Friday, October 27, 2006

Jawbone of an Ass

“These are tough times for the Church.” Frankly I am sick of hearing that. It’s a true statement, but so what? It has always been tough to be a faithful Christian; some times are just tougher than others. When I have been asked to address the brothers of the Society of the Holy Cross or the members of Forward in Faith, I have said that we should guard against a defeatist attitude and realize that, “We were made for this age! This is the age in which heroes are made! This is a magnificent time for the faithful, a great opportunity! The fields are white for the harvest!”

People have welcomed the message, but I think few have heeded it. “We’re all having a hard time,” I heard more than once the last time I went to a meeting of fellow orthodox priests. Well, I’m not having a hard time. “Times are tough.” True—but so what? Why the long faces? I give thanks for these times. It would be much harder to grow in sanctity if things in the Church were bland and easy.

I’ve had enough of being told that I and those who believe as I do are victims. Does anyone else remember that we are called to be warriors? The Society of the Holy Cross, the oldest and perhaps the strongest, most admirable fellowship of Anglo-Catholic priests in the Anglican Communion, was founded in 1855 in a time when to be an Anglo-Catholic guaranteed pretty severe persecution—far worse than anything we’ve seen in our day. One of the Society’s mottoes was, and is, “No surrender, no desertion”. I love that motto. Yet in spite of it, among the members of the Society and other traditional believers, I often—not always—see surrender (to complaint, discouragement, name-calling, weakness) and desertion (finding a safe place for oneself, leaving the Episcopal Church, keeping quiet when one should speak). Where are the warriors?

Do the orthodox bishops, priests, deacons, and lay people really believe that the modernists, revisionists, and apostates who are in positions of so-called “leadership” in the Episcopal Church are actually in charge of the Church?? I am stunned to find that many actually believe this bald, secular lie. Have they no knowledge of history? Have they so little understanding of Scripture? Are they not really convinced that Jesus is Lord? Are they unable to live as if God knows what he is doing? Are they so busy being victims that they have forgotten their calling? Every battle the orthodox have lost in the past century, they have forfeited. Orthodoxy cannot be defeated, but it can be surrendered and often has been.

Where are those who, like Saint Hilary in the age of the Arian heresy, alone defended the Faith in a council of several hundred enemies and weak bishops? He rang his assertion that he would not compromise the Faith, and then offered to debate Saturninus, his chief opponent. Daunted and cowed by his courage and argument, the council declined the offer. In the same era, the inspiring Saint Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, proclaimed the Faith so effectively that it became a saying: Athanasius contra mundum—Athanasius against the whole world! And he won!

Have we forgotten the many passages of the New Testament that describe Christian profession as a battle? Here are just a few—a few of the many!

“Contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) has often been quoted by traditionalists in these days. Though I have seen too few actually contending, the passage sets it squarely in our faces that we are involved in a battle.

“Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of the present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:11-12). The passage goes on to command and exhort, “Stand, stand, stand!” And as has often been pointed out, in the description of armor given to the Christian warrior there is no protection for the back. “No surrender, no desertion”.

The modernists, revisionists, etc. are not the enemies of the faithful. If anyone is a victim, it is these folks—not the faithful. The Church is fighting a spiritual battle, contending against supernatural evil with the salvation and welfare of souls at stake. And as far as fighting these principalities and powers, the outcome of that battle has already been determined: Jesus himself said, as he was about to enter the arena where the final battle would be fought, “I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Paul later wrote, “Christ disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him” (Colossians 2:15).

The faithful share in that victory! “We are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37)—not just “conquerors” but “more than conquerors”.

When I first began training in martial arts in January 1985, a member of the church was surprised and bothered that I, a priest, wanted to practice martial arts. He thought it was contrary to my calling. “How often will you use it?” he asked with amazement and perhaps even disgust in his face. “Every day,” I affirmed. And it has proven true.

