Who Am I?

The Didache 10 – The Second Commandment

Posted: June 20th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Didache 10 – The Second Commandment

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

And the second commandment of the Teaching; You shall not commit murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not commit pederasty, you shall not commit fornication, you shall not steal, you shall not practice magic, you shall not practice witchcraft, you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born. You shall not covet the things of your neighbor, you shall not swear, you shall not bear false witness, you shall not speak evil, you shall bear no grudge. You shall not be double-minded nor double-tongued, for to be double-tongued is a snare of death. Your speech shall not be false, nor empty, but fulfilled by deed. You shall not be covetous, nor rapacious, nor a hypocrite, nor evil disposed, nor haughty. You shall not take evil counsel against your neighbor. You shall not hate any man; but some you shall reprove, and concerning some you shall pray, and some you shall love more than your own life.

It would be depressing to focus on the second commandment of the Teaching to the extent that I focused on the first, so I’m going to tackle it in one post. In order to live the way of life, you must move away from the way of death. The second commandment deals with some of the things that characterize the way of death. As one would expect, a number of the practices are drawn directly from what we call the Ten Commandments. However, I wanted to focus more on the ones that are not.

The first such practice specifically listed along the way of death is pederasty. It’s difficult today to understand the extent to which children were viewed as property in the ancient world, as something that could be used as its owner saw fit. Within that larger context, of course, there were many families and tribes that cared for and protected their children. But things that we do not consider normative in the modern world were much more common in the ancient world. And pederasty was one such thing. From the very beginning, Christians taught and acted to protect the weakest and those most scorned by society, as we can see in the way they treated not just the poor, but women and children as well.

The next practice of death to avoid is fornication. I must confess that raised in the culture, environment, and various settings that I was, I have a great deal of difficulty internalizing whatever a ‘Christian’ perspective of sexuality might be. Fortunately I’ve been married to one lovely woman for the entire time I’ve been ‘Christian’ and my own internalized approach to sexuality within the context of marriage seems to be very similar to the Christian perspective, so it’s never been as major an issue for me as it would have been if I had been a Christian while not married. Nevertheless, it does mean that I don’t tend to react on this issue as many of my fellow Christians do when I hear that a couple are living together, when someone I know is pregnant and unmarried, or any of a host of similar situations. I’m not even sure if, on balance, that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

With that said, I’ve always been aware that sex can never truly be “casual”. I am not a dualist. I do not separate body into one sphere of existence and mind and spirit into another. We are whole human beings. Everything we do with our bodies affects our spirits and vice versa. I knew that was true long before I was Christian. In fact, I think I’ve always known that was true. And there is hardly anything more intimate we can do with our bodies than sex. How then can it ever be spiritually insignificant? From a historical perspective, where we have surviving pagan perspectives of Christians in the ancient world, their sexual restraint is often noted. (Their strange belief in resurrection, cannibalistic ritual practice, and care for the poor and sick outside their own group are also noted.) I do hear many Christians today speak as though this is some sort of modern, cultural issue. It’s not. In human practice and history, Christian sexual restraint has often been markedly different from the cultural norm. I would say that the disturbing thing in our modern society is not that “the culture” is highly sexualized, but that there is no discernible difference between the practice of Christians and non-Christians within it. I found Lauren Winner’s book, Real Sex, actually helpful on this topic. That’s not true of most other things I’ve encountered.

I don’t know the particular setting, language, or context for the practices translated here as “magic” and “witchcraft”. As such, anything I surmise is probably more likely wrong than right. Nevertheless, simply based on other things I’ve picked up over the years about the perspective within the ancient world, “witchcraft” makes me think of efforts to contact, communicate, or control spirits, either of dead human beings or otherwise. If so, magic would be other efforts to influence the world or people around you, predict the future, or similar exercises. I think the general rule should be that we not attempt to extend our personal sphere of power inappropriately over creation or our fellow human beings. And don’t open yourself up to spirits.

