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A look at what Moses’ confrontation with Pharaoh in Exodus 5 teaches us about being a disciple of Christ.
— Dear All. Now that Orthodox Holy Week and Pascha (Easter) is over, and I’ve (just about) caught me breath, I’m getting back to these blog posts. To get things going again, here’s an excerpt from a sermon I gace at #StNicholasFW on Sunday, April 14, 2019. +FrAJ
Several years ago, Steven King wrote a book called: “On Writing: A Memoir About the Craft.” The book was part autobiography and part manual on how to write good fiction. One of the points that King made was that good writers are always willing to trim away any content that doesn’t move their story forward, even if that material is particularly dear to their hearts. In typical Steven King fashion, he put it this way:
Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.
King’s advice reminds us of something we hear in one of the Psalms we read at Vespers during the Lenten season.
Psalm 137, “By the waters of Babylon,” is Israel’s lament during the Babylonian Captivity. Their captors make light of their suffering, taunting them to sing songs from their homeland. The People of Israel respond, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” This Psalm ends with some very disturbing language as the Israelites ask that revenge be taken on the Babylonians:
O daughter of Babylon, who are to be destroyed! Happy the one who repays you as you have served us! Happy the one who takes and dashes your little ones against the rock! (Psalm 137:8-9)
One of the things we’ve learned in our Bible Studies this year is that scriptures often simultaneously have various levels of meaning; it’s not that one is right and the rest are wrong, they all exist together. The final words of Psalm 137 meant one thing to Israel at the time of the Babylonian Captivity, expressing their anger and discouragement and shame. The holy Fathers of the Church understand these verses at another level, one that points to something universal in the human experience.
The saints teach that every sin begins as a small whisper of a thought. These thoughts can come from the demons, who want nothing more than to see us drift away from the Lord. Often they come from our appetites, or from our senses — things that we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. Even more often, they come from our own particular unhealthy ways of thinking — from our prejudices, self-justification and narcissism, or just as often from our insecurities, paranoia, and self-loathing.
Regardless of their source, the saints teach that these quick flashes of what we “could” say or do are not sins yet, they’re just suggestions to sin. If we choose to engage these suggestions, then we’re sinning because we are willingly entertaining them. The longer we stay with these thoughts, the deeper they sink in, and they become harder and harder to shake; and sooner or later, sinful thoughts lead to sinful words and actions. Furthermore, the more we engage these behaviors, the quicker we go to them, until they inevitably become habitual. At that point these things have grown into full blown defects of character that, like the Babylonians of old, stop us from returning to our heart’s true homeland, the Kingdom of God.
The saints go on to say that the best time to handle our temptations is when they are still only tiny whispers floating around in our heads. At that point they are still in their infant stage, most vulnerable and easy to deal with. This is how the Fathers interpret the “little ones” of Psalm 137, they are temptations in their earliest and weakest stage. But even though, they are weak, we need to understand how to best address them.
We have said before that the Christian life is full of paradoxes, like the one we heard in today’s Gospel reading:
“Whoever wishes to become great shall be your servant.” (Mark 10:44)
One of the lesser known paradoxes is that we handle temptation by not addressing it at all. Again, the final verse of Psalm 137 says:
Happy the one who takes and dashes your little ones against the rock.
Notice that it does not say, “against a rock,” but “against the rock.” The Church Fathers connect this phrase with something that we read in St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, concerning how God nourished the Israelites in the journey to the Promised Land:
Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ. (1 Corinthians 10:1-4)
The “rock” that we smash our “little ones” against is Christ. Only the Lord Jesus can set us free from captivity to our sins — only his Gospel, his Church, his sacraments, and his holy name: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”
We can’t attempt to wrestle with our sinful thoughts by ourselves because, by wrestling with them, we have engaged them; and — again — the more we engage them (even if we’re engaging them to resist them), the harder they are to shake. We take all of our passions, all our toxic appetites, proclivities and prejudices, and throw them down at the feet of Christ as quickly as possible.
In the words of the 20th century monastic Father, St. Porfphyrios:
“You won’t become saints by hounding after evil. Ignore evil. Look towards Christ and he will save you.”
“Just as there are ‘better angels of our nature,’ there are also ‘lesser angels’ of our nature. We have the capacity for compassion, but we also have the capacity for indifference. We have the capacity for forgiveness and for resentment. We can build bridges and we can burn them, we can heal and and we can hurt. We have to very intentionally choose the path of compassion and forgiveness and healing, and of all those things carried in that phrase ‘the better angels of our nature.'”
This month 158 years ago, Abraham Lincoln gave his first Inaugural Address. By then, seven states had seceded from the Union and his goal in his first message to the American people as their President was to be both conciliatory and firm — the Union could not be divided. He concluded his address with the words:
The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
Long before our family moved to the United States, I was struck by that final phrase of Lincoln’s address: “the better angels of our nature.” To see positive change in our world, in our communities, our families, we need to pay attention to that which is positive and life-giving in the human character.
Related to this Sunday’s sermon at #StNicholasFW