The Humbling of Kingdom Builders

And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:4)

On March 30th, the devotional was about the arrogant king of Assyria and how God dealt with his prideful ways. If you recall, the king used the terms “I” and “me” 8 times in just two verses. Today we find such arrogance and pride, not just in one person, but in many. They are full of “us”, “ourselves”, and “we”.

This is in the story of the Tower of Babel. The people wanted to build their own kingdom; making their own “name” for themselves. Rather than looking to the Lord, they would look to themselves.

Is it possible that a group of Christian people could fall into a similar type of arrogance or pride? Could “we” build something that is all about us?

Several years ago, in my duties with Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry, I was speaking with a precious person who was very supportive of this work. When I mentioned that I would be most willing to speak at his church, his response shocked me: “I am sorry father, but you would not be welcomed at my church. You are not of my ethnicity and the people would not welcome you. The service is all done in our language without a word of English.”

Another time, I was asked to speak at a church and noticed all of the people were of one ethnicity. I asked some of the folks if they were reaching out to the local community. Again, the answer shocked me: “Outsiders are not welcome here because we want our sons and daughters to only marry within our own ethnicity.”

When we build our own “kingdom”, we forget that “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son” (John 3:16). The Lord’s final words to His followers before He ascended was to take His message to the “ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Oh, my dear brothers and sister, let us have churches that open up their hearts to love all who come through our doors and welcome them. The story of the Tower of Babel ends with God putting an end to the “kingdom” the people were building for themselves. It is a truth well worth remembering. If we try to build a “kingdom” that is only for “us”, it will ultimately fail. The true Kingdom of God is for everyone, not just “us”.

By your prayers…as we continue our Journey,

Fr. Stephen 

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Rule of Four

“For all this His anger is not turned away and His hand is stretched out still.”

(Isaiah 9:12, 17, 21, and 10:4)

It is a good rule of thumb that if the Lord says something twice in Holy Scriptures, we should be extra attentive. In pondering today’s daily reading from Isaiah, we find the phrase above repeated not just twice but four times. That should indeed give us pause to wonder what is so important that it would be repeated so many times in just a few verses?

These four are things that bring God’s anger. The Holy Prophet Isaiah is giving a prophecy against the nation of Samaria, but perhaps we can glean some things for our own lives. So, let’s take a look at each of these as we seek to grow spiritually in this Lenten Journey.

First (Isaiah 9:8-12), we find people speaking with “pride and arrogance of heart” (Isaiah 9:10). “For all this His anger is not turned away and His hand is stretched out still.”Dear Lord, please show me my pride and arrogance; help me to purge these things from my life.

Second (Isaiah 9:13-17), we discover that people have displeased the Lord because they do not seek Him; they embrace lies (rather than the Truth), and they speak folly (rather that Wisdom). “For all this His anger is not turned away and His hand is stretched out still.” Dear Lord, please help me in this Lenten Journey to seek You more, to desire to walk in Your Truth, and to grow in Wisdom so that the words that come out of my mouth will be wise words.

Third (Isaiah 9:18-21), we find the wickedness of these people burning like a fire. They are consuming each other by their words and by their actions. “For all this His anger is not turned away and His hand is stretched out still.” Dear Lord, please help me to see how my words and actions harm other people. Help me to have Your love be the guiding force of my words and actions. Help me to overcome wicked thoughts toward others that influence how I speak and act toward them.

Fourth (Isaiah 10:1-4), we discover that the actions of these people have harmed the needy: the poor, the widows, and the orphans. “For all this His anger is not turned away and His hand is stretched out still.” Dear Lord, please open my eyes to the needs of others that are all around me. Help me to find ways to help those in need who are in my church, in my neighborhood, in my city, and in this whole world.

Oh, what love and compassion He has for us!  He has given us these areas to work on to draw us to His outstretched hand. Dear Lord, please have mercy and strengthen us today as we grow toward Theosis.

By your prayers…as we continue our Journey,

Fr. Stephen 

What Are we to Become?

