Monday, May 03, 2010

The Good Struggle

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.
“Christ is Risen!”

Let’s imagine that we have been asked to fill out a survey evaluating our Orthodox Christian experience. The first question might be, Are you satisfied that your church provides you with the necessary environment and the spiritual tools needed to grow in your knowledge of God and in your communion with Him? I assume that most of us would respond positively, perhaps adding that Orthodoxy has exceeded our expectations in this regard, providing every imaginable means needed to cleanse us from all unrighteousness and help us draw near to God.

The next question might be, If yes, have you seen evidence that your fellow parishioners are benefiting spiritually from these things? Again, many of us would answer yes, adding that we have seen many people from a variety of backgrounds come together to discover a life of dignity and purpose in Christ. We have seen people find the peace that comes from knowing that God is in their lives, giving meaning to even the simplest actions, sanctifying their lives as they go about loving and serving others in humility, and quietly renewing their repentance each and every day.

The final question might be, Have you personally benefited and grown spiritually from your church experience? Here is where we might choke a bit on our answer, responding perhaps that Orthodoxy has certainly helped us to learn a great deal about ourselves--very little of it flattering I’m afraid--and feel that we at least know what we need to do, even if we don’t always find ourselves doing it as often as we should. None of us could say that the light we have been given is insufficient for illumination or the grace we have been granted is in any way lacking. We might simply have to conclude that with all the magnificent and gracious gifts God has bestowed upon us within His Holy Church, the only limiting factor in our own personal spiritual growth has turned out to be ourselves.

Not every person is so lucky, you know. We might remember what attracted us to Orthodoxy in the first place. Many of us were living in what author Matthew Gallatin has called a land of dry wells, thirsting for more of God but limited by the rational, man-made theology that characterizes much of modern Western Christendom. We wanted more than just abstract bible studies, light and frothy worship, or an approach to God that was largely cerebral and doctrinally-oriented.

When you get right down to it, we wanted to experience what Jesus had promised the woman at the well in today’s gospel lesson: the Living Water of the Holy Spirit, springing up within us unto eternal life. Like this woman, we likely had no idea in the world what that meant, but it sure sounded better to us than what we already had. Many of us felt spiritually dry and frustrated. We kept coming back to our respective church “wells” time and again, only to leave less refreshed each time. We knew there had to be a place where God’s water flowed, where souls are washed and renewed, and life is found in abundance. Like the woman at the well--who later would become known as St. Photini, Equal-to-the-Apostles--we said to the Lord, “Give me this Living Water, that I may not thirst, or come here to draw”. Like St. Photini, we were not quite prepared for what came next.

Our Lord knew that this woman was not yet ready to receive the Holy Spirit. She had certain, shall we say, “impediments” in her life that needed to first be addressed.

“Go, fetch your husband, and come back,” our Lord instructed her. “Uh, well, I have no husband,” she replied elusively. “You have well said, ‘I have no husband,’ for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; in this you have spoken truly,” our Lord exclaimed. Now Jesus certainly did not say this to shame the woman, but to show her that God is aware of every sinful obstacle that we place in our own path toward Him. We don’t know why this woman had gone through five husbands up to this point; perhaps they had all died of thirst while she was chatting away at the well every day! What we do know is that she was living immorally with a man she was not married to, and what Jewish stranger could possibly know this, unless He was the Christ?

Photini at first felt that her Samaritan religion was every bit as good as that of the Jews. But when Jesus showed her the possibility of something far better, she received the news with much enthusiasm. Then our Lord revealed her sins to her, to demonstrate that repentance is necessary before one can become a fountain of the Holy Spirit. Do we see any similarity between this and what has happened in our own lives?

How God must lament the spiritual blindness of men; the fact that we can live with such a high degree of sinfulness in our lives, and yet see no reason why this should prevent us from enjoying the fullness of God’s life and blessings. He must reveal our sins to us--in whatever degree it takes for us to get the message--in order that we might understand that the whole effort of our Christian life is to be cleansed of these sins to simultaneously allow the pure water of the Holy Spirit to flow forth within us, unpolluted.

