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Self Denial

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?

—–Jesus

 

Self Denial is defined as – the willingness to forgo personal pleasures or undergo personal trials in the pursuit of the increased good of another.

Christian monastic asceticism(severe self-discipline and avoidance of all forms of indulgence) is remarkable for its balance, its sense of proportion. It does not overstress the negative side of the ascetic life, nor does it tend to flatter human nature by diminishing responsibilities or watering down the truth. It shows us clearly that while we can do nothing without grace, we must nevertheless cooperate with grace. It warns us that we must make an uncompromising break with the world and all that it stands for, but it keeps encouraging us with the hope of the happiness that lies ahead.

—— Thomas Merton


 

Self-denial is not very popular in our American culture. We are taught to want the best and more of it. A beer commercial once proclaimed, “You only go around once in life: Go for all the gusto you can.” The commercial is no longer aired, but the attitude permeates our society. Over and over we are urged to grab for all of life that we possibly can, and then go for more. An unprecedented number of Americans classify their religious status as unaffiliated or “none.” The concept of self-denial is an anathema to our society and, therefore, so is Christianity.

Nones

Jesus teaches his followers to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow him. That concept just doesn’t speak to our society. Everything must have a payoff, a good result, be successful or it is just not worth doing. We in the church speak of what sacrifices are necessary to live the Christian life. Hypocrisy, ill will and scandals have unfortunately brought Christianity to aHypocrites screeching halt in our day. Many people have a hard time seeing that Christianity has any genuineness at all. We are no longer the focus of the marketplace or the leaders of society. Quite honestly, it seems as though we are being erased as if we never existed. We are either considered uneducated at best or mean hypocrites at worse. Our identity has become the purveyors of the “thou shat not “message. Why, you ask?

Because of the overall negativity of our message, much of the world has forgotten about the grace of God. This grace is the free and unmerited favor of God. In the secular world grace is simple elegance or refinement of movement. I would like to propose that both definitions are applicable to the follower of Jesus who practices self-denial. Merton says that we can do nothing without grace, and asserts that we must cooperate with grace. I believe that the Christian who lives in oneness with God by taking up of their cross is a person who is both receiving the unmerited favor of God and journeys through life with simple elegance. This life of self-denial is surprisingly freeing. We are no longer dragged down by competition, envy or even defeat. Now we can live in a world where God truly reigns. Simple self-denial makes God’s kingdom very real in the here and now.

Grace-1

The challenge is – do we truly believe in Him enough to practice self-denial and cross bearing? Tall orders these are, but ones that have an” other worldly” payoff. Those large numbers of “nones” that the pollsters tell us about have rejected the grace that comes with self-denial and can scarcely imagine what “grace freedom” really means. Grace freedom is the ability to live in the kingdom of God in the now and be excited about what is to come. The best things in life come by letting go.

For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?


Prayer

Lord, I pray for the gift of grace that allows me to deny myself and take up my cross. That road is one that my mind will not let me follow, but I know that if I open myself to your grace I can see your mind and gladly follow. When that happens I have unimaginable freedom. The road is confusing, but I trust you.

Amen

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Choose the Incomprehensible

Therefore, leave all the things of the world that you can understand and instead chose to love that One Who you cannot comprehend. For while God may be loved, God will never be understood. God may be found by love and held by our hearts but never by our thoughts. Sometimes it may seem good to think of the special kindness and the worthiness of God.”

—-Cloud of Unknowing

5-24-17Any casual Google search or a stroll around a bookstore will quickly teach you that we, as people, want to understand everything. We want to be able to figure things out. There is, after all, an answer to every question and it is our job to find it. The writer implies that if that is our approach to God, we will never find Him. He gives some advice as to how we might find God.

God is found when we abandon the things of the world that have so tightly controlled our lives and given us our self-worth. In our quest for God we must swallow our pride and accept that we will never truly be able to put God in a convenient box. The push to understand God in simple terms is maddening. By abandoning the search for the concrete facts about God, we find the peace that was found by the desert monastics of the 4th and 5th centuries. Abba Pambo said, “By the grace of God, since I left the world, I have not said one word of which I repented afterwards.” The challenge is to “leave the world.”

