truth is that most people do not achieve. Most do not succeed. Most do not excel. But they watch the successful on TV, etc., with fascination and envy. And then (in envy) they take a slight pleasure when the successful reveal their faults and are taken down. That’s what the tabloids feed on. It is a very perverted “spirituality.”

    We have to critique this culture because it is destroying people in its relentless myth of success and achievement. No one is applauded for simply living their lives. The greatest heroes in the world today are people whose names we will not know (until heaven). They may even stand next to you in Church. The world is full of hidden saints.

    But our adversary haunts us, taunting us with a mantra of “succeed, succeed!” And when we stumble he taunts us even more. I have written this article in hopes of teaching someone how to lose and thereby defeat the enemy of our souls. We “win” by losing. That is the mercy of God.

  32. “The world is full of hidden saints.” Yes, fr. Freeman! You’ve mentioned before your father-in-law. My mother-in-law was also one of those hidden saints who quietly lived a life of great dignity and spiritual strength. She had only a third grade education. She had a very harsh and demanding husband. Clara nurtured and raised ten children. She would arise before daybreak and cook a full breakfast for the family…after milking the family cow. Then she would attend to all the other affairs of raising a large family which included two more meals prepared from scratch. I read one of her letters she had written to a young man, a former neighbor, now in prison. It was done in her third grade scrawl, without punctuation. but full of Christ’s love. I never once in the thirty years I knew her heard her complain about her lot in life. She was full of gratitude, a godly woman in whom was no guile, a silent humble lady who lived an heroic life. Hardly an “American Idol” but rather a true friend of God.

  33. Dean’s mother-in-law was a winner! Her story reminds me of this delightful movie based on a true story…it’s on Netflix….it tells the story of an American winner and an American loser, and if you listen carefully the loser becomes a winner in the end.

    The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0406158/

  34. Thanks so much for your reply once again Fr. Freeman!

    “Scott’s points about “winning” are understandable. And we could always say that “losing in Christ” is “winning.” ”

    Right! And my hope is that Orthodox writers find ways to do this far more often. This hope is what stimulate my first comment on this thread.

    “The problem comes, and I hope Scott will understand this, is that when the focus is on “winning,” it simply encourages the same achievement message that permeates our culture.”

    Poppycock! There are a myriad of problem that come if the focus is on being a “loser”, ( without “loser” being properly defined), but I would suggest that the most obvious problem that comes from such a focus is that it breeds an “I can’t” praxis amongst those who hear it, taking the form of sloth…sloth disguised as a virtue. The loser focus disguises and exalts laziness, the willingness to quit prematurely instead of losing ones selfish self and dieing to ones fearful passions, and thus acquiring the courage to press onward and move a mountain.

    Let’s give people a bit more credit. If you write a cogent piece encouraging people to win, to achieve, to push themselves in all the right ways and for all the right reasons, they will get it, they will understand…they might fall off of the Orthodox grumpy wagon, but they won’t go running into the arms of Zig Ziglar.

    I would propose that the single mom working three jobs, is exalted as a sort of hero in our culture, and she indeed should be praised for her willingness to lose herself for her kids. So we are not talking about her. She isn’t reading your blog post anyway, as she is too busy losing herself, emptying herself, too busy daily winning her battles over and against her fearful passions.

    The loser focus will have its biggest negative impact on those who just don’t want to put in the effort to empty themselves and thus win. This category of people, I would suggest, is huge, encompassing most of humanity. This category of folks (which includes me) is in reality looking for a reason not fight to lose themselves, looking for a way to baptize their weaknesses as God’s will and thus something that can’t be overcome. (That scene in Laurence of Arabia where he goes back into the desert to find the lost man comes to my mind). They need to be encouraged to joyfully fight and to aim to win, versus giving themselves over to joylessness and sloth.

    “And the truth is that most people do not achieve. Most do not succeed. Most do not excel. But they watch the successful on TV, etc., with fascination and envy.”

    Hogwash! That single mom working three jobs is a success. That dad who works hard for the sake of his kids, is a success. That mom who prays every morning with her kids and brings a joyful spirit to her home is a success. Again, Christ did not re-define success. He revealed what success actually is. We can and should use the language of success to encourage people in their fight against the passions.

    …”No one is applauded for simply living their lives”.

    What I just heard you say is that simply living their lives IS winning and thus they should be applauded!!! And I couldn’t agree more, if by “simply living their lives” you mean they enter the arena each and everyday and fight to lose themselves for others, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing, but never giving up.

    “But our adversary haunts us, taunting us with a mantra of “succeed, succeed!” And when we stumble he taunts us even more. I have written this article in hopes of teaching someone how to lose and thereby defeat the enemy of our souls. ”

    Our adversary haunts and taunts us with the mantra ” I can’t”. I can’t forgive this person, I can’t stop being this way, I can’t fight anymore against this passion, I can’t lose myself for others. I can’t trust God or the Saints to help me have victory over these things.

    “We “win” by losing. That is the mercy of God.””

    I would suggest that you have the ” ” on the wrong word, and this might be the crux of the whole issue…the reality is that

    We win by “losing”, and that is not a passive process.

    This will be my last reply. I understand what you have written. I think Orthodox writers need to work another angle. That’s all.

    Thanks so much for the interaction,
    Scott

  35. God transforms us through our sins. It is when we turn away from the poor, yell at our kids, etc that we learn to cling to Christ and cry Lord have mercy. I don’t know any Christians who want to remain as they are. Well maybe myself for a time, but then I am convicted out of my apathy.
    The gospel of you’ve got to do better doesn’t work cause its not the gospel. The gospel is that there is a God of mercy who forgives your sin and loves you. That is the only message that can transform the sinner.

  36. Also, I don’t think our transformation ever goes the way we planned or imagined it to be. It is hidden as Fr Freeman says in so many of his posts. We don’t choose our cross or the ten step self improvement plan.

  37. Scott, you sound like the few great coaches I was blessed to meet on sports fields as a youth. Most of all I could hear my dad’s voice too. Their messages carried me well beyong sports, and prepared me to compete (in a good sense, not in the winner/loser sense a) against my own tendency to slack off, cut corners, slide by.

    They helped me get up when I fell, or failed. They echo in the background as I watch a dear friend “hang in there” even now, 14 + years later, having become paralyzed from an fall at the age of 60, and living alone now, no family, no relatives. That kind of determination is inspiring, as is the message you are trying to convey here.

    I have no new insight, except to remind myself that one of the most puzzling themes I encountered while reading about and investigating Eastern Christianity was that of “heroic struggle,” as described in many of the Church-appointed daily readings about saints, especially martyrs and after them, ascetics who lived in monasteries or as hermits, and are sometimes said to have “asceticized,” or “labored,” for years, as in (for one example) last Wednesday’s account of the long life of Venerable Dodo of the St. David-Gareji Monastery, Georgia .