Coming into Orthodoxy with much enthusiasm and spiritual thirst, and upon encountering the next vital and truly grace-filled step--the step which reveals our deeply-rooted sins--many of us were stopped cold by profound discouragement. Most of us find ourselves at a point in which, quite honestly, every day is a struggle to say our prayers, to come to church, to wrestle against our besetting sins and many temptations, and to keep our hope in God.

But we must ask ourselves: what were we expecting to happen? Did we imagine that we could blithely skip along God’s path to holiness without struggle? Having once been inspired by the stories of the saints and holy martyrs--like Photini herself in her later years--to believe that Orthodoxy represented authentic Christianity, did we think that we could gain the same grace as they without a share in their sufferings? Everything in this fallen world struggles to be born, to grow, to survive. God allows this as an illustration that life is not easy, and the spiritual life even less so. In many nations across the planet to this very day, multiple tens of thousands of Christians are still being persecuted and put to death each year. Yet we Americans seem to think we have a sacred right to an easy life, and an even easier Christianity.

Our experience of Orthodox Christianity might not be what we expected, but it has turned out to be exactly what God intended for us all along. In a religion that is defined by our God suffering and dying in the flesh for our salvation, we might fairly well expect that there will take place some struggle, some suffering, some dying in our own lives before we shall be raised triumphantly with Christ. Therefore, let us not be overly dismayed at the difficulties we encounter in our Christian life. Let us accept them as proof that we are on the genuine path to a real salvation, and continue to work out this same, great salvation with fear and trembling, knowing that it is God who is at work in us, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.


Those of us who are fans of the TV show Lost will remember an episode entitled “The Moth” in which one character, Locke (a fifty-something, wilderness survival-type guy who owns a lot of knives), was trying to help a young rock musician named Charlie to overcome his addiction to heroin. Locke had Charlie’s last bit of heroin, his “stash” as Charlie called it, in his possession. Charlie wanted it desperately but Locke told him, “If you come back to me and ask for it three times, I’ll give it to you”. Charlie asked for it immediately, to which Locke replied, “That’s once. Go away now, but come back twice more and it’s yours”.

Charlie went away, realizing that he could have his heroin, but that Locke was offering him a chance to save his soul. However, driven to near insanity by his addiction, he came back to ask for it a second time. “That’s twice,” Locke said grimly, then decided it was time to take Charlie to school. He walked him over to a tree and pointed out a cocoon hanging from it. “What do you think is in there?,” he asked. “Humph, I dunno; a butterfly?,” Charlie replied. “Oh no!,” Locke beamed, “It’s much more beautiful; it’s a moth!” Seeing the blank look on Charlie’s face, Locke continued, “It’s ironic: butterflies get all the attention because they’re pretty, but moths spin silk; they’re faster, stronger.” Charlie was unimpressed, yet Locke continued: “Right now the little insect inside this is struggling to free himself. He’ll expend all his energy to break out of that cocoon”. Locke raised his pocketknife to the cocoon and said, “Now I could help him. I could take the point of my knife and carefully open up the cocoon and the moth would be free”. Looking sideways at Charlie, Locke added, “But the moth wouldn’t live for long; he’d be too weak. You see, Charlie,” Locke concluded, “Struggle is nature’s way of making its creatures strong enough to survive. Now you’ve asked for your heroin twice; once more and it’s yours.” Finally understanding what Locke was teaching him, Charlie went away to continue his own terrible struggle. Returning at last a third time, he received the heroin from Locke and threw it into the campfire to destroy it, much to his mentor’s delight.

This little story has obvious spiritual implications. If we hope to survive in this life as Christians, we have to expect struggle, and not be dismayed when things seem so awfully hard. Our struggles are not a sign that God is uncaring, or that we are any worse than other Christians. Rather, they mean that God is strengthening us to survive in this fallen world and end with a faith that can endure even in the hour of our death.

Countless saints and martyrs have shown us one undeniable bottom line: no matter what we must endure, no matter how much pain we must suffer, it is worth every bit of it and infinitely more, for the great blessings God will reveal in the end. Let us choose to endure all not with complaining, but with thanksgiving, and unshakable hope in our Redeemer.

Illuminated by the Holy Spirit, All-Glorious One,
from Christ the Savior you drank the water of salvation.
With open hand you give it to those who thirst.
Great-Martyr Photini, Equal-to-the-Apostles,
pray to Christ for the salvation of our souls.

+To the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


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