I'm Just Gonna Shave, Shave, Shave...Shave It Off – Sunday of the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council

Sometimes I really want to shave my beard.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot, if I may admit it.

I’ve had the beard since 2009, so 6 years of having hair on my face has left me a little curious as to what it looks like underneath.

My wife and I have had multiple conversations about when it would be a good idea for me to shave my beard (like maybe when I’m on a trip for a few days or something, that way it is at least partially grown back by the time I return home). Ultimately, however, it keeps coming back to a pretty basic reality: my family, especially my daughter, has gotten used to what I look like with the beard.

If I were to shave, she likely wouldn’t recognize me because what my face actually looks like would confront her image of me. If she were to see what my bare face actually looks like, it might scare her or cause her to wonder, “Are you really my dad?”

And some times, I wonder if we do the same thing with God.

The other day I asked my daughter what I thought would be a very simple question: “What is God like?”

She paused, looked at me for a few seconds, shrugged her shoulders and offered perhaps the most theologically sound response of all time: “I can’t even spell ‘God!’”

The more I think about it, the more I realize that all great theology, that is to say, all great knowledge about God starts with the simple admission of God’s utter transcendence, magnificence, and otherness.

Following my conversation with my little one, I asked a handful of my friends to describe God. Their initial responses were all fairly consistent:

  • “Describe the indescribable?”
  • “I can’t.”
  • “That’s a big question!”
  • “Is it weird that that makes me panic a little bit?”

In each response, it was clear that my friends were on to the same thing as my daughter: I can’t even spell “God.”

After pushing a little further, however, I started receiving answers like this:

  • “He’s paradoxical. He’s somehow personable and mysterious. Like Jesus feels knowable and relatable, but the other aspects of God seem so much more lofty and full of theology to the point of making my stomach hurt.”
  • “The fact that He’s the God of the Old Testament and the New seems paradoxical because He’s described as jealous and vengeful, but is not that in the New Testament or at least in a different way.”
  • “He’s loving. Fatherly. Strict, but fair. He created us, so I think He wants us to be the best we can be.”
  • “Our all-knowing, all-loving creator. He is the truth, life, light. Yet inconceivable.”

And the thing is that God is those things. As we pray daily, God is “everywhere present and filling all things,” and in the Liturgy we state that God “brought us from nothingness into being.” Only one who is all-powerful could bring forth something out of nothing.

Unfortunately, I wonder if the God we – I follow is too much a god of my own mental construction. Perhaps I think of Him too much as “God with a beard.” I wonder if I have become too comfortable with God existing in my own image of Him.

Bear with me.

The Jews of Christ’s time all had “Old Testament” ideas about Who God is and how God acts, but when Christ came to them, that is, when God “shaved His beard” and showed His actual face, they couldn’t handle it.

The first generation of Christians knew how completely mind-boggling the incarnation is, how completely incomprehensible Christ’s death on a Cross is. They knew that the Gospel is something that neither philosophers nor priests could fully comprehend, a challenge to everything that anyone thought we knew about anything, because “we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness” (1 Cor 1:23)

The Church has long confessed that Jesus Christ is all that it is to be God and all that it is to be human. To speak of the man Jesus is to speak of Almighty God. But the God we are given in Christ is so entirely different from the god we have in our minds that when God came near us as a human, we killed Him, just because we couldn’t stand it anymore. We liked our ideas about God better than the revelation of God’s very Person.

I think we see this in particular when Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the One they have been waiting for. Jesus enthusiastically says, “You’re right! Blessed are you, Simon Peter! And now I’m going to go to Jerusalem to die!” But for Peter, the Messiah is a political figure who conquers Rome and restores Israel as a kingdom, not someone who will suffer at the hands of sinful and violent men. So naturally, Peter tries to rebuke Jesus (i.e., “You’ve got it wrong, Jesus…let me tell you what the Messiah really does…”), but following this, Peter receives the harshest indictment that Christ conjures in the Gospels: “Get behind me, Satan. You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Matt. 16:23).

Ouch.

Like Peter, I fear that we also are far too comfortable with our mental images of God being powerful according to a human definition of power. The God that Peter expected – and the God that we expect – does not come to us as a conquering King, but rather as a Suffering Servant.

And we struggle with this.

This Sunday is the commemoration of the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council, and we are invited to crucify our faulty ideas about the divine and instead contemplate the God who reveals Himself in the all-too-human Christ.

