Monday, August 30, 2010

Loving God to Death

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

Today the Holy Orthodox Church celebrates the Feast of the Beheading of the Glorious Forerunner and Baptist John. Two weeks ago we celebrated the Feast of the Dormition (or the “Falling-Asleep”) of our Most Holy Lady Theotokos. Besides these are the commemorations of the many daily saints on our Church calendar, most of whom were either ascetics or holy martyrs themselves. Anyone not familiar with the deep meaning behind these feasts and our nearly daily remembrances of those who in one way or another laid down their lives for Christ, might be led to conclude that we Orthodox have a rather bizarre notion of celebration, and perhaps along with that, a strange preoccupation with death.

Our interest however is not with death, but with life. The testimony left by all those who laid down their earthly lives for Christ--whether by choosing the narrow and difficult way of rigorous self-denial, or by voluntarily accepting the martyr’s crown--is that they were seeking life; a life more abundant and more joyous than any life known on earth. Each one of these people could have maintained the status quo of their day. They could have sought the comfort of family, money, pleasure, and long life. No one compelled them to gain such a love for Christ that they would willingly forfeit all normal expectations in this world to seek Him alone. Nevertheless they did indeed gain such a love, making any life that did not place Him first seem simply unbearable to them.

Is it possible for us to gain such a love for Christ? St. Paul prophesied that in the last days men would love only themselves, their money, and their pleasures and would entirely forget the love of God. How can we move from loving all things of this world to loving God alone?

How does any one person fall in love with another? Did any of you fall in love with your significant other by never spending time with them or conversing with them, never warmly reflecting on their love for you with a certain thankfulness, never thinking of what was important to them or making whatever changes were needed in your life to bring you closer to them? Of course not. That all takes place after marriage. (Just kidding!) My point is, your love didn’t just happen; it took work and it still takes work. So how can we expect to love God if we don’t work at it?

Do we spend time each day conversing with God in prayer? Do we reflect on His love and care for us with thanksgiving? Do we consider what is important to Him and correct our lives to draw near to Him? Do we treat God as someone we truly want to know and love, or are we put off from this work, convinced that it’s too hard, too demanding, or that our faith is too small?

Exactly how much faith do we need to love God? Whenever we hear the lives of the saints read in Church, we are partly inspired and partly discouraged. We know that their examples prove what is possible when ordinary men and women seek God. But immediately that little voice plays in our heads saying, “Oh, but you’ll never be like that! You’re too wedded to your comforts, too stuck in your ways to love God like they did!” That voice is not from God, for God would never discourage us from taking even the smallest step toward Himself. He always beckons us to move forward with whatever little measure of faith we might now possess, which is also God’s gift to us.

It may not be faith that we lack, but perhaps diligence. Hebrews 11:6 tells us, “...without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.” Do you believe that God exists? I would hope so! Do you believe that God rewards those who seek Him? Yes, we know that God is good and rewards entirely out-of-proportion all people who make even the slightest move toward Him. So what is missing except “those who diligently seek Him”?

I suppose very few of us would say that we seek God diligently every day. We may be too busy, too disheartened, or too preoccupied to invest that amount of time with God. Sometimes we are so restless we can’t bear to sit down long enough to read our bibles or spend some time in quiet prayer and reflection. Perhaps we’ve even given up on seeking God because it seems we can’t find Him when we’ve tried. Yet can any friendship be cultivated by such weak and sporadic efforts? Can love grow where there is no constant effort made to draw near to the other; where there is no seeking, no longing, no desire?

I believe that every human being is created not only with the capacity to share in God’s love, but also with the desire to do so. It is this desire however that is often twisted and misdirected by sin, so that we wind up seeking the fulfillment and consolation of that love we were created share in everything but God. We are forever seeking contentment and purpose in life, but it rarely seems to occur to us that this haunting sense of emptiness, this deeply rooted craving for something, is in reality the heart’s desperate longing for God. No wonder the heart is left unsatisfied and bereaved when the joy we try to offer it is never God Himself. As Augustine wrote in his Confessions, “Almighty God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”

Some part of us knows that this is true, yet we find it so hard to deny our heart its many other desires. Given the choice, nearly any child will choose candy over real food. A good parent allows such treats only sparingly, wanting his child to have proper nutrition. When it comes to our hearts, we are dreadful parents, feeding them an endless diet of “junk food”--the sweet pleasures of this life--rather than disciplining them to take pleasure in God. It is hard for the heart to love God when it is fat on other things. The saints saw the need to deny themselves much of this world’s sweetness so that their hearts would become hungry for God alone.

To deny ourselves many pleasures only to gain God seems insane to those who are perishing. However, the saints reveal to us that to settle for contentment now rather than to strive for God is not only the deepest insanity, but the ultimate form of self-destruction. The saints died to this world, but they found everlasting life in God. We remember their examples daily and at special feasts such as today’s commemoration of the beheading of the Baptist, not because we are preoccupied with death, but because we long for the same life they gained from their heroic efforts.

Can we venture to be a bit more heroic in our own lives? Can we cut back on the junk food we feed our souls, the comforts and pleasures of life we normally put first, so that we might increase our hunger for God? We are weak, but must our weakness always be the excuse for not loving God as much as we could? Can we challenge ourselves to redirect some of our time, our money, and our energies toward that which is eternal? Are our dreams for this life so great that we cannot possibly dream of heaven too?

It is true that we live in dark and perilous times. Whereas the saints of old saw the need to take upon themselves poverty and every struggle to gain the love of Christ in their hearts, today’s pampered Christians think everything should be handed to them. They feel entitled to enjoy all the best this world has to offer and be granted salvation too! Have they really outsmarted the saints, or only themselves? I pray that we would never be so wise in our own eyes, but along with the saints might humble ourselves to accept less in this world that we might gain the fullness of the world to come. Let us not fear the death of self-denial, but through it become seekers of true and everlasting life!

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

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