“The Lord Jesus wants to make all men similar to Himself. As the Son of God, He wants all men to become the adopted sons of God. As a King, He wants them to be co-kings with Him. As a Priest, to be co-priests with Him. As Almighty, to share in His strength. As Eternal, to share in His immortality. As Holy, to share in His holiness. As the Resurrected One, to all be the children of the resurrection. This, the Lord desired and that is why He descended to earth: to separate us from the animals and to elevate us above the life of the animals and to give us dignity over His visible creation, a dignity which Adam had in Paradise before the Fall.”

~St. Nikolai Velimirovich, The Prologue From Ochrid, March 27th (My absolute favorite daily devotional!)

Follow Up to Why Did Cain Kill His Brother?

Our UpWord Glance for this past Monday ended with these words:

We offend God when we burn with envy over someone else’s success. Unlike Cain, we must learn to “master it” when it comes to envy. If we feel envy rising up inside us, we should begin “to do what is right” …to speak well of that person to other people, and do good to that person and pray for them.  We can overcome envy or perhaps it is better to say:  We must “master” envy!    

A dear brother in Christ sent me this note regarding this devotional:

“Wow a tall order! I did a search about what the Bible says about envy which led me to judging. So, I prayed about not judging or being envious of others. Not so much that I wish I could be like others, but that they would be more like me. How conceited of me. I try not to judge others but it seems I wake up and start making judgements immediately. Check email, judge someone. Turn on the news, judge someone. Think about my day or yesterday, you know what happens. I pray today that I leave the judging to God and let Him control my mind and heart. Thanks for sharing and have a Blessed day.”

His words jumped off the page for me as I read: “I prayed about not judging or being envious of others. Not so much that I wish I could be like others, but that they would be more like me. How conceited of me.” Envy and judgmentalism are two aspects of spiritual warfare that seem to attack us like swarms of flies.

For some of us, especially me, the struggle with my thoughts is usually not about someone else’s success. I tend to rejoice with the success of others. However, in pealing back what really goes on inside me, this dear brother nailed it. My struggle is with my own pride in wanting others to be more like me; to think more like me; to have more of the same values as me…the list just goes on and on. Indeed, “How conceited of me.” The truth be known: God forbid that anyone should be like me!

At first glance, it is easy to dismiss this as not being me. Yet, when I thought back over the years of people that I really struggled with, it boiled down to me wanting them to change…to be more like me. Indeed, this is an issue that needs attention. It is part of the battle that rages and one that must be mastered as it seeks to master us. When the “flies” of envy or judgmentalism begin trying to enter our minds, may we swat them away and say firmly: “NO!”

By your prayers…as we continue our Journey,

Fr. Stephen 

Why Did Cain Kill His Brother?

“It’s not fair!  I should have won that award not her!”  “I don’t understand why people seem to like him more than me!”  “How did that clown get promoted over me?”

There is a great line in one of my favorite all time movies, The Island.  A very scholarly, intelligent monk is upset because all the people flock to have tea and talk with the lowly guy who shovels coal every day to keep the furnaces going.  The monk goes down to straighten him out one day. The coal shoveler asks the monk a question: “Why did Cain kill his brother?”  It turns out that this lowly guy is a “Fool for Christ” with incredible insights into people’s lives.  The monk goes away quite angry.

So why did Cain kill his brother?  God looked with favor on the offering of Abel, but not so with Cain.  Cain was filled with envy toward his brother.  St. John Chrysostom (Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homily 37) calls envy the “mother of murder and the devil of all mankind.”  Envy leads people to begin to think bad thoughts toward someone else; even wishing evil on that person.  It can lead to spreading slander and even worse.  It can seem to be such an unimportant sin, but it is perhaps more grievous than any other sin.  In fact, a person can pray, fast, and do acts of mercy and yet be further away from God because of having envy toward someone else.  Let’s pick up the story of Cain and Abel right after envy has entered Cain’s heart:

So, Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?  If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.” (Genesis 4:6-7)

God saw the envy in Cain’s heart and gave him plenty of warning.  The picture of “sin crouching at the door” brings to mind a picture of a lion ready to make a kill (see 1 Peter 5:8-9).  That is exactly what sin does in our lives; it kills us.

