Dying to the World

There was, among the desert fathers, a man who often cried aloud during his prayers: “I have died to the world!” He did so very loudly and very regularly so that the other fathers began to anticipate hearing the man in his prayers call out, “I have died to the world.” Some were inspired by this and began to cry the affirmation out in their own prayers while others were a little annoyed by it.

One day an older father was walking with a young disciple and they heard the man in his prayers call out, “I have died to the world! I have died to the world!” 

The older turned to the younger and said, “Let me offer some advice: Don’t be so sure you’ve died until you’re dead.”

To quote Miracle Max in “The Princess Bride”, “There’s a difference between mostly dead and all dead.”  The process of sanctification, dying to the world and becoming alive in Christ, being more and more conformed to his image, is a lifelong one. Christian perfection is something we must ever strive for as disciples but we must always do so, as the Apostle Paul says, “with fear and trembling.” Sin is always lurking somewhere in the recesses of our hearts ready to mount a comeback and all it needs is a little pride. To walk in the way of Jesus is to constantly be dying to the world and being born anew in him. We are called to walk this way with humility, knowing that as long as we are living, there is always more dying to be done.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Parable of the Onion

Once there was a wicked old peasant woman. She died without a single good deed to recommend her so in the next world she was cast into the lake of fire by the devils with all the rest of her kind.

Up in heaven, her guardian angel was not content to let the old woman’s story end so sadly. He racked his brain to try and remember a single good deed the woman might have committed. He was hoping he could recall a single instance of selflessness or pity or piety or anything resembling virtue. At last the guardian angel remembered that the woman had once pulled up an onion out of her garden and given it to a beggar in need. With that, the angel flew up to God to petition for the release of the old woman.

“O LORD, don’t let this woman suffer a second longer,” the angel called out, “She really can be quite selfless. Why once she gave a passing beggar an onion out of her very own garden.”

God answered: “Take that very same onion with you then to the lake of fire and hold it out to the old woman. If she takes hold of the onion, and you are able to pull her out, then she may join the saints here in Heaven. However, if the onion breaks and the woman falls back in, she must carry her sentence into eternity.”

The emboldened angel flew with the onion as fast as his wings could take him to where the old woman was suffering her torment.

“Grab hold of this onion,” he called to the woman, “and I will pull you out!”

The woman grabbed hold of the onion and the angel began very carefully pulling the old woman out. When the other sinners saw that she was being delivered, they rushed toward the woman and began to grab hold of her legs in hope that they too would be delivered. 

The woman saw them holding on to her as she was finally hovering above the lake and her heart was filled with contempt for them. 

“This is my onion,” she shrieked, “and no one else’s! No one is being saved today but me!” 

So she began kicking violently and swinging her body to shake the sinners off so that they would fall back into the flames. As she did this, the onion broke and the wicked old woman fell back into the lake of fire where she burns to this day. Her guardian angel floated above her with the broken onion. He said not a word, only wept. 

Now whenever anyone breaks an onion, they too weep though they may not know why. They weep for an wretched old woman who could not be saved by her one good deed.

I first encountered this odd Russian folktale in Fyodr Dostoevsky’s immortal masterpiece, “The Brother’s Karamazov.” In this story lies a dramatic truth. It is the inverse of Jesus’ beatitude on mercy: cursed are the merciless for they shall receive no mercy. Grace tries desperately to rescue us any way we can be rescued but in the end it is our own self centeredness that damns us. God is indeed “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” but we stand in our own way of His grace when we are quick of temper and bursting with awful hatred. As disciples walking in the way of Jesus, we know that we are not justified before God on the basis of  good deeds but on the basis of our faith. We also know that faith without deeds will shrivel up and die. We know that the merciless and unforgiving stand in their own way of God’s mercy and forgiveness. The challenge is ever before us to live with such love toward God and neighbor that when all is said and done our angels will not weep for who we could have been.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Three Hermits

A certain Archbishop heard a rumor that on a nearby island, there lived a group of Christian hermits who had been shipwrecked long ago and had taken up residence there. People said that they had lived there since they were young men and had very little contact with outsiders. Furthermore, it was said, their understanding of the Christian faith had fallen into disarray after all their many years of conclusion. It was said that these hermits could no longer recite the Apostles Creed, they couldn’t pray the Lord’s Prayer, and they didn’t know a thing about the trinity or the incarnation. The Archbishop felt a burden in his heart for these hermits and decided to search them out so that he might bring them back to Christian society.

The Archbishop set sail for the location where the hermits were supposed to be and, sure enough, he found the island exactly as described. When he came to shore, the Archbishop found a small camp where three hermits lived. They each had long white beards down to their waist. The Archbishop greeted the hermits and quickly discovered that all the stories he had heard about them were true. They knew next to nothing about their Christian faith on account of the fact that they were extremely forgetful. The only prayer they knew how to recite was, “Lord have mercy on this sinner.” The Archbishop, offered to take them to the mainland so they could be among Christian society, but the hermits had been in eachother’s company on the island so long that they had become quite happy there and they politely refused.

