On Poverty or Where Is Your Heart

July 16, 2018

No, not poverty in the sense we use it. This would be one of the vows of the religious. To give up worldly goods.

“The poverty of the monk is resignation from care.” (John Climacus)

At what point in our lives does accumulation of possessions and wealth cause worry and distraction.

Do we worry about losing them?

Do we worry about getting more?

Do we worry that someone has more?

After all, Jesus taught us to beware possessions’ hold on us. That our heart may be inclined toward God rather than material possessions.

Writers in the Bible call this idolatry. The worship of things rather than the spiritual God.

It’s not that we are to have no possessions. We just need to beware being possessed by our possessions.

This spiritual infirmity is related to Gluttony, Avarice, and Insensitivity.

We can easily reflect on the power of these to ruin our lives.

On Overcoming Avarice

July 13, 2018

That’s a word you don’t hear much these days–avarice. I actually looked up definitions to assure myself that I knew what it meant.

John is on step 16 (out of 30) of his “Ladder of Divine Ascent”. Want a sneak peek at the end? We arrive at discernment, stillness, prayer, and faith, hope, and love.

He devoted many pages to discussing fornication. The discussion of avarice is brief. Maybe greed wasn’t as rampant in those days. Perhaps limited to only a few?

Avarice isn’t just greed–it’s defined as extreme greed.

A miser meets a charitable man. Later the miser says the charitable man lacks discernment.

I have run into people like the miser. Have you? Someone who mocks living generously.

Beware saying you are generous and then acting otherwise. I’m surprised John doesn’t bring in the example from the first days of the church–Ananias and Sapphira. Where they told the church they gave all the proceeds of the sale of their property to the fellowship, yet they held some back.

The sin was lying. Lying exposed greed. Greed exposes idolatry. Idolatry places material things above spiritual. It says God is not all powerful and I had best place some of my trust elsewhere.

Developing a generous heart and giving your wealth however much that may be is difficult. It is also an essential step toward living the with-God life.

As I’ve said before, it’s not your belief that makes you better, it’s your behavior.

Fornication-The Sin of Our Times

July 12, 2018

It’s not enough that we have movie moguls, business people, and celebrities using their position to obtain unwanted sexual encounters. Or late-adolescent boys using drugs and alcohol. Or even priests.

When I read about the Buddhist monk who has used his position to coerce sex, that seemed to take things way over the top. Buddhists above all other religions seem to be the most peaceable lot.

To paraphrase George Thorogood, “Who do you trust?”

John Climacus wrote his book to monks. They had taken a vow of chastity. That is his fifteenth step of the ladder. Overcoming fornication and sexual urges.

Interesting that on the day I read about the Buddhist monk I seen in The Ladder of Divine Ascent a story about how the “deceiver” who enters a monk. The monk talks with groups of women. They would feel emotional sympathy. Rush to him, “and the wretched monk would suffer his downfall.”

The Apostle Paul had an uneasy (to be kind) relationship with sexuality. He went so far as to advise married couples to abstain. Many people I know who love to pull random sentences from Paul’s writing to justify this or that belief don’t seem to follow this sentence judging by the size of their families. Just saying. The sentence a certain group of Christians like to quote as the guiding text for their hatred (or fear?) of homosexuality actually has as its noun (subject) the word “Passion”. Paul hated passion.

On the one hand he surely knew that God invented sexuality. It had to be good. I like the way Andy Stanley tells the story. One day God is looking at the man and said to the angels, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea.” They said, “What is it?” God replied, “You wouldn’t understand.” And God created woman.

Maybe those of us outside the religious vocation have not taken a vow of chastity. But surely proper boundaries and respect for others are required to handle these sometimes overpowering emotions (or deceiving demons as ancient writers put it).

Surely the global publicity of the #MeToo movement should make us aware of our urges in order to enable us to live with proper behaviors. (See yesterday’s post about behavior.)

Intentionally practicing proper behavior changes our emotional responses to stimuli.

Your Beliefs Don‘t Make You A Better Person

July 11, 2018

…Your behavior does.

You can tell me what you believe. But I’m watching how you behave.

You can tell me you are a Christian; but if your actions are not those of a disciple of Jesus, I will think you are not a Christian.

On the other hand, you may wake up in the morning not feeling very Christ-like. But you help someone with a bag at the store, or open a door, or let someone pass in front of you on the road to work, or some other small blessing to someone else.

You can “fake it ’till you make it” or better you can intentionally choose your behavior and discover a Jesus-like attitude toward life.

Jesus said to follow him and love…God and our neighbor. Love is an action verb, not a noun describing an emotion.

You go out and do love by how you treat other people. In so doing, you are following Jesus. After all, he often said to go and do.

Beliefs don’t make you a better person, your behavior does.

Gluttony Is A Spiritual Problem

July 10, 2018

Gluttony is hypocrisy of the stomach, says John Climacus. And he adds this advice applicable as much today as 1,500 years ago–Control your appetites before they control you.

This is a spiritual problem as much as physical. We can practice diets, complain about heredity, have a hormone imbalance, but the problem is a spiritual imbalance. A long time ago, not having today’s words but with the same insights, they called these emotions demons. Demons were spiritual beings.

The problem with gluttony is that it is never satisfied. John talks of eating the entirety of Egypt and drinking the Nile dry and still not be satisfied.

To overcome gluttony one employs the spiritual discipline of fasting. In this we place the primacy of God’s spirit over the demon of the belly.

Speaking as the demon of gluttony, John with great insight discusses its “children”. Today’s psychologists might say something similar using different words.