Cain failed to overcome this sin and he murdered his brother.  Are we being Cain in our minds and hearts when we have this sin of envy controlling us?  We truly are like Cain when we fail to overcome this sin and we begin to “murder” our brother or sister with our thoughts, words, and actions.  This “murder” is explained by Jesus when he says we are guilty of murder even when we have anger, contempt or slander in our hearts towards someone else (Matthew 5:21-26).

We offend God when we burn with envy over someone else’s success. Unlike Cain, we must learn to “master it” when it comes to envy. If we feel envy rising up inside us, we should begin “to do what is right” …to speak well of that person to other people, and do good to that person and pray for them.  We can overcome envy or perhaps it is better to say:  We must “master” envy!    

With you on the Journey…Fr. Stephen 

P.S. Here’s the Link to watch The Island if you haven’t seen it or (like me) want to watch it every Great Lent:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wz-vegualMg

A Good Pair of Hiking Poles

“Keep sound wisdom and discretion; let them not escape from your sight, and they will be life for your soul and adornment for your neck. Then you will walk on your way securely and your foot will not stumble. If you sit down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet.” (Proverbs 3:21-24) 

I have been a backpacker/hiker most of my life. When someone suggested that I use some hiking poles, I thought, “What nonsense!”. I do not need anything to help me up the trail. Wow! Was I ever wrong! Watching a friend “glide” up the trail while I stumbled along behind, I finally gave in and agreed to try a pair of hiking poles. At the end of the hike, I purchased a set for myself and have used hiking poles ever since.

Yesterday we came to a junction in our Lenten trail. Having chosen the more difficult looking trail, filled with rocks and brush, a pair of hiking poles is exactly what we need. One of the poles is named “wisdom” and the other is called “discretion”. We will find that they are indispensable for our journey. As we continue up our trail, the Book of Proverbs (our headlamp) will show us all the ways wisdom and discretion will keep us safe and on the right path. Wisdom is knowing the right path (what to do or say). Discretion is having good judgement in knowing when and if to do something (when to act or speak and when not to act or speak). It is easy to see how they go together so well.

Today we learn that wisdom and discretion are so valuable that we need to make sure we don’t lay them down someplace and forget where we laid them. With them we will hike safely and we will not stumble. We need not fear injuries in the journey ahead if we use them faithfully. At the end of each day, though we may be tired from the journey, our sleep will be sweet. Think on those words from today’s reading in Proverbs one more time:

With our hiking poles in hand, let us continue on our journey.

Fr. Stephen

A Junction in Our Trail

“Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:16-17)

Our journey has brought us to a junction in the trail. The first sign points in one direction: “The Way of Death”. The other sign states: “The Way of Life”. At first glance our choice would seem to be a no-brainer. But that first path is so very smooth and easy looking; not a rock to be seen. The other path is so rugged looking with rocks to trip over and brush waiting to scratch the traveler. There is also something written under each sign. The first says: “Do whatever seems right in your own mind.” Under the other sign is says: “Follow Me in obedience.”

One of the earliest Christian documents we have is called “The Didache” (Διδαχ-Greek for “Teaching”). It is sometimes called “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.” It was likely written before 100 A.D.), containing instructions for the Christian communities. The text is possibly the first written catechism with three main sections dealing with Christian lessons, rituals such as Baptism and Eucharist, and Church organization. It was considered by some of the early Christians as part of the NT. The first chapter begins with these words: “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways.” The way of life is described in the first four chapters and ends with these words: Do not in any way forsake the commandments of the Lord; but keep what you have received, neither adding thereto nor taking away therefrom…This is the way of life.” Chapter 5 takes up the way of death by simply going over what things constitute disobedience to the ways of the Lord.

In our reading from Genesis, the Lord gives the first man one seemingly simple command: “Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to tend and keep it.  And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

We know the rest of the story…that Adam failed to keep that one command and death entered the world. God in His wonderful love for mankind has “trampled down death by His own death!” (We will celebrate that wonderful event several weeks from now!) Once again, mankind can choose the way of life or the way of death.

May the Lord help us in our struggle to be obedient as we choose His path for our journey.