    Of course these people were inspired and supported by the Holy Spirit, but I keep getting the impression that we read their stories in church and at home in order to think about how we are to seek similar behaviors with God’s help. In that context, the urgings of a coach, or a father (like mine, who yelled at me,”Get up! Be strong” when as a 10 year-old I was knocked down in an athletic contest) seem similar, and their encouragements applicable to spiritual challenges as well.

    All that to say, I understand your point. When put to the test, a simple test like getting up early and going to church when no one else in the house is–or even certain harder tests–I think I would fall back on habits formed early in life at home and in sports.

    I see Fr Stephen’s point too (I hope). But it goes beyond behaviors, even coices. It gets at attitudes and understandings which are hard for me to assimilate. I can’t–without a lot of help.

  38. Good evening Scott;

    I find myself increasingly puzzled by what exactly you are critiquing in Fr Stephen’s original post. He is not advocating “quitting” or “giving up”. He is not suggesting that anyone should “aim low”, but rather giving us permission to admit that whatever we aim for in life, often we do not achieve it because we are weak, wounded, and inadequate. Recognizing this about myself has been very helpful, though painful. It is humility-producing, helping me not to focus on tasks too great for me but to be content to accomplish very little indeed- a meager prayer rule and an unimpressive effort to remember the fasts. Often “the least I can do” is also actually the best I can do. That is how broken and weak I am.
    In the midst of this weakness I fall down and get up repeatedly. I think we are in agreement that this is the stuff of the spiritual life.
    Given how much we agree on I find it puzzling why you are raising such a strident, unbending voice of opposition to the thrust of this post. (I suppose in a sense you are at least being consistent- sticking to your opinion no matter what anyone thinks or says, unwilling to give it up or let anyone correct you).

    You have said above you are giving your last word, which might be for the best. But I want to at least leave you with three things to consider:
    First, In the midst of your persistent arguing you began to contradict yourself. It is most clear here: “Again, Christ did not re-define success. He revealed what success actually is.” Do you see how you are saying the same thing using different words? Jesus was rejected by his own people precisely because he failed to be the sort of Messianic “winner” they expected. If his radically unexpected “revelation of what success actually is” (i.e. cursed death on a cross) is not a redefinition of success, then I believe you have just redefined the word “re-define” 😉
    Second, please recall the countless examples given in the Canon of St Andrew of Crete, where we are invited again and again to liken ourselves with the spiritual and moral failures and losers in the scriptures, not the winners. This lenten pattern is the true way of life.
    Third, let’s not argue for the sake of argument. I really think there’s great agreement between us. We seem to agree what winning looks like in the spiritual life: it is the pattern of humility; repentance; persistence in the face of adversity; relying on Christ rather than our own strength. I hope you can be content that there is indeed a paradox in the Christian understanding of success, winning, etc. How to use this language with each person requires some personal, pastoral discernment. You are right that we are to “run the race to the end” to “strive for the prize”, etc. That’s good language. But the language of success and winning has been so twisted in the modern world that there must be some room made for a different kind of success: one that allows for weakness, brokenness, ostensive lack of progress, and failure to achieve even our most admirable goals. This is different from the typical American model I think.

    May God grant peace between us;
    -Mark Basil

  39. Father Stephen:

    This post has certainly provoked interest and attention.

    Let me try taking some things in a different direction.

    Another contemporary and perhaps consumerist fashion in our land is the glorification of victimhood. Telegenic and articulate victims are the stuff of daytime and nighttime TV — along with the “you can have whatever you put your mind on.” As Iago would have it, “Whip me such (dis)honest knaves.” Has not the cult of victimhood overwhelmed the actual experience? Many of the more vocal victims hardly show much shame or guilt . . .

    Also, it is my experience that weakness and shame and guilt have another dimension that you did not mention–the air of truth. We ARE weak and needy. Salvation is for “beggars in spirit.” It has been said that Christ wants us to prefer the truth to Him — because then we fall into the arms of Hom Who is the Truth, after all.

    As I recall, the vision of the unrepentant in Revelations is not fear of the Lion of Judah. It is terror of seeing the face of the wrath of the Lamb. We think we can handle an almighty despot, but not God Who is humble. And Who is real.

  40. “Our adversary haunts and taunts us with the mantra ” I can’t”. I can’t forgive this person, I can’t stop being this way, I can’t fight anymore against this passion, I can’t lose myself for others. I can’t trust God or the Saints to help me have victory over these things.”

    The mantra that sticks out to me, when you say “we should be focused on success” is how many times the word “I” comes into it. Success in the U.S. is self-focused; there’s not way to get around our culture’s “[b]I[/b] can!” attitude. Orthodoxy, as Mark stated is God-focused; we set ourselves aside–including the “I” in “I can”–and focus on serving God and our fellow man in humility.

    While I understand that you see [i]effort[/i] as successful (as in your example of the single mother with three jobs), our culture has warped this idea to where it is only “successful” if it glorifies the individual attempting/doing it (and you, indeed, seem to be glorifying the single mother in your example) instead of glorfying God. This mindset is why the “single mothers” in America abort their children; children are now seen to interfere with the mother’s “success” in life. We cannot mix our message with the “success” of the American Culture; the two viewpoints (Orthodoxy and American Culture) are actually completely opposed to each other.

  41. Alex Combas, a follow-up to your earlier post on Orthodox evangelism. You stated: “Personally I think Orthodox Evangelism should look like exactly like “sheltering and supporting” … “the weak, the sick, the poor, the tired, the incompetent and inadequate and all those who struggle” as well as the rest of our neighbors. Without requiring anything in return. That’s the sort of thing that will bring the people who need Church into Church, and also will actually be helping people at the same time. I’m not saying we can’t also teach people who want to learn about Orthodoxy more about it, but I think just looking for people to teach and making that the focus of ones efforts is the death of evangelism.”

    Perhaps we should extend the medical metaphor a bit further and say that the first rule of Orthodox Evangelism should be, “First, do no harm!”.

    I am currently reading about Saint Herman of Alaska and it does seem he (and others) followed this rule.

  42. Lou,
    My experience in helping people properly confront weakness, poverty, shame, etc., is to help them not deflect it. Some are indeed poor because the system under which we live is unjust. But to dwell on that is not only unhelpful, it’s destructive spiritually. Instead there are right ways to appropriate our weaknesses – and there are wrong ways. Victim hood is the wrong way.

  43. I have written several comments and deleted all of them. Ultimately, I don’t think I have anything important to say. But I guess I’ll say it anyway in light of the continued conversation here…

    My parents believe strongly in the American Dream, and I was instilled essentially from birth with the drive to succeed in every way possible. And yet if I look at every single aspect of my life, there is not a single thing to which I can point and say: I have succeeded.

