Archive for December 29th, 2006

What We Cannot Change

December 29, 2006

There is no doubt that God is changing the world – though most of this work is hidden. A strange part of this hiddenness is the work that God does within us. The work is not entirely hidden – I can look back and see change that has occurred in my life – it’s just that it helps sometimes to live long enough to see it.

Human beings seem to change at a pace that is entirely human – which should come as no surprise. Thus we find ourselves going to confession repeatedly with the same sins. But apart from abrupt personality changes, this is simply the likeliest and most human of events. The struggle against some sin is the struggle of a lifetime.

Some things happen quickly – in a “single moment” as we sing about the thief on the cross. But these are rare or involve decisions that have as their very character an either-or nature. “Either I am going to say yes or no.”

Patience is perhaps the most common word in the New Testament. Indeed, in its full meaning it is not just patience but “patient endurance.” Being patient is one thing, but bearing with the things with which we must bear while we are waiting is the stuff that endurance is made of. And, of course, if the change we are waiting on is in someone else (a lousy spiritual practice), the wait can be a very long time.

God is indeed transfiguring the world, and each of us in it as we give ourselves to Him. But this is always a day to day effort and generally a slow work. But occasionally – just occasionally – grace does what we would never do and we find ourselves already become what we could not be.

This is the grace of prayer, for instance. The marvelous gift of prayer when we did not think we could pray, or an act of kindness when our heart was deeply hardened. I give thanks to God for these small, sudden changes, gifts of grace that tell us not to lose heart in the long struggle. God wins. What I cannot change, He can, and will. Thanks be to God for His grace.

Transfiguration of the World Where You Are

December 29, 2006

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I am traveling in the latter part of this week, going home to see parents and in-laws (which for me means going to South Carolina). As I posted in answer to an earlier question, we cannot “change the world,” even if this is an eschatological goal of the Kingdom. Political movements speak of transforming the world – it is not speech that originates in the Church.

In the name of lofty projects, governments have historically done much evil (and Churches as well when they were behaving like governments). The loftiest project we should have as the Church is the service of God and of our fellow human beings. And that service should, under most circumstances, be as close to home as possible. The Roman Catholic Church refers to this as the principle of subsidiarity. I see it as simply trying to avoid the theological or spiritual sin of abstraction. Speaking about people halfway around the world is frequently to speak in abstractions. Not that we cannot serve them or should not serve them, but not in the abstract.

Being with family gets very non-abstract. Indeed, it is so non-abstract that it is rare that we get things right. Sharing with a cousin about the Orthodox faith can be just about as hard as it gets. 🙂

 But it also says much about the transfiguration of the world. Think of how small an area in which Jesus spent his entire earthly ministry. Other than the Flight into Egypt to avoid destruction as a child, his entire ministry was spent in Galillee and Judea (and parts of Samaria). It’s a very small corner of the world. But He truly transfigured people and things around Him.

“Of course,” someone might say, “that was Jesus.” But if the Master did one thing should His disciples do another? Even when we send missionaries, we send people and they live and pour out their lives in real places. Some of that came home to many of us this year with the voluntary death of Lynnette Hoppe in Albania. It was voluntary in that she (as an American missionary with cancer) could have chosen to remain in America with all of our technological “comfort measures.” She chose and was permitted to die as a missionary in Albania. There she taught a reborn Church what it looks like to die as a Christian. It was a transfiguration of a small part of Albania (as well as of many friends back home).

I served two years as a Hospice Chaplain, while I was being retrained for Orthodox ordination. I was part of the medical teams in some 250 deaths. There is very little around you that can be transformed when you come to that point in your life. The world gets smaller and smaller, often confined to a bed, and then only to certain hours or minutes in a day. Everything becomes precious. Each word spoken can take on huge meanings as the last word. Each gift given and received, a last gift.

I recall a patient who said he would gladly give his few remaining weeks for just 15 minutes walk in a wood. It never came to him, but I described my walks, observing the world around me in a way I normally never would. It was a transfiguring experience.

I taught the nurses I worked with to think of every dying patient as some at heaven’s gate, and to understand that they stood on Holy Ground. We would do well to think of all ground as Holy and to be present to it in such a way. We don’t and our lives fall short of meaning again and again.

I am passing through very familiar territory at the end of this week. Roads I’ve seen for years, landscapes of memory. Much wasted time and space.

I wrote several posts ago about the “smallness” of God in the Nativity. There also needs to be a smallness of me – a smallness of my life and attention – a refusal to be where I am not and a struggle to be where I am. It is where I am that transfiguration can take place.

Of course, in our electronic world, where I am is hard to define. Although I am learning to pray for people whom I only know by strange names (like Bigjolly, etc.). But God knows their real names and their needs and the details that make us what we are.

Coming home can be going to a particular place, but most especially it is coming to the particular place that is me (and more particularly me in Christ) and then reaching out to what can be touched and known and loved.

Thank God for the many persons who have reached out to me in the past few weeks and made my life more full and more truly what it was created to be. May it be a transfiguration that comes from God.