Having the Right Light for Our Journey

“Come and let us walk in the light of the Lord.” (Isaiah 2:5)

Yesterday, the Holy Prophet Isaiah invited us to “come” climb a mountain in order to draw closer to the Lord (Isaiah 2:3). Today, he explains how we will be able to see the path clearly to make this journey: “Come” walk in the light of the Lord (Isaiah 2:5).

Have you ever been deep in a forest on a pitch-black night? Hopefully, you were camped and not trying to hike out. Unless of course you had a good headlamp or flashlight to show you the path. Without a source of light, we would get lost or injured in no time.

The path of our Lenten journey can be darkened by the things around us and we need a light if we are to climb the mountain before us. Without the right source of light, we are not going to make it up this mountain. The Holy Prophet points us to a valuable source of light in the preceding verse:

“For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 2:4)

Indeed, the Word of the Lord is the very light we need on our journey. It couldn’t be stated any clearer for us than in the precious words of Psalm 119 (118):105 –

“Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”

Every day of our Lenten journey, let us immerse ourselves in the reading and study of the Holy Scriptures. Let us read more than we normally do as we draw closer to the Lord. May the Light of the Word of the Lord illumine our path when any darkness begins to obscure our way. A good journey today my brothers and sisters in Christ.

The Mountain Before Us

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that He may teach us his ways and that we may walk in His paths.” (Isaiah 2:3)

The Holy Prophet Isaiah has just invited us to climb a mountain to draw closer to the Lord. Climbing this mountain will take effort on our part. There is no road to drive on or ski lift to take us to the top. It is a trail that must be hiked over the course of the next several weeks. No spiritual mountain top experience can be enjoyed without making the climb up. If we can persevere, we will learn better His ways and have opportunity to walk on His paths.

This journey we find ourselves on is not an easy one. Great Lent calls us on a path that takes us out of our comfort zone of “normal” life. We are called to change our eating habits, our prayer life, what we read and what we do…basically we are trying to change everything our bodies, minds, and spirits are used to on a daily basis. It is indeed a mountain to climb, not a stroll through the garden. The Holy Prophet reminds us that this journey is so worth the effort:

“If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land” (Isaiah 1:19)

Today we are at the foot of the mountain. Weeks of struggle lay before us, but the only struggle we need to focus on is what we face on today’s part of the journey. May we be willing and obedient this day as we climb “further up and further in” with our Lord.

Great Lent Begins

I had a dream last night. It may have come about because I was thinking about writing devotionals for Great Lent as I fell asleep or it may have been the bowl of ice cream smothered in chocolate syrup I consumed in the afternoon. Either way, I awakened from that dream knowing that it was to be the beginning of this devotional on Clean Monday. Here’s some of that dream:

I was speaking in a church fellowship hall. When I finished, all the people were eating and talking as I gathered up my equipment. I overheard someone say: “I liked his talk okay, except that he kept telling us that we needed to give our whole life to the Lord.” I stood up and raised my voice so that everyone quit talking. Then very loudly, I said: “We all will give our life to something, why not give it to the Lord?”

I awakened pondering this dream. What does it mean for us to “commit our whole life unto Christ our God?” I do not think that it means we all need to go live in a cave and spend our whole life in deep prayer. Rather, it has to do with us learning to put the Lord first in our lives in everything we do. The church helps us by giving us this time of Great Lent. We have the next several weeks to grow in this area. That can seem overwhelming, so let’s bring it down to a smaller, attainable goal. Can we commit our life this day to the Lord?

The very first verse we read as we begin our Lenten Journey comes from Genesis 1:1. “In the beginning God…” God is the beginning of everything for us. He gave us the gift of life and we have an opportunity to live in a way that pleases Him.

I tend to work best if I have a “To Do” list. If you have such a list, then I would encourage you to simply write “God” in the #1 slot for today. Your list may include some exciting things, mundane things, or simply things that are necessary today. Let God be in all of them today. Tonight, when you make your “To Do” list for tomorrow, put “God” as number one.

Our Lenten Journey is meant to draw us closer to the Lord. It takes our effort today and only today. May we give today to the Lord! It is the beginning of a great journey.