    As a teenager, I was largely socially outcast. I was made to play sports, because it would help me develop a competitive spirit and learn to succeed. Instead, I became self-conscious of the fact that I was terrible, clumsy, constantly making a fool of myself.

    I played piano for 13 years, yet I never rose above the rank of mediocre.

    I loved reading books and writing, yet I never did particularly well academically. My GPA was not one I would include on my resume after graduating college.

    I graduated in the middle of the ’07-’08 recession, and though I have been told over and over again that it’s not my fault that I haven’t done well professionally (the economy is just terrible, you know), it’s little comfort when I see friends rising above the difficult times we live in, yet I seem incapable of doing so.

    I barely manage to provide for my family, and sometimes I can’t even manage that.

    And none of this scratches the surface of my spiritual struggles – sins I’ve struggled with since childhood, not to be overcome. Sins that I see I am passing on to my own children, who so frequently mirror my own weaknesses. Sins that I have burdened my wife with, my in-laws with, my parents with.

    There is no measure that our society uses, nor that anyone else I’ve ever heard uses, that would qualify me as a “winner” or as one who has succeeded at life. I am not just being sulky, nor am I being over dramatic. I am just being absolutely honest. I have disappointed family and friends over and over again.

    I am a loser, through and through. And it is little comfort that in Christ I am a “winner” – I don’t see it. I simply don’t. I used to try to see it, but I eventually gave up.

    There was a time not too long ago when the shame of the failures of my life drove me to the very brink of despair. It was at this point that I did the only thing in my life that I felt I could do – there was nothing else to do (continual loss of jobs, continual struggle with my own sinfulness). I just prayed… as constantly as I could.

    I cannot say strongly enough that I believe with all my heart that what Fr. Stephen says is true: Christ is known to us in our weakness. There is nothing that I’ve been able to do in my life except cling to Him in prayer, in confession, and in the Gift of His Church. It is not that if I didn’t have these things I’d be nothing – rather, I *am* nothing, and this is *all* I have.

    This is not meant to denigrate any other gifts from the Lord, especially my wife and children. But I have discovered over and over again, through great pain and many tears, that if I do not have Christ, then nothing else matters.

    I am not a good person. I am not a winner. I am absolutely a loser. There is no pep talk in the world that will change that absolute and fundamental fact about my life. I don’t use it as an excuse not to try hard. I try hard at most things I do – and I fail at most things I try hard at. It’s so tiring. But God is good… and honest to God, that’s all I need. Give me Him.

    I know I’ve said it before, but thank you, Father, for your blog. It has been a balm for me at some of the most difficult times in my life. God is good, and He has used your words to help me again and again.

  44. Psalm 130/131

    “Lord, my heart is not haughty,
    Nor my eyes lofty.
    Neither do I concern myself with great matters,
    Nor with things too profound for me.

    “2 Surely I have calmed and quieted my soul,
    Like a weaned child with his mother;
    Like a weaned child is my soul within me.

    “3 O Israel, hope in the Lord
    From this time forth and forever.”

    I love this picture of weakness trustfully leaning on the Lord in the Scriptures. I think this is what Fr. Stephen’s post is pointing us toward.

  45. I identify so strongly with Athanasios’ post, especially the twelfth paragraph that starts “I cannot say strongly enough that I believe with all my heart that what Fr. Stephen says is true…”

    I am just a regular person, truly small and of no account in this world, who is daily striving to cling to God’s grace and mercy and with joy be faithful to Him.

  46. Athanasios,
    Thank you for the courage to share so honestly. It is precisely because I know your story to be “our” story – for so many people – that I have taken care to write as I have and point out this important aspect of the Tradition. Even more important, are the people who think this is not they’re story. That is delusional. The American Dream is, in fact, a love affair with mediocrity. Even the wealth and success of a Bill Gates is mediocre at best when measured by the truth of what matters.

    Actually, none of the Dream even measures up to mediocrity, except by general consensus. But when eyes are opened to this, there can be a world of hurt, and shame that come down. And it is at that point that we must learn how to enter into the Cross. The path that Christ has set forth – the path of the Cross – is the path for “losers.” That way, everybody can travel along it. And since the culture’s “winners” are simply “losers” who haven’t come to their senses, the path remains open for them when they do.

    Fr. Thomas Hopko described the “winners” path as “life in the pig pen,” referencing the prodigal son’s journey into a strange land. He joked about the self-help books he could write: “Winning in the Pig Pen,” “The Pig is Your Friend,” etc. All of which are still life in a pig pen. Only when the prodigal comes to his senses and remembers his Father’s House can anything good come. Then he walks the path of repentance.

    If you lose your life for my sake… you will find it. Mk 8:35

  47. Athanasios and Juliana, I too count myself in the same group; God bless! And thank you, Father, for the loving manner in which you communicate such difficult (in our culture) truth.

  48. Byron: Your syntax is good for bolding and italics. All you have to do is use crow’s feet instead of brackets.

    Athanasios: I also am extremely grateful for your utter honesty. First of all, as Fr. Stephen said, we all resonate with this state; some of us just don’t know it yet. Secondly the place you are at is the best – and the hardest – place to be. The raw, naked flesh of y(our) humanity is being slowly immersed in the stinging but simultaneously healing embrace of God’s presence. Stand it for as long as you can. God knows your limits and will give you a reprieve when you need it.

    Again, I deeply sympathize with you – as in, I am there too. It’s not that I was once a winner and now am going through a rough patch, but rather that I am slowly having my eyes open to see that failure and severe limitations was a part of my existence all along – and this is not caused by something done diabolically, but rather He is using my fallenness for my good that I may learn the all-important act of reaching out for Him.

    Thank you once again.

  49. For years I carried around in my boxes of books a small volume entitled “The Pursuit of God”, written in 1944 by a man named A.W. Tozer. To this day I have no idea where the book came from. Mr. Tozer was a pastor in something called The Alliance Church and I definitely don’t know who they are. It was simply not the sort of book I would have ever bought but I seen it in my boxes for 20 years. I mention this because about 2 years ago, within the space of 4 days I lost everything I had; my job, my home, my meager savings and worst of all a wonder shepherd dog who I loved above all else. These frightening and drastic circumstances forced me to give or throw away almost all my possessions including boxes of Orthodox books. As I was sorting through the boxes I finally picked up this little book and began glancing through it before tossing it into the pile for the used book store, mystified as to why it was in my possession. What I found was an astonishing little book which, as an Orthodox Christian already introduced to the idea of ascetic struggle against the self, filled in so many blanks in my spiritual life. Mr. Tozer didn’t say much of anything that I didn’t know about already, it’s just that he crammed so much into 128 pages, and said it in such a way that shed another light on what I thought I already understood.
    One of the thing he touched on was his understanding of the story of Abraham and Isaac. We all know the story: God commands Abraham to sacrifice his most loved treasure, his son. The significance of the story according to Mr. Tozer is that Abraham was a man who had everything; family, property, herds of animals, etc. and most importantly his son Isaac. And, of course, Abraham was favored by God. But Abraham loved his son so much that he lost sight of the fact that he was loving his son more than God. Tozer said that God could have remedied the situation by working around the edges but, instead, decided to go straight to the heart of the problem and take Isaac from him. According to Mr. Tozer, what Abraham learned was that nothing he possessed, not even his son, was actually his; it was all from God.
    I came to see that the comfortable life I was living coupled with my devotion to that wonderful dog distracted me from what God wanted from me. Well, it was excruciatingly painful but He got my attention.
    I haven’t recovered from the material loss. As strange as it seems, I don’t want it back. The good life I had would be the ruin of me if I had it again. Not because I was profligate but because I was comfortable and, at least for me, “comfortable” is a subtly dangerous place to be because I will once again lose sight of how much I depend on God.
    I try to not forget a line I read somewhere, years ago. Father may recognize it.