Part of the Gospel this Sunday reads, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (Jn. 17:3). To know God as He willingly and fully reveals Himself in Jesus Christ is the key to eternal life. Thus, to know God, we cannot look anywhere else than at Christ.

Not our experiences, not our feelings – and certainly not our thoughts and reason.

The Council convened initially to dispel the destructive heresy of Arius, who taught that Jesus Christ was not God, but rather was a created being, just like you and me. This may make me unpopular, but…I guess I kind of get why Arius would have thought that.

Hear me out.

I wonder if Arius’ impulse was the same as ours. Perhaps he simply felt uncomfortable that God had “shaved His beard” in Christ, came down to us, dwelt among us, and (even more scandalously) had died as one of us. Perhaps the thought of the impassable God becoming a vulnerable human was simply inconceivable for Arius.

Perhaps Arius would have been more comfortable with a lightning bolt-throwing, cloud-parting, earth-quaking God whose power was made manifest in the kinds of ways we would expect a god to make himself known.

But that god is not our God.

Our God is a God who came into a world with no room for Him and considered a straw-filled manger to be a basinet fit for a King.

Our God is a God who touches the sick and makes them whole.

Our God is a God who snuck away from the crowds who wanted to make Him their ruler.

Our God is a God who had no place to lay His head.

Our God is a God who did not disdain humanity, but rather, chose fully to identify with humankind to the point of death – even death on the Cross.

And it is this God, whose power is made perfect in weakness, that we are invited to know this Sunday – not some god who is an amalgam of powerful images existing only in our heads.

No, our God is the crucified and exalted Christ, the Holy One of Israel.

But this God, the God who is revealed in and through the crucified and exalted Christ, makes us a little uncomfortable compared with the God of our imaginings. We want a god who can zap bad guys, who can give us job promotions if we just pray hard enough, or (even) who gets really mad at us when we screw up.

But that god isn’t our God.

Instead, we are given Christ. The crucified one who willingly endured the shame of the Cross, even at the hands of those He came to save. The one who didn’t cast down thunderbolts from the Cross, but rather forgave His killers. 

But part of the reason that this God-Man, Jesus, makes us uncomfortable is not only because He reveals a God who willingly unites Himself to weakness, but because He also fully reveals to us our own weakness and vulnerability.

And that is what really makes us uncomfortable.

The reality is that just as much as we can look at Jesus and see all that it is to truly be God –  long-suffering, humble, healing, patient, self-giving – we also look at Jesus and see all that it is to be human – weak, frail, mortal, dependent, vulnerable.

We do not want to be vulnerable, because it feels like death, and this reminds us, that we, too, are mortal.

Often, in our fear-based culture, we think of ways to “insure” ourselves against disaster, disease, and death, thinking that if we just quit smoking, we might live another 10 years.

But it’s not just physical vulnerability that makes us nervous. It’s also social vulnerability that makes us dread being fragile and frail humans, so we often gird our loins and try to put our “best selves” forward, believing that if people saw us with “shaved faces,” they may not like what they see.

And so we ignore our family members so we can work longer hours, believing that the next job promotion will give us the status that will complete us. We gossip about others so that we can feel that at least we’re better off than someone. We lie to those we love in order to avoid disconnection with them for fear that “if they really knew who I am” we would lose them forever.

We are a culture that lives, breathes, and dies shame, “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”[1] And so we do all we can to avoid this kind of vulnerability wherever it appears, including turning away from those who are openly vulnerable themselves.

We look the other way when we see the poor at freeway off-ramps. We debate the ethics of abortion instead of doing the costly work of building an orphanage in every city in America. We distance ourselves with advice when our friends and family members open their suffering to us instead of simply “being there,” offering a hug and a mere “I’m with you until the end.

This is the vulnerability of our God. It is not a vulnerability that offered advice about our miserable state, but rather is a vulnerability that shared it. Willingly.

Shamelessly.

This kind of vulnerability scares us, though, because suffering sucks. But to avoid vulnerability is to cease to be human for to be human is to be vulnerable.

And this Sunday, Christ invites us to accept our vulnerability, praying, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (Jn. 17:11). If Christ reveals a God who suffers with human beings, then we as His Living Body will also be called to be a Church that suffers with human beings.