Most of us cannot leave the world in the same fashion that the men and women of the desert did some 1500 years ago. We have responsibilities, obligations to our families, and just plain sensibilities that prohibit us from doing as they did. So then, how do we accomplish this undertaking?

The first call is the call of love. To love someone is to accept them with the full knowledge that you will never totally understand them. People have given their 5-24-17-2lives in a quest to understand God and failed at just loving him. The sure road to agnosticism is to make understanding God a prerequisite to loving Him and believing in Him. We enter into the cloud of belief with love and not knowledge. The Apostle Paul put it quite appropriately when he said, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” If we choose the path of love vs understanding, we will one day see God as He is.

God is held in our hearts and not in our thoughts. Knowledge is a very powerful thing but there is nothing greater than heartfelt feeling. Such a feeling defies convention and logic and fights battles that may seem unwinnable. Our task is to give our hearts to God. We must put aside our desire to be able to explain the unexplainable and just accept Him with eyes of the heart. Christian musician Michael W. Smith says, “Lord open the eyes of my heart.” When the eyes of our heart are opened, we will see Him.

We are called upon to choose the incomprehensible as we journey with God, as we pray to God, as we trust God, for in all of these things we must put aside the norm of the world and search for the supernatural norm.

As we follow God, we choose the incomprehensible.


Prayer

Lord help me to have the courage to seek you in the incomprehensible corners of my life. Protect me from the self-centered faith that leads to ruin and give me the courage to not know, but to believe.

Amen.


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VENERABLE BEDE AND SALVATION

His name was Bede, also known as Venerable Bede, and he was the father of English history. Bede was truly a master of multiple disciplines, but he is most remembered as the man whose lifelong mission was to bring people closer to God. Bede never traveled more than 30 miles from his Northumbrian Monastery, and from that community he wrote more than forty books covering a wide range of subjects. For all of his 62 years he valued nothing more than his mission.

Bede said, “He who will not willingly and humbly enter the gate of the Church will certainly be damned and enter the gate of Hell whether he wants to or not!” These strong words establish his doctrine of salvation. The key words to anyone’s faith walk are willingly and humbly. Without this conviction we fail to enter the gates of heaven and live a miserable earthly existence as well.

Scripture proclaims, “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” (Revelation 3:20) God’s word is crying out for us to willingly let Him into our lives. He has prepared such a good life for us, and yet it is our choice to neglect or accept His invitation. Salvation, the Christian way, is never forced upon any soul, but it must be received and received willingly.

The second word that Venerable Bede uses is humbly. Jesus said in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Clearly, our Lord articulates to us that acting in humble submission is the key to eternal justification and a peaceful life all the days of our lives. A person who lives humbly not only receives riches in the hereafter but lives without the earthly scourge of excessive pride. This type of pride leads to untold sin and grief.

The word of the Church Father is that the neglect of this simple formula leads to eternal condemnation and a miserable earthly existence. We would do well to give heed to the words of Jesus, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Our world cries for rest, and peaceful rest at that. Jesus offers this life to all who come to Him.

A man who was born of questionable parentage, and died a criminal’s death offers us this gift of peace by the power of His resurrection. Some 700 years later a humble Monk who never traveled more than 30 miles from the place of his birth repeats this invitation in very simple words. Let us not complicate the salvation of the Christ, but merely accept willingly and humbly.

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Kingdom Humility

 

‘There was a spiritual old man who lived a secluded life. He was held in high estimation in the city and enjoyed a great reputation. He was told that a certain old man, at the point of death, was calling for him, to embrace him before he fell asleep. He thought to himself, if I go by day, men will run after me, giving me great honor, and I shall not be at peace in all that. So I will go in the evening in the darkness and I shall escape everyone’s notice. But lo, two angels were sent by God with lamps to give him light. The whole city then came out to see his glory. The more he wished to flee from the glory, the more he was glorified. In this was accomplished that which is written: “He who humbles himself will be exalted.” ‘

——-Abba John the Dwarf

Every person who seeks to be a fervent follower of God wants to be seen as humble. Humility is the identifying hallmark of Jesus our Savior. No matter how hard we try, we are still driven by the human desire to be recognized and appreciated. Much of our spiritual journey is spent trying to control our need to succeed. After much prayer and determination we may arrive at the point in life where we really don’t want the spotlight and recognition. Then the new journey begins. Our challenge now is how do we avoid worldly affirmation and acclaim?