    “It is not on what thou art nor on what thou hast been that God doth cast his loving eye, but on what thou wouldst be.”

    In today’s parlance that would probably read something like “Be all that you can be”. As a Christian I would have to say that what God (speaking to us through the Church) means by that is radically different from what the world means by it. By losing all that made my life comfortable and contented, I believe God forced me to see that there was no where else to turn but to Him so that I could begin to become the person he intended me to be.

    So, add my name to the list of “losers” on this site.

    Glory to God for ALL Things!!

    P.S. The book, though still sold in book stores, is available in pdf format on line. Again, though written by a self-educated man with a protestant background and perspective, I believe many Orthodox will be able to safely relate to what he is saying. Of course each should defer to the opinion of their priest or confessor.

  50. “ The Evangelical nightmare is its genius for taking the culture into its Churches and using it to “further the gospel.” When, in fact, it does not further the gospel. It just creates a little Christianized version of the same consuming culture in which it lives. “

    We had an interesting conversation this weekend at our small mission church. One of the members has been impressed with Methodist church near his house and its growth. They are essentially following the modern mega-church model by bringing in the culture through music, food, a more “celebratory” atmosphere to services (what this really means is a sentimental “party” atmosphere). He wondered how we might be able to do this. He asked “how do we increase the role of women”, etc. He used the concept (apparently popular in business circles right now) that “culture trumps strategy”. I think there is an important truth there.

    That said, I don’t draw the same conclusion that our member or Scott would I think. Yes, culture does indeed trump strategy, so by “strategically” playing into the modern culture (via music, food, or even anthropology by “increasing the role of women” – don’t get me wrong, there is no doubt a way to re-Inspire the roles of everyone, but there is of course a way to sell out to a modern anthropology as well) you and the Gospel get swallowed by the culture.

    I appreciate Scott’s efforts to speak to the culture – trying to “baptize” winning and losing, but when one says things like “St Mary of Egypt was a winner!”, it just does not work. It’s a bridge too far, and we would be better off sticking with the “militant” imagery of St. Paul for example than our current cultures idea of winning/losing if we need to balance “weakness” for whatever reason. Not that I think we do – Fr. Stephen (along with the whole Tradition) is of course on to something very very important when it calls us to truly, fully, bring into our selves/minds/hearts just how weak we are.

    I think that it is becoming more and more apparent (now that our culture is rapidly moving past the “protestant consensus” into a new religion just how contradictory these two ways (of life) are, and one of course is the Truth and one is not. I don’t think there is much one can do “strategically”, without wholly selling out, and not much one can do “culturally” except to as best as one can understand the “culture” of the Gospel and to live it/speak it.

    As far as the American Dream: My wife and I are “winners” in the american dream in many ways. We have big educations that allow us to have an income that allows us to have a big cars, a big house with big view, and still save for a big retirement. It’s quite ridiculous really, and it is so much trouble that it really is not worth it. It is hard for people who don’t have what we have to believe, but it in NO WAY buys us plain old happiness (let alone peace of soul, salvation, etc.). I can say with all honesty, that I often look back to a certain time in our lives when we could hardly afford our tiny apartment and gas for our broken down car with certain nostalgia, not because we were any happier (we weren’t), but because the American Dream seemed promising, like it really had something to offer. Now of course, I see it more for what it is – yet another sinful distraction from God’s call. I thank God for some things, like being able to afford to send my children to counter-cultural religious schools instead of government schools, and being able to support a small mission Church, but the rest is so much glitter (shiny, but altogether worthless). It really is here today, gone tomorrow. Would I weep? No doubt, as I am addicted to my comforts – but I have no doubt they would be cleansing tears in the end even if I did not want them to be…

  51. Marshall McLuhan famously said, “The medium is the message.” In evangelism, the importation of successful cultural media is often simply a way of saying, “The culture got it right.” I have written before about the fact that our culture is passion-driven. It markets to our passions. To change Orthodoxy and adapt it so that it, too, markets to the passions is completely false and destructive. It not only does not save, it confirms people in the spiritual disease that is killing them.

    The spiritual medicine that is Holy Orthodoxy needs to be rightly understood rather than adapted. There’s nothing wrong with Orthodoxy that being more rightly Orthodox won’t fix.

  52. Thank you, Fr. Stephan,

    Marjaana has rejected my off to live in my house rent free, planting gardens, raising chickens and preserving produce. Do you know of any reliable persons who would like an opportunity to live simply, to make a lifetime commitment?

  53. Evangelism… The tyranny of evangelism for those in a church whose main focus is seeking and saving the lost. Noble desires deformed by misplaced prominence, to the detriment of believers’ communion with God. When first learning about the Orthodox faith, I read that God’s desire for each person was union with Him (not pantheistically, but in Christ). Right there and then, I felt some shackles fall from my heart. They’re still falling, many thanks to Fr Stephen’s blog and the comments herein. Being in the Divine Liturgy, praying the Paraklesis with as much attention as my wandering mind can manage (I mean, those words – really – how all encompassing of a person’s longing and struggles, how lovingly the Lord and His mother beckon us), reading about some of the saints, remembering the ocean of God’s love compared to our sin (from a past comment by Dino, I think),… all treasures. I truly would love for everyone to become Orthodox and some day hope to have a mind that can think differently about evangelism, to understand what it should look like. Thank God there is always prayer.

  54. Athanasios, thank you so much for your post from May 31 @ 11:03.

    As Juliana said, I too resonate with so much of what you wrote. I suspect many people do. Thank you for sharing what you did! In an odd way I guess, it was very helpful to many of us!!