Vulnerability is the name of the game. God has shaved His beard, inviting us to do the same. Instead of turning away from the vulnerability we each possess, God asks that we, instead, turn toward one another, holding each other close in our shared humanity – a shared humanity that suffers vulnerability and dies.

God shares that vulnerability doesn’t have to scare us because He has already “been there and done that,” revealing that on the other side of dying is not death, but abundant and everlasting life.

So let us be brave and walk the path of vulnerability with Jesus Christ, the God who shares in our common humanity, trusting that if vulnerability was good enough for Him, it’s certainly more than enough for us.

What do you think? Is vulnerability something that scares you? What do you do to avoid confronting your own vulnerability? How does it comfort or bother you to know that Christ has identified with your own vulnerability? Comment below!

 

[1] Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (New York: Avery, 2012), p. 69.

Christian is a Young Adult Ministries Coordinator for Y2AM. He is a husband, father, mover, shaker, coffee drinker, sandal wearer, and CrossFitter. Christian has his MA from Azusa Pacific University in Marriage and Family Therapy and is working toward a second MA in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary. Christian and his family live in Phoenix, Arizona.

Photo Credits:

Half Shaved: Éole via Compfight cc

Nicea Icon: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Nicaea_icon.jpg

Crucifixion: RobertoUrrea via Compfight cc

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For more:

For more on Christ as revealing true humanity, check out this episode of Be the Bee:

For more on the power of the Cross and the transformation of vulnerability and death, check out this episode of Be the Bee:

 

The Lame Blame Game - Sunday of the Blind Man

I used to be a huge fan of aquatic animal life. Sea World was, quite possibly, my favorite place in the universe. I was especially a fan of Shamu. One night, when I was 5, my mom and I were praying before bedtime (as we did every night), and I uttered a simple prayer: “God, bless Shamu. God, bless Nanu. But God, don’t bless the hammerheads.”

I still think that there is something to this prayer.

My 5-year-old self had already realized that the world is full of scary things. Scary things like hammerhead sharks.

By the way, they still scare me.

As I grew up, my prayers became more grown-up and mature, too (at least, I hope). Now, instead of praying from fear of hammerheads, I’m more motivated by fear of this world.

Though sometimes I still get on planes and promise God that if he gets me safely to my destination, I’ll never sin again.

I admit, this kind of prayerful bargaining isn’t very mature, and misses the point of true prayer. Even so, such prayers do speak to something very true, something we rarely articulate but know all too well, deep in our bones.

Something isn’t right in this world.

And I’m not just talking about hammerheads.

Before I joined the Y2AM Team, I worked as a child and adolescent therapist. Most of the kids that I saw were wards of the State of Arizona, having been removed from their parents due to severe neglect, abuse, or both. Some were on the road to reunification with their families; some were going to be adopted by others. All of them came carrying a great deal of hurt.

And every time they told me their stories, I got mad.

I was mad at this world. I was mad at their parents. And I was even a little mad (if I may admit it) at God.

How, I wondered, could God allow for these children to have such terrible lives?

What did they do to deserve this? And what must have happened in their parents’ lives for them to be so cruel to their children?

I was looking for someone to blame.

Of course, such thinking rarely yields satisfactory answers, and can even lead to great despair. And in my case, it did.

I couldn’t (and still can’t) understand how a good God could allow such awful things to happen to innocent children.

Because I do believe that God is good. But I confess that I struggle to understand why these things happen, or more to the point, why God seemingly doesn’t do anything about them.

Of course, bad things happen to all of us. To some degree we all have felt the pain of living in an imperfect world: through broken hearts from broken relationships due to broken promises which lead us into broken dreams.

Each of us, at some point, has felt the sharp sting of the world’s brokennes. Each of us, at some point, has felt at our heels the monster of death and all that it brings: sickness, loneliness, divorce, job loss, etc.

Every rational instinct in us demands an explanation: Why do these things happen?

Why does God let them happen?

This Sunday, just two weeks before Pentecost and the close of the Paschal season, we will see Christ heal a man born blind, and we will see the Lord’s apostles struggle with all of the questions we’ve been wrestling with.

As Christ is returning from the Temple on the Sabbath, He sees a man who has been blind since birth; Sts. John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, and Irenaeus all taught that this man was actually born without eyes. This man is born without two important organs: incomplete.

When the disciples see Him, they ask the Master, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (Jn. 9:2). Immediately they want to know why this bad thing has happened. They want to know what happened to cause him to deserve this. They are looking for who is to blame.