The spiritual old man was struggling with that very challenge. He, no doubt, had put much prayer and work to arriving at place in life where he shunned the notice of others. He wanted to comfort the brother who had reached out to him, but he devised a plan of making sure that his act of kindness would be done in the dark of night. That way, he thought, no one would notice, but God had another plan. God decided to send angels to light his path. This display of spiritual presence brought a torrent of attention on the spiritual old man. The very attention that he had sought to avoid was what he received. What does this mean?

Abba John uses the scripture: “He who humbles himself will be exalted” as a way of expressing why such attention is thrust upon the spiritual old man. The truth that I would like to point out is that acclaim only has value if God is the source. The world recognizes worldly values, God recognizes kingdom values. Perhaps if we all sought to be anonymous purveyors of blessing, we may find ourselves more valued by God and the world than we ever dreamed or imagined. The key to getting all the acclamation, success and self-esteem we can handle is found in the ability to be truly humble. That is kingdom humility and it is the goal of every follower of the Christ.


Prayer

Lord instill in me the form of humility that is not derived in self depreciation and doubt but one that is spiritually placed by you. I ask you today to give me the insight to understand what you mean by humility so that I might be one who is gifted with kingdom humility. With that gift we are allowed to be tremendous servants to the world. Lord I pray for this gift and with it I may be your faithful servant.

Amen

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The Dead End of Pride

There are two kinds of pride. The first kind of pride is when a man despises his brother, considers him worth little or nothing, while he puts much greater value on himself. Such a man, unless he speedily repents and takes great care, will come in a short time to that second kind of pride by which he lifts himself up against God , and ascribes what he does right not to God, but to himself.

-Dorotheos of Gaza

Dead-End-SignThere are many proud people who handle their pride in proper ways. We should be proud of our achievements, our children, our honesty, our morality, but all these things must be credited to God who has given us all that we have. Without a God based pride in ourselves we accomplish very little for ourselves, the world or God. We are His creation and He has created us for good. He wants us to accomplish and thrive for His glory. The scripture says, “…everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory.” He created us for His glory and we are all called by His name. As we do our very best for God, and take pride in doing so, we glorify Him.

I live on a dead end street. Simply expressed, that means if you get to the end of my street, you have to turn around or back up to get out. The two types of pride that Dorotheos refers to are dead ends. The first one, the devaluation of the brother is the beginning of the dead end. It has a way out, the second, the devaluation of God, requires that we turn around or back out before we are destroyed.

Dead-End-PrideAre you traveling down that dead end path of pride? Do you find yourself enjoying the company of yourself more than anyone else? Is it difficult for you to admit the possibility that you may be mistaken? Worse yet, are you forgetting that you are created for God’s glory, not your own? If you see these warning signs in your life, you are headed down a dead end road, but faint not, all things are possible through the God who gives us strength. Take a pause and call on Him. Dorotheos says to “speedily repent,” before it is too late.

Prayer

Lord I ask You to give me the wisdom to know the difference between the actions that give You glory and the ones that give me glory. I repent of the times that I have acted for my own glorification. I pray that you will forgive me for those times. Set me forth on a road, this day, that will lead to You and Your glory.

Amen

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Results vs. Relationships

“Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.”

– Thomas Merton

The longer we live the more doubts seem to crowd our mind. In the second half of life many people begin to question nearly everything they have achieved. Maybe I should have made a different move, or perhaps I should not have taken a certain stand. We suffer to achieve and at the end of the day, we may not have really achieved what we intended. Merton tells us not to depend on the hope of results. That concept is so antithetical to our culture. We live for results, we work for results, and our results make us who we are. The thought is to turn away from results to relationship.