  55. I came across this today and it reminded me of what Fr. Stephen has been saying:

    “This is the wisdom and power of God: to be victorious through weakness, exalted through humility, rich through poverty.” – St. Gregory of Palams

  56. I have heard Orthodox Christianity referred to as the Marines of Christianity. At least in part this is because the Marines will go to any length and endure any hardship to win the battle. Orthodox Christians still fast for 40 days and still stand in worship (in some traditions more than others) and still make prostrations in prayer. Rick Warren said in an AFR interview that Orthodox Christians have tools for spiritual formation that don’t exist in other Christian traditions. They have the tools, the weapons, to assist in winning the battle.

    As I skim through the Ladder of Divine Ascent, I see so often words like “sweat” and “fights” and “effort” and “struggle” and “toil” and “victory”. These are words that seem to indicate trying and winning. Yes “trying” is humility ad calmness and lowliness, but when one tries this way then one can really experience true victory. That is winning.

    It seems to me that there is certainly merit to those on this thread who are proposing the use of “winning” language. Was St. Mary of Egypt a “winner”. Well she was valiant in battle and she won. A winner for sure.

    “The man who struggles against this enemy by sweat and bodily hardships is like someone who has tied his adversary with a reed. If he fights him with temperance, sleeplessness, and keeping watch, it is as if he had put fetters on him. If he fights with humility, calmness, and thirst, it is as though he had killed the enemy and buried him in sand, the sand being lowliness since it does nothing to feed the passions and is only earth and ashes.”

    “The effort of bodily prayer can help those not yet granted real prayer of the heart. I am referring to the stretching out of the hands, the beating of the breast, the sincere raising of the eyes heavenward, deep sighs and constant prostrations. But this is not always feasible when other people are present, and this is when the demons particularly like to launch an attack and, because we have not yet the strength of mind to stand up against them and because the hidden power of prayer is not yet within us, we succumb. So go somewhere apart, if you can. Hide for a while in some secret place. If you can, lift up the eyes of your soul, but if not, the eyes of your body. Stand still with your arms in the shape of the cross so that with this sign you may shame and conquer your Amalek. Cry out to God, Who has the strength to save you. Do not bother with elegant and clever words. Just speak humbly, beginning with, “Have mercy on me, for I am weak” (Ps. 6:3). And then you will come to experience the power of the Most High and with help from heaven you will drive off your invisible foes. The man who gets into the habit of waging war in this way will soon put his enemies to flight solely by means of spiritual resources, for this is the reward God likes to bestow on those who put up a good struggle, and rightly so.”

    “Freedom from anger, or placidity, is an insatiable appetite for dishonour, just as in the vainglorious there is an unbounded desire for praise. Freedom from anger is victory over nature and insensibility to insults, acquired by struggles and sweat.”

    “Let us try to learn divine truth more by toil and sweat than by mere word, for at the time of our departure it is not words but deeds that will have to be shown”

    “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

  57. But the world is upside-down and inside-out. Every good thing is found in the door of its opposite. In this world you truly win…..by being willing to lose everything. Those who wish to save their lives must lose them. Those are the true winners.

    People cannot hold both ideas (winning and losing) in their finite mind. They must practice losing in the form of surrender to God – and let Him take care of their winnings.

  58. drewster2000
    “In this world you truly win…..by being willing to lose everything. Those who wish to save their lives must lose them. Those are the true winners.”

    – Yes, exactly. Just as you have said, St Mary of Egpyt is a true winner.

    The point being that the language of winning is applicable and should be employed.

  59. Kierk,

    But I also said that we can’t hold both ideas in front of our minds simultaneously. We can’t on the one hand be in the experience of losing and on the other hand standing outside the experience of losing and see that it is winning. We are not capable of the dual mindset.

    St. Mary of Egypt would have never referred to herself as a winner, outwardly or in her heart. She gave up on any aspirations of winning in order to embrace Christ. And the God-Man Himself never employed the language of winning either.

    In fact the winner stance has long ago been hijacked by the self-made man, and he can have it as far as we’re concerned. It’s not the path God has led us down.

  60. “The point being that the language of winning is applicable and should be employed.”

    “the winner stance has long ago been hijacked by the self-made man, and he can have it as far as we’re concerned. It’s not the path God has led us down.”

    I totally agree. Our focus needs to be on God and where we stand before Him, which is as imperfect, inadequate, and undeserving beings who humbly thank and praise Him for His grace and love. We are not self-made and we should not embrace the “I will pull MYself up by MY bootstraps and WIN” mentality of the American culture.

  61. Two comments

    – Byron
    “We are not self-made and we should not embrace the “I will pull MYself up by MY bootstraps and WIN” mentality of the American culture.’

    No one is proposing any such thing. Quite the opposite in fact.

    – drewster2000
    In fact the winner stance has long ago been hijacked by the self-made man

    Yes. You are correct, the winner stance has been hijacked. I agree. We need to take back the winning language from the hijackers and use it to evangelize our culture.

  62. The only winning -which is also concomitant with St Mary the Egyptian’s luminous example of humility and that of all the saints- is that of a “decrease”

    He must increase, but I must decrease. (John 3:30)

    It is only He Who has “overcome the world”. (John 16:33)

  63. “We need to take back the winning language from the hijackers and use it to evangelize our culture.”

    I think the danger of this approach is that we engage in a semantic argument that, by nature, tends to void our outreach. It is better, and I still believe more accurate (as Dino noted), to separate ourselves from the culture instead trying to “conquer” it.

    “No one is proposing any such thing. Quite the opposite in fact.”

    I understand that you are not proposing that–my apologies for not being clear! I was only trying to point out that this is what the culture will hear if/when we speak of “winning”.

    As Drewster pointed out, “St. Mary of Egypt would have never referred to herself as a winner, outwardly or in her heart.” I think this is the correct approach and attitude to have.

  64. Kierk,
    “We need to take back the winning language from the hijackers and use it to evangelize our culture.” Then go do it. Don’t waste your time telling everybody else how they should speak. Some are very effective evangelists using the language as God gives it to them. I find it interesting when people write to me and tell me that I should write something different. Frankly, your comments are just semantic judgments about what you think would be more “appealing” to people. It would be more appealing to people if we were Evangelicals and dropped all of this Orthodox stuff. “Appealing” is not the measure of evangelism.

    The problem with writing a popular blog is that everyone has an opinion about what it should be. It just is what it is. I write, you read (or not).

  65. One of the best ways to evangelize is by repeating the words of Philip to Nathaniel….”Come and see.” For so many of us converts these words spoken in invitation are the reason we’re Orthodox today. The Spirit of God still speaks so powerfully in the divine liturgy! After all, it is He who converts, not us.

  66. coming out of retirement here

    Dino – I agree with you completely and from what I am hearing from Kierk it would seem that she/he would also agree. To decrease is to win.

    Byron – I might suggest we do both, separate (in a sense) while also engaging with the aim to win our culture for Christ.

