In the Greek language there is a word for every thought, feeling and emotion, in the English language our direct way of speaking reduces some words to redundancy. One common English word that can find its roots in the Greek language is the word “Agony”. From breaking a bone to getting a splinter we often hear “this pain is agonizing!” or, “I’m in agony!”. The Greeks held the first Olympic games and the word they came up with to describe the pain each athlete experienced was called agonia (“a struggle for victory”). When the runner is deep into the last part of the race their muscles are burning, the finish line is in sight and the tension between athletes becomes tangible. This is agony. Maybe the pain we experience in life such as heartbreak, financial stress, familial tension, work deadlines, lines at the DMV etc., are just opportunities. Maybe all of the agonizing moments can help us make our way to the imperishable crown that waits for us at the finish-line. So as Paul tells us in 2 Timothy ‘lets fight the good fight, finish the race and keep the faith.’
Every time I push the boundaries of my comfort to see what new and exciting horizons lay ahead, I am met with a short pause of hesitation. Right before the plunge into the unknown I hear the voice of my mother from my childhood saying “Danger Will Robinson!” As I grow and learn I realize that in the past I used to let that voice be a barrier between me and the future, I was afraid of the danger that might be waiting for me just around the corner. The word danger comes from Anglo-French daunger, which means, “power, mastery, authority, control.” When I came across this I finally understood why that word is used to forewarn us about events to come. When we let go of the shore to brave the open ocean we give up our control and security of a situation or environment, but what often happens is that we gain control of a space that contains more power and is worth more than anything we can hold in our hands…that is the self. When all of the temporary things show their inconsistency we are forced to go inward and it is there that we find solid ground. St. Augustin of Hippo puts this inward journey perfectly as he writes, “You were more inward to me than the most inward part of me, and higher than my highest reach. I could not discern the light of virtue and of beauty, which the eye of flesh cannot see, and only the inner vision can. I entered my inward soul, guided by you . . . and with the eye of my soul—such as it was—saw the truth of who I am.” What dangers lie ahead of us today? Are we going to let the comfort of present comfort control us and enslave us? Or will we choose to take the step onto the path less travelled by and find who we are in the process.
In military terms the flag is called the standard, the flag stands for the virtues and ideals of the respective country and when it’s flown all who gaze on it know who and what it represents. In Edmund Leighton’s painting Stitching the standard we see a woman carefully stitching up the torn and tattered flag of her homeland. The look on her face is the face of one who has a deep sense of devotion and a healthy pride in the ideals that the flag represents. I think there is a lot to learn from this painting on the fact that sometimes flags get tattered and torn. High ideals and leading a virtuous life often gets lost in the cloud of civil unrest and societal dysfunction. However, there is always an opportunity to pick up the ragged standard and with great devotion and careful detail sow each line back together. Each of us is born with our own spool of string and a needle to do our part in stitching the standard that so many have given their lives to uphold and protect. When Francis Scott Key watched the attack on Baltimore, it was not merely some tattered cloth that stoically waved amidst the clouds of cannon fire, it was an idea. The idea that all men are created equal, the idea that it is about “We the people” and not about me. The infamous actress Audrey Hepburn laid out the rubric for the American standard perfectly, “It’s that wonderful old-fashioned idea that others come first and you come second. This was the whole ethic by which I was brought up. Others matter more than you do, so ‘don’t fuss, dear; get on with it’.” What are we doing today that is setting a noble standard for those that will come tomorrow? Are we stitching our standard or are we putting holes in it?
Out of the 19th century American movement known as “manifest destiny” we get the pioneering term “circling the wagons.” In a time when families were traversing the unknown wilderness of Western America they had to face outlaws, wildlife, native tribes and the elements. When danger would arise all of the wagons in the traveling caravan would make the call to “circle the wagons” and to come together to brave the impending danger together. We may not have caravans and wagons, but we do have family, friends, spouses and kids that are oftentimes forgotten as we try to brave the dangers that seek to divide us and make us feel isolated. The family as a unit is under attack as our popular culture displays the institute of marriage as a sham and teaches an unwavering distrust of authority. The diabolical(Greek word meaning to divide) can’t stand to see us coming together in support of one another. Christ teaches us to form relationships, to be there for our friends and family and be his hands and feet to those in our “caravan.” Join me as I ask myself how am I working to reinforce what Galatians 3:28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
If you’ve ever been to therapy, you’ve probably heard this idea: That there is whatever your husband or wife or father or mother or sister or brother or boss is saying to you, and then there is what you’re hearing. In fact, in a lot of couples counseling, the therapist will try to help couples stop arguments from spiraling by asking them to say to each other, “Ok, what I am hearing when you say that is…” or “What I make up about that is…” often times we have the wrong perception of the words and actions of others. Maybe someone thought they were just teasing, but what you heard from their actions were, “I don’t love you” and “You’re not good enough.” You feel like you’re just sighing because you’re tired, but what your partner is hearing is, “I’m upset with you,” and now they are getting ready to defend themselves. So much suffering comes out of a lethal cocktail of poor communication and false perception. The best remedy for this is an action and it is to Listen! The common military phrase “HUA”(Heard, Understood, Received) lays out the structure for the art of listening. When we can Hear, seek to understand and then receive what those around us are saying most of the time we see that we suffered way more in our imaginations than reality would dictate. Christ is the perfect listener and I forget this often, but he is also pretty awesome at waiting too! So with renewed confidence join me in sharing with Christ all of the cares and concerns we have and let’s listen to the way he loves us through the people in our lives.