Merton-6-29Lives that are totally dependent on results never achieve happiness and satisfaction. Such lives are wrought with competition and envy at every turn. Our culture is full of people who are dependent on drugs, legal and illegal, to get through the day. So many of these heavy burdens would be lifted if we only stopped long enough to discover the reality of personal relationship.

Many a person having failed in the results column of their lives discover they have won in the personal relationships they have built. The sad reality of many lives is that they are so busy trying to achieve the acceptable result that they neglect their relationships. Careers thrive while marriages fall apart due to neglect or unintended abuse. A sad commentary on our society is that so many people do not realize the importance of individual relationships until the second half of our lives. Young adults who discover this secret early in life live happier and more productive lives.

Prayer

Lord help me to realize that my results do not bring me hope but my relationships deliver joy. Guide me this day to treasure those whom you have placed in my life. Turn my goal from what I can achieve to how I can love others. In loving others I can have the greatest results. Lord allow me to begin that love with love for You.

Amen

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Contemplatives Go Mainstream

A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to “dream” of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.

——Pope Francis Address to Congress

pope rolling storeI am sure that the address of Pope Francis was viewed  by millions of people, as well as  witnessed by a joint session of the US Congress. In it he affirmed four Americans of great note. Among them was Thomas Merton whom he identified as a contemplative. Such an affirmation will cause people to be curious about contemplative life. Praise God for this man and his willingness to share his bold beliefs with the world. We contemplatives are now part of the mainstream media.

THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGIN’

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Humility

The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

 — Jesus of Nazareth

Jesus Teaching 1Those of us who call ourselves Christians sometimes neglect the instructions that came directly from Jesus. In the scriptures Jesus had many things to say. Because we live in this fast paced competitive American society, we find it difficult to image that we can be exulted by humble behavior. We have been taught from a very early age to put our “best foot” forward. The words of Jesus cut against that concept. The real task of humility is to be genuine and authentic in all that you do. The person who exalts himself is, in many instances, just lying. We have a time for self-exalted people. We call them hypocrites because can never live up to their talk.

In the Kingdom of God leadership is marked by servant hood and not self exultation. If you want to rid your life of hypocritical self agrandizement ,become a humble servant to all. A servant’s word will carry far more weight in the end than the word of a great teacher who does not follow through. The American Poet Edgar A. Guest wrote:

I’d rather see a sermon than hear one, any day;

I’d rather one should walk with me than merely show the way;

The eye’s a better pupil and more willing than the ear.

Fine counsel is confusing, but examples always clear,

And the best of all preachers are the men who live their creeds,

For to see good put in action is what everybody need.

We are all (clergy and laity)walking sermons weather we like it or not.

Prayer

Grant us, O God, a mind to meditate on you; eyes to behold you; ears to listen for your word; a heart to love you; and a life to proclaim you. Amen.

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Evil and Innocence

We spend an inordinate amount of time bemoaning the evils of our day. Each day brings a new political and social organization whose primary focus is to turn our country toward “Christianity.” There is a sense that the world has never been worse than is right now.

Nearly 60 years ago C. S. Lewis said:lewiscs34

“The practical problem of Christian politics is not that of drawing up schemes for a Christian society, but that of living as innocently as we can with unbelieving fellow-subjects under unbelieving rulers who will never be perfectly wise and good and who will sometimes be very wicked and very foolish.”

The problem then and now is not that the society is a failure, but that individuals fail to see the role of innocence in their lives. Innocence means believing and doing the “red letter” words of the Bible, and accepting that they are the words of Jesus.

Then we can believe:

  • Innocence is turning the other cheek even when we have the advantage.
  • Innocence is trusting in people that are not saints.
  • Innocence is giving a second chance, and the second, second chance.
  • Innocence is going tone more mile for someone who doesn’t deserve it.
  • Innocence is believing that God will win in the end, and we don’t have to make it happen.

When we can embody these principles and more, we become world changers. Our live and our influence become a great factor in the lives of others. Therefore, by our practice many others are led to a knowledge of the love of God and the reality of Jesus as Savior of the world

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Scripture

Merton quote 5-1-15

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May 1, 2015 · 5:15 am