You can’t read early Christian writings without encountering their struggle against the culture of their era concerning children. Abortion is not a modern issue. It was an ancient issue as well. While I don’t believe the whole modern “culture war” approach is even vaguely helpful and don’t believe that changing the law at this juncture is or would be a beneficial approach in the US, I’ve also never been comfortable with abortion. It’s one of the reasons I was a teen parent. However, the ancient issues and practices toward children were actually much worse in some ways than we face today. As I pointed out earlier, children (and women) were effectively considered and often treated like property. If the male of the family or household did not want another girl, if the baby was deformed, or for a host of other reasons, the infant would often be killed after birth. While the infant might simply be killed, the more “moral” members of society would instead practice “exposure”. When a child was “exposed” the child was left outside the city in the wild. The theory was that the child’s fate was left up to the gods. If the gods wanted to save the baby, they could. In practice, of course, exposed infants died of thirst, exposure to the elements, or were torn apart and eaten by wild animals. By and large, the exposed infants were simply ignored by everyone. If someone did take in the exposed infant, it was typically to a life of slavery.

Christians prohibited abortion and exposure (or any other form of post-birth killing) of infants among themselves as the Teaching indicates. As a group, this made them extremely attractive to women, who were typically given no voice in these matters. Many Christians would go farther and take those exposed infants they could find to raise safely among themselves.

Many of the next actions listed involve attitudes and things we say to one another. I notice particularly that these are listed alongside with the gravest of the practices of the way of death. Apparently they are as serious as murder. James has some good words on this subject in his letter. The words we say to each other, the manner in which we view each other, are much more important than we typically credit.

This section closes with the line:

You shall not hate any man; but some you shall reprove, and concerning some you shall pray, and some you shall love more than your own life.

Hatred of any human being places me on the way of death rather than life. The rest of the list are various ways you love the human being. It ramps up quickly. Reproof we might find easy, though we must be careful it truly is an act of love. Prayer — true prayer for the other — takes it to another level. But then it concludes that some we must love more than we love our own lives — the way that Jesus loved us.

The way of death seems frightening, but in practice it is so easy to live within it. We slide into its rhythms and allow it to shape our life and being without even being aware that that is what we’re doing. I’m reminded that Jesus warned,

Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.


The Didache 6 – Be Perfect

Posted: June 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

If someone strikes your right cheek, turn to him the other also, and you shall be perfect.

This line of the teaching haunts me. It echos Jesus in its call for us to live the way of love and by so doing to be perfect. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches (Matthew 5:43-48) that as we learn to love our enemies (and thus have no enemies) we will be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect.

And again, a rich, young, devout man comes to Jesus (Matthew 19:16-22) seeking life. He has followed the way of Torah faithfully, yet recognizes that something is still lacking. Jesus’ answer begins with “If you want to be perfect …” Being perfect, then, is connected to receiving life and involves sacrificing to care for the poor as we follow Jesus.

James adds another layer (James 1:2-8) to the mix. If we’re going to be perfect, it seems we must have patience. And patience comes through trials and suffering. If our faith is never tested, it seems we would have difficulty becoming perfect. Some of the things we suffer, then, are for our salvation. I can look back on my life and see that pretty clearly at times.

There is a strain within Protestantism that holds that even if you never struggle to actively love your enemies, care for the poor, remain faithful through trials, or visibly ever change from the person you were into a person shaped and colored by Jesus of Nazareth, nevertheless you can somehow be “saved” if you give some sort of mental assent to some ideas about Jesus. It’s as though they believe the God who has freely allowed them to shape and form themselves into the person they desire to be will suddenly, after their death, magically change them into the person they should have been, but never tried or desired to be in life.

I have to confess, I don’t understand that perspective. I see a God who created us to be shaped and formed by the way of love, the way of life, the way of Jesus. But I also see a God who allows us to shape ourselves into whatever sort of creature we desire to be. And while I see much evidence that in our death and resurrection God will complete our transformation in ways we can hardly fathom or imagine in acts of new creation, I see no evidence that he will contravene our will and shape us into something other than what we desired to be in life. In the new creation we will become in truth and outward reality what we have desired to be in our heart.

For good or ill.


The Didache 5 – Abstain from Worldly Lusts

Posted: June 15th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Didache 5 – Abstain from Worldly Lusts

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

Abstain from fleshly and worldly lusts.

This line has always confused me since it’s dropped in the middle of the section on the way of life and does not seem to relate to either what came before or what follows. It just sits there. What does it mean? There is a translation of the Didache which may offer some insight on this line.

Refrain from the impulses of your selfish nature and the self-serving world.