But Christ doesn’t assign blame. Instead, He answers simply: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (Jn. 9:3).

This response is sometimes frustrating for me. This sounds like Christ is saying that God made this man blind so that God could make him see. This just sounds like a cruel thing for God to do, doesn’t it? Why make him blind at all if He was planning to make him see? Couldn’t God have simply shortcut the process and made him with fully functioning eyes?

But then I realize that I’m blaming God, and Christ isn’t interested in blame. Instead of focusing on the cause of this problem, He offers a solution.

Christ heals the man.

But this healing doesn’t occur with a word, as we saw Him do a couple weeks ago with the paralytic. This time, He does something rather peculiar (and honestly, a little gross); He spits in the dirt, makes clay, and rubs it in the man’s eyes (or eye sockets, according to the fathers), telling him to ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (Jn. 9:7).

When the man returns with his sight restored, the people are baffled, hardly able to believe it is the same man who days before was sitting and begging, born without eyes.

Yet it is the same man! He is the same man who just moments ago, had no eyes. No wonder people reacted with such amazement, saying: “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing” (Jn. 9:31-32).

In this passage, Christ gives no answer for why the man is born blind. Instead, He turns the question on its head by making the work of God manifest in this man. And the work of God, “is making human beings, and specifically human beings in his image, after the stature of Christ himself…the point of this passage is not about the providence of God or his arbitrariness, but rather to remind us that we are clay in the potter’s hands.”[1]

As it was in the beginning when God formed human beings from the dust of the earth and breathed life into them (Gen. 2:7), so now does that same God, Christ Himself, act to fashion eyes from the dust of the earth.

In this way, the man’s blindness can be reframed as neither the result of his parents’ sin nor his own, but rather, the natural consequence of living in a world that is mortal and fallen. God doesn’t cause or even necessarily allow bad things to happen. Rather, He bears them with us, and promises that He is “making all things new” (Rev. 21:5).

That this man is born without eyes is simply further evidence that our world is a world in which not everything is okay. It is a world still in the process of being created. But this Gospel has a word for us. It promises that our God, one day, will complete everything that is incomplete, perfect that which is imperfect, and right every wrong.

The reality of our world is such that bad things happen all the time. They just do. Children are abused. Parents are estranged. Marriages are broken. Jobs are lost. Diseases are contracted. Lives are ended.

Each of us has experienced this in our bones, and we know on a deep level that not everything is okay, that something is missing.

And our impulse is to blame somebody – anybody ­– for why these bad things happen.

But the Gospel blames neither God nor man for this terrible state. Instead, it gives us hope.

Hope is different from optimism. It is a mature realism grounded in the reality of the Gospel, and it presents us with an “altogether different orientation to time…hope seeks a future not by ignoring or denying death (looking on the bright side) but by living through it…Optimism says, ‘Something good will come out of this experience.’ Hope says, ‘In the midst of hell God will act.’…Optimism is positivity; hope is trust.”[2]

More specifically, hope is trust in a Person. Optimism looks to put a “happy spin” on something bad (“At least you don’t have cancer”) while hope is born out of living in the present and looking to God, trusting that Christ will do something (at least eventually) to make it all better.

And He will.

This Gospel is proof of that, although we may not be able to explain how the healing happened.

Each of us is born incomplete. We are born lacking…something. So we raise our voices at God and ask why our lives are the way they are. Why was I born into this family? Why don’t I have more money? Why can’t I find a job? Why do my relationships fail?

Yet the sad thing is, we cannot know why, often because there is no why.

The question of why something has happened can only be answered when a Living Who acts in the midst of our personal hells. Apart from God the world is a mixed-up, meaningless, arbitrary place. It is only our encounter with the Risen Lord that can provide relief. It is for this reason that C.S. Lewis closes Till We Have Faces with the beautiful line, “I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away.”[3]

Because the Lord is with us in our joy, and He is with us in our pain. Perhaps the promise of this Gospel reading doesn’t make the bad things any less painful to bear. But our hope remains, and it is firmly placed in the One who opens the eyes of a man born blind, the One who completes what is incomplete and rescues us from the maddening terror of meaninglessness.

What do you think? Have you ever wondered about why bad things happen? Does it help to have hope that things won’t be this way forever? Comment below and let us hear about your big questions!