  67. Scott,
    We will not win our culture for Christ. It is not something that is an appropriate goal. The outcome of history is in the hands of God. Our task is to be faithful, preach the gospel and make disciples. “Strategies” and “plans” – it’s the stuff America is made of. I do not have time at the moment to describe the whole of how this winds up perverting the mission of the Church, but it does. The success of the Church is simply in the hands of God. First, it has to actually be the Orthodox Church. This is the present crisis of Orthodoxy in America. Becoming truly Orthodox and more deeply Orthodox.

    There is simply not a “technique” or an “improved message” that will somehow “win our culture.”

    What there is, is faithful Orthodox Churches and people, living their faith more fully, and doing what God gives them to do. The rest is in His hands. He is clearly giving lots of people plenty of things to do. I rejoice in it.

    I have edited out your comments to me. I read them. They are noted.

  68. Fr. Freeman thanks so much for your reply!

    “There is simply not a “technique” or an “improved message” that will somehow “win our culture.” ”

    Yes, I agree.

    “I have edited out your comments to me. I read them. They are noted.”

    Okay. Live long and prosper.

    Scott

  69. “What there is, is faithful Orthodox Churches and people, living their faith more fully, and doing what God gives them to do. The rest is in His hands. He is clearly giving lots of people plenty of things to do. I rejoice in it.”

    I think underlying some of the ideas around “strategy” and “evangelism” and the language used, is a (ultimately sinful) anxiety about “what God gives them (us) to do”. I certainly *feel* this anxiety in myself and in every other member of our small mission church. We begin to question ourselves and God: Why are we not “growing” (adding new members) more than we are? What *more* can we do (even if this is understood as *more* internal spiritual struggle)? Related to this is some vague idea about what it means to be a “success” as an embodied and visible Church in the world.

    I am not exactly sure what the answer is. I am somewhat uncomfortable with a blithe reading of “it’s in Gods hands” (not that Fr. Stephen is suggesting this) and yet, it so obviously is not in our hands. As with everything else, we cast our weakness unto the Lord and pray he show us the way to repose in the midst of our toil…

  70. Christopher,
    I understand the anxiety. In my small parish, which began as a mission in a warehouse in 1997-8, we have grown in “fits and starts.” One year had over 25 new members, most of those in the course of a single Pascha. We had other years with hardly any. We do many of the same things, and then do things differently. I always try to follow up on those who visit – that’s useful. We have year-round inquirers’ classes. I always answer the phone. We have a good and up-to-date internet presence. And we’re friendly and welcoming. Those are the basic things.

    But the numbers are so much in God’s hands. We’ve had some people leave and start a new mission (back in 2009) and it worked out. We’re still growing. But there are no magic tricks. The things I mentioned are simply part of being faithful. We do lots of services – so there’s ample opportunity.

    But all of this is truly in God’s hands. I tell our parish that first, we must actually be an Orthodox parish so that when someone comes looking for the faith, they can actually find it. That’s a lot harder than it sounds. But, slow and steady “wins” the race (how about that for winning?). Faithfulness is measured in lifetimes. Lifetimes.

    People who want to do mission should first off, reckon that their first task is to give their whole lifetime to the task of being an Orthodox Christian. Not less than that and not other than that. Americans are short-sighted and impatient. I have now been here for over 17 years. I still feel like I’m only just now “founding” the parish. There is an old saying among monastics that a monastery is not truly founded until its founders are dead (and so can pray better for it). We have buried a few of our founders…but not all of us…not yet.

  71. Kierk, would you be able to tell me where/when R. Warren said that on AFR? By that I mean, what podcast, approximate date, etc?

    Thanks.

  72. Father Freeman said: But all of this is truly in God’s hands. I tell our parish that first, we must actually be an Orthodox parish so that when someone comes looking for the faith, they can actually find it. That’s a lot harder than it sounds. But, slow and steady “wins” the race (how about that for winning?). Faithfulness is measured in lifetimes. Lifetimes.

    People who want to do mission should first off, reckon that their first task is to give their whole lifetime to the task of being an Orthodox Christian. Not less than that and not other than that. Americans are short-sighted and impatient. I have now been here for over 17 years. I still feel like I’m only just now “founding” the parish. There is an old saying among monastics that a monastery is not truly founded until its founders are dead (and so can pray better for it). We have buried a few of our founders…but not all of us…not yet.

    Father, this struck me quite plainly in reading the comments on this and one other of your posts this day: I don’t think we will live to see (physically, here on earth) the end of the societal belittling and (at times) oppression of our faith. The changes to our society, even if they happened as quickly as the changes to the current “progressive” thinking, would easily take 50+ years. And, quite frankly, truth in Orthodoxy moves much slower than any societal political process.

    All that to say that talk of “taking things back”–in whatever form we envision it–will not happen quickly and, in all liklihood, will not happen during the lifetime of anyone here. We are better served to, as you instruct your pairshioners, “…giver [our] whole lifetime to the task of being an Orthodox Christian.” Wonderful advise that cuts through the various debates, IMHO. Thank you, Father, and many blessings and days!

  73. “[O]ur weakness can be found in places where our brokenness most resides: weak, sick, poor, tired, handicapped, dysfunctional, awkward, incompetent, inadequate – these all describe the place where Christ intends to meet us.”

    That unfortunately describes the things which make inept parents and our difficult children least welcome at a divine liturgy. I discovered this so unpleasantly this past Sunday that I’m still just shattered. Where then does Christ intend to meet us?

    Orthodox parents who don’t embrace the gospel of contraception are in for a decades-long spell of alienation from their church. As much as I love them, the little barbarians who are so unpopular with so many of my co-religionists just keep coming.

    After 13 years of being a parent of small children, I would expect to have come to terms with this. But it never gets easier, and like a true loser, I’m ready to call it quits.

  74. Matthew,
    Our culture has become intolerant of children in many ways. It is not unusual in my parish these days for the children to out number the adults. I’m sure it’s a problem for some and some visitors might not like it. But I tell people viz. children, “God loves them more than you.” (It’s a sort of joke, but based on Matt. 18:6). I teach a lot about it, use asides in sermons, etc., and work as a priest to be as tolerant and child-friendly as possible – probably to a fault. I am unable to do otherwise. Pray for those who don’t understand – be very kind to your children and protect them. As the Mother of God for help. She loves them more than we do.

  75. Father Stephen,

    How wonderful is that perspective. I have only three children ( I wish I could have had more) the oldest is 21, the middle 16, and the youngest almost 4.
    My priest is also wonderful with children. It has taken more discipline for me to not worry about little one during Liturgy than anything else. During my first visit, (I was not yet Orthodox) I took her outside when she became restless and did not bring her back in until the end. The priest in no uncertain terms told me that she was welcome and that I should not worry.

    In terms of parenting, I have had to realize that my attitude toward my children has more to do with my salvation than almost anything else. I have been learning to rely on the Theotokos for help in my desire to be a better mother.

    Forgive my rambling. Thanks for your compassionate attitude toward children.

