The red devil is green with envy

The devil, who in his great malice is envious of all the good he sees in the soul, knowing of her prosperity, now employs all his ability and engages all his crafts to disturb this good, even if only a slight part of it. It is worth more to him to hinder a small fraction of this soul’s rich and glorious delight than to make many others fall into numerous serious sins, for these others have little or nothing to lose; but this soul has very much to lose because of all her precious gain. The loss of a little pure gold is worse than the loss of many other base metals. (John of the Cross, “The Spiritual Canticle,” Commentary on Stanza 16)
Dore_satan falling
 The Fallen Angel by Gustave Dore.  Satan is a bitter loser who envies God’s people.

If you find yourself stewing about how sincere Christians (maybe you) are being hammered by circumstances, toxic thoughts, confusion and other torments, while people who could care less about God’s Word and kingdom seem to skip happily along (Psalm 73), John of the Cross says that the devil doesn’t waste any of his ammo on those who are on the wide, easy path to destruction (Matthew 7:13-14). He concentrates his fire on those he envies, those who are beloved of God and on the narrow path that leads to eternal life, the path that the devil lost and can never regain.

Hang in there. Help, comfort and encourage your brothers and sisters in Christ. The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you (Romans 16:20).

Building a City of Prayer

A Roman Catholic blogger who is wrestling with the church’s present struggles. All traditions are struggling in a variety of ways, some inflicted from without and some self inflicted. This is an encouragement to prayer – not as a passive escape, but as direct action.

the theological beard

prayer without end - nicolaes maes

There have been constant calls for prayer and fasting in this crisis. It is important to engage in such spiritual warfare as one is able. A soldier who attempts an action beyond their means will find themselves gravely injured or dead. I am not a prayer warrior. In the ever humorous words of a priest I know, “I have other gifts.” Some people are called and are now able to engage in great works of prayer and acts of reparation. For my part, I offer a Divine Mercy chaplet in reparation for the sins of bishops and priests, specifically sins of abuse and cover-up, for their taking right action now, and for the renewal of the priesthood. This small prayer offered faithfully is acceptable to God and efficacious. As for fasting, well, I am given to grumbling when I fast on days that I am not under obedience to do…

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Last words of love and longing

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  (Psalm 22:1; Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34)

Why, since you wounded this heart, don’t you heal it?  And why, since you stole it from me, do you leave it so, and fail to carry off what you have stolen?  (St. John of the Cross, The Spiritual Canticle, Stanza 9)

I happened to read both of these verses last night.  Yes, there’s an immediate superficial similarity in the pained poetry of lost love and the Psalm of abandonment.  But I think this goes deeper.

John of the Cross uses poetry, heavily influenced by and even sampled from The Song of Songs, to describe the soul’s longing for its (her, in John’s imagery) true love, which is God.  And in his own commentary on this stanza of his poem, he uses the language of death, which intersects with Psalm 22 at the cross.

Commenting on Stanza 9, John writes,

Her [the soul’s] complaint is not that he [God] wounded her – for the more a loving soul is wounded the more its love is repaid – but that in sorely wounding her heart, he did not heal her by slaying her completely. The wounds of love are so sweet and delightful that if they do not cause death they cannot satisfy. Yet they are so delightful that she would want them to wound her sorely until they slay her completely. Consequently she says: “Why, since you wounded this heart, don’t you heal it?” This is equivalent to saying: Why, since you wounded this heart until it has become sorely wounded, do you not heal it by wholly slaying it with love? Since you cause the sore wound in the sickness of love, may you cause health in the death of love. As a result the heart, wounded with the sorrow of your absence, will be healed with the delight and glory of your sweet presence.

John of the Cross’s own sketch of Christ on the Cross.

If this is an accurate observation of the soul devoted to God, then the one perfectly devoted soul, Christ’s,  offers more than a cry of generic human pain or humiliation from the cross.  It is a cry for completion or perfection – that Christ’s painful zeal for God’s will can give way to the death of love that renews the delight and glory of Father and Son in the unity of the Spirit, no longer hindered or obscured by the earthbound body that Jesus accepted to save us.

In this sense, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? moves closer to It is finished (John 19:30) and Father, into your hands I commit my spirit (Luke 23:46).  It is the cry of the lover for the beloved that is finally answered with the delight and glory of the beloved’s sweet presence. 

So it is that Jesus, after crying out the Psalm, endures but a few more moments of useless ministrations from the crowd (this is similar to Stanzas 2 and 6 of the Canticle, which express the futility of intercessors and messengers when unity with God is the soul’s desire), and is slain completely by the wounds of divine love.