 

[1] John Behr, The Cross Stands, While the World Turns: Homilies for the Cycles of the Year (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2014), p. 86.

[2] Andrew Root, The Promise of Despair: The Way of the Cross as the Way of the Church (Nashville: Abington Press, 2010), p. 142-143, emphasis mine.

[3] C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold (Orlando: Harcourt Books, 1956), p. 308. 

Christian is a Young Adult Ministries Coordinator for Y2AM. He is a husband, father, mover, shaker, coffee drinker, sandal wearer, and CrossFitter. Christian has his MA from Azusa Pacific University in Marriage and Family Therapy and is working toward a second MA in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary. Christian and his family live in Phoenix, Arizona.

Photo Credits:

Hammerhead Shark: tzeca via Compfight cc

Blame: Simone Lovati via Compfight cc

Mud: Rafael Edwards via Compfight cc

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For more:

For more on avoiding blame, check out this episode of Be the Bee:

For more on seeing God's love in everything, check out this episode of Be the Bee:

Thank the Teachers!

How will you thank the teachers?

It’s still that time of year. Another Sunday Church school year is about to end. There will be programs to recognize the achievements of the children. They will receive certificates, pins, and gifts. Students who will go off to college might receive a larger gift bag or toolkit for their dorms, a Bible, an icon, a prayer book.

What about the teachers? How will you acknowledge that from September to mid-May, around 35 weeks, their gift of time to the parish has been huge. They have been prepared lessons, organized projects and events, remained in contact with students and parents, attended meetings and seminars, read books, prayed for their students.

Church leaders should not take the teachers for granted. They are “major donors” to the parish. They might have been “pressured” to teach, but once they accepted, they have been there week after week. They spent time with their students, saw their faces, celebrated name days and birthdays, all to help them grow in their knowledge of the Orthodox Faith and Way of Life.

Some people dismiss the work of the teacher in the parish, saying things like, “It’s just Sunday school. No big deal.” And they wonder why they have a difficult time recruiting teachers. Some people say that the only requirement to be a teacher in a parish is a “warm body,” (I’ve heard that said about clergy too!). And they wonder why teachers get “burned out.”

In their book, The Other 80 Percent, authors Scott Thumma and Warren Bird note the following about church volunteers. “Any church that wants to strengthen its volunteer efforts should engage in regular training sessions and mentoring, rotate its leadership of groups, reflect its member diversity in committees, and offer public acknowledgement, reward, and recognition of volunteers.” Parishes that do this are twice as likely to be described as “spiritually vital.”

What to do?

Public recognition. Invite the teachers to come before the congregation, to receive a small gift, and tie it with huge thanks. Pray over them and bless them and their ministry. Include photos and biographies in parish newsletters and bulletin boards. Post photo displays on the parish television, power point style, in the parish fellowship hall. Post them online.

Regular training and mentoring. Use a buddy system of teachers. Pair up an experienced teacher with a novice, not in the same classroom, but a mentor. Offer regular training sessions, to study issues of faith and education. Encourage attendance at and financially support their participation in seminars.

Place some time limits and rotate. Teach for a few years in one grade, then take a break or move to a different dimension of the program, then return to a new grad or a new ministry altogether. Find new ways for teachers and others serve in the program, from finding small, manageable tasks, to utilizing new and other talents and skills of teachers.

Above all, huge thank you’s to the teachers!

 

Blinded by the Light - Sunday of the Samaritan Woman

Lately, my wife and I have been trying to teach our four-year-old daughter the value of picking up after herself.

It has been a struggle.

One of us will tell our little girl, “I see shoes in front of your door. I see a doll next to mommy and daddy’s bed. I see a headband under the kitchen table.” Usually, thank God, our little one responds quickly, running to pick up her belongings to put them away.

But it isn’t always that easy. Especially on my feet.

Why, oh why is toy food made out of DIAMONDS?

Yes, of course, we want the munchkin to learn the importance of taking care of her possessions and treating her belongings with more respect and how we can’t get new things if we don’t clean up our old things and how we need to be responsible with what we have and blah blah blah. But we also just have gotten tired of stepping on her stuff in her room. Especially in the dark.

For what seemed like an endless 6-month period, my daughter would wake up in the middle of the night, crying because she was scared, lonely, or even simply cold. Every night at around 1:30AM, like clockwork, I’d hear the same cry: ““Daaaaaaaaaaaaddy!”