So the Archbishop decided to educate them before he left. He labored at length to teach them the creed, but the three hermits were so forgetful that they simply couldn’t keep any of the information in their heads long enough for it to sink in. Trying to explain the trinity and the incarnation was even more hopeless so the Archbishop focused his efforts on at least getting the hermits to recite the Lord’s Prayer. The Archbishop worked with them well into the night. The hermits were eager students. At first they slipped into their habit of praying, “Lord have mercy on this sinner.” But after hours of repetition they finally had the Lord’s Prayer down solid.  Satisfied with his work, the Archbishop blessed the three hermits and went on his way.  He had only been out from shore for about 2o minutes when  he heard noise coming from behind the boat. When he turned to see what it was, his jaw dropped. To his astonishment, the three hermits were running across the water to catch up to him. When they finally made it to the boat, they stood on the waves and called out:

“Archbishop! Archbishop! Teach us the words to your prayer again! We’ve already forgotten them!”

At that very moment, the Archbishop fell on his knees and, looking up to Heaven, he prayed, “Lord have mercy on this sinner.”

Leo Tolstoy gives this old Russian folk tale the short story treatment and it is well worth seeking out. It is easy to have disdain for those that we consider to be less knowledgable about the faith than we. It is a trap that those of us who have been in Church all our lives continually fall into. Some even make sport of critiquing the theology of others and cutting them down to size for their simplistic ideas. The truth though, is that Christ is after our hearts, not our heads. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus promises that it is the “pure in heart” who will see God. A prayer prayed in deep sincerity is answered even if it is not beautiful or learned. As the hold hymn goes, “Let not conscience make ye linger/ nor of fitness fondly dream/ all the fitness He requireth/ is to feel your need of him.” A faith that knows nothing but that it needs the mercy of Christ is a faith that can walk on water.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The Dry Wood

Sometime during the 4th century a man named John renounced all of his worldly possessions and went to live among the Desert Fathers. He was quickly accepted in the community and because of his shorter stature was nicknamed by the brothers, “John the Dwarf.” When he first arrived in the desert, John’s spiritual mentor was a man named Father Pambo. His new spiritual guide took a piece of dry wood, planted it, and said to him, “Water it every day with a bottle of water, until it bears fruit.” The nearest water source was 12 miles away so John had to leave in the evening and return the following morning. John did this faithfully and without complaint for three years, leaving each evening and returning each morning, until the wood came to life and bore fruit. Then Father Pambo took some of the fruit and carried it to the church, saying to the brothers, “Take and eat the fruit of obedience.”

To this day, in the Nitrian desert, in the abandoned monastery of St. John the Dwarf, you can see this tree. It is known as the “Tree of Obedience.” This parable shows us the great value of obedience. Obedience to God demands that we trust His wisdom and His timing. Obedience is faithfully doing our duty each day trusting that in the end it will make the difference. The United Methodist prayer of confession ends with the line: “forgive us we pray, free us for joyful obedience in Christ Jesus our Lord…” Joyful obedience is at the heart of what it means to answer the call of discipleship. Denying ourselves and taking up His cross. We do so in the hope and promise that one day we will sit at that heavenly banquet table and taste the sweet fruit of obedience.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Father Antony’s Visitors

During the 5th century, a group of Christians retreated to the desert to devote their lives to fasting and prayer, living their lives free of the temptations of the world. They have become known to history as the “Desert Fathers.” One of the most revered of the desert fathers was a man named Father Antony. Stories about his holiness and devotion spread far and wide. It was not uncommon for pilgrims to make a journey out to the desert to see Antony and seek his wisdom. There was one particular group of believers that made a habit of traveling every year to visit Father Antony. There were three of them. Every year when they arrived to Father Antony’s hermitage, two of the three would spend the day questioning Father Antony. They would ask him about the scriptures, the life of holiness, and seek his advice on all matters of faith. Father Antony enjoyed these visits and was always patient with the seekers. It always puzzled him, though, that one of the three never asked anything. Years passed and the three believers faithfully made their pilgrimage again and again. Two of the three always asked questions and the third continued to remain silent. Finally after many years, when Father Antony was getting old and the three travelers were advancing in age as well. The visitors came for what Father Antony thought may be the final time. At the end of their stay, after which the visitors continued their custom of two asking questions and the third remaining silent, Father Antony spoke to the silent visitor:

“Brother, I have enjoyed your visits these many years, but I don’t know how many more years God will grant me, nor do I know how much longer you will be able to make this journey. Your companions have sought much wisdom from me over the years and yet you have remained silent. Was there nothing you have wanted to ask of me?”

The third visitor smiled and said, “Father, it has always been enough just to see you.”

Far more important than the advice we give is the life that we live. Saint Francis of Asisi famously said: “Preach the Gospel always; occasionally use words.” As disciples we are called to help others in their journey toward holiness. Often this requires, patiently listening to their questions and sharing from our learned wisdom. More often, it requires setting an example through your actions. Even if you feel like you aren’t eloquent enough to disciple others, perhaps for them it is enough just to see you.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

What More Should I Do?

A disciple once came to Abba Joseph, saying, “Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, my little fast, and my little prayer. And according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my mind of all evil thoughts and my heart of all evil intents. Now, what more should I do?” Abba Joseph rose up and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He answered, “Why not be totally changed into fire?”

I found this short little story about Joseph, one of the Desert Fathers, in Richard Foster’s book “Prayer.” I’ve kept Foster’s wording because it stunned me in my tracks. What a beautiful illustration of a fundamental truth of the spiritual life- that it is about more than just participation, it is about transformation. We miss the point when we think small. The goal of our little prayers, and our little fasts should be to be completely transformed by the one who is the Consuming Fire!

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…