Sunday, September 28, 2008

This happy, happy life

One of the things I often say is that Orthodoxy is best understood as a way of life. My point is to emphasize that our faith is a 24/7 commitment. In secular America, it is often challenging to embrace one’s faith in those terms. Religion tends to be marginalized even by the religious themselves, with many people being quite content to experience a Sunday-only encounter with their faith. What such people do during the remaining six days of the week is usually to return to whatever other way of life they find most compelling.

In America, there are many such competing ways of life. Consumerism is a major one. Blindly following the American dream, many Christians take on a frightening level of debt, and thus have no money left to worship God with a tithe. Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”. If all one’s treasure goes to paying for possessions, is that not also where his heart lives, or was Jesus mistaken? Many people will also put the utilitarian ethic of working hard and accomplishing things ahead of seemingly less productive efforts like prayer and spiritual formation. That’s why there’s often so much “ministry” in churches today but so little spirituality. In the realm of sexuality, people have nearly lost the concept of worshipping God with their mortal bodies, and have eagerly put gratification and pleasure first. In fact, for most people the general pursuit of earthly happiness is the number one priority in their lives.

As a sad indicator of this trend, the top-selling “Christian” authors today have become millionaires by preaching a false gospel of “happiness”. The message is that God wants you to be happy, and since most Christians with a materialistic focus haven’t found happiness, this message is alluring. But where in the bible do we read that God’s priority is for you to be happy with this life? The bible does speak of happiness of course. In the Beatitudes we find a Greek word used repeatedly that is usually translated as “blessed” but can also mean “happy”. But the happiness we are promised comes only when we die to this world. The Beatitudes don’t say, “Happy is he who has learned to like himself” or that happiness comes from finding “The 7 steps to living at your fullest potential”. These are both themes from two of these authors I alluded to. In reality however, the Beatitudes teach that those who mourn in this life will find comfort in the life to come. They teach that those who are poor in spirit, who are meek, who deny themselves to gain purity of heart, who are persecuted for Christ’s sake will find happiness in the kingdom of heaven.

Unlike the deafening drumbeat of this world, which pounds into our brains the continual message of taking pleasure and finding happiness now, the gospel quietly calls us to embrace suffering, disappointment and apparent defeat now, in order to emerge as true victors when Christ is revealed in His glory.

This is a hard message, and one we do not willingly accept. We might think that we do, and if this were merely a question on a classroom test, I’m sure we would all give the right answer. But the real classroom is life itself, the test is conducted daily, and what we really believe is revealed by the choices we make and the attitudes we live by.

I think the Beatitudes and the rest of the gospels are something we should all read often. How can we resist the powerful tide of this world if we are not immersed in the reading of the gospels and the constant self-correction they call us to? How can we avoid being conformed to this world, or be transformed by the renewing of our minds, if our minds so seldom have anything in them other than our hopes and dreams and expectations for happiness in this life? If we do not confront ourselves with the sometimes harsh and uncomfortable message of the gospel, then we will just go with the flow of the values of the world around us.

I would remind us that only dead fish go with the flow. The living ones constantly struggle to move in an upstream direction.

In our epistle lesson this morning [2 Corinthians 4:6-15], St. Paul addressed this same issue with the church in Corinth. The Corinthians had made remarkable progress from paganism, but still had some lingering problems. They were unwilling to deal with moral failures in their church, and overall they seemed to have a difficult time making the transition from being people of this world to people of the world to come. Paul spoke to them candidly about his own difficulties; of his being troubled on every side, perplexed, persecuted and cast down, of always bearing in his body the dying of the Lord Jesus. He said these things to the relatively comfortable Corinthians not to shame them, but to remind them that life, properly lived, is a battle. Living for Christ is hard and demands many sacrifices.

What a contrast this is to the message of the popular preachers today! These folks sell millions of books because they’ve tapped into what people want to hear, and present it as “spiritual wisdom” when it is in fact the wisdom of the devil, who would like nothing better than to keep all Christians earthbound and worldly-minded. We’d all like to hear that we can have our cake and eat it too; that we can have our salvation, sure, but that we can also enjoy a life free from struggle and pain (once we've bought the right books and adopted the right "principles"), a life without poor self-esteem, and without sacrificing pleasure and material wealth. The soundtrack may as well be from Queen’s popular song, “I want it all (and I want it now!)”.

But this is not the gospel, no matter how appealing the message. Whenever the difficult work of repentance and the taking up of one’s own cross is left out of the preaching, the true gospel is not being presented.

Orthodoxy is true Christianity because it incorporates everything needed for man’s salvation. We don’t teach you the “principles” you supposedly need to “set your mind free and start enjoying your life”. We teach that you need a mind transformed, a heart made pure, a body disciplined by prayer and fasting. We teach a going against the pleasure-seeking principle that we all naturally love and to mistrust the comforts of this world as deceptive. Orthodoxy is just downright “other-worldly” because at its heart it calls us to die to this lost world lest we be lost with it, and discover heaven as our only true home.

This is a hard message, and one that will never sell a lot of books. This is also why I suspect that Orthodoxy will never be a wildly popular religion in America. I could be wrong, and I actually hope that I am. But a religion that teaches that the rules of happiness we have all clung to since childhood are fundamentally wrong because they only focus on this life, a religion that teaches that true happiness is found in the path of imitating Christ’s self-denial and voluntary self-emptying with an eye toward the life to come, is bound to wage an uphill battle against so many competing and more appealing ways of life.

But this religion, this Orthodoxy, just happens to be the best and truest way of life. We need not be saints to live this life, but if we do live it, chances are very good that it will help us to become saints. May this be our way.

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