We believe that Jesus shares fully in our humanity, and so his cry does capture the universality of suffering and estrangement from God.  But as St. Paul points out, there is crying that ends there in futility, and a different kind of grief that can wail in hope – what John of the Cross lyricises as the longing of the lover for the beloved – of our soul for the God who awaits our arrival.

“Stop thief! … and then…”

Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.  (Ephesians 4:28, appointed Epistle for August 12, 2018)

It’s going to sound weird, but this is one of my favorite Bible verses.

I know, I know, it sounds like some goody-two-shoes legalism, a bit of behavior modification trivia in the midst of the Bible’s great universal message.

But it supplies much more if we take a look.

I.  Sure, it does start with “law.”  Bad behavior must be confronted and corrected for any kind of human progress to ensue, as Carey Nieuwhof points out in his worthwhile new book.

Call it KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid), Occam’s Razor or whatever.  The basic beginning is to stop the unholy behavior, as this Native American comedy troupe points out (Language and Content caution),

II.  But keeping the rules isn’t the completeness or perfection (telos) toward which Christ calls us.

The passage says rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands – to take the skills that made their predatory behavior effective and put them to a better use.

It’s not enough to suppress the bad (that would be goody-two-shoes).  We must embrace what is good.  As Paul wrote,

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.  (Philippians 4:8-9)

Paul says that praiseworthy practices are, in a broad sense, prayerful, because when we undertake them the God of peace will be with you.  

On the spiritual plane, I think this helps make sense of Jesus’ strange words in Matthew 12:43-45,

When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.

It isn’t sufficient to boot out the evil.  That leaves a vacant space that needs filling.  If not filled with good, it is vulnerable to a greater evil taking up residence.  (It is worth noting that Jesus said this in the course of disputes with religious authorities who rejected him and tried to reassert legalism as the way of salvation.  The devil is shrewd enough to lure our good deeds into dead works that assume our own and/or our group’s merits take the place of Christ’s work on the cross).

III.  Which leads to the depth of the verse about thieves: it is a call to receive the life of Christ as our own.

Sure, stop stealing.  Yes, do honest work.  But that stops with our own frail flesh if we end there.  Go beyond, it says: so as to have something to share with the needy.

It is to live sacrificially, to bear in our bodies the marks of Jesus, not as physical stigmata but as spiritual transformation into life lived not just “for Christ,” but by him and with him and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, rendering glory to the Father in heaven,

driftwood cross
Crucifix I made from driftwood as found in Yaquina Headlands, Oregon

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name… (Philippians 2:4-9)

Since Paul wrote this verse about thieves to the church in big, busy Ephesus, and placed it in a batch of instructions for church members, we can assume that known thieves were starting to hear the Gospel and worship there.

The verse is hopeful testimony that Christ can welcome and transform any person, and that a… uh… diversity of characters in the congregation means that something right is going on.

We might fault some “conservative” churches for being content to teach socially acceptable behavior and preach legalism.

We might fault some “progressive” churches for extolling the value of diversity while neglecting the transformative power of the cross.

The “thief” verse from Ephesians challenges us – all of us – to keep going, to remain unsatisfied by anything but new life in Christ himself.

Adrift on National Lighthouse Day

Tuesday, August 7, 2018 is National Lighthouse Day.

The same Twitter that revealed this also guided me to two intriguing articles on culture.  Written from very different starting places, they head toward the same landing, the hope that people can see themselves in the same boat.

The UK’s Economist interviews former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright about her new book, Facism: A Warning.

She warns that facism (which she rightly calls an “approach” to power rather than a specific belief system) is a kind of false lighthouse that runs people onto the rocks of grievance politics,

We must push back harder against the cynicism of both right and left. Fascism thrives when there are no social anchors, when the perception takes hold that the media always lies, the courts are corrupt, democracy is a sham, corporations are in thrall to the devil, and only a strong hand can protect against the evil ‘other’—whether Jew, Muslim, black, so-called redneck or so-called elite…No institution, however well-constructed, can help us if we lose our sense of shared humanity and if people everywhere see themselves as victims with a licence to trample the rights of others in search of revenge.