And so, like the doting (grumbling) dad that I am, I would roll out of bed, stumble down the hallway into my daughter’s room to graciously (groggily) ask her what was wrong. But before I could reach her with love (fatigue), I would accidentally stomp on the surprisingly sharp face of Elsa (or maybe it was Anna?). Instead of whispering words of comfort to my daughter, as intended, I’d mumble words of exasperation that sentenced her Elsa (Anna?) doll to a lonely night in the closet.

Over that 6-month period, it was an almost nightly routine. I would stumble into my daughter’s room, impaling my foot as I tried to feel my way through the dark.

Because, you know, I can’t see in the dark. I don’t have sweet night-vision goggles. I don’t even have a cool, primitive sonar capacity that would allow for even cooler echolocation navigation. Needless to say, my ability to make my way through my home without sight would embarrass Matt Murdock.

So why not just turn on the lights?

At 1:30AM, even the softest light feels blinding to my sleepy eyes. My retinas prefer the comfort of darkness to the blinding flash of a light bulb. Yet that choice always comes with a cost, as it leaves me unaware of the mess in front of me. My eyes avoid pain in the dark, but my feet usually don’t.

At 1:30AM, darkness is both friend and foe: friend because, in itself, it doesn’t hurt; foe because it keeps me from seeing the truth of the mess around me, and I become far more likely to get hurt.

Turning on the light to see the mess isn’t exactly that enjoyable, but it’s the only way to avoid stomping on sharp toys.

This coming Sunday, we will hear about Christ encountering a woman, Photini (“the enlightened one”), at a well. I am particularly struck by one of her lines in the story: “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” (Jn. 4:29).

When we meet Photini, Christ is sitting near Jacob’s Well. She comes to get some water, and Christ asks her for a drink. This simple conversation starter leads to a great amount of discourse in which Christ shares that this water, while it may slake her thirst now, will cause her to thirst again later.

Christ then offers her living water, telling her that “whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (Jn. 4:14). Photini’s response to this is exactly what it should be: “Sir, give me this water” (Jn. 4:15).

But then, what follows is not what she expected.

When Christ tells her to call her husband (Jn. 4:16), she responds that she has no husband (Jn. 4:17). Christ then tells her, “You are right…you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly” (Jn. 4:18).

And just like that, the lights are turned on, and Photini becomes “the enlightened one.”

Her sin is exposed. This encounter with Christ reveals something about her.

And it hurts.

When we stumble around in the dark, it is easy to pretend that we are just “a little clumsy,” but when the lights come on, we begin to see this room is a mess – this room is my mess.

Photini experienced this. And we must experience it, too.

If we are going to come to know Christ as Savior, it can only happen as we come to recognize that He is Savior because we stand in need of being saved. To see this, we must see ourselves clearly.

Fr. John Behr, commenting on this Gospel writes:

Encountering Christ and receiving the spring of living water may not be what we expect it to be. You can’t introduce a stream of running water into a still pool without all the silt and sediment in the pool being stirred up; the immediate result will be that the pool is much more murky and turbulent than it was before…Encountering the truth of God in the person of Christ by receiving his Spirit is at the same time being faced with the truth about ourselves, and we simply fool ourselves if we think that this is going to be easy.[1]

Too often, we find ourselves like the woman at the well, stumbling around in the dark, avoiding the hard truth about God and ourselves. But Christ is inviting us into a true, living, and dynamic relationship in which we may simultaneously know Him to be Savior and ourselves as forgiven sinners.

But we tend to like the dark. We like the sediment settling at the bottom of the pool. We may be resistant to the light coming on in our hearts because we may begin to realize what a mess it is in there. We may hesitate to receive the living water lest it begin to stir up all the stuff we would rather not deal with.

But the call of Christ is one that we are encouraged to undertake bravely as we can know that He is the Savior who has already forgiven us for our multiple infidelities to Him – “You have had five husbands.”

But that doesn’t mean dealing with our mess is going to painless.

We may continue to stumble around for a little bit because turning on the light is disorienting and painful.

As St. Syncletica of Alexandria stated, “Those who would ignite a fire are at first choked by smoke, their eyes stinging with hot tears. Even so, by this effort they obtain what they have sought: The God Who is a consuming fire. Just so, we kindle this divine fire with tears and breath and labor.”[2] The work of opening our hearts to God and looking truly in ourselves is “painful. It is akin to spiritual death, but it is the only way in which the healing process can begin.”[3]

And Christ promises that this healing process will lead us to thirst never again. He leads Photini – He leads us to desire Him and the healing that only He can bring.