When I tested for first degree black belt in November 1987, the exam was a brutal ordeal. Even experienced martial artists said they had never seen anything like it. For more than two hours I pressed through trial after trial, the last of which was sparring with rested fighters, one after another and sometimes two at once, who were younger and stronger than I was. Toward the very end of the sparring matches when I was barely able to hold my arms up, the class psychopath was put against me. He wore boxing gloves and came in with anger and violence. Noted for being out of control, he hammered and pummeled me, used illegal blows, and once even struck me to the floor—but at the end of the round, while he was huffing and puffing and his nostrils were distended with anger, I was still on my feet and serene.

My instructor told me I had failed that part of the exam. Now that I have more than two decades of training in the martial arts and have become a master, I know that he was wrong. I didn’t fail. He didn’t understand. He himself designed that exam and scheduled the sparring partners to ensure that I would be beaten at the end of the matches. Beaten I was, but I was not defeated. (The “psychopath”, by the way, later became a Christian.)

In the Diocese of Los Angeles and the national Episcopal Church, I have probably lost almost every significant vote that has come up on matters of doctrine and practice, but I have not lost any battles. Saint Paul described his ministry in these terms: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; ... struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9).

The struggle for the Faith is indeed hard at this time. I find it hard. I’ve been under spiritual attack since midsummer and it has gotten me down more than once, but I have not buckled, and I will not buckle. To hell with the devil. “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7).

The faithful are called to fight in ways we are not used to. We have few resources, and many of the faithful feel daunted and discouraged. They have forgotten that smallness and weakness are God’s greatest weapons. “The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:25). Jesus fed 5,000 with five loaves and two fish. “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).

Years ago I told the woman who would become my stepmother that, because of her life-changing ministry to the bereaved, she was an “earthen vessel”. I was thinking of this passage: “We have this treasure in earthen vessels” (2 Corinthians 4:7). The faithful are just ordinary people, earthen vessels, who nonetheless are containers of the treasure of the Gospel. This is how God works. My stepmother responded that I was, “God’s little finger”. I had told her not long before that martial artists, in wielding swords, realize that when one is holding a hammer or a sword or similar item, it is the littlest finger that is the most important one. Small as it is, it grips the item more strongly than the other fingers. Similarly, small things are where God puts his power.

How could the faithful have forgotten this? Scripture rings with this theme! When Christians fall into purely secular behaviors and ways of thinking, they deserve the rebuke Paul gave to the wayward Corinthians: When you act like this, “Are you not of the flesh, and behaving like ordinary men?” (1 Corinthians 3:3) It seems to me that the orthodox in the Episcopal Church are bound up by their own hesitation, fears, discouragements, weakness of faith, and general unwillingness to fight. “The Elijah Complex”, I have called it more than once. Elijah, though a great warrior for the Lord, became depressed and discouraged. He dropped out of sight and journeyed to Mount Horeb where he encountered God, who encouraged him and sent him back to the battle where he found many others who, though quiet, had remained faithful. There is a time to be like Elijah, but it is not intended to be a long-lasting state. And Elijah went right to God when he was depressed; he didn’t just wander about aimlessly. It’s been long enough. It is time for the orthodox to stop being Elijah and become Samson.

At one time, Samson was being sought by his enemies the Philistines, and to avoid a battle his own people bound him with two ropes to take him to the Philistines. Samson allowed them to bind him, but when he was in his enemy’s hands at last, he didn’t just take it: “When Samson came to Lehi, the Philistines came shouting to meet him; and the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him, and the ropes which were on his arms became as flax that has caught fire, and his bonds melted off his hands. And he found a fresh jawbone of an ass, and put out his hand and seized it, and with it he slew a thousand men” (Judges 15:14-15).

I will be damned if I will give up. The orthodox Faith will never die. It is always triumphant. “No surrender, no desertion” means something. “Them’s fightin’ words!” My little finger is holding tightly to the jawbone of an ass. When I die, I want to be able to say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).