    And Matthew, I will pray for you. That sounds very painful.

  76. Emmie,
    If you truly imbibe what is written in this article, then you cannot help but be patient with children and everyone else. I sometimes think that whatever compassion and patience I have is a result of grace and my own brokenness. We have a slight joke in my altar. Many of us there, including me, have ADD. It’s much easier to bear our distractions when we’re in the altar because there are things to do. Our distractions drive us crazy when we’re not serving. We laugh about it.

    Children, in my opinion, never do more than act out what is going on in the heads of every adult in the Church. They are distracted, bored, etc., and they (the adults) get angry at themselves because of it. And then, they lash out and want to blame the children, when the children are innocent for the most part. I’ve been in my parish for 17 years. The kids get older and their behavior gets more adult-like. My oldest will be 35 this year, my youngest is 24. I miss them as children, and love them as adults. Life is so short. People should give thanks always for all things and then, and only then, will they have peace.

  77. In the parish I attend, the children often outnumber the adults in Liturgy. Their noise and movement (along with the movement of parents catching them) is tolerated by all with great grace. Blessings and pray for you, Matthew.

  78. My parish also has many children. The priest takes time to ensure that the noise is welcome, but it can still be difficult to have patience with my own children. I have heard that some parishes are not as welcoming with the noise and screams of little children which is unfortunate. If the children are not apart of the body of Christ, then who can be?

  79. But shouldn’t we teach discipline to the children? Especially in our culture which celebrates every lack of self-mastery as “freedom”? I don’t recognize the problems you describe–rather the opposite. Parents stand by and let their children run around and trip elderly parishioners, color on the pews, dump sand from the candle box, peel up the flooring–and when asked politely to curb their children’s destruction, they wail that we are not appreciating their precious darlings’ presence in Church and squelching their “self-expression” in the community.

    Granted, I don’t have children. But am I really being an old trout for expecting parents to reprove their children for destroying Church property?

  80. Guadium,
    I suppose I am writing as someone who has generally high standards for my own children’s behavior, so it is nice to know that the priest is patient with the occasional cry. It is also nice to know that the congregation is welcoming of little children and loving towards them. Of course when my children are mean towards one another or towards property, they are disciplined accordingly. Sometimes it’s difficult to know where the line in the sand is.

  81. Granted, you don’t have children. I do try to keep my children in order, but this one is a handful. The doctors have him all hopped up on a high dose of thyroid medication, because running it too low would cause brain damage. Dosing children is difficult, because they grow. Thyroid medication raises metabolism, and you can work out for yourself what that does to a three year old’s behavior.

    My wife has health problems, so she’s not as effective at keeping him in order as she might be were she stronger. This child is also a momma’s boy, in part because I’ve been working two jobs, which limits my influence. If I intervene too strongly, things go downhill fast.

    Did I mention above that I’m inept as a parent? Yes, and I thought that was the point of Fr. Freeman’s article. My question is where apart from the liturgy I and my many and difficult children are supposed to encounter Christ until they have all reached the age of reason. With all respect, that question was not intended for you.

    The guy who read me the riot act has an adult child with Down’s syndrome. So managing childlike humans can be done. Again, I am an inept parent, which is the point.

    I didn’t come here to piss and moan. I came here for advice from a priest, and not from as you say “an old trout”. What I said will be enough for him to get the gist.

  82. Gaudium,
    I daresay it’s not an either/or. Some parents err on the side of not enough control. Some parishioners err on the side of being an old trout.

    But if you’re not the parents, then bear the burden patiently that God has set before you. If someone has children, they have to bear patiently the burden of old trouts in the congregation. It’s never easy.

  83. I think there is a balanced approach, maybe? I have not seen children in my small mission parish destroy property. They are asked to sit in the front with parents so that they may learn the liturgy. My daughter loves church for the most part and adores our priest. She is learning appropriate behavior by being there. But I would not have had the courage to keep her in if the priest hadn’t welcomed her so warmly. Also there is a wonderful woman who has befriended my lo who often sits near her to help me. I hope to do that for another mother someday. It is such a blessing. Thank you for voicing your concern, it is a difficult issue and so important to talk about. And no you are not an old trout for your concern:)

  84. Matthew’s point is quite apt. Sometimes our own difficulties, etc., make us fail with our kids, or do less well than someone else wants. So what then? Well, for one, the Church has to be the kind of community that can support people in their suffering. Scolding, judging, sneering, etc. isn’t helpful. A lot of love and patience, understanding, offers of real help do matter. One Sunday a young woman with a child came in to the Cathedral in London and was scolded by someone for a problem. It was mentioned the next Sunday by Met. Anthony Bloom. He described the situation and said, “You know who you are. What you did was a sin. And your penance will be to pray for her and her child for the rest of your life…” It’s serious business…salvation.

    Imagine we’re on a small boat and we’re picking up people who are drowning. Someone comes on board with a misbehaving child. We overlook it and get on with the work. Lives are at stake. If we think that we’re about anything less in a Divine Liturgy, then we are sadly mistaken. Lives are at stake.

    And if I’m patient, and overlook the sins and incompetence of some parent, then I will find favor with God who will overlook the incompetence of my sinful life.

  85. “But if you’re not the parents, then bear the burden patiently that God has set before you. If someone has children, they have to bear patiently the burden of old trouts in the congregation. It’s never easy.”

    This is true. a few years ago, when my oldest was about 3 going on 4 she was near us with two young boys who simply had allot of energy (as boys often do at that age). They were moving, noisy, etc. One parishioner became frustrated. When the three of them moved toward the choir and started gripping the stands, she moved in for them – she got to my daughter first, and very firmly gripped her, spun her around, and proceeded to tell her something (I could not hear). I very quickly gripped the shoulder of this parishioner, gave it an iron squeeze, and with a smile but a certain fire in my eyes said “I will handle it”. Now this parishioner understands that she crossed a boundary and perhaps understands that her frustration was not a justification for her actions. We are on good terms both before and after this incident.

    Unfortunately, the family with the two small boys eventually left, and while they could have done better with there children, I am not sure I could have done much better. I do not know, but the grief they received from the “old trouts” might have had a part to play (I would be surprised if it did not).

    Recently, with the birth of our youngest, we moved from our usual spot in back right up front (we rent a small 100 year old Episcopal chapel), where we had a bit of room because of the positioning of the pews, etc. Another “old trout” told us after a couple of weeks that we were disturbing her, and if we were going to continue to be where we were she would have to move herself. My wife told her, again with a smile, “fine, you better go ahead and move then”. We are also on good terms with this person. Both of these persons are older, have been married since their young adulthood, and are childless (for reasons I do not know). It is all too apparent that they find children and their behavior altogether perplexing, a real mystery, you can almost see the “why are they not acting like little adults” bubbles popping into existence over their heads 🙂 Frankly, I find their ignorance somewhat mystifying. Don’t they at least have relatives with children? Are they really that insular? The answer is yes – thus we have to be patient. Still, a family can’t let them cross certain boundaries or bully you. They wanting the parish to be a “mountain of silence” is no different than if you wanting it to be a playground – it’s neither…

  86. A thorny issue that has the potential to dent any number of toes. All I can say for myself is that I have gained a modicum of much needed patience over the years. I still manage to be a trout from time to time, but in silence. After 28 years I have begun to realize that my reaction is more of a disruption than activities of the children or their parents. I’m a bit dense….and I was an inept parent myself and I only had one pretty well behaved young man to wrangle.