The healing involves a stark look in the mirror, to be sure. We will see ourselves as we really are, and we probably won’t like what we see. But we will only see ourselves clearly because the Light of Christ illumines all, making photinis of us all, inviting us to gaze on His face, to see Him as He is.

Then “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn. 3:2).

So, let us contemplate Christ, the Light of all, that “we may come to know ourselves as sinners, yet also know that we are forgiven in Christ. This reality is inescapable – it is the truth; and it is better that we are broken upon this rock, and then built up upon it, rather than that it falls upon us and grinds us to dust (cf. Matt. 21:44).”[4]

What about you? Does having your heart exposed scare you at all? Or have you ever had such an experience of coming to know Christ and being confronted with your own sinfulness? Comment below and let us know how you responded to what could have otherwise been a difficult and demoralizing time!

 

[1] John Behr, The Cross Stands While the World Turns: Homilies for the Cycles of the Year (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood: 2014), p. 82-83.

[2] Scott Cairns, Love’s Immensity: Mystics on the Endless Life (Paraclete Press, Brewster: 2007), p. 25.

[3] Joseph J. Allen, Inner Way: Toward a Rebirth of Eastern Christian Spiritual Direction (Holy Cross Orthodox Press, Brookline: 2000), p. 25.

[4] Behr, The Cross Stands While the World Turns, p. 83. 

Christian is a Young Adult Ministries Coordinator for Y2AM. He is a husband, father, mover, shaker, coffee drinker, sandal wearer, and CrossFitter. Christian has his MA from Azusa Pacific University in Marriage and Family Therapy and is working toward a second MA in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary. Christian and his family live in Phoenix, Arizona.

Photo Credits:

Play Food: Original

Daredevil: OsCataleptic via Compfight cc

Murky Water: Eva the Weaver via Compfight cc

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For more:

For commentary from the fathers on this reading, check out the Gospel Passage at Exegenius

For more on the call to Repentance, check out this episode of Be the Bee:

For more on Exposing the Mess in Confession, check out this episode of Be the Bee:

The Potential of Religious Education, even Sunday School

On any given Sunday from about September to May, I conservatively estimate that at least 10,500 young people attend a parish religious education program, with at least 2,625 adult volunteer teachers, with the support of the 600 clergy in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (You can do the math: 525 parishes: an average 20 students, 5 teachers per parish.). Whatever the size of your parish’s program, you are participating in the single largest program of the Greek Orthodox Church on a national scale. If we were to include all Orthodox Christian parishes in the US, the numbers would, of course, be even larger.

Handing forward the Orthodox Christian Faith and Way of Life to another generation ought to be a central activity of every parish and family. As Orthodox Americans, we have been thinking about the best ways to teach the next generation, pretty much since we arrived on these shores. Implicit in this effort has been the realization that our educational efforts are essential to “make it” in America. This realization has become more important today. As the sociologist Peter Berger advised an Orthodox audience more than a decade ago, we can no longer “take it for granted” that our children will remain connected to the Church and their Faith. If we fail in our educational ministry, you and I could be the last generation of Orthodox Christians in America. It’s a great responsibility and challenge.

“Knowing” is more important today than perhaps ever before; we don’t call it “the information age” for nothing. We are bombarded by all kinds of information from a dizzying array of sources. As Orthodox, we are often asked to explain what we believe to others, so knowing the facts is important. Educational experiences that foster thinking provide the space for separating the wheat from the chaff through study, questions, discussion, and action. Of course, we can “know” in many ways, but religious education creates, at least, the opportunity “to know” in our minds.

Religious education has the potential to fill the minds of young and old and expose them to the treasury that is the Orthodox Christian Faith and Way of Life. Religious education, when done well and for all, provides everyone in the community an opportunity to acquire the knowledge of the contents of their Faith and ask honest and critical questions of it, hopefully getting good answers, so that they can more deeply appropriate its truth and wisdom in their heads, their hearts, and their hands.

As a Church, we have yet to tap the potential of good religious education, even in the Sunday school model. There are real strengths in the schooling approach to religious education. Yes, there are challenges, but there are advantages as well.