The next post on this blog is scheduled for November 1. It will have a very different theme.


Anonymous said...

Hooray! No surrender! No desertion!


Mitch said...

Dear Father David. The more I know you the more I like what I "see". I want you to know that Tricia and I pray for you, if not daily, at least every other day. Be encouraged. There are still many who have not bowed the knee to "Baal". Thanks to for continuing to make clear who the enemy is and who is simply injured/poisened.


Emily said...

Great post! :)

I sing "Onward Christian Soldiers" with Jonathan nearly every day. It is a good reminder.

john4woman said...

"This is the age in which heroes are made! This is a magnificent time for the faithful, a great opportunity! The fields are white for the harvest!”"

Yikes, what a bracing post...I am energized. As senior warden of an biblically faithful congregation in an "God's doing a new thing" diocese, I get discouraged sometimes. Thanks for the slap! :)

Jess said...

There are other Biblical examples though. Maybe we're not Samson, maybe we're Jeremiah, weeping because he knows Jerusalem is, for his generation at least, doomed. He stays, he is brave, he tells the truth, but he can't save her. Or we're Lot, and our family is not enough in number for God to spare the wicked city. Or we're part of the church in Revelations that God is about to spit out of His mouth for its lukewarmness.

I agree that the Church eternal is the Lord's. And so are we. So in the end, our faithfulness will serve the Lord's purposes, and we will be seen to have benn on the winning side. But the Episcopal church may yet fall. Many temporal divisions of the Church eternal have.

I hope not. But it's not as without precident as all that.


p.s. I hope you don't mind entertaining the comments of Puddleglums on this blog. I take a dim view of things, but I still plan on living like a Narnian.

Father David said...

Fine words, Jess! Thank you for them. I agree with you in every way. I think several Scripture models can apply at one time.

Father David

Jess said...

thanks for the gracious response. I'm not quite sure I understand . . . are you positing something like Sarah's suggestion that some will show the justice of God by leaving the ECUSA and some show His mercy by staying? (She pointed out that in the OT God would both leave his unfaithful people and stay with them, and that since we can't individually leave and stay at the same time in the way he can, we would reflect him by some of us leaving and some staying - I'm putting it badly, but she has it beautifully said on her blog.)

Also, how do we know the ECUSA the Lord's church, when it's not the whole church (that is, the church universal), and some "churches" sometimes become apostate? Going back to the Sodom and Gomorrah idea, what's critical mass for apostasy (or righteousness)? If there aren't "ten righteous" left, should we make like Lot and run for our lives?

I guess that's some of the stuff I'm still confused about. (Just some! :) ) I'm not sure all of the examples can all apply at the same time to the same people . . . though I wouldn't be surprised if all of them applied at the same time to different people.


Jon Cooper said...

Amen! I couldn't agree more.

It is my responsibilty to shine as lights in the darkness, not to leave the darkness and find a more convenient place to shine. The darker the darkness the brighter the light; it is not my job to flee from conflict but to step up and meet it in the name of the Lord. It is an honor to be chosen to stand up and shine for Jesus; I am glad to have been born into this age.

If the lights all get together and leave, who will be left to fight for the truth? Now is a time of great hope; it's an exciting time to be alive.

Joi said...

It makes me think of the wonderful scene from Two Towers (the movie version did this so brilliantly) when the defenders of Helms' Deep are pressed back as far as they can go, and Theoden decides to ride out against the Orcs in a final charge. He has no thought of winning at this point, but he will fight to the very end, and fight his best.

And, oddly enough, he does win. A "eucatastrophe" occurs, and the defenders are saved.

Oriscus said...

Fr David -

I am fairly certain that you and I would disagree on almost every particular issue presently facing our Church. (Odd that we probably agree on almost every matter of creedal orthodoxy, but that our practical working out of the same should be so different, is it not?) Yet...

This post was of profound comfort and encouragement to me. Thank you.