“My firstborn son is the servant of Fornication, the second is Hardness of Heart, and the third is Sleepiness. From me flow a stream of Dirty Thoughts, waves of Filth, floods of unknown and unspeakable Impurities. My daughters are Laziness, Talkativeness, Breezy Familiarity, Jesting, Facetiousness, Contradiction, Stubbornness, Contempt, Disobedience, Stolidity of Mind, Captivity, Boastfulness, Audacity, Love of Worldly Things, followed by Impure Prayer, Distracted Thoughts, and sudden and often unexpected Catastrophes, with which is linked that most evil of all my daughters, Namely Despair.”

How much of that describes the times in which we live? Look in a mirror, and see the reflection as if for the first time.

A research paper just came my way ascribing the problems of our times to technology. As in much research about human behavior, there is some truth. I think these ancient sources point to much deeper, spiritual roots.

Developing Character

July 9, 2018

Have you helped a young person develop a positive character trait today?

Or, have you taught hate, bigotry, sloth, whining?

When I was a teenager, someone talked me into umpiring baseball. I learned to show up on time, with the right equipment, make decisions, and hold firm in the face of constant criticism.

When we develop young soccer referees, we’re trying to do the same thing. Just add in teach a skill and help them develop it.

I still deal with far too many parents calling me about game assignments rather than the kid. But I gently encourage them to have the kid do the contacting–another life skill.

I’ve dealt with hundreds of coaches. And sets of parents. Some are, well, jerks. Maybe I’ve been there a time or two in my life, we all grow. But then you see the coach with less of his own ego on the line and more of the attitude that it’s all about the kids.

My grandson was lucky this year to get on a team with a great set of coaches and parents. Every player on the team grew in skill and confidence over the season. Losing the first game in a double-elimination tournament this weekend, they came back to win four in a row (it’s baseball, they can do that) including two on Sunday before running out of gas in their third game of the day.

What will we do today to help someone develop a positive character trait?

Beware the Noon-Day Demon, Listlessness

July 6, 2018

“in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.” — Psalm 90:6

Sometimes there is a feeling of listlessness. No goal, no direction, no energy. According to the early Church Fathers it begins with listlessness and results in despondency, despair, and spiritual death.

They had a name–the noon-day demon.

Today, we recommend taking a nap after lunch. Many successful people took naps.

But we are talking about something more serious than a little sleepiness after a busy morning and a lunch that is probably too heavy.

When I see such people, the word I think of is “lost.” As in, lost in the woods.

They seem to drift through life. Seeking attention, but seeking in all the wrong ways.

To overcome link in John Climacus’s chain of vices, one must engage in prayer in the firm hope of the future. This is John’s thirteenth step.

As you can see, John tackles harder and harder emotions as he teaches on spiritual formation.

Overcoming Lying

July 4, 2018

“Lying is the destruction of charity, and perjury the very denial of God.” So says John Climacus about the 12th step on his ladder of divine ascent.

It might seem that this is the age that perfected the art of lying. People perpetuate the most outrageous lies via social media. People who have caused serious physical, emotional, or financial harm to others can stand before the cameras of TV news and with calm assurance lie about their behavior.

But this is a human condition. John quotes David writing in the Psalms talking to God, “You will destroy everyone speaking a lie.”

John also reminds us of other times when the Holy Spirit pronounced the most dreadful sentence on this sin above all others.

“A man drunk with wine unwittingly tells the truth. A man drunk with compunction cannot lie.”

This is the twelfth step. The man who has taken it has obtained the root of all blessings.

On Talkativeness and Silence

July 3, 2018

It is hard to keep water in without a dike. But it is harder still to hold in one’s tongue.

Interesting that as John Climacus takes us further along the Ladder of Divine Ascent, the more he probes deeper into our hearts, our vices, our inner drives.

Sometimes I scan Facebook and Twitter. These are places where we feel free to be talkative without inhibition. I see the most revealing things about the state of many people’s hearts. That state is not always good.

John says talkativeness is the throne of vainglory “on which it loves to preen itself.”

We have all said things that we wished immediately after that we had not said. But many people seem clueless about how the things they say reveal the hardness of their hearts.

On the other hand, John says “intelligent silence is the mother of prayer, freedom from bondage.”

For the man who recognizes his sins has taken control over his tongue, while the chatterer has yet to discover himself as he should.

“Better to fall from a height to the ground than to slip with the tongue.” That also applies to what you say on social media–perhaps more so since you reach so many more people.

The Holy Virtues Are Like the Ladder of Jacob

July 2, 2018

…and the unholy vices are like the chains that fell off the chief apostle Peter. The virtues lead from one to another and carry heavenward the man who chooses them. Vices on the other hand beget and stifle one another.

So writes John Climacus (St. John of the Ladder).

In this middle section of his work, John discusses anger and how from anger comes malice, or the remembrance of things wrong. Malice, in turn, begets slander.

“Whom does this describe? There are girls who flaunt their shamelessness, but there are others who are much worse, for they put on the appearance of great modesty while secretly engaging abominable behavior.”

I have also heard what John heard 1,600 years ago–“These evildoers claimed to be acting out of love and concern for the victim of their slander.”

An entire book could be written from this admonition from the tenth step, “To pass judgement on another is to usurp shamelessly a prerogative of God, and to condemn is to ruin one’s soul.”

And, “A charitable and sensible mind takes careful note of the virtues it observes in another, while the fool goes looking for faults and defects.”

He who has practiced this tenth step has practiced love.