Focused, sequenced, and age-appropriate study. Religious education should follow good educational practices, utilizing what we know about how people learn over their lives and the best ways for teachers to facilitate learning. One benefit of a textbook series is that someone has done that work, sequenced what is to be learned in an orderly way that makes sense for someone over time. Is it everything that can be learned about any given topic? Of course not! There is always more to be learned and experiences to process, which is why it takes a lifetime.

Adults mentoring students. Teachers take up a lot of time and space in young people’s lives. At church, they can instill a love of learning about the Faith, because they are excited about learning it. They are role models, guides, and coaches in living the Faith, because they are striving to put their Faith into action.

Community building. A classroom setting is a good place for people to get to know one another; relationships are formed and a community is built. Studying together fosters relationships because of the work of the class, discussions, projects, games, and celebrations. In the parish, a classroom experience is just one of a few ways young people can meet regularly and become friends. They can mentor one another as peers, student to student. In a class, we learn what it means to be a part of a community.

Reflection and making connections. A classroom is a good place to make an intentional connection between the praxis and experience of the Orthodox Way of Life with the content of the Orthodox Faith. Customs, traditions, and practices are connected to stories, events, and sources. Hymns have words that relay ideas, concepts, doctrine, and teachings. A classroom is a good place to ask the questions, “What does that mean?” and “Why do we do that?” One of the great truisms of education is that we can learn little from experience without reflecting on it.

This being said, we must state that we have too easily limited our understanding of curriculum to a printed book. The entire life of the parish is the curriculum. Which physician would you prefer? One who only read medical textbooks or one who went to a medical school filled with labs, good teachers, hospital internships and residencies? The same is true for the Church. Schooling in faith -- reading a textbook, answering questions -- is just one dimension of the much larger curriculum of the parish that teaches us what it means to be and live as an Orthodox Christian. The curriculum that is needed is a dynamic parish community filled with good worship and liturgy, opportunities for service to the world and parish, good fellowship and organization, and fellow parishioners who can talk about and share their knowledge, experience, and wisdom that comes from a life in the Church. In such an environment, classroom experiences fill in the knowledge about the Christian life that is being lived.

Religious education programs should not happen during the Divine Liturgy or any other worship service of the Church. For the better part of the last fifty years, Orthodox Christian religious educators, the Department of Religious Education, and Clergy Laity Congresses of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese have reaffirmed this message repeatedly.

There may have been an unintended byproduct of this message. Some people say that the main reason they attend church on Sundays is to send their children to Sunday school. Perhaps, just perhaps, they have figured out when Sunday school begins and time their arrival just for that! Perhaps, just perhaps, (as one of my students observed), attendance at Divine Liturgy was better when people came to Liturgy from the beginning because they knew that’s when Sunday school began and they sent their children to class while the adults attended Liturgy.

Finally, permit me to share how religious education occurs. Volunteers handle the overwhelming majority of this work in our parishes and Metropolises. They are the little recognized heroes and heroines of this ministry. In my travels around our Archdiocese, I see creative and dedicated teachers, supervisors, and clergy, who week after week strive to teach the Faith. St. Paul ranks teachers after apostles and prophets, and before miracle workers (1 Cor. 12:28). Yet these teachers are apostolic and prophetic, and week after week, they perform miracles.

There is no expansive educational bureaucracy to support them. There is one Archdiocese office of seven people that creates textbooks and supplements, magazines, videos, develops programs, and now websites, blogs, and social media discussions (and it takes real money). They also seek out other materials created by Orthodox sources and evaluate resources created by non-Orthodox, so that they might be purchased and distributed to parishes (We maintain a catalog of nearly 800 items.). They spend time on the phone advising parishes and teachers about these resources, and take their orders, answer their questions, pass along tips and ideas about improving a parish program (We have about 7000 customers, parishes and individuals, from all Orthodox jurisdictions in North America and the English-speaking Orthodox world.). And we are responsible for keeping track of it all – accounting, reporting, computers, files, etc. (We average 3000 orders per year.) As I like to say, this dedicated group of people is too few people trying to meet too many needs.

In the first description of the Church after Pentecost, the community gathered daily to attend to the teaching and fellowship of the apostles (Acts 2:42) and the breaking of bread and prayers. Education in faith has been an organized and intentional activity of the Church since its very first day. Our task is to honor that legacy with the best educational ministry we can.

Christian Gonzalez
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