But while I think there is some aspect of that involved, judging by the unity in the various other translations, I think that one misses the earthiness of the actual language. It does not seem to be as neat or sanitary as the above translation makes it seem.

Here celiac, since it is primarily a fast, helps me understand this a little better, I think. In order to follow the way of life with celiac, I must curb my impulses and desire to eat or drink gluten. If I am to remain in the way of life, I must abstain. It makes little difference what other good or positive or helpful things I do. If I do not abstain from gluten, they are all for naught.

Perhaps there is something of this dynamic in the way of Jesus? There are things from which we must learn to abstain, desires we must quench, or it will spill into all the other areas of our lives? Is this a parallel to the Orthodox perspective on the passions? If we allow them to rule us rather than learning to rule them, we cannot progress in theosis?

Perhaps so. Or perhaps I’m on the wrong track. Nevertheless, the line in its context is an odd one.


The Didache 4 – Have No Enemies

Posted: June 14th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Didache 4 – Have No Enemies

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

For what reward is there for loving those who love you? Do not the Gentiles do the same? But love those who hate you, and you shall not have an enemy.

The way of Jesus, the way of life, is the way of love. We should not find that surprising for as St. John tells us, “God is love.” Nevertheless, we do not want to love every other human being we meet. We believe we ought to be able to pick and choose whom to love. Some people, after all, are not worthy of our love. Is that not so?

No, the way of life is about perceiving reality and acting accordingly. We are to love even those who actively hate us because we perceive their reality as a beloved eikon of God and as our brother or sister.

I see dimly how this is true. Jesus had no enemies. Those who plotted his betrayal and death were not his enemies, though I’m sure they saw themselves as such. They were his brothers. The Romans who crucified him were not his enemies. He forgave them their actions done in ignorance. Judas was not his enemy. Jesus loved him.

Each time I read this part of the Didache these days, I am reminded of two posts by Father Stephen Freeman about a monk in the Holy Land who has no enemies, On the Edge of Heaven and A Single Monk. I invite you to read his posts. Father Stephen expresses what I would say better than I possibly could.

In the face of the God of love and those human beings who truly love, I can only exclaim, “Lord have mercy!” If we love those who hate us, we can have no enemies. Instead, we too often choose to live in delusion surrounded if not by perceived enemies then by those we keep at arm’s length because they might be our enemy. In fear, we push them away rather than embracing them.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.


The Didache 2 – The Way of Love

Posted: June 12th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Didache 2 – The Way of Love

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

The way of life, then, is this: First, you shall love God who made you; second, love your neighbor as yourself, and do not do to another what you would not want done to you.

What lies at the heart of the way of life? Love.

It seems that the import of this, which permeates the New Testament and all we know of the early church, is easy for us to miss today. In part it’s because we miss what Jesus has actually done because we have not risen with the Shema Israel on our lips nor retired for sleep with it lingering on our breath. I was always aware of some connection, but didn’t really grasp it myself until I encountered Scot McKnight’s exploration of what he calls the Jesus Creed. The Sh’ma Yisrael, drawn from Deuteronomy 6 was and is the central creed of Judaism. At least twice a day, every observant Jews prays the Shema.

If you’ve never heard it prayed liturgically, I invite you to pause and listen and soak in the Hear, O Israel!

It so permeates life that you find it in popular music. I found this song beautiful and found a version to share with some English subtitles.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KyXM5QMWnFo

Only as you understand the depth and the centrality of the Shema within the life of Israel will you grasp how radical it was for Jesus to change it. He was not giving two random prooftexts from the Torah as external commandments we must perform. Rather, he had the chutzpah to add another line to the central creed of Judaism, revealing how to fulfill that creed. This is the Shema of Jesus.

Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all you mind, and with all your strength. And the second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.

If we have eyes to see, it’s written throughout the New Testament Holy Scriptures, shaping everything in them. And we see it here, in the Didache, as the foundational declaration of the way of life. The Didache links this to what is often called the negative form of the Golden Rule. The Gospels tend to focus on the positive form. But I would say that both are simply natural outworkings of the Shema of Jesus. If you love God and each human being you meet, you will not do to them the things you do not want done to you and you will do for them the things you would have done for you. When that is not true, it is unlikely that you love them. And if you cannot love them, how can you love God?