    My darlin’ wife usually manages to calm down any child within a 10′ radius just be smiling at them and wiggling her nose. But then she loves each and everyone of them as if they were her own.

    Much to learn.

  87. I am entertained by the children, but sometimes feel a bit guilty about smiling at their behaviors (though none are disruptive or loud; the parents take them out for a while if need be) when I should be attending to the sermon or the prayers. However, what puzzles me more is the practice of lining their little ones up for communion, even standing beside them, or carrying the infants, but not receiving themselves–as if God welcomes children more readily than adults.

    As a newly chrismated member, a grandparent mysef, who has no knowledge of the history and practices of Eastern Christianity, I am trying to understand this custom. It almost seems that some think of the bread&wine, the icons, the candles, the blessed water as actually conveying power and grace of themseves., and that children will have a better chance of being good and remaining in their innocent state if they come into physical contact with these “objects.” What’s odd about these practices is that I havent seen during my time there (three years) more than two families with chidren older than about 10. Where do the older children go? I haven’t investigated because I figured it was none of my business.

    Some day I might ask our priest, but right now I enjoy the presence of young families, and the issue of communion is more of a curiosity than a distraction.

  88. Sorry, my name got swallowed up from my earlier comment. I’m Albert. I wrote the comment above.

  89. So Christopher, the person should have just let the children knock over the stands?? I find it odd that you said you’d hanlde it, yet at the same time, you weren’t handling it. Sorry, I’m not buying what you’re selling. I too have children and I’m grateful for others in churches who have helped out in teaching my kids what’s appropriate in church and what’s not appropriate.
    There are some straw men arguments here that need to be burned. Nobody is calling for a church without children or a church where children aren’t allowed to cry.

  90. “So Christopher, the person should have just let the children knock over the stands??”

    Actually, yes. That outcome would have been better than what she did. Perhaps I was not clear – she was frustrated/angry, and this was expressed by the speed at which she acted (she was quicker than I was and I was not moving slow), by the abruptness and strength/speed in which she “manhandled” my 3 year old daughter, and while I could not hear what she said or see her facial expression (she was turned away from me) I have no doubt that the tone in her voice, if not her words, were also an overreaction.

    If I had decided to manipulate her body with the speed and force that she did my child (something I am more than capable of doing) I would have been rightly charged and convicted with assault. She crossed a boundary and she knows it.

    “I too have children and I’m grateful for others in churches who have helped out in teaching my kids what’s appropriate in church and what’s not appropriate.”

    I agree. In fact, this particular parishioner (and others) have acted this way (appropriately) with my child since then. I did not mean to confess her sin (though that’s what I did didn’t I!) but to merely illustrate a real life incident where the tension between an “old trout” mentality and the actual behavior of children can come into conflict, and how we need to be patient.

    “Nobody is calling for a church without children or a church where children aren’t allowed to cry.”

    Not so fast. There are those who believe children should sit straight back, eyes forward, completely silent through the whole liturgy. My mother in law is one. My wife admits that this led to a certain dread and resentment of church for her as a little girl. The family with the little boys, I would not go so far as to say they were “misbehaved”. Their parents did an OK job with them, as I said I am not sure I could have done much better without crossing into that area where you are being “overbearing” and not allowing them to be children. That said, they were two energetic boys, and in a rather small chapel and they certainly could be “distracting”. The simple fact is that they were not very well tolerated by certain “old trouts”.

  91. Just listened to a short podcast that speaks well, I think, to why I’ve found Scott’s advocating naming our little steps toward healing as “winning” so distasteful and wrong. The “winning” steps and attitude he prescribes is read by Fr. Michael here as the luke-warmness we are warned against.

    http://audio.ancientfaith.com/praying/ptr_2014-09-30.mp3

    Thank you Father Stephen for your consistent help in bringing the spirit of the age, largely invisible to us, to light.

  92. I keep being brought back to this essay Father. I very much have needed to hear it.

    Fr. Michael Gillis posted a summary of and reflection on a talk by Archimandrite Aimilianos’ talk “The Progression of the Spirit” that harmonizes well with what you’ve said. It’s beautiful and can be heard here:
    http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/prayingintherain/i_am_naked_clothe_me

    Archimandrite Aimilianos’ talk can be read here:
    http://www.scribd.com/doc/98345851/Aimilianos-progression-of-the-Soul#scribd

  93. “We will not win our culture for Christ.”

    That’s perfect, Father, we won’t, we won’t because such culture is individualistic, antichristian, selfish, demonic in itself. It never was christian. It can’t be brought ‘back’ to its christian roots because these roots never existed in the first place. The history of America is hardly the history of western christianity, it is basically the continuation of the western modern history with some moral and culturally ‘technical’ colors of a distant and past Christendom the New World never met, knew or understood.

    Christendom was already dead for the West in the end of the Middle Ages. I hope I can be forgiven by mu protestant brothers for such radical statements but that’s how I see it, how I’ve ever seen it. Could be even more radical and say it died in 1054, if not sooner. The West is an aborted Christendom.

    My critiques of this cultural wars promoted by political christianity conservatism is based entirely in this basic history lesson: you can’t recover anything, you can’t procure to defend anything of value because it is already dead, and is dead for already so many centuries.

    That being said you would call me a byzantinist, a traditionalist fan of Orthodox autocracies. Well, maybe, but the whole history is far beyonf history itself. It is a theology lesson I learned with Dostoevsky: there’s no salvation, no hope, no everlasting truth in immanence. There is only God, nothing else matters.

    That’s why I’m above these stupid cultural wars, like the ones promoted here in Brazil by our conservative Evangelicals and traditionalist Roman Catholic, just like I don’t buy these pseudo-Orthodox Eurasianist, autocratic myths. I learned with my friend Dostô that this is all rubbish. Nothing of this saves, and can be even obsessive, spiritually harmful. There’s nothing worthy in immanence, nothing permanent. All this passes, kings, empires, traditional civilizations. One saint saving himself in the desert is worthy millions of these so-called ‘holy’ empires, and the wonderful thing is that they don’t save themselves only, but an entire humanity.

  94. Forgot to mention, thanks for this wonderful post, Father.

    You, and all of you, keep helping me in my struggles.

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