Socrates, the father of Greek philosophy, famously stated “All I know is that I know nothing.” How can it be that this man, one of, if not the most intelligent man in ancient Greece, claims to know “nothing”? This attitude of the eternal student is the anecdote to an inflated ego. When Christ tells his disciples “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew18:3).” children are dependent upon the protection, guidance and instruction of their parents and teachers as they navigate through life with playful curiosity. Like Children, God wants us to depend on him, he wants to be eternal students always learning and never claiming to know everything. The story of Icarus has much to teach us about this “know nothing” attitude; Icarus using his man made wings to fly, ignoring the warning of his father, flew too close to the sun and in an instant Icarus went from sharing the air with eagles to plunging to his death. Lets renew the student within and turn to our Lord and say with confidence “Jesus I trust in you!”
The French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville, when touring America, saw a land saturated in wealth, prosperity and ingenuity. However, the one downfall, he warned in his published journals, was the problem of greed and corruption. Alexis marveled at what he later would call “the restless hunger of the American people.” The fragile balance of the high threshold for human achievement intertwined with the bottomless void of greed caused Alexis to leave the states with words of warning on his lips. Likewise, the ancient philosopher Boethius in his book The Consolation of Philosophy shared a similar fear for the people of his own time as he writes, “when the evil sword of power is joined to the poison of passion, the common people must groan under an intolerable burden.” It is easy to lose one’s way in the never-ending pursuit of recognition, wealth and achievement especially in a world that champions these things over a pursuit of virtue. Christ shows us the way to glory, honor and grace and it begins with the cross and ends with resurrection. I have found that every time I am lost in the pursuit of “more” God brings me to Calvary and after, what I find far surpasses the fools gold I was so eager to possess.
The people of Finland have been voted and labelled as the happiest country on several occasions. The Finish people always respond with “it is because we have Sisu!”. The term sisu is the Finnish word meaning perseverance, fortitude and Grit and this term is in my opinion a truly Christian ideal. Many in today’s culture flee from pain, strife, difficulty, and heartache however, these things after being encountered and overcome make us into the truest versions of ourselves. On the Easter Vigil one of the prayers recited on that night reads as follows, “Oh happy Fault of Adam that merited us so great, so glorious a savior as Christ our Lord!” it is in failure that the margins of greatness increase, and we can choose to fill them or leave them empty. Prosperity comes when the dirt of life is kicked up into our faces and we face it with resilience. Life can be chaotic, but we have the option to choose our attitude towards life’s many curveballs as Viktor Frankl prophetically stated, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way”
In his daily journal the Stoic Philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius penned the following sentiment on anger, “Keep this thought handy when you feel a fit of rage coming on—it isn’t manly to be enraged. Rather, gentleness and civility are more human, and therefore manlier. A real man doesn’t give way to anger and discontent, and such a person has strength, courage, and endurance—unlike the angry and complaining. The nearer a man comes to a calm mind, the closer he is to strength.” Many times when caught in rage we cannot see past the horizon of our inflated ego and thus we damage our relationships. Whether it be with the ones we love, co-workers or even the many random people we meet in a day our anger leaves destruction in its wake. It is ok to be angry about injustice but once our anger brings us to doing injustices to fight injustice then we have reached the shadow side of this common emotion called anger. As the great Martin Luther King Jr. once stated “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” We all have that one thing that leads us to anger, we all have a wound that leads to the sleeping giant within and we all have the opportunity to allow the Lord to enter into those wounds and insecurities and heal them. Christ knows what hurts us and by that he knows how to truly love us all we have to do is remove the festering bandage we have covering up our fragility and woundedness.
Oftentimes we can get caught in a rut of promising tomorrow while wasting the opportunity of today. The stoic philosopher Seneca had a strong stance on this topic as he writes, “Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow, and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.” The fact remains that life is fragile and tomorrow is never promised to us. Christ many times in scripture offers endless glory to individuals who would otherwise never come face to face with such a call to greatness ever again. The thief on the cross, the random fishermen, the tax collectors, the church officials, the rich man and many more; these individuals lived immediately as Seneca puts it and what they gained was infamy gained by humble servitude to the very God that knit them together in the womb. This idea of seizing the day is alive and well in Christianity…St. John Bosco saying to his students, “run, jump, shout but don’t sin” and St. Augustine with his infamous quote telling us to, “Love and do as you please”. Live every present moment well and live Holiness immediately all it takes is a prayer of gratitude and the shaky nervous first steps and pretty soon you’ll be running.