Celiac and the Cost of Cheating

Posted: June 11th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I thought I would pause in my series on the Didache to reflect on this video by Dr. Vikki Petersen that I think relates to what I tried to express yesterday. In it she is answering a question from a woman who suffered severe weight loss as a result of celiac. (From what I’ve read, weight loss is a symptom to one degree or another in roughly two-thirds of those with the disease. The other third tends to experience weight gain.) She spends a good deal of time discussing healthy food that will help the celiac heal. Toward the end of the video, however, Dr. Petersen discusses the consequences of “cheating” on the gluten free diet for the celiac.

As she notes, sometimes and for some people the consequences are obvious and clearly directly related to consuming gluten. For others, however, the consequences are less obvious and the linkage between what they ate and what happens to their body is not as clear. Yet in both cases the ultimate price is the same.

Is that not how it is with the two ways? Sometimes the consequences when we choose the way of death are clearly visible and obvious to ourselves and to others. But often they are not as clearly related or as obvious. What price do we pay when we choose to inhabit our pride, for example? Unless we take it to such an extreme that we alienate those we encounter, probably little that is immediately visible or obvious. We might even look praiseworthy to others and to ourselves. And yet we are living and breathing within the way of death as we do so. We are shaping ourselves into distorted beings unable to stand in the unveiled light of God.

God gives himself to us. Jesus has healed the human nature and made it capable of true union with God. The Spirit inhabits our bodies transforming them and limited only when and to the extent we set our will against his work. We must learn to worship God, to take his reality into our bodies, to submit our will freely and allow his substance to work within us — individually and corporately.

There a two ways, a way of life and a way of death, and a great difference between the two.

So with celiac. So with the whole of life.


The Didache 1 – The Two Ways

Posted: June 10th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways.

I’m not the sort to separate the crunchy physicality of the Christian story from its spirituality. Yet, as I’ve read this opening line from the Didache lately, I realize that I have nonetheless kept its earthiness at a certain level of abstraction. Celiac makes that starkly real to me.

I face two ways. I can continue to consume gluten if I choose. If I do, I will pay a price. My health will continue to degenerate. I will get sicker though there is no specific, predictable progression. But it will certainly involve pain and decline leading to an unpleasant death after decades of ill health.

Or I can cease consuming all gluten to the best of my ability. As I succeed in doing so my body will heal, my health will improve, and the ultimate quality of my experience of reality will take on brighter hues.

There is a way of life and a way of death. Which way will I make the rule of my life?

It seems obvious to me, but I understand there are some celiacs who refuse to stay on a gluten free diet though they know the price they will pay. Even when the choice is so stark and obvious, because it is not immediate, some choose the way of death.

I’ve been captivated by this line since my diagnosis. It runs through my mind unbidden and at odd times. The choice for the human being is just as stark. We can choose to consume God and be progressively healed, experiencing ever more of true life, learning to taste, touch, smell, hear, and see reality around us as God pierces our delusions. Or we can consume that which is not God and take death into the core of our being.

Yes indeed, there is a great difference between the two ways.

There is more connected to this one line. It’s deeply Jewish in nature. The Way of Torah was a way of shaping life and experiencing God through the mitzvots, feasts, and rituals of Torah. It’s in that context that Jesus’ statement about being the way stands revealed. As the fulfillment of Torah, he places himself in its stead. Follow Jesus and shape your life through his commands, through his body, through his blood.

Jesus is the way of life. Certainly life in the present, but also a life that endures.

Why would we choose to eat death instead?


Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 9

Posted: May 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Fasting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I closed my train of thought in my last post with the idea that, though God has not given me celiac disease for any reason whatsoever, he has been quietly at work preparing me and giving me the tools, should I care to employ them, to stand and perhaps even grow in the face of this disease. For the reality is this: though the diagnosis is still so new to me that I have a difficult time truly wrapping my head around it, celiac disease has been working havoc in my body for years now. My gastroenterologist can’t even say how long it’s been active, but from the visible evidence and the other physical effects, it has clearly been a long time. That means that for at least some significant portion of the journey of discovery about Christian fasting that I have described in this series, I was actually suffering from this autoimmune disease.

I may not have known I had celiac disease, but God certainly did.