Evangelical blogger Anne Carlson Kennedy also spots these rocks, seeing them in the way that “earnestness” shreds buoyant humor on social media,

At some point, American life stopped being funny. The fail blog went away, the memes became more obvious, the cat videos became old hat, that porcupine eating a pumpkin lost its luster, and it became radically unsafe for one group of people to poke fun at another group of people. Sincere earnest preaching replaced funny, good natured jest. Which it had to, because in order to poke fun, you have to have some common bread to share, some sense that we’re both in it together, and that commonality has evaporated like the fog on a sultry 90 degree day.

The loss of the mile wide, inch deep Christian moral consensus hasn’t illuminated an adequate replacement.  “Tolerance and diversity” shined for a few minutes but dimmed into cynical ciphers for grievance politics.

Shared humanity (Albright) or common bread (Kennedy), on the earthly, utilitarian plane, make for peace or at least peaceful handling of differences.

On the spiritual plane, the Christian vision of the kingdom of heaven sees all of our differences as secondary to a common identity in Christ,

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  (Galatians 3:28)

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes… (Revelation 7:9)

Ships in a storm
Porcellis: Ships in a Storm on a Rocky Coast

Christ is the lighthouse, in this sense, guiding us past all the rocks of our perishing identities and infatuations toward transformed life in eternity.

Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.  For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.  (Matthew 7:13-14)

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”  (John 8:12)

And of course to be gentle with one another on the voyage, even when adrift in life’s various fogs,

If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  (Romans 12:18)

We’re incompetent

So says the New Testament reading for the Eve of the Transfiguration.

Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.  (2 Corinthians 3:5)

The Transfiguration is a glorious vision given to uncomprehending followers of Jesus.  It is planted with them before their incompetence goes on full display during his passion, when they run away from him and, in Peter’s case, deny knowing him.

Peter will comprehend it in hindsight and use it to encourage other Christians as they struggle in weakness, facing persecution and probably wavering under doubt and despair, feeling anything but competent to proclaim faith,

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain. (2 Peter 1:16-18)

As Paul wrote in the passage cited at the top of this piece, the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.  God’s people, held up to strict codes of conduct, are quite often incompetent.  In the Old Testament lesson for the Eve of Pentecost, the Prophet Elijah

was afraid… fled for his life… asked that he might die

But God assists Elijah, first with angelic help and then in a still small voice or low whisper which is, as Paul asserts, the Spirit giving life.

Our incompetence to represent God is all too often felt and ingloriously exposed.  But even in that reality we who carry the name of Christ carry also the glory that he revealed on the mountain top.

It will be revealed in us, not because we are competent to show it, but because the life-giving Spirit of God is transfiguring us all along.



My morning readings were heavy with resurrection (In Hebrew, the word for glory is a word for heaviness, so I might say that the lessons were glorious with resurrection).

Matthew’s account of Jesus’ resurrection was most specific about resurrection, voicing a radical disjunctive from normal expectations and an even more radical conjunctive to a transformed future.

But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.”

What used to be was what used to be, but Jesus isn’t bound by it.  And he’s going ahead of us, expecting to meet us and make known his new reality.

There were also allusions to resurrection in the Psalms I offered this morning.

My heart, therefore, is glad, and my spirit rejoices; my body also shall rest in hope.  For you will not abandon me to the grave, nor let your holy one see the Pit.  You will show me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy, and in your right hand are pleasures for evermore.  (16:9-11)

I am dying, not actively but in the general sense that all of us are mortal.  But there is hope because of God’s promises and those promises include life, joy and pleasure beyond anything I can experience or imagine.

In contemplating these scriptures and others, I found a bit of peace and joy (always fleeting in my life, whether by nature or nurture I can’t say).  I noticed that God is active with us, even in the death-like inactivity of sleep,

I will bless the LORD who gives me counsel; my heart teaches me, night after night.  (Psalm 16:7)

But at my vindication I shall see your face; when I awake, I shall be satisfied, beholding your likeness.  (17:16)

God is working to guide, enlighten, comfort and transform us when we are “dead” to his efforts.  We sleep, are distracted or even flat out rebellious, but God is faithfully caring for us.  And making us new, ready to meet him face to face, as the angel said in the message to the women at Jesus’ empty tomb.

I am mired in personal problems at present, symptoms and debris from decades of choices made and avoided, whether from nature or nurture I don’t know and, increasingly, don’t care.  But the morning lessons warmed my heart and eased my mind.  And I carry on today in the knowledge that the one who rose from the tomb is out ahead of me, sending messages that lead me toward him, not only in a distant future but in the here and now.

There are little resurrections to be had, from bits of what I’ve been to bits of what I’m becoming – to what he’s creating and recreating even when I’m not aware.