Now, I suppose I could be angry at God for knowing I was sick and doing nothing to heal me or somehow making me aware of it sooner. But that seems rather pointless to me. Further, I know that God’s purpose is to bring me into his life, to have me and all humanity participate in union with God and with each other, to conform us to the image of his Son, who lived the life of the faithful man God intended each of us to live.

My core cultural formation was such that the center of my being was shaped in more hedonistic and narcissistic ways than not. Would God physically healing me, especially if I didn’t even know I was sick, move me closer toward the center of the life of God? Or is my true and holistic healing to be found in the proper ascetical practice that allows me to heal from the effects of this disease? Might not that path carry healing not only of body, but also of spirit and will? I see the possibility. I see it through the lens of all I have read and heard and encountered of Christian fasting. No, I’m not angry at God at all. I know him. I know how much he loves all of us. And I’m beginning, just beginning, to understand something of the way of life. I understand enough to know that I desire more than simply a body which functions properly. I want to become truly human.

So no, this is not the fast I’ve chosen. It’s not a fast I want. But this is the fast I’ve been given. Will I have it be a fast for the physical and spiritual healing of my whole soul? Or will I have it be a fast of misery and destruction? Will I take advantage of the tools that God has graciously prepared me to use, even if I am still a neophyte and clumsy in their use? Will I choose instead to fast the fast of demons, a narcissistic fast, a fast that is all about me? Or will I ignore the fast altogether and destroy my body? Those are truly the only real choices I face at this  juncture. As the Didache says, “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways.” Narrow is the way of life. Broad is the way of death and destruction.

I choose life, in the fullness of the sense of the word.

This is my fast.


Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 2

Posted: May 9th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Fasting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 2

Before I continue in the direction I pointed at the end of my first post in this series, I want to spend a little more time on the intertwined, interlocking, and interpenetrating nature of our body, mind, and spirit. I know it is often a foreign idea to those shaped within our American culture, but the concept is central not only to this series, but to the formative thoughts behind this entire blog. I think the common attitude of our culture is captured by a statement like this:

Celiac is an autoimmune disease. It’s a medical condition and the medical prescription is a gluten free diet. It’s purely physical (or some might say secular or natural). What does a disease or medical condition have to do with anything spiritual?

Such is the nature of our age. Even if we’ve never read Plato and never studied philosophy, we have absorbed from the cultural air we breathe and within which we live something of his deep dualism between the material and the spiritual. We see the two as separate categories. And thus we talk about a person’s body or a person’s spirit as though they were separate things and had little to do with each other. But that does not describe reality. Change the chemistry of my brain and you will change my personality. Much of the life of my spirit, for good or ill, is played out in the field of my body. I am not a spirit contained in a body nor am I wholly defined by the matter which forms my body. As a human being I am the union of the spiritual and the material. I am the dust of the earth imbued with the breath of God. I am a living soul – the union (and often disunion) of body, mind, and spirit. You cannot alter or remove any of the three without changing who I am in essential ways, without changing my very being.

So yes, celiac is a medical condition, an autoimmune disease. The treatment is a strict diet that requires me to fast from anything containing gluten – an entire category of food. And a fast is always spiritual as well, for good or ill, whether or not we acknowledge it as such. As the faithfulness of my adherence to this fast will heal or harm my body and my mind, so the spiritual impact of the fast will propel me along the way of life or along the way of death (as the Didache describes the two ways).

If I ignored the spiritual dimensions of this fast, I would effectively be fasting without prayer. And the Fathers of Christian faith have many warnings about such fasts. Fasting without prayer is the ‘fast of the demons’, they say, for the demons do not eat at all because of their incorporeal nature but they also never pray. So I see already that this fast must be intertwined with and shaped by a strong rule of prayer if it is not to shrink my spirit. Interestingly, we also find that fasting without love is another fast of the demons. St. Basil the Great writes:

What is the use of our abstinence if instead of eating meat we devour our brother or sister through cruel gossip?

I do not believe it is at all wise to be careful in the physical aspects of this or any fast and ignore the spiritual dimensions. I also do not believe our actions or inactions in such things are morally neutral by default. If I do indeed follow Jesus of Nazareth, then I am saying something definite about both God and man by doing so. And I must act and live accordingly.

In the next post in this series, I’ll continue in the direction I had originally planned for the series.